Day 3: A Long Drive on Highway One
Driving relaxes me. Even before I learned to drive I would take my bicycle into the woods near our Northeastern, Pennsylvania home, and navigating the trails near Little Nescopek Creek I would push myself to travel into the deepest and darkest parts of the woods. I am not sure what I would find at the end of the trail, not sure it mattered really. What I felt in my heart could not be settled by destinations.
I remember one summer day at the end of the school year in 1983. Against my mother’s wishes, I took my bicycle and rode fifteen miles to Rock Glen, my junior high school. I spent the afternoon cutting through the woods, throwing rocks into Black Creek, and on my way back, my mother, driving home from an errand, saw me pedaling along on the main road. When I arrived home, she scolded me for disobeying her, then punished me by cutting off all my hair, which at the time was shoulder length. I spent a week in bed after that and as revenge refused to cut it for twelve years. By the time I finally cut it off, it was almost to my waist. The price of my rebellion amounted to nothing, as my mom loved my hair.
But afflicted with a wanderlust that would never leave, I always believed in escape. Even before I had my driver’s license, I would take my mother’s car from the driveway, and drive around Huntington Beach, where we lived after leaving the East Coast, and when I had my own car, I would often drive for hours, aimlessly, researching streets, driving along the California coast in hopes of losing myself. Even now (now that I have a motorcycle) I ride it to new destinations to forget that I exist. When you’re riding at speeds in excess of 90 or 100 miles an hour on a bike, the world whizzing by, there is no time to think of yourself. So, here, I am losing myself again, I think. I am losing myself in Big Sur and that’s the point of this trip, paradoxically, escaping myself so as to be closer to myself.
Being a creature of habit, I eat a light lunch at the Big Sur River Inn–a small burrito this time and a small coke. Once finished, I drive South on Highway One. I want to see how far I can go, how far the road will take me. The impressions of Old County Road and of Pfeiffer Beach no longer at the forefront of my mind, but their effects linger, like dew settled onto the pastures of my soul (Who wrote that? Neruda, I believe). Each mile I leave behind takes me farther away from myself, farther away from “the church” and Old County Road and Alfred Molera Park. I am searching for new experiences now, looking for a new road, a new trail, a new beach or cove where in untrammeled sands I can bury my toes and feel the simple, unadulterated pleasures of life. I drive slowly for there is no one behind me and no one ahead. My pace, leisurely, fits my mood. I am not interested in rushing through things, but I also know that sometimes one can’t help but to rush through things, to get to the next place, to do the next thing. My driver’s window is open, and the wind that breezes into the compartment feels as brisk as morning sunshine.
As the road twists and turns, tight switchbacks, neck bending chicanes, I stop now and again at the turnouts to take pictures of the coastline. It seems to sing to me, yet no breeze stirs, just the ocean moves far below me with gargantuan softness. I stop sometimes just to take in the view. Miles and miles of ocean to my right, gray and blue, dappled and boundless, the cliffs bathed in misty effervescence, the continent slipping into the sea, or rising out of it, sloping up, or falling down. Looking out towards the horizon, I feel the ocean has no end, for in the distance, where the horizon meets the sky, great clouds amass, blurring the distinction between world and heaven.
I approach a construction zone. How fitting, I think. The road needs repair, like my own road to the new life as a writer, in need of repair. A flagman, in this case a flagwoman, stops me, places a cone down onto the pavement, and I wait. I wait for her permission to declare it safe for me to pass. She’s on her walkie-talkie, nodding, talking, nodding again I wonder who are all these theatrics meant for. Me? After five minutes, she removes the cone and waves me onward. My journey continues. I am entering a new, more desolate, even more sparsely populated section of Big Sur. My ears are burning with the sounds of tires lashing the road.
After thirty minutes of driving, I am numb. My brain shuts off. I don’t see the ocean anymore, nor notice the pine trees forming natural frames from which to view the water. I don’t notice the mist drenched cliffs. I don’t notice the hills or the canyons suffused in amber light, nor the sky, turning cobalt. My only focus is the road ahead. I keep driving, passing a sign that says next gas 22 miles. The road is all that exists. If I am not careful, if I go too fast, I am liable to lose control. If I misjudge a turn I am liable to skid off the road and tumble over the cliffs. If I cut a corner too sharply, mistime my entry, I may venture onto the opposing lane and collide into oncoming traffic. The Jeep’s suspension feels rigid and every bump and pothole in the road I pass over sends shockwaves up my spine. I keep on, no longer seeing anything but the road. The road.
It takes me an hour or so to reach Whale Watcher’s Cafe, the last outpost on Big Sur, and more than half way between Big Sur and Lucia. I stop, order a coffee for four dollars (a one size-fits-all coffee), and after the cashier fails to make change for my twenty, I ask her to give me what she has and I leave. Calculating it, the coffee comes to four dollars and seventy-five cents. Besides being expensive, it doesn’t taste very good. I drink it anyway. As I sit in the driver’s seat, the door open, sipping my coffee, I suddenly think to myself, I am tired of being a man. I feel like the character in one of Neruda’s poems, Entering the movies all shriveled up navigating on a water of origin and ash, and I realize I am not healed, yet, unfixed, still damaged, incomplete, that my confession in “the church” to God earlier and its effects have evaporated. No, I think, I do not want to be the inheritor of so many misfortunes. Perhaps I must for a little longer. The sun reaches its final turn in the firmament, and I feel blessed with the knowledge that another gift, one granted by good timing, will soon be available to me: my fist Big Sur sunset.
I roll onto Highway One North to return to my cabin. I think, when the sun reaches the edge of the horizon line, I’ll stop and take a picture. A s I drive, the sun sinks, but I don’t stop. I watch the wispy clouds assume fish shapes, fish colors, gold and purple and salmon hues. I drive. While the sun trembles, just a line of hot gold against the gray water, I drive, faster and faster and faster, pushing the Jeep’s lumbering six-cylinders to its limit. I burn up tight turns, dropping into narrow straightaways, speeding over the bridges. Faster. I want to go faster. Fifty, sixty, sixty-five, sixty-eight, pushing myself to seventy, hearing the tires screech, feeling the chassis pull in one direction then another. I am driving too dangerous for safety, I know. Risks, I think. Isn’t life about taking risks, to see what one can manage? But this is a stupid risk. What if I crash and die? Worse, what if I crash and am maimed, declared an invalid? At this moment I don’t care. I feel, somehow, angry. But what am I angry for? or at? I am rushing through this experience when I should be taking my time, but I feel impatient. I feel I want to get to the next thing, the next adventure, the next destination. I am sick to death of traveling and going nowhere. I think of my writing. That, too, feels like an exercise in going nowhere. The short story I had been working on for four months, that story about Brisbane and poetry and fishing and postcards, and the novel I am too sheepish to fix at the moment, and the unfinished stories, In Carbondale, or, Avalon, all unfinished, all abandoned for what, to start new projects, then to abandon them as well. This is not the way to work, I think, not the way to live. Start something, finish it and abandon it when it’s done. My friend and writer Shawna Yang Ryan told me once over coffee, that the only thing you can control is your writing. That is all. Is that all? I feel I have lost control. I feel that by losing more and more control I may wind up either failing or finding the type of success I have always dreamed of: the success of clarity.
Slowing my pace, cruising at a comfortable fifty miles an hour seems now, after speeding through twists and turns, far too slow. I pass the construction zone again. Empty now, all the service trucks have gone. I cross into the familiar part of Big Sur as the sky darkens to a midnight blue and Orion appears in the heavens. I pass Nepenthe, pass the road to Pfeiffer Beach, pass the redwood forest, and then return safely back to my cabin.
I am too tired to think, so I take a shower, using the lemongrass soap I bought at the general store a few days ago (soap which makes me smell like a mossy tree) and after writing a little in my journal (the red one), and reading a few lines from Rilke, That is how, always, you lost: never as one who possesses, but like someone dying who, bending into the moist breeze of an evening in March, loses the springtime, alas, in the throats of the birds, I think, have I lost myself in the songs of birds? Have I been too adamant to understand Big Sur and my relationship to it, that I have missed its truth? Am I in denial about having the authentic Big Sur experience, in denial of experiencing the true Big Sur, the one of hot springs and waterfalls, condors and rattlesnakes, hollowed out redwoods, of fording creeks, of swimming in the ocean at dawn, the real Big Sur, of eerie fog and of suffocating spaces and of interminable loneliness. Are these forbidden to me? I close the book and leave for Nepenthe for a drink.
(To be continued)