I tossed and turned all night, unable to find a comfortable position, waking every fifteen minutes or so and eventually entertaining the type of sleep that places you just at the surface of dreams and of wakefulness. I rose at ten AM, feeling as if I hadn’t slept at all. My time table is off. I am a wreck.
I need coffee. I need air. I cross the street to the gas station. A bus sits adjacent the station’s offices. Painted in bright blue and yellow colors, the bus testifies to the spirit of Big Sur’s whimsical side; it doubles as a cafe. I flag down the attendant, a mid- twenties Mexican man, and ask him for coffee. He jogs over, steps inside the bus and I follow him in.
It is a cramped space with a small counter at the front just behind where the bus driver would sit, if there was a seat. After paying the two dollars for a small coffee, I stir in my creamer and sugar, then stand outside, at a wooden railed patio and stare out at the creek below. The water slushes and sluices. The air is brisk and the coffee is good, strong (nutty, dark, with undertones of honey). I regard the bus for a moment. It seems to say to me, “all of life is a lesson in seeing,” and I am reminded of what Emerson once wrote, “In the woods we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,–no disgrace, no calamity, leaving me my eyes, which nature cannot repair,” A bus that goes nowhere, fueled only by the child’s imagination of wonder and play. Is this the lesson I am to learn? What lessons will Big Sur teach me today? How will she leave me at the end of the night as I return to my cabin, either empty or full? My goals are simple ones: experience life to the fullest, rekindle the art of seeing, yield to nature and let it work its magic so that I may be reawakened to what’s important. Perhaps that’s a bit dramatic, but I have always been dramatic, giving myself over to the sentimental at times when I should use my head more.
My first stop is Alfred Molera State Park. Last year I spent half a day here, following the trail as it tilted up then sloped downwards, taking me across several wooden footbridges, then placing me on a trail that took me through a grove of eucalyptus trees. I found an old cabin constructed on the top of a mound, Cooper’s Cabin, but I didn’t stop long enough to take it in and this time I promised myself I would. Now as I followed the trail past the tall distressed pines, I saw remnants of storms, drought, pestilence. Several trees with their gnarled roots exposed looked as if covered in a layer of ash, their bark flaking off, revealing patches of black wood beneath. I passed the spot where the creek widened, where the weeds sprouted from the banks, and the sunlight glittered across the surface, creating a dance of shimmering gold. Last year, I climbed a tree whose limbs arched over the creek, and found it again, but didn’t have the heart to climb it. Last year I followed the creek as it led me to the ocean. Once there, I stood on a beach covered in smooth misshapen rocks the size of grapefruits, oranges, and smaller ones like lemons. They were gray and white and tan stones. I remember standing before the eddying water, unable to cross to the beach where beyond it the ocean trembled and blasted the cliffs, and I sat down on the rocks and thought to myself, what have I done with my life? Who have I become? I have no more influence on this world than a molecule of air that goes unseen. Thinking I needed to change the world in some small way, I picked up a rock, weighed it in my hands and lobbed it high and far into the water. The water plopped and splashed. There, I thought. I have moved a rock from one place to another place. I have done something and changed the world.
Now as I walked I looked up and saw I was being followed by a Monarch butterfly. It fluttered above me, crossed my path and ranged into the bushes. It followed me all the way to he cabin where I lost it in the trees. The cabin looks like something out of a horror film. Built from the material surrounding the area, the shimmed walls and shingled roof made out of redwood, has frayed, faltered, grown grim and ashen. A perimeter fence surrounds the structure and the small yard it encloses is overgrown with weeds, pine seeds, pine needles, and the slivers of bark ripped from the surrounding eucalyptus trees. Built in 1861 by J.B.R. Cooper, a Monterey sea captain and merchant, and George Austin, a New Englander, the cabin is the oldest structure in Big Sur. The plexiglass sign standing at the top of the wooded walkway that leads to the cabin states that Austin’s Massachusetts origins are revealed in the “lap jointed and pegged corners of the cabin.” It is a primitive building technique prevalent in New England, the placard says, but virtually unknown west of the Rockies. How far men travel, to what distant lands, in search of forgetting their pasts, yet, the skills and techniques they’ve honed over years, generational knowledge passed down to them serves to control the wild world they confront. And I think of the saying, “No matter how far you go, there you are,” though I can’t remember who said it. Having given up seafaring for life on the land, Cooper’s cabin was built to house his ranch hands who came to help raise his livestock and perform dairying duties, producing beef and cheese to sell in Monterey. Looking at the place, I cannot imagine anyone finding comfort living here. There is no deck, no outhouse, few windows. It seems, even in this bereft state, a jail, meant to keep inside the dangerous element, or is it really meant to keep those inside safe from Big Sur? I take several pictures, imagining ghosts peering at me from the shadows of unlit corners, and then return to the trail to follow it to my destination: the ocean.
As the trail narrows, delivering me into the thick woods, I start to see trees scarred with initials, declarations of love, and markings that look like leftovers from a more primitive life: spirals, circles, turtles, birds. Their roots, half buried in the earth, climbing into the riverbanks, look like the remnants of a broken language. White rocks in the shallows resemble the tops of skulls, malformed by the coursing waves. It’s as if I have stepped into the past again, ancient scents and trees drunk on the silver water grown delirious by the ocean’s spray, have kept things in a suspended state. Here also, all sounds soften, rage of the ocean is distant; there is not a snap of twig or hiss or cricket chirp. Here, nothing moves except the sun flashing red through the trees and the gentle push of the water to my left.
Reaching the mouth of the trail, I receive my first glimpse of the beach. All those grapefruit and orange and lemon sized rocks have gone. Now it’s a stretch of powdery white sand that resembles snow. The creek is still wide and impassable and so I pace the narrow stretch of beach back and forth, looking for a way across to where the ocean meets the stretch of beach. But how to cross? The water, though not deep, still looks dangerous.
Over the sand bank I see the shape of a man, cut in silhouette. I want to call out to him and ask him how he got across, but at the risk of shattering his solitary experience, I remain quiet, observant. Does he see me? I am not sure, but almost as soon as I place my foot on the surface of the water, I see him lift a backpack and retreat into the hillside. What to do? There are no rocks here for me to toss into the water, just twigs, branches, the ashy remnants of a beach fire, a few dusty beer bottles, but little else. I sit. A helicopter passes overhead. I sit. I contemplate climbing the cliffs so I can cross over to the beach, but the rocks look slippery, craggy, draped with moss. After a few minutes I return to the trail, defeated by an experience I don’t understand the meaning of.
Walking back through the woods I think to myself how life throws up its barriers, and no matter what we do, we cannot overcome them. It’s lovely to say to oneself, there are no obstacles you cannot overcome, but I am meant to learn a deeper lesson here. There are some barriers too insurmountable, and to risk defeat by crossing them is to do so under the threat of death. What if I had mustered the courage to cross the river, shallow as it was, the currents not so strong as to push me into the ocean and drown me? What was I afraid of, getting wet? Was I afraid of failing or, perhaps, succeeding?
Passing a sign that read Headland Trail peeking out from a bush and so I take it up a flight of winding stairs to the top of the bluffs. From the top I can see the beach, the cliffs beyond, the top of a limestone mountain called Pico Blanco. Three pelicans, looking like pterodactyls, sun themselves on the huge outcroppings of black rock at the ocean’s edge. Flocks of seabirds career below me on the beach, rising up like giant mists from the beach and then after a few moments of delicious flight return to their places on the water. I snap a few pictures with my camera. A hawk enters the scene and hovers, glides, then joined by another hawk sails away beyond the bluffs. The sun is bright. The air feels warm. Everything is arranged to provide the “authentic” Big Sur experience, but somehow, this time, as opposed to last year, I am unimpressed. I remove my shirt and stand at the edge of the cliff on a carpet of sand and take in the air, the light, the sounds of the water, still without a way to cross down onto the sand. I sit with my legs crossed and I close my eyes and let myself sink into this experience, but all I can hear is the chattering in my own brain–music, bits of lyrics, broken melodies. Slowly, my mind calms. Slowly, the restlessness is washed over by the music of the water After a few minutes of this meditative bliss, I leave feeling a little better about what I am doing here. What am I doing here? Reaching I suppose for a feeling I had lost on the way to pursuing my dreams as a writer.
As I walk down the trail, I feel things. The silence here is gigantic, an interminable peace that imbues you with the sense of your own insignificance. The woods make their argument against the structures we build, the houses and cities and buried fiber-optics and bridges of communication, through their sheer numbers. There are too many trees, too many hedges, plants, flowers, insects, animals. Too much water and air. I feel I am choking on Big Sur’s beauty now, drowning in its natural sounds: the surf, the birds, the coursing water. What does it all signify? What is it meant to reveal? Surely the world exists for us to notice it, as Rilke would say. What I know is I don’t really want to understand it. I want to feel it, because feeling is a kind of understanding that seems more true than thought–feeling sinks its teeth into the heart of the matter, plants itself in your soul and makes understanding a part of you.
Reaching my Jeep, I settle my camera inside and decide to get a bite to eat. So I return to the Big Sur River Inn and after filling up my tires with air at the gas station, head to the General Store for a homemade burrito. (This is not important to mention, but I’ll mention it anyway, because perhaps there’s some hidden symbolism here that I am blind to that some reader will seize upon and make for him or herself a richer meaning.) I ordered a carne asada burrito, with salsa, jasmine rice, black beans, and guacamole. It weighed at least a pound in my hands and cost me almost eight dollars. I took a seat at one of the iron tables facing Highway One and ate, but couldn’t finish it, so threw the rest away. I sat and contemplated things, the walk to the beach, being followed by a butterfly, seeing a quorum of fawns (did I fail to mention them?) It is five or so. Full yet unsatisfied, I decide to take a short nap.
When I approach Cabin 3, I see a note tacked to the door jamb. Please see the management, it says. I wonder what it could be? What could be wrong? I walk back across the highway to the management offices and see that it is closed. A sign says, After hours, please see concierge at the Big Sur River Inn Restaurant. Feeling too tired to deal with things, I decide to return to my cabin and sleep. I don’t want to believe that things in Big Sur have urgency. Let me take my time.
The room when I enter is warm, too warm, as I left the heater on. I remove my shoes, slip under the covers and too tired to read, fall asleep. I dream of pelicans sunning themselves on the cliffs.
I wake and am hungry again. I shower and putting on a fresh pair of clothes, I decide against Nepenthe tonight and settle on the Big Sur River restaurant. Entering, I greet the concierge and ask her about the note on my door and without me telling her my name, she seems to know what the note is all about. She informs me that the carpets in my room are scheduled to be changed and as a courtesy to me the motel is willing to upgrade me to a suite, that is, if I agree. I agree. The room brings me closer to the creek. I receive the new key to the new room adjacent the gas station and the blue and yellow bus and I settle into my new room, Cabin 6. What a wonderful room. It is spacious, with a table setting by the door opposite a window, a rocking chair in the corner, a day bed, and a bedroom in the back with a California King bed. The wall in the room with the day bed is fashioned from redwood and shellacked. The bathroom’s counter is made out of the base of a redwood tree. As before there is no bar of soap, but an abundance of towels, all white. As before there is no phone, no TV, no radio. There is, in this bathroom, no wall plug. I settle my things, then go back to the restaurant for dinner.
I sit at a table with a draft of my short story. I am calling it, for the time being, City of the Stars. The story is set in Brisbane, and it is about, well, truthfully, I am not sure what it is about. The story seems to be carried away by its language, its lyricism, and I feel it isn’t a story at all. By editing it I’ll see where it’s gone wrong and even though I know I am not a short story writer, I feel I must attempt to finish one story to the best of my ability so I can submit it for publication. I feel a twang of defeat every time I read about one of my fellow MFA’ers publishing a story, an article, or a poem, making use of what they’ve learned, and although I am happy for them I wonder when will my time come? A writer who isn’t published, well, can he still be considered one? I suppose the question is akin to asking if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to see it then, and so on and so on.
There are no seats at the bar, so I take a seat by the window in the dining area. A table to my right hosts a family of Hindu’s and they seem to be celebrating someone’s birthday. Even here, in this magical nowhere of a place, one can find remnants of my long ago abandoned past and its people. When I was a child growing up in India, I remember bathing in mountain rivers, watching headless chickens in the frenzy of dying darting about in my grandfather’s back lawn, or climbing the eucalyptus tree that stood at the edge of his property, at the boundary wall that separated his compound from the dust filled streets of Lucknow, or being courted by a snake near a water pump at my father’s house, or dreaming of bats, my first true nightmare. I don’t know why I am thinking these things, but they seem in keeping with the spirit of Big Sur, where the past is never truly past.
Receiving the laminated menu, I select a baked chicken for dinner, because I am in the mood to compare it with the dinner I had the previous night. I order a gin martini. The waitress who takes my order, a short, sassy blonde in her mid fifties, I think, smiles politely and leaves. I start editing my story while I wait for my food. I am crossing out sentences and adding new ones and onto the third page of paragraph deletions when my drink arrives and the waitress seeing me scribbling asks what I am doing. I am editing a short story, I say. I tell her about the novel I have just written and feel myself sounding pretentious. She nods and wishes me luck and I think it’s too late for luck now; what I need is time and energy and resolve to revise. After fifteen minutes, my food arrives. It looks impressive. Delicious, I finish everything, leaving a carcass of bones on my plate. For two nights in a row I have eaten chicken and enjoyed it more than I could have ever imagined and I wonder at the meaning of this.
The bill arrives and I pay then decide to go back to Nepenthe for a drink. It is still early, around 8PM, and I am not tired. I feel restless. I am pushing the experience of the day out of my mind. I don’t want to think about what it all means, yet. I am following Wordsworth’s advice, to live life fully then recollect the experience in tranquility.
Nepenthe is as quiet as it was the night before. I sit where I sat yesterday, same corner, same seat and I order a Gin martini, straight up, Bombay Sapphire with a twist. I continue to edit my story at the bar and realize how weak it is. The words have rhythm and the sentences flow, but where is the story? Plot has always been my Achilles Heel. When I sense myself writing a plot driven narrative, something in me resists. I love tangents. I love thoughts rising out of experience. I cross out lines and add new ones in hopes that something that resembles a narrative will take shape, but it is futile, I know. I drink and banter with the bartender about wine flights. Felipe tells me about a Pinot Noir from Lucia, not far from here, made by a local winery. He offers me a taste and I refuse, telling him that tomorrow is my wine night. I see Angela, the hostess from the night before, take a seat at the bar with who I presume is Nepenthe’s manager. We wave to each other courteously. She looks as lovely as the night before: in black, not a trace of makeup, her hair piled high on her head, with that mixture of delicate care and nonchalance that defines her spirit. I finish my drink. I pay. I approach Angela and say goodbye and she apologizes for being too busy to talk. We exchange pleasantries. We’ll talk tomorrow, she says. I am starved for conversation about art, about music, literature, the cinema. Such conversations lift my spirits and make me believe I can accomplish great things. When I am away from artists, I feel my life impoverished. How powerful words are, words of quality. How much of conversation exists at the surface level of politeness, diplomacy, tact. When you speak, you must speak what you know and feel and leave everything else at the door, meaning, your insecurities. Feeling as if I have intruded on Angela and her manager, I politely say goodbye and leave. It is only 10PM and the day is done.
The stars outside flicker and the moon spreads its silver threaded light across the ocean, which is, from my vantage, silent and still. I return to my cabin and hope to sleep for more than a few hours tonight. The room feels warm and I am comforted by its homelike atmosphere. I open Neruda’s book of poems sitting on the desk near the front door and read a few lines of a poem, but the words fail to move me tonight. I realize I don’t want his words in me. I don’t want anyone’s words in me, only mine. In my bedroom now I change into my night clothes and I do not reach for Ragtime while lying in bed. I do not reach for my journal to write in. Thankfully, my thoughts are no longer spiraling with bits of music and verse and broken melodies. Today has been a good day. But I have yet to feel the water on my skin, the ocean air in my lungs, have failed to dry my naked body under the sun. Tomorrow, I think to myself, I will go to the beach and though it will be cold I will attempt to swim. I sigh and shut off the light. Despite what I haven’t done, my heart feels full.
(To Be Continued)