Big Sur Part III: The Day Finally Ends
Felipe has been talking to me but I haven’t been listening. Having one against my earlier thought of being agreeable to learning. He pours the wine and I sip it and it tastes sweet on my tongue. I nod. I drink. I am unable to understand why it tastes so good, but then everything here tastes good, everything I’ve taken for granted: coffee, chicken, broccolini, potatoes, even the air and water have sweetness to them that makes my heart quiver with pleasure.
I look for Angela and see her at a table in the center of the room engaged in a conversation with her manager. I feel guilty for wanting to speak to her; this desire to converse feels a little like cheating. But then again, I think, my intentions are innocent. Felipe doesn’t ask me what I think about the wine when I sip it; he sees what I think on my face. I would rather drink wine than talk about it. I finger the rim of the glass and it produces a sweet note and I think, how I would rather be a vessel in whom the world pours itself in. I want to swirl the pleasures around inside, wet my finger and circle the edge of my lips to issue forth singing sounds. I think of Angela, then think of Rilke, “Every Angel is terrifying,” he wrote. I couldn’t agree more.
I drink two more glasses of wine, eat an artisan cheese plate with blue cheese, olives, and roasted garlic, and feeling my mood at the right temperature, I thank Felipe and pay him. I approach Angela and her manager and say goodbye. She apologizes again for not having time. It is time that always seems in short supply. We never do what we should, act like fools, risk things, say what we feel. What can she sense in me? Desperation? Perhaps she sees in me a threat to her sense of balance. No, not that, I make too much of things.
Driving back to my cabin I feel a pull towards Pfeiffer Beach again. In the mood for doing something different, unique, risky, I decide to drive the narrow, winding road back to the beach. The sky is clear, the temperature cold, and I think to myself, I have never experienced the feeling of standing at the precipice of a cliff and looking down at raging waters.
The road feels different now. Everything under the cloak and dagger of the dark feels different. I feel I am doing something illegal, vile, perhaps it is by the standards of civilized society. I am driving by night on a winding road to a beach where I hope to sit silently on, gauge the roiling waves as they manifest themselves in the pale, blue, acrid light of the dark.
I park in the same stall from earlier this morning (hard to believe I was here earlier in the day) in the last space on the upper level. I find it ridiculous that just this morning I walked this stretch of beach, spoke to God in a ruined clearing. It’s hard to believe that today I drove for miles and miles to Whale Watcher’s Cafe in a journey without purpose, a journey without destination. Hard to believe that earlier this evening, I sped up Highway One, pushing my reflexes and my vehicle to its limits. I leave my Jeep and walk the dark path, a balustrade of seed pines arching over me, forming a domed roof, beyond which a few stars peek through. The luxurious smells of rich decay, of salt soaked sand, the creek to my left whose voice seems swallowed up by the sound of the crashing surf beyond. I can hear the ocean. I feel it in my chest. The darkness makes everything feel colder and as I trespass onto the beach head, an image of ghosts appears in my mind, ghosts touching my face with their spindly fingers, wings flapping cold air, the cool air from beating wings tickling the hairs on my head, and the moaning surf beyond like an army of tortured souls.
In the open, just the sky above and the ocean beyond, the bluffs to my right lay bathed in shadows, the dark muting the shrubs and bushes and vines. The portal (to where, to nowhere?) stands diagonally to my left in the distance and rings hollowly the music of the water. I cross the shallows of the creek. It looks deeper and wider than it did this morning, the water, earlier so silvery, now looks like silk. The creek cuts through the sand, sand like down, and attempting to jump to the other side, my boots suck into the water. The cuffs of my pants are wet now and I am thankful I wore leather boots. Crossing the sandbar I make for the rocks, my breath heavy, my heart pumping, my mind unsure of what to do. I cross several rocks then finding one that looks safe and relatively dry, I hop onto it. I am standing on this flat misshapen rock jutting out from a slag of rocks crumbled down from the cliffs, and I feel pleased with myself. But what to do now that I am here? It is too cold for a swim, not that I would, though the thought to strip naked and run the beach like a wild man sounds, because of the wine in my system, oddly appealing. I breathe in the night, smell the crash of surf, hear the light, feel the color of blackened moonlight against my skin. Miscible, I feel unraveled. I am slipping off the rocks and mixing with the cascade of salt rimmed waves. I feel broken up, or down, my incremental parts scatter. Raising my arms, making of myself an offering to the dark and that boundless stretch of liquid, reaffirms my smallness in this world. I raise my arms higher and tilt my head up and shout at the sky, the stars the mute witnesses of this act.
I feel I want to get closer to the water. It rises from the bellows of the ocean floor and curls then crashes against these silent black stones. So I venture out about fifteen yards or so, propelling myself forward by sheer will, until I reach a slick flat rock, draped in moss, and planting my feet firmly on its surface, wait for the water to heave and crash. It rises. What a thrill to see it rise and crash, cascading against the rocks that sit, protected by nothing, quiet sentinels to all this swirling, fearsome action. Feeling like a survivor of a species thought extinct, like an exiled member of some lost tribe, like a castaway, I shout to the sky. I want this feeling to last, this exhilaration, for that is what I feel, exhilarated, the cold air, the cold water, the cold rocks making me feel more than a man. I stand there shouting and singing until the moment passes.
Crossing the beach, I venture towards the portal. It has been the subject of many a photographer’s pictures. But you have to be lucky and patient. During a certain time of day, during a certain month, when the sun sets in just the right spot and the light careers through the opening, making it look like an afterburner bathed in a cloud, you get the shot, capturing for posterity the unbelievable light–coppery gold. You have to be lucky, I suppose, or persistent to be successful. Last year I entered the portal’s mouth and waited for the waves to crash through and they did, pushing against me in a violent and happy cascade. But that was during the day. Now it is night, midnight. Here, now, risking everything (my past, my present, my future) I may lose everything–my life. But what life would I lose if I lost everything? If the water pulled me out into its depths, catching me in a riptide (me, a creature less defenseless than a skittering crab) I could make my final peace with all that burdens me. But what is it that burdens me? Expectation burdens me, the feeling of failing to measure up to standards I have set for myself, impossible standards, quest for my father’s respect. No, I think, I must let go of all that. Alone, caught in the afterglow of a great burn, like Icarus hurled to earth, a phoenix burned up by the beauty of Big Sur, ready to rise again, I am giving myself over to transmutation. The essence of creativity is to allow change, welcome it, and not resist it. That is what I am doing here, I think, looking for an experience that will change me so thoroughly that my past will feel vanquished.
I enter the portal now, carefully navigating the serrated rocks. I climb. Am I risking death? The rocks are cold and sharp and slippery and I crouch on the topmost edge of a boulder, ready to lunge at the waves crashing through with an intensity that defies what I’ve come to know of Big Sur: placid, a saintly calm, a regal standoffishisness. From a distance everything looks peaceful, almost at rest; but close up, that’s when you really see Big Sur–that’s when you see it suck and lick and bleed. The daylight hides it as much as it reveals it and at night, Big Sur truly comes alive.
I sit on the edge of the boulder watching the waves crash in, sprayed by the briny water, the briny air filling my lungs. And I sit and stare at the parade of briny waves coursing through this tunnel, briny white tongues, briny black fingers with briny white claws breaking off stones from the ceiling and the walls. The water rages, a giant engine grating and coughing, advancing and retreating, while the walls magnify a thousandfold the ocean’s insistence.
What are you angry about? I shout, then I shout other things, shouting things that no one must hear, things I will not, cannot repeat. As the moments slip past, I feel not even a part of this world now, but a hollow voice, a noise joining the noise of the current, a voice baying endlessly like a wounded animal at Orion, at the moon, at the unseen galaxies above.
Stop this, I tell myself. But the wind unclothes me. You are acting like a fool! But the stars that shine blink only for me. They are, in this quietude, mine now, reclaimed from the world and mine, all mine. The waves are mine, the cliffs, the air, the sand, the rocks, all mine. I know this is foolish to think, and I think the authentic experience sits in the center, like a seed in an apple, of another value: lonesomeness. So long as I am alone, the world is mine, I think, but this is solipsism, no? That sickness of mind that makes of the world my idea, independent of others. Here, I am connected, to myself and nature, but not to others, and isn’t that one of the points of living, to be connected not just to nature, not just to God, but to one another? Isn’t being a writer an exercise (more than that; it’s a life) in connecting work to people?
I inch forward, up another boulder, then turning my back to the waves crashing through, I start to laugh. Am I drunk? Am I an idiot? A fake? A fool? Yes, yes! All of it! All of it! I have a strong desire to jump into the water, but not to end it all, to test myself against current and cold. This is another risk, one too great, and I feel I have already taken too many risks today. Instead, I thank God again and I thank Him for things of which He has no provenance; but I thank Him anyway. Giving up, I cross the beach, limping (because my knees when it gets cold become arthritic), and cross the shallow freshwater creek, then I enter the forested exit that smells of wet sand and pine and I lumber back to the parking lot which is, as it was before, bathed in black.
I feel exhausted, but energized. Happy. I feel I have experienced something words cannot yet explain. I shiver. I smile to myself. I can hardly believe this day. Emptied of all emotions, I feel like that twined root I found earlier washed up on the shoreline, an exhausted creature of no known origin placed for view in a world of which it has no real understanding, waiting, just waiting for the next strong current to wash it back to sea.
(To be continued)
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)
Day Three: December 7.
What is it about water that attracts me so? I was born under the sign of Cancer the crab, so that must have something to do with it. Every time I see water or feel its presence near me, I become giddy. Water, with its promise of renewal, appeals to my sense of re-creation.
I am awake at 7AM and by 7:45 I find myself at Pfeiffer Beach. The road there takes you through a shadow forest, past fields of corralled horses, and finally deposits you into a parking lot where a sandy trail leads through a tunnel towards the beach. Seeing the rock formations are alone worth the trip as is the portal where the water mists through; but there are other treasures to be found here. If you look closely at the sand, you’ll see swirling patterns of rust. At first it looks like traces of blood, earth’s vein opened and spilling out its life. But I learned the patterns are due to waves leeching magnesium from the beach’s stone monoliths. I am drawn to patterns. In various places the eroded cliffs, with long striated grooves have a lime green hue, and in other places ancient rainwater, having raced down the face of the cliffs, have cut rivulets into the soft sandstone–incredible patterns, teeth and knuckles and ribs.
As you walk the beach, you feel the density of Big Sur weighing upon you and you can’t help but unburden yourself to the waves. But I don’t. I am sheepish. Nervous. Despite the comfortable temperature, a moderate 62 degrees F, I feel restless, as if each minute that I descend deeper into all that Big Sur offers I am still missing it. Where is my Formosa, as Walker Percy wrote. “Every traveler names his island Formosa,” he wrote in his essay on seeing and experiencing life authentically, an essay he called, “The Loss of the Creature.” In it, he makes various claims, the most important one being this: That our experiences have been manipulated to such an extent we no longer see things like The Grand Canyon, experience a Shakespearean sonnet, appreciate the Mona Lisa, or the Great Pyramids. I couldn’t agree more. Imagine what the first man who discovered Big Sur must have felt? Here it is again, this notion of being first to see something. I am sure that man, like the man who “discovered” the Grand Canyon must have felt such awe as to come against the poverty of language to describe all that he felt. There are many insights in Percy’s essay, and I agree with him, that every natural landmark or human construct has been photographed, commented on, argued over, picked apart so many times that when confronted with that same experience on our travels, we no longer see it. We desire authentic experience, yet it escapes us, because our minds chatter to us incessantly: Is this it? Is this the experience? Am I experiencing this authentically? We second guess experiences to such a degree we fail to see them, and leave feeling empty, with nothing more than a handful of cliche’s about how lovely it is what we have seen, how beautiful, how grand the Grand Canyon is.
After walking for ten minutes or so I see several kids in dreadlocks and sweatpants, shorts and backpacks canvassing the beach towards me. Two playful dogs in tow run in circles around them, dash towards the water as if to bite the waves, then dart back, bark, skip and trot along the sand. I lift up my hand and wave I pass this troupe and they wave back. It’s easy to see whose side they are on and because I am here in the early hours of the morning without another soul in sight, it’s easy to see whose side I am on: we are, though different, on the side of kindness and wonder, extracting from the early morning hours the fruits of time and tranquility. Now I wonder where they’ve come from? They look like part of a tribe, and I suppose I am a lost member of a tribe as well, though of which one I cannot say. Perhaps they camped here overnight, lit a bonfire, played music and sang songs as the waves crashed against the rocks. Perhaps they smoked and drank and told stories, slept under the Big Dipper and Orion despite the park’s regulations against camping, and I suddenly envy and admire them for their bravado. I have never camped on a beach, never slept under the stars, and I think to myself, God, how I would like to if only to feel myself part of all that is and was.
Last year as I walked this very stretch of beach, I found a hollow in the cliffs. A stream, thin as a wire, poured out of the mouth. Inside, the vaunted space was surrounded by old pine trees, perhaps a hundred years old, and I remember sitting under the limbs of a dead spruce tree and watched the ocean advance and retreat. I decided now I wanted to go there again. But first, I wanted to see if I could make it clear to where the rocky beach turned right and disappeared behind the walls of stone.
Just before the sand yielded to rocks, I found what looked like an enormous sea monster, a snake with frayed skin lying beached at the edge where water met the shore. On closer inspection it looked like a giant root, twined with kelp, parade confetti, and husks. I took a picture of it, thinking of it as a natural sculpture, something the ocean dredged up to remind us that creation still occurred in its sunless depths. As the sand gave way to rocks, then larger rocks, I kept on, keeping an eye on the waves advancing to my left. If I were to be caught in a wave I would most likely be swept out to sea. Perhaps I would be washed ashore in a decade or so, bleached bones twined with sea kelp, a monster that the ocean had formed in its sunless depths.
I navigate the rocks, keeping my head down, occasionally looking up to measure my progress. It seems the farther I travel the farther my goal becomes. I turn to see where I have come from and it seems no farther than before. I keep going, up rocks, down rocks, lifting from the dry detritus the ocean has washed up on the rocks shoals of gnats, then balancing my feet on sharp edges, climbing down and then up again until, finally, I climb a huge granite boulder and take a seat on a ledge near its top. From here I can see the ocean washing the rocks below me, waves crashing and sending huge sprays that tickle my face. Water eddies, whirls and wheels, and tide pools develop in which skitter baby crabs. The rocks around me are crusted with mussels. I breathe, taking in the briny air, and everything else for a moment–the water’s rage, the sun blasting down, the road of light that stretches from the bounded area to the boundless ocean. I take in everything: the scant clouds pacing across the blue sky as soft as powder, a few seabirds, chirping above me on the cliffs, and after taking a few pictures to preserve this moment in time, I make my way back.
I find a dead bird at the edge of the cliffs and I take its picture. Even here amidst such life newly created and exhausted, death announces itself. Not allowing death to spoil my experience of Big Sur, part of me wants to turn away from it. But even in death the bird–its talons, a cadaverous gray, its head crushed and one glassy eye shiny as a marble–looks at peace. What killed it? Was it surprised by Big Sur’s beauty, a color, a scent, a pattern, caught up in the grandeur of the water and with its head turned away from where it was going did it crash into the cliff? Was it chased away? Did some strong wind carry it towards the rocks, breaking its neck and wings? I won’t know the answer to this, but I suppose what I can take away from its death is that one must always be careful. Even in Edenic places danger lurks.
After making it safely back to the sand I walk towards the hollow in the cliffs where the stream empties itself onto the beach. Last year I made it no farther than the mouth of this natural cave. But today I want to see where it will lead me. I enter and just as before the noisy surf behind me dims and I am greeted with a nutritive, shadowy space with scents of fresh water and cooling pine. Snowy sand yields to snowy dirt now and though the mostly withered trees, their branches tangled with one another as if to support one another in their last days, I see flashes of sunshine. The area is littered with pine needles, cones, branches, twigs, leaves, and the farther I go a greater peace offers itself up. Reaching a clearing of sorts, an area of about twenty feet in diameter, I confront a metal sign that reads “No Fires.” Beyond it stretches the woods with no visible trail to make inroads into the forest. This is the essence of tranquility. A natural church. The netted branches before me form a mural and the netted branches above me form a frieze. I feel at peace. Joyful even. Something in me wants to speak to this space, to God and so I do, mvoice which I haven’t heard since yesterday, trembling.
I take a seat beneath a tree and begin. God, I say. Are you there? Can you hear me? Of course you can. I pause and wait for some sign of movement, but nothing stirs. God, I begin again, Thank you. Then I go on for about fifteen minutes, emptying myself of confusion, thanking God for all the gifts he’s placed before my senses so that I may see Him again. I make my apologies, confess to things, and as the sun reaches through the branches and illuminates the tree before me, I take a picture, committing to posterity what I see. If God can’t hear me here, then He must not care to hear. I think to myself, this is the essence of solitude. This is a taste of what Siddhartha must have felt sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree, or just a sliver of what Christ must have felt alone in the desert. But here, there are no burning bushes, no snakes slithering up to assume malevolent shapes. Here, there is just a tree before me with the sun passing through its limbs. I feel embraced. The voices settle. I dust myself off and leave this place, feeling both drained and full. I feel like laughing. I feel as if all things are possible.
At the entrance to “the church,” I pass a middle aged couple who look entranced by all that Big Sur has to offer. Smilingly I tell them they should take a look inside this space. The word that returns to me again and again is “beautiful.” It’s all so beautiful, I say and smile. They thank me. I am experiencing something authentic. I feel it. It is beautiful I say and this is the only invitation they need and I move on. Moments later, I pass a man standing at the base of the cliffs, removing his clothes and preparing to swim. The temperature feels warm and I remove my jacket, then turning to the man I hold up my arms as if to say, Can you believe this weather? He flashes me a smile and says, “Isn’t it beautiful?” I agree. It is. It is.
I reach my Jeep and find a ticket on its windshield asking for $5, the park’s entrance fee. I pay. I leave. I want this feeling to last and so I decide on a long drive along Old County Road.
The road was used by stagecoaches before the construction of Highway One, featuring some of the most stunning views in the world. It is a challenging route, not fit for the meek of heart, with, as someone once said, “1000 foot drops just inches from your tire.” You’ll go from spectacular vistas of the rolling hills, Point Sur Lighthouse, and the ocean dappled by sunlight, through lush forests in which silver streams cut through. Most of the land is private property, fenced in with plenty of signs that warn you against crossing over, but the cost of danger (of being shot, or trapped) is the price one pays to enter. The road is accessed at the Northside entrance to Bixby Bridge and following it for ten and a half miles or two and a half hours by Jeep, puts you at the entrance of Alfred Molera State Park. I can’t even imagine people navigating horse drawn carriages through this area, but I suppose that’s what they did. As the road narrows, twists, turns, drops, climbs, drops again, it takes you in and out of the forests of Little Sur Valley with its canopies and then the road lifts you up to the hills, dizzying you.
Crossing the bridge, I turn right and enter without reservations about what I’ll find, but I am more concerned with what I won’t find. What if my experience this time around fails to live up to its expectations from last year? What am I really seeking? Solitude, I suppose. No, I have solitude. Then what? Perhaps, I want to feel naked, vulnerable. No, not quite. I want to feel connected to all that is real, unmitigated by commentary. Emerson once wrote, “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society,” and I think how true that is. “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at stars.” Let him also look at the landscape and draw from its colors and geometric patterns the essence of life. Is it possible, I ask myself? Somehow I feel that what placed me in a state of wonder last year, is irretrievable.
Last year I traveled this route without a clear idea of where it would take me, but I knew I was seeking a richer experience, so I pushed on, further and further into the deep heart of the forest, stopping now and again to take pictures of the redwoods, the creek, the trail. Last year I summarized this journey and placing it into the larger context of life, I felt resolved: Without the danger and mystery of knowing where the road leads, we come to appreciate life’s meaning. What meaning? The meaning, I suppose, of taking pleasure in the natural, of seeing and feeling things as they are, not as they should be or what we want them to be–coming to a pre-judgmental place in one’s mind where all things can be as they are. No one knows where our life’s road leads except to death, and along the way we may miss what is beautiful, because we are so adamant about reaching the end. It’s very Zen Buddhist, I think. Be in the moment. Drill down into present experience. Infinity, as William Blake once said, is in a grain of sand.
As I travel up the steep hill, Old Coast Road is as I remembered it: craggy, dusty, pitted, rutted. I stop and take in a view of Bixby Bridge in the distance, the hills, the ocean, and then drive on, slipping my transmission into 4 X 4 mode. The tires bite into the limestone gravel. In my rear view mirror, I see an orange trail of dust and out of my passenger’s side window, I see fields and hills of astonishing greenery. I stop. I stop to gaze at the landscape in all its burnished beauty, but I cannot take it all in, so I drive on, downwards now, onto the road that dips me into Little Sur Valley.
Shadows pool everywhere. The sun streaks through the canopy, forming rods of light like fingers stretching into the undergrowth. The scents of chlorophyll abound. Ripe with the scent of wet bark and lush earth, the air is cool and the woods are quiet. The brook to my left burbles, the only sound here. Even the birds are silent. Solitude, I think. No one knows where I am. No one can see me. I am swallowed up, unwatched and completely present. Though unseen I feel I am acknowledged by something unseen. Am I being melodramatic? Perhaps. But in the silence of these woods I feel somehow, I don’t know, whole. It’s the same feeling I had sitting beneath the tree and thanking God for the beauty in this world.
Emerson writes, “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a superficial seeing.” To see the sun or a blade of grass as it is, unalloyed by any other element, as Elizabeth Bishop would say, is to return it to what it is. It is this sense of seeing I am after, getting to know something so familiar we’ve taken it for granted that to truly see it again is to allow it to reclaim its place in the hierarchy of our needs. As adults, we don’t need to see the sun, but the child, in all its glorious wonder about the mystery of things, sees it in a way we cannot. It is this sense of reclamation I am after, I suppose, to see things once again as a child sees things, where a blade of grass plucked from a lawn and placed between the palms of one’s hand, becomes a reed. I long to be the type of man whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other, as Emerson would say, a man who has retained the spirit of infancy even in manhood. This is nothing more than idealism and I wonder, even as I am experiencing forms, allowing my senses to be barraged by all these outward impressions, I wonder if it is possible?
I drive on and come to a fork in the road, one restricted, as it is a private access road, and the other the public road. When I look to my right I see, buried in the dense foliage of a canyon, giant trees shooting out of the forest floor, I see the outlines of a roof, walls with windows, a porch. Someone has taken it upon themselves to construct a house here, in the middle of nowhere. I stop, and nervously bring out my camera and take a few pictures. The house looks abandoned, but there is a light on in one of the rooms. I wonder who lives here? I want to run down the embankment, crashing through the roots and leaves, and knock on their door and sit with them and ask them questions. Everything about the place suggests the reclusive. No cars in the strip of gravel that must be their driveway, no effort to tidy up the yard, which is little more than a patch of overgrown grass, encroached on all sides by spindly bushes. Imagine the effort and courage it takes to disconnect in this way, to not need the world, to resist and refuse it, to say to the world, you can have your internet and electricity and satellite dishes, you can have your air conditioning and central heating, your grocery marts and shopping plazas, but all I need is this, a house, the woods, water and air. I know I don’t have the courage to live this way. I still need to feel connected.
After three hours (I stopped often), I reach Highway One, and turn left. It is still early, about 2PM or so, and I am not yet exhausted. I want more. I am greedy for more. I still need to swim in the ocean.
(To Be Continued)
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)
An Essay on my recent vacation to Big Sur (a 1st draft)
Day 1: December 5, 2011
I was in the mood for a killing. Not of someone. Of myself. Not of suicide. Of reinvention. I had to get out of San Francisco. I had to go someplace where I could let my mind drift, to a place where I could let my feelings fall where they may, to a place where the landscape provided a thousand different pathways to resurrection: Big Sur.
Moby Dick’s Ishmael says, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” and so on, “I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” My substitute for “pistol and ball,” Big Sur, will always be my “spiritual home.” What is it about the place that attracts me? The beautiful vistas, for one; a chance to deposit into the woods all of one’s fears and neuroses: the woods and water accept all of it without complaint.
During the months and weeks leading up to my leaving, I suffered from various ailments: insomnia, a two month long flu, irritability, irascibility, a general malaise. I felt disconnected from my work and from my relationships. I took three hour naps in the afternoons which kept me awake most of the night. My diet consisted of coffee, alcohol, fast food. My exercise routine comprised two or three slow paced walks a day around Candlestick Point with my two dogs. Sitting at my desk for hours and hours, straining both my eyes and my back, pulling muscles I never knew existed, I felt myself unraveling; so before I knew what I was doing, one morning, with my thesis complete and its revision around the corner, I sat down and booked my trip. Four days in Big Sur should return me to myself, I thought. Four days and three nights of bliss.
Having dropped off my fiancee and our dogs at Delores’ house, I left Vallejo at approximately 10:00 AM on a clear sunny Monday. During the three-hour drive I kept thinking of remoteness. What if there was an emergency? The cell phone service was terrible there. I hadn’t told anyone where I was staying and no one had asked, not even my fiancee. I kept thinking of immersions. What would I do first? Where would I go? I would go to Pfieffer Beach, bathe in the winds rising off the bluffs, maybe swim if it wasn’t too cold. I would visit Nepenthe for a sunset and steak dinner. Besides that, I made no plans. I would go where my legs took me, find the end of the road, and stop often to take in the sights.
Cradled in the soft scents of eucalyptus trees, redwoods and pine groves, entranced by the bustling rhythms of the crashing surf, Big Sur connects me to a more primitive version of myself and a purer version of life. In the city you don’t see birds, though they abound, especially seagulls at the wharf, pigeons, and crows. Occasionally you’ll see a willet or a crane at the bay, or a flock of sparrows, but they seem disguised somehow, as if they aren’t really birds but chunks of concrete bitten out of buildings that have somehow taken flight. City birds seem distressed, even at the beaches; they seem about as confused and erratic in their movements as the people who navigate the Embarcadero, speeding up and down Van Ness, filling the cafes in North Beach, staring out at the traffic lines on Broadway. In Big Sur you can see birds again and see them in their natural element–cranes, cormorants, loons. If you’re lucky you can glimpse a flight of condors gliding across the cliffs, or watch pelicans sunning themselves on the ocean’s giant stone outcroppings.
As I passed through Monterey, crossed into Carmel, then drove South on Highway One, the landscape flowered. Tall mountains bathed in mist came into view and the entire continent seemed to shift downwards in long swooping arches, bending towards the water. Before this land was settled, it was wild. When I think of the miracle of this road, Bixby Bridge and Granite Canyon Bridge both built in 1932, I am reminded of man’s will to cut paths through nature, taming it, deeming it safe to experience in all its incremental bits. I think how by taming it we have lost it, that the true Big Sur exists not now but before the first traveller ventured here, seeing the sights for the first time, but somehow, Big Sur resists this notion. The views from Highway One still impress and I suspect will continue to impress until, as Henry Miller once said, “uranium is found in the hills.”
I wonder, though, as I drive, what the first explorers who found this area thought. Did they feel they had died and gone to heaven? For when I think of Heaven, I think of water and mountains, I think of mist bathed forests, I think of sunlight so clear and sharp it makes even the shadows seem to shine. When I caught the first glimpses of the water to my right, the sun dappling the water, forming on the water a crystalline road, my heart skipped a beat, and it seemed to me as if the world had taken a giant breath, swallowing me up in all its vastitude. The parade of colors, the riffling brooks, the unrivaled vistas of continent and boundless ocean had drawn celebrities here. Surrounded by the redwood forests, Henry Miller penned essays and towards the end of his life painted portraits here. Robinson Jeffers sat on the cliffs, perhaps, staring out at the ocean at the wheeling hawks. Jack Kerouac sped through its switchbacks in a mad dash of screeching tires and ballyhoo in his sleek black Studebaker. Movie stars, like Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, picnicked in its parks, sunned themselves at Pfieffer Beach, hiked Andrew Molera State Park’s trails, followed the creek as it widened and deepened and emptied itself into the ocean. In the experience of empty beaches, of forested winding trails, of being lifted by the spruce and ivy and thousand-year old Redwoods, they smoked and drank and made their declarations of love to the stars and birds and trees and tides and all that beauty, for “that,” as Jeffers wrote, “is but the beauty of God.” Beyond that, as if that weren’t enough, Big Sur represents, in all its simulacra, in all of its signifiers, the manifestation of dreams.
Chatter. My mind filled with voices, music, melodies, bits of lyrics, bits of verse, images. Every time I try to empty myself, my brain fills with noise–the white noise of the city. Having arrived at 1PM to the Big Sur River Inn, the first outpost on Highway One, I am too early to check-in, and although it is a sunny day, with temperatures in the mid 60’s, I am too tired to explore. I have not eaten this morning or afternoon, and the coffee I had drank on the drive has worked itself through my system. My bladder full. My eyes bleary. I need a hot shower, food, a nap.
I chose for my lodgings the Big Sur River Inn. I chose it because a year and a half ago, after abandoning the novel I had spent the better part of the previous year researching and writing, I needed to gather myself, to wash the toxins of writing that dark, depressing, violent novel from my soul. Stopping for gas one day, towards the end of that first trip, I parked in an empty stall by the station, descended the wooden steps to the banks of the creek, a sward of bright green grass surrounded by redwoods. Along the creek’s bank stood several wooden chairs, arranged in haphazard patterns, but one caught my eye, sitting as it was in the shallows. That afternoon, my heart full, my head quiet, I read Emerson’s essays on nature for hours while the water’s rhythms lulled me. In those moments all the cares of the world lifted and I found myself confronting Emerson, his thoughts of transcendentalism settling into my soul, providing the nucleus of the novel I was going to write. Dusk fell and the sky darkened, the accompanying air cooled, lifting from the redwoods and pines surrounding the embankments a smell of rapture. I sat in that chair well after dark and imagined the sound of water resembling that of crackling fire. I felt connected. Whole.
While I wait to check in, I eat my first meal at the restaurant adjacent the gift shop. The restaurant looks homey, like a cabin, with redwood floors, redwood posts, and a wood beam ceiling from which various colored sheets hang like sails in pastels of lime, yellow, turquoise, and red. I take a seat by the long stretch of windows overlooking the courtyard with its centerpiece a firepit where I imagine people gathering with cups of hot chocolate, beer, mugs of coffee, guitars strapped to their shoulders and music lifting into the brisk night air. While I wait for the server to take my order, I read the menu. In the inside flap of the laminated was written a detailed history of the inn. In 1888 Jay Pheneger acquired a 160 acre land grant from the federal government (no mention of how he came to such wealth) and christened the creek that bounded the River Inn to the South, his name. The Pfieffers, Michael and Barbara (no mention of what they did for a living), who were homesteading near Pfieffer beach and bought the property from Pheneger. In 1926, John Pfieffer, their son, acquired the land. Looking to form connections with travelers who happened upon Big Sur, later, John;s daughter Ellen opened the River Inn on the east side of the road and serving lodgers her would be famous hot apple pie. The inn became known as the Apple Pie Inn and the ridge rising above it on the east side is still called Apple Pie Ridge.
From the menu, I select a BLT on sourdough, shoestring French fries with a side of ranch dressing, and an “award-winning” Bloody Mary. The meal is simple, flavorful, yet expensive. Things here are of high quality, but you have to pay for it. With my lunch finished, I drink a $4 dollar coffee by the firepit outside, and after paying over twenty dollars for the meal, walk to the motel’s registration offices to check in.
The girl at the desk, a young woman in her early twenties surrounded by stacks of paper, talks my ear off about the weather, and I nod. She takes my credit card, offers me their rental documents to sign, and then hands me my key. “You’re across the street,’ she says. I am a little disappointed to be staying on the east-side, across Highway One, and not in one of the rooms overlooking the creek. It doesn’t matter, really. I am here. I am lodged. Everything is available to me.
Cabin 3: A single room with a queen-sized bed and adjoining bathroom with just a small sliding glass window to the right of the sink. I enter and feel as if I have stepped into a coffin, with its pine wood walls, tan carpet, and a picture above the bed of the Santa Lucias bathed in a milky fog. The heater is turned off and as I settle my things onto the small dresser table below the window, I see my breath crystallize. I turn the heater on and rotate the dial to ten, its maximum setting, and rub my hands. The room offers simple comforts. There is no TV, no phone, no wet bar, no windows, save for one, and except for a single withered leaf on the floor by the side of the bed, which, during my stay, I don’t bother throwing out, the room appears clean. On the dresser facing the bed sit various items: a tissue box, two water bottles, a small ice chest, two glasses, a digital alarm clock, a menu of motel services bound in a black three ring binder, and a Monterey Peninsula guidebook, detailing the activities, events, restaurants and retail stores for the area. I am tired. Though it is still early, around 2:45 I take a nap. The linen sheets smell freshly laundered. The room warms. I am asleep in an instant, thinking of my novel and where it needs improvement.
These are the thoughts that occupy writers’ minds, the good ones at least, maybe the bad ones. We are never truly at rest. Even asleep our minds work, the subconscious drifting in possibilities.
I awake at a little after five. The room is dark now, just a cool blue light outside. It is too late to explore the area. I feel restless. I wash my face. The water is ice cold, numbing my hands. There is no soap in the bathroom, but an abundance of towels, six in all. I have no desire to write, but know that I must so I force myself. From my leather brief bag, I extract my red journal and my fountain pen and opening the journal to an empty page I write the following: “As the year comes to a close, I find myself once again in Big Sur,” and so on. Reading over the words I am struck by the passage, “My eyes find it difficult to adjust to all the beauty here. I don’t know where to look. It’s if I’m threatened with destruction at every turn and this feeling is both frightening and oddly reassuring.” I think how true that sentiment. Big Sur kills you with its beauty; it destroys you with its inaccessible beaches; it seduces you with its mountains, its untrammeled woods, all of which reduce you to a point of nonbeing. Here, beauty exists in such abundance it is hard to know where to turn one’s head. If you stare too long at something that fascinates you, something as simple and profound as the Bixby Bridge, you get the feeling of missing something, yet you cannot turn away. It is this feeling of being connected by immersing yourself in experience, of taking one’s time, of spending one’s time in the moment, drifting downwards into a dreamy wakefulness that assists in annihilating the cold dead skin in which you’ve concealed yourself. Is that what I am doing here? Am I here to strip away the layers of dead cells that have hardened around me like a carapace? Shutting my journal I decide to read something. Having brought several books with me–Rilke, Neruda, Doctorow, Emerson, and a book on writing about nature–I select the Doctorow novel, Ragtime, with its impressive psychological insights and deft descriptions. I climb back into bed. The heater drones. I switch on the bedside lamp and finding a comfortable position with three pillows behind my back, I read.
The story of America itself prior to WWI Ragtime, is the story of a family. The major dramatic events revolve around a black ragtime piano player named Coalhouse Walker. His act of revenge, or terrorism, inflicted upon the city of New York for an injustice done to him ignites people, forcing them to re-evaluate the meaning of justice. Ironic that here I am in the countryside, far away from San Francisco, reading about the greatest metropolis in the world. Far away from the grid of streets, of homeless men shouting epithets, the slow bustle of downtown traffic, I find myself reliving its spaces through fiction.
I am a style hound, always on the hunt for lovely sentences. So, what impresses me about this novel, and in particular Doctorow’s writing, is the sentences. He writes, “It had that breath of menace which makes the beginning of the spring so unsettling,” or, “Grief and anger had been a kind of physical pathology masking her true looks.” I am amazed by his insights. But other sentences fall flat, such as “His monumental negritude sat in front of them like a centerpiece on the table.” What? At times his writing reminds me of Fitzgerald, with its copious use of modifiers and personification: “Chutes of cheerful morning sun leaned like buttresses from the high dirty windows of the ward.” I like this kind of writing. It is exuberant, alive. Such style dives deeper and deeper and deeper into experience, forming connections between things. To be able to see the light transform itself into a dancer, to personify the sun in an original way, or to describe the wind or the waves, revealing the essence of things and in turn revealing the human heart’s relation to it, yes, that is the writerly gift.
I shut the book. It is time for a drink and a bite to eat.
Located on Highway One, after a series of tight switchbacks that wind downwards, it feels, driving at night now, as if I am driving on the back of a serpent. There are no lights on the road and no houses. You drive and you see an illuminated sign on the right signaling the restaurant and you turn in to the narrow driveway, leading you to the parking lot. Above me, on the crest of this hill, stands the restaurant. Before me sits the Phoenix gift shop and on its roof above Cafe Kevah. I remember sitting for hours on the cafe’s terrace one day a year and a half ago, watching the mists draw in from the ocean, clouding the hills. I remember I followed a blue jay up the steps to Nepenthe and I wondered at the meaning of this. In fact, I saw lots of blue jays on my trip last time, and so far, not a single one.
The air is cool tonight. There is no wind. No birds. The stars are out, the Big Dipper and the moon, half a sphere up above. Like the ocean that lays at Nepenthe’s feet, this place seems to exist to bond people in a collective bliss. People come to unburden themselves, to feel free, and like the water beyond and the massive redwoods behind it on the cliffs, Nepenthe accepts everything, embraces it, strong in its conviction as a place where even the greatest defeats are made trivial in the face of beauty.
For me everything about this restaurant is a miracle. The fact that it exists at all is a testament to those who sought to preserve the dignity of artistic conveyance, for it conveys a spirit of love– after all art, no matter what form it takes, is the expression of love. Since I love words and the meaning behind words, their denotations and connotations, I learned the last time I was here that the word “nepenthe” is a Greek word meaning “isle of no care.” Once you walk up its four flights of steps, entering through a vestibule of trees, the gentle sounds of a water fountain trickling, you feel your cares melt away. Stepping onto the main patio you come to a wooden phoenix, its talons in a bed of aloe, and you get the feeling of entering a place imbued with such magic anything is possible. Here blue jays, hawks, condors or crows could descend from the treetops, land on your shoulders and sing you arias. Here shadows could shapeshift into people and then transmogrify into wolves. Like everything about Big Sur and its places, there is a story surrounding the phoenix sculpture.
The sculpture was formed out of an oak tree that once served as a gateway to the restaurant, the tree’s limbs forming a framing arch to a view of the coast. But the tree died because of overpruning and overwatering from some overzealous landscaper, and was discarded to the bottom of Mule Canyon Creek. The sculptor Edmund Kara rescued the dead oak, found in its textured lines and plumy bark the hint of talons and wings aflame. From the old oak, and all of one piece, he carved out a bird, then added bronze legs to give it stability. He transformed the tree into a phoenix, thus restoring it to a new grace then installed it on the patio to remind people that rebirth comes at the cost of dying. Fitting, how art could take from something dead and discarded, like a memory, an experience, a way of life, and reinvent it for posterity. But then, that is the beauty of art. And its power.
Standing in the courtyard, the night’s cool air spreading through the dark, you get the feeling of this being the most honest place on earth. Honesty, it’s not a word I usually associate with spaces, but there is something invitingly truthful about Nepenthe. The firepit to your left issues gentle plumes of white smoke into the night, the red glow from the smoldering embers remind you of neon signs and you think to yourself, you are still thinking of the city, even here its hold is strong. Looking out at the shadowy cliffs, the trees silhouetted in moonlight beyond you realize that even through the pitch of night, with the moon in the sky, you can still see the outline of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the cliffs tangled with sage and purple lupine, and the majestic aubergine texture of water. During the day the views are something else, heroic, but I always like to come here at night, where the beauty is hushed and in its somber state seems even grander.
The views are what drew Bill Fassett to make his lodge into a place he could share with the world. Why hoard such gifts? Why not give and give freely and in the true spirit of capitalism make some money? It was Bill and his wife Lolly who envisioned Nepenthe. Hiring Rowan Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, they built Nepenthe with material from the surrounding area–redwood, adobe bricks formed and fired by Lolly’s own hands, and local granite–creating a refuge for people to come and relax by the fire and tell stories and sing songs to one another. They would dance while the fire crackled, recite poetry while slapping hand drums. And come they did, from all over the world–poets, artists, musicians, actors, writers–sharing the bonds of creativity and love in common. Today Nepenthe is known as much for its “Ambrosiaburger” as it is for its stunning views. Here people come to, as their literature says, “To lift a cup to kindness.”
I am greeted by a waitress, a tall, lithe girl with auburn hair swirled into a messy bun. She is wearing a scarf, a dark jacket, dark pants. Without a trace of makeup she seems as assured in her loveliness as the vistas beyond the windows. I sit at the end of the bar, by the front windows in a section known as “Dirty Corner.” Here even nooks are given special significance, cracks and dens and foyers made important somehow by what happens or happened there. The “Dirty Corner,” I learn, got its name because of several poets. They congregated there, reciting dirty limericks to the bar patrons.
I order a red label on the rocks from Felipe, a burly Mexican bartender with a sheepish smile. He asks me if I like wine and I say I do. He offers me a glass of Lucia Pinot Noir, telling me its locally made, and I refuse, saying tonight is Scotch, tomorrow wine, and the next day either Gin or Vodka. After perusing the menu I order a baked chicken smothered with a wine and mushroom sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, and local grown broccolini. The chicken is over twenty dollars; the cocktail just shy of ten; hardly the prices for starving artists. But I take comfort in the space, in the quiet. I am not thinking of San Francisco, though my head still swirls with song lyrics, bits of melodies, broken conversations. My mind. I can’t seem to shut it off.
I have brought Ragtime along with me and so I take it out and open it to where I left off. I read how Harry Houdini, losing his mother, devotes his time to unveiling the mysteries of death and revealing the trickeries of those whop claim to communicate with the dead. He exposes seances for the ruses they are, switching on lights to illuminate tables floating on near invisible wires. He makes of himself a curious nuisance. I love how Doctorow structures this novel, combing the disparate lives of people who seemingly have no connections with each other but turns out to have much in common. He masterly spins his characters, culling them from historical fact, weaving them into a fictional narrative. Here we find Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Stanford White, Harry Thaw, and “the Gibson Girl” Evelyn Nesbit. I realize my kinship with Doctorow’s writing. In Somerset, my own novel, I attempted the same conceit, but on a much smaller scale, taking as the central defining moment of Somerset Booth’s life the Hartford Circus fire of 1944. The real and the fictional interest me and I realize why. At the heart of it all, that is life, we are all the same: we all have the same desires, wants, needs, yearnings, hopes; the differences among us are in degree, not in kind. The pedestrian and magical coexisting together, each informing the other, also interests me and Doctorow’s talent is his magical ability to transform commonplace experiences into great stories, full of depth and meaning. I realize that when I revisit the novel to revise it I’ll need to look at all the places where I can add greater tension, infuse more history with an imagined past so as to make the writing more vibrant.
My dinner comes. I eat and with each bite I am amazed at how incredible the food tastes. How could chicken be so tender, gravy so rich and creamy, broccolini so flavorful? It is as if I have never tasted food before and I finish everything, leaving bones and a froth of potatoes on the plate. I finish my drink. I walk outside to stand by the fire and watch the stars, the moon, feel the breath of darkness against my skin. There, sitting and smoking near the firepit, sits the hostess who greeted me earlier. We exchange tepid hello’s, talk about fire, then about art, and about my novel. I apologize to her for sounding like a cliche–a writer coming to Nepenthe for an “authentic” experience. Sensing I am flirting, she tells me about her boyfriend and I tell her about my fiance back home, and then for some reason the conversation turns to birds and sculpture. I am not cognizant of the phoenix bird behind me, just then, I am only thinking of Liz, the character in my novel who paints birds, rescues maligned birds like crows and vultures, restoring them to a new light. We talk about Brancusi and Rodin, how without the latter the former would not have found the courage to create. We talk about how every artwork is a response to something that has come before it, that each piece of art is contextualized by history–a notion I got from Jane Smiley. She finishes her cigarette and I finish mine and we return inside. Angela, she says, introducing herself. I tell her I’ll be back tomorrow. Good, she says. We can chat some more then. I check the time, 9:21. Still early, but after the long drive and the short nap, I feel tired.
I return to Cabin 3. It feels blustery now, so I turn down the heat. I settle into bed with Ragtime and hope I’ll sleep, but the noises in my head return, the bits of music, the idle conversations, bits of verse, and I keep reading and keep reading and one hundred pages later I am still wide awake. At 3 AM, I finally switch off the table light. I sink into bed. An hour later I am asleep.
(To be Continued)
All photos (c) 2011 SK Kalsi. Not to be used without permission.
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