Big Sur Part IV: Carmel-by-the-Sea

Big Sur Part IV: Carmel-by-the-Sea


    Day 4: Carmel-by-the-Sea

    Founded in 1902, Carmel by the Sea, or simply Carmel, is known as much for its scenic treasures as it is for its artistic history.  The name Carmel rolls off the tongue, reminding me of lozenges, sweet, gooey things that transform the palate into a sweet, thick oil.  Countless writers, visual artists, poets have made their home here and in 1906, ten years before it was incorporated into a city, the San Francisco Call estimated that sixty percent of its homes were constructed by people who had “devoted their lives to work connected with the arts.”  Impressive.  The area lured Robinson Jeffers, Steinbeck, and most notably, Clint Eastwood, its first celebrity mayor.  The area also attracted the likes of Jack London, the two Sinclairs, Upton and Lewis.  Ambrose Bierce stayed here, as did the “uncrowned king of bohemia,” George Sterling who arrived in Carmel to establish its literary base.  Robinson Jeffers hosted many a brilliant intellectual, literary artist and celebrity at his Tor House, including Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, Charles Lindhberg, George Gershwin, and even “the little tramp,” Charlie Chaplin.  What a list!  What fame?  Immortals.  Long after I’ve faded into oblivion, long after my name and my deeds have been forgotten, theirs will live on. 
     But I can’t think of any other place so at odds with the spirit of art.  The houses here, as in Big Sur, are overpriced, cottages fetching in the millions, mansions on the bluffs asking tens of millions, witty little bungalows with Spanish tiled roofs, stucco and Saltillo tiled driveways, glass walled sun decks with views of the ocean fetching for several millions of dollars.
    Perhaps because of its artistic roots, Carmel is a quirky city.  There’s even a law prohibiting women from wearing high-heeled shoes without a permit. The ground slopes, the sidewalks roil like waves, mimicking the nearby waters and so the law was passed to protect the city against lawsuits arising from women tripping over boils in the pavement or cracks and fissures.  Why can’t they just fix the walking paths? It seems natural decay is preferable to safety. But one doesn’t see much natural decay here, the pristine lawns bathe in happy sunlight, the wind sings arias in the trees, the shops beckon people to spend, spend, spend.  Materialism has trumped art.
    I don’t know what it was, but now Carmel is a rich person’s haven.  No longer the province of the Essalen Indians or the Ohlone, who pushed the Essalen South into the rugged mountains of Big Sur, no longer a place defined by religion. What it has retained of its past is its name, none of its spirit. Friar Sebastian Vizcaino’s patron saint, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, gave this city its name, but not its identity.  It was this unknown friar who claimed Carmel Valley for Spain in 1602: but rather than lay siege upon the land, the Spanish waited another one hundred and sixty-eight years before attempting to colonize the area.  And they did, building the first mission, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo on June 3, 1770 in nearby Monterey.  Like all new colonies, they built simple mud structures topped with wood and straw, graduated to buildings built from pine and cypress, then finally to stone. Now it is concrete and blacktop. There are, as of today, no high rises.
    Carmel has successfully maintained its charm, for it is a charming place, a sweet place, quaint and proper, but it is also a place I can’t get away from fast enough. I feel sheepish here, insecure, my class shows in my posture, in my diminished capacity to ask for something as simple as a coffee.
    I park in a side street just off Ocean Avenue, in a space opposite Carmel plaza. Crossing the street and bounding up the big steps that lead to the second level shops, I am greeted with windows displaying goods I cannot afford.  Even a place which invites poets and artists cannot escape the lure of brands.  Tiffany, Tommy Bahama, Tumi.  Do I want to purchase a seven hundred dollar snakeskin wallet?  Do I really need a wristwatch that costs more than my Jeep?  Maybe I’ll buy Jessette a gift.  I enter Bottega Veneta and am struck by its decor.  Warm browns, marble floors, lots of glass and muted earthtones.  I am on alert.  I peruse the store, slowly, skulking.  I feel regarded, observed.  I check the ceiling for cameras and there it sits, a circle of black glass, a mute eye watching.  I step to the shelves displaying purses that look well made.  The leather has a stitched pattern, its thinness complimented by its suppleness.  I check the tag and my eyes enlarge.  I place it back and quickly and quietly leave.  How good must a purse before for its manufacturer to offer several thousand dollars for it?  I once saw a handmade purse in Florence, without a known “name,” made by an Albanian woman and it fetched for five dollars, given the exchange rate.  The wallet had artful little flaws, but the leather was thick, the seams taut.  Its flaws (it was slightly warped) gave the object a personality.  No two wallets she made were identical, though they resembled one another, like siblings sharing similar if not identical features.  Given my respect for handmade things (meals, books, furniture, etc.) there are no limits to how much I am willing to pay.  But brands don’t impress me (unless they are motorcycles or cars.)  We have been manipulated psychologically and emotionally to think that a “name” item conveys a greater sense of authority, bestows upon a person a denser perfume of success, than a non branded item.  We are made to believe that the branded item is better, and better for us.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Brands are hyped, marketed, and I wonder about authors and artists who have become brands themselves: Hemingway, the brand of terse, tough men, hiding their impotence; or, Faulkner, the brand of the deep South and fractured conscience; or, Stephen King, the first name in horror; or, Fitzgerald, the brand representing the upper crust and illusion. 
    Authors and artists have become things.  Their creations aren’t so much gifts to the world but packaged experiences.  It’s those artists who don’t fit neatly into categories, who are unmarketable that fail to achieve success.  Is Hemingway greater than his contemporary Ford Maddox Ford?  It’s a matter of opinion, or marketing dollars.  Is contemporary fiction writer Stephanie Meyer greater than Marilynne Robinson?  If book sales are any indication of greatness, then Marilynne is a failure.  But who can read sentences like, “Glyphs of crimped and plaited light swung across the walls and the ceiling,” from her debut novel Housekeeping, and not feel a measure of awe for its artistry?  Compare Meyer, who is about as adept as painting a scene as an infant watercolorist.  Thinking of Bob now: Perhaps Bob Shacochis’ troubles lie in not being a marketable brand, though his writing proves otherwise.  I believe one’s craft is important to develop, I believe in the power of words to persuade, I believe in writing.  If there any any tricks to becoming a better writer it is this: write, read, write. 
    But there is a trick, not quite prestidigitation (a word I learned from William Maxwell), to becoming a successful anything in life is this: make of yourself more than a man, make yourself into a symbol of a world view (words courtesy of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins).  I suppose the trick to being successful in any field is this: learn how to market yourself, learn how to be a product, become a thing that can be easily digested by the masses.  Package yourself in grand illusions.  Andy Warhol was as much a thing as a man, as was Picasso, as is Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton.  If you build your image around a sordid life of risk taking, failed choices, life lived off the beaten path, and there you have it, “Kerouackian” fame and its attending quality, immortality. These days, I feel (I know?), image is substance, surface is reality, depth is despised, questioned, argued over, picked apart, In the words of Marilynne Robinson again, this also from Housekeeping, “Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings.  The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures in the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable.” Nothing is more perishable than reality, except our dreams.
    We are marketed to. We have been convinced of an artist’s greatness because it helps sell his work.  Standards of art change; artists like brands go out of style.  I pass up Louis Vuitton.  I pass Mr. Fabulous and Georgiou.  It strikes me as odd that a place built on the spirit of art and independence, creativity and conscience, has devolved into a place where a pen can fetch twenty-thousand dollars. Capitalism has indeed run amok, on all levels.  I once saw a picture of an African child, sweltering in the heat of a raging summer, flies swarming his eyes.  He was wearing a Coca Cola t-shirt.     
    I am surprised to find galleries here: Raskin Gallery, Shoulders Photography Gallery.  On the third level there is the Carmel Arts and Film Festival, but, ironically, Homescapes Carmel sits not far from Wrath Wine Tasting Room. What a name, a good name, Wrath, for it is anything but anger I feel coming here; I feel, as I stated above, jittery, like a mechanical chicken wound too tight.
    I walk to the end of the boardwalk, then back to my Jeep.  Enough.  There is nothing here for me.  I drive into Monterey.
    Monterey is not where I want to be.  But here I am.  Arriving in Cannery Row, I circle around, drive the boardwalk and glance to my right–a bronze bust of John Steinbeck. I smile to myself. Brands I think.  Authorial brands.

    (to be continued)


Big Sur III: Day 3

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)


Big Sur Part II: Day 2

Dec. 6:

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)