Big Sur10 November, 2015
THE FOG MIGHT BREAK MOMENTARILY, OFFERING YOU FLASHES OF ROCKY SHORE, FLARES OF SUNLIGHT, AND MOSSY BLUFFS. THE AIR WILL SMELL SWEET LIKE THE KELP AND FOAM DOWN ON THE BEACH AND FRAGRANT, LIKE THE EUCALYPTUS AND SAGE GROWING AT YOUR FEET.
Big Sur doesn’t exist in the way other places exist; no one knows precisely where it begins or ends. Its 145 km or so of coastline purportedly run from the Carmel River in Monterey County South to San Carpóforo Creek in San Luis Obispo, on California’s northern coast. There is no centre of town. No Main Street. Every minute one spends within its expanses has a soft, dreamlike quality that begins to harden and crack the second you accelerate north towards the Bay Area and impending reality. Big Sur is a reverie. Appropriately enough, I was asleep the first time I arrived.
We had driven up from San Diego. Two friends from Texas and me. When I awoke in the backseat, it was to cries of “Pull over!” – a common occurrence along this particular stretch of the Monterey coastline, where every vista is seemingly superior to the last. So began my familiarity with the rites of those lucky souls who have travelled to this part of the West. We slept in a cabin smothered in dense trees on the forest side of Route One, and lived for two days on frozen pizzas, gas station coffee, and ripe fruit from the stands that line the Pacific coast. We manoeuvred our car along the snakelike stretches of Highway One for hours, stopping only for snacks, for gas, to use the bathroom – after which we passed a joint around and I slipped gently off again, only to wake to more cries of “Pull over!” Then came another beautiful handful of minutes spent standing on the edge of a mountainside, staring at the whirling, rhythmic sea below, my chest heaving from the sprint to the guardrail.
There is only one way to begin a day in Big Sur; with the silent sunrise. If you’re fortunate, yours will be a morning when the thick fog rolls off the salty waves crashing down below the cliffs, swallowing much of the hillside and hanging around you like a hug. The fog might break momentarily, offering you flashes of rocky shore, flares of sunlight, and mossy bluffs. The air will smell sweet (like the kelp and foam down on the beach) and fragrant (like the eucalyptus and sage growing at your feet). Zombielike fellow travellers will have gathered in homage to observe alongside you. No one speaks. As the sun appears over the ocean, a bit of sadness creeps in. You know the rest of the day can’t possibly be as beautiful. There will be the smoke from barbecue grills at roadside stops, the low rumble of elephant seals perched on rocky peninsulas, and the thin sand from winding trails ending up in your sneakers, but nothing will quite compare to that sunrise. Not for me, at least. As luck should have it, the same plump, orange orb will dip back below the Pacific that evening. One final firework.
Big Sur’s ethereal qualities have made it an escape for creative minds over the last century; artists, writers, recluses, self seekers – all have come here to shed the rigidity of society for a while. The poetry of Robinson Jeffers and Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch are works that perhaps best capture the questions one invariably asks oneself when faced with such overwhelming (and potentially society challenging) natural beauty. According to Miller: “The ideal community, in a sense, would be the loose, fluid aggregation of individuals who elected to be alone and detached in order to be at one with themselves and all that lives and breathes.”
Alone and detached works in Big Sur, sure, but that faraway feeling Miller speaks of also makes this place an ideal nest for romance. Standing for several nanoseconds at these heights, surrounded by towering pines, it’s impossible to imagine this place wasn’t shaped in reverence of (and as an accessory to) love. Surely many pairs have spent nights high above these cliffs, listening to the crashing waves below, bathed in starlight and feeling very far from the world they’ve left behind, if only for an evening. I experienced love of that kind here, too. A trip to Big Sur last January was bittersweet, emotionally supercharged by the waning days of a relationship I hated to see go. We left the road from Los Angeles late in the evening and rose, doggedly, at 05:30 to catch the sunrise the following morning. As the pre-dawn light approached no less than photographic nirvana, I snapped a shot of her I’d later caption with First Road Trip of 2015. It would also be our last. In the picture, she’s turned towards me, hands in pockets, framed by low hanging clouds, the suggestion of a smile breaking across her face. Like all moments in Big Sur, this one was fleeting, trancelike, not meant for the outside world; trapped forever, here in this magical place.