CAL­I­FOR­NIA DREAM­ING Fol­low in Henry Miller's foot­steps to dis­cover Big Sur.

Fol­low­ing in Henry Miller’s foot­steps of­fers re­newed cre­ativ­ity and an es­cape from day-to-day life, says Lisa Kjells­son

In the Moment - - Contents -

There are a fair few des­ti­na­tions on my travel bucket list that I rst dis­cov­ered through my love of read­ing. This was cer­tainly the case with Big Sur, con­sid­ered one of Cal­i­for­nia’s – and in­deed Amer­ica’s – most spec­tac­u­lar na­ture spots, and the sub­ject of many lit­er­ary works. The writer most closely linked to it is Henry Miller. The great Amer­i­can au­thor’s mem­oir Big Sur and

the Or­anges of Hierony­mus Bosch, pub­lished in 1957, is a tribute to his home for nearly two decades. The rugged beauty of Miller’s coastal utopia also in­spired Jack Ker­ouac, John Stein­beck and, be­fore them, the poet Robin­son Jef­fers – to name just a few.

So, then, how could I not be in­trigued by this place of seem­ingly end­less in­spi­ra­tion? I won­dered if it would have a sim­i­lar e ect on me, and set o on a road trip from Los An­ge­les to nd out. The iconic High­way 1, with ma­jes­tic views of the Cal­i­for­nian coast, re­opened in July hav­ing been closed for more than a year fol­low­ing a ma­jor mud­slide that buried part of the road near Big Sur.

The cul­mi­na­tion of hundreds of miles of dreamy scenery is the view of Bixby Bridge – 260 feet above a craggy canyon and prob­a­bly the most In­sta­grammed land­mark along the high­way.

When Miller wrote his homage to Big Sur, he had been liv­ing there for 11 years. Back then, he resided in a com­mu­nity of around a dozen fam­i­lies, but the num­ber of sight­seers and vis­i­tors in the area was steadily in­creas­ing, partly due to his good friend Emil White’s Big Sur guide books, but mainly due to Miller’s fame. Pub­lic­ity sur­round­ing his semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­els – sev­eral of which were banned for decades both in the US and the UK on grounds of ob­scen­ity – brought the rst wave of tourists to the area. Would-be writ­ers were for­ever pitch­ing up

at his home on Part­ing­ton Ridge, want­ing to join ‘the cult of sex and an­ar­chy’ they had read about. Their in­credulity when Miller told them there was no such thing was al­ways the same.

Both­er­some fans were not what trou­bled Miller the most, how­ever. He wor­ried that, as the age­ing early set­tlers even­tu­ally passed away, his utopia would be threat­ened. “Should their tracts of land be bro­ken up into small hold­ings,” he wrote, “Big Sur may rapidly de­velop into a sub­urb of Mon­terey, with bus ser­vice, bar­be­cue stands, petrol sta­tions, chain stores and all the odi­ous clap-trap that makes sub­ur­bia hor­ren­dous.”

Luck­ily his nightmare hasn’t ma­te­ri­alised. No chain stores have been al­lowed to take hold of the area and it could never be de­scribed as sub­ur­bia – the res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion is ac­tu­ally smaller to­day than in Miller’s era. As a re­sult, there’s no real cen­tre to Big Sur, a 90-mile stretch from Carmel to San Simeon, and you won’t nd much in the way of shops and ameni­ties. Apart from two hid­den-away lux­ury ho­tels fre­quented by Hol­ly­wood stars, the only places to stay are a few camp­sites, mo­tor lodges and cab­ins such as the Glen Oaks site (ideal for hik­ers), and a quirky guest house dat­ing back to the 1930s, where I found my­self on my visit.

Deet­jen’s Big Sur Inn was built by Nor­we­gian set­tler Hel­muth Deet­jen and was home to him and his wife, He­len Haight. As trav­ellers would stop by and en­joy their hospi­tal­ity, over time it evolved into a lo­cal in­sti­tu­tion and a favourite haunt for res­i­dent artists and writ­ers, in­clud­ing Miller, and has also wel­comed a string of celebri­ties in­clud­ing The Beach Boys, Steve McQueen and Robert Red­ford. To­day, guests en­joy much the same ex­pe­ri­ence as when Hel­muth and He­len were alive, as it is now run by a trust with the pur­pose of pre­serv­ing it as it was. Don’t ex­pect TV or WiFi – in fact, mo­bile re­cep­tion is patchy at best through­out the area, mak­ing it per­fect for a dig­i­tal detox.

Hav­ing en­joyed a de­li­cious din­ner and a night’s rest­ful sleep in what was for­merly ‘Grandpa’ Deet­jen’s own bed­room, I headed out into the wilder­ness. Noth­ing can pre­pare you for the mag­nif­i­cence of the red­woods. Their tow­er­ing height and quiet pres­ence is sim­ply awe-in­spir­ing and felt to me like an in­vi­ta­tion to sit in still­ness, gaz­ing up at the sky and breath­ing in the fresh air. “To be alone, if only for a few min­utes, and to re­al­ize it with all one’s be­ing, is a bless­ing we sel­dom think to im­plore,” wrote Miller, who did much re­flect­ing on the bene ts of soli­tude; as life in Big Sur was in sharp con­trast to the one he had led dur­ing his years as a strug­gling writer in Europe. He saw the value in the peace and seren­ity that came with his “hum­drum life in an out-of-the-way place” like Big Sur, where he could lose him­self in his writ­ing and his other great love – paint­ing.

My cu­rios­ity about Miller’s cel­e­brated wa­ter­colours led me to Gary Koep­pel, his

art dealer and the for­mer owner of the Coast Gallery (www.big­sur­coast­gallery.com), which dis­plays some of Miller’s art­works. “Henry al­ways used to say ‘When I write, I work; when I paint, I play,’” re­called Koep­pel, and this child­like en­thu­si­asm is ev­i­dent in the mod­ern im­pres­sion­is­tic style Miller favoured. The gallery is now be­ing ren­o­vated by its new owner, but is due to re­open this au­tumn. I then stopped by at the Henry Miller Memo­rial

Li­brary (www.hen­rymiller.org), a cul­tural venue that hosts work­shops, sign­ings, lec­tures and screen­ings in what used to be Emil White’s home. From there I moved on to visit the Hawthorne Gallery (www.hawthorne­gallery.com), which show­cases paint­ings, sculp­tures and glass pieces in­clud­ing colour­ful jel­ly­fish that hang sus­pended from the ceil­ing.

Greg Hawthorne, who very kindly showed me around the gallery as well as his equally beau­ti­ful home, not only brought me up to speed on life in Big Sur to­day, but also made me see that per­haps I had har­boured a slightly ro­man­ti­cised idea of it. “Big Sur, like any other place in the world, does not stay the same, and any­body that thinks it was bet­ter in the past… it’s baloney. I’ve been here for 36 years and I think it’s a very in­ter­est­ing time here now,” he said, adding that the area at­tracts all kinds of pi­o­neer­ing peo­ple. I knew he was right – cel­e­brat­ing cul­tural her­itage is im­por­tant, and it’s nat­u­ral to want what we love to re­main in­tact, but what keeps it alive is in­no­va­tion.

Greg’s words stuck with me; hav­ing spent just a few days ex­plor­ing this beau­ti­ful part of Cal­i­for­nia, I found my­self brim­ming with ideas and creative in­spi­ra­tion. Big Sur may have evolved since those early days, but it holds an un­mis­tak­able magic and pro­vides plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties for mo­ments of soli­tude in an ’out-of-the-way place’.

The Hawthorne Gallery’s stun­ning glass sculp­tures. Below: Greg Hawthorne work­ing on his own art.

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