A Big Sur so­journ

Scout­ing the rugged sea-meets-land­scape that fired so many writ­ers’ imag­i­na­tions


A sun­bathing squir­rel takes in the Big Sur view. This stretch of Cal­i­for­nia’s re­mote coast­line has long been an in­spi­ra­tion for gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers and artists.

The virus had shooed away most in­ter­lop­ers, leav­ing blessed Big Sur to per­form the an­nual spring bloom­ing in peace. All for the best, I sup­posed. For once, I could take the bend­ing curves at the leisurely pace this stretch of High­way 1 heaven de­mands but sel­dom af­fords. Why not en­joy the ab­sence of har­ried sight­seers scur­ry­ing along Cal­i­for­nia’s most sa­cred and cher­ished rib­bon of as­phalt that sep­a­rates Mon­terey from Morro Bay.

This me­an­der­ing voy­age into Big Sur needed a down­shift, be­cause it had no re­la­tion to the selfie-seek­ing strangers snap­ping pho­tos of curvy Bixby Creek Bridge.

I was on a lit­er­ary scav­enger hunt.

Robin­son Jef­fers sat shot­gun with his lyri­cal de­scrip­tions of the to­pog­ra­phy scat­tered across the dash­board like a mo­saic of sheet mu­sic. Henry Miller’s ghost crammed into the back­seat with Jack Ker­ouac, Jack Lon­don and Lil­ian Bos Ross (“The Big Sur Tril­ogy”).

We needed a sound­track, so I picked Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and Red Molly’s “James” al­bums to es­cort us.

Since the early 1900s, a cadre of writ­ers has am­bled through the panoramic coast­line to paint episodic scenes of a hal­lowed ground some two hours south of the Bay Area. Paired with the vel­vety im­ages of Carmel High­lands land­scape pho­tog­ra­phers Ansel Adams and Ed­ward We­ston, a pic­ture has emerged of the tem­po­ral in­ter­sect­ing with the con­se­crated.

Their prose seared Big Sur into our con­scious­ness like an Old Tes­ta­ment story. The tales came in all sizes and shapes, with words grasp­ing for de­scrip­tions of some­thing too ephemeral to de­fine.

“The place it­self is so over­whelm­ingly big­ger, greater than any­one could hope to make it that it en­gen­ders a hu­mil­ity and rev­er­ence not fre­quently met with in Amer­i­cans,” Miller wrote ex­ult­ing

ly in “Big Sur and the Or­anges of Hierony­mus Bosch.”

Cross­ing Big Sur’s bor­ders shocks the sys­tem like a dip into the ocean on a gray-coated New Year’s Day. Like the first kiss of spring rain.

This blood­thirsty land of chamise and chap­ar­ral once pop­u­lated by the Es­se­len peo­ple is a para­dox that Jef­fers in par­tic­u­lar kept etch­ing. Those OMG vis­tas of a roil­ing sea bat­ter­ing the rugged shore­line are jux­ta­posed with redwood-lined creeks, whose head­wa­ters are way up the gul­lies in the Santa Lu­cia Moun­tains.

Jef­fers con­sid­ered “Big Sur coun­try so pow­er­ful that a hu­man ac­tion would not be no­ticed in it un­less that hu­man ac­tion was of op­er­atic di­men­sions,” said Tae­len Thomas, a Carmel per­for­mance artist.

Jef­fers had stud­ied lit­er­a­ture, medicine and forestry at the uni­ver­si­ties of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and Washington be­fore set­tling in Carmel in 1914 with wife Una Call Kuster.

They built the Tor House at then-iso­lated Carmel Point, a few miles from the fa­mous mis­sion that was once the head­quar­ters for Fa­ther Ju­nipero Serra. Jef­fers sur­rounded him­self with na­ture’s bounty, then en­gaged in a pitched bat­tle to por­tray it.

Jef­fers opens “Love the Wild Swan” with a telling la­ment: “I hate my verses, every line, every word.”

“The rea­son is, he can’t find the words to de­scribe how beau­ti­ful it is,” said El­liot Ru­chowitz-roberts, pres­i­dent of the Tor House Foun­da­tion and pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of lit­er­a­ture at Mon­terey Penin­sula Col­lege.

Ru­chowitz-roberts said British poet Eric Barker, wryly re­mem­bered for stand­ing on the bar at the bo­hemian cafe Ne­penthe to re­cite lim­er­icks, also ag­o­nized over the fu­tile pur­suit.

“They are so over­whelmed by the beauty and re­al­ize how in­suf­fi­cient lan­guage is to de­scribe it,” Ru­chowitz-roberts said.

I com­mis­er­ated with them as

wel­come rays red­dened our sun­starved faces next to the Big Sur River. Puffs of milk­weed danced in the breeze like soft snow. It felt as if a su­per­nat­u­ral power had taken hold.

John Stein­beck mostly left the place for oth­ers to mine, ex­cept per­haps in the short story “Flight” that bur­rows into Big Sur’s rough-hewn back­coun­try: “Soon the canyon sides be­came steep and the first giant sen­tinel red­woods guarded the trail, great round red trunks bear­ing fo­liage as green and lacy as ferns. Once Pep was among the trees, the sun was lost. A per­fumed and pur­ple light lay in the pale green of the un­der­brush. Goose­berry bushes and black­ber­ries and tall ferns lined the stream, and over­head the branches of the red­woods met and cut off the sky.”

Stein­beck’s words fol­lowed me along an An­drew Mol­era State Park trail one day, as the tiramisu lay­ers of land­scape shifted with each ris­ing step. The hard-dirt path led to spec­tac­u­lar sights of 3,709-foot Pico Blanco — a “steep sea-wave of mar­ble” in Jef­fers’ poem “Re­turn.”

The main ar­ter­ies of Big Sur’s lit­er­ary pulse are found at Deet­jen’s Inn, the Henry Miller Me­mo­rial Li­brary and the Tor House, with the down­ing of a few cock­tails at Ne­penthe’s in honor of Miller and gang.

But it takes more time — and vo­ra­cious read­ing — to re­trace all of the writ­ers’ foot­prints.

“Ev­ery­one talks about Big Sur as trav­el­ing through, but that’s not what it’s about,” said Matt Glazer, Deet­jen’s gen­eral man­ager. “It’s about stop­ping here and sink­ing in and get­ting cre­ative.”

Ger­man-nor­we­gian im­mi­grants Hel­muth and He­len Deet­jen built the inn in the 1930s be­fore the com­ple­tion of High­way 1 in 1937. Jef­fers was a fre­quent vis­i­tor, and later came Miller and other writ­ers.

But the un­for­giv­ing ter­rain kept Big Sur from be­com­ing a writer’s colony the way Carmel did for bo­hemian refugees of San Fran­cisco. The fa­mous writ­ers, like Jack Lon­don, made cameos be­fore mov­ing along to more sta­ble ground.

No doubt the tel­luric aura here moved these tem­po­rary so­journ­ers. Jack Ker­ouac’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel “The Big Sur” re­counts the time he lived in a Bixby Canyon cabin owned by poet Lawrence Fer­linghetti of City Lights Books fame.

Hunter S. Thompson briefly worked as a care­taker at Esalen, a cen­ter of coun­ter­cul­ture ex­plo­ration, while writ­ing his first novel, “The Rum Di­ary.” Many oth­ers, in­clud­ing Richard Brauti­gan, who

wrote “A Con­fed­er­ate Gen­eral from Big Sur” but is best known for “Trout Fish­ing in Amer­ica,” passed through long enough to sprin­kle their work with re­gional in­flu­ences.

The coast provided the in­spi­ra­tion for sto­ries, but not the fer­tile soil to grow deep roots.

“Any­where you are, you are liv­ing on the edge of dis­as­ter,” said Thomas, the Carmel sto­ry­teller.

A brass bust of Jef­fers tucked into a corner of Deet­jen’s dark din­ing room un­der­lines the poet’s en­dur­ing con­nec­tion to the naked pas­tures and deep lime­stone gorges that dis­ap­pear into the ex­panse of the white-capped Pa­cific.

“If you are a writer who em­bod­ies the spirit of the coast, it has to be Jef­fers,” Ru­chowitz-roberts said. “He says the land­scape is the main char­ac­ter, and the land­scape speaks through the peo­ple that he writes about.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the em­bers of Jef­fers’ cre­ativ­ity still burn. We found it af­ter peer­ing over a wooden fence of the closed Miller Li­brary, a rus­tic redwood and pine house that sits un­der­neath a canopy of tow­er­ing coast redwood trees along High­way 1.

Li­brary ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Mag­nus Toren pushed a hand mower across a tan­gled lawn that had grown thick from spring rains. Toren, who has lived in the area for decades, in­vited us into the com­pound. He re­called how Miller’s home above nearby Part­ing­ton Cove had drop-dead views of the Pa­cific. But, Toren said, Miller would work in a small, wooden shed fac­ing a wall to not let the im­pos­ing beauty dis­tract him.

It soon be­came ap­par­ent our trip was not sim­ply a jour­ney through the past. The Miller Li­brary is the con­duit that con­nects the re­gion’s lit­er­ary legacy to the present day. While the li­brary is stuffed with books, posters and paint­ings of the Big Sur writ­ing corps, Toren also has turned it into the cul­tural heart of the area with lec­tures, con­certs and book read­ings.

Art was be­ing cre­ated even amid the coronaviru­s lock­down. Ed­win Huizinga played a move­ment from a Bach cello suite on his vi­olin, while Erin Carey, a pro­fes­sional cir­cus artist, spun around on a Cyr wheel in a feat of der­ring-do. Care­taker John Car­lin was at a ta­ble mold­ing brick-col­ored pot­tery.

“It’s al­ways been a refuge for artists,” Carey said of Big Sur. “Even now.”

Es­pe­cially now, as the scrib­bles of hu­man­ity record the un­told tales.

Big Sur’s lat­est chap­ter is wait­ing to be writ­ten.


Big Sur’s iconic Bixby Creek Bridge catches the late af­ter­noon sun­light along the dra­matic Cal­i­for­nia coast.

Left: A signed por­trait of au­thor Henry Miller hangs in­side Deet­jen’s Inn in Big Sur.

Above: Hawk Tower sits at the end of the drive­way at Tor House, the Carmel home built by famed au­thor Robin­son Jef­fers.

Left: A bronze bust of writer Robin­son Jef­fers watches from a corner at Deet­jen’s Inn.

Above: The distinc­tive out­line of Point Sur State His­toric Park over­looks the mead­ows of Big Sur.


This bank of mail­boxes cling­ing to the Big Sur road­side once in­cluded one for au­thor Henry Miller.

Deet­jen’s Inn, says gen­eral man­ager Matt Glazer, was built in the 1930s by Ger­man-nor­we­gian im­mi­grant Hel­muth Deet­jen, whose por­trait greets guests to­day.

The Henry Miller Me­mo­rial Li­brary still draws writ­ers and artists, such as vi­o­lin­ist Ed­win Huizinga, above, who per­forms and records in­side the sto­ried struc­ture.

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