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.