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by smmmarti guide
October 16, 2003
Throughout Big Sur, the restlessness goes on, voluptuous as ever, moving with the same energy and force as always, yet under the time-scaled observations of mere mortals it appears steadfast. I’m not certain how the image of mountains came to represent stability and fortitude, for they are among the most dynamic of the earth’s features. Then again, compared with the changing tides, the falling leaves, the lifespan of man… progress is slow.
But the impact of such deliberate force! Speed up the cosmic camera and witness the moving of mountains as they tiptoe across the Sierra Nevada to be deposited at Big Sur‘s coastline. Watch with wonder as another portion of the peninsula slithers all the way from the Baja peninsula moved by the force of shifting plates deep below the sea. Be astounded as volcanic forces spew molten lava, alternating with settling sediment like a giant geologic lasagna resulting in a mélange more wacky than the décor at Nepenthe. Pack them all together, slam them into the coastal plains and find one of the most astounding vagaries of flora and fauna in the world.
First there was an island, then following the last ice age it joined the mainland just as the fault line pushed up a newborn mountain range. Inhabitants of the former isolated mass lived on, adjusting to the new surroundings and evolving into species found no where else. The unique coastal climate, deemed "Mediterranean" in spite of being on the Pacific Ocean, with rolling fog coming off the gulf stream waters, sunshine, sea air, rivers running through it, all contribute to maintaining a diverse ecology that seems entirely incongruous yet wildly beautiful. According to Henry Miller, it represents, "the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look."
One theory claims that prior to the last ice age the Colorado River emptied into the Pacific from the central valley, cutting out the canyons of Carmel. After the warming, waters filled those canyons followed by rich sediment, explaining the area's fertile soil. Nearly half of all the flora in California grows here. Within whispering distance of one another, redwood forests thrive along side high chaparral yuccas as in no place else. At least 57 plants are totally endemic to this region.
But although this continuous changing and swirling of nature continues to occur before your very eyes, it may go unnoticed, save the foamy surges of the ocean blasting granite into sand. Instead you may observe simply as Mr. Miller did, that the area maintains, "That same prehistoric look. The look of always. Nature smiling at herself in the mirror of eternity."
From journal Harmonic Conversion in Big Sur
They may appear odd and eccentric by some standards, but isn’t everyone who looks beyond the "nightmare of air conditioning," (as Henry Miller identified modern life)? The few, stalwart, blessed residents of Big Sur are typically as quirky as the landscape, seeming to be at once the recipients of wisdom as ancient as the granite cliffs yet as naïve and zealous as the relatively new-born Santa Lucia range.
Since moving to Maui I’ve taken to unconsciously bracing myself against the crush of civilization when I travel. In Hawaii, it’s easy to forget about the high-speed chase of modern life, to tune out petty concerns that seem to captivate people elsewhere; the politics, the off-handed comments that generate self-righteous indignation, the crime and petulance of the great cities. More and more we think twice about leaving our island idyll. We are careful to choose an alternative change of scenery, something even residents of Hawaii need, much to the surprise of outsiders.
But almost immediately upon our foray into Monterey, the need to be on guard turned into a round of unnecessary shadow boxing. We found the people to be blessedly kind, relaxed, minding their own business, keenly focused outside themselves and the wonders surrounding them.
It didn’t take long before I developed an appreciation for the quirky, the odd, the zealous that lead to the conservation and preservation efforts that have maintained this "great meeting of land and sky" for future generations. You know some of the names responsible for the movement: Rachel Carsons, Ansel Adams, John Steinbeck, as much a biologist as a writer.
But I wanted to mention a few unspoken heroes with whom you might wish to acquaint yourself if you visit Monterey. There is Frank Davenport, who dreamed of a family village as charming and easy-going as a European fairyland. Devoted to this notion, that he gave land away to people he felt would appreciate it and lured artists and writers including Sinclair Lewis and Jack London to Carmel.
Then there is Lathrop Brown, a former Congress member from New York who, with his wife, moved to Big Sur and befriended the local pioneer, Julia Pfeiffer Burns. He built an amazing house called Waterfall Home, since it faced McWay Falls, but afterward didn’t feel right claiming ownership to such an exquisite place, something that seemed to belong to all people. He turned over his land to the California Park Service and dedicated it to his friend, Julia.
When you visit this area, think about the contributions these quirky, conscientious people made to preserve this piece of wilderness. Contrast that with other areas of the world whose primal glories have been forever corrupted by "the crush."
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the oddball any day.
At sunset, over a glass of locally-crafted Chardonnay in the ultra-romantic setting of the Highland Inn’s treetop overlook, my husband made the nearly-tragic mistake of revealing he’d been here before.
Quick on my feet, (familiar with such things), I popped the obvious question.
"But have you been to Big Sur?"
I knew he hadn’t. During former visits he’d focused on golf, but during this visit he’d not even mentioned it; hadn’t gazed wistfully in the direction of famed Pebble Beach even once. As that was then, this was now, there was no way I’d relegate this trip to his "revisit" while it was my "first crush."
We agreed. Tomorrow we would awaken early. The light would be best in the morning, the traffic minimal. We toasted to clear skies and new memories.
Daylight brought evidence that the gods of romance found us in good favor. A rare morning sunlight shone along the typically foggy coastal road. Photo ops were astounding. My husband’s patience at my frequent outbursts, "STOP! CONDOR! SEALS! AWESOME!" on the often hair-raising, isolated, twisting, winding, climbing coastal rode, was equally amazing. He honestly enjoyed himself, relating the history of this road, the evolution from a wagon trail to paved highway in the 20s, the story of the magnificent bridges built during the Public Works era.
In contrast, I knew little about the area, limited solely to a pop culture awareness generated by poets, writers and hipsters who had crowed quietly about this place for decades. It occurred to me later that Big Sur lies below public radar because there is little money to be made here. Outside of a few rugged, rustic and esoteric lodges equally as devoted to conservation as the area’s early settlers(at least one of which is operated as a non-for-profit organization), there is nothing but wilderness; nothing money can buy.
Early pioneers of the handsome, remote, isolated area could be called the country’s first hippies--individualistic conservationists devoted to the land. Some suggestions hint that the forbearers of the area, a tribe of native inhabitants resolute in ignoring the invading Spaniards’ attempt to enslave them, is what gives the area its defiantly self-reliant and idiosyncratic spirit. I say it is the geology itself that influences such things.
Here is what I learned that day. This place, this drive, is a rare and wonderful jewel, preserved as a step back in time, accessible on a well-paved (but dangerous) road. It is like a drive through Disneyland or Vegas where all manner of the world’s wonders have been gathered in one location--a giant feasting table of geology and nature--but with a major distinction. It is authentic. It is you with nature as it lures you into its heart-achingly, mouth-wateringly-gorgeous smorgasbord for the senses.
Searching for romance? Driving Big Sur is a veritable love-in on wheels.
July 30, 2005
From journal 10 Glorious Days in Monterey