Big Sur a Haven for Writers, Musicians
The road to Big Sur is a narrow, winding one, with the Pacific Ocean on one side, spread out like blue glass, and a mountainside of redwood trees on the other.
The area spans 90 miles of the Central Coast, along Highway 1. Los Angeles is 300 miles south. San Francisco is 150 miles north. There are no train stations or airports nearby. Cell phone reception is limited. Gas and lodging are pricey.
When you're there, though, Big Sur's isolated beauty is staggering. Fog settles into the steep flank of the Santa Lucia Mountains, above beaches lined with tide pools and massive rock formations. Guest houses are surrounded by thick walls of green foliage, and not much else.
Venerated in books by late authors Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, it's no wonder then that Big Sur continues to be a haven for writers, artists and musicians such as Alanis Morissette and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, all inspired by a hybrid landscape of mountains, beaches, birds and sea, plus bohemian inns and ultra-private homes.
While Big Sur's influence on the arts has been turning up in poems, books and songs in American popular culture for nearly a century, its human history goes back much farther than that. Earliest inhabitants included the Native American Esselen tribe, followed by pioneers who settled the area in the late 19th century.
In the 1920s, American poet Robinson Jeffers meditated about Big Sur's "wine-hearted solitude, our mother the wilderness" in poems like "Bixby's Landing," about a stretch of land that became part of Highway 1 and the towering Bixby Bridge 13 miles south of Carmel. Read more.
Big Sur's California Dreamin'
"Young people were living in cars and under the bridges," says Don McQueen, recalling the 1960s in Big Sur, the 90-mile stretch of California coast where the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge into the Pacific Ocean south of Monterey. "Once, I saw smoke coming from a field just north of here and went up to find two dozen hippies, their naked kids running around, and fires going. Fire's always a danger in Big Sur." McQueen, 80, is a commanding figure—6-foot-8, size 15 boots. "Some of the newcomers were worthless," he adds, "but some were OK. We were so stuck in the mud around here. The new people shook things up."
I first traveled to Big Sur in the fall of 1963, eager to explore its remote recesses, soon after I began a graduate program at Stanford University. I remember being dazzled by the coastal region's stunning near-verticality. It seemed a mythic landscape of impenetrable chaparral and massive redwoods stitched to headlands plunging into an impossibly blue ocean. Against this backdrop, ordinary concerns seemed to pale; to live here was to view the world through a unique lens of beauty and peril.
Scattered across the land were random clusters of wooden cottages, a few stores and campgrounds, a couple of bars and a gas station or two. The Los Padres National Forest, which includes much of the 6,000-foot-high Santa Lucia Range, edged the highway, where shaggy figures not yet labeled as countercultural stood on the roadside, hooking their thumbs in clear, dry air. At the time, Big Sur still rested in a happy sociological trough between the demise of the Beat Generation and the advent, in 1967, of San Francisco's Summer of Love, a watershed moment that would bring thousands of young people west. Read more.
New York Times
Big Sur Without the Crowds
WHEN he moved there from France in 1940, Henry Miller, who had grown up in Brooklyn, called Big Sur his “first real home in America.” Running from Carmel, 150 miles south of San Francisco, to San Simeon, Big Sur's mass of tight mountains pushes brazenly against the Pacific swell. Kelp forests sway at the feet of rugged sea cliffs. Deep valleys shelter some of the southernmost redwoods. The only way through this fastness is along winding, breathtaking California Route 1.
Nearly two decades after settling in, Miller wrote “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch,” a collection of fond, philosophical sketches that expressed a nostalgia for the place born of his fear that Big Sur's magic could only wane as more people came to visit. Certainly, summers can be a crush here, a paradise lost of RV traffic jams and overcrowded facilities.
Yet in winter, nature reasserts itself. Whales, elephant seals and monarch butterflies arrive after travels that have taken them thousands of miles. California sea otters, once thought extinct and rediscovered only in a single Big Sur cove, float among kelp beds as effortlessly as the recently reintroduced California condors soar above redwood crags.
Winter is a refuge, not just for seekers and wildlife, but for Big Sur itself. Some days are so perfect, with golden sunlight burnishing green mountains against the dark blue sea, they are metaphor brought to life. On other days punishing storms scream in from the Pacific. Waves pound the coast like angry fists while torrents of rain howl up the canyons, obscuring the distinction between kelp and redwood.
But even during these times, a cozy lodge and a crackling fire are all it takes to render this side of nature, too, sublime in its way.
Nonetheless, if Big Sur rewards serendipity, it is no place to rely upon it — the few lodgings fill quickly, and most buildings are anyway not visible from the road. After three hours' driving from San Francisco, my wife, Nina, and I were happy we had made reservations at Deetjen’s, the coast's original roadhouse. The inn dates to the 1930s when Grandpa Deetjen built a redwood barn here. Being the only place to stay, it became the place to stay, growing into a cluster of rough-hewn cabins under the boughs of a redwood grove. Read more.
New York Times
Books of Revelation
“This graffiti provides the safety of anonymity so we can all pour our hearts out to one another as we participate in this conspiracy to commit pleasure. . . .”
It would be easy to miss it. It would be easy, motoring along the California coast, gasping aloud as the two-lane twists of Highway 1 reveal staggering scenes of mountains, ocean, sun and fog, to accelerate through the turn and drive right past the ramshackle collection of quaint buildings tucked into the towering redwoods of Castro Canyon like a miniature Wild West set overgrown with wisteria.
The sign announces big sur inn. But for decades it has simply been called Deetjen’s, after its founders, Helmuth and Helen Deetjen, who in the 1930s began to build, with a kind of Norwegian-Californian Gemütlichkeit, a place where it is possible to slip the constraints of time and the electrical exigencies of modern life — no cellphone reception, no TVs — in a state of charmingly rustic comfort.
Yet there is one more place within this place that would also be easy to miss. In each room or cottage there’s an unassuming pile, stack or row of journals, on a rough-hewn shelf or inside a drawer: a crazy-quilt jumble of leatherbound, floral-upholstered and spiral-bound notebooks. And to open the covers and turn the pages is to hear in your head an incantation written across decades in different hands, voices rising off the page in a dear-diary chorus of anonymous confessions: “I arrived in the dead of night . . . then, in bed, I discovered the journals and, like so many others, read them, finally succumbing to sleep at 3 a.m.” Read more.