Hyper-Content in Big Sur
The first time I’d ever heard of the Big Sur was my freshman year in college when I picked up Richard Brautigan’s novel A Confederate General from Big Sur. Brautigan was a writer who came just after the Beats but whose work resembled some of theirs, that stuff you love when you’re nineteen and even feel rebelliously deep and profound just reading in large part because it contains so many taboos—curse words and praise for anarchy and deep dives into sex or drugs. And, like the Beats and the proverbial broken clock, he really got it right a couple of times. I have never forgotten his little poem “Discovery” ever since the first time I read it:
The petals of the vagina unfold
like Christofer Columbus
taking off his shoes.
Is there anything more beautiful
than the bow of a ship
touching a new world?
It startles and delights and works in a bizarre way, especially if you squint your intellect while reading in the way you squint your eyes to alter or clarify a certain image or picture. I read a couple of his novels and most of his poems and now lump him among the Beats and their ilk who, to crib from Capote, were typing more than writing. All of that said, by the end of my foray into Brautigan, I still had no real clue what exactly Big Sur was.
Thirty years later and a few weeks ago, by the time I was finally headed to the Big Sur, I still wasn’t especially sure what it was, but I was in California for work and meetings, first in Los Angeles then to San Francisco with a couple of days off in between, so I decided finally to go because a few friends who had been there said I absolutely had to. The landscape, they all concurred independently, was breathtaking and unique, like something out of a fairy tale. I did a smidgen of research prior, enough to learn that it is not a town or even near a town although it does have its own post office; it is an area along the California coast and inland that stretches about 71 miles from Carmel, where Clint Eastwood was once mayor, in the north to about San Simeon in the south, the place where Hearst built his castle, although there is no official beginning or end. The population of the entire area is between one and two thousand, about what it was a hundred years ago, and to prevent development, most of the land is protected by the government or private trusts, although I heard word of a few big, shiny new mansions along the coast, and it seems inevitable that unless the Feds step in, some billionaires will once again prove that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in this world that they can’t and won’t fuck up.
I had my son with me, aged 12, and we got to Big Sur on California’s famed Highway 1, though not from the south because mudslides from those heavy rains last year had rendered parts of it impassable. We drove up to Carmel via Highway 101, past so many towns that Steinbeck put on the literary map (Soledad—Of Mice and Men, Paso Robles, King City, Los Gatos—East of Eden, etc.) then tracked back south for the thirty or so miles on Highway 1, a road that is described by many as the world’s most scenic drive, and while that’s probably said about hundreds of drives and is pretty subjective, the stretch of that highway I drove makes a strong case for itself. I was in the bottom edge of Carmel when I got my first glimpse of that coast—the ocean, the rocky beach, the steep cliffs. It was an astonishing turquoise; I’d never before seen the ocean so blue.
I am not going to wax endlessly about the landscape of Big Sur because many already have and far better than I. A couple of notes, though, for those who know little about the place. Highway 1 is a curvy, inefficient road between the mountains and the ocean cliffs, and honestly, thirty miles of it was plenty. Some of the mountains were reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, grayish green along the entire slope with no plant taller than my waist; it felt especially Scottish the morning of our departure when the land lay covered by a Pacific fog and mist. Other of the mountains were bedecked in color from an improbable array of wildflowers, truly more wildflowers than I have ever seen anywhere else, saffron and maroon and purple and pink. But it’s not just the mountains. Those wildflowers were everywhere—along the roadsides, atop dead trees, from the sides of cliffs.
And then there is the deep forest of the sequoias, shady landscape of ancient trees and clear streams with occasional views of the ocean. My son and I hiked those woods and even swam in the Big Sur River but not for long as it was the second coldest water we’d ever been in without a wet suit. There was also the incredible walk down to the rocky shore of Partington Cove, but again, I leave the nature chat to others because I want to focus on a couple of the very few man-made places there.
I had no intention of going to the Henry Miller Library. I’m not much of a fan of his writing. But it was relatively early in the afternoon when we happened upon it, and since I had little else planned for us beyond another hike (the one to Partington Cove), I decided to pull in. It is a squat little house with a large yard and artifacts you’d somehow expect at a gathering place named in Henry Miller’s honor in the remote Big Sur—a school bus painted blue, a decrepit grand piano, a crucifix with a Christ fashioned from wire. Off the house was a large deck of faded wood, no rail, and on it sat a young man working on his laptop; behind him was another young man with a puppy, and that’s where my son immediately headed (a sucker for puppies) while I predictably headed into the bookstore inside the house.
It was a small and elegant space—floors of redwood plank, handcrafted tables and shelves, the gloss of shiny new books in every direction. One table featured all of Henry Miller’s titles, so I strolled toward it and scanned.
“You a fan?” asked the young woman working there, early twenties, short dark hair.
“Not at all. I tried him when I was younger. I read five of his books, and that was four too many. He goes on and on and on about all the sex he’s having all the time with anyone who steps in his orbit, and apparently he’s not only the world’s greatest lover but also the world’s greatest guy because nobody seems to have any complaint about him for anything which is a little weird because usually a guy who’s sleeping with that many people is pissing someone off. You?”
She was laughing by now. “Well, I kind of like him, but I just started reading him.”
“Is he talking endlessly about sex?”
“Actually, he hasn’t brought it up once. It’s his book about the Big Sur and he’s basically just talking about it and his time here. I really like it.” She pointed to it on the table: Big Sur and the Oranges of Heironymus Bosch. The title alone was enough to shoo me away, so consciously artsy, but I picked up a copy and started riffling through the pages. The story goes that Miller never intended to move to the Big Sur; he came for a visit and was so moved by the place that he stayed the next twenty years.
“Does he get into his relationship with other writers and all the writers who came here?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “And he talks about his family and the history of this place and all the odd locals and his friendship with Emile.” Emile was Emile White, the painter who was Miller’s close friend. The Miller Library was Emile’s house and studio that he turned into a sort of shrine in honor of his friend.
“You from here?” I asked.
“No, I’m from Maine.”
“Maine. My favorite place in the world is Moosehead Lake.”
“Mine, too!” she said. “I grew up on the coast but every summer my family went camping up at Moosehead Lake. It’s the most beautiful spot in the world.”
“What brought you out here?”
She shrugged. “Had to do it for a couple years. I’d read about it and visited and decided I had to live here for a while. Not forever. But the place is just amazing.”
“Housing seems tricky around here.”
“It is. I finally found a place with a roommate, but it’s not much of a place. Still, who cares. Where are you from?” she asked.
“New York now, north of the city on the Hudson,” I said, right as the young man who’d been on his computer on the deck came in the store.
“Go Mets,” he said. “I’m from Jersey.”
“Well, originally I’m from Illinois, so go Cubs.”
“They looked great against the Dodgers yesterday,” he said before he returned briskly to his computer on the deck. I was not expecting an employee at the Henry Miller Library to be such a baseball fan. I shopped a while and bought a handful of books, including the Miller one on the Big Sur, against my better judgment, but I’m a when-in-Rome kind of shopper, and it seemed blasphemous not to buy one of his that day. I also eyed the covers of the books by Richard Brautigan and thumbed through the poetry to find, “Discovery.” I read it and laughed and gasped to think I was thirty years older than when I’d first read it. My son came into the bookstore to tell me all about the puppy he was petting, and I got him a copy of Of Mice and Men. An inveterate notecard writer, I went to the back where there was a rack of notecards of numerous paintings by Miller and White. I went to the counter with my goods and asked the woman where the envelopes were for the notecards.
“We don’t have any. Just the notecards. It’s kind of a problem.”
I returned them to their rack. They were great notecards, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them without envelopes. As she tallied my total, I asked about the huge white cloth strung to the trees out in the yard. She handed me a flyer. “We show movies here once a month in the summer. That’s the screen. You should come. We make popcorn.”
“That sounds perfect. My son and I are spending the night over at Deetjen’s. What’s the movie?”
“It’s a bunch of European short films. They all won awards at a festival. They might not be ideal for your son. You might have to cover his eyes and ears at some parts.”
“I’ll figure something out.” She handed me my new books and thanked me for coming. “See you tonight,” I said.
Deetjen’s is one of only a handful of places where you can spend the night in Big Sur as well as only one of a couple of restaurants. It was built over the course of the 1930’s by Helmuth Deetjen, a curious Norwegian immigrant who was compelled to the land by the promise of the redwood trees he’d read about in a Walt Whitman poem. For a while he lived up in Carmel where the poet Robinson Jeffers was his neighbor, but eventually he and his American wife, Helen, made their way down to Big Sur where they loved the land too much to leave. It was then he began building, by hand, the rooms, buildings and cabins that would eventually become Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, now on the National Registry of Historic Places. They are splendidly crafted structures—small, cozy, rustic, many elements held together by wooden pegs instead of nails. The whole complex of structures is built into a hillside on the edge of a sequoia forest.
Just as marvelous as the buildings is the restaurant, which is four rooms in the main building. I made reservations to eat there once I’d realized that there were only three or four places in Big Sur to eat and even the gas station had a limited amount of snacks. It was not easy to get a table because in addition to tourists, many locals dine at Deetjen’s where the food, much of it organic and locally-grown, is fabulous. I had the filet mignon, and my son had the pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon, halfway into which he said, “Dad, I like my women like my pork tenderloin: wrapped in bacon,” a line that becomes even more hilarious when you factor in that he’s twelve and hasn’t even held a girl’s hand yet. I laughed so hard that my waitress came over to learn what was so funny; our reservation was early so there weren’t many people there yet, and she had time for conversation. I told her my son’s line and she laughed as uproariously as I did. She was very tall and pretty with long brown hair, and she was thin but vigorously so, athletically so. I asked her where she was from, and she said, “Santa Cruz, but I live in Salinas now.”
“Steinbeck’s home town,” I said.
“Oh my God, I love Steinbeck. My boyfriend and I actually first got together because we both love Steinbeck so much.”
“I notice they turned his childhood home into a restaurant. I’m trying to figure out if I have time to go there.”
“A restaurant and an inn, but where you have to go is the Steinbeck Center. It’s this great museum they built in Salinas for him. It’s got everything. It’s even got the truck he drove around the country in for Travels With Charley.”
Alas, I did not get to the Steinbeck Center. I just didn’t have the time. The following day, I’d already promised my son a trip to the Monterey Aquarium, up there with Baltimore’s for best aquarium in the country, and I had to be in San Francisco by the evening. Someday, though, I will return to the area and visit the Steinbeck Center. In the halls of academe and among the snooty, it is fashionable to discard Steinbeck no doubt in part because he’s so accessible, but I think he is a great storyteller. Sure, the quality of his writing isn’t to the level of, say, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison or Willa Cather, but his sentences are interesting, his thought patterns are unpredictable, and the power of his narrative overwhelms. He also develops great characters, and his obsession is for them and for humanity, not himself, just one of the things that separates him from legions of contemporary writers as well as Mr. Look-At-Me himself, Henry Miller (although one of my favorite people at my church, an older man, said that it was as a young man in the Navy that he read Tropic of Cancer in Paris and it changed his life, so maybe I’m just missing something).
My snide attitude aside, I returned to the Henry Miller Library for the movie that evening. The doors opened at eight, and at quarter till there was a line of two dozen people or so queued in the gravel apron fronting the tall wooden fence. Cars and trucks were parked wherever they could be on both sides of the road. I parked ours, and my son and I joined the line, a motley assortment of young couples, middle-aged couples and older couples as well as burly, bearded locals, some scroungy hippie types, male and female. When the doors opened, we slowly wound our way in to the official entrance where all were encouraged to donate what they could. When it came our turn, I dropped some money into the plastic bucket and explained that I wouldn’t be staying for the movie but that I wanted just to hang out until the film started. The setting was absolutely magical—the air cool, the sequoias looming, lights strung throughout the yard as the sun set beyond the Pacific which was so close and which we could smell but could not see.
My son found more dogs that he was able to pet and play with while I stood on the wooden patio and just basked in the evening. Everyone there seemed happy. They all struck me as being interested in what the world might have to offer and grateful for what it did. One man in his fifties and wearing a Cubs cap walked past, and I said, “You a real fan or you just like wearing the hat?” He stopped to chat. He was a real fan. He was originally from northern Illinois and now was a teacher in San Francisco. We talked about baseball, agriculture, education and cities. He left, and a little later I found myself in a conversation with the organizer of the event, a very tall, thin man in his late thirties. My son was over by the small food table eating fresh popcorn and making a paper cup of tea.
There have been a couple of times in my life where I have been what I call hyper-content—so bathed in the perfection of a moment that if you killed me on the spot, I couldn’t, in all fairness, complain that I’d been cheated. The last time had been a couple of years ago in an ancient, walled village in Portugal one evening when my family and I were walking on the narrow cobblestone lanes through the village after dinner and happened upon the central square where, in front of a church some seven hundred or so years old, the local high school band was having a concert and seemingly all in the village were gathered to hear. “There is nowhere else in the world I would rather be tonight than right here,” I said to my wife. It was the same feeling I had that evening in Big Sur. I’d spent much of the day playing in nature with my son who now played with puppies and ate popcorn among strangers he acted as if he’d known for years, I’d just had a fantastic meal, I had no cell phone service so no one could bother me, and I was awash in the clear, chill air of a Pacific evening surrounded by an impromptu community of people delighted to be where they were. Me too. More than delighted. Hyper-content. For that moment, there was truly nowhere else in the world I would rather have been. And I confess that while I may not appreciate the words of Henry Miller, that deep appreciation of life is exactly the spirit he embraced and imbued on every page of everything he ever wrote.