Into the Terrestrial Cosmos: Trekking into Big Sur

Big Sur crags. Taken along a road stop on HWY 1

Big Sur crags. Taken along a road stop on HWY 1

Big Sur is both sparse and abounding.

As of 2014, there were a documented 714 residents living in rugged central coastal region of California. This is not usual. The population of Big Sur, derived from the original Spanish-language of the region, el sur grande or “the big south,” historically, has always been low.

And while the residents are sparse, everything else about Big Sur is lush. Beyond the weathered, dusty cliffs that drop into the blue-green and white-capped waves of the Pacific is a biome of riparian terrain: Sequoias, peregrine falcons, Black Cottonwood, wildflowers, pampas grass, clover, the California condor, mountain lions, deer, and miles of chaparral all under a heavy blanket of fog. The biodiversity of the region is bounteous.

This is what called me there.

I wanted to hike in the mountains of Los Padres National Forest. Smell the aromatic pines. Feel the blustery winds come in off the ocean. But mostly, I wanted to wake up under the history of a coastal redwood.

It was the Beats that first enthused my curiosity in Big Sur, that rag tag group of post-WWII poets and writers with their bohemian hedonistic ways. Like most young poets, I was at one point in my youth obsessed with this generation and their brooding, alcoholic champion, Jack Kerouac. The Beats’ counterculture rebellion, tangled sexual relationships, raucous drug use, appreciation for mysticism, and tramp-style sense of adventure is a very tantalizing lifestyle to a budding member of the creative enclave. My teenage self was certain that my nascent calling to write was a straight path to a life of such revelry.

Source: vassar.edu

As I matured as both a poet and a woman, I came to view most of Kerouac’s writing as problematic in his misogynistic portrayals of women. As a feminist, this is hard to stomach. Over the years when I’ve cited Kerouac or the Beats as an interest or, at times, an inspiration, I’ve been told that to actively enjoy the Beats is a sign of immaturity and as a woman I should be regretful of this fondness. Funny enough, this sentiment always springs from the mouths of men. Hmmmm, (re: snarky comment regarding mansplaining).

As an amorous and sentimental lover of literature, Kerouac’s On The Road and Big Sur hold a special place in the timeline of my being and growth. When I first read Big Sur, it wasn’t even Jack Duloz’s downward spiral into physical and mental deterioration that entranced me. It was the sojourn into wilderness. It was the striking depictions of the sea and reflections of fear that the terrain itself brought on:

"Big elbows of Rock rising everywhere, sea caves within them, seas plollocking all around inside them crashing out foams, the boom and the pound on the sand, the sand dipping quick (no Malibu Beach here)—Yet you turn and see the pleasant woods winding upcreek like a picture in Vermont—But you look up into the sky, bend way back, my God you’re standing directly under that aerial bridge with its thin white line running from rock to rock and witless cars racing across it like dreams! From rock to rock! All the way down the raging coast! So that when later I heard people say “Oh Big Sur must be beautiful!” I gulp to wonder why it has the reputation of being beautiful above and beyond fearfulness, its Blakean groaning rough-rock Creation throes, those vistas when you drive the coast highway on a sunny day opening up the eye for miles of horrible washing sawing."

In reading this, it was not paranoid dread that the Blakean crags signaled to me but the tantalizing attraction of being swallowed up by the immensity of a terrestrial cosmos. I welcomed the awe of being engulfed, to feel like nothing, to feel the heaviness of everything that was bigger, both supernatural and physical, until it cradled me like a womb and I dissolved. That—that is what I wanted.

And while Duloz’s fitful and mentally anguished stay in Bixby Canyon was on my mind as I drove south along the California 1 from San Francisco, his tormented Big Sur was not the one I experienced nor was it expected.

After spending a few days in San Francisco, my fiancé and I rented a car and began the three and half hour drive south to Ventana Campgrounds where we had booked a few nights stay. This would be our first camping excursion in which we shoved as much camping equipment into a large checked bag and hoped for the best. 

The drive south took us through miles of farmland. Acres of artichokes beside the steady thoroughfare of semis and motorists into Moss Landing where we stopped at a large produce stand. 

We nabbed a few apples, oranges, peaches, and nuts dinner that night and hiking in the coming days. Nothing is more enchanting than bins of piled fruit arranged by color. The smell of sweetness in the air seemed heavier like it was absorbed by the fog. 

The closer you get to Big Sur, the windier roads become. You are snaking up along the sides of cliffs, switchbacking for miles. As you incline there are sometimes designated scenic stops to pull over and take in the view. These were often crowded with RVs and families, tourists standing in their windbreakers pointing off into the sea. Perhaps catching a whale breaching the surface or perhaps noting their own insignificance against the ever expanding ocean hidden under a breathy, "Well, would ya look at that."

Soon we crossed Duloz's infamous Bixby Canyon Bridge. Tourists parked and gathered around the flanks to marvel and snap photos. The bridge in which he stood under with such terror at humankind's own immorality and smallness:

"And you look up at that unbelievably high bridge and feel death and for a good reason: because underneath the bridge, in the sand right beside the sea cliff, hump, your heart sinks to see it: the automobile that crashed thru the bridge rail a decade ago and fell 1000 feet straight down and landed upsidedown, is still there now, an upside-down chassis of rust in a strewn skitter of sea-eaten tires, old spokes, old car seats sprung with straw, one sad fuel pump and no more people--"

Bixby Creek Bridge. Source: Rich Greene Photography

I was content enough to drive over it. I didn't have a need to stop, I just wanted to cross over spandrel arch of concrete because I knew this was the gateway into getting lost. I knew I was closer to dissolving into something bigger. Unlike Duloz, I wanted this. It was comforting. It was welcome.