posted on filed under Thoughts, Travels Tim Howarth

Big Sur

Few places beckon the kind of easy beauty that emanates from the joining of land and sea.  Waterfronts and beaches all over the world are places of relaxation.  Children play in the light surf that laps at the shore and build miniature monuments in the sand.  But Big Sur is not that place. Although the ocean meets the land, it is a rugged and dangerous beauty. The mountains bear down onto rocky cliffs that are pummeled back by unrelenting waves, violently destroying themselves, scattering their spray into the air.  It is a place where two worlds not only meet, they collide.

The raw power of the elements is on full display, naked and intense.  It is fitting that Big Sur has attracted artists from all over the world to take refuge.  Writers, painters, photographers, actors and filmmakers, have all come to this place to find seeking a type of beauty and isolation that they couldn’t find elsewhere.  For me, it wasn’t anything so wonderful as finding inspiration as it was a simple getaway from modern life.

I took a large swig of my drink, a cocktail of scotch, maple, and bitters.  It had been a rough few days.  Or weeks.  Or months.  I searched my mind to find the last time I hadn’t spent at 3 quarters of my day working.  It wasn’t registering.  4 months had gone by, and I was averaging 80 hours a week of work.  Even with all that effort put on the table, everything felt like it was stuck in neutral.

“I could tell when you walked in that you were worn out.  I could just feel it.”  Kris said.  He worked at another bar down the street and had invited Kate and I to drinks at Prizefighter.

“Wow, that bad?” I asked and took another drink.  He laughed.

“So when are you guys headed out to Big Sur?”

“We’re supposed to leave tomorrow, but we might not.  We might just stay in town and finish up some work and catch up on some stuff.”  Kate replied.

“No, no.  You can’t do that.  You should get out of here.” Kris was adamant.

“Yeah, but I can catch up on a lot of personal projects that I’ve been trying to get done for a while.  Run a bunch of errands and stuff.  Sleep in for once.”

“Listen.  You won’t regret going.  But you might regret staying.  Go, recharge, get some creativity back.  You gotta go to your home, you know?  Not the place you live, but where you need to be.  Home.”

We woke up the following morning with no intention to leave.  We had stayed up a little too late and drank a little too much with Kris.  It would be slow morning and a long day of errands and chores, the bane of modern adult life.  But Kris’s words kept rolling around inside my head.  The more my mind woke up, the more clearly I knew that we had to leave.  The mountains were calling.  Our gear was already packed, so we loaded the car and set off to Big Sur.

Nothing is quite like California Highway 1, especially in the remote 90 mile stretch, roughly 140 miles south of San Francisco.  Today, it is a popular tourist destination and draws crowds and traffic on the weekends that drive too slow and constantly pull over to take photos and gawk at the landscape.  They flock to the most iconic places and the restaurants that dot the coast, taking pictures of themselves with their phones, eager to share with their friends their fleeting experience of adventure.

Big Sur and the Bixby Bridge
Kate stares out at the Big Sur coastline and the Bixby Bridge
Henry Miller made this place his home from 1944 to 1962, painting and writing books and poems and inspired by the land.  He had come from living in Los Angeles, finding no inspiration in the atmosphere or people there.  Perhaps ironically, his works served to popularize the area, exposing it to the rest of the nation and other artists, who in turn brought it to the world.

“The people I couldn’t abide,” Miller wrote, “were the visitors, the ones who came from nowhere and everywhere to analyze, to ask silly questions, or to discuss burning topics of no consequence. It’s true, I must admit, that I myself was largely responsible for the invasion of these idiots. Had I not written about Big Sur no one would have been the wiser.”

His cabin still stands, as well as a small library and venue next door built in his honor.  As we passed it, and the myriad people mulling about its parking lot, I was reminded that this was not the essence of this place.  People so often bring too much of themselves into their travels, rather than letting a place fill them and change them.  But we wanted the more honest face of the mountains and sea, so we turned off of Highway 1 and drove into the mountains, and up a small narrow cliff side dirt road that made Kate a little more than nervous.

Jack Kerouac had retreated out into the vast wilderness of Big Sur after becoming famous, in an attempt to stifle his drinking problem and retrain his writing skills.  But the beauty soon turned to a terrifying and dangerous landscape to him.  His alcohol withdrawal filled nightmares only amplified the fear.

“I gulp to wonder why it has the reputation of being beautiful above and beyond its fearfulness, its Blakean groaning roughrock Creation throes, those vistas when you drive the coast highway on a sunny day opening up the eye for miles of horrible washing sawing,” he famously wrote about the place in his book Big Sur.

Even on the sunset drive up the loosely maintained dirt roads to the top of the mountain, it was obvious how this place could be intimidating, like it was swallowing you whole.  One bad move, and you could be lost forever, down the side of a cliff with no trace you ever made a mistake at all.  After some time, these dangers and this place, combined with alcohol withdrawals, sent Kerouac back to the city.  But to me, this was leisure.  It was a rowboat on a still lake, requiring nothing but a gentle empty concentration and the bliss of watching the the mountains give way to the sky as you conquered them on the back of an air-conditioned chariot.

It wasn’t too long before we arrived at the Prewitt Ridge campground, which we found pleasantly empty.  We took the highest campsite on the peak of the mountain, overlooking the mighty Pacific Ocean and making the cars on Highway 1 look like candles in the distance.  The sun set in spectacular fashion, as it typically does on the coast, and I stood in the quiet and was immediately happy that I was not tidying up our apartment.

I cooked dinner over our camp stove and we ate, watching the last bits of that vast orange sphere turn into a sliver and disappear completely.

Prewitt Ridge

 

The skies turned purple and faded into black.  Pin pricks of light fluttered on above us.

“There’s Pleiades.  That little cluster right there.”  She said.  “Just below Venus and a little bit to the right.”

She walked about in the dark, fixated on the sky.  The red light of her headlamp bobbed up and down in the distance as she referenced her star guide for a moment and returned to staring at the sky.  I was content without knowing the constellations.  For me, the sky as a whole was a familiar face, one that I didn’t get to see often enough through city lights.

“I can’t tell if that’s Mars or Jupiter.  This guide is confusing, because according to this, I’m facing north.”  She flipped it upside down, and then back over again.

“Well, that’s definitely west.” I replied as my eyes adjusted, revealing more stars.

Not far off the coast was a boat of some kind with a spotlight on top that was impossibly bright.  I watched it drift further out to sea, the light scanning back and forth, searching for something in the increasing depths and the dark.  Before long, they were so far away that I couldn’t distinguish their light from the stars in the sky, just another point in an immense canvas, too large to really comprehend, any single point too small to understand.  I wondered if out there, after losing all sight of the shore, they would find what they were looking for.  Would they succeed where I had failed?

Prewitt Ridge at Big Sur

 

The best thing about sleeping outdoors is waking up.  I’m not a morning person by any stretch, but waking up to the sun warming your face and taking those first conscious breaths of fresh air will make every cell in your body ready for a day’s work.  Suddenly, your muscles yearn to labor. There’s no pressure to be in the office on time, no apprehension about being stuck in traffic, no depression from the knowledge that you have to be out among the sad state of humanity.  Instead, the wind stirs the scents of pine and eucalyptus as you cook breakfast.  It is a near primal simplicity.

After some time, other hikers and campers began to reach the ridge.  It was now Friday, and this would be the tip of the wave of tourists who flock here every weekend.  We decided to pack up and head down the mountain to avoid the inevitable crowds.

We reached Big Sur Station before it got busy and snagged a good parking spot at the trailhead.  Armed with a trail map and a fire permit, we set off into the woods for a 12 mile hike to Redwood Camp.  Many of the other folks on the trail were headed to Sykes Camp for the hot springs there.  One couple headed back to the station said there already as many as 16 people there.  Kate and I were not interested in squeezing in to one of two small pools with a bunch of strangers, most of them college kids trying to hike in portable stereos and beer.

After a few hours, the elevation gain started to remind us that we weren’t in the shape we thought we were.  After Lost Coast and Tomales Bay, we made a conscious effort to try and pack much less to reduce weight.  Still, we packed more than we needed and it wasn’t doing us any favors.  Eventually, I wanted nothing more than to stop, take a long break, cook and eat a meal, and then head back to the car, drive back to the bay, and sleep in a warm familiar bed.

But I couldn’t let my body understand that was an actual option.  So I put the thought aside and kept going.  That same tenacious mindset has worked in so many other aspects of my life, but has gotten me into trouble just as many times. One foot fell in front of the other, and each labored step brought us to a higher and more beautiful vista.  Eventually, the trail dipped back down and crossed Terrace Creek, where we refilled our water bladders and ate a snack before continuing.  The trail stayed relatively level for the remainder of the hike.

We passed by Sykes hot springs, with throngs of people squeezing into the small pools, and even more people crowded around them.  Three different songs echoed off of the trees, as if the trees were quarantining this event. Everyone there looked like they were having a good time, so I couldn’t hold it against them.  However, we intended to escape from this atmosphere.  It was why we went into nature.  This was the end destination for everyone that day, and as soon as we were beyond the camp and back on the trail, there was no one.

It was a few more miles and another elevation gain before we reached Redwood Camp.  We set up about 100 feet from the banks of Redwood Creek, pitching our tent and setting up the Katadyn gravity filter before resting.  It was probably close to 7pm as we sat down and slowly built a fire.  The process has always put my mind at ease.  Watching the tinder begin to glow before catching the kindling, observing the slow spread of smoke and the gentle care needed to grow it into a real camp fire.  The flames provide comfort, warmth, and light.  They act as a blanket of security against the more nefarious forces of the wilderness.  The comfort comes from a primitive place, one that we don’t traverse enough.  It’s a feeling that gets buried beneath the rhythm of modern life but eats you from the inside.

Tim Howarth at Big Sur, Day 2
Cleaning my nails before cooking
This was our first trip with the Jetboil, taking place of the more traditional camp stove we used on Lost Coast trip.  It worked wonderfully and we had water for our dehydrated food in just a couple of minutes.  Eating not only fills your stomach, but replenishes your spirit.  I was no longer exhausted and began to explore the area.  We were shielded from everything by impossibly tall trees, creating a world apart.  The creek ran quickly over smooth river rocks, creating small pools to dip your hands in and wash the dirt off of your face.  I stayed crouched, and the deafening quiet again overwhelmed me.  I had not once thought about work, deadlines, bills, or any typical matter.  It was just me and the land.  The crowds were gone and the trail was bare, leaving me free to wonder in this natural cathedral.

After some time of aimless wandering, I returned to camp to find Kate reading a book about black holes and drinking hot chocolate.  She had kept the fire hearty and strong.  We relaxed and talked as the shadows grew and the temperature cooled.  Two points of light darted back and forth between the trees in the distance, the headlamps of other backpackers coming from Big Sur trail, the opposite direction from which we had entered.  It became clear that they were leaving the trail and approaching our camp.  I greeted them as they clamored over a fallen redwood.

“Hi, sorry to bother you.  We saw your smoke and figured we’d stop by.  We just set up probably a couple hundred yards downstream.” One of them said, his hair long and messy over his blue quilted jacket.

“No worries.  Is our smoke going into your camp?”  I asked.

“No no, nothing like that.  We had a small fire going for a bit, but couldn’t keep it up for long.”

“Oh, yeah.  We got a little lucky I guess.  You guys want to sit down?  Do you have food?  Water?”

“Yeah, if you don’t mind.  Warm up a bit.”  He extended his hand.  “Isaiah.”

“Tim, and this is Kate.”  I shook his hand, as did Kate.

“Hey man. Mike,” the other said, wearing a light fleece and some cargo shorts.  “We actually have plenty of food, but not water.  Our filter broke, so we’ve been boiling it, but not on our shitty fire, and we can only do a little at a time anyway.”  He sat on a log by the fire, rubbing the dirt off of his legs.

“That’s no problem, man.  We’ve got plenty of water.  Help yourself to it, it’s over there.”  I pointed at the bag hanging from a branch.

“Are you sure?” said Isaiah, walking over to it with his canteen.

“Yeah.  I mean, if you finish it, we just get more from the creek.  So seriously, just go for it.”

He opened the spout and filled his water bottle and drank it all in one go.  Mike did the same.  They stood there, taking turns filling and drinking their bottles, drinking around 4 liters all at once.  The apologized and Kate and I laughed.  I took the bag off the branch and refilled it in the creek and hung it back up, filling my own cup before joining them again by the fire.

“So, where did you guys get on the trail at?” Kate asked.

“Oh, it was a little weird.  We hitchhiked in.  Some other hikers dropped us off at the Marble Peak trail off of the Coast Road or something.  And then we took that to the Black Cone trail, and then followed the Pine Ridge trail to here.  We’ve just been taking it slow.  Been out here for 3 days.” Mike replied.

“Hitchhiked?  That’s cool.  Where from?” I asked.

“San Diego, originally.”

“Damn, that’s pretty far.”

“Yeah, we started about 3 weeks ago.  It’s been pretty crazy.” Isaiah started.  “It’s sort of a spiritual journey, you know?”

“I get that.”  I didn’t want to probe too much into why they were doing what they were doing.  They didn’t need to justify it, least of all to me.  There are times when people just need to figure themselves out, and it’s nobody else’s business.  “Are you guys documenting any of this?  You know, chronicling your journey?”

“A little bit.  Taking pictures, uploading them to Facebook when we can.  Mainly so people know we’re safe.  But yeah, writing too.  What about you guys?  Just a weekend trip?”

Those words lingered for a moment.  Just a weekend trip.  Had the times that we worked so hard for, these short stints into a world we loved, been reduced to just that?  A brief flirtation with another lifestyle?  As if we had to keep this life secret from our daily lives to make sure they never overlapped, so that one could not know of each other.  It was fleeting and temporary.  Soon, I’d be back on the grind, wishing I could divorce myself from it, hoping to elope back to the forest and the ocean.  All at once, I was crushed.

“Yeah, I guess so.  Just trying to clear our heads and stuff.  From work and life and shit.” I replied.

They nodded their heads.  They understood.  It was exactly what they were running from.

We shared some chocolate, helped them cook their dinners, and shared some more conversation before they set off back to their camp for the evening.  It was dark now and I grabbed the camera and wandered off into the night, my headlamp switched off in the pitch black.  I had probably walked a quarter of a mile away from the fire, leaving Kate by herself.  The dark was comforting.  This is the way night should look, no green tinge of a flickering streetlight, no bass from a car speeding down the street.  I laid down in the dirt and started snapping pictures of the sky, alone in this shadowy corner of the planet.

With each press of the shutter button, the intervalometer did its work and I had time to think, hearing the shutter close again after some time as it punctuated my thoughts.  What had happened to all the dreams we had as kids?  When did the world stop making sense?  When did trading your soul for nearly nothing become the standard?

After letting the camera run through its cycles for a while, I reviewed the images, scrolling through them rather quickly.  I could see the stars moving across the horizon and behind the trees.  It was glaringly obvious that we were hurtling through space at incredible speeds, and as grandiose as that might be, it only highlighted our imagined self-importance.  How anyone could think that the demands of our trivial jobs actually served any sort of greater meaning was beyond me.  I had been gone for some time and didn’t want to think about it anymore, so I returned to camp. Kate was trying to read by the dying light of the fire.  We extinguished the fire and headed into the tent.

The next morning, we were awoken by hikers who were gathering water from the creek.  They likely hadn’t seen our camp.  I exited and stretched in the cool air, stirring the ashes from the fire to double check that no coals were left.  The other hikers stood in the creek for a while, talking loudly, oblivious to their surroundings.

“And my boss was pushing for an earlier deadline than what we’d already been given.  I just don’t understand what he’s thinking,” one said.  “He doesn’t listen to anyone.”

“Well, at least you don’t have to worry about that right now.  That’s a Monday problem,” the other replied.  They both laughed.

A Monday problem.  This time in the woods, in nature, was only a fleeting fantasy.  They were complacent about their return to reality.  I was envious and disgusted at the same time.

Kate and I ate breakfast and started heading out, passing Isiah and Mike on the way out.  We wished them luck, and they the same to us.  The hike out wasn’t as strenuous but there were an incredible amount of people heading in.  Most looked like it was their first trip, the regret and exhaustion etched in their faces.  Hopefully, they would leave tomorrow with a yearning to be back out there, some spark inside now lit.

The parking lot was crowded with cars driving in circles, looking for spots to open up.  We left as soon as possible and started our drive up the coast towards the bay, watching the ocean turn into hills, and the hill to concrete.  Neither of us talked much.  I knew we were both thinking about the next time we’d be able to leave again.  The weight of returning to civilization bared down on us.  The mill of work responsibilities, the social commitments of friends, and the constant search for mild entertainment was about to start churning again.  And though I couldn’t leave it forever, at least I was facing it with the perspective of a clear head, with priorities reexamined.  It’s too easy to get lost in the maze of asphalt and steel and forget that there is an existence outside of it.  Somewhere, there is a balance, and finding that is as much an adventure as anything else.

Wise words from Futurama echoed in my head.

“Isn’t it time you gave up all hope of ever improving yourself in any way?”

“I know I should, but I just can’t.”

And so, we returned to the city and our jobs, desperately trying to find any sort of fulfillment within them.  All the while naively chasing the dreams we had fostered for as long as we have been conscious.

2 Responses to “Big Sur”

  1. Rob

    Great read! How hard is the drive up to Prewitt Ridge? I’ve heard a lot of different things about it. What kind of car did you take up there?

    Reply

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