Faith... and Fire
In the novel, The Stranger in Big Sur, Lillian Bos Ross called Big Sur “a state of mind,” a comment often repeated here. This is in part a tribute to the inspirational impact of Big Sur’s geology, which is complex even by California standards, a medley of volcanic debris, sea floors, old mountain ranges from far to the south, rocks from the Sierra and all over, descending and rising from the earth’s magma in the on-going tectonic tango. Further complicating things are active fault lines and something called an “accretionary wedge,” essentially a large bump pushed up when the Pacific plate dove under the continental one, forming much of California’s coast but nowhere as dramatically as here.
The Santa Lucias may be less than 6,000 feet in elevation, but the ocean breaks on near-vertical slopes that capture all the moisture, some of it in legendary fogs, making of the coastal creases giant, lush terrariums and leaving the interior hot and dry. That, too, is part of Big Sur, although unseen by most visitors and residents. The ridge between the coast range and the backcountry is attainable only by several hours of difficult hiking, or by driving the dirt road that winds up from behind the Ventana Inn, through half a dozen locked gates maintained by the U.S. Forest Service which owns most of it. The view from the top includes massive green headlands sunk claw-like in deep blue water, and ocean and sky meeting in a distant cloud bank.
“Big Sur’s all about the mountains and the ocean,” says Bruce Emmons, a 30-year veteran of the Forest Service, “and the interface of the two.” He pulls his SUV to a stop, while off to the left eight condors lazily ride thermals fed by a relentless sun. “By definition, it’s everything south from the Carmel highlands to San Simeon,” 70-odd miles of coastline and just 340,000 of the 2 million acres that comprises the Los Padres National Forest, including the Ventana wilderness on the eastern side of this ridge.
Part of Emmons’ job is lubricating agreements allowing the government to acquire additional property and thus remove it from the possibility of development. In 2002 he participated in a controversial land deal that transferred 1,200 acres of the old Brazil Ranch near Bixby Bridge, the spectacular northern gateway to Big Sur, to public ownership, providing the FS access to the ocean and forestalling plans for a hotel and condos. But a prime concern of today’s 1,500 coastal residents is that just such land acquisitions by the feds will turn this coast into another Yosemite and them into fauna to be gawked at by tourists.
Some 500,000 acres in and around Big Sur are already protected by either ownership by the FS, the Bureau of Land Management, state parks, and the University of California Natural Reserve System, or by easements on large pieces of private property and federal and state regulations regarding coastal areas. Decades of conflict over just what Big Sur should be has resulted in some rare compromises among government agencies and local interest groups. “The people here are all highly individual,” said Emmons, who wore his institutional green lightly. “They love us and they hate us.”
He produced an excerpt from the agency’s management plan for the Los Padres, and said, “Read this.” The plan emphasizes Big Sur as “an overall visual and cultural impression of landscapes attributes… that gives it an identity and ‘sense of place’” to be maintained “for its internationally valued scenic beauty and biodiversity… Management will be particularly sensitive to the fragility of the unstable landscape and the commingling of terrestrial and marine ecosystems.”
That may all sound sensible, but for the Forest Service it was near revolutionary. Instead of concentrating on timber, minerals, graze, and other extractable resources at any cost, as the agency does elsewhere else in America, it has moderated its procedures here and broken new ground in taking care of its terrain.
Big Sur is the only national forest fronting the Pacific, but unique in other ways, too, a congeries of additional government and philanthropic jurisdictions – the California Coastal Conservancy, the Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District, the Big Sur Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy, active members of the Sierra Club and other watchdog groups, and local boards and entities. They are all devoted to maintaining the status quo and by common consent gather regularly to air differences and potential land use problems.
In addition, an alliance of spiritual stakeholders met four times a year to discuss the environmental integrity of this view-shed: Esalen, the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County in Carmel Valley, the New Camaldoli Hermitage of Catholic monks outside Lucia, and Tassajara, in the heart of the Ventana wilderness, the first Zen monastery founded in the United States. Tassajara takes in paying travelers, trains monks, and brings its own brand of enlightenment to some of the nation’s oldest land use problems. All four institutions were in fact stories in their own right, and such an assemblage of stewards could be found only in Big Sur.
Driving back down the road, Emmons added, “Local people like the idea of protecting the land, but they oppose any plans to change things.”
He wore a drab tunic and a blue ball cap. Intense blue eyes never waver. His name was David Zimmerman and although raised in a Mennonite family in the Midwest, he’s the director of a unique, ambitious spiritual enterprise purposefully set in the figurative middle of nowhere. Tassajara - the Esselen word for “the place where meat dries” - attempts to combine the fundamentals of monastic life with the periodic satisfaction of lay desire for a spattering of enlightenment.
About 5,000 guests descend the rattling dirt road in spring and summer, drawn by the beauty and remoteness of the Big Sur’s backcountry, the hot springs, and the unavoidable spiritual ambiance. But in winter the monastery enfolds upon itself, the zendo full of committed monks without distraction, the dark mornings filled with meditation, the sound of chanting, and the thwok of the hammer against the wooden han calling them to meals. “It gets in your blood,” said Zimmerman.
There were student monks as well. One, age 26, gave up college and a career in photography to become a Buddhist, leaving the farmland of Minnesota and a Catholic upbringing to join the Buddhist noviate. She, too, had an easy smile and a kind of steely considerateness. “I studied Zen and achido in college,” she said, “and meditated. It was the first time I had thought about how I was thinking,” and that was the end of photography career. “Now I’m profoundly grateful for all this space. We’re mindful of how we have to take care of it. After being here for almost two years I’m thankful also that I’m not driven to get the latest computer or whatever.”
Guests have their own protocols to follow: no talking in the baths; line up for dinner at 6:45; don’t intrude on the special sessions for those on retreat. At 8:30 in the evening the striking of the han called the willing to meditation in the dimly lit zendo, where a monk with a clipboard assigned everyone to a position facing the wall. The whisper of bare feet on creaking floorboards was the only sound, followed by light bell strikes, then silence. Within your solitude are unspoken responsibilities: don’t fidget or sigh, focus for 40 minutes until the tapping of a drum and bells signal that meditation has ended. Outside, the night was dark, cold, and exhilarating.
Douglas and Anna were two life coaches from San Rafael who were staying at Tassajara half price, chopping vegetables – “lots of onions” – in the mornings to make up the difference, and in the afternoons swimming nude in the gin-clear water of the Narrows on Tassajara Creek, or percolating in the bathhouse. They considered the experience both fun, and instructive. “There’s a lot of talk about proper knife use,” says Anna. “For instance, you don’t drag the cut onions across the board with the blade, which dulls it, but use a kind of spatula.” When the couple heard a bucket being dropped accidentally one morning, they turned to each other and said, “More onions.”
Carmel to San Simeon may be the official designation of Big Sur, but the two extremes – Carmel’s pastel bungalows, and the ornate Hearst mansion - differ markedly from each other, and from Big Sur’s center. Geographically speaking, that’s Partington Creek, five miles south of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. It runs into the ocean near a tunnel dug in the late 19th century through one side of the canyon, to provide access to a narrow harbor. There, in a heaving sea of kelp, tanbark was loaded onto ships for transport. Today the only users are tourists clambering over rocks in search of black turban snails, hermit crabs, and resplendent ochre seastars exposed by the falling tide.
The road leading up to Partington Ridge resembled a wobbly rocket trajectory rising steeply from Highway 1 through coastal scrub - manzanita and yellow-blooming chemise. Those locals in little houses hidden away behind stands of madrone and live oaks, some with vintage pickups, VW busses or Airstreams in the yards, were reluctant to come out and direct lost strangers. Nowadays the residents are less likely to be counter-cultural than newly rich from the real estate, venture capital, and other California booms, but many are long-term residents who have adapted to changing times.
A few big vegetable gardens were testament to their self-reliance, although “there are fewer of those now,” says Jean Alexander, blonde and suntanned, carrying a basket of vegetables just picked by her and her 10-year-old son, Ryan. He had hair to his shoulders and a welcoming smile. “It used to be that one person would grow tomatoes, another would grow potatoes, and everyone would share. Now we have to be more self-reliant.”
The Alexanders lived on the old Angulo property. Her husband, Kevin, was in the process of expanding their bright, airy house. A builder by trade, he was also the care-taker, a traditional, coveted job in Big Sur that is scarce now. Kevin grew up in Big Sur as part of an itinerant family living out of a car, bathing free at the old Esalen, and pursuing the proto-typical hippie existence. He remembered, with a laugh, pouring cold water over his head in the mornings. “We liked to keep things simple.”
A successful builder, Kevin belied the notion that the off-spring of the ‘60s was somehow damaged, his life conventional by most standards, and apparently happy despite the loss of old chums. “The closest thing to community events these days is the softball games at tk State Park every Monday,” where the Roadhousers took on the Nepenthe Outlaws and other teams.
The main house on the lawn below, made of concrete by The Old Coyote, had squat chimneys and big windows overlooking the Pacific. A yurt sat on a platform out of sight, with an open-air shower and a world-class toilet set between two majestic redwoods. Visitors slept in the yurt and awoke to the call of the olive-sided flycatcher (quick, three beers…) and a blast of light on opposing fields as morning sun cuts through a defile in the Santa Lucias.
“The old Big Sur values are dying off,” Jean went on. “Poets, artists and beatniks used to live off the land. They could just squat on a place and write a letter to the owner, who would write back and say, ‘Great. Just keep an eye on it.’ Some new owners still buy property to be close to Big Sur, but others move their old lives into the new multi-million-dollar house, along with their staffs. The paradox is that rich people provide some jobs for those who stayed.”
A nurse, she also did cliff rescue for the Big Sur fire department, and some home schooling. “The year book still says that the students were born on such-and-such ridge. There was only one hospital birth in the class last year.” But in recent years “we’ve lost fifty percent of the locals as people sell out in the land boom. Most service jobs are done now by recently arrived Hispanics, and their children make up more than half the primary school students.”
Both parents were thankful for a place and a life for their children at odds with the American norm. “I see a difference in the kids up here,” said Jean. “There’s no television, no mall, no cell phone rut. They read a lot. They got a feel for the land that kids in town don’t have. They’d dress up as Indians or something and frolic through the garden, picking berries. They had a real childhood.”
Ryan made the all-star baseball team, bitter-sweet because play-offs mean more hours on the road for everyone. Her older son, Kyle, took the bus every morning at 5:50 to middle school in Carmel. “When he was born the road was closed in 17 different places, because of the rain. It meant more community because people would meet down there. They’d chat, and bring baking. Now the road’s always kept open for Ventana and the Post Ranch Inn, and there’s no down-time. We pray that the road gets closed.”
The following June, Mary Lou Torens was working in a neighbor’s garden when “I saw the clouds rolling in from the Pacific, lashed by electrical charges, darkest, scariest, most beautiful and “ knew what was coming.”
Kevin saw the first lightening strike in that meadow across the canyon from their house. “It was the loudest clap I ever heard. Immediately flames came up, and I called it in.” Firefighters were soon battling the downhill creep of the fire, but during the night it moved around the head of the canyon. “I cut some trees below the Angulo place, to act as a fire break, but the heat was so intense it blaze melted the gutters.”
Also spared was the Alexander’s residence, and the house of Mary Lu Torens and her husband, Magnus, although tongues of blackened earth licked at its borders, and the towering redwoods are singed at the bases.
Contrary eastern winds that rise most night in Big Sur brought the inferno down the mountain behind the town of Big Sur and environs. Ventana was saved by the dumping of retardant and oceans water from planes and helicopters, and the constant efforts of firefighters who were served cuisine straight from the Ventana kitchen. Highway 1 acted as a natural fire break, so the Post Ranch Inn and Esalen were unscathed. Nepenthe’s too survived, although plate-sized embers fell on the deck, blown from across the road, extinguished by those who stayed behind.
The fire lasted for days and burned many acres and some houses, among them the Tin House above Partington Canyon, built as a retreat for Franklyn Delanor Roosevelt, who never came. “But what I regret most about this fire,” said Don McQueen, piloting his all-terrain vehicle up a steep service road above his house, “is that the steepest canyons were burned, which means massive mudslides when the rain comes, and the loss of many redwoods.”
Down-slope, the eerie, ashen defile was punctuated with blackened tree trunks of trees interspersed with the beautiful deep red of those that survived. Some such trunks were singed but whole, while others were charred at the base, with gaping caverns where the fire got past the bark and created chimneys. Up-drafts fed by the heat below scoured the insides and emerged as much as 40 feet above ground “like giant Bunsen burners, so loud you couldn’t hear a person shouting.”
Since Highway 1 acted as a natural fire break, the Post Ranch Inn, Nepenthes, and Esalen all survived with relatively minor damage. In the back country, Tassajara lay in the path of another lightening fire, and was saved by firefighters who wrapped the buildings in fire retardant material. Also spared was the d’Angulo house, the Alexanders’ above it, Henry Miller’s old residence, and that of Mary Lu Torens and her husband, Magnus, but tongues of blackened earth seem to lick at the borders of their properties.
Meanwhile, the residents of Partington ridge were laying in provisions for the fire’s aftermath: lentils, brown rice, rye flour, powdered milk, gasoline. Some part of everyone up here seems to look forward to a serene, if forced, winter isolation if the consequences of the Basin Complex fire descend on Highway 1 in the form of rain-fueled landslides. But they were optimistic. “Look,” said Mary Lu Torens, pointing to a green redwood sprig on the scorched earth near her house. “New growth’s already pushing through the ashes.”
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