It's the most romantic stretch of coast in North America, possibly in the world. I've been going there for more years than I care to admit to, and finally came to understand the place with the help of those who live there. Part One:
(Photos by Catherine Karnow)
“Young people were living in cars and under the bridges. 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.”
Don McQueen, 79, straddled an old four-wheeler in his tattered sweater and torn trousers. A daunting figure - six-foot-eight, big hands, size 15 boots – he was remembering the ‘sixties in Big Sur, the spectacular stretch of coast south of Monterey where the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge into the Pacific and Highway 1 snakes high above violent surf. “Some of the newcomers were worthless, but some were okay. We were so stuck in the mud around here that the supervisors couldn’t even approve another school for the overload. The new people shook things up.”
I first saw Big Sur in 1963, and in the intervening years returned several times but never had a clear understanding of its unusual history, complicated geology, or its place in the pantheon of great American landscapes. Beyond extreme physical beauty and the inspirational jolt the first glimpse of Big Sur always provides, it remained for me as much mystery as reality, intimately associated with the Aquarian age McQueen describes.
Then a few summers ago droughty California had some 1,200 wildfires, including one in Big Sur. That became the Basin Complex fire, and it put the famous coast in jeopardy and in the news again after a long hiatus. But many younger people, I noticed, no longer had a clear idea of the place, and those my age had very different notions of it: iconic collision of earth and sea, New Age navel, home of superannuated flower children, prime ocean-front property, and up-scale venue for travelers who could afford $700-a-night beds, infinity-edge hot-tubs, and hundred-dollar prix fix menus.
McQueen’s father was the engineer in charge of building the coast highway in the late ‘30s, and Don assembled his commercial campground on the same road in the ‘50s, shaded by a 4,000-year-old redwood and now worth millions. “A few hippies thought they could make a living just by breaking into houses,” and a rougher element including motorcyclists hung out in the Redwood Lodge just up the road. “It had a hard dope problem, with fights, and gang-banging. I told the owner I’d clear it out if he wanted.”
He was also an authority, according to a friend, “on what’s required to survive on a 17 percent slope,” just one of many descriptions of Big Sur. McQueen admits to “throwing some people through windows.” He put two malefactors in a car, “broke their distributor cap with a hammer, so they couldn’t start the engine, and pushed them down a hill toward Carmel.”
That bar was re-born as Fernwood, a sign of the times. Big Sur, too, is a relatively tame venue for travelers who can afford $700-a-night beds, infinity-edge hot-tubs, and hundred-dollar prix fix menus unimaginable in 1960. But half a century after that restive time Big Sur remains as difficult to define as it has always been: iconic American landscape or New Age navel, home of superannuated flower children, or working community, California’s most expensive real estate, or a unique bit of wilderness?
Spanish explorers and colonists didn’t know quite what to make of it, either. Seafarers stayed clear of the rock-toothed el pais grande del sur, and missionaries making the long over-land journey from Mexico City used the valley of the Salinas River, miles to the east, not the impassable coast darkened by huge trees and coursed by two un-navigable rivers. Presidio and missionary headquarters were established in Monterey in 1770, then a mission in Carmel. Father Junipero Serra set about enslaving and converting to Catholicism those members of the primitive coastal tribes who lived close by and any who could be enticed out of the rugged and inhospitable “El Sur.”
Large tracts of coast were granted to former soldiers and cohorts of provincial governors by the Mexican government in the 1830s, including three near Carmel on broad marine terraces high above the ocean, most of which have survived intact. The 8,876-acre Rancho San Jose y Sur Chiquito, 20 miles south, eventually came into the possession of Captain John Rogers Cooper, who turned it into a cattle ranch in the 1840s, worked by Hispanics and Indians.
Some of the first “Americans” in El Sur were the Posts. William Brainard Post, who had been stranded in lower Baja on a voyage from Connecticut, eventually made his way to the whaling station at Point Lobos, acquired 640 acres just south of the big river, and in 1867 began to build a house. Money was made by others from redwoods and Douglas fir felled in the steep canyons, an arduous, dangerous job, and the bark of tan oaks used in the tanning of hides. Supplies arrived in small sailing vessels braving a coast with little safe anchorage, and timber went out the same way.
The first continuously operating post office south of Carmel called “Big Sur” was in the Posts’ house. It had one of the most spectacular vistas ever shared by cattle, hogs, and the 60-residents who dropped by to get mail, talk, peel apples in season, dance, and lament the absence of a good road to “town.” That meant Monterey, 30 miles to the north, but the rough dirt tract over which they rode horses and drove wagons meant they were no longer dependent for staples upon unreliable steamboats plying an unforgiving Pacific.
The road was steadily improved into the 20th century, when self-reliance took another hit with the arrival of cars and trucks. They brought new faces, among them homesteaders, tourists who stayed in roughhewn “resorts” run by the Pfeiffer and other families, and what might be called a new creative class. During the ‘20s and ‘30s the poet, Robinson Jeffers, praised what he called “the noblest thing I have ever seen,” meaning Big Sur, and wrote about the difficulty of maintaining the tortuous road in Thurso’s Landing, where “seas thundered on the rock, and rain fell heavily/ Like a curtain, with one red coal of sundown glowing in its dark.”
Other new arrivals were more interested in aesthetic adventure than convention. Jaime de Angulo, the son of a Spanish nobleman and a disciple of Karl Jung’s, bought property on Partington Ridge and built a house of concrete that was to be a dude ranch but never had a customer. An avid student of native American languages known locally as “the Old Coyote,” Angulo wore his hair long in Indian fashion, wrote poetry, and lived in scholarly squalor, according to contemporary accounts, sometimes riding his horse in nothing but a cape and a belt of silver conchos.
Another locally famous European, Helmuth Deetjen, the well-born son of a deacon in Bremen, Norway, arrived in Big Sur with his wife, Helen, circa 1930, bought 120 acres in Castro Canyon, and built a combination home, store, and inn. A devotee of music, philosophy, art, and politics, he had attended the University of Heidelberg with both Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf Schools, and Adolf Hitler. Deetjen claimed that his last words to Hitler were, “You just don’t understand the American cowboy,” and that he later fled Europe because he knew what Hitler was capable of.
Deetjen brought a quirky combination of sophistication and hominess to Big Sur, reflected in his quaint construction, in Scandinavian style and in native redwood, of what became both a home and a lodge. One of the locals helping him was the 11-year-old Don McQueen. Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn contained Helen’s antiques shop and included cabins, some barely big enough to turn around in, with droll names like Chateau Fiasco. Pottery, sculpture, paintings and craft, much of it created by a long succession of Big Sur artists, occupied most horizontal spaces, and still does. Deetjen carved into a lintel in the dining room a quote from Mozart’s Magic Flute: “Within these sacred portals revenge and hate must cease/ The souls of straying mortals in love will find release.”
In 1937 the coastal highway linking northern and southern California was completed, some say the biggest change to occur since the arrival of the Spanish. Big Sur became accessible to cars from both directions, which meant more sight-seers, more exposure of outsiders to a unique landscape that had largely remained a national secret, and more artists, writers, and mavericks seeking an alternative to what Henry Miller, one of them, would soon be calling America’s “air-conditioned nightmare.”
Miller himself took up residence on Partington Ridge in 1942 and became Big Sur’s most celebrated literary figure. His neighbors included Angulo, Harry Dick Ross, the sculptor and painter, and Emile White, another painter who lived down on the highway and served as Miller’s erstwhile secretary. Miller wrote several books while overlooking the Pacific, including The Rosy Crucifixion and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch. He and Deetjen occasionally drank together at the inn, only six miles north of Partington, where an employee once attempted - unsuccessfully - to hide a microphone behind a curtain to record what the great men said.
In 1960, Miller left wife and children to run off to Paris with a woman half his age, dismaying the usually forgiving Big Sur bohemians. Emile White’s house on Highway 1 later became the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a trove of Milleriana that today offers a broad retail selection of retail books, and a cultural program popular with both locals and visitors.
Miller himself was quickly superseded by a tide of so-called beatnik and hippie writers, among them Jack Kerouac whose On the Road replaced the once-banned Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn as a must-read for a new, rebellious generation. Kerouac’s friend, Lawrence Ferlenghetti, owner of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, publisher of the poets Alan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, had a cabin up the coast, on Bixby Creek, that was featured in Kerouac’s depressing, eponymous Big Sur novel; another novelist, Richard Brautigan, a suicide, wrote the goofy, charming fictional account of life here the sixties, A Confederate General in Big Sur. By then the place had acquired a reputation as the gravitational center of LSD and “free love,” an image it has never really shed.
Deetjen died in 1972, and his inn was transformed into a non-profit, another sign of the times. Patrons in the ‘80s included John Denver, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Peter Sellers and Mia Farrow. Nowadays in season it’s thronged with baby-boomers and young lovers drawn by the fire on the hearth, gnarly authenticity, and the ghosts of a watershed decade still ringing in the speech of occasional regulars ordering blueberry pancakes at the bar.
Meanwhile, Don McQueen was repairing gaps in the coast highway his father had built, where pavement occasionally slips unavoidably into the ocean, destabilized by torrential winter rains. He worked on other, now famous Big Sur projects, including Nepenthe, the bar and restaurant built on a point just north of Castro Canyon and named for a magical potion in Homer’s Odyssey, on land previously owned by Orson Wells and Rita Hayworth.
Nepenthe was patronized by locals and the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during filming of The Sandpiper, and Kim Novak who once danced on a table there in her almost all-together. “Nepenthe’s was incredibly welcoming in the hippie era,” says one long-term resident. “Every month there was an astrological birthday party for locals, with dancing on the deck,” but all that gradually ended as the contingent of tourists grew exponentially and Nepenthe’s expanded, and raised prices, to accommodate it.
The actor, Steve McQueen, visited Nepenthe’s in the late ‘70s, looking for Don McQueen as a possible long-lost cousin, annoyed by the failure – or refusal - of locals to recognize him as the star of The Great Escape and other movies. He and Don McQueen became friends despite the dissimilarities in their lives, and physical statures. “Steve walked around like a bantam rooster,” Don said affectionately. They rode motorcycles together on Highway 1, and “my wife and I once took Steve’s dinner reservation at Ventana. When he showed up with Ali McGraw and saw us, he just laughed. They came over and joined us.”
The Ventana Inn and Spa was, when it opened in 1975, Big Sur’s first modern, full-scale resort, and another watershed. Ambitiously designed, lovely to behold, and controversial due to its size and prices, Ventana made Big Sur a “destination,” to the dismay of many in Big Sur who nevertheless played dominoes at the bar. By providing beauty, luxury, and whatever else was required for a restorative “California” experience, Ventana brought a new sort of sophisticated, well-heeled visitor.
After a few years the formality in the dining room and bar, like the steep prices, discouraged locals from coming, and in the early ‘90s, after a succession of owners and infrastructure problems, Ventana’s coveted spot as the primo watering hole passed to the Post Ranch Inn. Just across Highway 1, on land once occupied by old William Brainard Post.
There builders took pains to make that resort environmentally friendly, with cottages raised on pilings among live oaks. The restaurant, Sierra Mar, seemed to hang over the ocean, a la Nepenthe, and today guests can dine on ahi and braised Kobi beef while watching gray whales bound for Baja. But beyond the tasteful confines of the Post Ranch Inn and Ventana, life remains a struggle, with relatively few jobs and an acute housing shortage that’s getting worse. The chef at Sierra Mar, Craig von Forster, recalls living in a van at the side of Highway 1 in his early days at the inn. Today, he adds, “if you drive south toward Lucia after 10 p.m. at night, you’ll see dozens of cars in the pull-offs. In most of them the people who do Big Sur’s work are asleep.”
The most common definition of Big Sur by people who live here is “the coast between the lighthouse at Point Sur on the north and Esalen on the south.” The center of the so-called human potential movement, and a story in its own right, Esalen was founded by Michael Murphy, now 78, whose family acquired the precipitous land in 1910. It was named for the indigenous Esselen people, the shyest of the coastal Indians who left exquisite cave paintings and first used the hot springs that would become notorious. Locals had gone there in number after the completion of Highway 1. Miller reportedly did his laundry in the naturally heated water, and itinerant users included the likes of Aldous Huxley and John Steinbeck. Murphy’s passion was eastern religions, and soon after he met Richard Price, a psychology student at Stanford in a meditation class in, the two of them created Esalena.
To be community where no one religion or philosophy was be favored over another, it evolved into a medley of Eastern and Western traditions aimed at transcendent “human potentialities” written about by Huxley. Esalen had an enormous influence on what became the “California lifestyle” and it would flow eastward across the American continent, and beyond. The hot springs were essential to that notion. In the early days, Esalen was open to anyone for a pittance, “and it was free to good-looking women,” says Mary Lu Torens, who has lived in Big Sur for 30 years. She remembers when the purpose of the springs was high-minded, based upon the belief of the Esalen Indians that “you went there to heal.”
The old concrete bathhouse was divided between men’s and women’s sides, and everyone was nude. “We all bathed together, but if women wanted to bath without men they could go to the other side. There were two big communal tubs, and two old single, bear-claw ones.” Scented tapers were placed on top of pillars at night to counter the odor of sulfur. “I can still smell those lovely candles.”
In those days, “no one talked in the baths. You looked out at the ocean, or up at the hills. There weren’t many cars in road yet. No negative thoughts were allowed in the baths, and they weren’t for partying.” That came soon enough, however, along with an ever-increasing presence of drugs, and sex. Eventually Murphy and Price, accompanied by the folk singer, Joan Baez, and some others, walked down to the baths with Dobermans on leashes and dispersed an orgiastic group from San Francisco.
This signaled a change at Esalen. Control was imposed on users, and prices began to climb. Imported psychiatrists, psychotherapists, proponents of Rolfing and various meditative and massage techniques, psychologists – traditional and pop - physicists, and lecturers of all sorts moved Esalen further into the academic and therapeutic fields.
Co-founder Price was killed in 1985 by a falling boulder, after hiking up the springs’ origin, what some in Big Sur saw as a karmic event. Money became an issue as never before in 1998, when the rains of El Nino started a mudslide that took away most of the old bathhouse. Replacement cost $25-million and included hillside stabilization and an earth-quake proof foundation. Etched glass doors now admitted spa-goers, and a separate room was devoted to serious massaging by fully clothed professionals. Less than half the bathers were nude, the choice of swim suits and suntan lotion was strictly up-scale. Locals still had access to the baths for $20 – but only between the hours of 1 and 3 a.m.
“The pettiness of the day-to-day operation is annoying,” said one Big Sur resident, but Mary Lu Torens pointed out that “many people over the years have had that box inside them unlocked at Esalen. It has done a lot of good.”
The sprawling “campus” had an established feel, with lawn running to the cliff’s edge, an enormous, carefully maintained vegetable garden, and structures well integrated into the land. Daily guests paid $50 just to stroll around. A mixture of the mostly middle-aged attend one of an impressive array of workshops - Harmonic Presence: Primordial Wisdom and the Music of the Spheres; Moving Meditation Practice: Inspiration, Vision, Ecstasy; Sex, Love and Intimacy: For individuals and Couples, and many more – after paying $150 for a minimum of two days, plus $605 for basic accommodations and meals.
A total of 17,000 people visit annually, most of them “students.” The dining hall was crowded at noon; dress was casual. The director, Gordon Wheeler, appeared on the deck in jeans and a flannel shirt. He was a clinical psychologist brought from Harvard in 1999 to run Esalen, with swept-back hair and a scrim of goatee. Michael Murphy had turned 78 and, Wheeler said, “We’re all in founder transition.” Part of that was Esalen’s subtle shift in message. “We’ve always been about personal and social transformation. What’s new is our focus: the personal and the social can’t be separated.” That meant workshops such as Sustainable Eating for the Planet, and Building Sustainable Leadership for Justice, and a heightened awareness that “the world’s in tough shape. We have to step up, locally as well as globally.”
Asked about Big Sur, Wheeler said, “it’s the land of the individualist, and legendary because of that,” adding, “It’s outlaw country.”
Tomorrow: Part Two - Fire
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