Note: This piece was first published over on ARTIST-AT-LARGE in January 2003, but it remains as one of my favorites.
There are two magic hours of the day which I have only really come to know and wait for, bathe in, I might say, since living here. One is dawn and the other is sunset. – Henry Miller
I have traveled this road many times in my life, but I have never stayed more than one night anywhere on the 60-odd mile stretch of road that is called Big Sur. In years gone by, I have camped overnight on private property and I have pulled over on a turnout or two, to sleep when I was too tired to make the next curve. I’ve been to the top of Cone Peak and up to the monastery. I’ve even frolicked on the beaches, collected jade at Jade Cove, and swam in the ocean on a rare hot day. Through time I have come to know the coast road almost like the back of my hand. But to spend days here? No, that has never happened, not until now. I have time on my hands and no where to be, so why not be in Big Sur?
Leaving the last traffic light behind me and heading south from Carmel on Highway 1, the ocean boiled like an indigo tempest in a very large teacup. White waves rose out of the ocean and moved onto the coast, crashing headlong, violently onto the shore. The strong wind was of the white knuckle variety, the kind that kept my hands holding onto the steering wheel as if I were holding onto a speeding carnival ride, with Bixby Bridge being the test of my mettle. Fog sits just off of the coast, toying with the idea of a land invasion.
Further along, near the lighthouse, the cows in the fields along Highway 1 watch as my car passes them, their heads turning in unison while chewing on their dry brown grass, otherwise oblivious to the view. Rain is coming. It is impossible not to notice. Behind the fog, the sun notches itself lower in the sky, throwing a red haze over the landscape, and the clouds started to roll in. The first storm of the Big Sur rainy season is set to explode in a mere few hours.
Here at Big Sur, at a certain time of the year and a certain time of the day only, a pale blue-green hue pervades the distant hills; it is an old, nostalgic hue which one sees only in the works of the old Flemish and Italian masters. It is is not only the tone and color of distance, abetted by the magic fall of light, it is a mystical phenomenon, or so I like to think, born of a certain way of looking at the world. — Henry Miller
Winter has arrived. Early. In the middle of the night the rain began to fall. It now drips down from overhead. I walk through my forested campground, through the redwoods, then the oaks, hooded and somewhat protected from the elements. I wear shoes whose integrity has already been threatened by overuse, ones which won’t mind the dampness and the rain. The rain has turned the inch of dust underfoot to wet mud and puddles. It has also brought out the pungent smell of the earth and the trees … and the color.
As I walk, I stop every now and then – what seems like every few feet – to contemplate some aspect of nature before me. The intertwining of tree limbs, the orange carpet of expired redwood fronds, the growth of a fern, the exposed gnarled and twisted root of a tree, and the flow of the Big Sur River over a mixture of rocks that have been tossed down by God in such a chaotic random fashion, I wonder if God actually hadn’t had a plan.
After lunch I decide to drive back up the coast a bit to hike around Point Lobos. There the rain recedes and the sky clears a little. The waves are high and smash upon the rocks and sand in such a way I feel rowdy inside just looking at them. The parking lot at Point Lobos is nondescript. But I get out and walk the Cedar Grove trail. When I get out to the point, the wind is howling and raging and the waves are smashing the rocks. I dare the wind to a challenge by climbing up onto a rock. ‘I dare you to knock me down.’ I say! I throw out my hands and let out a loud deep throated roar, one that no one but the waves can hear, not even myself. I remain standing, defiant. Weather and surf and landscape and screaming at the top of my lungs are some of the most beautiful things in my life.
As I turn around to make my way back, off in the distance, I spy one of the more interesting, painterly colors in this ever-changing landscape. If I had a box of crayolas in front of me, the color would be labeled ‘evergreen’, and in nature there are a number of shades, depending on which layer of the landscape one looks at. In the foreground the color is darker and greener and in the background it is bluer and lighter. It is a color that appears when the elements are just right – when the rain has sufficiently moistened the landscape and when the sun is in the right place in the sky and not too bright.
I see now why you didn’t go to Mexico. This is the next thing to Heaven. — Harry Koverr
Big Sur has been calling to me for months now. The first itch came in April. I had planned April for Big Sur and then set aside September for Prague and November for Mexico. Nothing of the sort happened. Here it is, mid-November and I am only now getting to my April goal. Travel happens that way sometimes. It’s not where and when you want to go, but rather where and when you need to be.
At dawn I look out to the sea, where the far horizon is painted with bands of rainbow tints, and then at the hills that range the coast, ever entranced by the way the reflected light of dawn licks and warms the ‘backs of the drugged rhinoceroses. — Henry Miller
The storm broke two nights later in the middle of the night leaving the air washed and clear for a spectacular sunrise. As the sun came up, the light cast long shadows which were created by the canyons in, and the trees on, the mountains. It is during this time of day when the roundness, the heady voluptuousness, of the landscape can be seen. Her details show. She is not quite dressed for the day and has no hesitation at showing herself half naked. She is rumpled. The lighting of her landscape curves shows her to be very alive.
There are moments when, staring out at the horizon to where the sea meets the sky in a neverending blue that it seems that all of the answers, to all of my questions, are out there, just beyond my reach. This day has turned out to be incredible. Breathtaking, really. As the car topped the hill at Ventana and rounded the curve, my first ocean view of the day came into view. My lungs sucked in air between my teeth and it was all I could do to not slam on the brakes. Heaven was the only word I could have used to describe the portion of the planet that was in front of me. Heaven on Earth. The rain had cleansed everything in view – the land, the plants, the trees, the air and the ocean – and the sunlight from the impeccably clear blue sky made this part of the planet dazzle.
As my car made its way down the coast, I found that it was still fairly impossible to speed on Highway 1, yet I was still followed by cars that seem to be in a hurry. It is truly amazing that anyone would want to speed down this road. I imagine that many of the people who pass me when I pull off to the side are here for the first and last time. Many of them are people who maybe will never come this way again. And they speed down the road, as if the first hairpin curve was the same as the second, or third or fourth. As if the sky was the same from one mile to the next. As if the smell of the redwood trees were the same as the oak or the chaparral … I often wonder if the people who only come here for one afternoon out of their entire lives really see any of the vast beauty of this place.
Now what were those pigments I meant to use when looking at the hills a while ago? Oh yes, yellow ochre, Indian yellow, brown-red, raw sienna and a dash of rose madder. Perhaps a touch of raw umber too. Good! It’ll probably look like babyshit, but who cares? — Henry Miller
The landscape of Big Sur is a painter’s dream. To paint or photograph this rugged place is less like the study of something outside of myself and more like a study of the within. Siennas turn to ochres, ochres turn into greens, and the greens lead into the blue or the green or the pink or the grey of the sky, depending on what day it is, depending on what the landscape decides to do.
The day is so incredibly clear and intense that I can’t stop driving. I drive all the way to San Luis Obispo, gaping at the landscape. Finding an excuse to stop at every turnout, and explore the camps and trails along the way, it takes me all day to get to the southern end of Big Sur country. But the joy of that is, the return trip north!