Ever since I moved out to San Francisco in November 2014, I’ve been trying to get down to Big Sur. Even though the city was my reason for moving out here, work and so forth, the wish for this long solemn coast has been deeply engrained in my imagination of California.
I drew solitude over me, on the lone shore,
By the hawk-perch stones; the hawks and the gulls are never breakers of solitude.
When the animals Christ is rumored to have died for drew in,
The land thickening, drew in about me, I planted trees eastward, and the ocean
Secured the west with the quietness of thunder. I was quiet.
Imagination, the traitor of the mind, has taken my solitude and slain it.
No peace but many companions; the hateful eyed
And human-bodied are all about me: you that love multitude may have them.
-Robinson Jeffers, “Prelude”
Robinson Jeffers is probably the first California poet I really loved. (Although, I later learned Robert Frost was born in San Francisco.) I read his poetry early on in college and I thought of Big Sur often, even before I ever imagined moving out to northern California.
When I told people how badly I wanted to visit the coast line and see breakers on rocks, I was told it probably wouldn’t happen because it takes too long to get down there.
For about a year, they were right.
“I have no vocation. The old rock under the house, the hills with their hard roots and the ocean hearted / With sacred quietness from here to Asia / Make me ashamed to speak of the active little bodies, the coupling bodies, the misty brainfuls / Of perplexed passion.”
-Robinson Jeffers, “Prelude”
I mentioned to Jessica how badly I wanted to see Big Sur. She told me there was a place she knew where you could pitch a tent on the side of the road.
What she didn’t mention was that the “road” was the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, the only road which weaves through the Santa Lucia Mountains, and that camping up on it means camping on top of a mountain with an ocean view.
We both have jobs up in San Francisco, so getting down the coast on a Friday wasn’t really an option. We left early Saturday morning and finally made it to Big Sur around lunch time.
We picked up sandwiches and chili in Carmel, then kept pushing. I wanted to stop to take pictures every time I saw the ocean. Jess assured me it was only getting started.
Far out in the ocean, waves begin to swell and when they finally crash on the continent, water gets thrown at least 100 feet in the air. Big white clouds full of water.
The cool opal water then melts down through the cracks of the rock like bright blue butter.
The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
-Robert Frost, “Once by the Pacific”
And then I let Jess drive.
We were really winging it for the trip. It was too bad that while coming down we didn’t get to stop at Tor House, the rocky tower built by Robinson Jeffers in Carmel. The site was closed at the time. I am hoping to get back down to Big Sur soon and will be sure to take some pictures.
We did however stop at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, just past Point Sur.
It’s a long way to drive for a bookstore. But if you donate a buck or two you can get a cup of coffee or tea. There is a nice deck that makes reading in the sun feel like the right thing to do.
Despite the poetry of the place, getting away for the weekend let us go be knuckleheads somewhere else.
People camping on Nacimiento Road should know that while this isn’t strenuous, it is more wild than a well-groomed campsquare that you book in advance. You pick your curve in the road and set up a tent. In the middle of the night we heard something, possibly a raccoon, sniffing around our tent. We didn’t have any food inside, but consider this your heads up that while it’s awesome it can get weird. Especially if raccoons give you the creeps worse than death.
Lo and behold, we did survive. We got up and had some cold brew coffee. We left the bottle of coffee in the car overnight and with the temperature dropping enough in the night, it really was cold by morning.
I had been telling Jessica about Robinson Jeffers and how his writing made me want to visit Big Sur. I brought the book down to share a few poems. We read the poem “Tor House” together.
If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, will find some remnant.
But if you should look in your idleness after ten thousand years:
It is the granite knoll on the granite
And lava tongue in the midst of the bay, by the mouth of the Carmel
River-valley, these four will remain
In the change of names. You will know it by the wild sea-fragrance of wind
Though the ocean may have climbed or retired a little;
You will know it by the valley inland that our sun and our moon were born from
Before the poles changed; and Orion in December
Evenings was strung in the throat of the valley like a lamp-lighted bridge.
Come in the morning you will see white gulls
Weaving a dance over blue water, the wane of the moon
Their dance-companion, a ghost walking
By daylight, but wider and whiter than any bird in the world.
My ghost you needn’t look for; it is probably
Here, but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing on wind
With the mad wings and the day moon.
Jessica had a work call to get back to in the city on Sunday night so we ended up not sticking around too long, although we did stop by Nepenthe for breakfast, a place I definitely recommend.
I hope to reassure you that your trip to Big Sur is not impossible. Even getting down for one night holds a lot to wonder over. I know Jessica and I are planning to get back down to Big Sur again soon.
4 Goals for next time:
- Take a full month to do it. (Or at least a few days, get a solid hike in.)
- See Tor House.
- Don’t get scared of raccoons in the middle of the noche.
- Corduroy cut-offs.
I write this blog to recommend travel and reading. The passages I share are for review purposes only.
Edit: Nov 2017 – Notice: due to landslide in Big Sur, camping on the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road is currently illegal. It is the only way to get from highway 1 to highway 101. Violators could face fines of up to $5000 or jail time. Check with Forest Order for updates.