Up The Road: Big Sur

Nov 17, 2017

We head up the road this week to Big Sur.

The poet Robinson Jeffers described this redwood and rock coast as “that jagged country which nothing but a falling meteor will ever plow.” So it’s fitting that this area was known as Jeffers Country long before it became Big Sur. Writer Henry Miller said Big Sur was “the face of the earth as the creator intended it to look,” a point hard to argue. Here, sandstone, granite, and the sundown sea crash together in an endless dance of creation and destruction.

Julia Pfeifer Burns State Park, Big Sur
Credit Esther Lee

Still, Big Sur as a specific place is difficult to locate. It’s not only a town, a valley, a river, and a state park, but the entire coastline from just south of Carmel Highlands to somewhere north of San Simeon and Hearst Castle. It’s also one of the most spectacularly scenic two-lane highways in the world.

Once “in” Big Sur, wherever that might be, you’ll notice some genuine oddities—odd at least by California standards. Until recently, most people here didn’t have much money and didn’t seem to care. They built simple, unusual dwellings—redwood cabins, glass tepees, geodesic domes—both to fit the limited space available, given the terrain, and to express that elusive Big Sur sense of style. Earthy and nature-loving, pretty darn organic, pioneering spirituality of the human potential variety. The gestalt of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur is world famous. Dr. H. C. Murphy, who attended John Steinbeck’s birth in Salinas, opened Slate’s Hot Springs resort on the site. The hot springs were transformed by grandson Michael Murphy into Esalen. Also central to Big Sur’s identity: Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, the Nepenthe (Neh-penth-ee) restaurant and bar, and all those stunning state parks. Hiking and camping out under the stars are the ultimate in Big Sur.

As big as Big Sur is with seekers of all stripes, the place seems determined to vanish. You’ll get that sense when the fog suddenly descends, disappearing the landscape. The land itself regularly slides out from under the hard-won, two-lane highway and its 29 bridges. No one attempted a coastal road here until the early 1920s, and it took 15 years to chisel out and string together 30-some miles. Which is why, as of late 2017, you can’t get to San Simeon and Hearst Castle from Monterey, and probably won’t for another year, though you can get around the latest huge landslide by heading inland on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road and then coming around from the south.

Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur
Credit Ron W

But you can get to Nepenthe. Stop and contemplate big life questions out on the deck. Nepenthe is almost as legendary as Big Sur itself. Built of redwood and adobe, complete with an arts and crafts center, the restaurant was named for the ancient drug mentioned in Homer’s The Odyssey, derived from the Greek meaning “surcease of sorrow” or “no sorrow,” taken to help people forget their grief. As Poe put it in The Raven, “Quaff oh quaff this kind Nepenthe and forget the lost Lenore.” Naturally enough, the bar here does a brisk business. And although Nepenthe is casual any time of year, it’s not that casual. Local lore has it that John F. Kennedy was once turned away because he showed up barefoot.

Here’s another one from the Small World Department: Nepenthe is built on the site of the old Trails Club, a cabin filmmaker Orson Welles bought for his wife Rita Hayworth in 1944. Until very recently—like 2012, when they screened Welles’ brilliant film Citizen Kane in the visitor center at Hearst Castle—Welles’ brutal, thinly disguised 1941 portrayal of Hearst wasn’t acknowledged at the castle. Hearst—Kane—wouldn’t watch it. The movie was half fiction, after all, especially its nasty portrayal of Kane’s mistress, who in Hearst’s actual life was the actress Marion Davies. But even so, from the cabin, Wells could haunt Hearst from the north.