Thursday, February 12, 2009


A while back, when I was blogging about filming locations used by Roger Corman, I made plans to drive up the coast to Big Sur (where Corman’s hippie friends took him to drop acid in preparation for making his movie The Trip). Unfortunately, in July 2008, much of Big Sur was closed down by a series of wildfires caused by lightning strikes. As of February 2009, most of the parks remain closed but we decided to head north anyway and check out the coastline.

I was surprised by how much mystery surrounds California’s Central Coast, along the ragged edge of the Santa Lucia Mountains, and I’ve been holding off on blogging the photos because I wanted to read more about the area in the meantime... starting with J. Smeaton Chase’s travelogue California Coast Trails: A Horseback Ride from Mexico to Oregon, first published in 1913.

Following an afternoon exploring Pismo Beach, we spent our first night on the Coast in Morro Bay, a quiet fishing village just off of Highway 1. After his stay here in 1911, Chase wrote: “Evening was falling as we came to the coast at the village of Morro… Morro’s population sat at ease on doorsteps and packing-boxes, watching a game of horseshoe quoits… I made a meal at a primitive restaurant while the lads and lasses of the place performed on an adjoining rink to the strains of a phonograph… This pretty place is destined, I think, to be of more note than it is now. It lies at the northern point of a beautiful bay, three or four miles in length and all but landlocked. The sporting attractions are of the best, the landward scenery very interesting, and the great rock, El Morro, which stands at the bay’s mouth, gives nucleus and distinction to the whole.”

Morro Bay isn’t quite as rustic as it was in 1911, but it is a quaint, idyllic spot with some great seafood restaurants. And its claim to fame – the Morro Rock – is one of the most photogenic sites I’ve run across in a long time. I tried to take photos of this imposing feature from every angle, in every kind of light. There was something hypnotic about that great, otherworldly monolith sitting out in the water like that.

In the morning, we got up bright and early and headed into San Simeon – the site of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s fairy tale “castle" on the hill. George Bernard Shaw once referred to it as “the place god would have built if he’d had the money.” I admit that most of my knowledge of Hearst before this trip came from the characterizations in Aldous Huxley’s book After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and Orson Welles’ movie Citizen Kane (a fact that would no doubt make Hearst turn over in his grave). Those characterizations are a far cry from the one presented on the Hearst Castle tour.

The tour features an introductory documentary which focuses not on the scandals of the billionaire’s later years, but on his childhood. The IMAX documentary, called “Hearst Castle: Building the Dream,” is filled with breathtaking images of Europe (where Hearst, as a boy, traveled extensively with his mother) and California’s Central Coast. The tour itself treated us as if we were distinguished guests at the castle in the later years of Hearst’s life, taking us through a typical evening's entertainment, room by room. According to those who stayed there, Mr. Hearst wouldn’t allow anyone to remain in their rooms for very long – he invited only people who intrigued him to visit the castle, and he wanted to be privy to everything his guests did while they were there. He also had some strict rules against excessive drinking and sexual encounters on the premises… so this was perhaps not quite the “stately pleasure dome” that Orson Welles invoked by calling the castle Xanadu in Citizen Kane.

On the beaches below the castle, we got a rare glimpse of nature. Since about 1990, elephant seals have been beaching themselves here on the shores of San Simeon. Though nearly extinct four decades ago, members of the species have been arriving in increasing numbers in November of each year for the past two decades. The males proceed to fight for dominance on the beach. In December, the females arrive and, by January, give birth. In March, they all head back out to sea – some traveling as far away as Alaska to find food. These creatures are quite a sight – the males can grow to 15 feet in length and weigh up to 5,000 pounds – but perhaps more striking are the sounds they make: a strange cacophony of barks, farts and squeals. Listening to them sort of reminded me of the Bog of Eternal Stench in Labyrinth. Thankfully, they didn’t smell.

Above San Simeon, Highway 1 begins a steep ascent, which eventually gives way to breathtaking vistas around seemingly every bend. In 1913, J. Smeaton Chase summed up his experience of the coastline:

“The shore… all along this mountain-walled coast is bold and scenic, fringed everywhere with islets about which the water coils and lurches in unceasing turmoil. I cannot imagine a more alluring yachting ground than this hundred-mile reach of lonely water, with its barrier of summer gold or winter emerald…

“The sea was a splendor of deep Mediterranean blue, and broke in such dazzling freshness of white that one might have thought it had been that day created. How amazing it is, that the ancient ocean, with its age-long stain of cities and traffic, toil and blood, can still be so bright, so uncontaminated, so heavenly pure! It seems an intentional parable of Divinity, knowing and receiving all, evil as well as good, yet through some deathless principle itself remaining forever right, strong, and pure, the Unchanging Good…

“Again I longed to be a painter, - a great painter, one to whom the subjectiveness, the spirituality, of color should be known, and who might transcribe this fine fragment of Nature in all its material and immaterial beauty. There is a largeness and freedom about this little-visited coast that puts the mind under stimulus, and almost rids one of that deadly incubus of experience which so sadly dulls the edge of our impressions.”

And this is only the beginning of Big Sur…

Pismo Beach

Morro Bay

El Morro

Hearst Castle

Elephant seals

Starting to climb...

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