In many ways, Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness are part of a transitional zone. Driving north on Highway 1, this is where the northern California redwoods begin. The coast is so steep and the forest so dense (to say nothing of the fog) that, even today, Big Sur is a world apart from San Francisco and Monterey, its neighbors to the north. For most of the twentieth century, the area remained rural enough to support the kind of superstitions that one usually associates with ancient civilizations. The locals told tales of Indian spirits and portals to other worlds…
When the Spanish began settling California in the late 1700s, they mostly left this part of the coast alone. It belonged exclusively to the Essalen Indians until the mid-1800s, when pioneer homesteaders from the East started to lay down roots. For whatever reason, the pioneers that settled in Big Sur were not communal types. Clan-fighting was the order of the day and the region was slow to develop. One of the earliest families was the Pfeiffers, who set out with livestock for the Pacific Valley grazing lands but never made it that far. They built a house in Big Sur in 1869. In 1882, the first official U.S. Post Office was established at Post Ranch, and the Point Sur Lighthouse was finished in 1889.
Barry Parr has written about the living conditions of the lighthouse keeper and his family in his excellent travel guide Exploring Big Sur County (Falcon, 2007): “Life atop this rock was challenging. Water had to be pumped up to a cistern atop the rock from a well on the flats. All building materials, including the sandstone building blocks cut from the Santa Lucias, had to be winched up from the rolling deck of a cliff. When keepers decided to plant their own vegetable garden, they first had to haul their own soil up. One kept a dairy cow for fresh milk; others tied their chickens to the rock to keep them from blowing away. A picket fence surrounding the dwellings kept children from falling overboard. The children went to school in a one-room schoolhouse built next to Highway 1, and their teacher also lived on the rock. No doubt one of the most trying aspects of living at Point Sur was the steam whistle, which blew a five-second blast every thirty-five seconds, day or night, whenever the fog rolled in.”
I remember hearing similar stories about the harsh living conditions at the Point Loma Lighthouse in San Diego, and was not surprised to learn that the Point Sur Lighthouse, like its neighbor to the south, has a ghost story. According to Parr, “The largest building, the triplex, housed three of the four resident families and is said to be haunted at night by a teenage girl who suffers from a hacking cough, despite having been dead for the better part of a century.”
In 1911, travel-writer J. Smeaton Chase wandered through Big Sur. It was only on rare occasions that he crossed paths with anyone, but when he did he took note of the minimalist way of life in these hills:
“In the course of a walk up the stream next morning, I came upon an original who for many years has lived a Robinson Crusoe life in a coign high up on the cañon wall. His ramshackle dwelling was more shed than house, and I found the ancient himself seated beside it, in a rather alarming state of undress, under the shelter of an umbrella which he had hung obliquely from the roof to intercept the morning sun. With his bright blue eyes, skin originally ruddy but now tanned to Indian hue, and shock of long white hair, he made a most odd appearance.
“He was talking to himself as I approached, but hailed me hospitably to come in and sit down for a chat. The chatting was a passive affair on my side, for he himself did not cease talking for a moment, and after one or two vain attempts to stop him, I only sat and listened. His great topic was minerals, concerning which he had a theory, new to me, that every metal has a father and a mother. This great discovery had been revealed to him by an old Indian woman, once of these parts, who had bequeathed him a ‘map,’ by which, he declared, he was able to make his theory effective. To discount the palpable discrepancy between his apparently poor circumstances and his potential wealth, he explained that he cared nothing for actual money, being content with knowing that he could at any time procure it: a philosophy which, as he appeared to hold it sincerely, was an admirable one, and worthy to be recommended to our captains of finance.”
The construction of Highway 1 (completed in 1934) opened up the area significantly and brought more settlers, especially artists. American poet and environmentalist Robinson Jeffers (1887 – 1962) is best known for epic, often melancholy works that celebrate the sublime beauty of the coast. Later, his neighbor Henry Miller (1891 – 1980) wrote that “Jeffers rediscovered here the atmosphere of the gods and fates which obsessed the ancient Greeks. The light here is almost as electric, the hills almost as bare, the community almost as autonomous as in ancient Greece. The rugged pioneers who settled here needed only a voice to make known their secret drama. And Jeffers is that voice.” Miller himself became the coast’s second most revered writer after he produced a rambling, philosophical memoir called Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, published in 1957.
Jeffers and Miller both found horror as well as beauty in Big Sur, and it’s not hard to understand why. Standing on the edge of a steep, jagged precipice, one is awed by the grandeur of the mountains and the sea below. But stand there too long and you begin to imagine what it would be like to have to travel on foot through this unforgiving landscape… especially at night, when a casual misstep could send you plummeting into the yawning void below. This is a place that inspires reverent awe. Miller tried to capture the feeling in words: “Though young, geologically speaking, the land has a hoary look. From the ocean depths there issued strange formations, contours unique and seductive. As if the Titans of the deep had labored for aeons to shape and mold the earth…It is a region where extremes meet, a region where one is always conscious of weather, of space, of grandeur, and of eloquent silence.”
Like Chase before him, he longed to be a painter who could use distinct colors to capture the region’s mysterious beauty: “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 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 understood that this section of the coast is an artist's paradise. Not surprisingly, writers and painters began to arrive in droves after the end of World War II, seeking escape from the nightmares of the modern world, eager to start fresh with no emotional or material attachments, clinging only to “a wisdom born of desperation.” If Miller’s experience is any indication, those who could truly surrender themselves to nature found exactly what they were looking for. Miller assures us, “Everything is begging to be discovered, not accidentally, but intuitively. Seeking intuitively, one’s destination is never in a beyond of time or space but always here and now. If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” On the other hand, those who could not handle isolation faced the threat of madness: “The feeling of aloneness is a spiritual achievement. The man who runs away from the city in search of this experience may find to his chagrin, particularly if he has brought with him all the cravings which city life fosters, that he has succeeded only in becoming lonely.”
Novelist John Steinbeck captured the intuitive sense of a danger inherent in the land in his 1938 short story called “Flight.” The story revolves around a boy who gets lost in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur and realizes that he is not alone: “Pepe looked suspiciously back every minute or so, and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead. Once, one a white barren spur, he saw a black figure for a moment, but he looked quickly away, for it was one of the dark watchers. No one knew who the watchers were, nor where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never to show interest in them. They did not bother one who stayed on the trail and minded his own business.”
Rosalind Sharpe Well, author of an extremely moving book called A Wild Coast and Lonely (Wide World Publishing / Tetra, 1989), is a Big Sur native who remembers that Steinbeck’s mother claimed to have seen the “dark watchers” – low riders that seemed, somehow, to belong to the landscape. Well says she once saw them too, and writes: “As a child I never felt alone: I was always being watched; the land itself or something within it was always aware of me, always watching me. Often I wished it wouldn’t. I had no secret or private thoughts. I was transparent as glass… My mother often spoke of ‘the inner content of the coast hills.’ She felt a Presence there – a nameless and inhuman one, neither benign nor malign. It was, perhaps, the universe itself, or, as Jeffers put it, ‘the inhuman magnificence of things.’”
Over the years, visitors to Big Sur have written that the place possesses a magic beyond the natural world. Some say it is a natural vortex – like Mount Shasta, Stonehenge, Sedona or the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Others attribute this unseen force to the spirit of the Native Americans in the land. There are stories of strange music in the hills at night (voices, wails, even symphonies) and of equally strange sights (UFOs are relatively common). Whatever the cause, the region has continued to draw people who are searching for something unusual. The coast is home to various religious, New Age and self-empowerment movements, including the Esalen Institute (whose famous guests include Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson), the New Camaldoli monastery, and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.
There are even more strange stories and characters tied to sites just north of Big Sur –Bixby Creek, Spyglass Hill and Point Lobos. But we didn’t go that far on this trip, so I’ll have to save those tales for another day.
The storm-dances of gulls, the barking game of seals,
Over and under the ocean…
Divinely superfluous beauty
Rules the games, presides over destinies, makes trees grow
And hills tower, waves fall.
The incredible beauty of joy
Stars with fire the joining of lips, O let our loves too
Be joined, there is not a maiden
Burns and thirsts for love
More than my blood for you, by the shore of seals while the wings
Weave like a web in the air
Divinely superfluous beauty.
- Robinson Jeffers
Much of the Ventana Wilderness remains inaccessible to the public, due to wildfire damage (see the hills in the photo above). One of the few exceptions is Salmon Creek...
In 1940, Lathrop and Helen Hooper Brown built their dream house in this cove near what is now Julia Pfeiffer-Burns State Park. How'd you like to wake up to this view every morning?
Point Sur Lighthouse