The drama of the Pacific coastline is one that has always fascinated and inspired travelers.
Henry Miller, the writer whose books many readers describe as a life-changing experience, described the Pacific especially at Big Sur, as an “overwhelming force which is hidden within its obvious grandeur “. On Big Sur itself, he finally wrote “I have found the perfect place”.
North of San Francisco, the fabled Highway 1 is defeated by the rugged terrain of the “Lost Coast” and the wilderness of the King Range. South, this most romantic of roads leads to what was known as El Pais Grande del Sur (the big country to the south or Big Sur).
There, the Santa Lucia mountains seem to erupt from the ocean, giving way to incomparable vistas, unique on earth, where the one common aspect is the haunting presence of that vast majestic ocean.
Charles Olson, poet and intellectual from Gloucester, Massachussetts, declared in his study on Herman Melville (the author who wrote, amongst other classics, “Moby Dick”) – “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy…(it is) the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people”.
The presence of the ocean reminds us of the fierce determination of the early explorers to overcome its unpredictable winds and hidden rocks. Today, speed-breaking sailors and sea-defying surfers throw an equally powerful challenge, literally flying across the water,always on the edge,pushing to the limit. Santa Cruz surfing legend Jay Moriarty (hero at 15, dead at 23) warned “Don’t take anything for granted, because one minute it can be there and the next minute it can’t, and it happens so quick.”
Fatalities occur all the time on this stretch of aquatic wilderness. Only just last week, the San Francisco Chronicle announced with a banner headline “Tragic Day on the Bay “. One of the huge racing catamarans, whose 131’ long sail could power the boat up to three times the speed of the wind, lost its trajectory and capsized. On board, double Olympic medalist sailing champion Andrew Simpson, strategist for this year’s America’s Cup was trapped under the hull, unable to escape.
A few months earlier, in October 2012, the defending Oracle team for the Cup, lost its multi-million dollar boat when, unable to make a turn, it capsized and was destroyed by the sea.
The will to overwhelm nature may be there but ultimately the ocean is indomitable. It is awareness of this force that constantly attracts those seeking both peace and stimulation in the rugged landscape of Big Sur, where the mountains and the sky meet the turbulence of the Pacific.
The surfers consider the beaches and headlands from Ghost Tree to Pfeiffer Beach and Willow Creek to be hard core. On those waves, with many observing that ”one wrong turn, and you’re hitting the water like concrete at 50 miles an hour”. But in that challenge, one finds much more than just danger. The recent surfing film “Chasing Mavericks” explains “it’s not just about surf, it’s about the one thing in life that sets you free .”
That of course has been the big journey over the ages for “the seekers” out there. For example, the “astronauts of inner space “ as defined by the “Human Potential Movement” at the renown Esalen Institute search for a mind-body connection that comes from within instead of the waves. Esalen’s co-founder Michael Murphy, wrote a classic book exploring the mysticism of Golf and its similarities with the journey of life itself (“Golf in the Kingdom”).
Others participate in the Zen Mountain Center around Tassajara Hot Springs, while higher, at about 1300 ft above the Pacific ocean, the new Camaldoli Hermitage provides peace and refuge to all seeking tranquility. At the Hermitage, the monks follow the ancient teachings of St. Romuald, and St Benedict observing vows of silence. Outside visitors are welcome however, and may reflect on how aptly Henry Miller described this landscape, when he arrived in 1944, as “… the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look”.
The Californian coast, has always felt on the edge of the western world, and not only because it may all fall into the sea when the “Big One” hits, but as the culmination of the “Long Road West” as talked about by American historians.
In much the same way as the tip of Portugal at Sagres served as a launching pad to the searchers of the New World under Prince Henry the Navigator, so did ”New Spain”, and the Camino Real of the Jesuits and the Franciscans, serve as the final link with the edge of that continent.
Out there at Big Sur, at this land of the setting sun, with sunsets that vanish into the sea, you realise that you have reached the true end of the world. Beyond that coastline, there is only a journey back to the beginning, to the Far East, to China, to Japan, and to the land of the rising sun.
There is a finality to this coast, culminating with movements like California Cool, the Beat Renaissance, and even a governor who, like the present Pope Francis, studied to be a priest in a Jesuit seminary.
Governor Jerry Brown urges the principle of “tantum quantum” – where you take what you need. Less not more. “It’s almost a Buddhist thought, a Greek thought” he says – a balance that he calls “proportionality”, where “you can never stop the human heart from yearning and you can never stop the universe from being silent “.
Big Sur, is the embodiment of all that is California thus, the drama of the past, the excitement of the present, the thought of the Beats, and a presence of the inevitable. Henry Miller was most surely right – A more Perfect Place could hardly be imagined.