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Big Sur's dramatic vistas entrance residents and day-trippers alike. In 1912 or so, watercolorist Francis McComas described the landscape as the "greatest meeting of land and water in the world." (Catherine Karnow)

Big Sur's California Dreamin'

Untrammeled wilderness and new age enclave, Big Sur retains its rugged beauty and quirky charm

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"Young people were living in cars and under the bridges," says Don McQueen, recalling the 1960s in Big Sur, the 90-mile stretch of California coast where the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge into the Pacific Ocean south of Monterey. "Once, I saw smoke coming from a field just north of here and went up to find two dozen hippies, their naked kids running around, and fires going. Fire's always a danger in Big Sur." McQueen, 80, is a commanding figure—6-foot-8, size 15 boots. "Some of the newcomers were worthless," he adds, "but some were OK. We were so stuck in the mud around here. The new people shook things up."

I first traveled to Big Sur in the fall of 1963, eager to explore its remote recesses, soon after I began a graduate program at Stanford University. I remember being dazzled by the coastal region's stunning near-verticality. It seemed a mythic landscape of impenetrable chaparral and massive redwoods stitched to headlands plunging into an impossibly blue ocean. Against this backdrop, ordinary concerns seemed to pale; to live here was to view the world through a unique lens of beauty and peril.

Scattered across the land were random clusters of wooden cottages, a few stores and campgrounds, a couple of bars and a gas station or two. The Los Padres National Forest, which includes much of the 6,000-foot-high Santa Lucia Range, edged the highway, where shaggy figures not yet labeled as countercultural stood on the roadside, hooking their thumbs in clear, dry air. At the time, Big Sur still rested in a happy sociological trough between the demise of the Beat Generation and the advent, in 1967, of San Francisco's Summer of Love, a watershed moment that would bring thousands of young people west.

In the intervening years, I returned to Big Sur several times, drawn by the physical beauty and the inspirational jolt that the first glimpse always provides. The place remains for me freighted with as much mystery as reality, intimately associated with the era that McQueen invokes.

McQueen's father, Allen, was a maintenance supervisor for the coast highway built here in the late '30s. Don constructed his own tourist campground along the same road in the '50s. "A few hippies thought they could make a living just by breaking into houses," he tells me, adding that a rougher element, some on motorcycles, hung out in the Redwood Lodge just up the road. "That place had a hard dope problem, with fights. I told the owner I'd clear it out if he wanted." McQueen admits to throwing "some people through windows" and to putting two troublemakers in a car, breaking the vehicle's distributor cap with a hammer, "so they couldn't start the engine," and shoving them downhill in the direction of Carmel, 26 miles to the north.

Today, the Redwood Lodge has long since been reborn as Fernwood, still a bar, but decidedly more upscale and friendlier. Big Sur's landscape, however, remains unchanged, wild country that has impressed—or intimidated—visitors since the arrival of the Spanish more than 400 years ago. Early seafarers stayed clear of the rock-toothed el país grande del sur (big country of the south), described in 1542 by the explorer Juan Cabrillo: "There are mountains which seem to reach the heavens, and the sea beats on them....It appears as though they would fall on the ships."

In 1770, the Spanish established a presidio and missionary headquarters in Monterey, capital of Alta (Upper) California, and soon founded a mission in Carmel. There, Father Junípero Serra set about enslaving and converting the coastal tribes who lived close by and any Indians who could be enticed from the inner reaches of inhospitable "El Sur."

In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War (1846-48), Mexico ceded California to the United States. In those early years, homesteaders could make a good living by felling redwoods—dangerous work in the steep canyons—and by harvesting tan oaks, used in the hide-tanning process. Supplies arrived in small steam vessels, braving a coast with little safe anchorage; timber went out the same way. The tiny population inhabiting the coast south of Monterey remained scattered.

Despite the fact that Big Sur's lone existing dirt track was hazardous and often washed out in rains or mudslides, a hardy few managed to pass this way. They included homesteaders; tourists who stayed in roughhewed "resorts," run by families like the Pfeiffers, descendants of the original 19th-century settlers; and, in the '20s and '30s, what might be called a new creative class. Among them was the poet Robinson Jeffers, an East Coast transplant who came to Big Sur in 1914 and built two stone houses on a wild spit of land near Carmel, today a National Historic Site. Jeffers, who would be thought of as the poet laureate of the environmental movement, called Big Sur "the noblest thing I have ever seen."

Helmuth Deetjen, the son of a deacon in Bremen, Germany, and a Norwegian mother, arrived in Big Sur sometime around 1936, where he bought 60 acres in Castro Canyon and built a small compound that included a house, antiques store and inn. A student of music, philosophy, art and politics, Deetjen had attended Germany's University of Heidelberg, where one of his classmates was an art student named Adolf Hitler. (Deetjen claimed that his last words to Hitler were, "You just don't understand the American cowboy," and fled Europe because he knew what Hitler was capable of.) Deetjen imported a quirky combination of sophistication and hominess to Big Sur, reflected in his quaint Scandinavian-style cottages, constructed of native redwood.

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