Big Sur’s California Dreamin’

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

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)
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What became a local institution—Deetjen's Big Sur Inn—included a score of snug cottages, heated by wood-burning stoves. (Even today, guests who don't mind roughing it will find Deetjen's cabins to their liking.) Inside the cramped, low-ceilinged main building, pottery, sculpture and paintings, many of them created by a long succession of Big Sur artists, occupied walls and shelves when I arrived here in 1963. The funky display, now invested with a time-warped charm, is still there, just as I first saw it.

Deetjen had built much of the furniture himself. The food served in the little restaurant was basic, but appetizing. Certain attitudes of the '60s seemed to have derived from a quotation that Deetjen had carved into a lintel in the dining room, a passage from Mozart's The Magic Flute: "Within these sacred portals revenge and hate must cease/The souls of straying mortals in love will find release."

In 1937, completion of the coastal highway linking Northern and Southern California marked the biggest change to Big Sur since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Virtually overnight, the still-wild coast had become accessible by car, which brought an influx of even more artists, writers and mavericks of all stripes seeking an alternative to what novelist Henry Miller—a friend of Deetjen's and soon to be Big Sur's most celebrated literary figure—would refer to as America's "air-conditioned nightmare."

Miller had settled in a house on a slope above Partington Canyon, a ravine about four miles south of Deetjen's, in 1944. There he produced Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, a rambling account of the area's unfettered lifestyle. "The ideal community," he wrote in Big Sur, "would be the loose, fluid aggregation of individuals. It would be a God-filled community, even if none of its members believed in God. It would be a paradise." But in 1960 Miller lost his paradise, abandoning his fourth wife, Eva McClure, and two teenage children to go to Europe with Caryl Hill Thomas, a local waitress in her early 20s.

Eventually, in 1981, the Big Sur painter Emil White—a friend of Miller's—donated his redwood house on Highway 1, not far from Partington Canyon, to create the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Housing a trove of Miller's papers, the library today serves as a cultural and educational center. In season, an outdoor screen is raised across the backdrop of mountain and conifers so movies can be shown under the stars. Benefit concerts have featured artists such as Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Henry Rollins and Philip Glass. "All part of a mix that Miller would have approved of," says the library's director, Magnus Toren.

Miller's breakthrough novel, Tropic of Cancer, had been published in 1934 in Paris, where most of the story was set. The work was hailed by critics, but its explicit sexuality caused it to be banned in the United States until 1964. By then, Miller was being succeeded by the so-called beatnik writers, including Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road, an homage to cross-country road tripping and emergent alternatives to conventional American life, became a must-read for a new, rebellious generation.

Kerouac's friend, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and publisher of the poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and other Beat writers, had bought a cabin on Bixby Creek in 1960. Ferlinghetti's hideaway was prominently featured in Kerouac's 1962 novel, Big Sur, which recounted his brief, alcohol-fueled stay there the year before. Richard Brautigan's surreal A Confederate General from Big Sur was another fictional account of his own interlude there in 1961 or so. He described the rugged coast as "that thousand-year-old flophouse for mountain lions... that million-year-old skid row for abalone." Not surprisingly, the novel's laid-back, mood-enhanced characters are in rebellion against the status quo, inhabiting a landscape that was fast becoming, he wrote, "a hotbed of Secession."

By the late '60s, Big Sur had become known as the gravitational center of LSD and free love, an image it has never really shed, or even tried to. The Esalen Institute, the spa and self-styled spiritual center that became ground zero of the so-called human potential movement, contributed mightily to that myth. Co-founded by counterculture pioneer Michael Murphy, whose family had acquired some 27 Big Sur acres in 1910, the center was named, with a slight alteration in spelling, for the indigenous Esselen Indians, a tribe that had frequented the hot springs there. (Henry Miller once did his laundry in the springs' bubbling pools, according to local lore. Other notable visitors to the springs included novelist John Steinbeck and British author and social critic Aldous Huxley.)

Murphy's passion was Eastern religions; in 1960 he had teamed up with Richard Price, a psychology student at Stanford, to create a community where no single religion or philosophy would take precedence. This quickly evolved into a fusion of Eastern and Western traditions, one answer to Huxley's call for the exercise of transcendent "human potentialities." Esalen, which opened its doors in 1962, had an enormous influence on the counterculture tsunami that would partly define the decade. (Huxley would come to be regarded as the intellectual father of that movement.)

In its early days, the Esalen Institute had a staff of six, including Murphy and Price, who had leased the property from Murphy's grandmother. Murphy handled programming and Price oversaw administration. Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, says that he regards the early days of Esalen as "a kind of magical moment, during which there was a real synergy between a small group of cosmopolitan intellectuals and a vibrant youth culture."


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