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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

Across Highway 1, on land once settled in 1848 by New Englander William Brainard Post, lies the posh Post Ranch Inn and its restaurant, Sierra Mar. Guests dine on ahi tuna and braised Kobe beef and gaze upon the ocean and, if they're lucky, gray whales bound for Baja. But beyond the tasteful confines of these resorts, there is unemployment and an acute housing shortage. Craig von Foerster, Sierra Mar's chef, lived in a van at the side of Highway 1 in his early days at the inn. Even today, he adds, "If you drive south toward [the town of] Lucia after 10 p.m., you'll see dozens of cars in the pull-offs. In most of them are the people who do Big Sur's work, asleep."

Big Sur's physical beauty extends to the 340,000 acres within Los Padres National Forest, a two-million-acre preserve that incorporates the Ventana wilderness on the eastern side of Big Sur's mountain ridge. Yet this backcountry, attainable only by several hours of difficult hiking, is rarely seen by visitors or residents. (A dirt road maintained by the U.S. Forest Service is closed to traffic.)

"Big Sur's all about the mountains and ocean, and the interface of the two," says Bruce Emmens, a 30-year veteran of the Forest Service, who is driving me to a view of massive green headlands, sunk like giant claws into the deep-blue Pacific. As he pulls the SUV to a stop, off to the left eight condors glide on thermals fed by a relentless sun.

Part of Emmens' job is helping to work out agreements that allow the federal government to acquire additional property and remove it from development. In 2002, for example, he participated in the largest recent transaction, a deal that transferred 1,200 acres of the old Brazil Ranch to public ownership, thereby providing the Forest Service access to the ocean and blocking plans for a hotel and condominiums. Some 500,000 acres in and around Big Sur were already protected by complex agreements involving both public and private entities. (Even so, palatial, if tasteful, houses continue to be built in prime spots, usually out of sight of the road, for owners including media mogul Ted Turner and television producer Paul Witt.)

In 2006, David Zimmerman took Buddhist vows at the Zen Center in San Francisco. Today, he is the monk who directs Tassajara, the first Zen monastery founded in the United States. "Tassajara," he says, "is the Esselen word for ‘a place to dry meat.'" (It is believed that the Indians used the site for this purpose.) Today, as many as 70 monks offer sanctuary to up to 85 guests at a time at Tassajara. Most stay for a few days. Some 5,000 pilgrims annually descend the bone-jarring dirt road to the monastery. Douglas and Anna, two self-described "life coaches" from San Rafael, California, are partaking of its amenities for half the $157 per person daily rate by chopping vegetables—"lots of onions"—in the morning. Afternoons, they swim in the crystal-clear water of the narrows on Tassajara Creek, or soak in the hot- springs-fed bathhouse.

Visitors are invited to follow the rhythms of the monastery: mornings filled with meditation; the sounds of chanting; and the ringing of a bell summoning guests to meals. At 8:30 p.m., a call to meditation sounds in the dimly lit zendo, or meditation hall, where a monk assigns everyone to a cushion facing the wall. The whisper of bare feet on creaking floorboards is the only sound, followed by soft bell strikes, then 4o minutes of silence. A light tapping on a drum and the muted ringing of a bell signal the end of meditation. Outside, the night is dark, cold and exhilarating. "It gets in your blood," says Zimmerman.

The road leading up to Partington Ridge follows a steep, twisting trajectory, rising from Highway 1 through coastal scrub—manzanita and yellow-blooming chamise—past a hand-lettered sign that dates to the '60s: "Caution: children, dogs, horses, poets, artists, and flowers at play."

Kevin and Jeannie Alexander, their 10-year-old son, Ryin, and 13-year-old daughter, Kaili, live in a 1920s house on the ridge that Kevin, a successful builder, is expanding. Kevin grew up in Big Sur as part of an itinerant family living in shacks, bathing free at the old Esalen and pouring cold water over his head in the mornings—the family equivalent of a shower. "We liked to keep things simple," he says.

"The old Big Sur values are dying off," Jeannie tells me. "Poets, artists and beatniks used to live off the land. They could just squat on a place and write a letter to the owner, who would write back and say, ‘Great. Just keep an eye on it.' Some new owners just move their old lives into new multi-million-dollar houses. The paradox is that rich people provide some jobs for those who stayed." In recent years, she adds, "we've lost 50 percent of the locals, as people sell out. Most service jobs are done now by recently arrived Hispanics; their children make up more than half the primary-school students."

The Alexanders say they are thankful for a life that they perceive as at odds with the American norm. "I see a difference in the kids up here," says Jeannie. "There's no television, no mall, no cellphone. They read a lot. They've got a feel for the land that kids in town don't have."


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus