Big Sur’s California Dreamin’

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

Post Ranch Inn Big Sur California
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

"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.

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."

In the beginning, Esalen was open to anyone "and free to good-looking women," says Mary Lu Toren, a professional gardener and wife of Miller Library director Magnus Toren. The original idea, she says, grew out of the Esselen Indians' belief that the baths had healing qualities. Visitors bathed together nude. Scented tapers were placed at the edge of the pools, intended to counter the sulfur fumes seeping from the water. "I can still smell those lovely candles," Toren recalls. "No one talked. You looked out at the ocean, or up at the hills. No negative thoughts were allowed, and the baths weren't for partying."

That came soon enough, along with the ever-increasing presence of drugs, sex and general misbehavior. One night in 1961, so the story goes, Esalen founders Murphy and Price, accompanied by folk singer Joan Baez and some other Esalen regulars, walked to the baths with Dobermans on leashes and dispersed a group of drug-addled revelers from San Francisco who had convened for an orgy.

Esalen evolved into a venue for psychotherapists of every persuasion; proponents of meditative and massage techniques; and academics from many disciplines. Co-founder Price was killed, at age 55, in 1985 by a falling boulder, while hiking in a Big Sur canyon. Many people, says Toren, felt that "with him died an era of honesty and openness, of true spirituality and integrity."

Murphy continued on alone, overseeing Esalen and attempting to put the institute on a more secure financial footing, largely by bringing in more paying guests for workshops and seminars. (Murphy remains involved in Esalen's work but stepped down as chairman in June 2008.)

In 1998, El Niño-induced rains triggered a mudslide that ripped away most of the old Esalen bathhouse. The $5 million replacement cost included hillside stabilization and an earthquake-proof foundation.

Today, workshops are offered for substantial fees in a quirky array of blissed-out topics, from Harmonic Presence: Primordial Wisdom to The Music of the Spheres. Last year, some 15,000 guests attended Esalen; an all-inclusive weekend stay costs a minimum of $385. Esalen director Gordon Wheeler, a clinical psychologist from Harvard, was hired in 2004 and charged with putting Esalen firmly into the black. "We've always been about personal and social transformation," which, he adds, means developing heightened awareness that "the world's in tough shape," and, as a result, "we have to step up locally as well as globally." As for Big Sur, Wheeler says "it's the land of the individualist and legendary because of that. It's outlaw country."

From time to time, sections of coast highway pavement, destabilized by torrential winter rains, have plunged into the ocean. (In 1983, a heavy-equipment operator was killed during road repairs, after a landslide sent him and the machine over a cliff.) Beginning in the 1960s, Don McQueen helped repair these gaps; McQueen recalls 20-hour workdays, rain so intense that workers couldn't hear each other talk, and a wall of mud slamming down the Little Big Sur River and, in less than a half-hour, washing out the road.

McQueen also worked on Nepenthe, the bar, restaurant and Big Sur landmark named for the forgetfulness potion in Homer's Odyssey. Nepenthe opened in 1949 on a point just north of Castro Canyon, on land that had been owned by movie director Orson Welles and his wife, Rita Hayworth. It was patronized not only by locals but also by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, much of whose film The Sandpiper was shot there. (The 1965 movie concerned a free-spirited single mother living on an isolated stretch of California coastline.) "Nepenthe was incredibly welcoming in the hippie era," says Mary Lu Toren. "Every month, there was an astrological birthday party for locals, with dancing on the deck."

Just down the road, Helmuth Deetjen's Big Sur Inn was transformed into a nonprofit trust following his death, at age 76, in 1972. Today, its upscale menu and romantic setting attract baby boomers and younger couples. Organic Big Sur greens with chanterelles, Scottish salmon and New Zealand venison have replaced what manager Torrey Waag calls "Deetjen's mystery stew." But there is no Wi-Fi for visitors. "If a guest needs to get his e-mail," Waag says, "we send him up the road to the Henry Miller Library."

The Ventana Inn and Spa, which opened in 1975, was Big Sur's first luxury resort. Designed in an artfully rustic style, Ventana transformed Big Sur into a "destination," to the dismay of some locals, many of whom nevertheless showed up to play dominoes at the bar. "Then they got all formal," says a former patron. "Waiters and waitresses were told they couldn't hug their friends anymore when they arrived. [Local] people stopped going."

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."

On June 21, 2008, Mary Lu Toren, who lives down the road from the Alexanders, was gardening at a neighbor's house when, she recalls, "I saw clouds rolling in from the Pacific, lashed by electrical charges, dark, beautiful and scary. I knew what was coming."

What was coming was lightning. Kevin Alexander witnessed the first strike in a meadow across the canyon. "It was the loudest clap I've ever heard," he says. "Immediately flames came up, and I called it in." Firefighters were soon battling the downhill creep of a rapidly expanding fire; during the night it moved around the head of the canyon."I cut some trees to act as a firebreak, but the heat was so intense it melted the gutters on one house."

Last summer's Big Sur wildfire, which soon became known as the Basin Complex fire, put the coastline in jeopardy—and in the news. Winds fueled the blaze, pushing it down several mountainsides overlooking the Pacific. Helicopters dumped seawater, and two big Coast Guard planes spread fire retardant, but the sky turned orange and the air acrid. Cinders the size of dinner plates fell on the deck of Nepenthe. The little hamlet of Big Sur, as well as the state parks and many houses, lay directly in the fire's path.

Don McQueen quickly bought a $150,000 bulldozer and brought in his two sons, both of whom were living in England, to defend the family's 70 acres. "We worked nonstop for four days," he recalls, piloting his all-terrain vehicle up a steep service road above his house. Today, downslope, an eerie, ashen defile, once dense forest, is now punctuated with blackened tree trunks. "What I regret most," McQueen adds, "is the loss of so many redwoods all over Big Sur. That means massive mudslides when the rains come."

The fire lasted for more than five weeks, burned nearly 163,000 acres, consumed 26 Big Sur houses and scorched entire mountainsides. Fighting the fire cost the state and other agencies $77 million. The town of Big Sur was spared, as was the Ventana Inn—firefighters there were fed from the gourmet kitchen—Deetjen's and the Henry Miller Library. Because Highway 1 acted as a firebreak, the Post Ranch Inn, Nepenthe and Esalen—all on the ocean side of the road—also survived. In the backcountry, Tassajara lay in the path of another fire but was saved by the efforts of monks and firefighters, who wrapped the buildings in flame-retardant sheathing.

While Henry Miller's former residence was also saved, along with the house of Mary Lu Toren and her husband, Magnus, tongues of blackened earth still lick at the borders of all the properties. Many residents of Partington Ridge began laying in provisions—lentils, brown rice, powdered milk, gasoline—in anticipation of what they believed might well be the fire's aftermath: rain-fueled landslides.

The rains of 2009, so far, have turned out to be mercifully light. Residents, including Mary Lu Toren, hope that a second catastrophe will not materialize. "Look," she says, pointing to a redwood sprig in the scorched earth near her house. "New growth's already pushing through the ashes."

Writer James Conaway's most recent book is Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes. Photographer Catherine Karnow is based in Mill Valley, California.

During the wildfires in the summer of 2008, longtime resident Don McQueen enlisted his two sons—and brought in a bulldozer—to defend the family's 70 acres. "We worked nonstop for four days," he recalls. "What I regret most is the loss of so many redwoods all over Big Sur." Catherine Karnow
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
Restaurant at the Big Sur Inn. Catherine Karnow
In 1936, German immigrant Helmuth Deetjen opened his Big Sur Inn. "Guests who don't mind roughing it," writes the author, "will find Deetjen's cabins to their liking." Brooke Elgie
The Esalen Institute is a self-styled spiritual center where one can dine on produce from organic gardens. Catherine Karnow
In 1962, Michael Murphy and Richard Price founded the Esalen Institute. Courtesy of The Esalen Institute
Big Sur's rugged beauty first dazzled the author in 1963. "It seemed a mythic landscape," he writes, "of impenetrable chaparral and massive redwoods stitched to headlands plunging into an impossibly blue ocean. To live here was to view the world through a unique lens of beauty and peril." Catherine Karnow
Nepenthe was opened in 1949. "Nepenthe was incredibly welcoming in the hippie era," says Big Sur's Mary Lu Toren. "Every month, there was an astrological birthday party." Catherine Karnow
A scene from The Sandpiper in 1964 shot at Nepenthe. Courtesy of Nepenthe Restaurant
Lolly and Bill Fasset with writer Henry Miller in 1950. Courtesy of Nepenthe Restaurant
At the Tassajara Zen monastery, firefighters and monks joined forces to save the complex from a forest fire. Catherine Karnow
In June 2008, a forest fire engulfed Big Sur. "The heat was so intense," recalls resident Kevin Alexander, "it melted the gutters on one house" near his own. Kodiak Greenwood
Members of the Alexander family are longtime residents who live on a remote ridge. "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." Catherine Karnow

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