When I still young but so much older and recently divorced (yes, the first time), I drove over that bridge in a fog inside the car and out, and I felt brave, enormously brave and fierce and independent.
This time I was simply in awe. I got out of the car first, before I crossed, and stood on the cliff with no railing down to the ragged, jagged cliffs crashing into sea. I let the salt air hit my lungs and frizz my hair. And it felt so familiar in a primal kind of way.
For so very many years, maybe 30 now, I had promised myself a return to Big Sur "when I had the time." I no more had the time this time then any other time, but I had finally claimed it anyway. After attending to the elder-care issues of my mother in the Bay Area, I took my little rental car and just started driving south from Half Moon Bay, where I stay when I visit her. I sent an email to a friend of a friend, who found me a room in a stunning property for half of half, maybe less, of the rack rate.
The days did not disappoint. The fog burned off and Santa Cruz became Capitola became Carmel and then no more towns for 90 miles just that unspoiled remote wildness known as Big Sur. It has long been shrouded in mystery and mystical incantations created by old-growth, Middle-Earth-style, cinnamon-colored giant redwood trees and the bright green cliffs ending in the ocean and rivers and crystal clear waterfalls landing on the beach. You hear the whisperings of ghosts from Henry Miller to Ginsberg to Huxley who, at various times, called the place home.
When I drove into a tiny gathering of buildings/campsites/grocery/gas pumps, I pulled over my rental car was nearly empty. I drove up to the gas pumps next to a stationary, really old, Airstream-style trailer/office. A young man came out and looked at me and my car and motioned me to a different pump. My rental car gas tank was on the opposite side as my own car. I said thanks and he nodded. And as I began to fill the tank, he did the most amazing thing: He pulled out a long-handled squeegee and he washed my windows, all of them. It was at that moment I knew I had entered another time dimension. I finished filling the tank, hung up the pump and pulled a few ones out of my jacket pocket and handed them to him. He looked quizzically at what I had done. I thanked him. He said nothing, but he sorta smiled.
I think this really happened.
When I went into the tiny grocery where you could buy wine and gourmet chocolate and bait and a frying pan, I looked at the folks inside who were clearly locals. This is apparently where tie-dyed, gray-haired hippies come to die. I felt kinship and (perhaps chocolate-induced) bliss. I drove a few more miles and checked into my amazing lodging with the view of the ocean from high above on the cliff and I fell fast asleep. I woke up hours later with the ocean fog creeping over my deck and chilling my room, which fortunately had a fireplace and the biggest bathtub I have ever sunk into. On the edge of the tub, in an abalone half shell, was carefully poured about a pound of chunky bath salts and, next to that, fresh rosemary in a tiny vase.
I woke in the morning with the birds before dawn. And I read and made some tea and then slept some more. Then I gathered myself up for some exploring and set about to drive farther down the coast to a hermitage that I learned was in a remote area two miles above the highway deep in the Santa Lucia Mountains.
We found each other about an hour later.
The views were so expansive that belief was undisputed. The tiny chapel was set farther up the hill and the little hermitage rooms all overlooked the sea. There was a gift/book store and I spent some time talking to the monk on duty and gathering some gifts. I sat for a spell on bench and scribbled some notes but mostly just vegetated/meditated on the raw, unspoiled beauty.
Most of my life, encounters with the ocean have me level with it, on a beach looking straight out the water, flat on my horizon. These views, looking so far down at the ocean, were dizzying. I felt one with the eagles and pelicans and giant ravens and released endangered condors who took turns flying at my eye level. A little piece of me rode on their wings through the redwoods and over the ocean, watching the waves and the fish swimming just under the surface.
I had less than 48 hours before my flight left back to Utah and I was determined to make each of them count. I was determined to do nothing and do it well.
To be continued
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.