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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Big Sirs of Big Sur

Big Sur is the short, anglicized name for el país grande del sur or "the big country of the south" because it was an impenetrable region south of Monterey, the capital of the Spanish colony of Alta California.  It is a unique spot in the U.S. for two reasons:  Cone Peak, the highest coastal mountain in the contiguous 48 states (5,155 feet above sea level); and arguably one of the most scenic driving routes in the world.

The famous "Dinosaur Rock" and Bixby Bridge.

The area basically runs along California State Route 1 between San Simeon and Carmel, covering 90 miles of coastline, and ranging from 3 to 20 miles inland. Since its discovery by non-natives, it has remained almost inaccessible.  Up until the 1920s only two of the few homes in the entire region had electricity from water wheels and windmills.  In the early 1950s connections were made to the California electric grid.  Highway 1, a two-lane road, was completed in 1937 as the Roosevelt Highway, but in 1939 it was incorporated into the state highways system and renamed.  It was designated as the first State Scenic Highway in 1965.

Image courtesy Stan Russell/www.bigsurcalifornia.org.

It remains sparsely populated today, with no urban areas but small clusters of businesses.  The area economy is based on tourism, although there is less than 300 rooms on the entire 90-mile stretch with 3 gas stations, according to the Chamber of Commerce.  There are no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food outlets, and the area adheres to strict codes which do not allow billboards or commercial development, as well as prohibitions against any new construction within view of the highway.

Image courtesy of Lee W. Nelson.

This is unusual in a state where coastlines are studded with pricey enclaves of expensive homes.  Protected once by its remoteness, it is now also protected by law and the efforts of environmentalists.  Despite and because of its isolation, the area attracts nature lovers and artists of all media.  Specifically, this rustic, secluded landscape has attracted a number of famous writers.

Jeffers in 1937, photographed by Carl Van Vechten.

John Robinson Jeffers, the poet and environmentalist, was one of the first to succumb to Big Sur's beauty.  Jeffers was known as an outdoorsman, and his work speaks of the natural world in epic form, often compared to the ancient Greek poets.  Most of his poems were set in Big Sur and explored the relationship of humans to the beauty of nature.  He was at his peak in the 1920s and 1930s, but his popularity declined and his work questioned after his opposition to U.S. involvement in WWII.

Hawk Tower, named for a hawk that appeared when Jeffers was
working on the structure then disappeared when it was done.

Hawk Tower on left, Tor House on right.  Tor House was his home where he
wrote his major poetical works.  Image courtesy of www.torhouse.org.

Although his work has been marginalized, Jeffers has been translated and published all over the world, and influenced many authors.  He also has been admired by several photographers of the early 20th century, including Ansel Adams, Morley Baer, and Edward Weston.  Today he is an icon for environmentalists.

Henry Miller in 1940, photographed by Carl Van Vechten.

Henry Valentine Miller was a novelist and painter.  His work was initially banned in the U.S. as it was considered obscene with detailed accounts of sexual encounters.  He had moved to Paris in 1930, but returned to the U.S. ten years later and settled in Big Sur where he continued to write challenging works.  His banned books were smuggled into the country, giving him an underground, notorious reputation, and inspiring the Beat Generation of writers.

The Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, founded by his friend, Emil White.
This houses a collection of his works and serves as a public gallery with
performances and workshop spaces for artists, musicians, and writers.
Image courtesy of the Henry Miller Library.

His book Tropic of Cancer was finally published in the U.S. in 1961 which led to obscenity trials resulting in a Supreme Court ruling that declared the book a work of literature.  But he was not just a fiction writer; he wrote excellent travel books, especially about Greece.  After his death at the age of 88, his ashes were scattered in the waters off Big Sur.

Richard Brautigan

The troubled writer Richard Brautigan's first novel was A Confederate General From Big Sur.  It met with little success, but his other novel which followed was Trout Fishing in America, which brought him fame and labeled him a representative of the counterculture of the late 1960s.  Although he was averse to middle class values and conformity he is not considered a Beat writer.  There is not a great deal of information about his life, but at some point(s) he experienced and was inspired by Big Sur.

Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo, circa 1956.

Jean-Louis "Jack" Kerouac was one of the founders of the Beat Generation.  After he attained fame and acclaim, he needed to escape his life on Long Island:  "Drunken visitors puking in my study, stealing books and even pencils...Me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all of this but finally realizing I was surrounded and outnumbered and had to get away to solitude again or die." (Quoted from his book Big Sur.)  He found it at Big Sur in a little cabin.  The cabin was owned by his friend, Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

He wrote the novel in 1962.  It is another autobiographical fiction piece telling of the events of his alter-ego living at Big Sur.  Another quote from the book:  "So later when I heard people say 'Oh Big Sur must be beautiful?' I gulp to wonder why it has the reputation of being beautiful above and beyond its fearfulness, its Blakean groaning roughrock Creation thoes, those vistas when you drive the coast highway on a sunny day opening up the eye for miles of horrible washing sawing."  In 2012 the movie Big Sur is due out - based on the novel and filmed in Big Sur.

Hunter S. Thompson in 1988.

Hunter Stockton Thompson, the creator of Gonzo journalism, where reporters become the stars of their own stories, was also a brief resident of Big Sur.  For eight months he worked as a caretaker and security guard at the Big Sur hot springs in 1961 (now the Esalen Institute).  During this time he wrote two novels, Prince Jellyfish and The Rum Diary, as well as short stories but with no success. (The Rum Diary was eventually published in 1998.)  He did get a national publication (Rogue magazine) to publish his feature on the bohemian culture of Big Sur, but the publicity got him fired from the hot springs.

These writers have one thing in common, besides an appreciation of raw beauty: they are iconoclasts.  A rare and untamed wildness attracts the rare and untamed. There is a synchronism there.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.


  1. Thanks for the memories: I bought 'Troutfishing in America' in a 2nd hand store not long after it's publication. Have you read it? Probably the worst 98 cents I ever spent. Even worse than the script of 'I am curious Yellow', and that was pretty bad! Throw in 'Even Cowgirls Get the Blues' and I can say no over-rated literature I've read since compares to this perfect Trifecta of awfulness. To have read these and considered them of merit was a badge of your hip, counterculture coolness. On the other hand, Leonard Cohen and Richard Farinas books were excellent literature. But who else has heard of them, much less actually read them? ('The Spice Box Earth' and 'Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me').

  2. Yes, I read "Troutfishing" as a teen and thought it was, as you say, hip and counterculture cool. I read "Cowgirls". But I also read Rod McKuen. ;-) However, I think we were much better read than today when teens read "Twilight."