Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?
On The Road
I love a good road trip, so I spontaneously decided to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway by myself and see the fabled landscape of Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia Mountains jut out from the ocean. This unplanned trip turned out to be weirdly awesome and beyond my wildest dreams.
I started up in San Francisco with a tank full of gas. I was supposed to leave early but wound up enjoying a late and leisurely brunch with great friends in the Haight-Ashbury. When we finally split up, I googled Big Sur to find any address I could plug into my GPS. First to pop up was a place called Nepenthe, so I began the marvelous drive down the beautiful Central Coast.
A couple of hours later, I arrived at the fantastic cliffside spot with a breathtaking vista of the ocean. Big Sur is, simply said, heartbreakingly stunning. I took deep, clean breaths as I scanned the never ending expanse of water and peered down the trees to the rocks far below. I also picked up some souvenirs and arty books at the Phoenix gift shop, and stopped to watch the sunset on the panoramic restaurant deck up top. Finally, as the sky was starting to get dim, I decided I’d better get back on the road if I was to arrive in L.A. at a reasonable hour. As I headed to my car however, I totally randomly ran into two artist/curator friends from New York City whom I haven’t seen in over 5 years. Of all places on the globe we could have met, I run into them on a cliffside parking lot, in Big Sur which is miles and miles away from either of our home bases. I know, totally weird!
Gala and Ben were road tripping down the PCH with their friends Brett and Franklin (who I later discovered are friends with my friends that I had brunch with that same morning!) down the coast to set up an installation at Art Platform LA. Their next stop the following day was the landmark Madonna Inn, noted for it’s oddly decorated rooms. (I’ll have to check it out someday.)
Ben stated matter-of-factly, “…I’m not surprised to see you here.” and added, “It’s fate!” And even I had to admit that it was all just too random not to be destiny.
We caught up over drinks until it got pretty dark. I figured it was probably time for me to start driving down the coast again. They insisted it was too dark and too late to drive 6+ hours down treacherously winding mountain passes. They were right.
So they graciously invited me to join them for dinner at Deetjen Inn, with the added lure that Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac had dined there regularly. How could I resist going to an establishment frequented by two of my heros? So I accepted their invitation and we feasted on luscious, fresh oysters with a sprinkling of seaweed and caviar. Totally amazing.
Deetjen is a great little spot and there is a sign over one of the archways which reads:
the souls of straying mortals in love will find release.” – Mozart, The Magic Flute
That curious quote would foreshadow the strange and magical experience to follow just later that evening…
After the fantastic dinner, Gala and Ben freely offered me their extra reservation for the Esalen Institute from 1AM-3AM. I had no idea what Esalen was or what happens there, and why it happens during such late hours. I did not know at the time that it’s a famous retreat and residential community in Big Sur that hosts workshops on meditation, massage, yoga, psychology, ecology, spirituality, etc. and that the key geological attraction there is the natural hot springs on the cliffside.
Surrendering to the moment and the spirit of exploration, I said “yes!” The next thing I know, we’re hiking down, down, down the steep cliff with a half dozen people, past these wooden cabins towards an open cement structure by the Pacific. We all quietly disrobed in a dimly lit foyer, and moments later stepped into the wondrous hot spring baths just a mere 50 feet from the undulating ocean. I completely let go and just free floated like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, completely entranced by the unbelievable map of stars and constellations overhead. The experience was so profoundly healing that I could feel broken parts of myself mending in the steaming mineral bath. Shooting stars would occasionally whiz by the massive night sky, as I listened to the sound of my heartbeat sync up with the pulse of the sea.
It was truly one of the most transcendental experiences I’ve ever had. Everything was so surreal, it felt like I was in another world.
After two hours of deep soaking, we climbed back up the cliff and headed to this lovely inn and spa called Ventana, where we slept like content, swaddled newborns. (Ben read me an article that claims one must enjoy Ventana for “the excitement of quiet!” That I totally did. I need that kind of excitement more often.)
Had none of those random delays happened earlier that day in San Francisco, I never would have at the exact perfect moment converged with old friends on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere, and wound up swimming naked under the stars with the Pacific Ocean serenading us with haunting whispers. For all of that bizarre synchronicity, I am incredibly grateful. And I am extra happy I got to spend that night in Big Sur, for that allowed me to also enjoy the beauty of the astonishing landscape of the Central Coast by daylight the next morning, with the sunshine and fog painting the picturesque cliffs and the aquamarine of the ocean at crystal saturation.
For the first time, I noticed a difference in the American oceans. I absolutely love and adore Cape Cod on the East Coast, the calm Atlantic waters and shores having an almost feminine quality, so welcoming and nurturing… most of the time. But I also fell completely in love with the pounding waters of Big Sur, the giant waves crashing violently into the jagged rocks and cliffs, with the surrounding redwoods, tall and imposing like fortress walls. It’s a different kind of peacefulness in Big Sur, the kind that mirrors and satisfies the soul of an adventuring traveler in a perpetual state of unrest.
I had to eventually drag my feet back to my car, not ready to return to the absurd cluster of traffic and hullabaloo of Los Angeles. I got myself a soy latte to make the return a little more tolerable (it helped). I drove past the Henry Miller Library on Highway 1 and made a pact with myself that I would someday go inside. I can understand why Miller went to Big Sur for a visit and wound up staying for almost 20 years. Other notable visitors and residents include Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak. After just a brief but unforgettably enchanting stay, I definitely intend to spend some extended time there someday. (I immediately started looking up artist residencies and work study programs as soon as I got home… wish me luck!) Big Sur is truly a special place that I hope to explore further in the near future.
Anyway, the rest of the drive down the Pacific Coast is pretty spectacular, and I highly recommend adding that road trip to your bucket list if you haven’t already. Other scenic spots worth visiting are the adorably quaint Carmel-by-the-Sea, the Mediterranean-esque landscape of Cayucos and good ol’ Pismo Beach. You can see the rest of my photos in the following album:
And if you ever find yourself near Big Sur after midnight, by all means, please go visit the hot springs at Esalen. They are only open to the public between 1-3AM, by reservation only. I found the experience life changing, and I hope that you might one day too.
Happy travels to you all. And to my dear friends who shared this wacky adventure with me, may I run into you guys again in some other random magical place on this Earth when we least expect it.