Life on the Edge
Rugged coast and new age enclave, Big Sur retains its quirky charm six decades after the Beat Generation made this the hub of bohemian hedonism
By John Gottberg
The Big Sur coastline is one of the most stunning on the North American continent. In a 90-mile stretch midway between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, its forested green hills fall dramatically to the rocky shore of the Pacific. Streams race steeply from the heights of the Santa Lucia Range, creating waterfalls and narrow canyons, leaving white-sand beaches where they meet the saltwater. On either side are walls of granite, twisted and tormented by crashing waves. And above the cliffs, rare California condors use their nine-foot wingspans to ride the updrafts as they search for prey.
Quirky modern homes cling perilously to the hillsides, their cloistered residents hoping to catch glimpses of migrating whales when morning fog dissipates into mist on the distant horizon. Only a few hundred yards inland, luxurious resorts stand side-by-side with makeshift cabins, nestling hobbit-like beneath majestic redwood trees.
Between the sea and the mountains, California State Highway 1 meanders from San Simeon to Carmel, its every twist and turn revealing memorable new landscapes. Each viewpoint seems to trump the one before it, whether a panorama of a seascape or a lighthouse or a wondrously built bridge.
Once populated by Native American tribes, Big Sur was largely ignored by Spanish missionaries and Mexican colonists. After white settlers homesteaded the land in the wake of the California gold rush, a 20-mile wagon road was pushed south from Carmel. But Highway 1 was not completed through Big Sur until 1937—and it took the arrival of a controversial author during the Second World War years to provide a spark for the visitor industry.
Henry Miller (1891-1980) settled in Big Sur in 1944 and lived there for 18 years. Unabashedly hedonistic, Miller first raised American censors’ hackles with the publication of “Tropic of Cancer” in Paris in 1934. Until the 1960s, many of his books were banned in the United States as pornographic, but they found their way into the hands of avid readers and Beat generation writers. Miller’s novel “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch” (1957) cemented his reputation as a California coast writer.
Today his legacy is revered in Big Sur. The Henry Miller Memorial Library, a rambling bookshop set back among the redwoods off Highway 1, offers a wide selection of Miller’s books and paintings, as well as those of others he knew in California and in France. It’s a place worth a visit for any devoted reader.
Among his Beat followers was Jack Kerouac, who followed Miller to Big Sur and set big parts of two of his novels on this rugged coast. Kerouac modeled many characters after other Beat authors with whom he shared time in Big Sur, including Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Alan Watts. And novelists John Steinbeck and Richard Brautigan, poet Robinson Jeffers, and photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston often depicted Big Sur in their work.
There were also actors aplenty. In 1944, Orson Wells bought a rustic log cabin for his wife, Rita Hayworth; today it has been incorporated into the Nepenthe restaurant. Kim Novak and Steve McQueen lived in Big Sur with their spouses in the ’60s and ’70s. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton filmed #The Sandpiper# on this coast in 1964; Clint Eastwood directed and starred in the 1971 movie #Play Misty for Me#.
Today, Big Sur is a curious blend of back-to-nature and ultra-wealthy. A hippie element is still highly visible at places like the Big Sur Bakery and the adjacent Spirit Garden, where a resident artist may be seen crafting human-size “spirit nests.”
Elsewhere, the galleries are considerably more upscale. The Coast Gallery—a unique indoor-outdoor, six-gallery complex—displays the work of more than 250 artists from California’s central coast, all over the United States, and overseas. The spectacular Hawthorne Gallery features the work of just 12 artists, including contemporary master Gregory Hawthorne and his extended family.
Traveling Highway 1
Traveling north from The Morgan Hotel at San Simeon, Highway 1 first passes the entrance to Hearst Castle, the spectacular estate of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (1883-1951). The eclectic, 165-room mansion was designed by San Francisco architect Julia Morgan, for whom Broughton’s San Simeon property was named.
The road meanders north through rolling hills for about 35 miles before reaching the cliffs of Big Sur. Keep an eye out for the Esalen Institute, a leader in the “human potential” movement since the early 1960s. Seminars and workshops on a variety of subjects, from psychology and Eastern religion to yoga and massage, are regularly offered.
North of Esalen are a series of state parks. The best-known feature of rugged Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is McWay Falls, plunging 80 feet to an ocean beach. At wind-whipped Pfeiffer Beach, massive sea stacks divide a sheltered cove from a broader beach that draws local surfers to challenge the elements. Typically, the conditions are far from user-friendly. Between the strands, giant waves crash through natural tunnels carved through solid granite by thousands of years of constant erosion.
Trails wind through more than 800 acres of redwoods, pine, and oak trees at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which surrounds Pfeiffer Creek and the Big Sur River. The rustic Big Sur Lodge has provided lodging and meals to guests since 1908.
Point Sur State Historic Park preserves the Point Sur Light Station, built in 1889. Appearing from Highway 1 as a nearly impregnable bastion, it overlooks the wave-raked Pacific from the brink of a 272-foot-high volcanic bluff, connected to the mainland by a sandbar. Three-hour guided tours, by reservation, take in the original stone lighthouse and keepers’ houses.
Should you get hungry along your drive, there are two great dining spots to consider. There is no grander vista in all of Big Sur than from the outdoor dining terrace at Nepenthe, family-owned since 1947. Standing more than 800 feet above the sea, the restaurant serves a variety of gourmet lunches and dinners. My favorite is the Ambrosia burger, served with avocado on French bread.
Nearby, Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn has a homespun restaurant with outstanding breakfasts and dinners. Norwegian immigrant Helmuth Deetjen opened the inn the year Highway 1 was completed; the property is now a foundation-operated National Historic Site.
Gateway to Big Sur
Located north of Cambria and just minutes from Hearst Castle, The Morgan at San Simeon pays homage to that historic property’s architect, Julia Morgan. The Central Coast’s only boutique hotel, The Morgan is ideally situated at the southern end of Big Sur. For more information, visit broughtonhotels.com or call 800-451-9900.
On the Road: Recommended reads
“Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch,” by Henry Miller
Miller’s unconventional musings transport the reader into his apparently tranquil, yet tumultuous, world while living in Big Sur. Visiting the area will help you better understand his unorthodox writing: the beauty of the place is difficult to describe with words, even for a master.
“Big Sur,” by Jack Kerouac
This Kerouac classic is set largely in Big Sur’s fictional “Raton Canyon” (said to be modeled after Bixby Canyon) during the summer of 1960 and describes the Beat Generation author’s own mental breakdown.
“Down to a Soundless Sea,” by Thomas Steinbeck
Written by the son of American literary legend John Steinbeck, this collection of stories conveys Central Coast history and lore. Many of the works explore supernatural themes related to Native American tribes from Big Sur, like the Rumsen and the Esselen.
“Day Hikes Around Big Sur: 80 Great Hikes,” by Robert Stone
One of the go-to guides for Big Sur hikers and nature walkers, this book includes a variety of hikes to accommodate different recreation goals and abilities. The description of each hike includes a map, directions, and a summary.
Books available at all major bookstores and online at amazon.com.