Robert Wernick, St. Simons Island, Georgia.
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Big Sur: Country-Club on the Edge

The people who live in the Big Sur country divide the people who drop off Highway 1 to see them into two categories.

There are the tourists, who complain that there are no telephones or televisions in the motel rooms and who say as they wait at the gas pump, "Where is all this wonderful scenery you keep talking about, all I see is trees."

And there are the visitors, who stand and look around and after a while they see a wisp of white fog coming up a dark gully, as a faint mixed scent of kelp and yerba buena floats through the air, or there is a giant condor spreading its wings before it dives on its prey, or a sea otter scraping mussels off a rock in the spray on the beach at the foot of a thousand-foot cliff, or a whale spouting out in the endless Pacific, and they say, There is something magic about this place.

Magic, which used to be a severe technical term is now an all-purpose word meaning anything distinctly out of the ordinary. And as such it is a perfectly accurate descriptive word for Big Sur. There is nothing precisely like it on this planet.

Every one who has ever got beyond the tourist stage on this narrow sixty-mile stretch of central California coast has at some time had the feeling, exhilarating or uneasy or simply puzzled, of being on an edge. The Ohlone Indians, who lived just north of here for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, have left behind them a song of which the refrain is, Dancing on the Edge of the World .

You are always on the edge in Big Sur, on the edge of cliffs plunging a thousand and more abrupt feet into the sea, on the edge of California where the bungalows and the billboards stop, on the edge of the United States where the bustling contrapuntal progress of the American dream bangs head on into the angry monotony of the Pacific Ocean.

Geologically speaking, the Big Sur country is not part of America at all. It is the cutting edge of the Pacific Tectonic Plate, one of the eight components of the current crust of planet Earth, This Plate has for the last 29 million years been grinding its way northwestward against the edge of the North American Plate, causing fearful landslides and earthquakes as it goes on its appointed course, at approximately the speed of a growing human finger nail, till the day it crashes into Alaska.

No wonder that the land bears everywhere the imprint of chaos, rock layers twisted and bent like the limbs a cypress tree which "the sailor wind works into deep-sea knots" in the words of the poet Robinson Jeffers.. No wonder there is an extraordinary jumble of vegetation here -- one authority has counted 444 different species of tree and shrub and herb and grass squeezed into one patch of 4000 acres -- redwood of the damp northern forests growing across the hill from yucca of the southern deserts, tanbark oak and sycamore and willow and eucalyptus and madrone, and the Santa Lucia fir which, is found nowhere else on earth,.all packed together like riders in a subway.. Nowhere will you see such a range of the color green in a narrow strip of landscape, from the pale absinthe of denuded hilltops to the terrible dark of cliffside gorges.

The climate here is technically known as Mediterranean, with wet winters and dry summers, and reasonably moderate temperatures throughout the year, more pleasant than the Mediterranean itself because cold water rising out of offshore sea canyons twelve miles deep breeds fogs which annoy the tourists but also cool down the summer days and help contain down the fires which periodically threaten to destroy every living thing between the mountain-tops and the sea..

It is a richly tormented landscape that never was and never will be fit for large-scale human habitation. And for all but a brief recent flicker of time, sensible humans have carefully avoided it.

Any one who ever came to Big Sur, says Esther Ewaldsen, whose grandfather established a homestead here more than a century ago, has been running away from something, whether the law or their family or their creditors. The Esselen Indians were driven here unwillingly three thousand years ago by tribes which were better equipped with modern technology like bows and arrows, and they were forced to subsist on a diet of game which had not been seen first by grizzly bears, and on the limpets and mussels clinging for dear life to the tidal rocks among the pelicans. In colonial days, when it was known as El Pais Grande Del Sur, meaning the inaccessible stretch of coast south of the provincial capital of Alto California at Monterey, it was a dark trackless wilderness, where outlaws hid out from service in the armed forces of Spain and Mexico as draft-dodgers would later hide out from the American army during the Viet Nam war. Smugglers quartered here, trappers like Jedediah Smith, after they had exterminated the beavers from the Rocky Mountain country for the European hat trade, came here to hunt the sea otters prowling the coastal rocks, (who were to be saved from being exterminated themselves only by the spread of false rumors that they were already extinct).

For a brief period toward the end of the 19th century there was some logging of tan-oaks to provide tannic acid for the leather trade, some gold-mining, some quarrying of limestone, but nothing remains of them except a few scars on the landscape. Adventurous voyagers might drop by, like Robert Louis Stevenson, who used the scenery as a backdrop for the tale of Treasure Island which he was making up for his step-son. A few hardy souls got their 320 acres under the Homestead Act of 1862 and tried with difficulty to make a living by farming or ranching on what small amounts of relatively level ground were available among all the cliffs and arroyos. They lived in a string of isolated homes, far from the encroaching comforts of civilization, united only as one of the present inhabitants puts it by a common desire to keep out the federales.

It was still a lost world when the young poet Robinson Jeffers came down to Big Sur with his bride Una in 1913. There was no paved road on the forty-mile stretch from Monterey to the tiny village of Big Sur and it took all day to cover it in a horse-drawn coach. A quarter century later he wrote of this journey:

"There had already been strong storms that winter and at Soberanes Creek the cypress tress around the farmhouse were blown to pieces. Sea lions roared on the Lobos Rocks off shore, while the man of the house told us that last night his hundred-pound grindstone, which he kept by the back door, had been blown around the house to the front steps; where it lay. In the gorge of Mill Creek we changed horses, near a lonely farmhouse where an eighty-year old man lay dying; he was dying hard, he had been dying for a week. On a magnificent hillside, opposite a mountain-peak stood a comparatively prosperous farmhouse, apple trees behind it, and the man who lived there had killed his father with rat-poison and married his step-mother..

"There were only five or six inhabitants in forty miles, but each had a story...We came down the Sur River, and passed the albino redwood that still grows there, shining in the forest darkness, shoots of snow-white foliage growing from the stump of a lightning-struck tree; not a human story but strange enough to be."

All of what was to be the world of the Jeffers poetry was there, the awesome scenery, the melodramatic tales of the torn and twisted souls stranded in it, the sense of a brooding danger, the sense above all that this was the end, the final point in both time and space of western civilization, a wild and tormented scene of which the only surviving monuments would be the waves in the ocean, the hawks in the air, and the poems of Robinson Jeffers.

Jeffers, prophet of a self-made stern and scornful creed he called Inhumanism ("Humanity is the mould to break away from") was to be the harbinger and bard of the last and still continuing wave of runaways to hit Big Sur, the refugees from the materialistic consumeristic culture of modern America. In his daily life Jeffers was a handsome charming and talented man, who left a physical monument in the form of the house and tower, the Tor, built by hand, by himself and his two young sons out of huge boulders tossed by the eight thousand giant waves which daily crash on the beach. From the beginning it has been a shrine for his admirers who in his lifetime ranged fromCharlie Chaplin to Charles Lindbergh, George Gershwin to Aldous Huxley (who saw him as a reincarnation of the ancient Greek tragedians). It was meant to stand in magnificent isolation dominating acres of wild land beside the pounding sea but Jeffers was compelled to sell all the acres to pay the county for services he felt no need of, like sewage, and it is now just one more dwelling among many behind hedges on a quiet street in what has become the tasteful gallery-rich community of Carmel-by-the Sea. Visitors file through it in silence as they file through museums, they see the room in the tower where the poet paced to the sullen beat of the waves while he composed his lines, (which have, says the critic Yvor Winters, "a hypnotic effect, much as does the jolting of a railroad coach over a bad roadbed"). On the floor below they look up at the holes in the ceiling beams made by Una's umbrella tip when she heard no noise upstairs and shouted in time to the umbrella strokes, "Pace, Robin, pace!"

"Walk on gaunt shores and avoid the people" was his advice to the world.. An English poet a couple of centuries before had put it more elegantly, praising undomesticated nature "where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile."This would become a cliché of Romantic literature and art, but until fairly recently Romantic poets and artists were content to write of the joys of the wilderness in comfortable urban or suburban houses. Only about a hundred years ago did they begin to actually move out into the wilds.

Such were Jeffers' contemporaries, the poets and painters of the San Francisco Bay region who by the opening of the 20th century found themselves strangling in the oppressively conformist and hypocritical atmosphere in what had once been the wide-open world of the forty-niners. (As late as 1946, my friend C. F. McIntyre, translator of French poets, was, or so he recounted, fired from the faculty of the University of California in Berkeley because he insisted on wearing a beret.) ,

These dissatisfied souls found a leader in George Sterling, a flamboyant writer who was called by his friends the greatest poet of his age and was indeed named official Poet Laureate of San Francisco. He was big noisy affectionate man who showed them how to build themselves little cabins or houses in the waste land near the ruins of the 18th century Carmel mission, places where they could come to commune with the wind and the waves, draw inspiration from the bobcats and the red-tailed hawks, drink from bottomless jugs and have an all-round good time. They would have not relished the comparison, but they were behaving much like the bankers and lawyers of Boston who had institutionalized the flight from crowded cities a few years earlier when, to escape from the stuffy conventions and routines of their offices on State Street and their homes on the river side of Beacon Street, they created what is still called The Country Club a few miles out among the trees and birds in Brookline, where they could take off their collars and let their hair down and have their own Bostonian forms of a good time..

Life in Carmel's country club might be noisily cheerful, one of its chroniclers refers to it as a perpetual beach-party, based on Sterling's discovery of a "iological law that a woman will prefer a one-tenth share of a man of genius to the total love of an ordinary man."But there was always an undertow of dissatisfaction. Nobody, as the critic Van Wyck Brooks observed, after spending a year with all the geniuses at Carmel, ever seemed to get any work done, "they gave themselves over to day-dreams while their minds ran down like clocks, as if they had lost the keys to wind them up with, and the tuned into beach-combers, listlessly reading books they had read ten times before and searching the rocks for abalones.".

The life of freedom turned out to be an empty life, and Sterling (followed by most of his friends) took to carrying around to carrying around in an inner pocket an envelope marked "Peace" and containing cyanide.

Among Sterling's disciples was a beautiful despondent young poet named Nora May French, author of the line, "All sensible people will ultimately be damned.," which her friends wrote, backwards and upside down, on the walls of Coppa's, the fashionable restaurant of the San Francisco literati, where it would remain until Coppa's was destroyed in the great San Francisco Earthquake. She was passionately in love with a young writer named Jimmy Hopper who responded to her passion with nothing more than "a deep and genuine affection." Mad with grief and rage, she laced a sandwich with some of her cyanide and offered it to him at the Sterling home, but her hands shook so that she dropped it and the Sterling dog got it first, went into convulsions and died. Nobody seemed to have made much of this incident for a few days later the Sterlings asked Nora May to stay overnight with them, and when she went to her bedroom she swallowed the rest of her cyanide.

Carrie Sterling would eventually take her own cyanide, and so did George, He had been twice hospitalized after visits from his friends the novelist Sinclair Lewis and the poet Edgar Lee Masters had proved that each of them could drink him under the table. When H. L. Mencken was late arriving at the Bohemian Club for a banquet at which he was to be the guest of honor, George, the toastmaster, went upstairs to his room to celebrate by himself, and the next morning they found him dead his bed, with charred manuscripts of poems beside him, and an envelope marked Peace.

While the scattered shacks put up by Sterling and his friends around Carmel as so many temples to Art were soon to be swallowed up by galloping suburbanization, all the coastline to the south still remained a waste-land, with only a few gruff loners willing to settle down on the edge of cliffs or up in the deep damp dark of gorges. Then in 1921 the state of California, suspecting it had a tourist mecca on its hands, began to construct Highway 1 along the cliff edges, over bridges spanning the torrents, through the groves, skirting the steep mountain meadows. They used convict labor for the job, and it was hard work, the land was so rough and so desolate they did not have to build a wall around the convicts, not one of them made a serious effort to run away. The road was not finished for sixteen years, and then the Great Depression with its bread-lines and World War II with its gas rationing took people's minds off the scenic coast of central California. Electricity and telephone lines were slow to follow the road builders, and it was not until 1958 when William Randolph Hearst's castle of San Simeon was opened to the public that the great flood of tourist vehicles which had been anticipated began to flow along Highway 1.

Hearst had once planned, and had sent out intermediaries, in various disguises, to buy up all the private property in the Big Sur country so that he could make it into a vast domain on the order of William the Conqueror's New Forest where he could lead cavalcades of celebrity guests and retainers from one hunting camp to another, but he ran out of funds in the Depression years..Other less ambitious immigrants were meanwhile slipping in, people who had in one way or another felt the lure of this distant isolated land, rich people looking for quiet vacation homes, veterans looking to escape their memories of war, Hollywood people looking for romantic hideaways, artistic people looking for secret places where their genius could flower, ordinary people looking for jobs as carpenters or waitresses, loners and drifters and derelicts looking for a quiet cleft or cranny outside the whirring machine of American life, every one of them looking for something different, out of the ordinary, magic.

Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, driving south on Highway 1 fell in love with and bought a little log cabin on a ledge with spectacular views of ocean and mountain. They never found time to come back, and the cabin eventually came into the hands of a man named Bill Fassett who had drifted or maneuvered his way all across the country from Chattanooga, bartending, woodworking, stockbroking, editing, working on construction gangs. He would eventually expand the cabin into what became a restaurant which he called Nepenthe, a Greek word that can be translated into the vernacular as No Pain.

Nepenthe would soon become, as it has remained ever since, the social and symbolic center of the Big Sur Country life. "There was dancing every night in those days," says Ed Fassett's daughter Holly, now matriarch of the clan still running the place. "And such friendly, unusual people. Of course when some of them started throwing tables at each other, I had to eighty-six them. But mostly it was just eat and drink, talk and dance, dance dance dance all night long."

The most notable of the new immigrants -- bunked down for a while in one of the roadbuilding convicts' cabins -- was Henry Miller, who had turned up broke in America after achieving fame in Paris as the most banned of all authors. His Tropic of Cancer, that marvelously high-spirited chronicle of fraternity-boy sex on the Left Bank, first printed in 1935, had been greeted by Ezra Pound with the memorable sound-bite, "At last an unprintable book that is fit to read," and for many years was to provide American customs officers with ample employment on the docks of New York searching the baggage of returning voyagers for copies of the vile book disguised in innocent wrappers as the work of Hans Christian Andersen or Monsignor Fulton J. Shean. It was not until the middle of the century that a memorable judiciary decision enabled works of fiction like Tropic of Cancer dealing matter-of-factly with sex to get back into the mainstream of openly-available literature where they had swum in the days of Chaucer and Boccaccio.

Royalties made Miller a rich man before he died in 1980. But he had not come to Big Sur to make money. He had come like the outlaws of old to live in simple comfort in an earthly paradise unencumbered by the complicated responsibilities and conflicts of modern life. He lived here for 15 years, and he had a wonderful time, "one big party," in the summing up of Ephraim Doner, an artist who was an indefatigable companion in those days

Henry Miller spent his whole life creating in a five-foot shelfful of books and tens of thousands of letters a character called Henry Miller who was a wild man, a rebel, a subverter and perverter of all standards codes and conformities, waging - much like Robinson Jeffers - a war to the death against modern civilization and especially the American form of it which he dissected and left out to dry in a book called The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. "Nowhere else," he thundered in the pontifical style so favored by would-be revolutionaries, "is the divorce between man and nature so complete. Nowhere else have I encountered such a dull monotonous fabric of life as America. Here boredom reaches its peak."

. In the flesh Miller was American to the core, a cockeyed optimist forever convinced with his idol Walt Whitman that if all of us could express ourselves freely and act out all our desires everything would be grandiose, or as a later generation would put it, cool. A genial, gentle, gregarious man, the greatest man who ever was to have a series of drinks with, he had a unique talent for depending on the kindness of strangers and friends to take care of him, and for generously repaying them when he had the time and the cash in his pockets. This "dear mad mild man," as Dylan Thomas called him, discovered in Big Sur what Alexander Solzhenitsyn would discover in a village in Vermont, a community of independent self-reliant people on the order of Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln, people going their own individual, sometimes eccentric way, who would not meddle in the affairs of their neighbors but would do anything to help them out in an emergency.

He described his new home in terms an advertising agency might have pumped out for the local real estate board:"here on the slopes of the Santa Lucia, where to give thanks to the Creator comes natural and easy,.here there is abiding peace, the peace of God, and the serene security created by a handful of good neighbors living at one with the creature world."

Among them he had fifteen years of country club existence. After the daily long hours at his desk -- he was a speed typist who could and did turn out thousands upon thousands of words a day - there were always the hot baths or Nepenthe to go to, and endless jolly conversations with the endless succession of neighbors, old friends from Europe, young admirers from America,, wives, aspiring writers, wild girls of the road, itinerant philosophers and panhandlers, and curious tourists who found the way up the tortuous dirt road that led to his house on Partington Ridge. He was so enamored of the place that he looked forward to a day "a hundred, five hundred years hence." in which he pictured villas dotting the slopes, and colossal stairways curving down to the sea where boats lie at anchor, their colorful sails unfurled and flapping listlessly in the breeze..I see tables spread under brilliant awnings (as in the time of the Doges), and wine flowing into golden goblets, and over the glitter of gold and purple I hear laughter, laughter like pearling rapids, rising from thousands of jubilant throats."

Something in short like the Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades where he would spend the last fifteen years of his life in a columned and porticoed mansion complete with heated swimming pool and air conditioning. This is hardly a vision shared by the other inhabitants of Big Sur who ever since the opening off Highway 1 have spent a good part of their time fighting to keep out developers and other forces of progress which would hand them over to the Doges and turn their community into a Pacific Palisades. An impossible dream, but one that has been more successful than might have been foretold..

Tucked away in big houses in leafy glens or on rocky promontories there has grown up a little kernel of rich and famous and powerful people, patrician diplomats like Nicholas Roosevelt, famous architects like Nathaniel Owings and Phillip Johnson, Nobel Prize winners like Linus Pauling, show business celebrities like Kim Novak and Allen Funt creator of Candid Camera, run-of-the-mill billionaires like Ted Turner and David Packard. And these were people whose voice could carry as far as the California state legislature, which passed a law in 1972 declaring Highway 1 a Scenic Highway and providing that no dwelling-place might be built that could be seen from it.

And so to this day you can drive all the miles of two-lane highway through forested valleys or on the edge of the coastal cliffs without running into a single billboard or movie theater or shopping mall or golf course. If you do not look hard enough you can - as many people I know have done, including a justice on the federal Court of Appeals -- drive through the village of Big Sur without knowing it is there.

It is still the kind of place where you can live quietly for years without attracting too much curiosity or attention, where one man did live quietly for years and was regarded as a good neighbor till some one noticed in the post office that his name and face were on the FBI's poster listing the ten most-wanted murderers in America.

Outside of the highway, there still are no paved roads except for a couple leading to the doors of luxury hotels. For one stretch of twenty miles or so there is no electric power except from solar batteries, The hawks and kingfishers are still around and muscular blue-jays will steal your hamburger if you aren't watchful. On a still night you may find a mountain lion come down to sniff at your door. Lupine and poppies still gaily carpet the mountain meadows.

Some few but very vocal purists worry about the intrusion of alien animals and plants. In terms curiously reminiscent of those used by the xenophobic Know-Nothing party about human immigrants from Ireland a century and a half ago, they denounce the wild pigs {imported a century ago from Europe for hunting purposes) for digging up root beds which had remained undisturbed since the Santa Lucia mountains rose out of the sea five million years ago; and "foreign weeds" like pampas grass, imported from Ecuador as a decorative plant, for aggressively displacing the more quiet native flowers.

(It is easier to sympathize with the complaints against another immigrant, ginestra or Spanish broom, much prized for its red flowers by tourists who are unaware that this fast-growing weed pushes its roots up past the slow-growing roots of the poison oak, the most common plant in California, and absorbs some of its essential oil on the way, with the result that picking nosegays for your beloved may leave you covered for weeks with agonizing sores.)

Saving the physical presence of Big Sur was only half the battle. The question remained, how to preserve the spiritual essence of the place, the sense of the pristine, the primitive, the lawless, the wild, everything that Big Sur represented since the Esselen Indians fixed painted outlines of their hands with bear grease on their cave walls.. How to keep out the insidious contagion of the Modern World?

With a million cars carrying curious sight-seers up and down the highway each year, it was impossible to prevent some transformation of Big Sur society. Where once the independent cuss was the norm, now a good seventy-five percent of the population (which varies with the seasons between 1500 and 2000; the Esselen Indians are said to have numbered 1200 at their peak) is dependent on the tourist trade, or hospitality industry as it is now called -- cooks, waiters, bartenders, chambermaids, park rangers, clerks in gift shops and art galleries, designers, photographers, investment counselors. With the acute shortage of housing and with rents at Manhattan levels, some of them have to commute fifty miles and more to their work.

And to keep up with the times, this community is wired. Many people who used to own vacation homes which they occupied for a few weeks and rented out the rest of the time have discovered that computers allow them to conduct their business from their living rooms and only go the city on occasion to sign contracts.

There are still some folks of the old school -- no one knows exactly how many -- who live more or less anonymously in ramshackle structures in the woods, on land they bought when it as worth about a hundredth of one percent of what it is today. Even on them the new winds blow. A man who lives in a tepee recently put in a telephone, which had to be attached to a nearby tree. Orrin Winton, one of the few (he estimates three) last of the year-round unauthorized campers - he was the one who found in a trackless canyon the bones of the girl hiker who had been missing for three years, but he didn't notify any one of his discovery for five months because he doesn't like his privacy to be intruded on -- can be seen occasionally plugging his laptop into the pay phone booth beside the post office to access his web site devoted to his family genealogy and antenna design for amateur radio operators. He sees himself as a last stand against both the state authorities and the private enterprise system which are ganging up against the drop-out, the lone Daniel Boone character who has turned his back on the Establishment. The Forest Service will not authorize any one to live in the woods for more than two weeks, restaurant owners will no longer leave their garbage where it can be picked over in dumpsters. Orrin Winton has however has lived successfully alone in the wilderness, equipped with an all-weather plastic-coated tent, a pair of sleeping bags, a propane stove and a 22-caliber gun, for the last seven and a half years. (He is currently writing a novel about a priest who came over with Cortez and has for the last two hundred years been paying midnight visits to women in lonely cabins, the cause, says Winton, of the inbreeding which gives so many inhabitants of the region their peculiar look.)

The freezing out of the drop-outs has made for a quieter, gentler and somewhat more conventional Big Sur. There is still dancing at Nepenthe, but only once a month, on Sign of the Zodiac days. There are still artists and artisans in big Sur, scores of them, but they no longer live in shacks without frigidaires or running water, and they no longer peddle their wares to motorists on the highway. They have studios, some of them very elaborate studios, and they sell their works in galleries, and you can see their works in the board rooms of Fortune 500 companies and in the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library.

"Hell," says a surviving Beat Poet, "they don't even have crimes like they used to. This was Robinson Jefferson country where like in his poem Roan Stallion you have a hot-blooded woman who has a passion for a horse her husband won in a poker game and she gets the horse to trample her husband to death when he's drunk and then she shoots the horse. The only half-way serious crime they've had these days is the guy who threw one of his relatives off a cliff into the ocean to collect the insurance money."

There is a certain nostalgia for the wild old days of thirty and forty years ago, which began up in San Francisco, where visions of Henry Miller. the wild prophet of sex and anarchy, mingled in the minds of restless young people with the knowledge that there were no resident policemen down there, only a patrol car that drove through going south early in the morning and back going north in the evening. They came all shapes and sizes, Beat poets like Jack Kerouac, folk singers, high-school kids plotting revolution in Redwood City and Walnut Grove, deadbeats and petty thieves of the type described at great length in a cult classic by Richard Brautigan called A Confederate General from Big Sur, all fleeing from the stifling standardized air of the commercial culture, all singing the neo-imperialist anthem of Woody Guthrie, This land belongs to you and me They spread up the creeks and through the forests, uprooting the No Trespassing signs, chopping down trees for their campfires, bedding down under the stars in fields of poison oak or in abandoned cars on a dirt road nicknamed Death Row, in continuous celebration of drink, LSD, sex, Zen, liberty, folk music, rock music and everything else that came under the general heading of Love.

The older inhabitants were outraged by the noise and the strewing of garbage, Henry Miller referred to all those disciples of his as "locusts." But it was those unruly young people, not yet known as hippies, who would provide the publicity that would put Big Sur on the American map. In the long run, says one of the motel-owners, they were good for business.

A doctor Henry C. Murphy in Salinas (he delivered the baby John Steinbeck) had purchased 165 acres of wooded cliff-top land a few miles of the village of Big Sur, including some hot springs which had cured Indians and pioneers of arthritis, and he built bath-houses there with the idea of creating a therapeutic spa. The land above the baths was leased to an evangelical group, the Church of God, whose members lived in cabins and went to bed early. About midnight, the baths would be taken over by young men from San Francisco whose wild rompings and defacement of the environment distressed every one who could see or hear them. Orders were sent to the caretaker of the Murphy house, a fierce-looking young man fresh out of Kentucky named Hunter Thompson, to get rid of them. He picked up his shot-gun, formed a posse which included his girlfriend Joan Baez and three fierce-looking Doberman pinschers, to go down one midnight through the narrow trail which led to the baths. "They were plenty loud down there," says one of the purveyors of local folklore, "but those Dobermans were louder, they were the sweetest animals but they sure could make a noise, and by the time they got to the baths, nobody was left, they left their pants behind them and they've never been seen since."

So much noise did the Dobermans make that all the Church of God people ran out of their cabins in panic and fled down Highway One. When it later turned out that Hunter Thompson had been filling his quiet hours in the Murphy house with pumping buckshot into the walls and windows, he was fired, and shortly afterward began what was to become a distinguished literary career.

The property had by now come into the hands of Dr Murphy's grandson Michael, who after a time in an ashram in Pondichery in India came back to California to team up with a Stanford classmate named Richard Price, both of them disillusioned with the philosophies they had studied in the classrooms. They founded the Esalen Institute in 1962 to use the property around the hot springs to encourage alternative ways of understanding and experiencing the world.

Esalen too would enter the national consciousness as a symbol of highbrow counter-culture. "A center for alternative education, a forum for transformational practices", as its prospectus calls it, it attracted people of all stripes interested in radical change in their own lives, in the society that surrounded them, in the traditional thought patterns of the western world..They came to meditate, came to interact, came to study the philosophies and practice the rites of Buddhists and Brahmins and Sufis, shamans and medicine men and Jungian analysts. They came to hear Alan Watts proclaim that western science was a sham, or Timothy Leary summon them to Tune In Turn On and Drop Out.

Life was on the wild side in the early days, and though there might be some suicides in the old George Sterling tradition, it could be exhilarating.. There were folk festivals when three thousand people might show up to hear folk songs like Ballad of the South Coast specially written for the occasion. There was the time when a wild man named Zebo who turned up regularly on such occasions picked up Lily Tomlin as she was performing and was about to throw her in the pool when an alert operative noticed she was wired to a mike and might be electrocuted, so he slammed all the circuit-breakers shut and saved the day.

Today Esalen is a quiet more reflective place, "a polished academy," as one of the survivors of the Henry Miller days puts it petulantly. Old-timers say that the turning-point came in 1980 , when during the first premonitions of the crackup of the Communist empire, Esalen brokered an exchange between American and Soviet scholars and lecturers. Among those on the Soviet side was a minor apparatchik named Boris Yeltsin. It was felt that some of the unbridled goings-on on the cliffs of Big Sur might give the visitors a wrong idea of America, and severe restrictions were imposed on public taking of controlled substances and on public nudity outside the hot baths.

Esalen today presents the picture of an Ivy League campus spread over an exceptionally attractive stretch of woodland overlooking the Pacific. Cheerfully earnest young students, with a smattering of graybeards, gravitate among workshops, study groups, seminars, meditative sessions, in such fields as Awakening the Buddha Within, Secrets of Successful Relationships, Gestalt Process, Twenty-four Hour Dreamtime, an Exploration of the Deeper Game of Golf, Unlocking the Body's Wisdom through the Rubenfeld Synergy® Method, Solving Life's Serious Issues, Visceral Manipulation, Applied Shamanism, Energy Kinesiology, Love's Hidden Symmetry Revealed, Instead of a Revolution, they are seeking self-help, expanded horizons, a widened awareness, much as their great grandparents might have done at Chatauqua meetings.

Much of the language and notions circulating on this campus, which might have seemed outlandish in 1962, when words like dharma, chokras and kunalindi were known only to a privileged few, have slipped quietly into the mainstream of American speech. The official hotel guide, a copy of which can be found in every guest room in the Monterey Bay area, urges tourists to go to Big Sur to "launder their karma."

The hippies are long gone now, to die of overdoses or become associate professors in conventional colleges. Their elegy can be found in Jack Kerouac's last book Big Sur, written with a spare honesty he could never have attained in his show-off days on the road. It chronicles in remorseless detail how the King of the Beats came back to Big Sur to recover from the disillusionments of drunken middle age by reconnecting with the wilderness, and how he tried to resume the cheerful wild life of old. But sweet port wine took over and dragged him down to self-loathing and despair and delirium. "Don't do it, Billie, don't do it, Billie." screams the little son of the nondescript girl Jack has picked up in San Francisco and with whom he is trying to make drunken love. Later he sees Billie out in back of the cabin digging a hole just big enough to be a grave for the little boy. It might be his own..

The gentrified quiet of Big Sur today would surely not appeal to Kerouac. But the place continues to lure people with itching feet.

They come from the ends of the earth, from backwoods or city, from northern Mexico or northern Idaho, and just as on the day when Robinson Jeffers took his first ride here in 1913 they all have their story to tell.

Strolling down Highway 1 between the library and the post office, you might run into is Tazzie Bob Robinson, once the youngest officer ever to command a ship in the Royal Australian Navy, who chanced to take a trip down to Big Sur one day when his ship was visiting San Francisco harbor, and discovered a climate much like that of his native Tasmania but with a somewhat more lively social scene, and now runs a motel compound with the liveliest bar in the village, particularly when he holds open house for bikers.

Or it might be Magnus Torén, a Stockholm boy who after seven years of fetching and delivering yachts for millionaires in the South Seas, drifted somehow to Big Sur, married a flower girl from Kansas and now directs the Henry Miller Library where pilgrims come from all the continents to inscribe ebullient greetings to the master in all their different tongues.

Or it might be Jeff Norman, who lives so far up on a ridge it may take him an hour on foot and an hour on four-wheel drive to get down to the village in good weather, a college dropout who came here to wash dishes and learn how to live alone in the wilderness, went on to study by candle-light and is now a consulting biologist employed by all the government and private agencies in Big Sur to measure and regulate the enviornmental impact of any new construction.

Or it might be a young woman from Appalachia who was three times

throttled by her father to the point of coma but went on to become a junior executive at a Fortune 500 corporation and has come to Esalen to learn if there isn't something more to life than building better computers. She wanted to start a study group on Masturbation, but learned that even in Esalen men don't like to discuss this subject in front of women, and vice versa.

Big Sur remains and promises to remain in the foreseeable future a quiet prosperous relaxed place with only the necessary minimum of stress and inhibitions. But there remains that sense of being on the edge, that touch of uncertainty, of distant danger over head, under foot. Any heavy rain, and the rain can be very heavy, sets people to wondering if it will provoke one of those gigantic mudslides or rockslides which every ten years or so drag sections of Highway 1 into the ocean and cut off the whole community from the rest of California for days or weeks at a time. And a low rumble from the west is an everlasting reminder that frothing waves are biting away eight thousand times a day at the cliffs on which the pleasure domes of Big Sur stand, while silently beneath all the merry-making and the magic the whole pais grande del sur continues its fingernail-paced slide toward doom.

© 1997 Robert Wernick

Parts of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, November 1999


Robert Wernick
St. Simons Island, Georgia 31522
info@robertwernick.com