I headed for my Big Sur getaway with romantic notions of Henry Miller in my mind. The famous and provocative author had been part of a long-running art colony there. I hoped that just breathing in the fabled air would help me finally get serious about writing my memoir.
The three hour drive from San Francisco goes through Monterey and Carmel before opening up into the legendary region. The cliffs along Highway 1 are breathtaking – sometimes literally so. Turns out much of Big Sur is a steep range of mountains jutting out of the ocean, into which a tiny highway has somehow been cut – hundreds of feet above the ocean.
Driving south, you’re on the ocean side, driving tight curves on the edge of a sheer drop that sometimes rises to 1,000 feet. I’d driven my trusty all-wheel Subaru wagon over many mountain ranges, but this time I white-knuckled it so much my hands were sore when I finally got to the tiny hamlet of Big Sur Village.
After checking into my yurt at the B &B, I needed a relaxing stroll on the ocean. The clerks were confused as to why I would want to try to access the beach. The only trail was a punishingly rugged climb straight down for hundreds of feet.
I pondered Henry Miller the next day as I explored the tiny town and his memorial library. The village was a tiny flat space on spindles, surrounded by sheer drops down to the west and more cliffs up to the east. I’d brought my hiking boots hoping for a good workout and yet again, the only answer was straight up or straight down. The town itself was only a mile; if you went further, either north or south, you’d be back on Highway 1 – which barely has room for cars, let alone hikers.
You can look at the ocean, but not engage with it
I got some writing in, as I wondered why someone would choose to be so isolated. It’s difficult to go anywhere; you can look at the ocean all day but you can’t engage with it. (I wondered what that said about Henry Miller’s relationships.) Maybe he needed the austerity and remove to clarify his observations.
The second night, a wild rain storm thrashed the yurt. The way it sat precariously on the hillside, I imagined at any moment I might plunge into the ocean hundreds of feet below. Miller may have lived there for 15 years, but after only two days I felt unsettled. Maybe I was the one with the limitations; perhaps my fear of being closed in with nothing but my book and my thoughts made me crave an escape to more easily accessible beaches or mountains.
I did manage to frame my memoir before I left; after all, there was nothing else to do and nowhere to go. Maybe that was the point.