I have always felt rather embarrassed that I didn’t really “get” the Big Sur! What is it exactly? It sound very American and “Uncle Sam” like – but people rave about it. “Have you been to the Big Sur? Isn’t it wonderful?” Well I’ve driven down Highway one a couple of times so my answer is usually something like…….. “Oh yes! It is spectacular” all the time wondering quite what I am talking about…….. Is it the coastline? Or Route 1 itself? Or a National Park? It doesn’t seem to be a place or have a centre – but maybe I have been missing something. So finding myself in this part of the world again – rather unexpectedly- driven south by wild fires in the North of California – I decide to try and get to grips with it.
The original Spanish- language name for the unexplored mountainous terrain south of Monterey was “el pais grande del sur” – literally “the big country of the south”. It was Anglesised by English speaking settlers as Big Sur. So the rather negative connotations that I have carried with me of Uncle Sam, and a macho American life are somewhat unfounded. And it is a rather ill-defined area of coast – south of Carmel by the Sea – where the land rises very steeply from the Pacific Ocean. It has no clear centre. It is not Highway 1 – but the road does pass though it. And it is better appreciated by stopping and enjoying its peace and quiet – rather than simply driving the road and stopping, with the other tourists, at its highlights to take a look. Although that has its merit too!
We leave Carmel and drive south – the road starts to climb and wind and – despite the mist – the coastline emerges and is wild and dramatic. But the highlights of these early miles are the art-deco style bridges built in 1932 – The Rocky Creek bridge and the iconic Bixby Creek bridge. Amazingly beautiful feats of engineering. Man made structures that somehow improve rather than detract from the environment – in the same way that Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings settle into the landscape and become part of it. I read somewhere that the bridges were built by convicts in exchange for shorter sentences.
A few miles further south and we reach the first of the State Parks in the area – The Andrew Molena State Park where we walk down to a rugged and wild beach – littered by driftwood that has been built into structures by early visitors. It is quiet and beautiful with the pounding waves and seabirds for company.
Driving on we visit the childhood home of one of my heroes Kaffe Fassett – famous for his knitting and quilting and use of colours in his designs. His father Bill bought a log cabin on the coast from Orson Wells – and Nepenthe is now a restaurant and gift shop still run by the Fassett family. The views are unsurpassed (although wild and still misty) and go well with eggs and home fried potatoes. The gift shop is full of colour – some of Kaffe’s designs as well as other jewellers and artists. – and the smell of incense. Dream catchers, scented soap and books about yoga. It has only been possible to drive here for the last week as winter rains destroyed a bridge closing route 1 to traffic. It is still closed further south due to mud slides which have destroyed the road.
We turn and head north again This time stopping at the Pfeiffer State Park. Very quiet – almost deserted – we struggle to find a trailhead but eventually find ourselves on the Buzzard’s Roost Trail – a mere 3.5 miles but steeply uphill to the summit and panoramic views – and then just as steeply downhill again.
On re-reading my guidebook it tells me that the Big Sur is “more a state of mind than a place” – I think that I am beginning to “get” that. Once away from the viewpoints – however beautiful – the place is remote and rugged, colourful and beautiful and totally unspoilt.