'Big Sur' by Robert Begiebing


During a spring sojourn in California some time ago, I stopped at Big Sur for a two-week, off-the-grid retreat to work on a novel.  I was at that point with the manuscript (a point not unfamiliar to writers) where you experience a crisis of energy and confidence.  To see if the project were salvageable, I wanted a refuge unadulterated by any considerations other than the freedom to work.  The only exception would be to get outdoors and hike the mountains after hours of daily writing.  I promised myself a labor of love.  I promised to forget about mere “productivity.”   Working undisturbed day after day, I finally began to live in a blind intensity of here and now, like life itself lived in the moment—the imagination as alive, alert, and ardent as the birds all around me.

At a certain point in such focused labor, you understand once again that the vital exercise of the imagination is one kind of exhalation that is its own excuse and reward, the proper function, the reason for being of that mysterious organ of the mind.

I was living in Big Sur with basic domestic necessities, but without telephone, without TV or radio, and without www.  I did, sometimes, have access to solar-powered electricity; I learned to work and live around that access, as I did around daylight and darkness. 

March 8th, Ash Wednesday.

 After starting a fire against the smoke of my own breath this morning, I finally saw a snatch of sunlight through fair-weather clouds.  But the afternoon turned rainy again, so to get outdoors, finally, I had to go straight up the mountain on the dirt road in the rain. 

When I first looked up from my writing table to my watch, I saw that I had been at the cabin exactly twenty-four hours.  The fire in the ancient, insatiable potbelly stove hissed and the rain bounced at intervals off the cloud-enshrouded roof.  It had been a good evening for reading by battery-dim light, and a so-so night for sleeping.  Rain and wind for two days.  People say such weather can go on for weeks at a time here.  And has by now.

 My arrival had been inauspicious.  I was delayed a day from my original plans because of heavy rains and snow above 3,000 feet—an elevation I had to surmount from the east side of the Santa Lucia Mountains before I could descend on the Pacific side to my single studio on a forty-acre homestead at Headwaters Retreat.  I barely made it that second day down the mud-slippery roads (eight miles off pavement) during a brief “window,” as my host Robert Withrow put it, between onslaughts of snow.  In fact the Withrows, Betty and Robert, had to meet me at the summit of the Nacimento-Fergusson Road to guide me, lest I bog down and never arrive in my airport-rented blubberboat, a Chevy Malibu.  My brakes began to grind and fail as we approached their farm.  The chances of an AAA road call nil.  I spent some hard time with the owner’s manual after my hike in the rain.  Learned all about checking brake systems.

 But the morning had been promising.  Sun directly over Lucia Bay.  Blue water and shining crests nearly 2000 feet below my windows.  Visits from the Withrow’s skittish dogs.  One look-in from their cat.  While the sun shone briefly a Stellar’s Jay, black crested head flashing, came by to raise hell outside my sliding door.  Shack-Shack-Shack!  A Rufus-sided Towhee soon replaced the Jay in the investigation of their new neighbor.  He landed on my front porch, cocked his head toward me, and then hopped to do his double scratching in the nearby leaves.  I recognized both birds immediately and felt more at home.  Then the rains returned in earnest and everyone retreated, except strangely enough the cat, whom I found scurrying wetly through the bushes outside my front door.

 It turns out to feel destabilizing to be plunked down here alone suddenly, as isolated as I want to be.  For the past week, my wife, daughter, and I (all the way from New Hampshire) had been visiting friends and family in Petaluma, San Carlos, and Monterey.  I suppose living alone is a skill one develops.  Years of family life weigh more heavily on my soul than I had anticipated, maybe a natural response of cabin fever.

 The wood fire becomes like an old friend, however.  You are acutely attuned to its ups and downs, complaints and aspirations.  The fire is suddenly the center of your life, the fundamental comfort on which all other comforts depend.

 This day I decide to use the Withrow’s cell phone to warn off my sister Suzanne, who had wanted to come down from Monterey for an overnight and some companionable hiking, possibly Cone Peak next door.  But the road to the Cone Peak trailheads is closed, the peak is snowed in, the way in there and back out treacherous.  The best you would do is a long soggy slog up and into snowfields—eight miles each way even before you get to the trailheads.  A long day and, except for the most intrepid climbers, probably a miserable one.   I’m being honest.  Why bother to fake my nature or my own skills and desires?

 An alternative hike was another idea—along one of the precipitous trails up above Route One, but landslides have closed the road, hence my need to come in the back way through Salinas and King City, and then up through Jolon.  Suzanne and I had hoped to hike the Tan Bark Trail off Route One particularly.  We spread my younger brother Richard’s ashes there back in the spring of 1997.  We were going to honor him.  But not this year.

 Looking back on this first entry, I see the somberness that has crept in, befitting the days of rain that have encabined me.  But as Henry Miller promised:  “The one difference between Big Sur and other ‘ideal spots’ is that here you get it quick and get it hard.  Get it between the eyes, so to say.  The result is that you either come to grips with yourself or else turn tail and seek some other spot in which to nourish your illusions.”

March 9, Thursday.

 Second full day here (third since arriving) and finally a breakthrough.  Woke up this morning to the sound of rain hammering the roof.  For the first time I understood how Kerouac’s Big Sur could be the setting for his crack up, rather than his satori or dharma.

 But the sun appeared after a morning of unsuccessful writing in the cabin fever doldrums.  I immediately suited up for possible rain, put the camera, binoculars, and water in my pack, and started hiking up the road through forest, accompanied by the headlong oratorios of the recent deluge now cascading out of the mountain.

 By exploring high up in the oak grasslands, I had spectacular views of Lucia Bay and Pacific Valley.  The sun lit the ocean into shades of aquamarine, deep blues, grays, and unfurling whites.  A Red-tailed Hawk suddenly appeared to play in the sun and thermal currents, an apt sign of my inner state now.  The hawk was just below me in altitude, and it was doing all kinds of joyous dips and dives, loop-de-loops, and kamikaze pullouts.  I moved on when he lighted on a dead treetop for a rest.  Or to admire his own audacity.

 Shortly thereafter I spotted a black-tail deer grazing the green slopes below with what appeared to be a brown yearling by her side.  She was utterly pregnant, grayish and rough coated, to my eye.  I watched awhile unseen, but then some movement, probably raising my glass again to see better, caught her attention and she stared at me, both of us frozen in position, for a long time.  Perhaps to assure her that her eyes were true, I moved slightly again.  She turned and started down the slope in a strange prancing stride, as if dancing in slow motion.   The yearling followed immediately and then two, no three, more deer came into view.  They were still heading upwards, heads down grazing, unaware of me until somehow they noticed their leader’s slow and precipitous downward dance.  They disappeared, but on my way back to the cabin, I spotted the whole group together again about 1000-1500 feet lower down in another ravine.  Black-tail and huge Mule Deer keep Big Sur oak lands open, like parks. 

 The deer of course have reason to be wary.  Not only of hunters, but also of coyotes and cougars who now abound in the canyons.  The Withrows—modern homesteaders with farm animals—leave predators alone unless they come after their goats and chickens.  A few cats have been taken too.  The four dogs will sometimes keep the coyotes at bay, but Robert tells me a cougar, like one troublesome fellow, will walk through the dogs and take what he wants.  Then a rifle is called for, or a hunter from the Forest Service.  It’s a live and let live philosophy, until something wild eats something domestic.  Robert assures me cougars leave people alone up here, but I’ll admit to watching my back on day hikes alone.  Grizzlies are gone—once the largest anywhere.  Brown bears are back here and there and they keep out of your way, but they are territorial and can cause you trouble if they think you are challenging their natural rights.  Robert gave me one of his short stories to read about such an encounter based on an old friend’s experience.

 Now protected, but absent the Grizzlies, cougars flourish and population density can cause problems.  I think the number Robert suggested was fourteen cougars in this large canyon alone.  Is the lesson that you need a range of top predators to keep a proper balance?  Maybe they should bring a few Grizzers back in here to control the coyotes and cougars, just as they are now trying to introduce the California Condor back into Big Sur.  But one would be naïve to think that even a few Grizzlies would be tolerated by the homesteaders.  This homesteading attitude is understandable when you are living close to survival, not so if you are living on the grid, living in comfort and convenience, the great American quest of the last century.

 The Condor project is interesting but iffy so far.  Last week the dense cloud cover seemed to have kept six more birds from leaving their opened release pens.  (I know the feeling).   It was to be the fourth annual release since 1996.  So far a total of twenty-two have been released by the Ventana Wilderness Society, but seven had to be taken back into custody for various reasons.  One continuing problem is that like many raptors, the Condors will use power and cell towers for perches, resulting in either electrocution or sterility, respectively.  In fact, the Center for Biological Diversity finally had to sue the Forest Service in 1998 to install anti-perching devices.  The spokespeople for Los Padres National Forest now go along, at least publicly.  Six Condors are known for certain to have been electrocuted.  Of course, we are speaking only of the National Forest areas offering such protection to birds from the hyperactive power grids and cell chatter of civilization.  In the rest of America, we have not yet decided to protect many species, especially of migratory songbirds, from such dangers.  Our first priority, instead, is a cell phone for everyone who feels the urge to chat—in airports, restaurants, and on the road.  I even saw one bloke in the airport restroom in Phoenix standing at a urinal with his dick in one hand, his cell phone in the other, chattering away.  The very picture of relief and convenience.

 From my hike and views of what the ancients called the Sacred Mountains, I think I’ll be able to cure my cabin fever and get on with the writing.  The first couple of days were a loss—desultory tinkerings at a superficial level with a ms. that needs “deep revision” and overhaul.

March 10, Friday.

 As I look back on yesterday I find a conundrum, or is it an incipient koan?  The worst day you have writing is the best day you have outdoors.  Contact!  Contact!  A puzzle, anyway, for scribblers to contemplate.

 That realization struck me as I grilled my supper on the small rear deck and finished a second glass of wine, watching a mild sunset over Lucia Cove.

 When I woke up this morning, it was the first full-sun day, light streaming through the skylight and angled window of the cabin-studio.  Today, instead of up for the stupendous views, I went down into the riparian forest on a network of paths around the homestead’s forty acres.  Waters roaring everywhere.  Stellars blustering about in indignant good humor over my excursions.  Other noisy birds I couldn’t see well enough to identify chirring in colonies.  Some magnificent Redwoods: a few giants swelling powerfully out of the earth and damp woods.  Ponderosa Pine.  Madrone.  Canyon Live Oak.  California Bay.  Tan Oak.  Santa Lucia Fir.  And in the under story lots of poison oak and what look like the leaves of a Douglas Iris.

 Last night a Great Horned Owl called in the canyon below.  I noticed today the Withrows keep the chicken yard, or rather aviary, fenced above, below, and around against the owls.  Coyotes also have been hunting them of late, so the chickens were all moved into the aviary yesterday.  One evening I had invited the Withrows down to watch the sunset on my deck, but we had been talking only about forty minutes when it turned dusk and the coyotes came on the scent of new-born kids.  We could hear the dogs going bananas up near the goat sheds.  Robert and Betty had to leave quickly to intervene.  The Withrows sell eggs to Whole Foods—the organic food chain in California—among other shops.  They also sell goat cheese, honey, spices, and various herbs.  Add in a little free-lance carpentry, and they make a simple if arduous living here. 

 When I returned from my lesser hike today, I could actually sit on the deck in the sun and then do a few outdoor chores, a little reading, a little scribbling.  But the sun moves quickly among these trees.  I moved to the front porch and read there.  Ravens.  Red-breasted Nuthatch: yank, yank, yank.  Pacific-slope Fly Catcher?

March 11, Saturday.

 Another perfect day, perhaps the best yet.  After writing all morning I hiked back up to 3000-plus feet directly above the sea.  Stupendous views of course.  The snow was receding upwards off Cone Peak, which plunges from 5,155 feet through a series of conical declivities to sea level.  Three days of sunlight have worked on the snow, moving it from about the 3000-foot mark to approximately 4,000 feet.  It would be treacherous hiking up the final 1000 feet with snow on bare steep rock.  And the road is still closed to the trailheads. 

 Lots of birds on top today, as always, but I did see something new.  I thought it was a bluebird at first, and I’m still not sure, a pair finally.  But my bird book suggests a barn swallow instead.  I must have missed the swallowtail, if so, but the incredible colors seem right: an almost artificially bright steel, or metallic, blue on the back, head, and wings, and a russet breast.  The color surprised me; I had never seen such a color on any living thing.

 I found a lake, or tarn, about 3000 feet, and some odd, table-shaped stumps for sitting or having one’s lunch, where I believe I lost my hat out of my pocket.  I spent three hours climbing and hiking around at various levels, and got sunburned sans hat.  The only way I can see landscape like this is to come here again, all the way from Seacoast New Hampshire.

March 14, Tuesday.

 My sister Suzanne came down last evening despite my warnings, the better weather inducing courage.  She rented a four-wheel drive, luckily, since she got lost on the back roads and went into barely passable territory.  Tuesday we drove out and down Naciamento Road, a paved goat-path, to explore the south coast, the central and north coast being closed by spring landslides.  My first time out beyond my mountain retreat.  It was a delight to drive along Route One, even though it is Tourist Big Sur.  Get back in half a mile and it’s a different world—hard case homesteading.  But this was tourist day, so we went for it.  Making appropriate stops.  Gawking and oohing and ahhing.   The highlight was a hike in to the massive waterfall, first, and then straight up Spruce Creek Trail, part of the San Carpoforo Creek watershed.  Once above the woods it was steep climbing.  We finally entered chaparral and rough rocky territory surrounded by hills newly greening, and you could understand why some of the landmarks were “Lion’s Cave” and “Lion Camp” and “Lion Den” here and on nearby Buckeye Trail.

 Just south of Willow Creek in Cape San Martin we spotted elephant seals wobbling up the dark beach.  One huge seal and a baby.  Driving south a half mile for closer look, we saw many: one motionless, large female; another one on her back, brown side up as if dozing in the sun, and only occasionally moving a flipper.  Then more calves, five of them all together, we realized.  Mostly they looked to be sunbathing, or parasite cleaning, as in some documentary film.  But there were ominous signs—the large female clearly dead, partially covered in sand.  The overturned one apparently in distress, deeply lethargic.  And one or two of the small ones looking dangerously inactive.  Had they been escaping something?  Sharks?  Some toxin in these seemingly faultless waters?  Some disease or parasite?  It would probably take a marine biologist, one specializing in sea mammals, to discern their condition.  But finally we decided it was a sorrowful moment in an otherwise fine day.  Is it perversity or misanthropy or hard-earned skepticism to suspect the worst, some human pollutant?  All I can do is register my unfounded suspicions, which are getting to feel all too natural a reaction in our time. 

March 16, Thursday.

 As Robert promised the spring birds are moving back in ever increasing numbers and species—especially woodpeckers, hummingbirds, robins, and God knows what all to create those pianos in the woods of a morning or evening.  Quail and more jays than one could count now.  The migrating birds stay a month or so to clean up the early berries and seeds and insects, and then move on.  The days are steadily warmer, but there is almost always a fresh breeze full of spring to ease the effects of the now relentless sun.

 A list:  Crows, Rufus Hummingbird, California Quail, Acorn Woodpecker, Western Bluebird, Bald Eagle, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Pine Siskins, Robins, etc.

 I finally read the Monterey Peninsula Herald my sister brought along.  The most curious piece I see, which from this forest retreat appears gloriously exaggerated in its absurdity, is about the possible extinction of the human race due to advances in “information technology.”  Bill Joy, chief scientist for Sun Microsystems, Inc., and co-chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Future of Information Technology, warns in a 24-page article for Wired Magazine that he may become “morally obligated” to stop his work.  Joy is known for his level-headed approach among level scientific heads everywhere.  One fear is that by about 2030 computers will be a million times more powerful than today.  The collective advances in information, nano-, robotic, and genetic technologies will be capable of unleashing self-replicating, mutating mechanical and biological plagues.   “Replication attacks”—where the virtual becomes horribly real—from intelligent machines will make them impossible for humans to control or stop.  Joy says he finds himself startled and horrified to discover he is in agreement with the “core argument of the Unabomber”:  that advanced technology poses a direct threat to the human species.  What sayeth, thou, misanthropes everywhere, to this?

March 18, Saturday.

 Warmest day yet, early summer-like.  Late May back home in New Hampshire.  A pleasure boat, the first, anchors for the night way down in Lucia Cove.  Insects getting more prevalent and busier, as are the birds.  Glorious Italian sunsets off my deck.  Summer haze.  Light suffused into everything by the delicate mists.  Light of the Old Masters.  For all the winter and darkness of my arrival, the last ten days have been late spring and summer—Mediterranean climate in full evidence.  This is the Big Sur people fantasize about.  Henry Miller again:  “It is an old, nostalgic hue which one sees in the works of the Flemish and Italian masters.  It is not only the tone and color of distance, abetted by the magic fall of light, it is a mystical phenomenon . . . . In both [dawn and sunset] we have what I like to think of as ‘the true light’ . . . creating an ambiance of super-reality, or the reality behind reality. . . . Toward sundown, when the hills in back of us are flushed with that other ‘true light,’ the trees and scrub in the canyons take on a wholly different aspect.  Everything is brush and cones, umbrellas of light—the leaves, boughs, stalks, and trunks standing out separate and defined, as if etched by the Creator Himself . . . . It is no longer earth and air, but light and form—heavenly light , celestial form.  When this intoxicating reality reaches its height the rocks speak out.”

 I realize I’m still on a plan of Fool’s Privileges.  All the potential dangers of hiking alone I have eluded so far.  Falls, twists, cougars, spring rattlesnakes, you name it.  Not to mention just plain idiot getting lost.  Next Monday’s challenge will be the only one left to me:  bad roads negotiated in a silly rental car.  Bad brakes.  Grades and turns innocent of guardrails.

But my novel has by now reached that point where its structure begins to hang together and I have joy and energy in the work again.  For the moment it’s a quiet Saturday night at Headwaters Retreat.  And the whole mild evening—heavenly light, celestial form—lies before me.

A portion of this essay first appeared in Writing Nature: An Annual for Fine Nature Writing (Summer, 2000).