10 Writers and a Photog on Big Sur
We wanted to take a wilderness sabbatical in the footsteps of Kerouac, Emerson and Thoreau. This is what transpired.
Michael, Amanda, Natasha and I hiked along the Big Sur River Gorge to pass the time while our friends took their detour. The trail took us along the river and through the trees.
We had come here to get away from it all, or at least I had.
Michael taped “INFINITY” onto the hood of his car in blue masking tape at the campsite. What was this place? We had come here in search of something. We had come here because of some pallid desire to retrace Kerouac’s steps. “One fast move or I’m gone,” Kerouac wrote in “Big Sur.”
I hiked up to a boulder and stopped for a moment on a ravine at trail’s end. I saw above the tree line. The gorge opened up below me, following the twisting river to the sea. The fog rolled down from the hills, flying by, dissolving into the ephemera.
Later that night we lit a fire and waited for our friends.
Darkness fell, and the towering redwoods stood like sentinels in the firelight. Two cars pulled up. Our friends were here. We embraced, unpacked and settled down. The fire crackled, sending smoke and embers rising into the darkness. We had driven hundreds of miles across winding roads, through rain and around landslides. We were the mad ones. Burning, burning like Roman candles in the night.
It was raining, and we’d been driving for I don’t even know how long at that point. We pulled over to give Greg’s car a rest at a place called Casa de Fruta. Casa de Wine, Casa de Deli, Casa de Choo Choo, Casa de Everything.
There were peacocks and ducks roaming around the mostly deserted stop. There was a rusty playground and a creepy old carousel that was fenced off.
“Maybe a child died here,” Natasha said, mostly kidding but kinda not.
We had our theory: that this place disappeared into the fog that was laying low over the soft green hills, taking the travelers it trapped—spectres, stuck somewhere off Highway 152, for the rest of time.
But when we stopped there on the way back, it was totally normal. Actually, it was more than normal, it was awesome. So we stayed there for two hours. Luckily, we did not get trapped long enough to disintegrate into the mist.
I sat in the backseat of Jun’s Honda Accord reading chapter three of the Hunger Games. It was 6 a.m. Two pages in I closed it, rolled down the window and started holding back dry heaves, partly because of the stop-and-go traffic and Jun’s affinity for breaking at the last minute, and partly because the pages had blurred after three hours of sleep, a 4:20 a.m. alarm clock and a granola bar.
That wasn’t a good start. Jun wanted to leave at 4:45 a.m. to beat rush-hour traffic, which we were now sitting in as I sought freeway murals and billboards to take my mind off of the vomit I was inevitably able to hold back.
James was already knocked out in the passenger seat. Jun’s radio wasn’t on; I didn’t ask why. It remained that way one road closure, $3 in payphone quarters, and nine freeways later. We arrived at the campground at 8:30 p.m., 15.5 hours after leaving Irvine. I unloaded urine on a nearby tree in the pitch black for a good two minutes; the next morning I noticed a tent resting 10 feet away from where the manmade river was left the night before. As we set up the tent and made dinner, I asked Michael if he’d like to film a porno called “Big Sir” – he didn’t say no.
As the trunk closed, I looked at the metallic capsule that would enclose me for the next eight or so hours. Not bad; I’d driven to the realms of Northern California before.
I had given myself up to the creeping tendrils of sleep early; the next few hours were a blur as I drifted in and out of dreams. I awoke with beads of sweat; the capsule was getting warm.
The wind greeted my face as I opened the window. We were so close, our vehicle hurtling past beautiful cliffs, crashing waves and rolling green hills that line PCH. We were a mere 10 miles away from our campsite.
Then the road closure. Turn around? Take a different route? Boulder? Five hour detour? Inland route on the 101? We were so close, yet to be turned away now …
I didn’t see the cliffs and water any longer. I only felt every curve and dip as our capsule navigated back down the winding roads. Delirious me yearned for stabilizing gyroscopes.
Now, the open window does nothing to calm me. My lower back is like cold rubber; the seat as unyielding as enamel.
Dream became nightmare; a wave of nausea crested upon my anxiety.
To sleep, to escape; to awake, to become trapped again.
No stopping, as the sun retreated behind the mountains. Evening already? Flux capacitor must be broken.
Night had fallen as I exited the capsule. Thirteen hours we record. It was finished. The air was sweet, the bitter cold embracing. Air conditioning be damned.
The sight was something out of a tour brochure. Playful plumes of clouds enveloped the mountains while clear blue waves crashed into the rocky bluffs below. I had to tear my eyes away from this image so I wouldn’t careen off the constantly swerving roads.
Just another 15 miles or so on Pacific Coast Highway and we’d be at the campsite. I couldn’t wait to go hiking and cook around a campfire after over 300 miles – wait, what’s this? What’s with the road crew up ahead? Are they turning us around? Oh shit, they are.
When we approached them, I ask the two roadmen what the fastest way to Pfeiffer Big Sur was.
“Turn around and go back down the 1 to the 101, go north on the 101 to Monterey, and come back south on the 1 again,” they replied nonchalantly. Holy fuck.
Cursing, we drove back down to a lodge we stopped at earlier. We had to warn the second South-Central car, but we had no reception on our phones. Oh God, what do we do? Oh wait, is that a pay phone? Thank you, God.
As Ian and James tried the phone, I bought a burger from a nearby café and inquired about what had happened on the 1. Turns out, a landslide occurred three hours ago, effectively blocking the road. Fucking landslide.
I headed over to my compatriots to share the news. They had found that the phone wouldn’t accept coins even though the dial tone worked. Jesus, what next?
I headed back to the café and ask if there was another phone. The man at the cashier told me to go to the other side of the lodge. I pointed Ian and James in that direction as I finished my burger.
When I was done, I found that they had successfully left a voice message for Justine. Hopefully they got it in time.
Zachary, Anna, Charles and I speedily traveled northbound on PCH to Big Sur. With a sparkling blue ocean to our left, some good driving music and lovely traveling company, what could go wrong?
Around 2 p.m., we were 40 miles away when Ian left me a voicemail saying that PCH North was closed 10 miles from the campsite because of a damned boulder. Seriously?!
Deeply disappointed, we turned around and made a pit stop near Hearst Castle. The ocean breeze was refreshing and we stood on top of rocks as we waited and searched for the other car. We kind of looked stranded… actually, we kind of were.
After Ian, James and Jun arrived, we figured out what to do over some snacks — the only “meal” most of us had all day. And then a hungry squirrel appeared. And another. And another. Seagulls appeared too. We may have fed the animals a few morsels. While the hungry animals vaguely formed a circle around us waiting for food, we either had to wait for PCH to open again or start driving south and add another five hours to our trip. We sucked it up and began driving. We would not let nature defeat us.
“ONCOMING TRAFFIC DOES NOT YIELD,” read the sign on the one-lane Santa Rosa Creek Road. We had to backtrack because of the boulder blocking PCH, and our GPS had said the fastest way to Highway 46 was this narrow passageway through the grassy hills of central California. We crawled through, barely dodging random vehicles coming the opposite direction, pushing our Toyota Highlander dangerously near the edge of cliffs and creek beds.
“Holy shit,” Charles said upon passing one particularly old, beat-down Ford truck, completely with a rusted fender and peeling Columbia blue paint. “I think there were more cowboy hats in that truck than people.”
Immediately, the four of us in the car burst into laughter. We had been on the road for around eight hours at that point (give or take an hour, I don’t think any of us were very conscious of time anymore) and all we could do was laugh and try to enjoy the surprisingly striking views that narrow road presented us with.
Another sign passed our car which read, “ROAD NARROWS.”
“Is that even possible?” I asked.
“Apparently,” Justine replied, as more laughs echoed through the interior of the Highlander.
We had driven over the famous Bixby Bridge only five minutes before. Then, it was still bright. The road, as windy as it was, was exciting. Much like the beginning of our road trip, our spirits were high. Yes, we had almost been crushed by landslides, driven off roads by cowboys and had gone half a day without eating but we were almost there. That was all I wanted by that point, to just be there.
Then, the fog rolled in, obscuring the road before us. Sure, it was in no way as impeding as a boulder, but it was many times more mysterious. A rock you can see, but the fog constricts you. As we traveled further south, enveloping ourselves further and further into mystery, our phones began to die. By the time we were 10 minutes away, we were navigating not by GPS or map or curve of the road, but by my tenuous memory and our poor vision.
At last, we found the turn off, we found our site, we parked our car and I stepped outside. We were exhausted but we were there. I wrapped my arms around the first familiar face I saw and I was accomplished.
Once the sun went down and New U North had been reunited with New U South and New U Central at our campsite, it was time to get cooking.
To say that our food situation was a bit disorganized is an understatement; somehow we forgot spoons, foil and enough propane to actually use our camping stove. We ended up having to cook ground beef and vegetables for our tacos over an open fire (they were still pretty delicious).
Our lone vegan, Zach, went to bed with an empty stomach after our brilliant associate entertainment editor Michael dropped his entire plate of vegan chicken in the dirt.
At one point, we ended up throwing an entire yam into the fire, burying it under the coals, just to see what would happen (the end result was just a charred yam, no surprise). We stayed up till 1:30 a.m. asking each other deep, probing personal questions (“Do you prefer a girl with legs or a face?” and “What Disney song will be playing at your wedding?) and eventually retired to our two tents, trying to bundle up in as many layers as possible to survive the 40-degree weather.
It was only two hours into the night when I woke up desperately needing to go to the bathroom. There was no way in hell I was walking out of that tent alone (our Editor-in-Chief Greg had left the meat out and a pack of voracious carnivorous raccoons, or “hood-bears” as we called them, were currently raiding the food).
I woke Amanda, our managing editor, asking her to escort me to the bathrooms, to which she quite quickly responded “NOPE.”
It was up to Charles, our features editor, to trudge out into the cold wearing nothing but shorts and boots to make sure I didn’t get mauled by ring-tailed rodents on my way to the bathroom. I owe him a huge favor for that …
While all of this was going on, I only had to drive from the Bay Area to get to Big Sur … So while all of my friends were experiencing inclement roads, unknown terror, landslides and being trapped in cars for over 12 hours each, all I ever had to do was drive two hours on sunny roads to drink beer in the forest with my friends.
I guess cutting an onion in the dark on a Styrofoam plate wasn’t super easy. And people made fun of me for dropping the vegan chicken on the ground, but that’s totally their fault for giving it to me, they know how clumsy I am.
So yeah, there’s that.