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Monday, January 2, 2012

Big Sur Essay: Day 3 (Pfeiffer Beach, Old County Road, A house in the woods)

Day Three: December 7.


    What is it about water that attracts me so?  I was born under the sign of Cancer the crab, so that must have something to do with it.  Every time I see water or feel its presence near me, I become giddy. Water, with its promise of renewal, appeals to my sense of re-creation. 
    I am awake at 7AM and by 7:45 I find myself at Pfeiffer Beach. The road there takes you through a shadow forest, past fields of corralled horses, and finally deposits you into a parking lot where a sandy trail leads through a tunnel towards the beach.  Seeing the rock formations are alone worth the trip as is the portal where the water mists through; but there are other treasures to be found here.  If you look closely at the sand, you’ll see swirling patterns of rust.  At first it looks like traces of blood, earth's vein opened and spilling out its life. But I learned the patterns are due to waves leeching magnesium from the beach's stone monoliths. I am drawn to patterns.  In various places the eroded cliffs, with long striated grooves have a lime green hue, and in other places ancient rainwater, having raced down the face of the cliffs, have cut rivulets into the soft sandstone--incredible patterns, teeth and knuckles and ribs. 
     As you walk the beach, you feel the density of Big Sur weighing upon you and you can’t help but unburden yourself to the waves. But I don't.  I am sheepish.  Nervous.  Despite the comfortable temperature, a moderate 62 degrees F, I feel restless, as if each minute that I descend deeper into all that Big Sur offers I am still missing it. Where is my Formosa, as Walker Percy wrote. "Every traveler names his island Formosa," he wrote in his essay on seeing and experiencing life authentically, an essay he called, "The Loss of the Creature."  In it, he makes various claims, the most important one being this: That our experiences have been manipulated to such an extent we no longer see things like The Grand Canyon, experience a Shakespearean sonnet, appreciate the Mona Lisa, or the Great Pyramids.  I couldn't agree more.  Imagine what the first man who discovered Big Sur must have felt?  Here it is again, this notion of being first to see something.  I am sure that man, like the man who "discovered" the Grand Canyon must have felt such awe as to come against the poverty of language to describe all that he felt.  There are many insights in Percy's essay, and I agree with him, that every natural landmark or human construct has been photographed, commented on, argued over, picked apart so many times that when confronted with that same experience on our travels, we no longer see it.  We desire authentic experience, yet it escapes us, because our minds chatter to us incessantly: Is this it?  Is this the experience?  Am I experiencing this authentically?  We second guess experiences to such a degree we fail to see them, and leave feeling empty, with nothing more than a handful of cliche's about how lovely it is what we have seen, how beautiful, how grand the Grand Canyon is.  
     After walking for ten minutes or so I see several kids in dreadlocks and sweatpants, shorts and backpacks canvassing the beach towards me.  Two playful dogs in tow run in circles around them, dash towards the water as if to bite the waves, then dart back, bark, skip and trot along the sand.  I lift up my hand and wave I pass this troupe and they wave back.  It’s easy to see whose side they are on and because I am here in the early hours of the morning without another soul in sight, it’s easy to see whose side I am on: we are, though different, on the side of kindness and wonder, extracting from the early morning hours the fruits of time and tranquility.  Now I wonder where they’ve come from?  They look like part of a tribe, and I suppose I am a lost member of a tribe as well, though of which one I cannot say.  Perhaps they camped here overnight, lit a bonfire, played music and sang songs as the waves crashed against the rocks.  Perhaps they smoked and drank and told stories, slept under the Big Dipper and Orion despite the park’s regulations against camping, and I suddenly envy and admire them for their bravado. I have never camped on a beach, never slept under the stars, and I think to myself, God, how I would like to if only to feel myself part of all that is and was.
    Last year as I walked this very stretch of beach, I found a hollow in the cliffs. A stream, thin as a wire, poured out of the mouth.  Inside, the vaunted space was surrounded by old pine trees, perhaps a hundred years old, and I remember sitting under the limbs of a dead spruce tree and watched the ocean advance and retreat. I decided now I wanted to go there again.  But first, I wanted to see if I could make it clear to where the rocky beach turned right and disappeared behind the walls of stone.

     Just before the sand yielded to rocks, I found what looked like an enormous sea monster, a snake with frayed skin lying beached at the edge where water met the shore.  On closer inspection it looked like a giant root, twined with kelp, parade confetti, and husks.  I took a picture of it, thinking of it as a natural sculpture, something the ocean dredged up to remind us that creation still occurred in its sunless depths.  As the sand gave way to rocks, then larger rocks, I kept on, keeping an eye on the waves advancing to my left.  If I were to be caught in a wave I would most likely be swept out to sea. Perhaps I would be washed ashore in a decade or so, bleached bones twined with sea kelp, a monster that the ocean had formed in its sunless depths.
    I navigate the rocks, keeping my head down, occasionally looking up to measure my progress.  It seems the farther I travel the farther my goal becomes. I turn to see where I have come from and it seems no farther than before.  I keep going, up rocks, down rocks, lifting from the dry detritus the ocean has washed up on the rocks shoals of gnats, then balancing my feet on sharp edges, climbing down and then up again until, finally, I climb a huge granite boulder and take a seat on a ledge near its top. From here I can see the ocean washing the rocks below me, waves crashing and sending huge sprays that tickle my face.  Water eddies, whirls and wheels, and tide pools develop in which skitter baby crabs.  The rocks around me are crusted with mussels.  I breathe, taking in the briny air, and everything else for a moment--the water’s rage, the sun blasting down, the road of light that stretches from the bounded area to the boundless ocean.  I take in everything: the scant clouds pacing across the blue sky as soft as powder, a few seabirds, chirping above me on the cliffs, and after taking a few pictures to preserve this moment in time, I make my way back.

     I find a dead bird at the edge of the cliffs and I take its picture.  Even here amidst such life newly created and exhausted, death announces itself.  Not allowing death to spoil my experience of Big Sur, part of me wants to turn away from it.  But even in death the bird--its talons, a cadaverous gray, its head crushed and one glassy eye shiny as a marble--looks at peace.  What killed it?  Was it surprised by Big Sur’s beauty, a color, a scent, a pattern, caught up in the grandeur of the water and with its head turned away from where it was going did it crash into the cliff?  Was it chased away?  Did some strong wind carry it towards the rocks, breaking its neck and wings?  I won’t know the answer to this, but I suppose what I can take away from its death is that one must always be careful. Even in Edenic places danger lurks.
    After making it safely back to the sand I walk towards the hollow in the cliffs where the stream empties itself onto the beach.  Last year I made it no farther than the mouth of this natural cave.  But today I want to see where it will lead me. I enter and just as before the noisy surf behind me dims and I am greeted with a nutritive, shadowy space with scents of fresh water and cooling pine.  Snowy sand yields to snowy dirt now and though the mostly withered trees, their branches tangled with one another as if to support one another in their last days, I see flashes of sunshine.  The area is littered with pine needles, cones, branches, twigs, leaves, and the farther I go a greater peace offers itself up.  Reaching a clearing of sorts, an area of about twenty feet in diameter, I confront a metal sign that reads “No Fires.”  Beyond it stretches the woods with no visible trail to make inroads into the forest. This is the essence of tranquility.  A natural church.  The netted branches before me form a mural and the netted branches above me form a frieze.  I feel at peace. Joyful even.  Something in me wants to speak to this space, to God and so I do, mvoice which I haven't heard since yesterday, trembling.   

     I take a seat beneath a tree and begin.  God, I say.  Are you there?  Can you hear me? Of course you can. I pause and wait for some sign of movement, but nothing stirs. God, I begin again, Thank you. Then I go on for about fifteen minutes, emptying myself of confusion, thanking God for all the gifts he’s placed before my senses so that I may see Him again. I make my apologies, confess to things, and as the sun reaches through the branches and illuminates the tree before me, I take a picture, committing to posterity what I see.   If God can't hear me here, then He must not care to hear.  I think to myself, this is the essence of solitude.  This is a taste of what Siddhartha must have felt sitting beneath the Bodhi Tree, or just a sliver of what Christ must have felt alone in the desert. But here, there are no burning bushes, no snakes slithering up to assume malevolent shapes.  Here, there is just a tree before me with the sun passing through its limbs.  I feel embraced.  The voices settle.  I dust myself off and leave this place, feeling both drained and full. I feel like laughing. I feel as if all things are possible.

    At the entrance to “the church,” I pass a middle aged couple who look entranced by all that Big Sur has to offer.  Smilingly I tell them they should take a look inside this space.  The word that returns to me again and again is “beautiful.” It's all so beautiful, I say and smile.  They thank me.  I am experiencing something authentic.  I feel it.  It is beautiful I say and this is the only invitation they need and I move on.  Moments later, I pass a man standing at the base of the cliffs, removing his clothes and preparing to swim.  The temperature feels warm and I remove my jacket, then turning to the man I hold up my arms as if to say, Can you believe this weather?  He flashes me a smile and says, “Isn’t it beautiful?” I agree. It is.  It is.
    I reach my Jeep and find a ticket on its windshield asking for $5, the park’s entrance fee.  I pay.  I leave.  I want this feeling to last and so I decide on a long drive along Old County Road.
         
    The road was used by stagecoaches before the construction of Highway One, featuring some of the most stunning views in the world.  It is a challenging route, not fit for the meek of heart, with, as someone once said, “1000 foot drops just inches from your tire.”  You’ll go from spectacular vistas of the rolling hills, Point Sur Lighthouse,  and the ocean dappled by sunlight, through lush forests in which silver streams cut through. Most of the land is private property, fenced in with plenty of signs that warn you against crossing over, but the cost of danger (of being shot, or trapped) is the price one pays to enter. The road is accessed at the Northside entrance to Bixby Bridge and following it for ten and a half miles or two and a half hours by Jeep, puts you at the entrance of Alfred Molera State Park. I can’t even imagine people navigating horse drawn carriages through this area, but I suppose that’s what they did.  As the road narrows, twists, turns, drops, climbs, drops again, it takes you in and out of the forests of Little Sur Valley with its canopies and then the road lifts you up to the hills, dizzying you.
    Crossing the bridge, I turn right and enter without reservations about what I’ll find, but I am more concerned with what I won’t find.  What if my experience this time around fails to live up to its expectations from last year?  What am I really seeking?  Solitude, I suppose.  No, I have solitude. Then what?  Perhaps, I want to feel naked, vulnerable.  No, not quite.  I want to feel connected to all that is real, unmitigated by commentary.  Emerson once wrote, “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society,” and I think how true that is.  “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at stars.”  Let him also look at the landscape and draw from its colors and geometric patterns the essence of life.  Is it possible, I ask myself?  Somehow I feel that what placed me in a state of wonder last year, is irretrievable.
    Last year I traveled this route without a clear idea of where it would take me, but I knew I was seeking a richer experience, so I pushed on, further and further into the deep heart of the forest, stopping now and again to take pictures of the redwoods, the creek, the trail.  Last year I summarized this journey and placing it into the larger context of life, I felt resolved: Without the danger and mystery of knowing where the road leads, we come to appreciate life’s meaning.  What meaning?  The meaning, I suppose, of taking pleasure in the natural, of seeing and feeling things as they are, not as they should be or what we want them to be--coming to a pre-judgmental place in one's mind where all things can be as they are.  No one knows where our life’s road leads except to death, and along the way we may miss what is beautiful, because we are so adamant about reaching the end. It’s very Zen Buddhist, I think.  Be in the moment.  Drill down into present experience.  Infinity, as William Blake once said, is in a grain of sand.

    As I travel up the steep hill, Old Coast Road is as I remembered it: craggy, dusty, pitted, rutted. I stop and take in a view of Bixby Bridge in the distance, the hills, the ocean, and then drive on, slipping my transmission into 4 X 4 mode.  The tires bite into the limestone gravel.  In my rear view mirror, I see an orange trail of dust and out of my passenger’s side window, I see fields and hills of astonishing greenery. I stop. I stop to gaze at the landscape in all its burnished beauty, but I cannot take it all in, so I drive on, downwards now, onto the road that dips me into Little Sur Valley.
    Shadows pool everywhere.  The sun streaks through the canopy, forming rods of light like fingers stretching into the undergrowth. The scents of chlorophyll abound. Ripe with the scent of wet bark and lush earth, the air is cool and the woods are quiet. The brook to my left burbles, the only sound here. Even the birds are silent. Solitude, I think.  No one knows where I am.  No one can see me.  I am swallowed up, unwatched and completely present. Though unseen I feel I am acknowledged by something unseen.  Am I being melodramatic? Perhaps. But in the silence of these woods I feel somehow, I don’t know, whole.  It's the same feeling I had sitting beneath the tree and thanking God for the beauty in this world. 
   Emerson writes, “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun.  At least they have a superficial seeing.”  To see the sun or a blade of grass as it is, unalloyed by any other element, as Elizabeth Bishop would say, is to return it to what it is.  It is this sense of seeing I am after, getting to know something so familiar we’ve taken it for granted that to truly see it again is to allow it to reclaim its place in the hierarchy of our needs.  As adults, we don’t need to see the sun, but the child, in all its glorious wonder about the mystery of things, sees it in a way we cannot.  It is this sense of reclamation I am after, I suppose, to see things once again as a child sees things, where a blade of grass plucked from a lawn and placed between the palms of one’s hand, becomes a reed.  I long to be the type of man whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other, as Emerson would say, a man who has retained the spirit of infancy even in manhood. This is nothing more than idealism and I wonder, even as I am experiencing forms, allowing my senses to be barraged by all these outward impressions, I wonder if it is possible? 

    I drive on and come to a fork in the road, one restricted, as it is a private access road, and the other the public road.  When I look to my right I see, buried in the dense foliage of a canyon, giant trees shooting out of the forest floor, I see the outlines of a roof, walls with windows, a porch.  Someone has taken it upon themselves to construct a house here, in the middle of nowhere.  I stop, and nervously bring out my camera and take a few pictures.  The house looks abandoned, but there is a light on in one of the rooms.  I wonder who lives here?  I want to run down the embankment, crashing through the roots and leaves, and knock on their door and sit with them and ask them questions.  Everything about the place suggests the reclusive.  No cars in the strip of gravel that must be their driveway, no effort to tidy up the yard, which is little more than a patch of overgrown grass, encroached on all sides by spindly bushes.  Imagine the effort and courage it takes to disconnect in this way, to not need the world, to resist and refuse it, to say to the world, you can have your internet and electricity and satellite dishes, you can have your air conditioning and central heating, your grocery marts and shopping plazas, but all I need is this, a house, the woods, water and air. I know I don't have the courage to live this way.  I still need to feel connected. 
    After three hours (I stopped often), I reach Highway One, and turn left. It is still early, about 2PM or so, and I am not yet exhausted. I want more.  I am greedy for more.  I still need to swim in the ocean.
   
(To Be Continued)