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Friday, January 20, 2012

Big Sur Part IV: Carmel-by-the-Sea

    Day 4: Carmel-by-the-Sea

    Founded in 1902, Carmel by the Sea, or simply Carmel, is known as much for its scenic treasures as it is for its artistic history.  The name Carmel rolls off the tongue, reminding me of lozenges, sweet, gooey things that transform the palate into a sweet, thick oil.  Countless writers, visual artists, poets have made their home here and in 1906, ten years before it was incorporated into a city, the San Francisco Call estimated that sixty percent of its homes were constructed by people who had “devoted their lives to work connected with the arts.”  Impressive.  The area lured Robinson Jeffers, Steinbeck, and most notably, Clint Eastwood, its first celebrity mayor.  The area also attracted the likes of Jack London, the two Sinclairs, Upton and Lewis.  Ambrose Bierce stayed here, as did the “uncrowned king of bohemia,” George Sterling who arrived in Carmel to establish its literary base.  Robinson Jeffers hosted many a brilliant intellectual, literary artist and celebrity at his Tor House, including Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, Charles Lindhberg, George Gershwin, and even “the little tramp,” Charlie Chaplin.  What a list!  What fame?  Immortals.  Long after I've faded into oblivion, long after my name and my deeds have been forgotten, theirs will live on. 
     But I can’t think of any other place so at odds with the spirit of art.  The houses here, as in Big Sur, are overpriced, cottages fetching in the millions, mansions on the bluffs asking tens of millions, witty little bungalows with Spanish tiled roofs, stucco and Saltillo tiled driveways, glass walled sun decks with views of the ocean fetching for several millions of dollars.
    Perhaps because of its artistic roots, Carmel is a quirky city.  There’s even a law prohibiting women from wearing high-heeled shoes without a permit. The ground slopes, the sidewalks roil like waves, mimicking the nearby waters and so the law was passed to protect the city against lawsuits arising from women tripping over boils in the pavement or cracks and fissures.  Why can’t they just fix the walking paths? It seems natural decay is preferable to safety. But one doesn’t see much natural decay here, the pristine lawns bathe in happy sunlight, the wind sings arias in the trees, the shops beckon people to spend, spend, spend.  Materialism has trumped art.
    I don’t know what it was, but now Carmel is a rich person’s haven.  No longer the province of the Essalen Indians or the Ohlone, who pushed the Essalen South into the rugged mountains of Big Sur, no longer a place defined by religion. What it has retained of its past is its name, none of its spirit. Friar Sebastian Vizcaino’s patron saint, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, gave this city its name, but not its identity.  It was this unknown friar who claimed Carmel Valley for Spain in 1602: but rather than lay siege upon the land, the Spanish waited another one hundred and sixty-eight years before attempting to colonize the area.  And they did, building the first mission, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo on June 3, 1770 in nearby Monterey.  Like all new colonies, they built simple mud structures topped with wood and straw, graduated to buildings built from pine and cypress, then finally to stone. Now it is concrete and blacktop. There are, as of today, no high rises.
    Carmel has successfully maintained its charm, for it is a charming place, a sweet place, quaint and proper, but it is also a place I can’t get away from fast enough. I feel sheepish here, insecure, my class shows in my posture, in my diminished capacity to ask for something as simple as a coffee.
    I park in a side street just off Ocean Avenue, in a space opposite Carmel plaza. Crossing the street and bounding up the big steps that lead to the second level shops, I am greeted with windows displaying goods I cannot afford.  Even a place which invites poets and artists cannot escape the lure of brands.  Tiffany, Tommy Bahama, Tumi.  Do I want to purchase a seven hundred dollar snakeskin wallet?  Do I really need a wristwatch that costs more than my Jeep?  Maybe I’ll buy Jessette a gift.  I enter Bottega Veneta and am struck by its decor.  Warm browns, marble floors, lots of glass and muted earthtones.  I am on alert.  I peruse the store, slowly, skulking.  I feel regarded, observed.  I check the ceiling for cameras and there it sits, a circle of black glass, a mute eye watching.  I step to the shelves displaying purses that look well made.  The leather has a stitched pattern, its thinness complimented by its suppleness.  I check the tag and my eyes enlarge.  I place it back and quickly and quietly leave.  How good must a purse before for its manufacturer to offer several thousand dollars for it?  I once saw a handmade purse in Florence, without a known “name,” made by an Albanian woman and it fetched for five dollars, given the exchange rate.  The wallet had artful little flaws, but the leather was thick, the seams taut.  Its flaws (it was slightly warped) gave the object a personality.  No two wallets she made were identical, though they resembled one another, like siblings sharing similar if not identical features.  Given my respect for handmade things (meals, books, furniture, etc.) there are no limits to how much I am willing to pay.  But brands don’t impress me (unless they are motorcycles or cars.)  We have been manipulated psychologically and emotionally to think that a “name” item conveys a greater sense of authority, bestows upon a person a denser perfume of success, than a non branded item.  We are made to believe that the branded item is better, and better for us.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Brands are hyped, marketed, and I wonder about authors and artists who have become brands themselves: Hemingway, the brand of terse, tough men, hiding their impotence; or, Faulkner, the brand of the deep South and fractured conscience; or, Stephen King, the first name in horror; or, Fitzgerald, the brand representing the upper crust and illusion. 
    Authors and artists have become things.  Their creations aren’t so much gifts to the world but packaged experiences.  It’s those artists who don’t fit neatly into categories, who are unmarketable that fail to achieve success.  Is Hemingway greater than his contemporary Ford Maddox Ford?  It’s a matter of opinion, or marketing dollars.  Is contemporary fiction writer Stephanie Meyer greater than Marilynne Robinson?  If book sales are any indication of greatness, then Marilynne is a failure.  But who can read sentences like, “Glyphs of crimped and plaited light swung across the walls and the ceiling,” from her debut novel Housekeeping, and not feel a measure of awe for its artistry?  Compare Meyer, who is about as adept as painting a scene as an infant watercolorist.  Thinking of Bob now: Perhaps Bob Shacochis’ troubles lie in not being a marketable brand, though his writing proves otherwise.  I believe one’s craft is important to develop, I believe in the power of words to persuade, I believe in writing.  If there any any tricks to becoming a better writer it is this: write, read, write. 
    But there is a trick, not quite prestidigitation (a word I learned from William Maxwell), to becoming a successful anything in life is this: make of yourself more than a man, make yourself into a symbol of a world view (words courtesy of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins).  I suppose the trick to being successful in any field is this: learn how to market yourself, learn how to be a product, become a thing that can be easily digested by the masses.  Package yourself in grand illusions.  Andy Warhol was as much a thing as a man, as was Picasso, as is Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton.  If you build your image around a sordid life of risk taking, failed choices, life lived off the beaten path, and there you have it, “Kerouackian” fame and its attending quality, immortality. These days, I feel (I know?), image is substance, surface is reality, depth is despised, questioned, argued over, picked apart, In the words of Marilynne Robinson again, this also from Housekeeping, “Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings.  The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures in the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable.” Nothing is more perishable than reality, except our dreams.
    We are marketed to. We have been convinced of an artist’s greatness because it helps sell his work.  Standards of art change; artists like brands go out of style.  I pass up Louis Vuitton.  I pass Mr. Fabulous and Georgiou.  It strikes me as odd that a place built on the spirit of art and independence, creativity and conscience, has devolved into a place where a pen can fetch twenty-thousand dollars. Capitalism has indeed run amok, on all levels.  I once saw a picture of an African child, sweltering in the heat of a raging summer, flies swarming his eyes.  He was wearing a Coca Cola t-shirt.     
    I am surprised to find galleries here: Raskin Gallery, Shoulders Photography Gallery.  On the third level there is the Carmel Arts and Film Festival, but, ironically, Homescapes Carmel sits not far from Wrath Wine Tasting Room. What a name, a good name, Wrath, for it is anything but anger I feel coming here; I feel, as I stated above, jittery, like a mechanical chicken wound too tight.
    I walk to the end of the boardwalk, then back to my Jeep.  Enough.  There is nothing here for me.  I drive into Monterey.
    Monterey is not where I want to be.  But here I am.  Arriving in Cannery Row, I circle around, drive the boardwalk and glance to my right--a bronze bust of John Steinbeck. I smile to myself. Brands I think.  Authorial brands.

    (to be continued)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Big Sur Essay Part IV: Day 4: Tor House, a Poetic Tour





Day 4: Dec 7
    My final full day in Big Sur. I took my coffee on the narrow porch outside my cabin door and gazing at the creek below I smoked a cigarette. Everything I feel is washing into me, washing out of me, washing me clean.  A blue jay flew onto the railing before me, hopped onto the redwood trunk a few feet from the porch and performed a sort of dance by burrowing its beak into the crevices of the bark, flying away then returning, approaching the tree from another angle. I watched it for a few minutes and then it flew away. It was looking for something it believed the bark held, and not finding it, flew away. Maybe I am doing the same thing, that is, looking for something in Big Sur that may not be here, or have I found it already?  Was the experience of the night before the reason for my coming?  I extinguish my cigarette and walk inside.  I retrieve Janet Burroway’s book on Writing Fiction, and I turn to the end chapters on revision.  I find a story there written by Bob Schacochis.  I had the pleasure of meeting Bob, drinking with Bob, having Bob sign his book for me this past year, during my final full semester at USF.
    A bearish man, he appeared in Fromm Hall's main stage more than a little tipsy and I turned to one of my writer friends and said so.  His condition made me feel uncomfortable and yet I was fascinated.  Untethered, wild, his intellect formidable, Bob reflected the personality of a true writer.  While reading from book The Immaculate Invasion, he kept interrupting himself, launching polemics against the US government, its foreign policies, raging against the narcissism of Bush Jr., and decrying America's ongoing victimization of the Haitians.  Here was an angry man, at times shouting, at times whispering.  His thick beard, shoulder length hair, glasses, made him, for that hour at least, a prophet, unafraid to tell it like it is.  He used words to express truth.  He felt that reality should be embraced, in all its hurt horror.  Here we were, swimming in the university's engineered experience, enamored by a man who had lived, truly lived.  Swimming in alcohol, he launched epithets, using language that would make a Jesuit priest blush.  He seemed to me a hurt hawk, because he is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.  At a distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head.  I loved his reading and hearing the sheer power and beauty of his descriptions, the grace in them, the truth in them, I was left in awe of the man.  Here was a real writer, damaged, sensitive, beautiful and wild-- all who hear and read him remember him in their bones. 
    After he had received his questions which he answered tangentially, eventually addressing in that same vitriolic candor, after he had received his final applause, tepid and then building, his reading was over.  A short while later, I found him outside Fromm Hall on a bench smoking a cigarette.  A few of my fellow students kept their distance from him, perhaps seeing in him someone ruined and failed.  I saw in him a man of singular genius.  I had just bought his book from the table the university book store had set up beside the stage, and I approached Bob, thanked him fro the reading and his speaking the truth and asked him to sign his book for me.  We spoke of my then current project, a book about the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he listened graciously.  He took his book from my hands, asked me to repeat the spelling of my name, then offered me advice, “Don’t fucking give up telling it as it is.”  I offered him a cigarette then told him we should have a drink.  “What a fucking great idea!” He said.  David Vann, one of my professors slinked out from the building and found us.  Vann smiling, pleased yet a little perturbed at the way things "went down," asked Bob if he could take him back to the hotel.  David had found fame by exploiting his own father’s suicide in a  collection of short stories and I suspect felt a measure of protection for Bob.  I respected David's intellect (his ability to recite verbatim and with the proper pronunciation entire passages of Olde English Poems); but I always found his artistic choices troublesome and his reasons for being an artists problematic. "Fuck the hotel," Bob drawled, "Let's get a drink."  We settled on a place, our writer’s drinking spot, Hobson’s Choice on Haight.
    Hobson's as we call it, bills itself as a Victorian Punch House, a place known not just for its largest selection of Rums in the country ( I think), but also an unpretentious place, whose energy builds every hour.  As more and more people pour in, the voices grow in pitch, laughter roars as does the music.  It's a decidedly San Francisco's version of an Irish Bar.  It has no antecedents as I can't think of a single place that resembles it.  It is in some ways a platitude for writers--a place to go and drink and to drink and to drink.  I found Bob in the back room, a vodka and tonic (I think) cupped in his hands.  The seat beside him was empty so I settled myself in.  We talked, or rather, he talked and I listened, mostly about his life as a writer, about the failed choices, he'd made, about him working for twelve years on a book he didn’t have a hope in hell of publishing.  His writing, like his speech, like his candor, seared.  “You never heard of me till today, have you?” he drawled.  I told him I did, lying, his name conjured up then forgotten a decade ago while I was completing my undergraduate courses. “You’re a fucking liar,” he drawled, when I told him I had heard of him.  And here he was, in the same book I had read and studied while completing my Bachelor’s in Creative Writing.
    I started the story and after a few pages put the book down.  I can’t read anything right now.  I don’t want to read anything.  The creek beyond flowed past and all I could think of doing was being around the ghosts of famous literary men.
    I dressed.  I decided to drive to Carmel and find Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House, a house as much as a refuge as it is a testament of a way of life long gone, before Carmel became what it is today, a place where the uber-wealthy live and play.  To build a testament to love and family, I think, isn’t this what every artist does?  Tor House, from what I know of it, seems the embodiment of authenticity. 
    I have much to do today.  After Tor House I'll visit Carmel by the Sea, perhaps take a trip into Monterey to experience the bustle of the city, and later visit the Henry Miller Library, then Julia Pfeiffer State Park and its waterfall. I want to see condors gliding across the cliffs past Pfeiffer State Park. I want to take roads I haven’t still yet gone. Make a plan, I say.  No, don’t!  Let your eyes take you where they may.  Follow your feelings to see where they may go.  You may discover things yet unseen.  This journey I am on is not unlike writing, each moment, attuned to it, feels poetic.

   When the modernist poets were decrying the loss of civilization, Robinson Jeffers, standing aloof, was raging against its successes. He carved for himself a solitary life, a fiercely individual one, settling in Carmel when the area was still rugged, craggy, difficult to navigate--now it has been tamed, with seaside mansions, and all the opulence of Carmel by the Sea, a shopping playground for the uber rich.  I once found a pen there at Bittner Fine Pens, one manufactured by David Oscarson, the Henrik Wigstrom Trophy fountain pen, costing $4900 dollars.  Who in their right mind would buy such a thing? Collectors, of course, pen enthusiasts. The store is a pen pornographer’s dream. Back to Jeffers.
    I had read his poems as an undergraduate, been drawn to his imagery and in particular to his fascination and reverence for nature; not Whitman’s nature, an Edenic place robust with goodness and grace, but nature as a wild, raging, dangerous place.  In my favorite poem of his Hurt Hawks, he writes:
    The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
    The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
    No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
    And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
    Will shorten the week waiting for death, there is a game without talons.

Addressing the sad fact that hunter becomes prey, I think of the sea bird I found the other day at Pfeiffer Beach, that sea bird with its claws upended, lying smashed in the rubble of rocks. Eaten by flies, gnats circling its head in death and oblivious to us, I think how it was still animated, the world working on the wings and talons its mechanisms, breaking down its molecular form.  The bird would no longer fly, its owl-like feathers fluttering away bit by bit, like Jeffers’ hurt hawks, it could no longer derive from the wind currents its meaning and purpose, and I think, if the heart of a poet dies, then his poetry dies. And I think, if you kill the architect’s emotional connection with the land, the environment inspiring him, you kill the meaning of architecture.  Tor House, a monument to love and creation stands in opposition to the manufactured space.  It conveys meaning and method. 
    I feel cities have been planned in haste.  Rooted in expediency and irrespective of the landscape upon which towers have risen and city halls spread, colonnaded walkways offering nothing more than the view of grounds engineered, city planners have always, it seems to me, sacrificed one thing for another, viz. beauty for functionality.  They've added parks and spaces of reflection and recreation as an afterthought.  Even the best parks, New York’s Central Park, for one, seem impoverished somehow, seem like consolations.  Compared to this.  For without a Big Sur to gauge our reaction towards city spaces, we lose our perspective.  Big Sur is necessary, like the Mallorcan Coast, the Grand Canyon, like Alaskan Glaciers, Ketchikan forests, necessary to provide for us those natural spaces from which all inspiration draws us out of ourselves, makes us believe in the grand. So, I share something in common with Whitman; I too believe in nature as an Edenic place, yet I also share in common with Jeffers--the belief that sometimes nature can turn against us, clip our wings, leave us like the hurt hawks, or like a sea bird crashed into the cliffs, to die if we fail to give nature her respect, appreciation, awe.  
    For ages men have attempted to control nature and nature always fights back, in earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, in cyclones and hurricanes.  How can you tame a hurricane?  No one can tame the heart through love desires to create. No one can tame God inside the breast or Satan in the beast.
    Tor House, I read, was named after the “tor,” or craggy knoll on which it was built, long before anything like a community took shape here.  Carmel, then, unlike now, was a wild and barren place, though still, I suspect, windswept.  Construction began in 1918 and by 1919, having apprenticed himself to the builder, learning the art of making “stone love stone” the house was complete.  He built the house and adjoining hawk tower using using granite pilfered from the Carmel Bay’s rocky shoreline. Horses pulled the boulders up to the promontory where around it stood nothing.  Jeffers in more than one sense (both in poetic vision and the will to carve himself his own identity and place in the world) reflected the pioneer spirit.  
    I set my navigation system and head North on Highway One.  I pass fields and the lighthouse high on the peninsula, a gated access rad preventing me from visiting.  I pass a beach on my left whose surf looks like a thick cream, crashing onto beaches that look like sponge cake. I am leaving Big Sur behind and as I drive, I feel how different I am from the man who drove South to Big Sur a few days ago. How experiences truly change us, and sometimes for the better. But I also fear that this feeling will be forgotten, like dew that had settled on the pastures of my soul evaporating just as soon as I reenter the city. I feel strange driving into a more densely populated place, with neighborhoods and parking lots and shopping centers.  I feel strange waiting in cue at a stoplight. I turn left, off of Highway One and enter a residential area which takes me to the edge of the ocean and my navigation system tells me I have arrived at my destination.  Looking to my left I see a rustic house constructed on a rise and in process of renovation.  I don’t stop to consider the meaning of renovating a historical house. I fail to see.    
   Parked by its fenceposts stand several landscaping trucks and construction vans. A few gardeners on break, eating sandwiches sit along the short rises. My navigation system is silent upon my arrival and I shut it off.  I must be here.  This must be it.  There is nothing around it that remotely resembles this, for it stands as a rustic testament to all that Carmel once was, not yet defaced with a crop of suburban houses.  The walls faced in bulbous rocks the color of sand, look like something a poet would build.  There seems a strength and solidity about this place, much like Jeffers’ poetry: Ah, the extraordinary patience of things! It seems to stand in defiance of the seaside cottages with their peaked roofs, gabled windows, clapboard outer walls.  It defies quaintness and modesty even; a house trembling with knowledge, but most of all, shouting its freedom from the Plebian.  This must be it.  I park down the street and wrestle my camera from its case and walk back through the road whose houses seem to stand in judgment of me.  What is he doing? They seem to ask.  Who is this man with his camera and his solitary airs and his determination to live in a sort of magical thinking?    
    I am taking pictures of the house, circling around and up a narrow alleyway to its frontside, then step to its Northside, passing into a crowded concrete pathway, taking pictures, violating its occupants’ privacy, when I realize there are no placards anywhere to indicate this is a historical site, that this is Tor House.  Where is the tower?  I suddenly realize, I am at the wrong address.  Green and blue garbage cans stand adjacent the walls of a garage, a green rubber hose rolled up and pegged to the side of the house, and metal dog bowls.  This isn’t it, though I would soon see, it is a mimic of the original: a fraternal twin.  This is not the “inevitable place.”  This house is an accident, a purposeful accident, meant to throw the traveler off.

    Acting nonchalant, I walk across the street, passing the servicemen again, their eyes on me.  Acting nonchalant, I step onto a small concrete border that divides the street from the wilds of the sea, and I think, How many times did Jeffers stand here and gaze upon the water, seeing in the swirling patterns of diving willets and circling pelicans and hopping cranes the inspiration for poems?  I cross onto the rocks twined with some kind of fibrous thread where no farther than fifty feet white seabirds gather, flap their wings, argue and jostle for positions where the sun cuts a swath of light.  In a few seconds all those histrionics are over and the birds settle themselves.  What am I missing? I ask.  The coast to my right turns in a wide lopping arch.  The beach is tan as a woman’s skin.  Below me sit all manners of rocks and boulders in strange manifestations, bulbous and curved, pitted and grooved, stone made interesting by erosion. I take a few more pictures, wondering how many times Jeffers must have stood here, or sat here amidst these rocky jumbles and wrote his adaptation of Medea for the Broadway stage?  I pick up a stone and roll it across the rocks where it clatters and settled in some nook and I wonder, had Jeffers once rolled the same stone? 
    A few couples, elderly couples, pass overhead, watch me as I snap a picture or two.  I turn my camera this way and that, looking for new angles, using the viewfinder to frame just the image I need to transform this space into a photograph. Selecting, directing, editing, this is what we do when we create, transforming the raw material of the world into some purposeful form and call it art. This is what Jeffers did when writing the lines,Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found the honey of peace in old poems.  
    I return to my Jeep, set the navigation again and pull the shifter into drive.  I roll no more than ten feet when the navigation says again, You have reached your destination; your destination is on the right.”  I look to my right and see a sculpture of a hawk fashioned from white sandstone in the yard and I realize I am, I was, already here. 
 
     I had already arrived, but didn’t know it.  I seem to have embodied Percy’s dictum of not seeing the thing being shown.  So hungry for the experience I failed to see it.  Amused, I shake my head.  Several gardeners, sitting on the front steps of a house opposite the Jeffers’ property, regard me with passing interest as I take a few pictures of the house, of the grounds. All work has stopped, I think, the people are breaking, feeding their bodies and here I am, hungry for new sights.  A sign affixed to a short and stout column states that tours aren’t offered on weekdays, only weekends. It is Thursday today.  My trip has been in vain.  I feel embarrassed, but then I think of Bob Schacochis, what would he say?  "Fuck it, dive in, swim, let it go and tell the fuckin' truth!" 
   What truth?  I survey my surroundings.  What am I missing? I ask. What more is there to say? There is nothing here but lovely little houses, lovely little views, the air scented with briny charm.  Something is missing.  There is not the wild, uninhabited, rocky wisdom of what drew Jeffers here.  Though each house looks as individual as the next (no two alike in posture and style), each having earned its right to exist shoulder to shoulder with Jeffers’ house, something feels missing from them.  Some perfume of fame?  I think, I wouldn’t mind living here; the houses neither ostentatious nor cowering in shame in their proximity to Hawk Tower.  These house still somehow belong.  All the houses, even the smallest ranchers, exude architectural poetry; they are all well intentioned spaces, houses that feel less like machines of living than sacred spaces, in which people carve out their dreams. What else is there?  The trees, yes, and the landscaping, and the streets, idyllic and empty of play.
     It is noon already, and my journey is still ongoing, so I climb back into my Jeep, roll out of this neighborhood and drive towards Carmel by the Sea.

(To Be Continued)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Big Sur Part III: The Day Finally Ends

    Nepenthe is tonight as it was yesterday as it was the night before, almost empty.  It’s the down time, Felipe tells me. He says he’s glad for the quiet because the month before the restaurant was slammed with business.  Thinking back to my own business (I was a businessman for eight years), downtimes always made me nervous, because I equated sales with success: if you weren’t selling, you weren’t producing and if you weren’t producing you were failing.  I think of my father.  He pushed me to new heights by offering no praise for a job well done.  He critiqued with such silences they made the heart hungry for words, even if those words arose out of anger and disappointment.  Sometimes I deliberately sabotaged things to get a rise out of him.  I suppose I have lived most of my life in want of praise of one type or another, to be acknowledged, to be seen.  And I suppose this is the essence of fame (not that I want it), to be visible before the eyes of everyone even if what they understand of you is an image.
    Felipe asks me what I want to drink tonight and I tell him that tonight I’ll take a wine flight.  I want to soar, but not too high.  Drinking wine is like flying, but at a leisurely pace--a flap, a glide, two flaps, a longer glide.  I say, winking, In Vino Veritas.  He smiles, his upper lip twitching.  He brings out the Pinot Noir he told me about the night before, Guaranteed, he says to make you feel friendly. I wonder if I am giving off an impression of unfriendliness?  Can he see through me?  Am I transparent?  Does he see in me a reticence at best or at worst inauthenticity?  He proceeds to tell me about the history of Pinot Noir and I listen because I am agreeable to learning.
    To learn, I say to myself, is to be in love. The receptivity, the willingness.  I think to learn is to be feminine--soft, watery, pliant.  Rigidity resists learning. Age hardens a person to such a degree one resists everything new. My father, he struggles to learn new concepts, slipping into the familiar because the known is safe.  At times I feel he lives in the past, relying too much on his past achievements, living inside the image of success.  He lives in a past where he was a king of business.  A successful entrepreneur, the American Dream came late in his life and when the dream ended, he found himself once again unseen--no longer a man with his finger on the pulse of the world, but a man out of touch with it. Say that he had never created his business (a business he worked to build up, he said, for our sakes--my brother my mother and I), and say that he remained the man my brother and I felt proud to call father, a man who took us on trips to nearby parks, who hand fed us, who wasn’t afraid or shy to take a dip in the ocean once in a while, a man who also helped us with our homework and offered us praise (not that he offered us much praise), for a job well done, then I would think I would have turned out a different sort of man than the one I’ve become.  I would think I would have turned out to be the sort of man that prized the material trappings of success over making art, perhaps, living by skimming life’s surface.  I would be a man in love with image and not with learning.  I would perhaps worked hard to secure the type of success that others envy--yachts and jets, stock options, titles, a slew of fancy cars and a mansion overlooking the Queen’s Necklace in the LA Harbor.  So, I suppose, my father, by sacrificing family for the sake of family, giving all his energies over to his business to secure a better life for us, was the kind of sacrifice made to create the type of man I have become--an artist.  The father must die, I read once, so that his progeny can live.  Perhaps my father sacrificed his role as a dad so the writer in me should live?  I don’t know.  Perhaps my view of what makes a father is too narrow.  But what I know is this: my father is my obsession, as is home, as is family. I love my father and at times I hate him, like God, whom I love and at times hate.  
    Felipe has been talking to me but I haven’t been listening.  Having one against my earlier thought of being agreeable to learning.  He pours the wine and I sip it and it tastes sweet on my tongue. I nod.  I drink.  I am unable to understand why it tastes so good, but then everything here tastes good, everything I’ve taken for granted: coffee, chicken, broccolini, potatoes, even the air and water have sweetness to them that makes my heart quiver with pleasure.
    I look for Angela and see her at a table in the center of the room engaged in a conversation with her manager. I feel guilty for wanting to speak to her; this desire to converse feels a little like cheating.  But then again, I think, my intentions are innocent.  Felipe doesn’t ask me what I think about the wine when I sip it; he sees what I think on my face.  I would rather drink wine than talk about it.  I finger the rim of the glass and it produces a sweet note and I think, how I would rather be a vessel in whom the world pours itself in.  I want to swirl the pleasures around inside, wet my finger and circle the edge of my lips to issue forth singing sounds.  I think of Angela and I think of Rilke.  "Every angel is terrifying," he wrote.  I couldn't agree more.
    I drink two more glasses of wine, eat an artisan cheese plate with blue cheese, olives, and roasted garlic, and feeling my mood at the right temperature, I thank Felipe and pay him.  I approach Angela and her manager and say goodbye.  She apologizes again for not having time.  It is time that always seems in short supply.  We never do what we should, act like fools, risk things, say what we feel.  What can she sense in me?  Desperation? Perhaps she sees in me a threat to her sense of balance. No, not that, I make too much of things. 
    Driving back to my cabin I feel a pull towards Pfeiffer Beach again. In the mood for doing something different, unique, risky, I decide to drive the narrow, winding road back to the beach.  The sky is clear, the temperature cold, and I think to myself, I have never experienced the feeling of standing at the precipice of a cliff and looking down at raging waters.
    The road feels different now. Everything under the cloak and dagger of the dark feels different.  I feel I am doing something illegal, vile, perhaps it is by the standards of civilized society. I am driving by night on a winding road to a beach where I hope to sit silently on, gauge the roiling waves as they manifest themselves in the pale, blue, acrid light of the dark. 
     I park in the same stall from earlier this morning (hard to believe I was here earlier in the day) in the last space on the upper level.  I find it ridiculous that just this morning I walked this stretch of beach, spoke to God in a ruined clearing.  It’s hard to believe that today I drove for miles and miles to Whale Watcher’s Cafe in a journey without purpose, a journey without destination.  Hard to believe that earlier this evening, I sped up Highway One, pushing my reflexes and my vehicle to its limits.  I leave my Jeep and walk the dark path, a balustrade of seed pines arching over me, forming a domed roof, beyond which a few stars peek through.  The luxurious smells of rich decay, of salt soaked sand, the creek to my left whose voice seems swallowed up by the sound of the crashing surf beyond.  I can hear the ocean.  I feel it in my chest. The darkness makes everything feel colder and as I trespass onto the beach head, an image of ghosts appears in my mind, ghosts touching my face with their spindly fingers, wings flapping cold air, the cool air from beating wings tickling the hairs on my head, and the moaning surf beyond like an army of tortured souls. 
     In the open, just the sky above and the ocean beyond, the bluffs to my right lay bathed in shadows, the dark muting the shrubs and bushes and vines.  The portal (to where, to nowhere?) stands diagonally to my left in the distance and rings hollowly the music of the water.  I cross the shallows of the creek. It looks deeper and wider than it did this morning, the water, earlier so silvery, now looks like silk.  The creek cuts through the sand, sand like down, and attempting to jump to the other side, my boots suck into the water.  The cuffs of my pants are wet now and I am thankful I wore leather boots. Crossing the sandbar I make for the rocks, my breath heavy, my heart pumping, my mind unsure of what to do.  I cross several rocks then finding one that looks safe and relatively dry, I hop onto it.  I am standing on this flat misshapen rock jutting out from a slag of rocks crumbled down from the cliffs, and I feel pleased with myself.  But what to do now that I am here?  It is too cold for a swim, not that I would, though the thought to strip naked and run the beach like a wild man sounds, because of the wine in my system, oddly appealing.  I breathe in the night, smell the crash of surf, hear the light, feel the color of blackened moonlight against my skin.  Miscible, I feel unraveled.  I am slipping off the rocks and mixing with the cascade of salt rimmed waves.  I feel broken up, or down, my incremental parts scatter.  Raising my arms, making of myself an offering to the dark and that boundless stretch of liquid, reaffirms my smallness in this world.  I raise my arms higher and tilt my head up and shout at the sky, the stars the mute witnesses of this act.
    I feel I want to get closer to the water.  It rises from the bellows of the ocean floor and curls then crashes against these silent black stones.  So I venture out about fifteen yards or so, propelling myself forward by sheer will, until I reach a slick flat rock, draped in moss, and planting my feet firmly on its surface, wait for the water to heave and crash.  It rises.  What a thrill to see it rise and crash, cascading against the rocks that sit, protected by nothing, quiet sentinels to all this swirling, fearsome action. Feeling like a survivor of a species thought extinct, like an exiled member of some lost tribe, like a castaway, I shout to the sky.  I want this feeling to last, this exhilaration, for that is what I feel, exhilarated, the cold air, the cold water, the cold rocks making me feel more than a man. I stand there shouting and singing until the moment passes.
    Crossing the beach, I venture towards the portal.  It has been the subject of many a photographer’s pictures.  But you have to be lucky and patient.  During a certain time of day, during a certain month, when the sun sets in just the right spot and the light careers through the opening, making it look like an afterburner bathed in a cloud, you get the shot, capturing for posterity the unbelievable light--coppery gold.  You have to be lucky, I suppose, or persistent to be successful.  Last year I entered the portal’s mouth and waited for the waves to crash through and they did, pushing against me in a violent and happy cascade.  But that was during the day.  Now it is night, midnight.  Here, now, risking everything (my past, my present, my future) I may lose everything--my life.  But what life would I lose if I lost everything? If the water pulled me out into its depths, catching me in a riptide (me, a creature less defenseless than a skittering crab) I could make my final peace with all that burdens me.  But what is it that burdens me? Expectation burdens me, the feeling of failing to measure up to standards I have set for myself, impossible standards, quest for my father’s respect.  No, I think, I must let go of all that.  Alone, caught in the afterglow of a great burn, like Icarus hurled to earth, a phoenix burned up by the beauty of Big Sur, ready to rise again, I am giving myself over to transmutation. The essence of creativity is to allow change, welcome it, and not resist it.  That is what I am doing here, I think, looking for an experience that will change me so thoroughly that my past will feel vanquished.
    I enter the portal now, carefully navigating the serrated rocks.  I climb.  Am I risking death?  The rocks are cold and sharp and slippery and I crouch on the topmost edge of a boulder, ready to lunge at the waves crashing through with an intensity that defies what I’ve come to know of Big Sur: placid, a saintly calm, a regal standoffishisness.  From a distance everything looks peaceful, almost at rest; but close up, that’s when you really see Big Sur--that’s when you see it suck and lick and bleed. The daylight hides it as much as it reveals it and at night, Big Sur truly comes alive. 
    I sit on the edge of the boulder watching the waves crash in, sprayed by the briny water, the briny air filling my lungs.  And I sit and stare at the parade of briny waves coursing through this tunnel, briny white tongues, briny black fingers with briny white claws breaking off stones from the ceiling and the walls.  The water rages, a giant engine grating and coughing, advancing and retreating, while the walls magnify a thousandfold the ocean’s insistence. 
    What are you angry about? I shout, then I shout other things, shouting things that no one must hear, things I will not, cannot repeat.  As the moments slip past, I feel not even a part of this world now, but a hollow voice, a noise joining the noise of the current, a voice baying endlessly like a wounded animal at Orion, at the moon, at the unseen galaxies above.
    Stop this, I tell myself.  But the wind unclothes me.  You are acting like a fool!  But the stars that shine blink only for me.  They are, in this quietude, mine now, reclaimed from the world and mine, all mine.  The waves are mine, the cliffs, the air, the sand, the rocks, all mine.  I know this is foolish to think, and I think the authentic experience sits in the center, like a seed in an apple, of another value: lonesomeness.  So long as I am alone, the world is mine, I think, but this is solipsism, no?  That sickness of mind that makes of the world my idea, independent of others.  Here, I am connected, to myself and nature, but not to others, and isn’t that one of the points of living, to be connected not just to nature, not just to God, but to one another?  Isn’t being a writer an exercise (more than that; it’s a life) in connecting work to people?
    I inch forward, up another boulder, then turning my back to the waves crashing through, I start to laugh.  Am I drunk?  Am I an idiot?  A fake?  A fool?  Yes, yes!  All of it!  All of it!  I have a strong desire to jump into the water, but not to end it all, to test myself against current and cold.  This is another risk, one too great, and I feel I have already taken too many risks today.  Instead, I thank God again and I thank Him for things of which He has no provenance; but I thank Him anyway.  Giving up, I cross the beach, limping (because my knees when it gets cold become arthritic), and cross the shallow freshwater creek, then I enter the forested exit that smells of wet sand and pine and I lumber back to the parking lot which is, as it was before, bathed in black. 
    I feel exhausted, but energized.  Happy. I feel I have experienced something words cannot yet explain.  I shiver.  I smile to myself.  I can hardly believe this day.  Emptied of all emotions, I feel like that twined root I found earlier washed up on the shoreline, an exhausted creature of no known origin placed for view in a world of which it has no real understanding, waiting, just waiting for the next strong current to wash it back to sea.
 
(To be continued)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

New Reading List (in process)

In his recent post, my Friend Bucho blogged about all the books he's read last year, a mind boggling list of over sixty books.  So it got me thinking about the books I want to read this year. Truthfully, I can't think so far ahead, so here is my reading list for the next two months (no particular order, except perhaps the first five)

1. World's Fair - EL Doctorow (Finished Ragtime recently and loved it, so I am on to the next one of his novels that speaks to me) 
2. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson (I am curious about the buzz surrounding this book)
3. Mystic River - Dennis Lehane (Having seen the movie--which I loved--I thought I would venture into mystery writing with this novel)
4. The Boy Who Shoots at Crows - Randall Silvis (Another mystery novel.  This one's set in Pennsylvania)
5. Housekeeping - M. Robinson (I like to read this novel at least a few times a year.  It's like going back and revisiting an old friend)
6. Tinkers - P. Harding (Ditto)
7. The Outermost House - Henry Beston (Nonfiction work from a master stylist)
8. Reality Hunger - David Shields (a postmodern critique about, well, everything media related)
9. The Message in a Bottle - Walker Percy (Rereading for the fifth time, I think.  A collection of brilliant philosophical/linguistic essays)
10. Julip - Jim Harrison (Author of Legends of a Fall. Beautiful writing from a storytelling master)
11. Tree of Smoke - Denis Johnson (Johnson's prize winning masterpiece)
12. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - Ron Hansen (Masterful storytelling)
13. Blue Nights - Joan Didion (Latest book by this master writer)
14. Mothers and Sons - Colm Toibin (Love his writing for the sheer sonic brilliance of his words)
15. Mrs. Bridge - Evan S. Connell (Recommended by Ethan Canin)
16. Jazz - Toni Morrison (A second read)
17. After This - Alice McDermott (A quiet novelist with a soaring reputation)
18. Gilead - M. Robinson (Reading this for the third time)
19. The Shipping News - Annie E. Proulx (Love her style.  This time I'll finish the book)
20. Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy (reading this for the third time)

What's on your list?

Disclaimer: I reserve the right to review, add, delete to this list at any time :)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Big Sur Part III: A Long Drive on Highway One.



Day 3: A Long Drive on Highway One
    Driving relaxes me.  Even before I learned to drive I would take my bicycle into the woods near our Northeastern, Pennsylvania home, and navigating the trails near Little Nescopek Creek I would push myself to travel into the deepest and darkest parts of the woods.  I am not sure what I would find at the end of the trail, not sure it mattered really.  What I felt in my heart could not be settled by destinations.
     I remember one summer day at the end of the school year in 1983.  Against my mother's wishes, I took my bicycle and rode fifteen miles to Rock Glen, my junior high school.  I spent the afternoon cutting through the woods, throwing rocks into Black Creek, and on my way back, my mother, driving home from an errand, saw me pedaling along on the main road.  When I arrived home, she scolded me for disobeying her, then punished me by cutting off all my hair, which at the time was shoulder length. I spent a week in bed after that and s revenge refused to cut it for twelve years. By the time I finally cut it off, it was almost to my waist. The price of my rebellion amounted to nothing, as my mom loved my hair.
     But afflicted with a wanderlust that would never leave, I always believed in escape.  Even before I had my license, I would take my mother's car from the driveway, and drive around Huntington Beach, where we lived after leaving the East Coast, and when I had my own car, I would often drive for hours, aimlessly, researching streets, driving along the California coast in hopes of losing myself.  Even now (now that I have a motorcycle) I ride it to new destinations to forget that I exist.  When you're riding at speeds in excess of 90 or 100 miles an hour on a bike, the world whizzing by, there is no time to think of yourself.  So, here, I am losing myself again, I think.  I am losing myself in Big Sur and that’s the point of this trip, paradoxically, escaping myself so as to be closer to myself. 
    Being a creature of habit, I eat a light lunch at the Big Sur River Inn--a small burrito this time and a small coke.  Once finished, I drive South on Highway One.  I want to see how far I can go, how far the road will take me.  The impressions of Old County Road and of Pfeiffer Beach no longer at the forefront of my mind, but their effects linger, like dew settled onto the pastures of my soul (Who wrote that?  Neruda, I believe).  Each mile I leave behind takes me farther away from myself, farther away from “the church” and Old County Road and Alfred Molera Park.  I am searching for new experiences now, looking for a new road, a new trail, a new beach or cove where in untrammeled sands I can bury my toes and feel the simple, unadulterated pleasures of life.  I drive slowly for there is no one behind me and no one ahead.  My pace, leisurely, fits my mood.  I am not interested in rushing through things, but I also know that sometimes one can’t help but to rush through things, to get to the next place, to do the next thing.  My driver’s window is open, and the wind that breezes into the compartment feels as brisk as morning sunshine. 
    As the road twists and turns, tight switchbacks, neck bending chicanes, I stop now and again at the turnouts to take pictures of the coastline.  It seems to sing to me, yet no breeze stirs, just the ocean moves far below me with gargantuan softness.  I stop sometimes just to take in the view.  Miles and miles of ocean to my right, gray and blue, dappled and boundless, the cliffs bathed in misty effervescence, the continent slipping into the sea, or rising out of it, sloping up, or falling down.  Looking out towards the horizon, I feel the ocean has no end, for in the distance, where the horizon meets the sky, great clouds amass, blurring the distinction between world and heaven.
    I approach a construction zone.  How fitting, I think.  The road needs repair, like my own road to the new life as a writer, in need of repair.  A flagman, in this case a flagwoman, stops me, places a cone down onto the pavement, and I wait.  I wait for her permission to declare it safe for me to pass.  She’s on her walkie-talkie, nodding, talking, nodding again I wonder who are all these theatrics meant for.  Me?  After five minutes, she removes the cone and waves me onward.  My journey continues.  I am entering a new, more desolate, even more sparsely populated section of Big Sur.  My ears are burning with the sounds of tires lashing the road.
    After thirty minutes of driving, I am numb.  My brain shuts off.  I don’t see the ocean anymore, nor notice the pine trees forming natural frames from which to view the water.  I don't notice the mist drenched cliffs.  I don’t notice the hills or the canyons suffused in amber light, nor the sky, turning cobalt.  My only focus is the road ahead.  I keep driving, passing a sign that says next gas 22 miles.  The road is all that exists.  If I am not careful, if I go too fast, I am liable to lose control.  If I misjudge a turn I am liable to skid off the road and tumble over the cliffs.  If I cut a corner too sharply, mistime my entry, I may venture onto the opposing lane and collide into oncoming traffic.  The Jeep’s suspension feels rigid and every bump and pothole in the road I pass over sends shockwaves up my spine. I keep on, no longer seeing anything but the road. The road. 
 
     It takes me an hour or so to reach Whale Watcher’s Cafe, the last outpost on Big Sur, and more than half way between Big Sur and Lucia.  I stop, order a coffee for four dollars (a one size-fits-all coffee), and after the cashier fails to make change for my twenty, I ask her to give me what she has and I leave. Calculating it, the coffee comes to four dollars and seventy-five cents.  Besides being expensive, it doesn’t taste very good. I drink it anyway.  As I sit in the driver’s seat, the door open, sipping my coffee, I suddenly think to myself, I am tired of being a man.  I feel like the character in one of Neruda’s poems, Entering the movies all shriveled up navigating on a water of origin and ash, and I realize I am not healed, yet, unfixed, still damaged, incomplete, that my confession in "the church" to God earlier and its effects have evaporated.  No, I think, I do not want to be the inheritor of so many misfortunes.  Perhaps I must for a little longer.  The sun reaches its final turn in the firmament, and I feel blessed with the knowledge that another gift, one granted by good timing, will soon be available to me: my fist Big Sur sunset.
    I roll onto Highway One North to return to my cabin.  I think, when the sun reaches the edge of the horizon line, I’ll stop and take a picture.  A s I drive, the sun sinks, but I don’t stop.  I watch the wispy clouds assume fish shapes, fish colors, gold and purple and salmon hues.  I drive.  While the sun trembles, just a line of hot gold against the gray water, I drive, faster and faster and faster, pushing the Jeep’s lumbering six-cylinders to its limit.  I burn up tight turns, dropping into narrow straightaways, speeding over the bridges.  Faster.  I want to go faster.  Fifty, sixty, sixty-five, sixty-eight, pushing myself to seventy, hearing the tires screech, feeling the chassis pull in one direction then another. I am driving too dangerous for safety, I know.  Risks, I think.  Isn’t life about taking risks, to see what one can manage?  But this is a stupid risk.  What if I crash and die?  Worse, what if I crash and am maimed, declared an invalid?  At this moment I don't care.  I feel, somehow, angry.  But what am I angry for? or at?  I am rushing through this experience when I should be taking my time, but I feel impatient.  I feel I want to get to the next thing, the next adventure, the next destination.  I am sick to death of traveling and going nowhere.  I think of my writing.  That, too, feels like an exercise in going nowhere.  The short story I had been working on for four months, that story about Brisbane and poetry and fishing and postcards, and the novel I am too sheepish to fix at the moment, and the unfinished stories, In Carbondale, or, Avalon, all unfinished, all abandoned for what, to start new projects, then to abandon them as well.  This is not the way to work, I think, not the way to live.  Start something, finish it and abandon it when it's done.  My friend and writer Shawna Yang Ryan told me once over coffee, that the only thing you can control is your writing.  That is all.  Is that all?  I feel I have lost control.  I feel that by losing more and more control I may wind up either failing or finding the type of success I have always dreamed of: the success of clarity.     
     Slowing my pace, cruising at a comfortable fifty miles an hour seems now, after speeding through twists and turns, far too slow.  I pass the construction zone again.  Empty now, all the service trucks have gone.  I cross into the familiar part of Big Sur as the sky darkens to a midnight blue and Orion appears in the heavens.  I pass Nepenthe, pass the road to Pfeiffer Beach, pass the redwood forest, and then return safely back to my cabin.
    I am too tired to think, so I take a shower, using the lemongrass soap I bought at the general store a few days ago (soap which makes me smell like a mossy tree) and after writing a little in my journal (the red one), and reading a few lines from Rilke, That is how, always, you lost: never as one who possesses, but like someone dying who, bending into the moist breeze of an evening in March, loses the springtime, alas, in the throats of the birds, I think, have I lost myself in the songs of birds?  Have I been too adamant to understand Big Sur and my relationship to it, that I have missed its truth?  Am I in denial about having the authentic Big Sur experience, in denial of experiencing the true Big Sur, the one of hot springs and waterfalls, condors and rattlesnakes, hollowed out redwoods, of fording creeks, of swimming in the ocean at dawn, the real Big Sur, of eerie fog and of suffocating spaces and of interminable loneliness.  Are these  forbidden to me?  I close the book and leave for Nepenthe for a drink.

(To be continued)

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)