Big Sur and a memorable cup of tea.
"Paint as you like and die happy."--Henry Miller
Living in the little town of Carmel-by-the-Sea during the 1980s, I frequently made the drive down the California coast through the legendary region called Big Sur. Most of the times that incomparable ribbon of asphalt, known to the world as "Highway One" would be a "road less taken" for discoveries on my way down to the state's southlands. This rugged route takes the bold of heart from the fogger, cooler Central Coast of the Monterey Peninsula down to the more populated regions of California with unprecedented views along the way. The two-lane road famously skirts a portion of the great terminus of the continent and is hands down one of the most scenic dives in the United States. And it was along that path back in 1987 that I happened upon an amazing meeting with the life-long friend and confidant of Henry Miller--Big Sur painter Emil White.
Though this route is sometimes unpredictably plagued by landslides, brushfires, and slow tourists in their Winnebagos, the trek is ultimately gorgeous in its undulating reconnaissance of the almost vertical headlands of the Santa Lucia coastal mountain range. And it lasts for almost three-hundred miles. Cruising leisurely through the pine-covered valleys and past an occasional rustic art gallery, the road by late afternoon flattens out to the more derivative and frenetic freeway systems of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and my own destination--a small incorporated city in San Diego County.
No matter that this trek from the Monterey Peninsula is no shorter than an all-day affair, I never passed up the opportunity to stop and take a hike somewhere in the Big Sur wilderness at midmorning. For there, a simple beer and a sandwich is all a man needs in the place to reconnect with the cosmos at its most remote and philosophical vortex--a spot the ancient Greeks would have called their omphalos--the naval of the world. In my case, this brief respite from the roadway was usually done while cooling my feet in the Little Sur River, amid its green shadows and round-boulder banks--easily found in places just a stone's throw from the road. Getting out of the car and walking in any direction in Big Sur, whether mountain-bound or sea-bound, even today brings one to the realization that the world is still amazingly wild in places, and capable of some strange force to keep it that way. Time, both the local and tourist will tell you, seems to stop for anyone who experiences the region with a brave soul and playful heart.
But this locale had another ambiance for me thirty years ago. It was when I lived just under an hour to the north of it for almost a decade and came to selfishly consider this coastal corridor a part of my own territory. On many occasions I would leave my art gallery job in the village of Carmel around eleven-thirty in the evening, just to cruise down to Big Sur for a late evening perusal of certain amazing venues. These were unique spots--hidden mostly from "foreigners" or tourists, who were unaware of the micro-culture this region had upon America's West coast history and what came to be called an "alternative lifestyle" to many, Henry Miller included.
Today there remain some of these classic spots as a sort of time warp of those heady and carefree days of the 50s, 60s and 70s. It was a time when Big Sur began to attract in great numbers artists, vagabonds, and environmentalists who would leave at least their spirit upon the unconquerable landscape. Nepenthe--an art gallery, cliff side eatery and gift shop, which was originally the private hideaway of Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles during the 1950s--is a case in point. Frequented by the famous couple as their escape from the frenetic Hollywood scene, Welles, a scholar of the classics, named it Nepenthe--"the elixir of the gods." No doubt he felt what one can still feel there, from its singularly breathtaking view at the edge of the world. This all-wooden pole structure, perched atop a forested headland, affords a memorable view of the Pacific some six-hundred feet below. During the 1960s and 70s the place morphed into a sort of unofficial community hangout for the "Aquarian Age" adherents of California's counterculture and, later, an internationally aware following with the same values. Escapists, who collectively put as their priorities world peace, ecology and free love found on this section of remote coastline a dreamlike place to congregate and celebrate the Earth.
Each month while I lived in the area, there would still be a "moon party" down at Nepenthe--a traditional carryover from the "hippie" make-love-not-war days that seemed never to have left the place. There, out on the deck, under the glow of the full moon, and where a large fire pit had long ago been established, atavistic dancing and singing would carry forth, sometimes until sunrise. These monthly revelries were designated for anyone of a local persuasion whose birthday fell within that month. In those days of the mid-1980s, when I caught the reveling each month, the owners of the bar-restaurant still provided free drinks and cake to those whose birthday it was--all amid the primitive beat, dancing and general moon worship which had been going on there with lunar consistency for some twenty years.
By two AM, the crowd of Central coast residents, a few movie celebrities, cognizant of the events (Clint Eastwood was then mayor of Carmel), and an assortment bewildered tourists who happened onto the scene were in rare form, tribally jamming to a virtual congress of local musicians. This hypnotic sound was typically made by traditional, electrified rock instruments but accompanied by at least a score of gifted drummers, comprising a diverse and internationally represented percussion section. The sound became so unique to Big Sur in those days that you could by a CD of the energetic and "world-beat" sound of Nepenthe in the local shops of Carmel and Monterey.
Another venue I would frequent only at night in the region was again just a forty-minute drive south. Like Nepenthe, it had its own characteristic ambiance in that world after sunset. Any illumination of the place at mid-evening due to its absence of communities was strictly provided by the moon or stars. Here I am referring to the Esalen Institute--founded by a young visionary named Michael Murphy in the early 1960s. Today in his golden years he still remains a phenomenal thinker and proponent of the "human potential movement" conceptualized and actualized over the past forty-five years. Murphy, along with fellow Stanford grad Dick Price--deceased since 1989, happened to have the opportunity and the inspiration to create a retreat truly unique in the fields of human sciences, spirituality and an emerging "consciousness awareness," growing on the West Coast.
The early 60s was a seminal period for these emerging philosophical currents, along with a nascent ecological awareness that was taking hold in other restless minds on other continents as well. The atmosphere grew out of some timely factors, particular the liberal-minded California University System--and namely the UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement. From this and other events, a growing Zeitgeist arose out West--inspired by American babyboomers who were feeling a change was needed in the perceptions, politics, social mores, and the entertainment culture around them. The writings of Aldus Huxley, Fritz Pearls, the Dalai Lama, and others who lent their energies and resources to bring the Esalen center to fruition were in many ways instrumental to its present existence.
Spirituality and consciousness, along with a refreshing nexus to the physical and behavioral sciences, created a sphere that was still lagging outside mainstream of academia at the time of Esalen's inception. And it was primarily for this reason, thanks to Murphy's connection to family landholdings in Big Sur, that the social project was able to break ground as a residential complex right on a cliff side of this breath-taking coastline. It was the intentions of Murphy and Price, along with some other humanistic pioneers to put these topics on the map in an appropriate and inspirational place. And they did.
The Esalen Institute for years served to emphasize a juxtaposition of both Eastern and Western spiritual precepts within a framework of the latest developments of science and psychological research. Workshops and seminars in Gestalt Therapy, Maslow's concept of Self-Actualization, and the power of synergistic problem solving, were ongoing themes at the center. Naturally, operating during one of the most liberal and revolutionary set of decades in our nation's history, there was a certain amount of experimenting with free love, nudity, and the controversial inroads which mind-expanding substances, such as LSD, were offering potentially as a tool in the understanding of consciousness, creativity and constructs of the "mind."
Over time, Esalen evolved into a viable communal center where world-famous luminaries in the fields of physics, psychology, religion and mythology came to lecture, teach and orchestrate workshops. People interested in stepping outside the confines of traditional scientific and religious dogmas began to attend those seminars and week-long retreats, spreading the word further about this new "Mecca" of consciousness expansion--right there on the remote headlands of the California coast at Big Sur.
Murphy and Price realized, as the center grew in popularity and influence, that people in this naturally harmonic setting, with an abundance nature, sky and sea, would share in a formative atmosphere with which to explore ideas and concepts. They found that when given the time to commune with it all, such synergy unlocked new potentials in people. The center brought in, and continues today to attract many of this planet's most intelligent and broad-ranged thinkers to share ideas and put into perspective our power of consciousness and how to use that power in the context of our natural world.
Traditionally workshop sessions would culminate at the end of each day with a communal musical jam session in the dining hall and, later, an ethereal soak in the several cliff-side natural hot baths. There remains something of that tribal "gestalt" (as it was generally called in those days) that continues to exist in those hot baths today. It occurs when people who have come there from so many far away locations, realize they are temporarily residing at the terminus, the very edge of the Western Hemisphere--geographically, philosophically, and historically.
My own connection to Esalen began the day I learned that in the winter these hot baths were open after midnight to "locals" of the Monterey Peninsula, as well as the Esalen center's guests. This was allowed simply by a check of one's driver's license presented at the Esalen gate that late evening. Being in my thirties at the time, and with an explorer's spirit and the requisite "open mind," I often became a little more enlightened intellectually, artistically, and spiritually when I visited the Esalen "baths" on those occasions. There, I was able to converse with the people who had come from many distant places to attend the center.
As was typical with the "natural" aura of Big Sur and its comfortable protocol, guests would appear out of the darkness and move, sometimes naked and sometimes in bathing suits, into the candle light perimeter of the baths at that late hour. The naturally hot sitting pools were at the very edge of the cliff, and these strangers would submerge themselves in the rejuvenating waters and engage in quiet conversations. Amid my own contributions and inquisitive dialogues about the nature of their stay was the loud, hypnotic sound of the breakers coming off the vast Pacific below. It was an ethereal experience to be there on any night--all beneath an expanse of spectacular starlight.
Most people in Carmel or living anywhere on the Monterey Peninsula, literary types or not, knew author Henry Miller was one of the artistic lights that had shone brightly to the world from his humble cabin somewhere in the expanse Big Sur. He had lived there since the end of WWII until the early 60s, writing and painting. He would carry his fame from there southward to LA where he lived in a Pacific Palisades home until his death in 1980 at the age eighty-eight, celebrated internationally both for his writing and his watercolor paintings.
But for two decades, Miller was one of the Central Coast luminaries who brought his fame and work there, living reclusively down that same stretch of highway. The region remains so remote even today, situated roughly between Monterey to the north and Cambria to the south, that, until satellite communication became available, there was no radio or TV signal along that twisting ribbon of coastline, giving it in Miller's time an even more "other-worldly" and isolated atmosphere.
Henry Miller, like other artists working in the media of writing, painting, photography, and sculpture, quintessentially captured the essence of this region in all its moods remarkably well. I naturally had experienced my own epiphany about the area when I moved up to Carmel from San Diego rather capriciously in 1984, exactly forty years after Miller did. And I, too, was overwhelmed with the place's sensory overload--duly unprepared for the changes it brings about to the perceptions of one's life when some quality living time is spent there. Moving up from the southern section of the state alone, where I had become used to the Bay Watch culture and shallow atmosphere and people, it was a transition beyond geography for me. In San Diego, as with Los Angeles, the sea was warm in the summer and the millions of people's tanned sensibilities seemed eventually flat and derivative to me over time. I made the escape, however, one summer, moving up to this bluer, greener, and cooler world where artists seemed to be pulled into its wild vortex effortlessly, just be near or inside its aesthetic field.
For me the move was a sort of personal hegira, as coming out of a divorce with no children and a need for a sea change swayed my compass northward. In Carmel-by-the-Sea, I was stimulated to embrace those differences eagerly. Along with the radical change in climate I welcomed the spiritual connectedness people had in that primarily artists' community there on the more Central coast. It was an introspective nexus with both with the land and the area's fellow inhabitants that I found exhilarating. I quickly came to know this combination as an agent of healing and later a tremendous source for energy and growth.
About the time I had secured a teaching position in the city of Monterey and an evening job at a sculpture gallery in Carmel (only a short walk from my house), I began to feel at home. I frequented a bookstore called the Thunderbird that was legendary on the Central Coast. It was located at the mouth of Carmel Valley and this diverse repository of books and small restaurant was once the barn of an old farmhouse. It had evolved into one of the first funky bookshops where customers are encouraged to grab a text off the shelf, purchase some coffee or tea, maybe a pastry, and stay as long as they wish reading and chatting with other like-minded people. This could last, over some California wine, until closing time at eleven o'clock at night.
I eventually worked there in the evenings and it was where I came upon a book about Big Sur that pretty well told it like it was--Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch by Henry Miller. This delightful, and at the same time philosophical, memoir explored Miller's contact and association with the land, other writers and artists, along with the true-to-life characters he had known in the region. These people who had similarly made the uncommon journey to this remote place in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, were a number of Miller's "neighbors." These rather-off-center but fascinating vagabonds, much like the author himself, came into the place with a great spirit to both survive and flourish as individuals. As Miller expresses it, and as I was finding out too, there could be a great transfer of that spirit from and among other souls one shared this realm with. And it was in this vein that Henry Miller writes so wonderfully about Big Sur.
Miller writes of raising his young children alone for a while, trying to sell his paintings to passers by (although most of his watercolors he simply gave away to friends or bartered for supplies in those days), and all the while encountering adoring fans who had miraculously tracked him down to discuss his writing interspersed with interesting vignettes and telling interactions with Miller the man, the writer, and painter. One gets the feeling that life was at times a great struggle for him to live there, so isolated, plagued by domestic undertakings, and subjected to the fierce elements--yet, at the same time he constantly stresses how he would have it no other way. It was all about the freedom and inspiration the area afforded him during those decades.
The book is a remembrance of his years in Big Sur and the impact the characters he encountered had upon his evolving manifesto concerning art and life. They are related at times whimsically and at other times grittily, as only Miller can spin them together. As I was a young man at the time, living nearby and discovering Miller's body of work, it was easy to see the recently deceased writer/artist as a mentor--a man whom I would have loved to have met in his humble cabin there somewhere south of me on Highway One.
And so it was in the mid-1980s, much like Miller had done in the mid-1940s, that I had come into this edge of the world and fell instantly in love with it for what it was. And that was an awe-inspiring place where the extremes of fog and sun, rain and shine, and the surrounding forests, ranging from deep green thickets to bare golden hilltops, always are in some crazy yin-yang balance between nature's pleasures and its destructive forces. Such a polarity, I was to find, brings one to the immediacy of fate. And it provides the precarious focal point, like a knife's edge, to view oneself dearly, as a minor figure in the overwhelming ground of nature. Periodic earthquakes, landslides, lightning storms, torrential winds, mountainous storm surf, and brushfires--all like Scylla's many heads--constantly threaten to annihilate anything Man even tries to create or alter in this natural wonderland. Such elements have the power to destroy or at least humble even the most confident or experienced explorer.
It was on one of those seasonal treks down to San Diego from Carmel that I happened around a curve in the road that morning, not far below the Pfeifer Big Sur campground. There I saw the small roadside house I had remembered on each trip for its audacity to exist so close to the roadway. It was in an area along an immense stretch where no other houses existed. Always thinking the little wooded place to be some eccentric artist's cabin, I was prepared to pay it no matter once more as I cruised by on my trek through the wilderness. But on this trip I noticed a small sign placed precariously near the simple redwood deck of the place that I was convinced I hadn't seen before.
It read: Henry Miller Memorial Library.
It took at least another mile down the winding roadway for those words to register with me. Silently mouthing them out over and over, I tried to recall if I had ever seen the sign--though the charming little cabin I remembered well. Having my interest piqued, I knew I could not go further unless I went back to see what this little sign about Henry Miller had in connection to the little house. Turning around and returning to the shoulder of gravel road in front of the place, I turned off the engine and waited to see if there was any activity in this "library." There was only a simple, translucent screen door, just beyond the deck, which seemed an obvious sign that at least it was inhabited that morning. I got out and walked cautiously up to the redwood platform, fearing someone had heard my car and was about to tell me I was trespassing--Big Sur residents are notorious for their privacy and their will to keep the road-side tourists at bay from their little dirt driveways.
As I gingerly walked up to the door, past the sign, which I now could see was no hallucination, a pleasant looking brunette, full figured in her mid-forties appeared behind the screen and smiled.
"Please come in," she said in a rather matter-of-fact way, as if my presence was all along expected that morning.
As I paused speechlessly, she proceeded to open the door and continued in her pleasant, unguarded manner.
"Emil will be coming out in a moment," she casually went on. "Please ... You may join him for tea."
I knew instantly, from reading Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, exactly which Emil she was speaking of. This was the man Henry Miller had known for the latter part of his life, and who he refers to warmly in his book. Emil was a friend from Chicago whom he had invited out during the War to stay in this rarified world, with the rarified light--a place any artist in the world would admire. Emil, as I had read at the bookstore, had also fallen in love with Big Sur over time--enough to never leave. White had remained a neighbor, a confidant, and "jack of all trades" to Miller during his years in Big Sur and beyond. There, as a Big Sur painter in his own right, he collaborated and conversed with the author and painter almost daily until the end of his friend's life in 1980.
As I entered the little house in sort of a stunned state, the woman waved a hand at the interior, which seemed a repository of memorabilia thrown around the place in no categorical way--books on a center table, an old typewriter in the corner, lamps, easy chairs, boxes on the floor, a guitar, and an array of framed photos and paintings covering every space of the wooden walls and ceiling.
"This is Emil's original house," she softly said, now behind me. "Shall I bring you some tea?"
At that moment, entering from a back room, or perhaps the kitchen, an elderly gentleman slowly walked out wearing a light blue terrycloth robe and worn, leather slippers. His pure white hair and slow gait indicated a man well into his eighties. He looked into my eyes and smiled. His own eyes were alert and playful.
"I'm Emil," he said, comfortably, much like the woman who had invited me in. "Feel free to look around. These are Henry's things."
I nodded speechlessly.
The woman behind me confirmed the cups of tea and left us standing in the midst of what I now understood to be a sort of reliquary of Miller's personal belongings, installed rather haphazardly in his old friend's house. These treasures were all offered up humbly for the world to admire.
Still, seeing no one else around, I felt terribly intrusive, standing in the man's home alone, while he was in his bathrobe. It was, however, a touching moment as I began to ponder what Emil White had done with his little house. He had created in his own way a place for the world to come and share any vestiges of memory he had about his life with such a giant of modern literature.
I graciously reached out and shook Emil's hand, thanking him for his hospitality. Without another word, he took a seat in a large overstuffed chair and leaned back comfortably to face the sunlit morning through the door. It was a gesture that seemed a routine--obviously rehearsed over the forty some years he had been in the little redwood house.
"This is all wonderful," I told him as I walked closer to one of the paintings--an obvious likeness to Henry Miller, painted hastily in day-glow colors. I realized Emil had found his own paradise there, in that house--out in nature, and probably himself while an artist in the process. I pictured a younger man scampering for years up and down the cliffs and beaches somewhere out beyond the other side of the roadway. I pictured him painting in his naive, almost childlike style landscapes of the Big Sur environs for which he had become well known. I also could picture him out on the weekends on the deck when the summer fog turned to sunlight, selling his paintings to tourists and maybe a few of Miller's too. But now this man was the guardian of his best friend's property and a sort of ambassador to his memory.
"Henry was a great friend," he suddenly said with great volume and sincerely from his chair. This I didn't doubt. I moved over to the primitive metal typewriter, perched uncomfortably on some sort of non-descript pedestal and touched it. The machine looked as if it had been through the wars. Realizing that it probably had, I walked back and took a seat in the chair beside Emil.
Again, I was unexplainably and frustratingly speechless. There was so much I wanted to know about Miller.
"Did you want to ask me anything?" He offered, just when the woman walked out with a tray. He sounded overly accommodating as he took his cup of tea into both hands, perhaps sensing that I was still uncomfortable with the situation.
I took my cup and smiled, hoping to not make him feel obliged in anyway. I looked around the house from where I sat with a more intense interest. I tried to catch something that would speak to me memorably of Miller of whose writing I so adored. There was just so much there, strewn around in a noisy concert. It was rather kaleidoscopic--the paintings, the books, drawings, a guitar. Simple things, yet some of the components of a complex and eclectic genius.
I then looked at the door, hoping someone else might suddenly enter to diffuse the awkward atmosphere of being a solitary guest. I hoped this also for Emil's sake but perhaps to convince me that it really was a "library" for the public.
Periodically a car would swish by the curve at the road outside, oblivious to the cabin and certainly inattentive of the little sign that I had not seen before. At that point the woman made herself again available to Emil. "Can I bring you anything else?" she asked quietly. There was an unexpected sweetness to her voice.
"No ... no," he said.
She took the serving tray and left us alone once more.
Emil looked over at me with a twinkle in his eyes. He leaned closer to my chair.
"What you think of her?" he asked in a whisper.
I was stunned by the question. And I could not place the context of it with anything I was even thinking at that moment.
"Well ... she's fine," I said vacantly. "I mean ... she seems very ... friendly?"
"That's right," he said assuredly.
I tried to think of what this all meant.
"You see, all of them are," he added again under his breath. He pointed above us on the wall. There was a small gallery of women's faces in framed black and white photos I hadn't noticed before.
"Yes," I responded, looking again at the door.
"They just come here. Have for years. To live."
There was an inquisitive tone now to his voice.
"For years they come. From everywhere. Some stay a long time. Some only a month or so. Then they leave. But there's always one who stays." He smiled again proudly. "To come here to live and to take care of me."
I tried not to seem amazed or amused, although I was. And it seemed Emil was actually giving me the permission to be.
"It's been like that since I can remember," he said in a louder voice, smiling again.
The twinkle was now back.
I nodded, then smiled in earnest with him. Yes, amazed.
She's one of the best," he said, again now in a lowered voice, pointing with his thumb back at the kitchen.
"You're very fortunate," I finally said.
"So go have a look around," he added, waving his hand vaguely at the interior. "At the books and things. There's boxes of more stuff on the floor. Some of the paintings are mine and some are Henry's. He gave most of his away in the early days, you know. But we had a good life here."
"I can see that," I said, smiling in awe of him. "And it looks like you still do."
The old artist smiled more broadly than ever and then nodded.
We finished our tea in relative silence. No other car stopped by, apparently not seeing or understanding the sign out front.
In the time I was there I did not have the heart to ask Emil White the many questions I have over the years wished I had asked him about his best friend. I somehow didn't feel it was right to enter an artist's home and only speak of another. Several years later, from my home in Carmel I read in the papers that Emil White, lifetime friend of Henry Miller, had passed away at the age of eighty-eight. The article stated that he had left his small home on Highway One open to the public for the purpose of celebrating his friend's exceptional life.
The library remains open today. It has a bigger sign and is teeming with life.
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|Author:||De Vaca, Marcus C.|
|Publication:||Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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