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Big Sur forever.

From the beginning the coast inspired admiration and, as Paradise is wont to do, an awe that verged on terror. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, sailing south from Monterey Bay in November 1542, recorded, "All the coast passed this day is very bold, there is a great swell and the land is very high. There are mountains which seem to reach the havens and the sea beats on them, sailing along close to land, it appears as though they would fall on the ships."

A few centuries later, beat poet Jack Kerouac took a taxi--yes, a taxi--down from San Francisco and was deposited near Bixby Creek. Accustomed to the tamer terrain of Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac suffered a hipster's heebie-jeebies on this wilder shore. "There's the booming surf coming at you whitecapped crashing down on sand as tho it was higher than where you stand, like a sudden tidal wave world," he roared, then demanded to know why the coast had "the reputation of being beautiful above and beyond its fearfulness, its Blakean groaning roughrock Creation throes."

But it is beautiful. It is so beautiful and so much a world unto itself that its first American settlers called it The Coast, as if there were no other. Now we know it by the abbreviated version of the name the Spaniards spoke as they gazed at the mountains looming downcoast from Monterey. El pais grande del sur. The big country to the south. Big Sur.

Today, the 80-mile stretch of Monterey County coast 3 hours south of San Francisco, 4 hours north of Los Angeles, receives more than 3 million visitors a year via State Highway 1. It has tourist landmarks--Nepenthe, Esalen, the Ventana Inn--and views that publishers of postcards, calendars, and place mats pine for. It has 1,800 inhabitants, more or less--it's indicative of the kind of place Big Sur is that no one is entirely sure of the accuracy of this census. ("There are a lot of people squirreled away in the hills," one local told us.) It has no hospital, no lawyer's office, no automated teller machines.

To an extent greater than any other place in California, Big Sur has been able to maintain itself as a separate realm. It is too easy to slip into New Age burbling when talking about Big Sur, but if any place can be said to posses an aura, it is this one. Big Sur exists in a nimbus of sea mist and redwood sorrel, its music wind chimes, otters' barks, and the diesel chug of VW buses that have apparently ascended to VW bus heaven. It has a motto, coined some years ago when local artist Ephraim Doner stood at a public meeting and proclaimed, "Big Sur is where you go to launder your karma."

Particularly for Californians, accustomed to seeing too much of their shoreline pocked by oil rigs, overpasses, and gated housing for the rich and famous, the idea of a coast pure enough to launder anybody's karma comes as a shock. Such visitors tend to experience Big Sur open-mouthed, focused on two thoughts. First, This is beautiful. Second, Why is it still so beautiful? Behind each thought is an interesting story.

This is a lovely place to live but a hard place to struggle a living out of," Ester Ewoldsen says. Mrs. Ewoldsen should know. She was born in a Big Sur cabin in 1904, the granddaughter of pioneers Barbara and Michael Pfeiffer, Big Sur's first permanent European settlers, who homesteaded here in 1869 and whose surname is still ubiquitous on maps of the region. (Pronounced with a soft, Germanic "ff" today, Pfeiffer had a percussive edge in Mrs. Ewoldsen's youth: "Pie for breakfast, lunch and dinner," she advises.)

In the Big Sur of Mrs. Ewoldsen's childhood, Monterey lay a day's trip north by carriage; if you felt adventurous, you rode a day south on horseback to soak in the mineral baths of Slate's Hot Springs. It has always been a formidable piece of country. Between Malpaso Creek, south of Carmel, and the Monterey--San Luis Obispo County line--today the generally accepted boundaries of Big Sur--the coast holds scattered rocky landings but not one true harbor. The Santa Lucia Mountains rise like a Maginot Line straight from the Pacific: 5,155-foot Cone Peak is said to be the highest mountain so close to an ocean anywhere in the continental United States.

Because the mountains are steep and the ocean close, vegetation is as varied as anywhere in the West. Near the coast, where winter rains lash the ridges and summer fogs extend wet tendrils into canyons, ferns and rosebay and other moisture-loving plants thrive--as do coast redwoods. Salmon Creek, near the San Luis Obispo County line, marks the southernmost extension of the species.

A few miles inland, it's a different world. Here, in the rain shadow of the Santa Lucias, precipitation is precious, and chaparral species are the only ones that can endure the dry slopes: madrone, manzanita, Spanish bayonet, and, this time of year, monkey flower and Indian paintbrush and ceanothus, whose foamy blossoms turn hillsides into blue and white clouds. One species of particular note is restricted to deep canyons and ridgetops of interior Big Sur: the Santa Lucia fir, said to be the rarest fir in North America.

It was not a land that permitted too many inhabitants nor allowed its inhabitants to take it lightly. Mrs. Ewoldsen can remember when the main means of earning a livelihood were logging redwood trees and tanbark oaks, hauling the logs down to the landing at Partington Cove, and loading them onto schooners for the mills and tanneries of Santa Cruz and Monterey. When those industries faltered, the pioneers turned to gathering honey, to tending their gardens.

Even so, talk to longtime settlers and the land they describe is a demi-Eden. "It was a natural life," Mrs. Ewoldsen says. Her husband, Hans, who arrived in Big Sur in the 1920s, says, "I worked my way over from Germany and across the United States. And then I could not go any farther and I did not want to go any farther because I had seen Big Sur."

Of course, the West has witnessed plenty of other Edens lost as soon as the rest of the world found them. For Big Sur, the end of innocence could have come once State 1 was pushed through, in 1937. But Big Sur was again lucky: almost everyone who saw the coast wanted to save it.

Margaret Wentworth first glimpsed Big Sur on family outings in the 1930s, when the gravel highway was an invitation to flat tires. ("There was a lot of swearing on my father's part," she recalls.) When she agreed to marry distinguished architect Nathaniel A. Owings, it was on a champagne-and-peaches picnic near Grimes Point, where they would build the house she lives in today.

If there is any one person credited with helping Big Sur look as it does today--that is to say, not too unlike how it looked when she first saw it--that person is probably Margaret Owings. "You know," she says, "once you come to live here, you have a responsibility to help preserve it. That's why I fought over all these issues."

For more than three decades, there was hardly a threat Owings didn't battle as she took on the role of the elegantly turned-out La Pasionaria of the Big Sur coast. When the California Department of Transportation floated a plan to widen State 1 to four fast lanes, Owings sought to have it declared California's first scenic highway, and therefore left as is. Observing the decline of sea otter populations, she founded Friends of the Sea Otter, and got the coast designated an otter refuge. Most important, in the face of developer attempts to line the coast with houses, hotels, and golf courses, she and her husband led other Big Sur residents to write a master plan that would steer development away from the most scenic and senitive lands.

That plan in turn became the inspiration for Big Sur's current land-use policies. In the 1980s, pressure built to have Big Sur set aside as a national seashore. Some residents favored the idea. More feared the feds would somehow botch the job. "People up and down the coast screamed bloody murder," Mrs. Owings recalls.

Instead, Big Sur saved itself. Under the California Coastal Act, every oceanside locality had to enact an LCP, or local coastal plan. The plan put in force by Big Sur residents is generally conceded to be the act's finest achievement. Development is permitted--about a thousand more houses and 270 more hotel rooms, mainly concentrated in the Big Sur Valley, Pacific Valley, and Lucia. The list of what is not permitted is longer. No high-rises, no golf courses, no resorts with more than 30 rooms, no construction on slopes steeper than 30 percent, and, most important, no construction within sight of State 1. According to Monterey attorney and land-use activist Zad Leavy, "It's the toughest local land-use plan in California and one of the toughest in the United States."

Helping fulfill the plan's goals is the Big Sur Land Trust. Since its founding in 1978, the nonprofit group has acquired 8,200 acres--some in outright purchases, some through financial arrangements (called viewshed easements) with property owners that prevent development. Thanks to funds--$25 million, in fact--approved by state voters with the passage of Proposition 70 in 1988, the rate of acquisitions has accelerated. Says trust executive director Brian Steen, "If 10 years ago you told me that we'd get $25 million to preserve Big Sur, I wouldn't have believed you. But that's what happened. Most of what you see in Big Sur is going to remain the way it is now."

Not that Big Sur residents don't continue to keep a close eye on Big Sur. Partington Ridge resident Magnus Toren cofounded the citizens' group Coast Watch. "The local coastal plan is a fine document," he says, "but we have to make sure it sticks." Toren's neighbor Tim Green chairs Monterey County's Big Sur Citizens Advisory Committee. "We need to learn to live in a way that we don't destroy a place," he says. "There's no equivocation by the people who visit here. They all say leave it alone."

Leaving things alone is not something 20th-century California has been good at. But if that can happen here, it is because Big Sur has come to promise something different from other places. Let them offer material riches. Big Sur came to offer spiritual ones. Let them be shilled by railroads or chambers of commerce. Word of Big Sur spread through peoms and plays, through sea swells and cypress trunks caught in a camera lens.

Edward Weston was the first of the famous photographers of this famous coast. He arrived in Carmel in 1929 and established himself in a shack near Point Lobos, from there making photo expeditions farther south. Later he would be joined by Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, Wynn Bullock.

Photographer Morley Baer saw a Weston print in a Chicago gallery and resolved to meet the man who took it. Baer arrived in Carmel in the late 1940s and soon began lugging his own 8-by-10 Ansco up and down Big Sur. "I had spent years dreaming of the coast of California," he recalls today at his house in Carmel. "To get here, to look down from one of the hills onto the surf was a tremendously thrilling experience."

Writers got in on the act, too. Robinson Jeffers built his Tor House in Carmel, but it was Big Sur that inspired the lines that limn battles with nature and with man. Tropic of Cancer author Henry Miller holed up on Partington Ridge; the Manhattan-born, Paris-habituated writer confronted a wilderness experience he was not ready for (he nearly collapsed lugging supplies uphill to his house), but his 17 years here produced two books, two marriages, and two children, and his satyr's reputation brought new notoriety to the coast. "Sex and Anarchy in Big Sur" Harper's headlined its Miller expose, and don't think that didn't draw more visitors than any chamber of commerce brochure.

Later came another group of visitors. It's hard to believe, but three decades have passed since Michael Murphy and Richard Price transformed Slate's Hot Springs into the Esalen Institute, the center for personal growth that for better or worse has come to symbolize the promises (and to some grouches the perils) of Big Sur. As Esalen celebrates its 30th birthday, it remains an oasis in an oasis. Here, where Esselen Indian middens can still be found, coddled organic gardens slope toward the Pacific; students--not too blissed out, all things considered--stroll to classes like The Master's Journey and Owning the Shadow or soak in the hot spring--fed pools with the 115[degrees] water and the 270[degrees] Pacific view.

General manager Brian Lyke says that Esalen has tried to remain true to its original vision while keeping up with the times. "We try to pay attention to what people are experiencing. These days, people come to us who are attuned to problems of addiction, of abuse. Those weren't big issues in the '60s. They are now, and we try to be responsive to them."

Addiction and abuse are not what people think of when they think of Big Sur, and we bring them up only to note that Big Sur is not invariably immune to the outside world's problems, if only because so much of the outside world escapes them by coming here. In August, when 100,000 cars have taken to State 1, and the road is like Disneyland's Autopia with a better view, even Big Sur's greatest admirers may ask, Just how many karmas can one place launder at a time? Real estate prices are rising to the point where the person buying property is less likely to be an artist than an arbitrageur. Locals worry that Big Sur will start to live not just with tourists but for them.

Yet the belief persists that Big Sur's talismanic powers can fend off such threats. Across State 1 from the Ventana Inn lies the brand-new Post Ranch Inn. As the coast's newest tourist destination, it is an example of the pressures Big Sur continues to face. Its 30 units, as many as the law allows, are completely invisible from the highway. Architectural magic lets the inn blend in with the coast on which it roosts. Some units are sod-roofed and recessed into the ridge; others stand on stilts among the redwoods.

The inn's architect, Mickey Muennig, is a long-time Big Sur resident ("I'm on a two-week vacation I started 20 years ago," he says), and he is well aware of the difficulties involved in "improving" Big Sur. "But we've tried to create an indigenous style of architecture here. Handhewn wood, hand-cut stone, native plantings, working with the trees. Nature kind of determines what you do here."

That, finally, is the hope Big Sur has offered, and that it continues to offer. Whether you push your credit limit at the Post Ranch or meditate at Esalen or slap your sleeping bag down in a $5 state park campsite, nature will determine what you do here, and it will cure the ills you've brought with you.

Find yourself south of Partington Cove, south of Esalen, and man's presence, not too evident anywhere in Big Sur, becomes almost entirely invisible. Except for the highway itself, all you see is ocean and mountains and that Pacific light so tangible you think you can cup it in your hand. Weston would recognize this ocean, these mountains, that sculpted light. So would Kerouac. So, for that matter, would Cabrillo. With luck, so will your grandchildren.

"Even now," Morley Baer says, "the constant opposition of ocean and land never ceases to amaze me. Here, the word pacific is a misnomer. It's only peaceful rarely. It's a treacherous, tremendous opposition to the land. It's an argument that's never going to be settled, a clash of opposite forces that will never be resolved."

"I plan to live here to the end of my life," says Margaret Owings. "All the things that meant so much to me are still here. The immensity of this coast causes almost a psychological reaction. You go out and the troubles just fall away. So many answers seem to come. So many things are solved here."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Big Sur, California
Author:Fish, Peter
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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