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Sunrise on the Big Sur Coast
Sunrise on the Big Sur Coast

My Big Sur


California’s epic signature coastline; Big Sur, winds beautifully as Highway One high above the Pacific Ocean. Here you will find the most magnificent portion of California’s Pacific Coast Highway which stretches 147-miles along the California coast from Carmel to Morro Bay.

It is not a wonder that Ansel Adam’s final twenty years was spent in his home overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the north end of Big Sur. Here he found a spectacular embarrassment of riches of photo fodder he so expertly captured for posterity. Ansel was introduced to the area while visiting photographer Edward Weston, famous for impeccable still life photographs of Salinas Valley bell peppers. Edward moved to Carmel in 1929 and spawned off several great photographers who cut their teeth on the Big Sur Coast. Edward also shot the first of many photographs of rocks and trees at Point Lobos, California.

The name Big Sur was historically derived from the unexplored and unmapped wilderness area along the coast south of Monterey: El Sur Grande. Sur means south in Spanish, Grande means big.  Grand has other inferences as well including magnificent, imposing, impressive, awe-inspiring, splendid, resplendent, majestic, monumental.  Big Sur is grand, no doubt about it.

I grew up twelve miles from the southern terminus of what can be construed as the Big Sur Coast.  Some of my earliest memories were of my puke bag as we wound our way around the towering cliffs a thousand feet above the threatening pounding surf far below. As a child it was the most terrifying thing in the world; I like the drive much better now!  The place is alive with memories for me, as over the decades I have visited dozens of times. Sometimes I’d just drive here when I had some thinking to do.  Santa Lucia point draws me in like a magnet after a family funeral when I have some thought collection to do.

The drive is a stunning panorama of dark cliffs, deep canyons, rolling hills, and ocean vistas that comprise miles of the California coastline. A better place for contemplation can’t be found.  Famous for its twisted cypress trees, you will also find redwood groves, conifers, oaks, sycamores, cottonwoods, maples, alders and willows, plus open meadows along the way. Big Sur is one of the recovery zones for the nearly extinct California condor, and a lucky few get to see one.  During the whale migration in winter whales can be spotted from the high cliffs, but are too far away to photograph. The whales may be to far away to photograph; however, the elephant seals aren’t.  Although the epitome of ugly, they do have a mysterious photogenic charm. The most famous landmark in the area is the Lone Cypress just outside Carmel, but it isn’t necessarily the best. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a special favorite because of the compositionally perfect rugged cove and a waterfall falling to the sandy beach.

Nepenthes Restaurant was a favorite turn around spot for the many drives I took my elderly mother and grandmother on.  My Grandmother was a painter and Big Sur was one of her favorite subjects.  It was a joy to get them to a destination that was no longer one of their abilities. Having an Ambrosia Burger, Sitting on the terrace high above the Pacific and watched over by the majestic Santa Lucia Mountains was a treat for them as well as for me.

My first trip to Nepenthes was a wild ride; when I was about twenty my friend Darrell and I had gone to the nude beach at Pirates Cove and we had forgotten our towels, it didn’t take very long for us to conclude; this sucks.  Darrell suggested we go to Big Sur instead; awesome idea Darrell but I’m broke. Darrell had just sold a house and had a pocket full of money, and he said he would pick up the tab, we got some beer and we were on our way. Pfeiffer beach was the destination after we acquired some towels and upon our arrival we were met by an exodus of beach goers deserting in mass as a forty mile per hour wind kicked up as we arrived, all the while a musician wailed away on a tenor sax as the procession deserted the beach. It was quite the juxtaposition of time and place.  Time for plan B.

It was now time for dinner and so Darrell introduced to me to Nepenthes, we got a burger at the bar then commenced to visiting the characters in this mecca of poets, artists, travelers, and vagabonds. We had a blast for hours until Darrell whispered, “Lets Go!; I said take care of the bill, it is late anyway.  Darrell informed he didn’t have enough money for the tab.  Well I didn’t either so we made good our escape. This wasn’t my plan, but I didn’t have an alternative solution.

Designated an All-American Road; among the nation's most scenic, the drive encompasses both the Big Sur Coast Highway and the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway. Extinct volcanoes, a castle, light houses, pastures, always punctuated with the rocky shores and precipitous cliffs, tortuous curves which, although breathtakingly beautiful, but can be very trying to drive, I won’t even attempt it during summer. Winter is the time to see Big Sur, the hills are turning green, the whales are migrating and sometimes before a storm giant waves attract big wave surfers who are always fun to photograph.

Big Sur was similar to Humboldt in the respect that it was also a magnet for the back to the earth hippies and was another hot pot production area.   Long before that though it attracted Bohemian types for decades seekers of ancient wisdoms in the rhythms and tides of the body, and poetry in the pulsing of life itself. They came to rediscover the miracle of self-aware consciousness. Yes, one of those places.

Another fond memory, I wanted to photograph some elephant seals and before the colony expanded to San Simeon, the only place you could find them was down a precipitous drop below Gorda.  This was when I was first dating Sharon, and she came along.   The pseudo path to the beach was a precarious one, and Sharon went to expressing her fear of the impossible right away, I soon told her that when I brought my Grandmother down here she didn’t complain a bit. This tall tale made her clam up like a mime.  After we walked and photographed among the great seal colony and making friends with a baby elephant seal she was happy she breached her comfort zone; well until it was time to go back up.

Big Sur is unique in that for its entire length you are presented with amazing views and photography opportunities every other mile or more, and if you keep stopping at every vista point and every state park you will need a week to complete the trip.  Although not a bad Idea, this overload of opportunity makes it easy to miss the special places on more abbreviated time constraints.

While driving north alone for a Big Sur destination unknown after the funeral of my Grandmother the lyrics to a song came to me. Although I’m not a songwriter I penned this anyway.

Footprints in the sands of time

Footprints in the sands of time
have left an imprint on my mind
some of the  people of our past
disapear without a glance

Others cling to our being
formative was their teaching
There was once a grand old lady
who taught by being not by preaching

For her progeny she did much good
in her practice of brotherhood
she dang sure was a fine example
how to live within gods shadow.

You couldn’t help but love this lady
humor and kindness were pervasive
giving also was her nature
heaven has stolen one of our angels

Certainly this is not the case
For this model of the human race
I’ll never forget her amazing grace
and never forget her gentle face

Foot prints in the sands of time
have left an imprint on my mind.


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