By Brian Chasnoff
In the beginning, I sought Big Sur for the same reason so many others are drawn to this 100-mile stretch of isolated coastline in central California: for its reputation of stunning beauty.
Yet such a description obscures the true nature of el pais grande del sur — the big country to the south — dubbed so by the Spanish, who deemed the land too severe to civilize.
The truth is that the mountains here come crashing like beasts out of the wilderness, dropping from heights of more than 5,000 feet into the frigid Pacific, which batters a coast of mammoth stones.
For those seeking grandeur, Big Sur delivers.
Before I arrived at my destination, however, my fascination with its splendor gave way to curiosity of a more psychological sort.
Reading others’ accounts, I realized this region triggers reactions in people that tend toward the extreme: often, utter enchantment or abject terror.
A well-known instance of the latter is the case of Jack Kerouac, the begrudging “King of the Beatniks” who withdrew here to seek refuge from both his adoring fans and advanced alcoholism.
What the writer found instead, according to his autobiographical novel, Big Sur, were manifestations of death and a full-scale vision of hell, revelations that sent him packing back east to his mother.
Still others have discovered paradise here.
Assuming Big Sur is more than the sum of its gorgeous beaches, I wanted to understand how the place could both repel and enthrall.
And so I went, wondering what reactions it would trigger in me. I did not go alone; along for the trip were my wife, our three children, ages 1, 3 and 9, and my in-laws.
From the moment we rounded Carmel-by-the-Sea and started snaking south on Highway 1 — a two-lane road blasted less than a century ago from the sides of mountains and perched above seaside cliffs — the enchantment struck.
So did the fear, at least in my passengers.
As we wound south, complaints about my style of navigation came most emphatically from my wife, although my father-in-law, Jose, also articulated his discomfort, primarily through groans.
In my defense, there was much to see beyond the road.
The hulking slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains that rise above Highway 1, a National Scenic Byway, are strictly protected; county and state agencies limit development, and local building laws prohibit any construction visible from the highway.
Such preservation has resulted in a rare, unspoiled spectacle of nature.
And then there’s the sea and sky, vast blue conspirators most ruthlessly fused as you travel over Bixby Bridge.
The concrete arch structure is 260 feet tall, but this fact is negligible when you are upon it and gazing toward the Pacific, for dissolving any dimension is a vast, depthless blue that could be the sea, the sky or both; in fact, it’s a void.
It was here, suddenly woozy, I felt I could have crashed.
At our cabin in the towering redwoods, everyone was exhausted. But I’d made reservations for an after-midnight dip — clothing optional — in the hot springs at Esalen Institute.
My wife was too tired to budge, so I went alone.
Clinging to a cliff above the ocean, Esalen is a conference center that offers workshops on topics such as meditation, UFOs and economics.
Driving at midnight was disorienting. In daylight Big Sur surrounds you, and in pitch black, on a twisting highway, it seems to engulf you.
At one point, three or four lights flashed in the darkness above my vehicle. Multicolored, they danced for a few seconds and then disappeared.
I attributed the phenomenon to my exhaustion.
The waters at Esalen flow from the mountains at 114 degrees.
Soaking under a web of stars, above the white-capped waves, I was compelled to stay silent, both by signs that hang in the baths and the region itself.
“Everywhere is something serene that calms you,” says Lorena Del Campo, a resident of more than two decades.
Yet, on this trip, solitude was not a constant.
I enjoyed my family — watching Jose collect driftwood from the purple sands of Pfeiffer Beach, chasing my kids past the coves at Point Lobos State Reserve, where whales flip their tails in the distance and orange lichens glow on the otherworldly cypress.
But bringing children to Big Sur can intensify its atmosphere of peril.
Hiking to a waterfall at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, we read a sign that warned of mountain lions, which “seem to be especially drawn to children.”
Octavio, 3, required some cajoling before resuming the hike.
And then there’s the pervasiveness of precipitous cliffs.
“How can you relax,” Jose asked, “when there’s death around every corner?”
I left the family one morning and began climbing Mount Manuel, a hike that begins in the state park and rises 3,379 feet into the Ventana Wilderness.
Three wildfires swept the region in 2008, burning more than 260,000 acres. Lightning ignited the most devastating blaze, the third largest in California history.
Del Campo refused to evacuate and watched from her home as fireballs cascaded down the mountains. The next spring she saw the hillsides flush with yellow poppies.
My trail was narrow and wound up and around emerald-green hills with near-vertical drops into the Big Sur River gorge. At times, nothing separated me from the bottom other than my shoes and sense of mortality.
Passing still-charred trees, I saw the bright-green forest bed returning to life.
In the distance, taller than all else, was the ocean’s horizon, beyond which the Esselen Indians believed their souls would travel to dwell on an island after death.
I wanted to turn around many times, but I managed to make it to the windblown summit.
I spent my last evening in Big Sur at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, where it’s so quiet you can actually hear yourself not think.
Silence here is magnified to a level at which you virtually disappear.
It’s like this everywhere at Big Sur. Nature is in control, and we become not only “infinitesimal,” as Miller wrote, but also strangely superfluous.
At the library, I bought a book by Miller I’d never read: Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, a memoir of his years in the region.
I cracked the book on the flight home.
In it, Miller explains the connection between Big Sur and Bosch, the visionary painter.
“Seeing the world through his eyes it appears to us once again as a world of indestructible order, beauty, harmony, which it is our privilege to accept as a paradise or convert into a purgatory.
“The enchanting, and sometimes terrifying, thing is that the world can be so many things to so many different souls.”
Then I read something that made me set the book down in astonishment.
On page 76, Miller describes mysterious, brilliant-colored lights that some of his friends had reported seeing while driving at night near Anderson Creek. Consulting a map, I realized I was in that vicinity on the drive to Esalen.
I’m not the paranormal type. I still believe those lights were a trick of the mind or something within the realm of rational explanation.
But it’s a mystery. I suppose I could be terrified. Really, it only makes me want to go back.