Sand Dollar Beach is entered from the top of the mountain. Following a narrow trail of hairpin turns and steep wooden steps that would rival corkscrew staircases up to an antique library, it feels as if you’re descending into a crater.
Most visitors don’t continue to the beach cove. They stop at the top of the cliff’s rocky edge blanketed in succulent vines and wild brush, and just take panoramic photos at the balcony overlook. We descend to the bottom of the bowl.
I lay down a blanket on the dry sandy side of the damp high tide waterline. I have a book, music and headphones, and a notebook. But I don’t deploy any of them. Instead, I watch the deep blue water crest into peaks and transform into white foam. It's like watching a campfire. The flames are live ribbons in the wind, and you think you know what’s going to happen, but the crackles still surprise and hypnotize.
At sea level looking up at the mountains surrounding, what’s most striking isn’t what you see, but what you don’t see. You aren’t looking at your phone because news from the outside world can’t make it through the black hole of no cell phone signal. Because of the sand flies buzzing around the tangled spaghetti lumps of seaweed smell and chillier waters than stereotypical California, Sand Dollar Beach is empty of the music festival size, hang-out-and-tan crowds. You don’t see any elite beach properties carved into the cliffs. What’s left is the unchanging coastline whose lifetime is measured by centuries, not the flicker of human years. If global warming is really happening and the melting glaciers raise the sea level, we could all be reclaimed into the blue abyss. And maybe that’s part of its appeal, the dangerous and humbling reality that you can never fully tame Big Sur. You can fall off the edge of the horizon here.
Big Sur has always been sparkling in romance to me. The more images that I see of the famous coastline, the more stories I read by authors who took refuge into the wilderness to pontificate the meaning of life, the more pictures on Instagram in front of the Pfieffer waterfall that appear every summer, the taller the tales of its reputation grows like a celebrity. During that spontaneous long weekend (like, starting on a Wednesday), we originally planned to camp at another site south of Big Sur and then drive into the Sur during the day. There was a prime spot that just opened up, right on the beach. It was ours if we wanted it.
But I wanted to gamble. I wanted to camp in Big Sur.
Even though the sign said No Vacancy as we drove into Plaskett Creek Campground, we drove in anyway and got lucky. Someone had just left less than ten minutes ago. “I manifested it!” I told myself. And so we entered the offline black hole.
A WILD COAST, AND LONELY
Millions of people come to Big Sur every year. The accommodations vary from the elite Ventana Inn which doesn’t allow children. There is the spiritual institute of Esalan (the location of the last episode of Mad Men was based on Esalan) that hosts workshops such as, “Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation.” Or for the rugged Big Sur experience, privately-operated and public campgrounds are a favorite choice of car campers, cyclists, and backpackers.
In the book, “A Wild Coast and Lonely,” the author Rosalind Sharpe Wall recounts her stories growing up in Big Sur before the Pacific Coast Highway made it accessible in 1937. Wall’s was one of a few brave families that lived deep in Big Sur. Except for a few seasonal organized gatherings, running into neighbors while traveling by horse and wagon ride on the one old dirt road that led to the nearest town to buy provisions, or en route to the famous doctor who pioneered the coastal highway that tourists drive on today, the homesteader families appeared to be mostly isolated on their ranches tending to the basics on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Headed by matriarchs who rode horses, shot guns and grew their own food, and patriarchs that made their living by taking resources from the land to trade for cash or goods (hunting for animal skins, chopping lumber, or mining minerals), it was rough living.
Every story in Wall’s book is deeper into the difficulties of living in Big Sur: its loneliness, its unforgiving nature, how many times the farmhouses and man-built loading docks have been swallowed up by the forces of weather, the feeling that the land doesn’t bow down to you. Those forces could be interpreted as ominous, but also peaceful in its ability to squash narcissistic tendencies.
“There is undeniably something peculiar about the Sur, something strange and uncommon. There is a force here, a definite presence; and it has a stirring, compelling quality like a storm wind or a flight of wild geese overhead; yet many people are frightened of it if they get too close. Some believe it is dark, sinister and dangerous and talk of unfriendly nature spirits,” writes Wall in “A Wild Coast and Lonely” published in 1989.
Some Native Americans displaced by the white Westward expansion (whole other story) converted to Christianity through the missionaries in Carmel. They would bring gold to the churches but never revealed where it came from. A lot of treasure hunters really wanted to find the “lost Indian gold” (Robert Louis Stevenson’s book “Treasure Island” is said to be inspired by his hunt for gold in Carmel and Point Lobos). People went crazy looking for the gold—seriously—as if it were the most valuable thing that the land possessed.
Others knew that there was more to the Sur than pillaging skins, minerals, and lumber.
Ella Young, an Irish woman who held the seat in Celtic lore at U.C. Berkeley told Wall, “Point Lobos is the center of psychic force for the entire Pacific Coast… there are other sacred mountains, other sacred places, but this is the most powerful. But Point Lobos is not ready to make friends with society yet. Mount Shasta is making friends; other great mountains are making friends; but not Lobos. That is why people should be careful when they go to Lobos.” She also claimed there were sea spirits and faeries.
There is constant tension about walking through empty woods. It's serene and meditative to feel one with nature, but rustling leaves in the distance, or an owl's howl can raise goosebumps that you could become part of that bear scene in "The Revenant." Never forget, we're the foreigners in the home of ancient trees, rocks, falcons, condors and mountain lions, and that tension is also part of what makes it exciting.
Is there more to it than a supernatural “feeling”? Something in our genetic nature that explains why our human brains tell us that certain environments please our senses? In a TED talk by Denis Dutton on the “Darwinian Theory of Beauty,” he says that “the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest, or fascination even obsession in order to encourage us towards making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction.”
In other words, environments and relationships that contribute towards our evolutionary survival are hard-wired into our brains to be magnetic. For example, the type of landscape that people from all over the world tend to universally agree as beautiful also happens to be a place that has food, shelter, water and feels safe from predators in the wild.
“A landscape that just happens to be similar to the savannas where we evolved,” Dutton says. “It’s a kind of Hudson River valley landscape featuring open spaces with low grasses interspersed with copses of trees. The trees are preferred if they fork near the ground. That is to say, there are trees that you could scramble up if you were in a tight fix. The landscape shows the presence of water directly within view or evidence of water in a bluish distance, indications of animal or bird life as well as diverse greenery. Finally, a path, perhaps a riverbank or shoreline that extends into the distance, almost inviting you to follow it. This landscape type is regarded as beautiful even by people in countries that don’t have it. The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.”
Many parts of Big Sur don’t match this description at all. They are dangerous and unwelcoming for passing nomads. But the parts that are, by all these definitions of magnetism and beauty, Big Sur is what our tribal ancestors would view as gold. And to the throngs of people coming in and out of the coastline every year to connect to something deeper and true in their subconscious, it still is.
ENJOYING THE SUR, WITH EVERYONE ELSE
Miraculously in this world where every piece of oceanside real estate has million-dollar homes on it, Big Sur has escaped the fate of becoming another Malibu. Firstly, it is legally protected by various government agencies that acknowledge to develop Big Sur would destroy the reason why it's a desirable location for visitors in the first place: natural desolation of the single lane highway where the mountains meet the ocean, and the absence of light pollution that makes stars visible at night.
The 1996 Big Sur Coast Land Use Plan states its basic goal is “To preserve for posterity the incomparable beauty of the Big Sur country, its special cultural and natural resources, its landforms and seascapes and inspirational vistas. To this end, all development must harmonize with and be subordinate to the wild and natural character of the land."
Secondly, Big Sur has protected itself from excessive inhabitants. “The rugged mountainous terrain of the Big Sur coast has had a profound effect on historical use of the area and will continue to serve as a limitation on the kinds of activities that can be carried on and the scale of development. Natural constraints to development include availability of water, difficult access, unstable soils on steep slopes, and dangers of fire and flood.” Historic estimates of the Esselen native population of Big Sur totaled 2.1 people per square mile in the mid to late 1700s, around the time the Spanish established missionaries in the area. It's shocking to think of how our current population density and environmental footprint compares.
Wall’s first person account confirms Big Sur’s resilience to human will. “The landscape itself will always remain stronger than the people who came and wont on it and cannot be touched. The last time I went down to the site of Rainbow Lodge I found no evidence of our existence, not even a rose bush or a clump of amaryllis. And the field, the clearing, had grown over with willows. The willows had creeped in from the creek and obliterated all traces of human invasion.”
That doesn’t mean people won’t try. Development of the coast is a debate between those who argue development would increase access, and those who want to protect the fragility of ecosystems that may never recover from displacement.
During all my trips through Big Sur, I never talked to anyone who lived there. The camp host, people who worked at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, or the general store and gas station cashier — I never got to ask them about what it feels like to live in Big Sur today. A scroll through the “Big Sur Kate” by resident Kathleen Novoa blog shows that living in the Sur continues to be a battle of land use and the elements. Bear sightings, fire reports, illegal campers, gridlock on the highway, and most recently, the debate about banning short-term rentals are a virtual community bulletin board connecting locals with relevant news.
In a 1999 article published in Monterey County Now, the newspaper interviewed a man who worked as a full-time cook in Big Sur, but was homeless because there are few affordable rentals in the area. “He sleeps in a sleeping bag in the woods, or until lately, in his van on the highway. But both these acts are illegal.”
More than 15 years later, it sounds like there hasn’t been much change—if anything, it is worse with the rise of Airbnb vacation rental services. “Our biggest challenge now re: houses is that money is buying up what they can, and then they don't live there, but rent it out for short term rentals which destroys the neighborhood of the community which binds it. Most of our hospitality workers now have to commute from town to get to jobs in Big Sur. It is a bone of contention among various people on both sides of the issue,” Novoa responded by email. The community is active in voicing their opinions with local government towards banning short term rentals.
This commute sounds awful given a July 5, 2016 posting by Big Sur Kate that wrote, “I received a number of traffic reports from readers for Sunday, July 3. It was beyond a nightmare. Suzy Cowan Tennyson reported it took her 58 minutes to travel (between 4 and 4:58) what is usually 30 mins from River Inn to Rio RD. She counted the vehicles. 1736, South Bound only! She said at River Inn all day it was almost gridlock with all the cars headed southbound.” You can’t help but think that the bridges and highways will eventually buckle from the wear and tear of this congestion compacted over a period of time, and the number of accidents that can happen when tourists ignore basic traffic rules.
“We, as a community, have always had a love/hate relationship with our tourists. We need them for the local economy, but we don't like the absolutely unconscious people who will stop, park, lock their car IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HIGHWAY, in order to get a selfie,” Novoa wrote. There is an entire topic on her blog dedicated to tourist fails titled, “Loving Big Sur to Death.” The ongoing gallery of resident-submitted photos shows cars parked on turnoff roads blocking resident access (which is the equivalent of someone parking in front of your driveway), trash tangled in the bushes, and propane canisters left by the side of the road by illegal campers. The exasperation is palpable. Some people may feel this is a free-spirited way of camping—the romantic notion that you can just pull off the side of the road and pitch a tent under the stars—but in fact, the volume and frequency of illegal camping is ruining the very plant life that makes Big Sur special.
“The problem with dispersed camping has many elements. It isn't the camping of my youth, it is people who don't care about the impact they make…they create more and more places to camp and the off-roading is degrading the hillsides through erosion and loss of the delicate native wildflowers that used to populate this area. They come out here to party where they think there are no rules and they can do anything they want, including graffiti. They build campfires when it is not allowed and downright dangerous due to conditions. They don't stay on the dirt roads, but go wherever they can without any thought to the fact that once a ‘trail’ has been blazed, others must also take that path. It has been so sad to me to watch the most incredible wildflowers just completely disappear,” Novoa wrote.
Is there a balance between accommodating the number of people who want to marvel and enjoy the highway’s views, and restricting the volume of people to an amount the land can sustain? Or is it a simple imbalance of a limited supply of rugged, empty coastline and excess of demand to enjoy it in undisturbed natural beauty?
On one occasion driving through Big Sur over Thanksgiving weekend, we decided to stop at Pfeiffer Beach, famous for a rock poking up off the sandy beach with a hole in the middle of it. During the Fall, the sun sets through the keyhole of the rock in a ray of golden light mixed with the ebb and flow of whitewater lapping through the empty space.
When the parking lot to Pfeiffer Beach is full, one car can enter only after one car leaves. By the time we saw the pileup of cars backed up in line to enter, the single lane road was too narrow to turn around. Inching forward minute by minute, we luckily made it the front of the line before the clock struck sunset.
We asked the park ranger, “Why are there so many people?”
“It’s because of the internet,” he said.
Oh right, those hundreds of photos posted on Instagram, travel blogs and any other page that Google’s spiders can find have spread the word about the sun’s passage through the keyhole in the rock. I'm guilty of it too. At the beach, there was a horde of photographers with tripods like paparazzi, time lapse filming the event. We hoped to have a special and highly personal encounter with nature. Singular person (or couple) in the vast tapestry of geological wonder. Instead, we were in the middle of a major tourist attraction.
Part of me was annoyed. I wanted Big Sur its lonely glory—to feel that I “discovered” a secret. But then I remembered that nature cannot be owned. The notion of ownership and dominance is what got us into this global warming mess in the first place. This wasn't the time to be trailblazing and rebellious, to find an undisturbed photogenic lookout to disturb for my gain. Paying respect to mother earth in a mindful manner within regulated perimeters isn't square, it further protects the wild spaces. Joining the audience of people, I surrendered to being part of something magical and significant, like watching the Northern Lights in Iceland, or witnessing the three-story tall waves crash into Waimea Bay in Hawaii during the winter. Through the lens of individual experience and shared evolutionary biology, we universally recognize the brushstrokes-of-a-higher-power miracle as beautiful.
* * *