The Road to Big Sur

I

It was early in the morning and I couldn’t see the peaks of the mountains. The mist in the air was cool and no cars drove on Highway 1, also known as the pacific coast highway, in central California.

This was a place I’d only heard of but never seen. It lived in my mind like a myth, a legend; a place where writers and famous musicians and artists all had once lived while others disappeared; where a tortured Jack Kerouac had a nervous breakdown and wrote a classic novel of the same name, where Orson Welles had bought an enormous cliffside home that he soon abandoned, later to be turned into what it is today, a secluded and ghostly cafe known as Nepenthe.

The ghosts of Welles and William Randolph Hearst live down every mile of this road. Hearst’s own castle of lore stands far up in the hills of San Simeon, like a ghost in the fog with its lights clearly visible from the rocky shore, like two eyes staring out into the night.

California is no stranger to natural beauty. There are the deserts of Death Valley and Joshua Tree to the south, beaches and surf havens from San Diego to Pismo, Lake Tahoe on the Nevada Border, forests full of gigantic Redwood and Sequoia trees, and finally the great Yosemite.

But Big Sur is different, something unlike any park or national monument in America; and while few people seem to have heard of it, most have at least seen pictures of its singular highway winding tightly around every cliffside corner, with the mountains on one side looming high above, and the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean on the other, just below. If that sounds both beautiful and slightly terrifying, that’s because it is; and more so than on any other highway in America, you need to have your wits about you.

Maybe that’s part of what makes it so extraordinary. It’s mysterious, inherent dichotomy of beauty and terror. Maybe that’s what so many poets and authors found so alluring about it. Big Sur is no mere vacation spot or weekend getaway. It’s living, breathing poetry in nature.

II

My new life in LA was wearing me thin and I decided that I needed to get away. The plan was to drive up to San Francisco and stay there for a few days. I was told that I should take the 1 Highway, that even though it was a longer route, it offered a more scenic view. It was the sort of thing a young, stressed out and restless musician might need.

I’d played a show in Hollywood the night before and somehow I’d gotten through the set. The songs were new and I wasn’t sure how they’d be received, but the reaction turned out to be favorable. I felt relieved but still too spent to enjoy it. I might have been coming down with something. My head felt heavy and I couldn’t breathe right. I needed to get away.

Was Big Sur everything that I needed. Yes. Somehow it was.

One of its most defining aspects is the inherent beauty that seems obvious and yet isn’t, because it is also terrifying and easily dangerous. Its appearance, its character and meaning all depend on the person looking, the state of mind and soul of he who drives on its highway.

I thought a great deal about that dichotomy. I thought about friends and enemies. Good and evil. Faith and fear. And I felt stripped bare and left to make the determination for myself as to which would prevail. This most majestic shore and highway would not help me.

Big Sur is both a limitless, magnificent display of life on earth and an isolated no man’s land. When you drive through it, the mountains above you seem to both guard you and stalk you. The steep cliffs which are constantly at your side are both your friend and your greatest enemy. The waves, relentlessly crashing against the rocks below, might either be your salvation or your death.

And the sea. The sea is always waiting. Its horizon is emotionless and magnificent, like some grande infinite of the Pacific. It’s like heaven waiting to receive you, for better or for worse, and whichever of the two it is depends solely on how you choose to receive it.

I made it up to Frisco, stayed there two days and then drove back that afternoon. The trip up north was a trip I would never forget. I felt like I’d proven something to myself, or like I’d conquered something indefinable, and my health was back to what it once was. I felt ready for the city again. Ready to return to Los Angeles. Driving back through Big Sur that night, I felt immortal, more alive than I could remember feeling in a long time. The drive home that evening was every bit as wonderful and treacherous as it had been two days before, only this time it was night and I could see very little.

As I was making my way out, my tire blew and I was temporarily stranded back in San Simeon. The Hearst Castle, way up in the hills and barely visible in the fog, was the only light I could see with the exception of the full moon high up in the sky. I could hear the waves beneath me but I couldn’t see them.

If I could have wished for anything in that moment other than a new tire it would have been a flashlight, and I swore to myself that I would always carry one in my car from that point on. In the dark of the night highway, as the occasional car sped by just barely missing mine, I fumbled for the jack, placed it beneath the car and got to work in replacing the tire. I had no idea how long it would take, but in these conditions, with my car unable to get much farther away from oncoming traffic on a very narrow bit of highway, I was certain it’d be no cakewalk.

After about five minutes, progress was unpromising, before another vehicle emerged in the distance. Unlike the others, this one was slowing down. It was a pick-up truck, pulling over and coming to a halt just behind me.

The driver remained inside for close to a minute. I thought maybe he was waiting for me to approach him. Maybe he was reading my mind and only pulled over to offer me some light. Maybe he was looking for a gun.

Finally the door swung open. The man stumbled out and quickly disappeared, walking toward the rear of his car before reappearing on the other side and walking toward me. He was carrying something, but as I looked more closely I could see that it was not a weapon. It was bottle. A glass bottle.

“You want some red wine, kid?”

“No thank you, but I appreciate the light.”

“Sure, no problem. What’ve we got here? Flat?”

“Yea.”

“You know, your car is wedged in this ditch a little too much for comfort. Gonna take a while to change the tire like that, but I got me a couple of two-by-fours we can use to prop it up a bit.”

“That’d be great. Thank you.”

The man stacked the two-by-fours in front of the tire and I drove the car forward, propping the tire up and out of the ditch. Now I knew I’d be able to replace the tire in no time, especially with the light coming from the truck.

“I appreciate the help.”

“Not a problem,” taking a swing of his wine. “It’s a crazy world. We folks got to look out for one another.”

“Yea…”

“Name’s Buckshot,” he said.

I introduced myself and we shook hands. For the next five to ten minutes while I worked on the tire, I listened to Buckshot tell me about where he’d been and where he was going. Tonight, he was on his way to see his kids, who were living farther up north.

He’d been in prison for ten years, he said, though I never asked what he was in for. Now he was living in downtown LA with his girlfriend, in a strip club where she currently worked. He insisted that I come to the club and visit, and I told him that I would try.

He offered me another sip of wine and I politely declined. He gave me his email address and he said to get in touch with him when he got back into town. Then we shook hands again and I thanked him for his help.

“Don’t mention it.”

He took a last sip of his wine and then turned back toward his car.

“Good luck to you, kid.”

“Thank you sir.”

He drove off and disappeared into the night. I never got a good look at his face.

—-

When the tire blew and I was stuck there on the side of the highway, that immortality was bruised and it was a harsh crash back to earth, next to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean shrouded in the darkness beneath me.

I’d prevailed and made it back to LA, but not without running into some trouble close to the end, not without the help of a stranger whose face I never saw. And on the ride home I thought about how that sort of thing might very well happen again. At some other time and in some other place. Later on down the road.

When I got back in town the following morning I wrote Buckshot and thanked him again for his help and his company. I never heard back from him, though. I never heard back from him nor did I ever see him again.

Anyway the immortality is something I feel almost every time, on almost every road trip I take, though now I always carry a flashlight.