If you’ve ever driven on the Pacific Coast Highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, you’ve seen Big Sur, the dramatic series of dark cliffs, deep canyons and plunging peaks that form the California coastline south of the Bay Area.
I’ll leave the rest of the descriptive phrases to the travel books, but let it just be said that this is a very impressive nature preserve. Lawrence Ferlinghetti owned a rustic cabin in Big Sur’s Bixby Canyon, under the large white bridge on the Pacific Coast Highway (US 1). In the summer of 1961 he persuaded the increasingly troubled and alcoholic Jack Kerouac to go on a solitary retreat there to get his head back together.
Ferlinghetti is a good poet but may be a crummy therapist, because the trip turned out to be about the worst thing for Kerouac in his then-fragile state of mind. He was frightened by the dark elemental surroundings, and several nightmarish episodes that took place in Ferlinghetti’s cabin, including a ghastly attempt at relating to a woman, are described in Kerouac’s most depressing (but fascinating) novel ‘Big Sur‘.
Before the Beats discovered Big Sur (Ferlinghetti had bought the cabin not long before Kerouac’s famous visit), Henry Miller was there, and wrote a book called ‘Big Sur and the Oranges of Heironymous Bosch.’ Richard Brautigan wrote a book called ‘A Confederate General From Big Sur.’
Big Sur played a big role in the Sixties. The Esalen institute is there with its hot tubs, and a 1969 musical gathering featuring Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young was immortalized in the film ‘A Celebration at Big Sur.’
A friend drove me through Big Sur several years ago. I’m from the East Coast and am not accustomed to those swooping, curving mountain roads. I must say, though, that whenever I peeked out from between my fingers and stopped screaming I was very impressed by the natural beauty of the area.