Los Angeles was long ago to the south, like San Simeon, the last town worth mentioning, only because press magnate William Hearst built an impressive 165-room mansion there that his eponymous corporation later donated to the state of California.
Gradually, Highway 1 surrenders to the concerted encirclement between the Santa Lucia mountain range and the Pacific Ocean.
It starts to zigzag up and down slopes and valleys that spill out onto a prehistoric and wild coast, “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world”, as the vast community of artists who admire the place has become accustomed to classifying it. .
The Natural Magnetism of Big Sur
Every year, more than three million visitors cross each other on the whimsical curves of the route or on the arched bridges that cross the various gorges.
After sunset, there are no lights on electric poles or even houses. Only the distant tracks left by the cars that still circulate stain that domain, almost entirely uncolonized.
Remote, isolated and deeply natural, Big Sur emanates a strong geo-spirituality that does not go unnoticed. Some monasteries were installed on its elevations so that the resident communities of religious could take communion.
Faith or not, the feeling of being in a sanctuary prevails slope after slope, reinforced whenever the endless blanket of fog veils the frigid Pacific and strokes the warmer tongues of earth like a meteorological incense.
A few thousand outlaws or hermits also spread over 400 km2 of those parts in the hope of benefiting from the purification. Some remain for the rest of their lives. Others bend under the weight of loneliness and, sooner or later, give up their vows of recollection.
Jack Kerouac's Trip of Refuge
In the 60s, Jack Kerouac became the most famous personality to respond to the appeal of the coast of all retreats. In the autobiographical novel “Big Sur” – which he will have written in just ten days – Kerouac takes on the role of Jack Duluouz and narrates his physical and mental degradation, aggravated by the growing pressure from fans that he seeks to abstract by consuming alcohol in proportionate amounts.
In the book, at some point, Duluouz gives in to his weakness and a first refuge from the devouring Beat scene of San Francisco in the hut of Kerouac's poet friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Bixby Canyon.
But Duluouz handles the demands of Frisco's libertine society as badly as he does the heartbreaking isolation of the seafront or the death of his cat Tyke.
As suddenly as he had arrived, he returns to the city. But he continues to seek Big Sur's blessing, later tormented by Billie's demand for love – the character of the mistress of Neal Cassady, another influential Beat poet – who demands Jack to marry her.
The Dead End Escape from Kerouac
Duluouz, or Kerouac, as we prefer, rejects the commitment and returns to the call of bohemian drinking and life. Neither Big Sur nor fate saves him.
Thereafter, the real Jack enters a spiral of decline that only ends, in October 1969, with his death, caused by hemorrhage following aggravated cirrhosis.
From the top of one of so many frightening cliffs, we have yet another of the sights Kerouac both admired and feared, for some reason often dubbed Puerta del Diablo, others Devils Canyon and with similar obscure names.
The raw abyss of prehistoric rock, the distorted branches of cypresses, the subtle beauty of sage and other shrubs, and spontaneous floral arrangements anticipating long waterfalls that merge with a relentless surf.
Inebriated, paranoid and fearful, Jack felt in these dizzying Big Sur scenarios a threat similar to that of the realities and people that haunted him.
The Inspiration Unveiled by Kerouac from Big Sur
However, just as otters, seals, and elephant seals swim among strangling colonies of slime and algae and manipulate the overwhelming power of the waves, so other Beat Generation authors were inspired by the constant harassment of admirers and thrived on terms creative despite the hypocrisy that had begun to rage at the heart of their newly spawned movement.
Kerouac has not stopped producing. His creations, however, show the intensification of a feeling of intimidation and smallness towards the world. Back in Big Sur, impressed by the brooding and permanent explosion of the ocean against the American continent, the writer arrived at “Mar”, a 22-page poem in which he noted its variations and contrasts.
The Natural and Literary Reality of Big Sur
The sea water of Big Sur is icy and no bather ventures into it. Offshore, neither sailboats nor the expected oil tanker or freighter ply the wild sea, only, from time to time, the occasional migrating whale.
Inland, in the most remote valleys of the mountain range, the temperature can drop by 10º in a few minutes. In winter, it reaches negative values, a cold that the strong humidity enhances. In the hottest months of summer, fires caused by lightning assume Dantesque proportions and generate an opposite effect.
This contrast and the harshness of life in the Cordillera de Santa Lucia was well known by the forerunners of Kerouac, the first artists who moved and based their daily lives on the reliability of oil lamps and stoves.
Robinson Jeffers, in the 20s, was the first. His poetry gave rise to the romantic imagery of Big Sur that attracted followers. Henry Miller lived in the mountain range from 1944 until nearly the time Jack Kerouac visited it.
His essay/novel “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronimous Bosch” deals with the pleasures and suffering arising from “escape the air conditioning nightmare” of modern life.
Henri Miller, Orson Wells and the Others
Miller also made it known that, on one occasion, a traveler knocked on his door looking for “the cult of sex and anarchy” and that he returned home, disillusioned, for not having found anything he was looking for.
Miller's presence is also referenced in Richard Brautigan's work “A Confederate General of Big Sur” in which a pair of young men there try the idyllic life that other authors had promoted, erecting small tents in which they are molested by plagues of flies and other insects, the low ceilings, the visit of businessmen in nervous breakdown and the croak of thousands of frogs that prevented them from catching up on sleep.
Taken by literature and conversation in the bars and cafes of haight, Castro and other neighborhoods of San Francisco, Big Sur ended up also arriving in Los Angeles and Hollywood.
In 1944, during a tour of the area, Orson Wells and his wife Rita Hayworth were so impressed with the landscape that, on impulse, they bought a cabin. They never got to spend a night there.
Later, the house gave way to a restaurant, Nepenthe, ironically, the Greek name for an ancestral medicine for heartbreak, a sort of classical-Hellenic anti-depressant.
In 1965, Richard Burton and Elisabeth Taylor starred in the classic "The Sandpiper", one of the few films shot in Big Sur and taking on its panoramas as real sets.
The film crews arrived and soon departed. Big Sur played on movie and TV screens but little or nothing changed.
Henry Miller's ashes still lie there and, as the writer summed up in connection with fidelity to that magical place, the only people who are so fond of staying as "ingenious and self-sufficient souls" and this is a rare combination .
It is found among the painters and poets of the new generations. Even these, in greater numbers, live more and more with each other to avoid being crushed by the superiority of the sky, land and sea, of the eternal forces in dispute in the great Big Sur.