Sunday, April 17, 2011

Quiet Days in Big Sur

The road is quiet. It has a stillness, like an empty stadium after a big game. One wants to walk slowly around its curves breathing deeply, stand in yoga poses at the vista points, and dance along the tops of the stone walls that stare down at the sea.

Without traffic (and there's been almost none at all this past week) Highway One invites contemplation. This quiet feeling permeates our daily lives right now. Perhaps the landscape's level of grandeur needs an empty stage to remind us of the solitude it lived in for so very, very long.

The ancient, enormous forces that shaped this land are more evident when we're shaken out of our daily routines. The road has a secret, which we are distracted from learning when it's busy with tourist traffic: this ribbon of road is the edge of the world as we know it.

Friday evening, as I drove home from the valley towards the ridge, my pickup truck was the only beast on the road for some ten miles. As I dimmed the headlights on the straightaways, the slopes of the cliffs transformed into sleeping animals, while pine trees loomed large along the asphalt trail. The flashes of darkness, then silver moonlight, recalled earlier times when night travel happened only when the moon was full.

Recently, Big Sur folks have made "border crossings" over the slide twice daily, a source of annoyance, but also of amusement and community. As the rains have slowed, people have reported enjoying a brisk morning walk beside their neighbors (even in an un-caffeinated state!) while helping each other push carts full of groceries back up and over the collapsed road in the afternoon.

Since the walkovers have been carefully timed, I learned a new expression in Spanish while driving my friend Mary to the bridge at 6:40 am: "PĂ­sale!" (meaning "Step on it!" ) she yelled over the roar of my truck careening through the Big Sur Valley at just over 60 mph. As I watched Mary walk towards the bend in the road, her pack on on her back, I found myself thinking about refugees crossing a mountain pass, leaving Shangri-la...

All of us living here have our road warrior stories. Title this new chapter the "Rocky Creek Slide" and add to it another chapter, begun two days ago, "Alder Creek Monster Slide" which we're told will keep Highway One to the south of Gorda closed for a month. After seeing this photo, you'll believe it.

As of April 15, the only way into Big Sur is over Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. A 2-3 hour detour which begins in the basin of the Valley of the Oaks in Jolon. Now here's more good news: tucked into the corner of this valley is Mission San Antonio de Padua. Built in 1771, it contains countless timeless pieces of the past in its small museum. There's also a wine press, a millstone, and as my young friend Nigel demonstrates here, a 200 year-old olive tree.

Visiting the Missions has always moved me, maybe because they remind me of my 1960's California childhood experience of struggling to build them out of sugar cubes, cardboard and clay in elementary school.

Saint Anthony is the patron saint of lost things, the one who guides us to hidden treasures, so it seems appropriate to visit him on your way to Big Sur. This route to the coast has its share of surprises too: perhaps you'll see the mysterious herd of thundering elk, smell the grape jelly scent of fields of lupine or feel a calm sense of awe as you come to the crest of the mountain above Lucia.

As the Buddhist teaching goes: Impermanence is the essence of life (or as my Dad used to say, The only constant in life is change). On this Friday, April 22 Highway One will re-open at the Rocky Creek Slide. This latest news proves again that it's possible to simultaneously feel great relief and nostalgia for difficult times.

Nigel at the Mission Olive tree photo by Margaret Goeden