It’s a vast paradox… a landscape breathtakingly beautiful yet unsparingly harsh; a climate equally bucolic and brutal; a community simultaneously insular and warmly welcoming; a spirit both ruggedly realistic and dreamily ethereal. It’s Big Sur.
If ever a region were appropriately named, this is it. It’s huge, encompassing some 75 miles of California coastline extending roughly from Mal Paso Creek in the Carmel Highlands to the San Luis Obispo County line. There’s a lot of natural beauty packed into that stretch; rolling meadows, wind-scoured tors, towering stands of Coast Redwoods, babbling brooks that can become raging rivers in winter storms and the pièce de résistance: what many consider the most gobsmackingly gorgeous juxtaposition of land and sea anywhere. And it’s populated by independent-minded, creative, resilient people who couldn’t imagine living elsewhere.
BIG SUR ORIGINS
Big Sur has been home to human habitation for millennia. The Ohlone, Esselen and Salinan tribes roamed the region eons before the first Europeans showed up. These indigenous peoples followed the food, collecting shallow-water sea life such as abalone and mussels shoreside and gathering acorns inland to be ground into meal in holes carved into exposed bedrock. These mortars can still be found throughout the region.
Although Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo is credited with being the first European to set foot in California, he didn’t do so in Big Sur. His loss. He and his expedition cruised by without stopping in 1542. More than 200 years later, another Spaniard, Gaspar de Portolá, finally planted his pointy boots here, at San Carpóforo Canyon just north of Ragged Point. Father Junipero Serra established a mission and town at Monterey in 1770 and he and his compadres dubbed the daunting, seemingly impenetrable and unexplored region to the south el pais grande del sur (“the big country of the south,” later shortened to el sur grande, then Americanized as “Big Sur”).
Most who know it agree: Big Sur is a magical place. The hardy pioneers who settled this land before there was a proper road to service it felt that. There were certainly easier places to homestead but they chose to put down roots in Big Sur. Their names are immortalized in present-day place names: Partington Cove, Pfeiffer Ridge, Post Ranch, Bixby Creek and McWay Falls are all designated after families who set their sights on taming this land. Many of their descendants still call it home.
The rich and famous are by no means immune to Big Sur’s charms. Artist Erin Lee Gafill , whose grandparents founded Nepenthe Restaurant, relates the tale of a visit by the hot Hollywood couple of their day. “We all grew up with the story of Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles coming to Big Sur in the 1940s,” Gafill says. “They saw a cabin on a hill and stopped to have a picnic.” The couple fell in love with the view, buying the property on the spot. Hayworth measured the windows for curtains and Welles made plans to run a gas line to the kitchen. “But they never came back,” Gafill says. “Not once.” This land was later acquired by Gafill’s grandparents, Bill and Lolly Fassett, and on it they founded the world famous Nepenthe Restaurant. Gafill was born and raised on the property and now makes her home in the cabin that Welles and Hayworth once dreamed of occupying. Though not installed by the famous couple, the structure’s windows now have curtains.
Of course, Big Sur is among the top tourist draws in California, and celebrities routinely visit here. Pop singer Taylor Swift recently Tweeted selfies from Pfeiffer State Park and other locations while on a road trip. In March 2014, actress and Salinas native Vanessa Hudgens posted photos of herself hugging redwood trees on Pinterest and Twitter, adding breathlessly “#FlashbackFriday!! Still feeling soo inspired after my trip to Big Sur a few weeks ago. So much natural beauty—it was seriously next level.”
For generations, this has been a magnet for freethinking artists, poets, actors, musicians and writers—all manner of freethinkers, famous and not so. Poet Robinson Jeffers, writers Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson, and photographer Edward Weston were among the 20th century intelligentsia that flocked here. More contemporary notable residents include Beach Boy Al Jardine and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea.
No doubt it’s easy to fall in love with—and at—Big Sur. It’s a heart wrenchingly romantic place, relatively remote and penultimately private. That’s why the area has become a favorite locale for A-list celebrities to hold their weddings. Actors Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman and Jack Black have all chosen to tie the knot here. Most opt for traditional vows, but no one would expect the wacky Black to follow that path down the aisle. He and his bride chose a more “Bohemian” ceremony. He told Celebritycafe.com writer Angela P. Cobb: “Our ceremony was pretty hippie, spacey and non-denominational.”
A more opulent approach was taken by tech mogul Sean Parker for his June 1, 2013, wedding to Alexandrea Lenas. The Napster and Facebook wunderkind dished out a reported $10 million to create a medieval fairytale setting for their ceremony. The guest list included Sean Lennon, Emma Watson, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich and California politicos Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris. Sting sang to the couple. Unfortunately, planners hadn’t cleared details of the construction and Parker was levied with a $2.5 million fine for habitat damage.
Another legendary Hollywood couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, filmed “The Sandpiper” in and around Big Sur. According to the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) an uncredited, then-unknown actress named Raquel Welch doubled for Taylor in some of the star’s Big Sur beach scenes. Filming locations for the 1965 romantic potboiler included landmarks Pfeiffer Beach, Bixby Creek Bridge and the Coast Gallery.
The Monterey County Film Commission lists no fewer than 24 movies filmed in Big Sur, including “Basic Instinct,” “From Here to Eternity” and “Play Misty for Me.” Some not-so-well-known flicks include “The Cat from Outer Space,” “Zandy’s Bride” and “Brainstorm.”
In 2013, a film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel “Big Sur” was released, starring Kate Bosworth and directed by the actress’ husband, Michael Polish. That production includes scenes shot on Highway 1, under Rocky Creek Bridge at a private cabin, and along the Big Sur coastline.
“My grandmother [Lolly Fassett] referred to people who live here as ‘rugged individualists,’” says Erin Gafill. “Those who want to get away from the rat race of conventional society.” Fassett would use that term in many ways, sometimes facetiously, accompanied by a roll of the eyes. Big Sur has always attracted independent, unconventional and rugged types, especially in the early years, before Highway 1 made it easily accessible. It was a long and arduous journey, so residents had to create ways to fend for themselves.
That kind of isolation can create a deep sense of community closeness, and in the case of Big Sur, it created a tight-knit social structure that endures to this day. “We have a culture of people who, like the pioneers, want to live close to the land,” says Pfeiffer Ridge resident Marty Morgenrath. “That means you have to be creative and resourceful with what you have.” Morgenrath came to Big Sur in the late 1960s, a period that saw a Bohemian, “back to the earth” movement blossom. Big Sur was a center of that scene. “I lived in cabins, in a teepee on Partington Ridge and worked at Nepenthe before marrying my late husband Helmuth and settling on land at Pfeiffer Ridge,” she says.
Morgenrath marvels at the sense of closeness here. A fire broke out in the middle of the night a week before Christmas, 2013, eventually destroying 34 homes. “Although we were supposed to evacuate, a bunch of us stayed to help each other protect our homes,” she recalls. “We saved 10.” Erin Gafill recalls that the Red Cross came to help, but had little to do. “The community had absorbed the need,” she says. “The displaced families were getting help from their neighbors. This under-the-radar community of people showed up with clothing, food and offers of a place to sleep.”
Indeed, for all its bucolic beauty and natural splendor, Big Sur is a place that has disaster dealt to it on a regular basis. Torrential winter rains regularly trigger landslides that can close or narrow the sinuous, cliff-clinging Highway 1 for weeks, months—even years—at a stretch. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake shook apart the bridge over the Carmel River, cutting off access for several months until a replacement was erected. Fire is a constant threat; in addition to the Christmas 2013 Pfeiffer Fire, the devastating Basin Complex Fire of 2008 burned over 130,000 acres and closed Highway 1 just before the busy July 4 weekend. Not everyone is cutout to live in such circumstances. “Big Sur is an amazing place,” says Erin Gafill, “but it’s also unforgiving. Many people buy property here, thinking it’s idyllic and peaceful. Then a storm hits, the road washes out and a fire starts. Some ride it out, some sell the next day.”
Yet, still they come. All manner of people, from well-heeled business tycoons tooling down in European sports cars to scruffy hitchhiking transients make the trek to this magical place. Big Sur’s siren song speaks to and beckons a wide spectrum of people. It truly is a gem in the crown of California.
Perhaps Henry Miller said it best: “Big Sur is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked at from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.”
For more information on Big Sur, go to www.bigsurcalifornia.org.