Big Sur is impossible. It should not exist. But there it is. A crazy road clinging to the cliffs between San Simeon and Carmel. Lapis lazuli waters with sea otters at play. Grey fox pups peering up through the poppies. High above, California condors, back from the brink of extinction, set their ten foot wingspans like sails on the salty updraft. Far below, the plumes of Blue whales spout like geysers.
Highway 1 was built through these treacherous coastal gorges by convict labor in the years after World War I. It was a simple deal: in exchange for a day on the road crew they cut a day off your sentence. That one misstep could send you pummeling down a thousand foot cliff to your death was better odds than another day in the exercise yard at San Quentin.
The army needed access to the coast to create a frontline defense on the western edge of the country. So congressional funding appeared. War is funny like that. It creates both a sense of urgency and unintended consequences. Were it not for the fear of invasion by sea on this lonely stretch of unprotected West Coast, the Big Sur Highway would have never been built. What would have all those peace-loving hippies at Esalen done then?
The central coast of California has its own personality, its own soul, and its own undefinable borders. Some say central California is everything north of Santa Barbara and south of Monterrey. Others push the southern edge down to Ventura and the northern edge up to San Francisco. But one thing is sure. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
Southern California has heat, beach culture, Hollywood, and street tacos. Northern California has coastal redwoods, fog, and rutting Roosevelt Elk bugling on the slopes of volcanos. Central California is more difficult to define.
Beginning in the east, the White Mountains run along the Nevada border, home to the Bristlecone pine, the oldest living thing on earth. Moving west you come to the Owens Valley leaping up into the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, crowned by the tallest peak in the continental United States—Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet. Called by John Muir “the Range of Light,” the Sierra Nevada mountains boast both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. That fact alone establishes central California’s dominance among the three Californias.
Descending through the foothills of the western Sierras you come upon the Central Valley, an agricultural wonderland that feeds not only the United States, but much of the world. Sure, the 1848 Gold Rush, also a central California phenomenon, was impressive, but the real gold comes in the form of peaches, almonds, raisins, and basically everything you could possibly put in a salad, and then some.
Traveling farther west across the coastal ranges you come to Big Sur where the forested crags of the Santa Lucia Mountains tower over the Pacific and cold, clear mountain streams plunge off of cliffs into azure bays brimming with sea life.
Once the road was built in the 1920s and 1930s settlers began trickling in, building patchwork homesteads in sheltered, forested valleys perched high above the sea. Big Sur has always attracted artists, poets, hermits, and other refugees from Middle America looking for something more intrepid, more mystical, and more vibrant than the altogether respectable but underwhelming goal of having a sensible career and your own washer and dryer. At Big Sur, you hardly even need clothes. Let alone a tie.
So what is it about California, central coastal California especially, that calls out to lost souls all over the world? Why do they come to Big Sur in droves just to drive this remote, dizzying highway and stare bedazzled at the jeweled Pacific curving toward infinity? Some places take on a mythical stature, a sacred sense of place far surpassing any fortunate confluence of geological features or natural beauty. Sure, Big Sur has all of that. But it has more, that quality the French call je ne sais quoi or I know not what. You can’t put your finger on it, but Big Sur has it: a palpable spirit, an aliveness, a soul, a something you just can’t define.
When places take on a mythical quality, they become a living, breathing, conscious being. Science, of course, laughs at talk like that. In the western scientific paradigm nature is not a spiritual presence, it is a collection of objects; observable, quantifiable, and explainable with a series of linear analytical propositions. The Salinan and Esselen peoples, who originally inhabited this region for 10,000 years before the Conquest, didn’t quite see it that way.
For Native peoples, an alternative epistemology holds sway. They see the realm of nature not as a field of disconnected objects, but as an interconnected web—pull one thread and you touch it all. From this perspective, it doesn’t make sense to talk about plants in the abstract, but only about this plant, in this soil, in this valley, in this weather, on this day, near this stream, in this season, in relationship with these birds, rodents, snakes, and insects… and now us as we observe it, for we too are an inseparable part of the whole. As John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” There is no meaningful and ultimate distinction between the observer and observed. In deep seeing, we become both invisible and indivisible. There is only one. We, in the end, are the universe observing itself.
That’s what makes a sacred place sacred: the hidden interconnectedness shines through the surface and reveals itself. Once we see it or, rather, feel it, we carry this expanded awareness everywhere we go, returning home with new eyes. And then we realize the real truth, the truth that was staring us in the face the whole time, only we did not see it. Every place is a sacred place.
If any place is sacred, every place is sacred.
When we spring to life somewhere, we spring to life everywhere.
This is the value and vital importance of travel, especially pilgrimages to extraordinary places like Big Sur. Standing on a bluff, the sun on your back, held fast by the curving arms of a cedar, you experience an interchange: through every pore of your skin you feel your spirit and the earth’s spirit pouring into one another, the way a freshwater stream and the Pacific Ocean pour into one another in the estuary of a Big Sur beach. No more struggle, no more strain, because you are part of something bigger than yourself and you always have been. You don’t do anything alone. How could you? That was an illusion. One of the many, many illusions stripped away by the willingness to realize your authentic nature.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com