As we drive through Big Sur, the roads teeter on the edge of cliffs. Below, the ocean is a deep cerulean blue, tones dropping into fluorescent teals and icy blues. On the other side of the two-lane highway are hills, blanketed in dusty chaparral and windswept grasses. The landscape is encased in layers of fog and mist. Driving through Big Sur feels like driving through a dream — the light is soft, the air is misty, the landscape otherworldly.
We had driven down along Highway 1 from San Francisco — a 238-kilometre journey characterized by a gradual decrease in intensity; whisking away from Silicon Valley and its glass towers and beginning to wind through California’s many national parks. We make slow progress, as every few minutes we pull over at vistas and overlooks dotted along the road. Every inch of the coastline feels worthy and deserving of our attention, a stop, a photo.
We slept in a tent on a bed of grass. Bunking in one of only two campsites in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, we awoke to a quiet campground at the top of a cliff and sheltered by shady trees. Standing above and looking below, the waves and currents swirl between the rocks underneath us, creating bubbly foamy seas. Just down the coast, puffins bob peacefully along calmer waters. The main thing to do in Big Sur is simply to be in nature — to stand among towering redwoods, gaze at the sea, or if you’re lucky enough, spot migrating whales from the shore.
The heart of Big Sur and its most photographed destination is McWay Falls. Water from Big Sur’s creek rushes through the parks and ends at this 24m waterfall where it topples effortlessly into a delicate beach below. The waterfall is beautiful yet inaccessible, with restrictions in place to protect the land. Yet, each day when we looked over the edge of the cliff, we’d see sets of footsteps dotting the otherwise pristine beach. Big Sur’s national parks are also the setting for a constant struggle between rangers and overbearing tourists, who venture off-grounds to capture new angles.
Big Sur has almost 1,000 full-time residents, though millions pass through the area during the summer months. The community expands and contracts seasonally, but has been a home to artists, writers and solitude-seekers for decades. Quiet, majestic, and often isolated by frequent road closures from windy storms, it takes a certain dedication to call this place home. One of the community’s most revered former residents was writer Henry Miller, and it was here that he wrote Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch — a memoir of the beauty of living on this rugged coast, a treatise on old age, a snapshot from the august years of a life of a legendary writer.
After Miller’s passing in 1981, his friend Emil White established what today is the Henry Miller Library in memory as a local centre for the arts. And, if Big Sur was to have any centre of town, this would be it — community gatherings, concerts and film screenings regularly take place beneath a redwood grove and the stars just next door. The library itself is a de-facto memorial to Henry Miller, it’s walls lined with photographs and paraphernalia, its shelves stocked with Miller’s own books and those that inspired him.
In Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Miller wrote, “The ideal community, in a sense, would be the loose, fluid aggregation of individuals who elected to be alone and detached in order to be at one with themselves and all that lives and breathes.” And indeed, many of Big Sur’s residents chose to move here intentionally, drawn in by the landscape and ethereal beauty of what is an otherwise uninhabitable stretch of coastal California.
This dedication is everywhere in Big Sur, but especially in an easy-to-miss wooden building right along Highway 1 — Big Sur Bakery. Co-founded by Mike Gilson, Michelle Rizzolo, and Philip Wojtowicz, each of whom were drawn to this remote stretch of coastline from the big cities of LA and New York.
The bakery is housed in a 1930s farmhouse surrounded by a garden of a staggering variety of succulents and cacti towering high above and blanketing the ground below. A line runs out the door each morning for ham and cheese croissants, ginger scones, and homemade sourdough baked in their wood-fired oven. In the evening, the former living room of the farmhouse is converted into a restaurant. Sitting in the modestly-lit, dreamy, cozy dining room on a windy and foggy evening, it feels as if you could spend hours leisurely sampling food, chatting with your neighbour or server, or simply drifting through thought.
On our last night, I’m again standing high above, looking below at the ocean. The wind catches the layer of tanoaks and madrone trees above me, softly ruffling. Around me sit bushes of nettle and maidenhair ferns, sheltered by the shade. A patch of honey-coloured mushrooms grow vertically alongside a tree trunk. I often find myself with a surplus of words when traveling somewhere new, yet here silence feels most natural. Nothing needs to be spoken, and all feels as it should be. In Big Sur, it feels easiest to simply stand and watch, transfixed in reverie.
All photographs by Charlotte Boates expect cover photo by Denys Nevozhai via Unsplash.
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Charlotte is a San Francisco-based freelance social media strategist, writer, and translator. Passionate about language, travel, food and the ocean, Charlotte has also lived in Vancouver and New Zealand, before moving to California. She speaks French, and a smattering of Spanish, Italian and Japanese.