Time was that I believed the location from which you watch a sunset was only important insofar as you had a good, unobstructed view of the setting sun. But this trip’s been changing that. In my opinion, a sunset is a pretty cosmic experience (dude), and the cosmos is all about sapce. Different spaces have different energy (and I don’t mean that in a wishy-washy New-Agey “everything is vibration” kind of way, but in a genuine, palpable experiential sense). So having that cosmic experience in a particularly meaningful space obviously deepens the impact.
When I left Ojai in the morning, my goal was to reach Big Sur for the sunset. It wasn’t that I was convinced the sunset would be particularly spectacular there (although I was) but rather that I wanted to experience the sunset from there. The rugged wilderness of Big Sur (“el sur grande” = “the big south” of the Monterey peninsula) is a place of legend: its rugged, wild coastline and utter isolation have offered inspiration to a disproportionally large number of artists, and also seem to provide a site for engagement with nature and spiritual transcendence (don’t take my word for it; go there if you haven’t. I defy you not to see the face of God — Whoever you think He Is or Isn’t — in the coastline). Thus, it seemed particularly auspicious to watch the sun dip from such a place.
As I wove North on the PCH, I began to become increasingly worried that I wouldn’t make my goal. The elephant seals had slowed me down, and the fact that there was an irresistible place to stop every five miles wasn’t helping either. But soon, I passed a simple wooden sign that read “Welcome to Big Sur.” Literally as soon as I passed the sign, the roads became rife with sharp turns, curves, and blind corners. To the East, steep hills speckled with shrubs led up to massive trees, a dense cluster of foliage that seemed nearly impenetrable. And the road climbed, quickly giving a spectacular view of the distinctive coast to the West.
Although the highway was far from crowded, the amount of cars on the road certainly didn’t match the wilderness. I suppose in coastal California, wilderness has a different meaning. Big Sur is about four hours from LA, one of the biggest cities in the US. Meaning that you can go from what’s considered utter wilderness to dense urban sprawl in a single morning. To clarify, consider the wilderness of Northern Ontario: it’s rugged, like Big Sur. It’s gorgeous, like Big Sur. But it also happens to be about fifteen hours from Toronto. There are places that are hundreds of kilometers from anything remotely resembling a city centre; perhaps even hundreds of kilometers from a real grocery store or hospital. There was ample construction on the PCH, so there were a few places where I had to stop, bringing up the rear of a line of cars. Of course, it wasn’t exactly terrible to be stopped on the edge of the ocean, breathing the fresh air and listening to the waves lap on the rocks hundreds of feet below.
It was always easy to tell which cars are being driven by locals. Because they don’t really drive. Rather, they seem to become every crevice and contour of the highway, drifting across its paved surface with the grace, ease, and experience of a figure skater cutting across the ice. They go faaaaaast, and they go sure. Tourists (like yours truly) seem to be responsible for staying out of their way. There were numerous short gravel pull-offs (not unlike the ones in Colorado for run-away trucks) so that slower vehicles could pull out of the way of faster ones.
As the sky turned golden and the ocean began to glisten with that distinctive dusk luster, I scoured the roadside for a place to stop.
The place I found was a small gravel parking lot pressed up against a six-foot lump of dirt and pine needles. Over the lump was a cliff facing the ocean. Judging by the empty beer bottles, I’d hazard to guess that I wasn’t the first schmuck with the bright idea to watch the sunset from here.
I arrived on the cliff and took my seat (can of Chunky soup in hand) just in time to see the sun sink below the horizon and cast a refracting corona of light over the Western waves.
The quality of this sunset was permeated by the elevation. Being so high up, looking down at the ocean and across the whitecaps to the setting sun, made me feel more elevated and freer than dusk at — e.g. — Huntington Beach. I was up above it all, amongst the trees, on a quiet stretch of highway in a quiet stretch of California. After the bustling cosmopolitanism of LA and the sleepy suburbia of Ojai, it was monumentally refreshing to be in the wild again.
Soon, I was back on the highway. Now, instead of worrying about missing the sunset, I was worrying about how dark it would soon be and how obstacular (it’s a word, I swear) these roads were. The locals still raced along with a seemingly spiritual connection to the asphalt, but my speedometer dropped right down.
I regretted not reaching Big Sur when I had some time to explore in the daylight. One distinctive thing about the whole area is that there are very few lights. And by very few I mean none. There seemed to be a community-wide vendetta against the smallest amount of light pollution. Speaking of community: there were occasional gravel driveways jutting off the road at weird angles, but virtually none of the homes were actually visible. The occasional grouping of buildings popped up, but because of the lack of outdoor lighting, at night the largest hint that you’re in the midst of civilized abodes is the glint of headlights off of windows and parked cars.
So I briefly toyed with the idea of camping somewhere in the vicinity. How much could it possibly cost? I asked myself. It’s wilderness, I don’t need any services. Hell, I don’t really even need a site; I just need a place where I can park for seven hours or so and pass out in the back of my van. There were very few incognito pull-offs, so I looked for a campground. Again, the lack of outdoor lights made this a daunting task. I pulled off at what I believe was called the Big Sur Campground. I was greeted by a dimly lit park store and a woman standing on either side of the road. “How can I help you?” the one at the driver’s side asked in a South Dakotan drawl. “Do you have any sites free?” “Sure. They’re forty dollars a night, plus a parking fee.” I wondered to myself why there was an additional parking fee; it was hard to imagine that a lot of people made it here without a car. But I was pretty covert about it. “Where’s the next place to stay to the North?” I asked. “I didn’t make as good time today as I was hoping.” “Carmel,” she said. “About 25 miles North.” After briefly considering, I thanked her and turned around. 40+ dollars for a night of camping was beyond my ability to justify. In retrospect, how can you put a price on Big Sur? But ah well.
I backtracked a little ways south and checked out another campground. No one was working at this one; campers were expected to place money in an envelope and check their desired site off on a whiteboard. Again, $40 for a night plus a $10 parking fee. I stopped at yet another place, but this was a lodge which (given its expansive windows, fancy-looking dining room, and excess of land rovers, was further out of my price range than anywhere else). However, before I pulled away, I thought about filling up at the gas tanks out front. They were barely lit, but the tiny illuminated LCD price monitor read $5.19/gallon. 5.19. Just let that sink in. The highest prices I had seen (which seemed relatively incomparable) were those in LA that had soared above the $4.50 mark. And in Big Sur they were demanding 70 cents more. Anyway, not to harp on inconsequential gas prices or anything…But again, I was forced to think about the differing definition of wilderness. LA was four hours down the road, for Pete’s sake! It’s not like we were in the middle of the Mojave here guys! But I suppose the PCH is the only access, and it’s not exactly a desirable route for transport trucks and tankers and the like. In my mad pursuit of economy, I passed it all up. 25 miles wasn’t far. I could make it in a night. Especially if I could traverse the entire state of Missouri after dark. Besides, I had a vague memory of seeing signs declaring that the PCH would be closed overnight in this area for roadwork. The schedule I was imposing on myself didn’t allow for any more hold-ups (ahem, Colorado). So I kept driving.
Locals raced by while I paced myself. The curves of the road came out of nowhere, and I was taking no risks when there was a four-hundred-foot plunge down to the cold, unforgiving waves. A few miles up the road I did manage to spot a pull-off. I thought about setting up camp there, but it was still early (well before 9pm) and there were ample signs discouraging people from doing just that. I wondered briefly about whether an official authority would actually take the time to peer through car windows and ticket as necessary. There were other cars parked there, seemingly with no visible permits. Nonetheless, I decided not to risk it. However, I did park and cross the highway to a path that I’m sure is stunningly gorgeous during the day. Not that the darkness denigrated its beauty in any way. A narrow, well-trodden path led through rampant wildflowers and shrubs onto the cusp of a jagged rocky cliff that stood a hundred feet or so above the ocean. Rough waterways were carved through the rocks, and had I had the sun on my side, I definitely would’ve tried to make my way down to the water. As it was, I was content with sitting, hugging my knees to my chest, and embracing the utter darkness. A vast celestial tapestry was splayed overhead, and the lapping of the waves pulled me into a trance. It was late enough that cars didn’t pass often, so there was mostly silence. I hovered in the void for a while, then decided to get back on the road.
For reasons I no longer remember and therefore cannot be very important, I breezed by Carmel and ended up in Monterey. I found a McD’s grabbed a Junior Chicken, and holed up on the second floor (that’s right: a two-story McD’s!). I did some Skyping, some blogging, and some route planning. It looked like there wasn’t much in the way of 24-hour Wal-Marts in the vicinity. The nearest one was a fair bit of driving away. But these parts were so isolated, the roads having so few turn-offs, that I saw few alternatives. The isolation would mean one of two things: either no one would bother me wherever I was, no matter what; or I would stick out like one of those really sore thumbs that sticks out, and I would undoubtedly run into trouble. Embracing caution yet again, I resolved to trek to the nearest Wal-Mart. The McD’s closed at 10pm (unusually early) so I cleared out about 15 minutes before that. A few blocks away, I found myself on a quiet, dark, rather accommodating residential street. Taking a lesson from my time in Williams and Ojai, I found an unassuming spot that wasn’t in plain view of any front windows and parked, thus narrowly averting yet another night spent beneath an offensive Wal-Mart flood light.