Visiting Big Sur - the Waking Dream

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Only one road can take you there — Highway 1. It’s a day-tripper’s dream land and a local’s privilege to live there. Every pair of eyes yearns to see it — the threatening yet inviting, rugged coastline with waves that crash with contrast and balance. But even the most exquisite places aren’t tailored perfectly. If the wrong thread is tugged too hard, it all falls apart. It’s mysterious and mystical. It’s Big Sur.

I visited Big Sur for the first time during summer 2015. I wanted to take my past lover, Mason McDaniels, on a surprise trip for his birthday. He told me no one had ever given him a gift so special. After we arrived, I realized it was also the best gift I could give myself.

We departed from San Diego and drove north to Interstate 101, which runs parallel to Highway 1. Travelers have the option to drive along the coast in exchange for a few extra hours.

We spent our first night in a remote area of the Los Padres National Forest, far from the coast. The next morning, we continued north past Big Sur to Highway 68, which connects travelers from Interstate 101 to Highway 1. Then, we descended south into the wonderland I had only visited in my dreams. 

 We swerved left, hugging large, hilly grasslands with various plants, redwood giants and oak and evergreen trees. Then we swerved right, nearly floating hundreds of feet above the bluest of waters and the most intense surf I’ve seen. I saw cows smile for the first time, as they lay peacefully on the hillsides with their hides reflecting sparkling beams of sunlight. I felt high off my surroundings — there was no coming down.

After we settled at our campsite about 8 miles inland of the Ventana Wilderness, we set out to be tourists. Our first stop was Bixby Bridge — a landmark constructed in 1932 that spans across Bixby Creek Canyon. The word was out. Mason and I were among nearly 50 tourists. People of all ages and ethnicities gathered in one place to observe and capture what stood in front of us.

Visitation rates in Big Sur have increased by 40 percent each year for the past 3 years, says Tanner Connolley, an agent at the Big Sur Station. When Highway 1 was completed in 1937, after 8 years and $8 million, the area’s popularity began to rise. But today’s attention rate is the highest it’s ever been. Connolley suggests social media has had an impact. Suddenly, a collection of pixels has an inspirational effect, motivating humans to see it for themselves.

Even though Big Sur’s small economy partly depends on its visitors, humans tend leave their trace.  According to The Natural History of Big Sur, by Paul Henson and Donald J. Usner, nearly 3 million people drive along Highway 1 each year. Visitors usually stay for more than a day, whether it be at a lodge, in a campground or in the backcountry. The grounds are compacted from overuse and threaten the health of trees. Human feces have polluted many of the coastal streams, including the Arroyo Seco, Big Sur River and Salmon Creek.

Big Sur

 

We continued south after Bixby Bridge. I noticed masses of land fenced off with scattered “No Trespassing” signs and secluded beaches. No yellow umbrellas, no polka-dot bikinis, no blonde-haired surfers, just waves kissing the untouched sand.

The majority of the fenced off portions of land are privately owned for purposes such as ranching, not preservation, says Connolley. However, Monterey County and Big Sur locals strive to keep it that way as visitation rates continue to increase each year.

But even without recreational effects, ranching has an undesirable impact on Big Sur’s natural environment. Grazing cattle above Highway 1 create terraces and gullies in the hillsides, where soil compacts and accelerates erosion, say Henson and Usner. Heavy rainfall deepens and widens the channels, which, in turn, can cause landslides and slips.

Restricting access to certain beaches and coastal areas is for environmental protection, creating a marine sanctuary for southern sea otters, sea lions, seals and gray and humpback whales. These mammals, as well as intertidal plants, animals and shorebirds are able to live freely in their habitat.

In addition to environmental protection, public safety is a concern. Big Sur is home to steep, unpredictable cliffs. Henson and Usner say nearly 8,000 waves crash along the coast, causing rocks and boulders to shed. Landslides and faults are also common events. Even if access was granted, it would be tricky and people would most likely slip and fall, says Andrew Madsen, public affairs officer at the Los Padres National Forest.

 

Our next stop was Partington Cove, located in Julia Pfeiffer-Burns State Park. Henson and Usner say that local legend believes the cove was used in the 1920s to export moonshine from distilleries in the Partington area.

We walked about half a mile down steep switchbacks, crossed a manmade bridge and entered a dim tunnel that was carved into the mountain. We were graced by the sight of a small, secluded enclave beneath the walkway. It was crafted by the ocean at the base of the mountain allowing turquoise waves to vigorously unfold without disturbance. I watched the tangled kelp forests swirl beneath the surface and pondered their significance.

Kelp forests are precious and play a lead role in Big Sur’s rich marine system. The kelp creates a safe haven for the southern sea otters, says Connolley. The docile creatures rest their heads and raise their young within these forests. 

Once older kelp fronds break off, they either wash up onto shore or drift to the bottom of the ocean providing organisms, such as starfish and prawns, with fresh nutrients.

Big Sur

 

Also in Julia Pfeiffer-Burns State Park, south of Partington Cove, is McWay Falls — our third stop and a focal point for tourists. This 80-foot, spring-fed waterfall shoots out through a fault line in a mountain between hard Salinian rocks and softer conglomerate rock, say Henson and Usner. It free falls year around onto the shore below, where access is restricted. Observers can watch from the highway, or walk 0.3 miles to an overlook lined with lush, coastal scrub. Access or none, this enchanting sight kept every set of eyes around for some time, mine included.

The McWay Canyon area was originally settled by Christopher McWay in 1887, says Henson and Usner. Over time, properties were built and experienced a series of owners. In 1961, property owners and married couple, Lathrop and Helen Brown deeded their properties to the state park system, after 37 years of ownership. Throughout those years, Brown befriended Big Sur native Julia Pfeiffer-Burns. So taken by her “character and spirit,” Brown insisted the park be dedicated to “a true pioneer.”

 

As usual, locals contrast tourists. Connolley has resided in Big Sur for the past year. Sure, he isn’t a native, but he uses Highway 1 to get groceries — not sightsee. He says it’s a privilege to live in a remarkable area, but experiences the same frustrations as other locals do. Together, they fear for the future of Big Sur. “People tend not to respect it in the way that they should,” he says. “To come all the way across the world to see such a place, I just don’t understand why anyone would treat it that way — meaning trashing the area.”

Although I was a visitor in unfamiliar territory, Big Sur stole my heart. I left with a craving — a craving to better understanding the environment that keeps me breathing and how I can repay it. It’s human nature for me to thirst for places like Big Sur, but vital to not overindulge and infringe on the climate.

For some, Big Sur is home. For others, Big Sur is an adventure. And for most, Big Sur is only a place he or she can visit in their dreams.