“It is not a peaceful environment to me at all. It’s a fighting environment, not like England or Wales where you feel the peace of centuries and centuries of people tilling the soil. It’s the most hostile place I’ve ever lived. Oh, not the people, of course, they are the least hostile, but the land just can’t be tamed – everything fights you – and for that we should be thankful. A lot of artists come to Big Sur with the intention of painting but the environment is so powerful that they can’t do it, so they sit around drinking and goofing off all day. I work six hours a day not looking at the landscape. If you look at the landscape, you’re done for.”
That’s artist Barbara Spring talking about living and working in Big Sur, taken from a book compiled by Big Sur inhabitant Judith Goodman, that glimpses into the lives of nineteen Big Sur women. I picked it up as a souvenir from Big Sur’s Phoenix shop and read it from front to back on the terrace of the beautifully tranquil Post Ranch Inn, where we stayed for one ridiculously lavish night (a night in a cheap skeezy motel in San Simeon beforehand was the apt antidote to the lap of luxury that was to come). I chickened out and did Big Sur – the “easy” way. Nothing about our inaugural trip to this beautiful stretch of coastline “fought” us. Everything we had encountered on our journey to and through the Big Sur region, from the kitschy Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo to the ridiculously ornate Hearst Castle in San Simeon to the endless bends and curves along Highway 1, where ocean, forest and mountains are at one with one another, had been a breeze. It was a much easier journey than we had anticipated, especially when you had combed through the scare-mongering reviews of the drive on Yelp and Trip Advisor. And of course, bathing in a luxurious infinity pool at Post Ranch, whilst looking out at the Pacific Ocean, is hardly hostile.
I’ll agree with one thing though. One look at the landscape and you will be done for. You glance at the ocean, look up again after a few moments and rising mist and changing sunlight will alter the perspective entirely. Breathe in and you’ll smell a unique amalgamation of pine, coastal plants and salty air. The best thing about the region is, despite the amount of visiting tourists, nowhere feels overly developed or commodified. There’s a respect for the natural surroundings everywhere you go as well as a prevailing aesthetic of sorts, that is derived from the literary figures and artists that have called this place home (Hunter S. Thompson, Henry Miller and Kaffe Fassett to name a few) and the culture of wellbeing expounded by the community of Esalen Insitute. Call it hippie dippie if you will. A few years ago, I would have chortled at the idea of a masseuse telling me that I need to let my body go and just “be”. That’s what increasing levels of stress and hectic work life does to you. I might have shaken it all off quickly in my twenties but right about now, trying to just “be” is exactly what I needed. Hence why Big Sur will now be a permanent part of my yearly escape to California. Like Joshua Tree last year, and like the women who have made Big Sur their home as described in Goodman’s book, I’ve been duly slayed by the land here. There’s something magically therapeutic in everything you see, smell and taste (if you eat locally, you won’t really go wrong). Trying to “do” Big Sur and check it off a list isn’t the right way of going about it. There’s a way of life here that needs to be fully embraced. Goodman’s afterword sums it right up. “I must be satisfied with what is here. I must love my life. Unless, I can stay flexible and willing to accommodate to its demands, the coast will sluff me off, as it has so many others, like so much crumbling earth. I know that I am only passing through this place.”
P.S. I’ve done my best to inject something akin to “style” into the photographs but as I’m on holiday, please allow me to lapse into “lifestyle” territory. The blog will be back to normal fashion-y service soon as we reach the tail of our trip.
Low key portraits of Alex and Phyllis Madonna, founder of the Madonna Inn
Glum in front of Nitt Witt Ridge because we arrived to find it had already closed
Antiques on Arlington in Cambria, where you’ll find an abundance of clip-on earrings, loud prints and amazing crockery
Side facade of Hearst Castle
Elephant seals chilling out in Piedras Biancas
View from Nepenthe restaurant
Liberty x Nike Air Rifts looking decidedly battered after Big Sur-ing all day in them
Kaffe Fassett, who grew up in Big Sur, leaves his bohemian mark on Phoenix Shop at Nepenthe
Picked up a copy of the wonderful Big Sur Women by Judith Goodman
Goodies from Big Sur Bakery – where everything is delicious and where cinnamon rolls collide with croissaints to make a croroll?
Wearing Warehouse dress and Christopher Kane sandals