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Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.
Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.
Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.
Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.
Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.
Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.

BY M. SULLIVAN

BIG SUR, CALIFORNIA / NOV 2023

EDGE OF THE WORLD—TREE OF BOOKS—MAD LOVE—DARK WATCHERS—THE HOURGLASS

Hiking in the Summer, Big Sur, California

We drove until the road ended at Paul’s Slide. This was just south of Big Sur and there had been a mudslide that shut down miles and miles of Highway 1. Where we were headed had only recently opened back up. The lodge where we made plans to stay even told us that the construction crew may stop us and if they did we would have to show them our reservations to be let through.

Lucia Lodge, Lucia, Big Sur, California

We arrived near sundown. We sat in the bed of the truck and drank wine and waited for nightfall. When it was dark enough, we stood out in the parking lot and looked up at the night sky. The longer we looked the brighter the stars appeared. There were the constellations we couldn't name and one bright star that we finally settled on calling Jupiter. 

3500 BC

Native American tribes inhabit the region today known as Big Sur. Cut off by the mountains, the tribes were small. Estimates range from a few hundred to a thousand or so.

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1770

Spanish colonizers establish the California Missions. Native populations decline.

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1862

Homestead Act offers homesteaders 160 acres of free California land.

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1883

Michael Pfieffer, taking advantage of the Homestead Act, files a land patent claiming two swaths of land in Big Sur.

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1900

Sixty-one (61) registered (male) voters reside in Big Sur.

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1909

Three Native American families totally twenty-two (22) in number remain living in the area.

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1930

A Los Angeles developer offers John Pfieffer, son of Michael Pfieffer, $210,000 for his Big Sur estate. John refuses.

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1933

John Pfieffer sells 700 acres to the State of California for preservation.

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1937

Highway 1 opens.

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1945

WWII gasoline ration ends. Ban on “pleasure driving” ends.

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1972

California Coastal Commission established by Proposition 20 "to protect, conserve, restore, and enhance the environment of the California coastline.”

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1976

County census determines 17% of dwelling units in the area known as Big Sur are vacant second homes.

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1977

Big Sur population reaches 1,813 among 846 dwelling units.

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1978

In the December issue, the Big Sur Gazette notes that, “not too many years ago just a few thousand visitors came. There were 1 ½ million last year, and the number is expected to double before the end of the century.”

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1986

Big Sur Local Coastal Plan is adopted. The plan effectively bans development along Highway 1 including condominiums and hotels, and it severely limits the amount of permissible dwellings. On the passage of the plan, Monterey County Supervisor Karin Strasser Kauffman: "What this means is that when you look around you 100 years from now, Big Sur will be essentially unchanged from the way it looks today." Critics suggest the plan will turn Big Sur into a playground for the wealthy.

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2014

Tourist numbers reach upwards of 5 million. Local residents site social media for the dramatic influx.

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Where we slept was on the edge of the world.

Lucia Lodge, Lucia, Big Sur, California

In the morning we walked down the steep hill toward a small plateau and had cheap coffee above the clouds. 

 

This expanse: an emptiness. I mentioned that Henry Miller said he learned to breathe in Big Sur. We tried our best to do the same.  

 

Later we hiked inland toward the Santa Lucia Mountains. And in the afternoon we found a place to eat called Nepenthe, which is a Greek word that means “banishing pain / without sorrow.”

Miller's shack is now a memorial library. Books hung from the trees. That evening they were planning to celebrate one of Big Sur’s oldest residents: a woman who was turning 90-something, who likely still remembered Miller—remembered when this library was his “shack.”

 

The man running the library was playing the new Beatles song, “Now and Then”—the one produced using AI—on repeat.

Hiking in the Summer, Big Sur, California

The hills were dried and golden this time of year. Long after the rains had ended and long before they would start again. Some of the hills bared scars from last year’s downpours. 

 

I don’t know why exactly we landed on going to Big Sur. The name was enough I think. I hadn’t realized the literary history of the place until after the fact. It’s funny how a place can do that: live in a world beyond itself: become what you want it to be: the expectation preceding the manifestation. But, then, in the very act of becoming: it destroys itself also.

Henry Miller Memorial Library, Big Sur, California

2016

Median property price for the Big Sur region reaches six times the national average.

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2018

Current census estimates imply the population of the region has in fact decreased slightly to 1,728 residents.

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2023

The Original 1986 Big Sur land use plan faces a potential update to allow 235 additional dwelling units to be developed. Purportedly, a more development-friendly generation is on the rise.

Henry Miller’s Big Sur

“shack” cost $5 / mo. 

 

Our room on the edge

of the world cost 5000% more 

/ night,

which translates to

one night only.

Now and then now and then now and then now and then now and then now

Now and then now and then now and then now and then now and then now

Now and then now and then now and then now and then now and then now

Now and then now and then now and then now and then now and then now

Now and then now and then now and then now and then now and then now

Now and then now and then now and then now and then now and then now

Now and then now and then now and then now and then now and then now

Now and then now and then now and then now and then now and 

I picked up a copy of Mad Love by André Breton, the French surrealist. The cover shows an image that must have been pulled from a old platform diving reference chart. (Because we dive into / fall into love, head over heels?)

The next night we stayed a short walk away from the library, in a strange place called “Deetjen’s.” There is little information about the origins of such an unusual name. One source suggests it means "family of the people"—that is, it shares the “idea of community and one’s place within it.” We shared a twin bed in the cheapest room they had. 

 

Each room came with a lantern. We switched the lantern on and went to stroll around the grounds in the dark, under the stars. The redwoods seemed even bigger at night.

 

There is a little-known piece of California folklore called “the Dark Watchers.” Steinbeck wrote about them in a short story once. The Spanish called them Los Vigilantes Oscuros. They keep watch over the land here. Tall shadows that disappear if you approach them. 

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There is no technology in Deetjen’s—no connection to the outside world, no communication at all. It was like stepping back in time. Somehow this small nook beneath the redwoods, between the mountains and the coast, eludes the satellites, the signals, the radio waves and frequencies. We sat in bed reading, the incandescent glow warm against the delicate curtains and wallpaper. I was struck by the first page of Mad Love in which Breton talks about a kind of hallucination he has:

 

“Certain theatrical beings…habitually appear to me dressed in black…their faces escape me…At nightfall…I find them wandering speechless by the sea.”

 

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There is a book for guests to sign by the bed. We read some entries, wrote one ourselves. I don’t recall either anymore. 

Miller again: “One's destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.”

Near the close of Mad Love, Breton explains tenderly that, “what I have loved, whether I have kept it or not, I shall love forever.” This sentiment appears next to an image, by Man Ray, of an hourglass, the sand running.

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Man Ray photography, hourglass, Mad Love, Andre Breton
Seascape vista Big Sur, California

A stream of milk endlessly pouring from a glass breast (p.114)

Photograph by Man Ray.

© A.D.A.G.P., Paris

V.A.G.A., New York 1986

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EPILOGUE

I sat down to write something about Big Sur—leap day, 2024. A lot has already been written about Big Sur and I don’t believe I’ve said anything new. As I read about these things that happened here I came across an interview with Miller. At the time he was living in California despite his disdain for American culture. Speaking French in a thick Brooklyn accent, Miller says, “I don’t think I live in America. I live in my house where a few friends come to visit me. I’m satisfied." 

 

I wonder what the hourglass is running out on: the untouched land or our permission to see it.

Hiking in the Summer, Big Sur, California
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