Big Sur, California.
It’s funny how inspiration appears out of nowhere.
I once wrote a narrative poem called Blue Heaven while sitting at Nepenthe restaurant in Big Sur. Big Sur has always sung to my soul and especially back in my 40s and 50s. It’s where I went as I made the decision to divorce my then-husband. It was where I went on my first date with the man to whom I would become engaged. And it’s where I’ve been many times all by myself or with good girlfriends, just to enjoy the staggering, awesome beauty of the place. I might have been there 150 times over the years, maybe more.
But let’s get in the time machine. It was back in 1997, my birthday. I was sitting in Tampa, where I lived at that time, painfully homesick for California. So on the spur of the moment, I booked a flight and 24 hours later I was sitting in front of the fireplace at Nepenthe writing that poem.
And here it is, below. It’s not a perfect narrative poem or even a good one. I’ve edited it many times since. But this is the original, raw, just as it came off my fingertips and what I love about it is that I can feel the emotion in every word.
Sometimes, you really don’t want perfection, know what I mean?
There’s a feeling you get when you see the asphalt ahead and the white line speeds by with music blaring and wind in your face, the green green mountains and you know you’re headed to paradise there’s no doubt about that
On the other side of that hill is the bluest ocean ever, even if there’s fog
Every so often the cars slow and then stop briefly and you know you’re passing the Camden Avenue on-ramp to Highway 17, and people from Los Gatos are getting on, heading for their own slice of paradise maybe to have lunch or play golf or to brown on the beach dodging frisbees while firm tanned bodies hit volleyballs over a net
You’re on 17 heading up and around the foothills of the Coast Range in your narrow lane winding round the switchbacks on automatic pilot You could close your eyes and your body would meld with the car and predict every curve and nuance of the road and get you there unscathed
Passing Redwood Estates you remember Kevin saying “It takes me 11 minutes to get to your house” and that was the year he moved out and the hills burned and his brother brought all his frozen game and fish down to put in your freezer in Los Gatos when the power went off on Black Rd
In almost a blink of an eye you feel the air cool and you know you’re at the summit where Steve Wozniak has a house and so does Barry Harrington although he sold his stock quit and moved to the gold country to grow grapes and make wine leaving his wife and daughter in the big house with its own microclimates a comment he made once that sent you into paroxysms of laughter a comment oh-so-Barry but still he was hard to hate even if working for him was frustrating
On the down side of the hill are the curves you first learned about on radio traffic reports — like Big Moody – curves that take lives every week, or so it seemed when you lived there and hearing it on the radio was just part of life and sitting in your car on 17 in the hot summer sun waiting for the ambulance to come was a normal part of a weekend at the beach
Coming up on Scotts Valley you see the fog hanging in the distance and you know the sun will disappear and the air will chill at least until Monterey Passing the flags at the front gates of technology god Seagate and the blue windows of Borland whose CEO once cut a CD and gave it away to customers it all feels so familiar and yet foreign now that you’ve been gone more than a year learning that the world doesn’t begin and end here for everyone but you are learning that it does begin and end here for you
Pushing past you know again the traffic will jam up for a moment as everyone moves on to Highway 1 and waiting is just fine no hurry although this time the wait is shorter than some you’ve sat through anxious to get to Capitola sit on the bench by the small beach and watch the sun set after work drinking chai from Mr Ts
Past Freedom Blvd you smell the soil before you see the farms artichokes strawberries corn broccoli The familiar weather-worn signs telling you fruit vegetables capuccino and espresso ahead and some new ones appeared in your absence Things always change even though you think they should freeze in time your time
On to Moss Landing you see the tiny harbor restaurant where you took Mom and Dad just a few years ago a surprisingly formal dining room with lovely crisp linens you wonder who would even have known that from the exterior and then the big PG&E plant near the artichoke farm where you were part of a raiding team including kids who stopped the big Dodge Ram and stole artichokes which you all cooked for dinner while vacationing in that condo complex whose name eludes you now but where the sun truly never shone not once in the week Was it Monterey Dunes? You were sleeping with your girlfriend’s younger brother just for fun and it was
That was a time when the adventures came fast and furious so many they filled you up and there was no time to think
You see the pink stucco of the Whole Enchilada and the sign that says Sunday Jazz and remember meeting Heath there on his motorcycle to go on to Salinas and you wonder if you were fucking out of your mind to have had that weekend and you know you were and maybe you still are
When the dunes appear your heart beats a little faster because your first real view of Monterey Bay at Marina and Sand City is coming and if you hit it right you know the sun will shine on the most blue of waters a cross between turquoise and tourmaline and sapphire and the sand curves and the road curves and it’s all too picture perfect and it never fails to take your breath away
and there it is and you scream aloud with the beauty of it and the joy of being able to live it
The signs come up for Carmel and Pebble Beach and you remember that meeting you planned at Spanish Bay when the storm came up after the bagpiper played and the lights went out and everyone all 200 of your group tried to go to dinner by feeling their way along the walls of the pitch black hotel sometimes running their hands over the face of another ghostly figure who’d opened the door in the dark to slide along the wall himself and dinner was late and by candlelight and lantern and no one blinked an eye and that was one of the last times that Maxtor was fun but that was the first time you worked there and you laugh at the fact that you went back because you know damn well that you can never go back
The sun disappears again at Carmel but you don’t care the flowers and succulents grow sturdy and bright in the ocean air as if they drew energy from the wet clouds to manufacture chlorophyll And then you smell the burning wood and are just fine even when you see the hordes of shopping tourists
Passing Rio Rd and the B of A where you closed your accounts after you moved to Florida and the movie theatre where you and Alan and Michele went one year when they came and you all stayed at the Highlands Inn and the Safeway which this trip you insist on calling Publix which means you’ve integrated at least that part of your Florida life
The divers are suiting up at Monastery Beach across the road from the Carmelite nunnery where you once spent a weekend doing a retreat for HIV+ women the only time you have lived in a nunnery and probably the only time you ever will The currents are treacherous and known for eating divers alive But then anything worth doing can eat you alive including life
Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) at ]Big Sur, California
Big Sur beckons as it always does and even though you have almost 30 miles to go you’re still excited because with Big Sur as with life half the beauty is in the journey
Although it’s almost as narrow as Amalfi Drive in Italy which scared the living shit out of you Hwy 1 never scares you you feel held and cradled between the mountain wall and the crashing ocean although the drop off is severe and you’d be killed if you went over Still you’ve done it so many times you fool with the radio and somehow the car god remembers the road for you and you have to give up on the radio because you can’t get a station consistently with the mountains even the scan button hisses and churns
You pass Rocky Point early and you know you won’t near your destination until you see the parks and the campgrounds and Big Sur Inn or is it Big River Inn you can’t remember The switchback trail leading up to the Ventana Wilderness stands out like a winding scar on the hill and you think about getting the beefiest manliest man you know and trekking into the wilderness because even being a feminist can’t protect you from marauding beasts in the wilderness but a manly man can face down a bear and live to talk about it where are the manly men today you wonder? no matter
In a heartbeat you see the sign for Nepenthe and you haven’t even time to slow down you veer off to the right like you’ve done dozens of times before and drive up to the narrow parking lot where you cram your car in among the others and climb up the steps to the top where the fire in the big outdoor pit is going and so are the outside heaters and all the doors are open to the inside
Sitting down you order a C&C cognac and cointreau and it comes heated and you cup your hands around it and sip to ward off the chill and you wonder if this is really blue heaven or if you’re simply a vagabond who can’t settle anywhere or if the game you’ve played for so long is cut and run and how the stakes are higher as each decade passes and you haven’t sunk roots
You ask the question one more time but you might as well be throwing I ching or laying out the tarot The answers are open to interpretation as they say and maybe the reason you haunt bookstores is to find the answers but it would take more than a lifetime to go through all the books even speed reading and so there must be another way that you just haven’t found and maybe you won’t and that thought is terrifying
A man and his mother, he in his 50s and she in at least her late 70s maybe older are lunching at the next table and you can feel him watching you and wondering and finally when you look directly at him he asks if you’re writing a book
And you say you don’t know exactly and describe Wednesday night and how it was your birthday and you were missing it so bad you knew you had to come and so you got a too expensive flight from Florida at the last minute and called work
and he says perhaps this will be a defining moment in your life
and you smile and then he says with passion
I can see your brain working and feel your energy I admire that you acted on your feeling
He gets up to leave with his mother and turns and smiles
You’ll never regret that you did this, he says. You won’t regret it.
You watch him walk away and you think maybe he’s an angel and God sent him to tell you that this is the moment everything will change