Subtitle: Nature flexes its mighty muscles against the weak and unprepared
Four adults and one child converged on the craggy cliffs of Big Sur to take a break from the manic, pulsing rhythm of the Bay Area. The name Big Sur actually refers to the region below Monterey that stretches about 90 miles south along Highway 1 and inland into the vast, sparsely populated wilderness. The term Big Sur does not refer to one particular park or specific community.
Highway 1 dates back to the early 1870s, when it was a wagon road that wound its way south from Monterey to Bixby Creek, the location of the large Works Progress Administration bridge known as the Bixby Canyon Bridge. California voters approved a construction bond to modernize the trail in 1919. Construction on the highway began in 1922 and it officially opened in the Big Sur region upon the completion of the Big Creek Bridge in 1937.
Big Sur is known for several far-flung attractions including the well known Nepenthe Restaurant (the former site of a vacation cabin owned by Orson Welles and actress wife Rita Hayworth), the Henry Miller Library (named after the artist and writer Henry Miller, a former Big Sur resident); the Esalen Institute (a hot spring spa and one of the early hotspots of the human potential movement); Bixby Canyon (where beat author Jack Kerouac spent time in a cabin while he was writing his novel “Big Sur” in 1960); and to the very southern fringe of the region, Hearst Castle (former home of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst). In 1965, the movie “The Sandpiper” (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and set in an idyllic Big Sur town) was released and attracted hoards of hippies to the region. Some of the old hippies are still there, but they own businesses that charge almost $5 for a gallon of gas, sell sandwiches or salads for upwards of $15 and stick it to travelers with exorbitant room rates and sky-high prices for goods and services.
As the organizer of this trip, I had some reservations about the weather during this very dicey late autumn weekend. The weather reports foretold of the expected rain and we definitely experienced it, but we didn’t anticipate the big fire that occurred on Highway 1 just three miles to the north of our campsite.
A few hours after Dave and I took control of our campsite - incidentally, one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever camped at - a driver lost control of his vehicle on the highway and careened off the road over the cliff and crashed into some brush below a stand of eucalyptus trees. The car burst into flames and caught the hillside afire and the steep cliffs sent the conflagration burning up through the trees and threatened the homes on the top of the ridge. Remarkably, the driver survived the crash as well as the fire it caused. I believe one home was consumed by fire.
As the blaze was burning its way up the cliff and threatening to jump the highway, two of our campers - John and son - were on their way down. They passed by the fire just minutes before firefighters closed the highway. Meanwhile back at the campsite at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Dave and I were “humping” our gear down the quarter-mile trail that led to the campsite. I didn’t realize that I was able to hike 12 miles in one weekend, but I know I can now! Soon after I watched one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life, John joined us at camp. He recounted his experience passing by the fire, but became silent when his imagination began flashing him images of four charred bodies - three adults and one child - baked into three squares of melted tent fabric. That may have been a possibility but after all the work of getting the gear down the hill, I chose the chance of becoming a crispy critter over the arduous task of humping it all back. We reluctantly helped him carry two loads of his crap back up the hill, waved him a sad farewell and returned to our ice chest, brimming with comestibles and exposure timers (bottles of Spaten beer).
Opting to use a safer briquette camp stove over the fire ring, we torched it up, barbecued a chicken and popped the tops of a couple of chilled night-exposure timers while we waited for the meat to cook. It took about two or three timers to get through the meal and get prepared for the first night’s shoot (the site of which was within walking distance of the ice chest that held the rest of the exposure timers). We managed to get our cameras set up, focused and started the fourth timer when our flashlights reflected brightly in four sets of glowing, little eyes. Our camp was being raided by a pack of bandit-masked raccoons. First, they brazenly waddled directly into our camp with the intent of picking the ice chest clean. We had to get up and chase them away. We returned to our interrupted first exposure and finished it up. (Since our exposure time was corrupted by the little thieves, we were forced into popping another exposure timer to finish the first shot.) Soon the little marauders were attacking us from another angle - they began the process of methodically flanking our camp and attacking it from different compass points, looking for the weakness in our perimeter that would give them access to the coveted ice chest. After all was done, we were attacked at least eight times during the night; and after the last camera shutter slammed shut at 3:30 a.m., we were forced to hump that much-coveted and heavy ice chest back up to the parking lot.
It was 4 a.m. before I stiffly limped back to my tent to try to get to sleep. After a fitful two hours, I was awakened by a cool mist sifting down on my face - Damn! It was raining! I forgot to put the rain fly on my tent because it was too dark to see after humping my panicked friend’s gear back to his car during the evacuation. Oh, crap! I mumbled. I slept a little while longer because the light rain seemed to slack off, but the sound of big drops caused me to sit bolt upright in my soggy tent about a half hour later. First the fire, then the raccoons, and now this! - Mother Nature was trying to drown us! Oh, hell! I grumbled as I humped my partially wet sleeping bag back up the trail. After every load, I took a little nap and carried the next bunch of camping crap up the steep path. Soon Dave crawled out of his tent and we made the final four hikes out of camp. I don’t know about him, but I was bone-tired and felt quite mangled by the little trail from Hell.
We stopped at the Ferndale Roadhouse on the way to the next camp site and had a moderately expensive bowl of chili to take the edge off the first night’s camping. Inside, the locals were discussing the previous day’s accident and fire. The proprietor was amazed that the man in the car walked away from the accident and told us about some other over-the-cliff milestone accidents. She said most of the drive-offs were made by northbound drivers - and usually there was at least one a year. In most cases, she said, they generally get distracted gawking at the ocean view, scrape the rocky side of the cliff and then overcompensate with their steering wheels and blow through the road-side barrier and into a swan dive. Then, she said, (stroking the peacefully sleeping tortoise shell cat nearby) there’s the suicides. One year, a distraught woman got in her car and decided to end it all by driving off the road to meet her end on the rocks hundreds of feet below. She made a successful launch off the road, but the car landed 200 feet below in a big patch of poison oak brush. Shaken, but undeterred in her mission, the woman made her way to the edge of the patch and launched off the cliff once more, only to land in another patch of poison oak another 100 feet down the cliff. Her suicide attempt failed and she was taken to a local hospital unhurt, but with scratches and a bad poison oak rash. She decided not to end her life since she received such a clear message from the cosmos to go on living her life.
We set up our camp for the second and third days at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, a high-density campground for tent campers and RVs There are a hundred or more campsites interspersed among clumps of huge coastal redwood trees. This was car camping at its best! We had ice chests full of food, camp chairs and a full menu including barbecued salmon and steaks. Dave and I were exhausted from the first night, so the night shoot was postponed until Saturday. Three others showed up and we enjoyed some good times by the fire pit and ate, relaxed and talked into the night. Our only hardship was the “Amazing Chuckling Man,” who was camping in the next camp site over. His constant laughing shook tiny birds out of their nests, created leaks in beaver dams, kept the camp free of raccoons and set our nerves all on end!
The next morning blossomed into a beautiful and sunny day and we took a short hike up to a picturesque waterfall. As we hiked, we made an inventory of sites to shoot that evening for the last night’s photo shoot. Soon after dinnertime, however, Mother Nature decided to put the kybosh on our night-shooting plans and the rain seemed to begin in earnest. We took a vote among the remaining three wet campers and cast our lots in favor of a cut-and-run strategy. Later that night I lie in my soft, warm and very dry bed feeling a bit cowardly - a coward, indeed, but a very cozy and contented one!
© 2007 S.R. Hinrichs