Sketch of Big Sur: Highway 1 and the Henry Miller Memorial Library

“If we are always arriving and departing, it is also true that we are eternally anchored. One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.”

                                                      ― Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

Justine Leonhardt. “Big Sur”. 2006. JPEG.

As the sun began to turn up around the edges of the city, a beautiful orange ember glowing along the horizon, we rushed through the streets of San Francisco among the four lanes of traffic into the oblivion of pavement. Most of the cars going in the same direction alongside us were probably heading towards a sunless office cubicle, a part of the world that was submitted to, but there was something compelling in the view, an existence that was being rushed into full-throttle that appeared almost courageous in the unquestioned and early light.

Soon, the buildings of San Francisco faded into the distance and the colours of green and gold merged, the water snaking up beside the car as the multitude of trees pressed up against the freeway. The buildings of Silicon Valley began to appear, dotting the landscape with their familiar brand names like oversized garbage that momentarily littered the landscape, but they quickly fell back and blew away into the landscape falling away behind us. The hills were a surreal caricature come to life, vivid and brilliantly emerald, the downy grass that covered them swaying languidly as the car passed by. I held the camera up to my eye many times to try to take a picture, to capture something, but it was a futile quest; it was a landscape that could only be truly observed with the eye, too beautiful and incandescent to appear the same in a picture.

We were heading along California’s Highway 1 to Big Sur, where the dramatic precipices of the cliffs meet the sea. While Big Sur is enough on its own, the purpose of our trip was not just to see the sprawling, awe-inspiring wilds, but to visit the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a small cottage dedicated to the famed American writer which sits along the highway. The cabin where the library is located is a few miles away from the real spot where Miller lived from 1944-1962, but it is worlds away from the place we’ve come from, the innovation and industry of the Valley set against the fundamentals of nature that brought the writer to Big Sur from Greece.

It may be the pervasiveness of an ideal that entrances me when I think of California, but often names like Santa Monica and San Simeon seemed to be expelled from my mouth with sentiment, as though their formation is more difficult to execute than that of other cities in other states. The fascination with the state has waned in recent years, but there was a time I approached the border between Nevada and California with a sort of veneration, as though a different strain of life laid past that wind scalded line, beyond the garish casinos and within the desert whose flatness was reproached only by cacti and the hills. It could be fascination that drove Miller to Big Sur, an intoxication for the primitiveness of such a then-uninhabited place, but in the cliffs and sharp tides – the extremities that still exist – it is easy to see how his view coincided with such a place.

While the Big Sur coastline is dotted with resorts and spas, the historic Nepenthe cafe still sits where it did when Miller lived just above the restaurant. My friend and I sat on the patio as the glittering sea beyond seemed to anoint our visit, an eternity that stared back at us as we sat among the tangible facts of a temporal world, eating our lunch. Before heading back through Silicon Valley and into the mad rushes of San Francisco – and away from the kind of world Miller had praised – we pushed our feet into the sand in Santa Cruz, watching its brown sugar colour absorb the pressure of our foot until the imprint dissolved in the tide.


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