The road to Big Sur is a narrow, winding one, with the Pacific Ocean on one side, spread out like blue glass, and a mountainside of redwood trees on the other.
The area spans 90 miles of the Central Coast, along Highway 1. Los Angeles is 300 miles south. San Francisco is 150 miles north. There are no train stations or airports nearby. Cell phone reception is limited. Gas and lodging are pricey.
When you're there, though, Big Sur's isolated beauty is staggering. Fog settles into the steep flank of the Santa Lucia Mountains, above beaches lined with tide pools and massive rock formations. Guest houses are surrounded by thick walls of green foliage, and not much else.
Venerated in books by late authors Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, it's no wonder then that Big Sur continues to be a haven for writers, artists and musicians such as Alanis Morissette and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, all inspired by a hybrid landscape of mountains, beaches, birds and sea, plus bohemian inns and ultra-private homes.
While Big Sur's influence on the arts has been turning up in poems, books and songs in American popular culture for nearly a century, its human history goes back much farther than that. Earliest inhabitants included the Native American Esselen tribe, followed by pioneers who settled the area in the late 19th century.
In the 1920s, American poet Robinson Jeffers meditated about Big Sur's "wine-hearted solitude, our mother the wilderness" in poems like "Bixby's Landing," about a stretch of land that became part of Highway 1 and the towering Bixby Bridge 13 miles south of Carmel. (Part of the highway near that bridge collapsed due to heavy rains this past spring, followed by a landslide nearby; the roadway reopened recently.)
Another poem by Jeffers, "The Beaks of Eagles," later inspired a Beach Boys' song on their 1970s album "Holland." In the early '70s, Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine even built a recording studio, Red Barn, a 10-minute walk from Pfeiffer Beach, a picturesque oceanside expanse in the middle of Big Sur covered in lavender-tinted sand.
Among literary figures, Miller probably has the strongest association with the area. "Big Sur has a climate all its own and a character all its own," he wrote in his 1957 autobiographical book "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch." "It is a region where extremes meet, a region where one is always conscious of weather, of space, of grandeur, and of eloquent silence."
Miller, famed for his explicit novel "Tropic of Cancer," lived and worked in Big Sur between 1944 and 1962, drawn to the stretch of coast's idyllic setting and a revolving cadre of creative, kind, hard-working residents.
Persuaded to move there by Greek artist Jean Varda, Miller initially stayed as a house guest of novelist Lynda Sargent at a log cabin built by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in the mid '40s with a grand coastal view of southern Monterey County. Later owners Lolly and Bill Fassett founded the open-air Nepenthe restaurant on the site in 1949. Writers, hippies and celebrities, from Clint Eastwood and Kim Novak to Man Ray and Dylan Thomas, flocked there. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton shot a dancing scene for their film "The Sandpiper" at the restaurant in 1963. Nepenthe remains a popular tourist spot.
Miller's longtime Partington Ridge property 14 miles south of the Big Sur post office still exists, overlooking the ocean. Miller painted and wrote there, entertaining visitors ranging from young misfit fans of his work to established artists.
Beat Generation poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti also had a cabin in Big Sur, in the wilderness of Bixby Canyon. Kerouac, one of the Beats' most important writers, stayed in that cabin for a time, and wrote about it in his 1962 book "Big Sur," ranting as fictional alter-ego Jack Duluoz about his own real-life loneliness and alcohol-fueled delirium.
For Kerouac, the ocean became dangerous, and bridges, places of potential death. "I gulp to wonder why it has the reputation of being beautiful above and beyond its fearfulness, . those vistas when you drive the coast highway on a sunny day opening up the eye for miles of horrible washing sawing," Kerouac wrote.
Kerouac's book inspired the 2009 documentary "One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur" and its beautiful, melody-filled soundtrack by Jay Farrar of alt-country band Son Volt and Ben Gibbard of pop-rock group Death Cab for Cutie. A feature-length adaptation of Kerouac's book, from writer-director Michael Polish ("Twin Falls Idaho") and costarring Kate Bosworth, also recently wrapped filming.
Another entity that connects contemporary artists to an earlier generation is the Henry Miller Memorial Library next to Highway 1, founded by a friend of Miller's a year after he died in 1981. A wooden sign with yellow lettering leads to a lush, tree-lined outdoor performance space that has hosted the likes of Patti Smith, Arcade Fire and Phillip Glass. Shows are intimate, but also chilly, so bring a jacket.
"We have a precision here that's perfect. It's a humble little cabin, but it's located within this magnificent landscape," said Magnus Toren, the library's executive director since 1993. "Male and female artists have come and testified to me about being inspired by Henry's message that they received at 18, 19, 21. They almost kiss the floor when they come in."
Bearded frontman Robin Pecknold of on-the-rise indie band the Fleet Foxes wrote part of the band's new album "Helplessness Blues" at Toren's guest house. Other guest houses dotting the Big Sur hillside regularly host musicians like him. But the area also attracts plenty of regular tourists and other vacationers to historic inns such as the rustic Deetjens, south of the library, and the famed spiritual retreat site the Esalen Institute. More than a dozen galleries featuring local artists are nearby.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers mentioned Big Sur in their 2000 surf-and-sky-loving single "Road Trippin'" and Morissette sang about Big Sur on the tune "Torch" from her 2008 album "Flavors of Entanglement." Morissette also offered a simple but perfect tribute to Big Sur last fall on Twitter, when she posted a beachy picture of herself pregnant, staring off into the waves.
She wrote, simply, "big sur. my favorite place - am."
If You Go...
BIG SUR CHAMBER OF COMMERCE: http://www.bigsurcalifornia.org/
HENRY MILLER MEMORIAL LIBRARY: Highway 1, Big Sur; http://www.henrymiller.org/ or 831-667-2574. Events held here include workshops, performances, readings, film screenings.
NEPENTHE RESTAURANT: 48510 Highway 1, Big Sur; http://www.nepenthebigsur.com/ or 831-667-2345. Dinner entrees, $14-$39. Open for lunch and dinner. Cafe Kevah serves brunch, coffee and pastries beginning at 9 a.m. daily.
DEETJENS BIG SUR INN: 48865 Highway 1, Big Sur; http://www.deetjens.com/ or 831-667-2377. Rates range from $90-$250.
ESALEN INSTITUTE: 55000 Highway 1, Big Sur; http://www.esalen.org/ or 888-837-2536. Retreat center offering overnight stays, hot tubs, workshops and other activities.