BIG SUR, Calif. -- If the Western United States is often called Big Sky Country, this part of California must be Big Sea Country.
Here, the Santa Lucia Mountains rise an average of 3,000 feet within less than 3 miles of the ocean, and some peaks soar to nearly 6,000 feet. Deep ravines pierce the face of the mountain range and plunge almost perpendicularly into the sea. Looking out from Highway 1, the dramatic ribbon of a road that clings to this precipitous coast, what you see is the immensity of the Pacific, hundreds of miles of water. It's a liquid panorama.
Big Sur has the boldest and most compact shoreline in California. I know from having grown up in this state that much of it can feel like La-La Land, as it's sometimes called, where the balmy climate lulls one into a detached, soporific state. In Big Sur, however, you know you are amid the elements, and if nature here is grand and inspiring, it also can be fearsome.
Along this wild and ragged coast, the ocean crashes against the cliffs with a savage beauty. Traveling over the section of Highway 1 that passes through Big Sur, you may feel that one wrong turn will send you tumbling into the nearly shoreless sea below. The road itself, which was blasted into the mountainsides, is often precarious.
While I visited with a friend in December, a rock slide closed part of Highway 1 for a day, and mudslides made several roads impassable. This wasn't at all unusual, according to Frank Pinney, who is known informally as the Mayor of Big Sur and also heads its emergency relief system.
Falling debris routinely clogs the highway, and portions of it wash away several times a year, Pinney said. During one torrential downpour in 1998, Highway 1 fell into the sea at about 20 places, closing the road for three months. The only ways in or out of Big Sur were by horse or helicopter.
Locals don't seem to mind the periodic isolation.
"I love it when the road closes. It's my time for myself," said Teresa Bradford, who owns the Heartbeat gift shop.
"I finally get time to read, and be cozy with my neighbors," said Magnis Toren, who works behind the counter at the Henry Miller Memorial Library.
Clearly, it takes a certain kind of spirit to thrive here, one that enjoys adventure and doesn't mind the perils of living on what author and historian Augusta Fink described as "land with the contours of a gabled roof." For years the terrain was hardly inhabited. It could have been called Big Empty.
In 1769, the area was claimed by Spaniards who named it "El Pais Grande del Sur," the Big Country to the South, because it was south of their mission in Monterey. They never tried to occupy it, though, and although a few Native Americans are known to have enjoyed its hot ssulfur springs, most of them lived in the broad and fertile Salinas Valley on the other side of the Santa Lucia Mountains and rarely crossed to the coast.
In the 1850s, a few Yankee fur traders, ranchers, and homesteaders settled in the area, followed by miners looking for gold. A small tanbark industry developed, making tannic acid. Lumberers felled some redwoods, and a little limekiln operation produced bricks. But the coast was treacherous to logging steamers and, according to Fink, the early wagon road "was so steep and narrow that, in some spots, small wagons had to be unhitched and held over the side of the cliff to let larger vehicles pass."
The area did not develop in a serious way until after 1937, when the completion of Highway 1 finally made Big Sur more accessible. Then, some ranches and rustic lodges opened their doors to visitors; artists, writers, and filmmakers began to find their way here; and gradually, the area developed a reputation as a world-class tourist destination.
Despite this attention, the scarcity of flat land and the difficulties of building on these slopes have kept the area sparsely settled. Census estimates put the population of Big Sur at less than 1,000, and dropping. With real estate prices skyrocketing and 84 percent of the 255,000 acres in the planning area protected from development, most service workers must commute from neighboring towns and few young people can move in. Some locals worry that their community's vitality may be suffering.
Nonetheless, Big Sur remains a landscape full of unspoiled beauty. It still is a kind of counterculture magnet, although less so than 30 or 40 years ago, when youthful hippies and other seekers thronged to places like the Esalen Institute for nude baths and seminars in self-awareness. Today, the hippies are older and likely to own property here, Esalen is more mainstream and expensive, and locals are often wealthy retirees or second-home dwellers. The area boasts several exclusive retreats, such as the Post Ranch Inn and the Ventana Inn and Spa, with prices as steep as the hillsides.
Still, with a little effort and advance booking, you can find a housekeeping cabin in the woods -- and then drop in on Esalen or one of the other resorts for a meal or a massage, to enjoy their ambience in a more affordable way.
We stayed in one of three charming cabins available through a firm called Big Sur Retreats. For about $200 a day, it had a kitchen quixotically equipped with lots of antique gadgets and also some modern ones, as well as a refrigerator and stove, a fireplace, an outdoor shower and hot tub, and a large deck with a barbecue grill and a lovely mountain view. Other proprietors offering housekeeping cabins or cottages include the Ripplewood Resort and the Big Sur Lodge.
One warning: Big Sur doesn't have much in the way of staples. A couple of small stores are minimally stocked and pricey. Budget-minded tourists may prefer to get groceries and fuel in Monterey or Cambria. To me, the savings and convenience of having our own self-sufficient cabin was worth the extra effort. I could have sat for a long time lounging on the deck or gazing at the stars from the hot tub.
It would be a shame, though, to miss the opportunity to eat at the Post Ranch Inn, where sun and sea shimmer through the glass walls of its elegant restaurant, Sierra Mar, and lunch, at least, is affordable.
Also, the outdoor patio bar at Nepenthe offers one of the best views anywhere on this coast, plus decent food not exorbitantly priced. This restaurant, which translates from the Greek as "a place to lose one's sorrows," is a renovated cabin once owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Its setting, amid mossy oaks and pines on a bluff overlooking the sea, is magical. We sipped a local wine, nibbled grilled ham and marinated artichokes, and watched whales migrating.
Always in Big Sur, scenery is the star. Another way to experience it is by hiking to the beaches or along the cliffs.
At Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, a gentle walk, accessible even by those who have difficulty walking, leads through a tunnel under the highway to a stellar little pine-dotted cove. Here the water is a surprising turquoise hue and a waterfall flows onto the beach and into the sea. At the popular Pfeiffer Beach, waves rush through sea caves and arching holes in rocks on a wide, sandy shore. The Andrew Molera State Park offers a network of scenic trails through a meadow, by a lagoon, atop bluffs, and along the Big Sur River, which empties here into the ocean.
Perhaps the most wonderful hiking area of all is slightly north of Big Sur at the Point Lobos State Reserve, which has been called "the crown jewel" of California's state park system. Its rugged headland juts out into fierce seas, you can watch sea lions and seals playing on the rocks, and a stunning, 0.8-mile loop passes through a stand of Monterey cypresses.
Locals also recommend a weekend tour of the Point Sur Lighthouse, which sits on an enormous rounded rock, so large that it looks like an island, connected to the mainland by an eyebrow of sand and grass.
Yet you can do all this, and somehow the spirit of Big Sur remains elusive -- compelling but elusive. Something about this wild, forbidding setting calls to seekers looking for solitude, or an untamed sort of beauty, or perhaps something spiritual that's harder to define.
I felt this most strongly at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which is neither a memorial nor a library but a combination bookstore, gift shop, performance space, and whimsical sculpture garden in honor of the writer who lived nearby from 1944 to 1962. A sign at its entrance declares, "Everything about Big Sur, like Miller himself, is a bit mysterious, defiant of convention."
Judith Gaines is a freelance writer from Boston.