Return to Big Sur

by Heather Vandenengel


I think I’ve been putting off writing about Big Sur, a stretch of the California coast south of Monterey where the mountains and redwoods rise from and above the sea, because I haven’t been able to articulate what exactly it means to me, and why it means so much.

I was nervous to go back. The last (and only) time I had been in Big Sur was one of my most revered travel memories.

On a road trip from LA to San Francisco, my friend Maddie and I drove through it, along winding Highway 1. We stopped at the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a magical little cabin with books hanging from the ceiling and a fat old cat roaming around. We asked the caretaker what else we should do in Big Sur and he drew a map on a scrap of paper of Julia Pfeiffer Beach, the Big Sur River Inn and the Maiden Publick House. So we went to the windy beach, and then to the Maiden Publick House and I got a Rodenbach Grand Cru and it tasted like it should be drank in the woods. We asked a woman at the bar where we should watch the sun set and she said we should drive up this dirt road to the top of the hill, so we did. We were planning on going up to Monterey for the night, but it was already dark and we were tired so we got the last room at the Big Sur River Inn, just across the parking lot from the Publick House. We went back to the bar and drank California IPAs and played dice with (and lost money to) a group of rowdy locals and walked back to the room looking at the stars. I woke up in the morning and sat on the deck next to a redwood and read a book and drank coffee. On the way up north that morning, we stopped at the Bixby Canyon Bridge and I got out of the car and stood at the top of the hill looking at the bridge and realized that in a photo I had of my father when he was about my age, he was standing in this very spot and I had never realized it was this bridge until just now.

It was with all that in mind that I went back to Big Sur with my friend Courtney, for a weekend of camping in the woods and running the Big Sur Half Marathon (which is actually in Monterey). I took a bus from Santa Barbara and met her in Salinas, where we got incredible burritos and churros from the Mexican grocery store around the corner from the Amtrak station. We camped in the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where we found out upon entry that no campfires were allowed on site because of the pesky drought. I believe we ate apples, avocados and chips and I definitely ate an ashy hot dog we tried to cook with a lighter.

The motto of Big Sur is Do Nothing, which we did to the best of our abilities. We drove, stopped, took photos, drank coffee, strung up hammocks and watched a pod of dolphins swim by. We revisited the Maiden Publick House (no Rodenbach Grand Cru, but there was a dog and a guy playing guitar in a truck bed and an old man making paper airplanes at the bar), watched the sun set and talked about how many times a year you take the time to sit and actually watch it set or rise, walked around the dark campground and went to bed at 8 p.m. We woke up the next morning at 4 a.m. or something crazy like that, drove through Big Sur and over the Bixby Canyon Bridge in darkness and watched the sun rise over Monterey Bay from the starting line.

I still can’t quite articulate why I love Big Sur so much, besides the obvious: something about the intersection of mountains, crashing waves and big trees. I think it also has to do with a growing frustration with the energy we devote to minutiae as the days slip away. (How many days will you go without seeing, actually seeing, the sun set?) And maybe that Big Sur once planted something in me about wanting something bigger, even if I’m still not sure what that is.