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Born Again—and Again

One woman’s love letter to the rejuvenating power of Big Sur, which has always been a world apart—and now is literally so.

 

There were two of us in the car, driving north to San Francisco from a wedding in Ventura, and we weren’t expecting the fog. It wreathed the road in impenetrable but romantic gloom, turning the landscape into a heavy-lidded dream. We crept up Highway 1, unable to discern the continent’s edge, until we came upon a phoenix. That it happened to be a statue outside a restaurant’s parking lot was incidental; the better explanation was that it was another figment of the fugue state I seemed to have entered a few miles south.

Jeff parked and we got lunch at the restaurant, Nepenthe, but I couldn’t tell you what we ate. All I remember is that I finally saw Big Sur: The fog lifted as we gazed through the restaurant’s windows, revealing hills the color of a golden retriever and swirling ocean tides that seemed angry at being viewed by human eyes.

Jeff and I were both drawn to ornery beauty—it was one of many things we’d had in common when we’d met a few years earlier in Alabama. We were postcollegiate interns at a publishing company where neither of us fit in: Jeff was gay and pierced, and I didn’t own a twinset. But we fit each other, and now, as we drove from hotel to motel in the vain hope of finding a room, the desk clerks assumed we were a couple. We didn’t correct them; Jeff was too cool to care, and anyway, who needed to know? I wasn’t even sure where I was, exactly—was Big Sur a town? a vaguely demarcated stretch of coastline? some dharma bum state of mind?—but I knew that someday, I would come back.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can’t go back, at least not for the near future. In February, winter rains cracked a support column in the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, cleaving Big Sur in two and cutting it off from the rest of California. So I find myself trying to revisit it in my memories, which you could charitably describe as loaded.

I returned to Big Sur five years after my first trip, alone in the ashes of a breakup and armed with the kind of determination to write a New Life Chapter that drives people straight through their navels and into the woods. In my case, it drove me from Brooklyn to Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. I’d found it on the Internet while hunting for a post-breakup apartment and was immediately enthralled: It looked like the kind of enchanted bohemian hideaway where you’d find Stevie Nicks weaving a dream catcher, or Henry Miller stripping women with his eyes. Once I arrived there, I understood why I’d started plotting a return to Big Sur almost as soon as my boyfriend of three years and I had decided to part ways. It was everything I felt: wild, isolated, vulnerable, and teetering on the edge of something vast and unknown.

It was also where I found Deetjen’s guest books. The inn is justifiably famous for these registries, which contain a universe within an already parallel world. Roughly 99 percent of their entries are written by people at the end or beginning of something—love affairs and marriages, but also vacations, illnesses, and middle age. They’re by and for souls in flux, so full of desire and regret that they practically vibrate. My single room had no television, cell service, or walls thick enough to obscure the sounds of people having sex down the hall, but I didn’t care; I was content to sit on my twin bed and luxuriate in other people’s miseries, triumphs, and ambiguities. The entries made me feel alternately voyeuristic, humbled, and smug, but, more than anything, I felt less alone, and relieved that my sadness was nothing special.

I spent most of the visit buried in the books, but I surfaced late one night to drive to Esalen, which opens its hot springs to the public between 1 and 3 a.m. I sat in a pool by myself, oblivious to the naked strangers. The only sound was the ocean slamming itself against the rocks hundreds of feet below; above me, stars clotted the night sky. With apologies to my secular Jewish upbringing, the two hours I sat in that pool were the closest I’ve ever come to spiritual transcendence.

It took five more years for me to return, this time with Tim. We’d been going out for four years, and as we sat in one of Esalen’s bathtubs, he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. I heard myself say “yes” right as my gut said “umm”; he was the love of my life, but there were issues. There was his late-stage cystic fibrosis and crushing debt; there was my martyr complex and willingness to loan him $20,000 I knew I’d never get back. But it was 2 a.m. in Big Sur and every last star was out, and later that day we opened one of Deetjen’s guest books and wrote hopeful, heartfelt words.

We broke up almost a year later, just in time for Tim to get a double lung transplant. We stayed together through the six months of his recovery, and then I loaded up a rental car and drove from New York to San Francisco. I suppose you could say it was grief that made me do it, or the kind of existential horror that comes with being 36 and suddenly at loose, unraveling ends. As New York receded behind me, I felt like the living embodiment of a Deetjen’s guest book, which is to say that I felt like shit, but also cautiously hopeful.

I waited for almost a year after that to go back to Big Sur—there was too much Tim there, and too much of who I had been and no longer wanted to be. When I did return, it was with John, a date who had become a friend and then a friend with benefits before turning back into a friend. It was a confusing arrangement, made more so by the fact that in the two weeks leading up to our long-planned trip, I’d gone on a first, second, and third date with someone else I liked.

Big Sur was generous that weekend: It gave freely of its beauty and silence, but not of Esalen’s baths—they were booked, which more or less saved me from myself. Unable to wallow in past sorrow, I instead looked forward, writing a long entry in a guest book in Deetjen’s Van Gogh room, where John and I slept chastely in twin beds, and taking furtive pillow selfies for this new guy I seemed to be dating. By the time I came back to Big Sur the following year, the new guy had become Ned, my boyfriend. It was an imperfect trip: Deetjen’s was booked and we had to stay in Cambria, an hour-long drive from Esalen. But I told myself it was no big deal: We could always come back.

Now, of course, we can’t, at least not anytime soon. So I sit here in San Francisco, at a loss. I donated money to the Big Sur Relief Fund and to Deetjen’s, which was severely damaged by the storms and will remain mostly closed for the next several months. But I wish I could do more. Big Sur has always given me what I needed exactly when I needed it, without asking for anything in return. But it’s as fragile as any of us who have tried to make sense of our lives in a hotel guest book. Now it is asking for time to rest and heal. So perhaps, as with any relationship, the best thing I can do is stop taking it for granted. One day I will go back to Big Sur, and whether I’m at a beginning, a middle, or an end, I will be grateful for whatever it will give me.

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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