Saturday, May 23, 2009

Surtainly Magnificent

Yosemite had been an up-and-down experience. I hope as I look back on it I recall the majesty of the peaks and even the burning of my quads before the throngs of people and wildlife suppression techniques. Then again, I'm grateful for having seen the ugly side of things, and wouldn't have wanted a sugar-coated experience. Either way, it was only upon leaving the park on Saturday evening (May 16th) that we felt like we were getting a break from civilization. Weird.

Saturday night we stayed at an inn above a saloon in Coulterville, CA. Coulterville boasts the sort of old West, one-horse town aesthetic that tourist traps seek to replicate, but the boarded up businesses and sleepy feel to the town speak to its authenticity. It was a great place to recharge after Yosemite.

From there it was on to Santa Cruz, a town that is one part beach, one part forest and two parts awesome. It has beachfront for surfing (or learning how to surf...or simply carrying a board around town and winking at the ladies), mountains for hiking, and independent businesses for supporting. It's also known as one of the biking capitals of North America and has the best falafel I've ever tasted outside of Ottawa. Yeah, I think Santa Cruz and I will get along just fine. We were only there for a couple of days, but bookmarked the local Craigslist page before leaving, as of all the places we've visited thus far, it seems to be the front runner in the "Where are we going to live when we get home" sweepstakes.

South of Santa Cruz, past the ├╝ber-ritzy tourist destinations of Carmel and Pebble Beach lies Big Sur. More a region than a specific location, and perhaps more a state of mind than a region, Big Sur (a bastardized derivative of the Spanish "Big South") is 90 miles of rugged coastline where the Santa Lucia Mountains jump abruptly from the seething Pacific Ocean, with Coastal Highway One serving as a winding and arbitrary boundary between the two. Many great writers have called Big Sur home (or at least called it muse) and standing in between the mountains and the sea, it was not difficult to understand why.

Of all the artistic greats who spent time in Big Sur, novelist and painter Henry Miller is the one whose legacy is the most enduring. On Wednesday afternoon, May 20th, we wandered into the Henry Miller library set across the street from the ocean in a thicket of lush Pacific vegetation. The aesthetic of the building is more wooden cottage than library, and over and above any other purpose it is a modest bookstore, selling Big Sur-inspired works and other books that make you think. In addition to a bookstore, however, it is also used as a performance space, and we happened to stumble upon it on the day of an open mic. We spent a short time at the library in the afternoon, with plans to return that evening for the open mic.

After some time back at our campsite - a beauty walk-in site at Andrew Molera State Park - we bundled up for the long night ahead and drove back to the library for the open mic. Seeking to get off the tourist track and spend time engaging in bona fide local activities is something I always endeavour to do while traveling, and to that end the open mic didn't disappoint. We arrived to find a smattering of locals sitting on the sprawling deck to the right of the main library building, shielded from the wind by trees yet fully exposed to the stars, liberally sharing mugs of coffee, cans of beer, pipes of combustibles and anything else that could be passed to your neighbour.

It was a pleasure to spend a few hours listening to locals sing and strum while we sat beside them, with songs about Jesus and love mixed in with the occasional poem or Sublime cover. When the music they played over the speakers in between performers included Leonard Cohen telling Marianne "I used to think I was some kind of gypsy boy/Before I let you take me home," I couldn't help but wonder if those are words I'll be singing to Big Sur before my time out West is done. We departed the open mic when it concluded at 11:00, but the night was far from over.

There is still much geologic activity on the west coast (geologic time includes now, after all) and along with the not-so-pleasant earthquakes come some of the more enjoyable byproducts of seismic activity, such as the hot springs at the Esalen Institute.

The Esalen Institute is a retreat and educational center on the ocean side of the highway a few kilometers south of the library. It has hot-springs-fed mineral baths that overlook the Pacific, and they open the baths to the public from one to three A.M. every night. Yes, that's 1:00 to 3:00 in the morning, and it's done by reservation only. When you make your reservation, they tell you that you have to be waiting in your car at the top of their driveway in a dusty pull-off alongside the highway at quarter to one in the morning. Someone will come meet you. Do not drive on to the property until he comes to get you. Just to recap: you have to sit and wait in a dark car in the middle of the night on the side of a highway for someone to come knock on your window, and you cannot proceed until he collects you. From the way they set it up, I wondered if there had been a miscommunication along the line. "No, you misunderstood me," I wanted to say. "I'm looking to soak in the mineral baths, not buy drugs." I bit my tongue, though, and several hours later Sarah and I drove from the open mic to sit in the pullout for a couple of hours, waiting for the knock on our window.

There was another car waiting when we pulled in, and a couple of others drove up to wait in the hour and-a-half before the staff member emerged from the darkness down the hill in a golf cart at a little before one o'clock. Shadowy figures emerged from the cars one at a time. "Walk down the hill," he told us all. "There is someone in the guard booth. He will sign you in. Wait there."

No, seriously. Am I trying to soak my bare ass in 2009, or buy moonshine in 1933?

We made our way down to the guard hut, signed our names and a standard waiver, and the man who had collected us in the highway pullout then escorted us through the compound down to where the baths are. After a brief rundown ("Here are the baths, here's how you make them hotter, someone will come tell you when it's almost three and your time is up") we were left to soak. There were eight of us altogether - Sarah and I, another young couple, and four single men. This makes for an odd dynamic when you are at a "clothing optional" bath with communal change rooms, but everyone managed to stifle their point-and-giggle impulses as we disrobed, showered (also communal) and individually wandered out to the baths themselves. The dim lighting helped.

There were four baths, each about the size and depth of a hot tub, with two of them outside sandwiched between stars and sea and two more under partial or total cover, but still in the open air. The baths were etched into a cliff, several stories above the crashing waves. The water was a little warmer than a well-heated swimming pool, but with the turn of a valve you could pour additional natural hot spring water into the tub to up the temperature.

There were also empty claw foot bathtubs, which you could fill with cold water from a garden hose if you wanted to jump between hot and cold water. Thinking this to be an exciting option, I turned on a hose to fill up one of the bathtubs, only to have it flail around on the deck when I let it go, spewing cold water at quite an impressive radius. I'm not certain, but I don't think having a furry naked Canadian shouting "What the hell?!" and chasing a garden hose raining ice water in all directions was what our fellow bathers had bargained for when they paid their twenty bucks, so I had to quickly shape up and rig up some sort of system where I could leave the hose unattended while I enjoyed my soak. After a few failed attempts I managed to tie the hose in a knot around itself that was sufficient to weigh it down until the tub filled. Moving back and forth between hot and cold was exhilarating, to be sure, and worth the brief interruption in the serenity.

Amusing misfortunes aside, the middle-of-the-night soak was a full-sensory endeavour in regeneration. Nurturing for mind, body and soul, and offering a strong connection to the elements. For our eyes: the silhouetted black clouds jockeying for position in front of a never-in-the-city star scape. For our ears: the pulse of the ocean a hundred feet below us, churning and thundering, apparently unaware that night is for resting. Even the strong aroma of sulfur emanating from the thermal pools was gentle and welcome, reminding us that it was Mother Earth on her own who was keeping the baths warm. All the while the mineral water washed over us, providing an embryonic immersion of the most soothing proportions. Much like a night at the bar - but for entirely different reasons - three o'clock came much too soon. After a drive back to the state park, the walk back to our campsite in the pitch black forest as the clock struck four was a fitting punctuation to a night of the sublime.

Short hikes and beach time were the order of the remainder of our time in Big Sur. That Wednesday night, though, was not only the sort of night that makes me want to travel in the first place, but the sort of night that makes me wonder in retrospect why I chose to keep moving. For now I am enjoying my time as a gypsy boy (a gypsy boy with a gypsy girl accomplice, that is), but if Big Sur calls me home, I will be only too happy to answer.




Brawg said...

Sounds like a much better naked late hour experience then climbing into a chilly but refreshing Bartibog river hoping not to encounter a that would have been a much worse "what the hell" moment while in your naked state!

mchen said...

Oh Hart... you had me at hot springs. We are going, we are going, and we hope to have a wonderful time. I think it sounds like it would be impossible not to. Thanks for sharing!!