The wide open American road, from Atlantic to Pacific, from Canada to Mexico, no checkpoints, no identification, free, wide open country, “Til the train run out of track.”
We left Butano State Park on a narrow road, a roof of oak leaves over our head as we snaked our way back to mighty route one. Construction of the highway began in the 1930’s using prisoners from Folsom prison. They were paid thirty two cents a day. How strange that prisoners should be used to construct a road that represents freedom to so many, especially motorcyclists.
We continue the routine but today we have a destination, Big Sur. This area is marked by its dramatic coves and cliffs as well as the deep forests behind. It is also the location of the Bixby Creek Bridge a rather humble sounding name for a remarkable piece of 1930’s structural art that carries us over a deep plunge to the sea.
Big Sur is also known for Henry Miller who put the place on the map for authors looking for peace and inspiration away from the book ends of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Not to be confused with the playwright Arthur Miller. Although they both wore glasses Arthur is known for marrying Marlyn Monroe and a little play called “Death of a Salesman.”
No, Henry Miller was a different animal who pushed the bounds of literature by creating an entirely new genre. He mixed personal experience with fiction, social criticism and sexuality in books like, “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” but more than that, his books had rants of surrealist free association that make them really fun to read. They were banned in the United States but smuggled in, which added to Miller’s underground mystique.
Not only did he inspire other authors and expand the realm of the possible in literature he also made a name for Big Sur as a place for alternative, free thinking, creative types to hang out. Jack Kerouac would spend time here to escape his new found celebrity. Still later Hunter S. Thompson lived here and wrote about riding his motorcycle down highway one in “Hells Angels, A Strange and Terrible Saga” although Hunter road a BSA, A65 Lightening.
Big Sur is a strange and inaccessible place. There is no “town” at all really. We stop at a small market and pay six and change for gasoline. Sitting outside we snack on fruit while watching the parade of motorcycles and RV’s rumble by. We chat with a man who sends TW 200’s like Samantha’s to third world countries for some reason we don’t quite understand.
“Reliable, easy to work on,” he says and we agree. We watch him put his motorcycle in reverse and back out.
In a downward sweep of the road, where the trees hang over the tarmac and moss threatens, we spot a sign for some sort of library. We spin around and discover the Henry Miller Memorial Library tucked in the dark forest. Odd sculptures decorate the path to the front door. One is a collection of computer monitors in the shape of a large cross. Inside are books, mostly for sale, and lots of information on the author. He was somewhat of a sexual deviant and embraced the orgy. He was also an accomplished painter as well as an author. Alongside the building there were several tents and out back a deck looking up into the canyon. Stretched across the canyon were huge steel cables wired together with giant steel rings. It appeared to be some kind of sculpture that did nothing to improve the naturally beautiful canyon. It looked more industrial than artistic.
Back on the highway I spotted another one of these sculptures in a canyon and realized it wasn’t art at all but rather a steel and wire net to catch the massive boulders that come tumbling down the canyons.
We wriggle way up a canyon until the road ends and find a tiny campsite. Even this little forgotten end of the line has a campground administrator who shuffles out of his airstream trailer to update us on rules and fees. All this paperwork can really take the fun out of camping if you let it. One solution is to ignore all signs, rules and fees. This we have gotten rather good at. I look at it this way, the wilds were here first and we are here for them. If bureaucrats feel the need to construct the insults of a developed campground on them so be it but I’m not here for that. It really comes down to whether you can sleep at night knowing you are illegal in the eyes of some rule or other. I sleep just fine. And even if this minor rebellion keeps you up at night, that’s ok. It Keeps the heart fresh, the adrenaline flowing, the spirit of freedom coursing. Independent thought is an important part of a healthy democracy and challenging your government takes practice. This is a small refresher course.
I volunteer to dip back down the canyon to collect water. I am feeling uppity. The road is empty and winding. The turns are so tight the bike practically stops before plunging into the next knee scraping lean. I’m free of luggage and really enjoy working the little canyon road to it’s limit. Three stream crossings later I find a shallow pool to pump water. I fill all our bottles while squatted by the stream. I feel the eyes of a mountain lion on me. It is deeply satisfying to get our water in this way. It also smacks of a certain survivalist freedom, like hunting or growing a garden.
Back up the canyon on this sweet ribbon of asphalt. It contorts through the canyon like an earthworm bucking for freedom from my palm. I am amazed at the traction of these big Dunlop knobbies. Try as I might they don’t slip, not a wink. At maximum lean, rolling on the outer set of knobbies I can feel a slight waver as they flex under the tork. The bike really likes to be twisted up to high revolutions, it’s her sweet spot. It’s fun to flatten the long travel motocross suspension deep in the turn and then unweight in the transition. The bike leaps upward before squatting down into the next turn. It’s a fun, pogo stick of a ride.
Back at the campground I am still antsy. I wander down the road and collect a huge armful of wood. Huffing back up the road, leaving a trail of bark and sticks, I take a moment to appreciate where we are. The camp is on a kind of plateau, with a deep valley spilling down and away from us. The drainage meets another canyon, even larger, that drains to the sea. The view is vast and vertical. Sea winds whip up the canyon, blowing up to our mesa, pushing the oak leaves upward like a city vent. On our little patch of ground I recognize the familiar oaks but looking down the canyon there are any number of bizarre, unfamiliar trees. I love this about California, the strange and often prehistoric foliage, things I’ve never seen before, towering smooth limbed or hunched and sprawling branched and bracing for the fog and wind. All that trafficking of leaves and limbs and twigs and sinuous, muscle like roots and trunks. Dug in for the long haul, for the 300 year stand, waiting out the short and desperate lives of humans until, over centuries, their bark wrinkles with the wise and deep furrows of the ages. Ah the trees.
So to celebrate we burn them. To compliment a perfect star filled night we feed dead limbs into the sparkling fire and grow quiet in fireside contemplation. Love, death, the mysteries of the universe, the meaning of this strange and wonderful life we’re all given, it seems everything is on the table. Encamped in this hanging meadow with that great volume of emptiness just beyond. Instead we are speechless. Sometimes thought is more fitting than words.
In the morning, doves rush in great explosions of wind. Violently airborne from the trees in concert, in perfect formation. Spooked by a red tailed hawk drafting silently by. The specter of death hovering over their heads is too much for the little eyes of these sweet grey mountain doves and they panic, in concert. They spook all together and all at once and are gone. We never knew they were there, slumbering, just above our heads, until a hundred little wing beats suddenly huff the air.
We go through our routine, making breakfast, brewing dark roasted coffee with fresh mountain stream water, oatmeal. This time is precious for us. Quiet mornings next to a steaming cup, scribbling in journals or day dreaming out into the canyon. Next door there is another camper. He’s a talker and we know he wants to talk to us. I marvel at people who genuinely want to engage with strangers. It baffles me. Soon he is at our site, giving us directions to places already programmed into our gps. He’s a wonderful, genuinely warm young man and it saddens me but I’d rather daydream about doves and tree bark then chat. We are deep into hermit mode now and he wanders away. Who knows what he thinks of us, I try to be nice and hopefully I pulled it off. Mornings are sacred my friend.
We leave our camp with two loaded motorcycles rolling with gravity and the wind back down the canyon towards the roiling sea, destination unknown.