Big Sur by Robert Coe
PRELUDE: BIG SUR, SUMMER, 1974
Note: A previously-unpublished memoir about the last summer I spent in my home state of California before heading “Back East” for good.
Go East, Young Man.
Abe told me where to watch for a sign on Route One, but I missed it on the first drive by. I had to tick back a tenth of a mile on my odometer from another marker, as alternatively instructed, and even then, had to get out of my station wagon to search through a dense, low-lying wall of green redwood branches before discovering the gap that Abe had told me was there all along. This gap opened on to a steep one-and-a-half lane red dirt road down a long still canyon past towering redwoods for two miles, when it dead-ended at the foot of a driveway so steep I doubted my gutless Impala could make the grade. After several failed attempts, I gritted my teeth, floored it, and just managed to hold the curve at the top before skidding to a halt, screw-shy, in the middle of a muddy clearing in a redwood forest primeval. Just ahead of me rose a ramshackle twenty-five-foot-high A-frame house that looked like it had been erected by an army of stoned hippie carpenters. (I later learned it was.) A small garden with a few sad tomato plants on sticks and strings and a scraggly lemon tree were visible at the side of the house, tucked up close to an enormous redwood-covered mountainside so steep that it looked as if it might come crashing down in the next earthquake or a hard rain.
I killed my engine as a woman emerged through Dutch doors and slowly approached. The owner of this queer chalet, whom Abe considered his soul sister, was Hannah, who Abe thought might be willing to become my landlady for the summer, if the vibes were right.
The story of Hannah (not her real name) was a ‘60s Romantic-Tragic Fantasia up there in Edie Sedgwick territory. The sheltered daughter of a wealthy conservative San Francisco Catholic family, Hannah grew up a convent girl and debutante before heading East to attend Finch College in New York, where Tricia Nixon was a classmate. But Hannah was a free spirit who would not to be finished by any East Coast schooling. She ended up dropping out and falling into the arms of Peter Revson, one of the most legendary Playboys of the ‘60s. “Revvie” was the Fitzgeraldian scion of the Revlon cosmetics fortune and a Formula One race car driver who had blazed across the society pages and the tabloids with a host of dazzling women, including a former Miss World. Hannah’s relationship with Revvie inevitably fell apart, and when it did, Hannah did, too, experiencing a full-blown nervous breakdown, according to Abe’s report, which I could never verify, but never doubted from the moment I met her. Family members flew Back East to bring her home, but Hannah defied them again by enrolling at the San Francisco Art Institute and becoming a painter, and afterwards traveling extensively in South America, immersing herself in a series of love affairs with Black jazz musicians that resulted in three gorgeous children, each (again this is all according to Abe’s telling) from a different father. I never would get the full low-down on the dads, or anything about Revvie, because Hannah found it unbearable to speak of him. Revson had died in a fiery Formula One crash at the South African Grand Prix this past March 22nd, a few months after I arrived at Hannah’s doorstep, looking for a place to crash myself.
As we spoke, Hannah’s kids wandered from inside the house in various states of melancholic reverie, eyeing me with guarded curiosity; the youngest, a poised, handsome, inward-looking seven-year-old with the presence of a dark prince, struck me as the watchman of the place. Hannah had reconciled with her family in exchange for enough money to construct this homestead in the redwoods, where she could raise her dark-skinned brood, out of her Bay Area family’s sight and presumably far from its thoughts. Hannah was as Abe described her: a sensitive, high-strung woman in her early thirties, a distracted but devoted mother, with an infectious smile and soft, delicate features. I liked her right away. Abe had told Hannah that he didn’t think it was safe for her to be living alone at the bottom of a road with three young kids, so after ten minutes she came right out and invited me to spend the summer on her property, in exchange for occasional baby-sitting and weeding in her vegetable-and-flower garden. Her house was cozy, funky, and definitely not up to code, and I liked it immediately, too.
The first question was: where would I sleep?
I spent my first night on my mattress in the back of my station wagon, surrounded by the crushing silence of the redwoods. Stretching in the clearing the next morning, I noticed a large heap of discarded building materials–two-by-fours, even doors and windows–piled near the house. A thought occurred, I asked permission, and Hannah said yes.
The tree house I built for myself in Hannah’s eight-hundred-year-old redwood forest took shape over several days, beginning with the construction of a six-by-ten-foot platform on the steep hillside between three medium-size redwood trees. My finished treehouse was not a modest affair as treehouses go. It had thick floorboards and eight-foot-high walls, a flat roof, a store-bought paned window, a built-in platform bed, a built-in desk, two bookshelves, and electricity from a seventy-five-foot-long power-line I strung from the house for lights and a hotplate. That I was able to pull all this off was remarkable, because my carpentry skills were minimal.
My most inspired design element was a void. Entered up a three-step staircase through a pre-fabricated front door, the room had a missing wall that was blocked by a banister, offering an unobstructed view of the redwood forest and its baleful pillars of bark, some rising as high as one hundred and fifty feet overhead. When it rained, which it did a lot that summer, I tugged a large plastic tarp off the flat roof to cover the gap. But otherwise, my tree house remained open to the air, and the elements–to Nature. "The squirrel got in again today," I noted in my green-paged journal, "but at least he remembered to wipe its feet." This varmint, who had furry testicles the size of garbanzo beans, had left his muddy tracks across my green page. On the old journal open beside me, remembering this summer long ago, I see his footprints still.
While I labored on my forest aerie, my other practical concern was finding a paying job. Abe had taken care of that, too, arranging an interview at Nepenthe Restaurant, a Big Sur institution since 1947, situated off Route One in a stunning redwood, glass, and adobe building designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright student who was killed in an accident during construction. Perched a thousand feet above the ocean, Nepenthe offered an unmatched view of sixty miles of plunging Pacific headlands.
On my interview day–the dictionary defines nepenthe as “anything inducing a pleasurable sensation of forgetfulness,” though "no worries" was how people translated it around here–I was ushered into the private quarters of Nepenthe co-founder Lolly Fasset, who along with her husband Bill had purchased the property from Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, who had kept a love nest here.
Like her niece Hannah, Lolly was a refugee from their conservative San Francisco Catholic family. She cut an impressive figure in her glittering Southwest Indian turquoise jewelry, her long white hair held in place by Spanish combs, a fresh hyacinth tucked behind one ear. Fantastically stout and perpetually shrouded in fringed shawls and a tent-like kaftan, Aunt Lolly radiated a Buddha-like calm that probably masked depression. I would have taken any gig the woman offered me, so I was stunned when she handed me one of the plum assignments of the entire summer operation: running the one-person juice-and-sandwich-bar, located a few steps below the main dining area on an enormous outdoor deck that offered one of the most breath-taking views in all of Big Sur, visible across the countertop.
I would be my own boss, run the whole show, in charge of everything, from supply ordering to handling the money.
This had to be more than beginner's luck. Lolly was bumping me up the local hierarchy because I was helping her niece.
And so my summer was made: I would live in an electrified tree house in a millennial redwood forest, occasionally watering Hannah’s tomato plants and baby-sitting her three fantasy-laden children, when I wasn’t pulping carrots, squeezing oranges, and perfecting a killer guac six days a week in my own juice bar-cum-love shack, open to the rolling fog, brazen sun, squawking blue jays, dipping red tail hawks, and a sixty-mile view of Pacific coastline. All for $2.75 an hour plus tips.
WE MUST GATHER IN SMALL GROUPS
I showed up for work at ten a.m. on my first day, as I would every day except Mondays all summer. A T'ai Ch'i class was already in progress on the circular deck that faced my juice-bar shed. Thirty people were gliding through their forms. A brilliant sky shone overhead, while thick billowy white clouds hugged the ocean below. The view was like looking out the window of a 747. You could still see down the coastline sixty miles. It was a view that never failed to give me a catch.
I unlocked and raised the window flaps to my two-sided gazebo, then unlocked the juice bar’s battered door, the only entry to the place, other than vaulting the countertop. Someone from the restaurant upstairs had cleaned overnight, so all I had to do was take in the day’s supplies left by the door and refresh my memory on procedures from a three-page handout, listing recipes and duties.
My earliest customers were the T’ai Ch’i practitioners, joined by refugees from the “human potential” workshops underway at nearby Ventana Campground down U.S. 1. Seepy men and women in earth colors, they requested breakfast cappuccinos and baked eggs with tamari, which I whipped up in my countertop oven. Mornings were generally slow, as I had been warned, but business picked up considerably for a few hours around lunchtime, when the first drive-through customers arrived, requesting Coke, Pepsi, any soft drink (which we didn’t carry), sequestering themselves at the outdoor tables to yell at the kids, grok the views, inhale my pita sandwiches, carrot juice, tuna melts and protein smoothies. Then they would pile back into their cars to drive to the next tourist destination. Some of these Middle Americans were so embalmed in polyester that they looked like they had stepped out of a George Segal installation--as if Life had imitated Art, and not vice versa.
This being Big Sur, I also had tons of countercultural hipsters cruising through–spiritual seekers from both coasts, eager to Make the Scene, soak up the vibes and vistas, and talk about whatever was on their minds as a matter of course. There were honest pilgrims among them, sure, but with my eye for aspirants on the make I watched actors perform, naturally, unnaturally, invariably from L.A.; San Francisco painters and poets, sharing their wet, malleable impressions of the world; and spiritual vagabonds who just rambled on. Maybe it was a function of my service job, but whenever I wasn’t actually taking orders or making food or spending time alone, reading or writing or just sitting there waiting for customers, I was almost always gabbing with somebody. And I can’t say I minded this window on the Human Comedy, Big Sur style.
After the lunch rush, things quieted down again, and I had more time to read or write in my journal. By six o’clock–time noted on a wind-up alarm clock hidden away on a high shelf–I typically had around $250 in the till and fifteen bucks in my tip jar. I would balance the register, lock up the window flaps, hide the empty register drawer under the counter, and head up to the restaurant with the day’s take and my food order for tomorrow.
Then I would drive back to the cold, lonely stillness of my forest aerie, where I would continue to read or write before an early bed.
Those first mornings before work and after my tree house was habitable, I explored the redwoods at the end of the road in Sycamore Canyon, as this place was weirdly named. There must have been a sycamore grove somewhere, but I never found it. A soundless hum of phenomenal solitude dominated that forest, like all of Big Sur. Henry Miller wrote about Big Sur as “a region where one is always conscious of an eloquent silence... The face of the earth as the creator intended it to look.” I re-read Jack Kerouac’s thin paperback Big Sur, his 1961 account of his final collapse of body, mind, and spirit in a cabin near the base of Bixby Canyon, miles north. I knew where to look for it, but I never did. Call me superstitious, but Jack’s friends said that after his time in Big Sur, he was never the same man, or the same writer, again.
Hannah’s neighbors were few and far between down there at the end of the road. Our closest was just across the road, one of the founding members of the Beach Boys, Al Jardine, who I never saw and never visited–not after seeing the skull-and-crossbones "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted" signs he had posted along his gate, beneath jagged rows of barbed wire. I hated those signs and that barbed wire. My occasional jape about “designer wilderness” aside, a part of me wanted to embrace the Esalen-inspired notion that Big Sur was the Brook Farm of late twentieth century communitarianism. People like Jardine, who had no truck with any countercultural circling of the wagons, pissed me off.
A friendlier note was sounded at a party Hannah threw during my second week on the property. Loud jazz played on Hannah’s excellent sound system as her friends lounged around on low pillows, surrounded by Hannah’s collection of South Asian erotic statuary and murky abstract-expressionist canvasses. All of us were stoned out of our gourds from a hash-tobacco blend, which we smoked in a chillum. A chillum is a commonly-employed North African smoking pipe that resembles a tuba mouthpiece and requires a tricky two-handed grip and some practice to pull off, but once mastered, provides monster hits from glowing bowls.
Someone said something about Watergate, the scandal in its endgame in Washington D.C., and someone else murmured, "We must gather in small groups." The rest of us nodded yeah, man, right on. This guy was toast, and we were, too, but that didn’t mean he was wrong, or that we were, either. America was slouching towards the end of the long national nightmare of Watergate and a seemingly-unending war in Southeast Asia, but nobody I knew in Big Sur was watching it play out on TV, because nobody I knew owned a set, and I doubt the reception was any good anyway. In fact, there probably wasn’t any reception at all.
The better I got to know Big Sur, the more I saw this place as being about close circles of friends: anarchistic coteries of weavers, jewelry makers, ceramicists, potheads, pot dealers, meditators–free-form cultural associations scrambling to escape the crush of the collapsing ‘60s and carry out the people & things & ideas they most wanted to carry forward into whatever history coughed up next. Gathering in small groups was what people needed to do in those latter days.
If that was true, where was my grouping? Hannah quickly grew comfortable enough with me to work topless in her garden and share her private bathroom, with its Rube Goldbergesque assemblage of plastic pipes and hoses for the delivery of well water. But Hannah’s friends were her friends, not mine. Where were my locals–or would I have to settle for some juice bar regulars? My impression was that the truly hard-core Big Sur types were quasi-hermits, squirreled away in the forests and canyons, avoiding outsiders, especially the summer ones–purposefully eluding the "energy vampires" (one reveler at Hannah’s had called them that) who roll up from L.A. or down from San Francisco in search of sex, drugs, and whatever other cheap thrill they can drum up in the redwoods.
But was I not one of these people? Just another outsider come looking for a buzz? I had hung out in some fabulous high hippie scenes, as I vainly reminded myself, from Ibiza to Amsterdam, London to Berlin, but had never seen anything as cliquish, cultish, and entrepreneurially New Age-ish as what was happening in Big Sur in 1974–especially around Nepenthe, where I would see total strangers kiss each other on the mouth to say hello. This struck me as presumptuous, but worse than that, slightly phony at the end of the day.
So what was I doing in Big Sur? What was I really doing here? I was two years out of college, and except for that three-month Peace Corps gig in West Africa, teaching high school P.E. teachers how to throw the javelin (a story for another time), I hadn’t done any anything worth speaking of, or writing about, since graduation, except for opening the Palo Alto natural food store Country Sun, which would still be a going concern more than a half-century later. This was part of why I thought I deserved a summer in paradise before “Real Life” set in–a “Real Life” in which I was about to become the first member of my family to reverse the general drift of the American migration West–reversing the progress of my father, a working-class Connecticut Yankee who had never traveled west of Yankee Stadium before arriving at Stanford to pursue a doctorate in Chemistry and meet the Judge’s daughter from L.A. I finally decided I was in Big Sur for its half-wild ameliorative effect on the spirit, more than a clarification of my future direction. But I continued to think I had made a mistake coming here at all, as I noted in my journal: "I didn't bargain on this feeling of isolation, this disinterestedness in preoccupations which from a distance seemed so inviting–camping, lying on a beach, etc.” But being a disciplined sort, I made a commitment and waited it out, because I knew things would change, as they always seemed to do at that time in my life.
My feelings of separateness evaporated at Nepenthe’s first Zodiac birthday celebration of the summer–a communal dance event held on the last Wednesday of every astrological sign. Nepenthe’s Zodiac parties attracted hermits from ravines and mountaintops all up and down the coast. The presiding figure at this year’s Cancer party was Aunt Lolly, who only danced at her birth sign event, launching her fantastic girth across the upper terrace with an Oliver Hardy-like grace.
I knew almost no one there, other than two or three restaurant staffers, but I went ahead and danced alone under the influence of several Dirty Mothers (tequila & milk) and a couple hits from a bowl of Afghani hash publicly offered by two strangers in a corner–twirling and prancing in a pair of billowy brown velvet pants I had picked up at a costume shop in England four years earlier; also a pair of knee-high boots, a long pleated nightshirt, and otherwise not a care in the world–sweaty & sanctified, grooving, preening–when out of nowhere these two gorgeous women approach and smiling nakedly into my eyes, wrapped their swan-like arms around my neck, glued their respective crotches to my thighs, and took turns giving me big wet sloppy tongue kisses to the music of Otis Redding, without hearing any protest from me whatsoever.
Their names, they told me, were Siri and Jory.
“We’re from New York!” the more androgynous one cried in my ear during a break from the music. Jory was a Midwestern-born New York fashion model and the former girlfriend of the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. “We live in this very cool loft in an artist neighborhood called SoHo!” The term “Loft” meant nothing to me, but I did recognize “SoHo” from the London west-end enclave, which I knew a little.
“We’re taking a forty-day ‘Arica’ training at Ventana Campground!” Jory continued. I swear these women were more than eye candy. They were visions of human liberation. Dancing with Siri and Jory for three hours straight, gazing into their eyes and souls enraptured, I freed my ass and as foretold, the rest of me went along with it.
"Do you know who you are when you dance like this?" I asked Siri. I swear to you this did not sound dumb at the time.
Siri shouted back in her posh accent: "No, I don’t! Do you?"
"Should we?" Jory asked. All three of us laughed together. Our eyes full of yes, our bodies locked again, tongues on tongues, none of it promising anything more than what we were doing at the moment.
And that was how it turned out: at 3 a.m. I crawled into my tree house bed, thoroughly drunk, stoned, enchanted, and alone.
I was afraid this might be the last I would see of these magical creatures, and was wondering how I could have played my cards differently, when they turned up at my juice bar the next afternoon, dressed in patent leather platform heels, plastic miniskirts, and bright pastel fuzzy sweaters, like they were heading out to a nightclub later, and not some waterfall deep in the forest primeval. These costumes would have looked ridiculous on anyone in Big Sur but them. Siri was a graphic designer by trade and from London originally, a sex-exuding Brit with a slithery Marilyn body and a lived-in face. Jory was gamine, boyishly athletic, bright-eyed, confident, and smart: SoHo’s version of Audrey Hepburn. It didn’t seem possible to be as incredible as these two women were, and as down-to-earth at the same time. They were miles over my head, I knew that about myself, but it was my good fortune that while the kissing thing never happened again, they did become juice bar regulars over the next few weeks, talking to me at length about SoHo and about the “Arica” workshop they were attending at Ventana Campground.
The New Age was dawning, and the ‘70s was tossing up all sorts of spiritual schools and higher consciousness trainings, and Arica was one of the first, assembled a few years earlier by a mysterious man named Oscar Ichazo, working with a group of fellow seekers in the Andean village of Arica, Chile. “The 9 Ways of Zhikr,” Siri and Jory’s Ventana workshop, involved different styles of meditation, with special emphasis on the body and exercise. Arica incorporated elements of Zen, Western humanist psychology, and the teachings of another mysterious Central Asian sage, G.I. Gurdjieff, all packaged into what Dolphin intelligence expert John Lilly called "the boot camp of spirituality."
I knew about Arica because my last Palo Alto girlfriend, who left me six months ago to join the Living Love Center in Berkeley, had more recently taken up with an Arica trainer in Florida. I was planning to visit her on my drive Back East. The Living Love Center didn’t interest me at all, but Arica did. Arica was sophisticated. It was worth taking seriously. I thought about Arica a lot that summer, and not just because Jory and Siri were the messengers. I had fooled my way around Europe in my late teens, as I vainly reminded myself, but at twenty-four I was still getting over that Palo Alto townie who left me for Living Love.
Vetted by the likes of Siri and Jory, I was allowed to crash Arica’s nighttime circle dances on an outdoor platform in Ventana Campground, just down U.S. 1 from Nepenthe. During quiet times at the juice bar, I dabbled in Arica’s psycho-calisthenics, drank Arican teas and high-energy protein mixes, and dipped into Jory's copy of the "Opening the Rainbow Eye"–a 120-page, step-by-step meditation kit, which included a tabletop, a tablecloth, candles, incense, bell, cup, and beads–that in the end virtually guaranteed Satori–Enlightenment–to the diligent practitioner.
"Take the 'Me' out of America, you get 'Arica,'" Jory told me one morning, licking off a carrot juice moustache with her long tongue.
"Then why do you still have to pay so much money for it? Six hundred bucks is a king's ransom for a guy like me, works in a juice bar.”
"You pay that much because they're expanding the organization, and they want you to give value for value.” This sounded scripted, which was the only time Jory ever disappointed me.
"The ideas are simple, really," said Siri in her plummy voice, checking off bullet points on her long red fingernails. "’We have only our bodies.’ ‘Our bodies are the expression of divine consciousness.’ ‘All dualities are illusionary.’ Why?” she asked. “Because humanity is one!” And lastly”–flashing her gorgeous, most fully-realized smile–“‘Life begins with total realization.’"
"Hopefully before that," I said. I was thrilled that this made both of them laugh. I adored these women, especially Jory, but a part of me continued to be skeptical about any group selling shortcuts to Satori. I knew that they were more involved in Arica than I could ever be.
THE PHOENIX MUSES
I cultivated my regulars, but I still had time on my hands, so when I wasn’t reading or writing, I people-watched. On some days, especially foggy ones, this was as boring as watching daytime television. Big Sur householder and movie star Ryan O'Neal came by one early afternoon, drunk, or at least with a buzz on. Seedy rocker Johnny Rivers (“Seventh Son,” “Secret Agent Man”) wandered on to my deck, stoned and mumbling unintelligibly. Henry Miller's daughter Val, who lived in a cabin visible at the top of the ridge, dropped in once for a protein smoothie. A chatty fellow who claimed to be the personal attorney of motorcycle stunt jumper Evel Knievel told me all about Evel’s plans to jump across Idaho’s Snake River Canyon a couple of months from now. One afternoon a rumor reached the lower deck that Julie Christie was on the upper deck with two handsome young hunks, all dressed in all-white. I abandoned my post and ventured up the steps. When I saw her, she was looking at me, which caused her to start violently and look away, as if she had just been jabbed with a cattle prod. My Julie Christie moment.
But Big Sur wasn’t all celebrity sightings and great conversations under blue skies or starry dynamos of night. Periods of sun would be followed by days and nights of impenetrable rain and fog–foul & gloomy days when nothing seemed to be happening anywhere on earth, but there you were, left holding the bag. As this new boredom gathered momentum, so did my sense of wonder, not only about what I was doing and not doing in Big Sur, but what I was doing and not doing with my life. Neil Young had nailed it with a demi-quaver from his Fortress of Solitude in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not far from here: "The Dream is Over." My problem, the problem of almost everybody I knew, was that the Revolution of the ‘60s had ended, and almost nothing had changed. John Lennon, from the other side of the planet: “You say you wanna revolution, well you know, we all wanna change the world...” The Revolution we wanted hadn’t happened–not that I or anybody I knew ever thought it would. At least the Watergate Investigation was going down, and Nixon would be hoisted by his own petard, not ours. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party lay in ruins, the war in Southeast Asia continued to rage, and the countercultural opposition–rock music, the whole goll-dang hippie love thang–had been thoroughly assimilated, defanged, turned into commercial product and the boilerplate of pop history, and popular culture, too. “The Big Picture”–the thing that had kept us all mesmerized and engaged throughout the decade when "The Whole World is Watching, The Whole World is Watching”–the living in Headlines, the Acid Trips, the police riots–had dissolved into one big fat blob in the middle of a TV screen. There was nothing left for me to do on this scorched earth, except to talk and write my way through it, because the only way out was through.
But aside from copious letters to friends and long journal entries that I posted nearly every day, I wasn’t writing at all.
I felt tremendous guilt about this lack of activity. It was why I had applied to graduate school: to gin up my writing game. Meanwhile I studied a non-descript fellow who dropped by for a croissant and coffee every morning when it wasn’t raining, sun or fog, and never said more than three words to me–“It’s a novel” “It’s coming along”–before planting himself at a picnic table and filling page after page after page of a yellow legal pad with writing, as fast as his pen could carry him.
“An inspiration,” I noted in my journal.
More locals came to hang out. Chattiness was more the rule than the exception in a place where winters are long and summers brief. Once you got people talking in Big Sur, it could sometimes be hard to get them to stop. I can’t tell you how many “how I ended up here” stories I heard that summer, but off the top of my head I recall (along with Hannah’s) the tale of a hugely-rich Wall Street broker who gave it all up to sit and watch flaming sunsets over the Pacific; two former L.A. sit-com actors who had made enough money to build a cabin, come out of the Closet, and bow out of the Game; a successful psychiatrist and gestalt therapist who had been thrown out of Stanford Med School for experimenting with L.S.D. years before Tim Leary and Richard Alpert were kicked out of Harvard for the same reason; a cardiac-arrest survivor who had survived to create a large and hugely-successful local produce co-op; and a half-dozen retired soft drug dealers, all living here & now in paradise and not doing much with themselves worth mentioning from any exterior point of view.
A local hill carpenter and Rasputin look-alike showed up at my juice bar one afternoon. He was barefoot and wore nothing but a pair of can’t-bust-‘em overalls. He was also tripping on three tabs of acid, or so he told me. He sat silently on a stool across from me at my counter, watching as I brewed his herbal tea. It was one of those brilliant sunny days, with butterflies and the scent of mountain flowers, when you couldn't imagine a more glorious place on earth. I asked him his name, and he declined to share it, but remained perfectly friendly.
"The way to a perfect life isn't to make karma, it's to burn it," he said after five minutes of silence, creasing his skull into a smile, his eyes vanishing behind narrow slits between cheeks and brow.
"Say more about that, brother!”
"We all need to escape the Great Wheel and become something other than what we are, and who we seem to be! Check it out, man! It's like Rennie Davis of the Chicago Seven said: 'We're survivors of a future that never happened!' Ex-citizens of a country that lost a war it never should have fought, you dig?"
"Right on," I told him. He pulled a fat roach from his breast pocket, and after a hit, passed it across the countertop to me. I was working, but nobody on the Nepenthe staff minded a little weed.
"It's time we shed our skins,” he went on, his eyes blackening as he cradled his teacup. "It's time we let it all fall away..."
“I hear you,” I said. I later learned that this man was a much-decorated Vietnam War Veteran, in addition to being a sweetheart. I would see him every week or so and always enjoyed his visits.
My best friends were the basement staff of the Phoenix, Nepenthe’s luxury crafts shop, tucked away from the main restaurant and a short walk from my juice bar deck. The upper level of the Phoenix was devoted to local craft items and high-end Southwest Indian jewelry, much of it from Native American pawn shops–Navajo, Hopi and Sunni stuff as good as anything you’ll find anywhere outside of a backroom on the Res. The lower level, which sold mostly clothing and fabrics, employed a trio of local weaver/sales people who marketed their own rugs and clothing alongside original items by other Big Sur artisans.
These three women, taken together, individually, or anyway you wanted to take them, were so nice, so natural, so beautiful inside and out, that you will probably think I’m making them up out of whole cloth.
Christina I met first, because Christina could not be missed: Christina, an in-your-face, world-liberating, mushroom-devouring, long-frizzy-haired Amazonian Hippie Love Goddess, as wild and untamable as a sunbeam–radiantly healthy, sexually-rampant, and always the soul of industry, always working on a half-dozen projects at once: scribbling lyrics on paper napkins, weaving on her loom, dispensing astrological advice–always one hundred percent present and seemingly one of the most straight-up people you could ever hope to meet. Kathy I met on Day Two–Kathy of the jet-black ringlets, dimpled smile, twinkling eyes, and the biggest, perkiest breasts on all of Route One, supported by posture so erect I assumed she was a dancer, until she told me that seven of her vertebrae had been fused mid-spine, and an iron rod ran through them. Fun-loving and curious, she also struck me as the most level-headed of the Phoenix Muses, although when I told her this, she laughed hysterically for thirty seconds and told me I was completely insane. Sharon I met last: Sharon, the willowiest, the most demure and in some ways the most intimidating Phoenix Muse, because Sharon was a Grace Kelly look-alike with platinum blonde hair, translucent skin, and robin’s-egg-blue eyes that rendered even the most confident men tongue-tied. I saw it happen often that summer, though her manner was always dependably warm and mindful.
Sex was in the air that summer, a current and currency, entangled with everything human about the place: personal growth, hedonism, spirituality, sacrament, ekstasis. Sex in Big Sur was mostly conservative, as monogamy was more the rule than the exception, which meant that infidelity, practiced often, came with hell-to-pay intensity.
Both Sharon and Kathy had boyfriends, although neither of them ever came around. Still, I respected their situations. This left me with Christina.
My June 22nd journal entry, written just after the Cancer party, notes my attempt to “go out alone” with the Hippie Love Goddess, who took in my invitation with both hands on her hips, gazing forthrightly into my eyes, indicating that when she replied, she would mean every word she said.
“I am a total Scorpio woman, Robert,” she told me. “Going out with me means one thing–fucking–and believe me, I am too much for you. Way way wayyy too much for you! And not because you're not a great guy –” she said, unexpectedly flinging herself across the space between us, flattening her palms against my chest, and gazing up into my eyes, inches away from her own rapturous baby blues. “It's just that love & sex are chemistry & souls, and you keep saying all you want is a good time–"
“I never said any such thing, Christina!”
"But you know yourself well,” she said, scowling at me now. “You? You’d get all heavy on my ass in a heartbeat.” She shuddered as if her blood had just run cold. “You Aries men are all alike –"
"But casual sex doesn’t have to be trivial sex," I pretended to whine, which stopped her for a second. Then she laughed from her belly and pushed me away.
“You’re a total idiot, but no dice, baby. I am definitely not the one for you.”
I thought about this exchange a lot. Would I get all heavy on her ass in a heartbeat? Probably. But in time I came to agree that she was probably not the one for me—although this didn’t mean I didn’t want to hang out with her. I think Christina figured that out, because the very next time I saw her at the juice bar she greeted me with a big sloppy French kiss, distracting me from her fingers sneaking around my back and down my butt crack, where she tweaked the hairs around my ass.
Now if that’s not intimacy, you tell me what is. I would be fighting off Christina’s fingers for the rest of the summer.
The family vibe in the basement–the candid conversations we had with no subjects barred–inspired a field trip one night. I picked the Muses up in my station wagon and we drove fifteen miles south, down U.S. One to Esalen Institute, where Big Sur residents were welcome to use the hot springs free of charge after eleven p.m. We spent the night together naked, soaking in low-lying concrete tubs by candlelight and moonlight, the Pacific surf crashing on the rocks thirty feet below, then hopping on to leather-topped tables and trading deep muscle massages. Losing my erection was a full-time job that I didn’t always manage very well.
Our most memorable conversations were with a Nepenthe waiter who was openly gay at a time when not many people around me were, in 1974. Arnie had taught the poetry of Lord Byron at Columbia University on New York’s Upper West Side, where I was admitted to graduate school in English and American literature. (I went to Buffalo.) Arnie had been an avid player in the bathhouse scene in Greenwich Village and along the Hudson waterfront. He told us about glory holes where members were inserted for fellatio from eager mouths. Arnie proselytized that night for the most radical promiscuity possible.
"Without our bodies, what are we?” he asked. “A puddle! A breeze! A pile of earth! A flame! So why not have as many sexual partners as possible. We are not living under the spell of a patriarchal God!"
Sharon, Christina, Kathy, and I studied one another across the dark water, then chimed in simultaneously–"Yeah! Sure! Why not? Sounds cool!" Then we shared a long, warm laugh about all of it.
I felt and the effects of that night’s body makeover for the next two weeks. I would return to Esalen often that summer, either to soak after midnight or to hang out with the young bucks on the Esalen custodial staff–the hippie gardeners and cooks and caretakers who lined up to check out the incoming human traffic stepping off the bus from L.A. like they were Club Med instructors. Their stories they swapped about the B-List celebrities they screwed were hilarious.
I soaked it all in, and as I did, I felt the tensions of the Bay Area exiting my body at last. I told myself to stop worrying, because everything was going to be copasetic. I noted in my journal on June 25th, "enjoying Big Sur more and more."
“THROUGH NATURE TO HEAVEN”
I was encountering more of the humanity of the place, but I also wanted to taste more of Big Sur’s natural wonders, and to that end I planned a weekend trek “through Nature to Heaven,” as I noted in my journal: an overnight hike into Big Sur back country. This wilderness adventure would be a reunion with my friend Decker Underwood, a former track & field college teammate, who drove over the mountains from Palo Alto to join the hike. Our destination was the Tassajara Zen Center, the first Zen Buddhist monastery outside of Asia, a few days before the Forest Service closed the canyon passages for the summer due to the fire hazard.
I recorded the events of our first day by moonlight in my sleeping bag, surrounded by the blessings of a wet spring, near enough that the meadows we crossed were green and exploding with wildflowers.
"Twenty miles on first day, last two miles straight up, two or three thousand feet climb. Had long hard pull high into Big Sur River Canyon. Writing this at Pine Ridge Camp. Made wrong turn for extra two miles. Warm day. Late start. Decker climbing into his bag just now, saying 'How nice! How nice!’ Passed long-haired naked man on the trail who said, 'Hey! Howdy!’ Fields of yellow, purple, white flowers. Twisting trail, helicopter passing, clattering overhead. Three fat girls on their first hike... Made good time. Sykes Campground has warm baths and good swimming holes, clean rushing water over stone-dappled bottom. Light filtering through bright green trees, big redwoods, lunch... Into drier country. Century plants in bloom, long stalks with thousands of yellow petals. Rocky trail. Dine at top of Redwood Creek Campground, where mosquitoes dine on us. Then the long climb up to Pine Ridge. Only nine miles left for tomorrow, most of it flat or downhill... Decker and I talk for hours, abstract dharma raps sweetening the day...”
The flat reportorial voice I employed was spontaneous dharma bum shorthand out of Kerouac, or my version of Jack, but also just like my grandfather's diary entries, which he kept at his whole life. I used to kid Grandad that he kept records of records. All that day hiking, he was in my thoughts. It would have been his seventy-seventh birthday that day, but he had passed away in February. My late grandfather, the L.A. Superior Court Judge who paid my way through his alma mater, would never get to see how I turned out.
“Next day now, stiff drudgery in early morning, but light is fine and views magnificent. Stopped by Indian grottoes at Church Ranch, saw hand prints on cave walls–nice place to live if you're into gathering acorns... Four more miles to Tassajara, went on high road up up up, caught a ride the rest of the way. Sat zazen for two hours, back hurt. Rejuvenated in baths, met a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. Walked downstream to diving pools and leapt naked from white cliffs. Spent night in meadow devoured by skeeters, then hitchhiked to breakfast at the Mad Hatter with a guy from the Monterey Jazz Festival. Then Kathy [the Phoenix muse] drives by and picks us up! Went to Molera Beach and fought sandflies. Kathy wants to have a 'primal experience,' and asks me to give her one–Right. [I was pretty sure she wasn’t hitting on me, but otherwise I didn’t know how to handle her request.] Then on to Palo Colorado to see her peaceful little place and her boyfriend Lorenzo's drawings. I nap in a hammock, then back to the trailhead for the car, and home."
Leaving the Santa Lucia Mountain watershed, I felt at home in my body and in my senses for the first time, six weeks into my Big Sur adventure.
The next morning, walking down the short trail to my juice bar job on a terraced path lined with flowering bougainvillea, honeysuckle and jasmine that perfumed the air, I knew I was in a state of grace, fulfilling a cultural entitlement and living on holiday–an easy feeling to welcome when you're twenty-four years old and sure you have all the time in the world. I was shedding skin, firing on all cylinders, enjoying my newly-acquired sense of liberation and detachment from need.
Abe had been spot-on: Big Sur was right for me.
In this pleasurable state of forgetfulness, with wonderful new friends and loneliness abated, I started thinking: why do I need to go to graduate school? Quaff, oh quaff this kind Nepenthe!–stay in Big Sur! Who needs a larger purpose in life? My family had almost given up on me ever choosing to do anything with myself–they still wanted me to go to law school–but who needed to resolve these ancient conflicts between the generations? Who needed Western civilization? Who needed a Van Gogh painting in a Woolworth Frame? (An image I had in a recent dream.) Abe was right: Fuck Paris! Fuck fuck fuck Paris! And while I was fucking Paris, who had time for something as slow-footed and high maintenance as a personal identity? Not my selves. Not when I could soak in a hot tub all night with three beautiful women and shout across a wilderness canyon on a mountain trail at dawn!
I dropped by the Phoenix to discover Kathy and Sharon in hysterics: apparently Christina had been having a pee in the closet lavatory when Michel walked in on her and the next thing you know she fellated him, as she subsequently announced to everyone in the Phoenix basement. Michel, the fourth member of the Phoenix sales team, was a piece of work and a work of art: a pansexual hippie and his own art object, with multiple tattoos and piercings, sideburns like scimitars, billowy pants tied at the ankles, day-glow puff-sleeve pirate shirts, all accessorized with fantastic Salvador Dali-goes-Navajo turquoise jewelry that he designed and made himself. He looked like Aladdin’s Genie. Michel and I were friendly, but never friends; he had too many secrets. He was said to be the lifetime beneficiary of a psychological disability check from the U.S. government. Victim of failed drug experimentation? A witness relocation program? Vietnam basket case? Only Christina knew the truth, so it was said, and Christina wasn’t saying.
"I let her do it as a favor,” Michel insisted. He seemed embarrassed that I was there for this. "She said she wanted to keep in practice!"
"Oh, give it up, Michel,” Christina said, waving him off with a crooked smile as she wiped the corners of her mouth with her fingertips. "It was just a blowjob.”
Christina’s libertine innocence was a trip sometimes.
Christina and I did eventually hang out alone, mostly at night at her place, a tiny trailer hidden in the park behind the restaurant kitchen. I had taken to calling her Cookie, which suited her, and at the same time didn’t suit her at all, and the contradiction was what made “Cookie” feel like what I wanted to call her. One night she casually mentioned that I could sleep over if I wanted to–literally sleep. I didn’t make a practice of spending the night with beautiful libidinous women unless sex was involved, but for Christina I made an exception.
I was disappointed to learn that she slept with her radio on–maybe she wasn’t as comfortable in her own skin as I thought she was. But lying against her warm body in the womb-like silence of the Nepenthe trailer park, I felt as if I had penetrated the sanctum sanctorum of Big Sur at last.
On one of my days off, Sharon invited me up to her spectacular home on Partington Ridge, literally the highest point in Big Sur that still had an ocean view. She had a plan in mind that involved me.
“I want you to talk to Gabriel”–her boyfriend–“and see if you can coax him out of his shell.” Gabriel was spending nearly all of his time in an abandoned cylindrical water tower on the property, which he had converted into his study. He rarely saw another human being except Sharon.
Gabriel (not his real name) had one of the greatest ‘60s odysseys I ever came across. A 4.0 philosophy major at Berkeley, he was working on an Honors Thesis in Philosophy titled “On the Multidimensionality of Time,” when he decided one semester before graduation that he knew nothing whatsoever about the multidimensionality of time. To remedy this situation, he set out on a journey across southern Europe, overland to India. Somewhere along the way he lost the only draft of his thesis, which he took as a sign that he needed to venture further and deeper and discover something new—either that, or the wisdom of the ancients. In India he met a wandering Sadhu and vowed to this beggar that he would take a hit of hashish every hour on the hour, 24/7, for the next five years. Gabriel set out to accomplish this and quite predictably lost his mind. Within months he had sold his sleeping bag for money to buy hash and was living in a loin cloth, begging for food on the streets. After some months of this, he connected with an Indian con artist and traveled with him to remote villages in the south, pretending to be a Western doctor so that his partner could sell the peasants worthless medicines.
Gabriel managed to pull himself out of this hellish vortex by contacting his sister, who sent him money to return to California. Once home, he set up a lucrative hash-trafficking business and during an interlude as a pre-school teacher in San Diego, met the Grace Kelly lookalike and retired with her and his smuggling fortune to Big Sur, buying this jaw-dropping property on Partington Ridge, and converting a former water tower into his study, where he was attempting to reconstruct his undergraduate thesis on the Multidimensionality of Time.
Sharon told me this story as we sat in their glass-walled living room, near the massive loom where she wove her beautiful rugs and tapestries.
“I’m not sure I can help you,” I told her–“even if Gabriel did want to meet me!” He had to know I was there, because she had told him I was coming and he must have heard the car. But so far, he hadn’t left his tower.
Sharon eventually went up and practically dragged him down to stand in his own kitchen, wearing a beard that covered his chest and hair that half-covered his face, so tongue-tied, so lost in his head, that he couldn’t say hello. When Gabriel left without a word, Sharon gave me a long, warm, embarrassed hug in her kitchen. Sharon understood the hopelessness of the situation through. She walked me sadly to my station wagon and sent me on my way.
NOTES FROM A WOODSHED
"Be complete in woods," I scribbled in my journal. Over time I furnished my Zen-Thoreauvian detachment with a one-burner electric range, thrift store pots and pans, a small mirror, and an old-fashioned pitcher and bowl to wash my face in the morning. Every morning in my tree house, rain or shine, I would be awakened at dawn by the family peacock, a fearsome creature I came to loath with a passion. Every morning this fucking bird from hell would flap up on to my flat rooftop, stick his head between his legs through the gap in the wall, and scream at me at the top of his lungs. Mission accomplished–I would be jolted awake–he would flap away, leaving me under my ocean of quilts and a sleeping bag, gazing into the forest primeval and its wispy fingers of fog. More than once that summer, I fantasized about the sadness I would feign when Hannah and the kids came home one day to find the family peacock dead, throttled on the driveway in a nest of feathered eyes.
I would typically spend my first few minutes in bed jotting down my dreams, which I would remember in extravagant detail, before rising for a pee over the banister. Then, after a minute or two of stretching, I would sit on my red-and-yellow Zen cushion on top of my mattress and loosely focus on my out-breath for a half-hour or so, half-gazing through the open wall, sensing the towering redwoods and the smell of moist earth, far from the buzz of civilization. Afterwards, if there was time before work started at ten, I might climb back under the covers and grab a few more winks, or maybe jam some twelve-bar blues (badly, but improving) on my Brazilian rosewood Takamine guitar.
But most often during the heart of my morning, I would turn on the space heater, sit cross-legged on my bed, and read.
My journals record scads of books–a hodge-podge of the topical, the recommended, and the long postponed. In the latter category I inhaled the Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell’s four-part anatomization of the delusionary nature of romantic love. Like other people in these woodshed days, I read for power, and thought hard about what I was reading, too. One journal entry in my handwriting quotes from Alan Watt's "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen”: “’The Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously... He must be free of the itch to justify himself. Lacking this, his Zen will be either 'beat' or 'square,' either a revolt from the culture and social order or a new form of stuffiness and respectability.’” “But how,” I wrote in commentary, “can the premises of one’s own culture not sway one–especially unconsciously! Through what skillful means or application of discipline is one not to be swayed by everything?”
Seeking an answer to these and other spiritual questions, I drank the blood of mystics: Saint John of the Cross, Brother Antoninas (who wrote beautifully about Big Sur), the Bhagavad-Gita, Zen Mind Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice by Shunryu Suzuki, and The Divided Self, R.D. Laing's short meditation on madness, a book that argued for the eradication of "mental illness" as a category of thought. "The very existence of psychopathology,” wrote Laing, “perpetuates the dualism that psychopathologists wish to avoid and that is clearly false..."
None of my reading that summer, Beat or Square, offered me anywhere to stand, until I found my life raft.
How could it have taken me so long to discover Ralph Waldo Emerson! I breathed Emerson that summer in the redwoods, less for his aphoristic Yankee wisdom than for the dazzling rhythms of a mind transposed into prose. How I wished I could steal the Promethean fire of that magisterial voice! I would have sacrificed a tooth to write with Emerson’s power and acuity about my own time! Words from Emerson’s "Self-Reliance" gave me the conviction to re-inhabit my private woodshed, despite my persistent floundering. "In this pleasing contrite wood-life, which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, although I mean it not and see it not."
Recording day by day one’s honest thought was pandemic in Big Sur. Everyone I spoke to about it said they kept a journal that summer. Mine were tomes of therapeutic inquiry–places to wander, record, comment, work things out. We only have our bodies? We have our records, too! When juice bar hours were slow, my people-watching segued into a "yoga of observation:” scribbled reams of over-heard dialogue, flat-footed reportage, and quick-sketch portraiture: of Tom, the restaurant manager: "The Company Man as Taoist... a confection of friendliness, a Mormon missionary... the straightest gay man I've ever met;” Barbara, the hippie baker in Nepenthe’s kitchen, "face dusted with flour, naked baby on one hip, shoving bread into the Nepenthe ovens while happily discussing the Russian Novel." This was the same Barbara who would make a massive success with her "Barbara's Bakery" products. And Barry, the Dulcimer Maker, "shrouded in werewolf hair and a preternatural calm, squatting outside the kitchen by the compost heap, carving walnut with a knife and smiling up at me.”
Never had my journals seemed more transparent to my thoughts. They were the voice of my alienation, the scent of my disquiet, the residual goo of my private education–pages of gassy, sophomoric speculation about the Nature of Everything–really classic hippie juvenilia–along with an amazingly-detailed record of my hyperactive dream life. Immersed in the New Age soap opera of a white man's paradise, I felt free to wonder, "Does the external world exist at all?"
Woolgathering, to call a spade a spade, curried my thoughts in those woodshed days, although every so often a good question surfaced.
"Big Sur is where people end up who think they want some version of ‘living day-to-day,'" I noted, a moment before denouncing my own statement as cant: "But how do you live well day-to-day without a past or future, a history or a place to go? What, indeed, is the present without the past and the future?”
People in Big Sur could sit around speculating, bloviating about such things for hours, not the least bit shy about venturing bold opinions on everything under the sun. A riff I encountered more than once that summer involved a wholesale denunciation of the Western World. I suspect this informed a dream I had during my first week in the redwoods: "I am wandering a college campus, unable to find the humanities building... A sepulchral voice is intoning the great names of culture–'Goethe... Schiller... Wagner... Mann...’ and I weep madly because they are no more..." I woke up sobbing into my pillow. The cultural coarsening of the ‘60s and early ‘70s had a mourner: a juice bar worker living in a tree house in a redwood grove in Big Sur, weeping over the death of Goethe.
A fundamental re-consideration on an almost daily basis was my intention to return to Academia. Along with Emerson, R.D. Laing had provided me with a vocabulary for revisiting the all-too-familiar sensation of "waiting to become myself... rather than living in the present ('a' present?)” Why was I failing to surrender entirely to Big Sur, for instance? Was it because I knew I was leaving Paradise to winter in Siberia? (Buffalo?) But how could I reconcile obtaining a Ph.D. in English with the on-going collapse of Western Civilization? Or was this supposed cultural collapse really just an elaborate cover story for the loss of a certain bourgeois gentility, which I had traded in for the grace of tree house living? What was to become of the once-promising young man who still wanted and needed, in a very un-Zen-like fashion, to justify his ways to Society and Family, Man and God, if there was one, which there wasn’t, was there? I braced myself with the knowledge that I had a talent for survival within this precarious amalgam of identities known as Me. I was suited to this incipient Age of Me, struggling to become Us.
One morning in my tree house aerie, my new guru Ralph Waldo revealed a compelling vision of a possible future: "Editor, backwoodsman, musician, congressman, spending a few years on each..."
What inflation of the soul was moved by Emerson’s vision of Me, Me, Me, moving, shaking, doing it all? I was as-yet unaware of the thousands of Downtown New York artists who were making videos, creating sculptures, and exploring performance art while engaging in political activism, writing art reviews, waiting on tables, and presumably going through existential crises not dissimilar to mine. I weighed this option carefully. I eyed it closely. I did not come from bohemian stock. I came from a family of White-Anglo-Saxon Protestant swans and worker bees. I was not raised by wolves. The Coes and Condees weren’t the kind of people who believed in having something to fall back on. We went out and worked for what we wanted. But did I truly have an alternative calling? Was I really one to follow my own heart, my own instincts and inclinations into unknown worlds? Was I really willing to risk becoming some weird babbling flotsam, drifting inexorably towards the rocks? Or was Emerson's vision of self-reliance through shape-shifting identities really just the ür-image of the "well-roundedness" I had ridiculed in the Stanford student body? Or worse, unadulterated narcissistic grandiosity, and a virtual prescription for dilettantism?
Or to stand this train of thought on its head: was my interest in playing multiple roles an expression of some deeper yearning, as I wrote my dear friend Kitty, who was living with her boyfriend in a Cape Cod forest near the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, "to move beyond any single gloss of 'reality,' to assume any role you need to and leaving it behind at will, always to have energy there?" This was a brief for more than a dilettante: it was a body schematic for a Chameleon. But at the moment, this future Congressman, editor, musician, etc., was making protein smoothies at a Big Sur juice bar for $2.75 an hour, plus voluntary gratuities.
I decided I would embrace my condition. I would love Big Sur for a summer, love it for its trippiness, its physical freedoms, and the reckless abandon it bred in my soul. In the Song of Nature, the Body hears its own Humanity. Big Sur and Nepenthe were remedies for grief, a place to ply the spirit, hide and mend–to rise from the ashes of oneself and build a new life, like Hannah and dozens if not hundreds of others had done before me. The sculpture on Nepenthe’s upper deck was of a Phoenix Bird. But my problem was I wanted to experience more than a rebirth. I wanted more than direct access to who I was, but I also wanted to be part of the world. I wanted to be part of more than what made my senses tingle. I wanted worldly cares. I wanted to feel the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I wanted to get all heavy on someone’s ass in a heartbeat. I wanted the Faustian glory of getting really, really heavy about everything.
"’Mellowness’ is all well and good,” I wrote Kitty in Woods Hole, “but brooding and sober reflection are virtual no-no's here–especially during the summer, when everyone seems to be looking for some spark in which to immolate themselves. ‘Nepenthe’ indeed! What about the truth of suffering?” I went on in my Young Werther voice, meaning Goethe again. “Not that I want to suffer, exactly. But I need to get out of California–to leave this formlessness behind! O for the organization of life behind something other than maintenance or intoxication! To be moved by purpose! Compelled by some believable destiny!"
Seeking a destiny had cast more than one pilgrim back on the shores of civilization, which was where I wanted to go. Who gets to wear a lot of hats in a redwood forest?
ON THE ROAD: WATERGATE
"A feeling of great sadness," I noted in my journal as my departure date drew near. “Am I going to regret my decision, experience a change of heart at the last minute, and stay after all?” My time in Big Sur had lasted barely three months. Still not fully believing I was turning my back on Paradise, but knowing I had to, I made a final trip over the mountains to say goodbye to friends in Palo Alto. I learned from an employee at Country Sun that my Big Sur sponsor Abe [not his real name] had been skimming the cash register to the tune of $500 a week.
What a clever move, to get the previous manager out of town, and simultaneously leave him eternally in your debt!
I returned to the redwoods behind the wheel of a fire-engine red ’71 Datsun pickup truck with 5,000 miles on the odometer. I had traded in my Chevrolet Impala and ponied up fifteen hundred in cash for a Japanese vehicle. I had a month left before school started, enough time to visit family in L.A. and Texas, the Living Love/Arica ex-girlfriend in Gainesville, and Kitty in her tent in the woods outside Woods Hole, Mass. She had been sending me enticements, addressed with my name on them to the restaurant, and only partly tongue-in-cheek: "Our house is utterly integral, very peaceful and stimulating. For life is full of sumptuous, arcane secrets waiting to reveal themselves to adventuresome explorers of heart and psyche..." Or maybe she wasn’t tongue in cheek at all, and she meant it. I would have to venture to Woods Hole to find out.
As a thank-you to Hannah, I made her and the kids a fancy farewell brunch served al fresco on the brick terrace near the sad garden, with its pitiful tomato plants and a single scrawny lemon tree. I felt guilty that I had only baby-sat for this single mom a half-dozen times, if that, and never did get around to weeding in her garden. Hannah spent the meal obsessing about her new boyfriend, a sitarist whom she had met at a private concert on Partington Ridge. She was already thinking about packing up her three kids and following him to his home in Bangla Desh, where a reign of terror had left a million East Bengalis murdered by their own government three years earlier.
“Watching Hannah fall in love,” I noted in my journal, “is like watching someone go over Niagara Falls without a barrel.”
I treated her to a full-body massage that last night on her living room floor and left her there, naked, crashed, and lightly snoring, to creep back to my cozy tree house for another dream-filled sleep, but not without dropping a blanket over her first.
Nepenthe’s severance gift was the riotous Leo party, which at the end of the night found me in Michel's bed in the trailer park, on top of a naked woman down from L.A. with her fourteen-year-old hash-head son, who was in their cabin at Ventana while we did the deed. With her furtive, kohled eyes, she bore a faint resemblance to Gloria Swanson's paranoid younger sister, but was more than happy to share creaturely comforts and the excellent hash she had hidden in secret compartments of the boat-like Citroën she had berthed in the parking lot, which was where we smoked it. The following morning, after sharing breakfast at her campsite at Ventana, she and her already stoned fourteen-year-old drove on to Carmel, leaving me with phone numbers of two of her middle-aged girlfriends I should definitely look up when I got to Manhattan.
I reflected on my Midnight Cowboy/Boy Toy turn in my journal, a little startled that I had ended up behaving like one of the Esalen custodians, banging the trade from L.A. I dared to venture Emerson's opinion of one-night stands: "’While the world will be whole and refuses to be disparted, we seek to act partially, to sunder, to appropriate, for example–to gratify the senses we sever the pleasure of the senses from the needs of the character…’ I don't want to be a thief," my journal continued. "I want to be a 'good upstanding man.' Durrell posed my question in Clea”–the fourth volume of The Alexandria Quartet: “'How to harness time in the cultivation of a style of heart?'"
At that moment in my life, I didn’t think I could harness time in Big Sur. Literature and the infernal cities were calling me. Siri and Jory had already decamped to their Greene Street loft in SoHo, leaving me with their phone number and a renewed invitation to visit.
My most difficult goodbyes were with the Phoenix Muses.
In the basement a few days before I left, Sharon studied me for a long moment, then asked: "What would it take to get you to stay in Big Sur? Let’s open a craft shop together. We’ll go fifty-fifty on it. I know a roadside property we can rent for a really decent price, on my dime and your sweat equity.” A future flashed before my eyes: boyfriend Gabriel would vanish into the Multidimensionality of Time, and I would end up with this very classy, totally down-to-earth Grace Kelly look-alike and Berkeley grad, the co-owner-operator of a really cool successful New Age crafts shop in Big Sur. It touched and warmed me, and was something I would think back on later in life, but at the time I took a flyer.
My Phoenix friends weren’t through playing with my head.
“Are you a good fuck?" Kathy asked me one afternoon, giggling while she covered her mouth like a geisha. Sharon did the same. This wasn’t a come-on. It was a sweet invitation to stay in Big Sur and see what might happen.
“I’m a fantastic fuck, what do you think?”
“That’s not what Christina says,” Sharon said, and laughed. Kathy did, too. I wasn’t surprised they knew that Christina and I spent Platonic nights together. I would have been surprised if they didn’t.
My goodbye to Christina took place at the juice bar, where she showed up on my last day for her usual sixteen-once carrot juice, wearing nothing but torn blue jeans and a see-through blouse with no bra.
“I’m tripping on mushrooms,” she announced, after giving me her usual sloppy French-kiss hello while I intercepted her fingers.
"Wait a moment," she said, and snatched my pen from my hand to jot down something on a napkin. She had just thought of a lyric. "This is music week," she explained. “Last week was fabric week.”
I did my best Jack Nicholson impression: "Maybe it'll be sex week again before I leave.” I had heard about Cookie’s Sex Week from a number of people, since it had left a swath of pissed-off women the length and breadth of the Nepenthe trailer park.
Cookie laughed, and reaching across the counter, slapped my cheek as lightly as a butterfly’s wing. "Sex Week was before you got here,” she whispered. I adored Christina, but as I had gotten to know her better, I had realized there was something untouchable about her–something not transparent at all. It had taken me most of the summer to figure this out, but one day it hit me: Christina was madly in love with Michel, but was unable to admit it, even to herself, because Michel was either a registered commitment-phobe, or gay as a parade.
After chug-a-lugging the big carrot juice I made for her, Christina slammed the paper cup down on the countertop, grabbed her own skull and jerked it, once, hard, to the right; reversing her grip, she jerked it the other way, too. Her cervical vertebrae crackled like a marimba band.
“Cookie! Do that to me!”
She walked behind the counter and after massaging my shoulders roughly for a minute or two–she had strong hands–she grabbed my head and chin and jerked it one way, then change the grip to do the other way.
My neck crackled like a box of Rice Krispies in a pint of milk.
“God! Cookie! That felt like a million dollars!”
Life stretched before me like a golden road.
My going-away present to myself was a beautiful turquoise Navaho ring from the Phoenix gift shop, which I hardly ever wear, because I don’t like it on my index finger, which is the only digit it fits.
I left Sycamore Canyon behind the wheel of my Datsun pick-up with a camper in back, purchased second-hand from a couple in Carmel and newly installed by me. It had an electric light inside. I stopped at the juice bar for a final smoothie, then continued south on Route One for my swing across the southern U.S. with a photograph that Siri and Jory had given me of Swami Muktananda, a Hindu guru identified in India by Baba Ram Das, née Richard Alpert, the defrocked Harvard psychology professor who wrote about Muktananda in his countercultural bestseller Be Here Now. Muktananda was said to be living in New York City’s Upper West Side, reportedly enlightening people with a single swat of his peacock feather.
I meditated on Muktananda’s face as I drove, singing at the top of my lungs a little Sanskrit ditty I had picked up at one of the Arican training sessions in Ventana: a hymn to Gopala, the heavenly one, the cowherd boy: Gopala Gopala Devaki Nandana Gopala.... At dusk on day two, with thunderheads looming in three directions, I made a forty-mile detour to visit the grave of Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. I had to scale a fence in a raging thunderstorm to read the tombstone by bolts of lightning—“William H. Bonney Alias Billy the Kid Died July 18”—the rest of the inscription was eroded.
Drenched to the skin but thrilled to the root, I climbed back into my truck and continued driving for the rest of the night, supported by the occasional toke on a roach someone left in my ashtray, into a pink and hazy dawn, a long morning, then the afternoon across the miserable flatness of Tex-ass, arriving just before dark in Pedernales River country, sleep deprived and still stoned, and actively imagining the embalmed corpse of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the thirty-sixth President of the United States and a prime mover of the ‘60s' dreams and nightmares, resting in his nearby grave, but surely finding astral means to tune in to see Dick Nixon resign the Thirty-Seventh Presidency at 7 p.m. Eastern.
The dirt-floor Texas roadhouse where I watched had an old rabbit-eared black & white TV on top of a battered beer cooler. In the company of working men and redneck pool players who barely glanced up from their game, except to spit on the floor and mutter, “Fuckin’ a-hole,” “Piece o’ shit,” and “Kiss my ass, your break,” I leaned back in my folding chair, nipped on a cold LSD–Lone Star Draft–and thought Holy smokes goddamn and all ye falling candles of heaven smash, Tricky Dick is finally going down. I finished my beer, climbed back into my truck, and continued driving east, still boyish, equivocal, Emersonian, half-formed, but freshly-resolved to end my family’s perception of me as a bohemian n’er do well, and perhaps become a writer in the process.
Robert Coe is a writer living in New Jersey. His journalism has appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine and Arts & Leisure section, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Esquire, New York, and The Village Voice. Coe’s first book, Dance in America, was the official companion to PBS’s long-running and much-acclaimed "Dance in America" television series. JOCK: A Memoir of the Counterculture, about his years as a distance runner at Stanford University, came out in 2015. Next up his his book, SURVIVORS OF A FUTURE that never happened – a Cultural Review 1974-1994, Montreal Publishing Company 11, 15, 2022.