4th of July, 2015, Big Sur…
So I spent the 4th of July in Big Sur, California. A stretch of Pacific coastline south of San Francisco where the raw power of ocean, mountain and forest are stunningly displayed. Big Sur is a truly magical place that, because of its sheer immensity and ruggedness (and legal protection), stays virtually unchanged with the passage of time.
I drove there with my wife, who has a friend with a house in the Carmel Valley. California is indeed filled with lovely places. To counterbalance some of the places that are butt ugly, I suppose.
We went north up the coast from Los Angeles County, encountering barely crawling traffic much of the way till we got past Santa Barbara. Barely crawling is something you learn to cope with in urbanized California. Barely. Cope. Took Highway 101, thru San Luis Obispo, and into the Carmel Valley via the back way from the outskirts of Salinas. Dry as a bleached bone all the way.
This is Steinbeck country. It always surprises me how close the towns are to each other, yet how different. Salinas and Carmel are night and day. One a farming town, where generations have tilled the Earth. The other a resort town, where high end seekers have come for generations in search of peace and tranquility (and maybe some nice art and trinkets) amongst other well heeled pilgrims.
To give you a sense of place, you can stay in a million dollar house in the Carmel Valley that has only an outdoor shower as a bathing option. Add the math up any way you want. Welcome to the Central Coast.
Central California is one of the great wine making regions of the world. And historically they grow a lot of pot, too. Which segues into how I first encountered Big Sur. This time we drove down from Carmel on the 4th of July, where I performed at a big barbecue/gathering.
Flashback! Flashback! It’s the early 1970’s. Maybe 1972. Who remembers these things. I’m hitchhiking up the coast with a guy named Wes who is a.w.o.l from the Navy. Vietnam is still going on. Wes was an artistic type who smoked a lot, drank a lot. Originally from St. Louis, he’s the kind of brooding sweet natured guy girls go nuts over. A bona fide chick magnet, his dark good looks balanced nicely with my predominantly Celtic skin tone that veers toward ‘red as a beet’ after a half hour in the sun. But I play guitar, which counts for something.
Anyway, we get a ride from an Oklahoma longhair in a step van somewhere north of Santa Barbara. He’s got a banjo in the back, and I start plucking away. He keeps picking up hitchhikers as we amble northward. Like Steinbeck on drugs. There’s a lot of people on the side of the road. Turns out they’re all headed toward some marijuana harvest festival in Big Sur. We made it a temporary destination.
I know steep. I grew up in the Rocky Mountains. Big Sur is steep. The few roads off Highway 1 are mostly dust and one lane, with hairpin curves and big drops.
Highway 1 itself is nothing short of amazing. Built in 1934, it’s a major engineering feat. The California coastline is mostly decomposed granite, which is the slipperiest dirt you can imagine. It soaks up water and then crashes down in big chunks on whatever is below. Carving a still functioning road that hugs the rugged coastline for hundreds of miles is truly impressive.
So this harvest festival is way up one of those steep, hairpinny roads. Oklahoma manages to get the step van up there. They’ve got a sweat lodge set up, and a stage where a drum circle goes all night. There’s no electricity. Some drinking water. Precious little food. I mostly hang around the van and play the banjo. People are meandering around the woods, camping out, tripping on this and that. More hipsters and tripsters keep straggling in from hither and yon. We’re hoarding what little food we’ve got at our camp, as ravenous looking stoners lustily stare at our two cans of Spaghetti-O’s. Finally somebody drives a pickup load of corn in, and it’s summarily devoured by apocalyptic zombies. The sun sets majestically in the ocean. A beautiful full moon lights the sky. A huge bonfire is built. A guy dressed like Pan who somehow seems mildly in charge of the whole thing keeps passing around a wineskin whose contents are laced with LSD. People are dancing and cavorting and leaping through the fire, drumming through the night.
Welcome to Big Sur.
I found it somewhat ironic, or karmic, that I was going back to perform there after all these years. For Independence Day, not the Harvest Festival. It was a different place and time. But still up a steep, curving one lane dusty road. Maybe some of the same people were there. Or their kids. Or their grandchildren.
There was food. Lots of it. Whatever pot was there was certainly not on open display. Plenty of wine and beer. There was electricity to the stage, and a great sound system. Excellent company. Stunning scenery, great weather. The host (not dressed up like Pan) even joined me on tuba for the last couple of songs.
Sometimes life is ironic. Often karmic. And sometimes life is blessed, in the most real sense of the word.