The Human Presence in Big Sur
human impact on the Big Sur coast seems almost negligable, it
has left so few traces. And indeed, compared to more welcoming
landscapes, total population has never been significant. It reached
its peak in the late 1880's when the tanbark, lime and logging
operations brought in workers. A gold strike on Alder Creek added
to the short-lived boom.
population is difficult to estimate--many residents don't prefer
to be counted--but educated guesses run from 1,100 to 1,400 hardy
native peoples that called this area home had an even more invisible
presence. The Esselen, Ohlone, Ohlone-Rumsen and the Salinan lived
here for perhaps 30,000 years. They followed the seasonal food
sources, mostly traveling in an east-west direction due to the
difficulties of the deep coastal canyons. The fruits of the sea
and the land provided a bountiful subsistence for the first inhabitants
of the area. They were well-known for fine basketry, among many
other peaceable achievements.
the first white men arrived in 1768, the native people greeted
them warmly with gifts of food. They seemed unsurprised to see
people so unlike themselves.
research reveals that the Pacific Coast may have visited by people
from Asia since the beginning of the first milennium B.C.
Chinese, in particular, had a large influence on local culture,
leaving their mark in art, calendars, counting devices, plants
emperors sent out well-equipped vessels on voyages to what they
called the Eastern Sea (the Pacific) to search for the mountainous
paradise where immortals and the drug they used to prevent death
could be found. Unfortunately, due to a lack of easily available
return currents, most if not all of these expeditions failed to
make it home.
were shipwrecked or cast away among the native inhabitants. Evidence
shows visits from India, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia
and Java as well. So perhaps Big Sur has never been as isolated
as it appeared!
natives lived undisturbed for the most part, despite these infrequent
vistations, until the Spanish began their push into Alta California...
and Father Junipero Serra were on an urgent mission in 1768 to
secure the California coast from contending forces. The Russians
were making a move south from Alaska with their eyes on the sea
otter pelt trade. Sir Frances Drake had landed and
made a claim for England. It was time for the Spanish to stop
ignoring their distant holdings and establish secure outposts.
In 1770, after much hardship and travail, the Mission at Monterey
The Carmel Mission Courtyard
dual forces of conversion and military presence suffered a setback
when contagious disease brought by whites practically eliminated
the native population altogether before all the mission outposts
were completed. The few survivors learned to hide from Europeans,
or they were absorbed by the missions and died in servitude there.
1822 Mexico declared independence from Spain. The era of the rancho
began. During this period Spanish was the predominant tongue on
the central coast of California. The missions were finally secularized
and the native inhabitants fared relatively well under Mexican
by the 1840's many American pioneers had moved in and taken up
homesteads. They were unhappy with the governor's allegiance to
Mexico. Turmoil was common, culminating with Fremont's arrival
with an armed force in 1846. The surrender was signed in 1847.
the late 1880's settlers began moving into the Big Sur area. Living
conditions were primitive due to isolation. Cooking was done on
fireplaces and water was hauled from creeks or springs. Supplies
came in once a year by ship. Necessaries had to be purchased in
Monterey the rest of the year. The wagon road ended at Mill Creek--the
remaining distance to the Big Sur was covered by pack mule. High
water and slides closed even these rustic routes all winter long.
names of Big Sur pioneers remain on our maps today:
Partington, Pfeiffer, Post, Dani, Cooper, Manuel--all commemorate
the first families who called the Sur home.
The Cooper Cabin
was during this rough period that Big Sur earned its reputation
as a dark and bloody land. The feuds, murders and suicides were
reminiscent of the Ozarks. One particularly dramatic storyteller
in later days was the English-born Grimes, a stagecoach driver
who spread these grisly tales far and wide.
stories of friendly cooperation are equally numerous, if not so
glamorous. Settlers had to help each other--there was no other
way to survive.
tradition continues among current inhabitants. As Henry Miller
put it, "If I were to single out one element in the American
temperament which has been exalted here, it would be kindness."
was the nexus of a gathering of Bohemian artists and writers that
called Big Sur
home in the forties and fifties. The exaggerated reputation of
the area is revealed by a story Miller tells of a man who showed
up on his doorstep one day to announce that he was there "to
join the cult of sex and anarchy". Of course there never
was such a cult. Most writers retired to the Sur simply to get
some work done. Unfortunately most found that just living there
entailed so much work in itself that frequently the art suffered.
Not to mention the distraction afforded by the views!
over the years, writers, artists and photographers such as Robert
Louis Stevenson (who set Treasure Island on a place remarkably
similar to Point Lobos), Mary Austin, Jack London, Sinclair Lewis,
John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers (whose epic poems of life in
the Sur drew the first literary tourists), Lillian Ross, Jack
Kerouac, Henry Miller (resident for 20 years), Edward Weston and
Ansel Adams, among many many others have either lived or spent
time along the South coast.
Kerouac may be the only writer on this list to have arrived in
a taxi. He was on his way to stay in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin
to "dry out", but made a brief pit stop in the North
Beach bars. When the taxi let him out where the road stopped at
Bixby Creek canyon, it was pitch black. He wandered around a bit,
lost, then finally passed out in a meadow. Jack's experience in
Big Sur is chronicled in his book of the same name. For this Eastern
boy, evidently, the looming mountains and breakneck paths to the
sea were simply too much. He claimed that he heard the surf incessantly
telling him to leave, go home, write a book!
the early 1900's residents themselves improved the roads. Woodstoves,
gas lanterns and indoor plumbing showed up here and there at first,
then became nearly universal. The opening of Highway One in 1937
linked Big Sur to the rest of the world for good or bad. Conditions
gradually attained to a state commonly called 'civilization',
with electricity finally arriving in the fifties.
people who live here still travel to Carmel or Monterey for supplies,
and are still frequently cut-off by storms and road closures in
the winter. Electrical power and telephone service can be unreliable,
cell phones have a limited utility, and television reception is
limited to a few channels.
suffer these and other inconveniences simply because living here
in these glorious surroundings is an exalted experience.
Miller raised two children in his cramped home on Partington Ridge
and he had these words to say about watching them grow up here:
"...They had skies of pure azure and walls of fog moving
in and out of the canyons with invisible feet, hills in winter
of emerald green and in summer mountain upon mountain of pure
gold. They had even more, for there was ever the unfathomable
silence of the forest, the blazing immensity of the Pacific, days
drenched with sun and nights spangled with stars..."
residents continue to work diligently to preserve the beauty of
Big Sur. It's an ongoing battle, but one infinitely worthwhile,
as this slice of paradise serves as an intoxicating reminder of
how beautiful the world can be if simply left alone.