On the Road Past Big Sur

So the trip begins. As I packed everything into the van, trying to figure what goes where, Mom showed her support by coming out of the house with yet one more bag of dried food which had been squirreled away in various cupboards. I headed south toward the mountains of Big Sur and into the land of metaphors from which I find it hard to extract myself.

I have a tendency toward trying to make things symbolic or metaphorical which, although it makes life interesting, does not usually work to my benefit. For instance, when I came to choose between the two final contenders for the van that I would buy, I was torn between one that had the air of a friendly labvrador and another that had the air of a prissy woman in a white dress. My family ultimately had to remind me that we weren’t talking about prospective romantic partners, we were talking about a van, and I should buy the one in better shape with lower mileage. So now I’m driving around in a prissy woman with a white dress.

The first night, I turned off on the road to the Tassajara Hot Springs and found myself confronted by a sign “Adventure Pass necessary on National Forest Land”. My adventure has begun, and me with no adventure pass! It is as if I am in some rather mild nightmare. I pull to the side to call. No cell phone reception. I am afraid that this may be the pattern of cell phone reception – if you’re in a place where you really might need the cell phone, it probably won’t get reception there. I decide to turn back and go to Arroyo Seco instead – a larger private campground. Now my tendency for metaphor and symbolism attacks me. Have I cravenly turned back and thus missed my chance to spend my first night on the mountain top? What does it mean to foresake the Buddhist hot springs and live among the RV’s instead?

Not much, it turns out – Arroyo Seco turns out to be in a lovely area. A deep gorge cuts by it, geen water showing between the steep white sides. A red tailed hawk hunted the side of a hill, hovering against the breeze. There is a flat dirt road following along high above the gorge, perfect for the short evening hike I took. I let go of Tassajara and instead focused my anxiety on being atttacked by mountain lions. Mountain lions are particularly good to worry about on a solo jaunt, because they like to attack from the rear. You can go strolling along drinking in the night air, and then suddenly spin around and make sure that there is still no mountain lion behind you.

The next day, I headed to the Pinnacles National Monument for a hike. The area around the Pinnacles is pretty typical of central California – rolling hills covered with sere grass, radiating heat, but the pinnacles themselves are interesting and dramatic. They thrust up from the landscape in lumpish piles and lone fingers, grey amidst the lion colored grass. I read that they are actually part of a volcano which was formed on the San Andreas fault. The volcano straddled the fault, and the forces that gave rise to it tore it in two. Half the volcano stayed where it was and the other half was transported north. The Pinnacles are the part that headed north, the bones of the volcano enduring as the rest of the earth subsided around it, the bones, too, softly crumbling back to earth.

I took a walk around the high peaks (Again I had to make a choice dripping with symbolism. Is it better to choose to walk the peaks or commune with the underworld in the caves?) The peaks are a very dramatic hike. At some points there are little footholds cut into the rock with a small iron railing to keep you from tumbling off.

At one point a sat at the top of the peak looking down at the turkey vultures cruising below me, and the iridescent green swallows swooping and chattering. Looking down on birds flying is an interesting perspective, and not one wholly unfamiliar to New Yorkers. One turkey vulture seemed to move in a fantastic way, swooping, gaining and losing altitude, almost leaping from treetop to treetop. It took me a while to realize that I was looking at the shadow of the bird, and not the bird itself. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.

I have had the good fortune of picking up two good books on tape. One is the Tao te Ching as translated by Steven Mitchell. I had never read the Tao te Ching, and I was surprised at how much in sympathy I found myself with it. It is read by Steven Mitchell. I must admit I find his voice a little too soft and New Age-y. I guess as a New Yorker I want something a little harder, someone who might say “The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao – you got a probolem with that?”

The other audio book is a collection of selections from Thoreau and Emerson. I am surprised by how much they agree with the Tao. I have already run into a number of unlooked for coincidences – for instance before I left I reread David Updike’s lovely collection of short stories called “Out on the Marsh”. One story involves David constructing a small house. Then on my ride down to Big Sur, I listened to Walden and Thoreau’s description of building a similar house. The next day, I picked up a hitchiker (I didn’t expect to, but there he was, clean, bearded and with a backpack on route 1, standing in the morning fog, and I just naturally stopped for him.) It turns out that Andrew was just coming down from the one room cabin in the woods that he built himself a la Updike and Thoreau. He was going to Cambria to fill up his propane tank. We stopped to look at elephant seals on the way.

On the way into LA my transmission blew up. The car refused to shift into high gear, and so I could go a max of 45 mph, the engine revving hard and hot. I was glad for the traffic that forced us all to go slow. Luckily my Cousin’s husband’s brother is a mechanic, so the car went immediately to a shop called Dr. Boltz. They do a lot of work converting the new VW Beetle into high powered racing type vehicles. People in LA evidentally have way too much money to spend on cars. Jeffrey, one of the owners told us b”Yeah, people go crazy with customization. One guy came in here for an oil change, and ended up spending $50,000″. This is not necessarily what you want to hear from your mechanic.

With the car tucked into their work bay on that ominous note, my cousin Suzanne dropped me off at the Catalina ferry the next day.

Next installment : Swing Dance Camp on the Isle of Dr. Moreau