A Good Friend to the Rescue

It’s decided: this will be the last time we camp on this trip — the tent’s just too small and close to the ground for a restful night’s sleep. And we had to pitch it on dirt, in close proximity to a family whose kids were having a screaming contest. OK, it was pretty, there were redwoods, hot showers, a pub just a few minutes’s walk down the road, but …

We packed up and pedaled from the campground a few minutes south to Ripplewood Resort for what was billed as “the most overlooked breakfast on the Big Sur Coast”: eggs benedict with a chile Hollandaise and good ol’ blueberry pancakes with a couple over easy. A sign on the cafĂ© door warned “If It’s Urban, It’s Disturbin’.”

Day 26 dawned hot and sunny at first, as we climbed out of the Big Sur River, but within a few miles the Pacific fog moved in and cooled us off. We rode through the clouds, which swirled like smoke up the sheer drop offs, all around us the brilliance of blue sky and sunshine only thinly veiled in white mist.

That’s the ocean way down there.

“Here it comes…”

Only problem with this cool beauty was that the views were then largely obscured, which probably saved us some time since there was little point to pause at every vista point for photo ops, a persistent cause of slow progress yesterday. We made good time, in part because, due to the road closure further south, fewer cars than usual were passing us. It often felt as if we had Hwy 1 to ourselves, a private and spectacularly engineered bike path.

Yep, that was short but steep.

Road closure or not — and it’s scheduled to reopen in a month — Big Sur still feels remote, even when it’s crowded with summer visitors. Ever since the road opened in the late 1930s, this area has been popular with artists, hermits, and others seeking creative or spiritual solitude not too far from civilization. In the late 1950s Beat writer Jack Kerouac, overwhelmed by public attention in the wake of his wildly successful debut On the Road, fled to San Francisco in an alcoholic haze and took a bus to Big Sur, walking the last uphill miles to a cabin he borrowed from poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, where he tried to practice Buddhism, feeding the animals instead of eating them, drinking heavily, and slowly going crazy (as chronicled in his semi-autobiographical Big Sur).

Kerouac’s hideout, in Bixby Canyon.

David unfortunately had nothing in his bag that was good for this cute little panhandler.

A near-contemporary of Kerouac’s, Henry Miller also lived at Big Sur while his literary reputation was benefiting from Tropic of Cancer and other racy books banned at the time in the US. His residence here was longer (1944-62) and more productive than Kerouac’s, and led to the memoir Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, in which he chronicles the area’s emergence as an artists’ colony and complains about the growing tourist traffic that distracted him from his writing. Like Ferlinghetti, he also invited a troubled friend to his cabin, who ended up hating the weather and the seclusion and having to chop your own firewood. The Henry Miller Memorial Library in the town of Big Sur was closed when we rode through, due to the road closure, but it may not have mattered: its motto is “a place where nothing happens.”

Turnoff to the “New Camaldoni Hermitage”

The civil engineering masterpiece along which we rode was completed only seven years before Miller moved here, built in large part by convicts from San Quentin and Folsom prisons. Now Hwy 1 is lined with expensive resorts, art galleries, private and public campgrounds, and hulking, almost ominous James-Bond-villain gates to hidden cliffside homes and compounds of the rich and perhaps famous — names like “Rancho Rico,” “Casa de Oro,” and “Bien Sur” — plus the odd and very steep sometimes unpaved driveway leading up into the hills, sometimes marked with a mailbox or a “Private” sign, where perhaps the next Great American Novelist plies her trade in splendid and scenic seclusion, punctuated by occasional nights out at Nepenthe or deep bodywork in the Esalen hot springs pools.

There were no visible driveways or access roads anywhere near here.

Esalen: rooms start at $845/night, but you can pitch a sleeping bag for only $420. (Our Big Sur tent site last night was $65.)

Traffic was light, as previously noted, and the road in great shape with good shoulders, plenty of turnouts. and reasonable grades, so riding was a real pleasure. So were the displays of late-spring early-summer flowers: paintbrush, wild roses, lupine, mullein, wild mustard (everywhere) and, among others, naturally, the California state flower.

Equally pleasurable was our arrival at Treebones, a few hundred meters from the road closure at Gorda, where after a (at first glance, disheartening) short steep climb among yurts and treehouses we were greeted most cordially by the staff of this “glamping” resort where we bought beers from the gift shop, lounged on a very comfortable sofa by a fireplace, watched the fog swirl below us, and awaited our friend Tom.

Ashley is cozy, thanks to the loan of Tom’s warm micro-puff.

Tom, having driven down from Santa Cruz in an unbelievably generous act of friendship, had a drink and appetizers with us, then loaded our bikes into his truck and drove us on the steep and narrow Nacimiento Road, the only way around the closure. Climbing that impossibly steep winding road, a lane-and-a-half-wide and hardly untrafficked, we could only think how unutterably miserable it would be to do that on a bike. Rough terrain, a long punishing ride, and no services. But for the selflessness of Tom….

We drove over the Santa Lucias to 101, south to Paso Robles where we paused for a Mexican dinner, then back out to the coast where we’d reserved a room on the other side of the closure, at San Simeon. All in all, well over a 100-mile detour. Tom had brought some vino, which we sipped while unpacking and repacking for the morrow and chatting. Called it a night around 11, after gathering all the camping stuff we’re offloading with Tom–who has, kindness upon kindness, offered to store it for us until the next time….

Today: 39.5 miles, 4018′, 3:47. Plus one long drive across beautiful California roads that were almost all new to all three of us.

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