03 September 2008


No one told me just how desolate, just how cliff-hugging, just how hairpin-curvy, or just how beautiful the Big Sur coast road is. I mean, I had read Robinson Jeffers and John Steinbeck, and I knew it was going to be full of sweeping views and water crashing onto craggy stone towers.

But as we drove through the country just north of San Simeon (before the real curves start), I thought: this is what they are talking about! How lovely! No wonder it's famous.

I was getting ahead of myself, because I had no idea what was yet to come.

And we were woefully unprepared. Having no reservation for a campground, we planned to stop "somewhere along the way." I had a quarter tank of gas, which I thought I would be able to replenish, also "somewhere along the way." And it was starting to get dark.

Thus it was that we found ourselves swerving around the tightest of curves, perched upon the highest of cliffs, face-first into the most deliriously blazing of sunsets. I could barely see the road, both because the intense flaming orange filled the windshield and because all I wanted to do was stare down the horizon: undulating cliffs and cascades of clouds falling golden into the sea. But I crept along and hugged the side of the mountain and, alternating with incoherent exclamations about beauty and telling the Mister to take pictures, nervously watched the gas needle plummet as we vainly searched for campground indications.

It occurred to me that this moment would qualify as Sublime, capital S, in the 18th-century, Burkean sense of the word, an experience (usually of the natural world, most particularly the Alps) in which terror and beauty simultaneously overwhelm the beholder. If John Dennis' conception of the sublime was an appreciation of utter beauty "mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair," well, our drive along the Big Sur coast road sure was sublime.

Because we were starting to despair when at last we reached the little outpost of the outside world called Gorda, and I was grateful--grateful!--to pay $6.25 per gallon of gas. I asked the guy where the next campground was, and he said laconically, "just a ways up the road." We had already stopped at a couple of places that were totally full, and I was past freaking out, already stoically resigning myself to driving those curves in the dark.

"A ways up the road" turned out to be, oh, three miles, but they felt like twenty. We rejoiced at the sight of a sign saying Plaskett Creek campground, but despaired once again when it became quite obvious that most of the first-come, first-served campsites were taken. At last, we spotted a tiny spur off to the side with a postage-stamp campsite, and in the almost pitch dark, we set up our tent. We had to make do with no running water and pit toilets, and for dinner we ate peanut butter sandwiches out the trunk of the car, but we counted ourselves lucky.


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