I admit to a conflicted relationship with Big Sur, the vast and sparsely inhabited coastal region immediately south of Carmel, California.
It is a land of dramatic hillsides and cliffs meeting the sea, a narrow winding highway (often closed for rockslides, or un-navigable due to thick fog), and an untamed wilderness. As the rugged and raw threshold of a continent, where earth greets sea and sky, for all of its wildness and scenic beauty, I should love it—and I do, but for the fact that it is simply overrun with tourists, especially in the summer.
I find myself residing on the northern edge of this deeply alluring region that whispers to my soul continuously, yet I resist its magic for months at a time because of the people, most of them loud and boisterous urban dwellers.
It’s all relative, I suppose. If you live in the tightly crowded, noisy grid of the city, arriving in Big Sur it seems uncrowded and expansive (apart from the long stream of cars and motorhomes). If, however, you dwell in a very small, quiet town at the edge of that majestic wilderness, Big Sur can feel less than inviting—at least until after Thanksgiving, when the flocks of folks finally disperse and winter storms roll in.
I’ve been feeling restless lately. Partly it is the soft call of autumn drawing near, a familiar wanderlust that rises in me each fall—especially if I haven’t wandered sufficiently in wild places of the earth. I’ve spent too much of this summer in town, holed up in my cottage beneath the great Monterey cypress tree, working and writing… avoiding Big Sur and its steady queue of traffic.
My lie is constructed around soulful rituals, artisan things, and practices that nourish me daily on a deep level: greeting the dawn barefoot, movement and breath, a home that feels like a sanctuary, making beautiful fresh food, quiet evenings by candlelight. Yet my wild soul still needs to immerse itself in non-domesticated nature. Regularly. For me, it’s like plunging into a pool on a hot summer day—suddenly everything is good again, all the heat, sweat, and irritation washed away.
I know from the restlessness in my core, the growing sense of irritability and overwhelm, that what I really need is to pull the plug and disappear into a redwood canyon for awhile. (This being more practical than running off to New Mexico to wander a sage-strewn mesa at the foot of Taos Mountain.) Disconnect to reconnect.
It’s Saturday, never a good choice for going into Big Sur. Because of a client in the early afternoon, I can’t simply head out with no agenda and venture deeper into the region where the crowds are thinner. Repeatedly, considering this trek, I find myself bumping into my own reluctance over going.
That’s the story of my life, it seems, bumping into my own resistance, but I’m much better at dancing with it these days.
While it’s true that it won’t be solitude, even a brief escape into nature will still feed my soul. I stash a few essentials in my small Osprey daypack—water bottle, Pink Lady apple, raw almonds, my little black journal and fountain pen, a grey soft-shell—and step into Keen hiking sandals. Grabbing my battered walking hat, I head out. My mate is working in Hawaii, and I’m leaving the dogs at home; ignoring their downcast, plaintive expressions that I am going on an adventure without them. I love my boys but being with them on a walk changes everything. Today is solo time, not a family outing.
It’s early enough that I find parking close to the trailhead, an encouraging sign, and stepping through the gate, all seems quiet and uncrowded. Already there is a quickening in my core, a bubbling up of energy and excitement, and a little grin on my face. Oh yes, I needed this.
The morning shines bright and warm, a clear blue sky singing overhead, and as I walk toward the mouth of the coastal canyon, the briny scent and surging voice of the sea quickly fades. Instead I am enfolded by the vaguely sage-like scent of chaparral and late summer brush. Red leaves of poison oak are stitched amid the landscape, easier to spot this time of year than in its green stage, adding a dramatic element of color. My eye is also drawn here and there by the errant golden poppy, a few fading wildflowers, even the odd Morning Glory blossom on a creeping vine.
I’ve not walked here since spring and I’m struck by how parched everything is. California is struggling in its fourth year of severe drought; half the state is on fire, it seems. As I tread along the dusty trail with my senses cast wide to the late summer beauty, intent on feeling what surrounds me, what I most sense is thirst.
I know that just ahead there is a small stream crossing, but even before I reach the cluster of leafy trees or see the water, I smell it—a cool, faintly sweet scent in the air. It’s surprising to me that the creek still flows in early September, especially when there seems to be virtually no water elsewhere in the land. Unbidden, a tender, strong gladness rises up in my heart, knowing that the wild ones—cougar, deer, bobcat, coyote, fox, badger—can find a drink here in this long, dry season.
The path crosses this shallow waterway several times in the low reaches of the canyon, then follows alongside as the rise grows steeper, finally leaving it behind and climbing the ridge above the redwoods. Approaching the second crossing, I hear the familiar sonic drone of bees, and the beekeeper in me rejoices with a smile as I scan for them.
The water here is slow and barely three-inches deep, and the air hums with thirsty bees as they alight on the sandy edge of the stream. Bees need water, too. I flash briefly back to living in southern Spain, to the rugged canyon behind our whitewashed farmhouse amid the olive groves where I often walked. High in the gorge, a stretch of the dusty path ran alongside an old acequia, still flowing, and there was a particular open, sandy section of the bank that was usually lined with wild honeybees. I would stop and crouch down to watch them, a hundred golden, furry bodies lined up on each side of the stream, drinking from the water’s edge. Marvelous.
They are in trouble, these winged alchemists of nature, fighting not only the varroa mite but being poisoned across the globe by the neonicotinoids being bred into GMO crops. Offering them a silent blessing of thanks on the stream bank, a prayer for their survival, I move on.
Ascending the gradual incline, with every step I feel my body, senses, and soul becoming more expansive. I’m sloughing off troubles and irritations, the mundane work that has confined me, shedding a skin too small. I take longer strides, encouraging creaky hips to open as I consciously deepen my breath. Here, now, I am reemerging from the patterns I repeatedly slip into when I don’t dance, move, or get outside enough (something more than simply walking the dogs through the neighborhood). With every step, I am coming home to myself.
It’s a wild soul morning, the very best sort. Already the cranky curmudgeon of me feels far away, left behind at the intersection of Rio Road and Highway 1, the last stop when heading south out of town into Big Sur.
Just ahead is the spot where I will step off the trail, amble down a little side track and find my perch above the shady stream amid the redwoods. There I’ll slip off my shoes, and sit with pen and paper for an hour or so. Observing. Listening. Feeling.
So often I query in this weekly column, to what will we give the gift of our attention? And yet, a recent reading of the ever remarkable Mary Oliver has reminded me, “Attention without feeling… is only a report. An openness — an empathy — [is] necessary if the attention [is] to matter.”
Carrying her words in my heart (as I do everywhere I go, having memorized several of her poems), my task on this wild soul morning is not simply to be outdoors in nature, good as that is; nor is it just to be quiet and observe what presents itself. Rather I am here to feel—deeply—and to sense myself interwoven once more with the soul and song of the world.
Put another way, lifting a line from one of Oliver’s poems, “You have only to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.”
[This is the first of a 3-part series. The second installment, “Seeing: Leaving My Shoes Along the Trail, Part 2,” follows next week.]