One of the narrators of “Birding,” the one whose biography most closely resembles mine, spent a few years living in close proximity to the fabled Pacific Coast Highway, aka California Route 1, not far from the area called Big Sur. This is the place where the Santa Lucia Mountains meet the ocean with skin-on-skin intimacy, and the highway clings to the rugged cliffs, often hundreds of feet above the water. It is also a stretch of coast with a prominent heritage in 20th century American literature, extending south from Steinbeck country, and having hosted the likes of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson among others.
So it was with considerable lament that I read about the recent landslide which wiped out a large portion of the road, up past the Vicente Flat Trail that Pedro makes almost famous in Act V. It’s the second time in recent memory that Big Sur has seen a long-term closure due to roadway collapse, resulting from the vicious twin factors of wildfire scars and heavy rainstorms — both of which are expected to increase with climate instability.
This USA Today article dares ask the unthinkable question: “Is this the end of the road” for the PCH in Big Sur?
In case this is the beginning of the end, I thought I’d excerpt this little scene from Birding as a tribute. May all who have hugged her curves and held on for the ride of their lives remember her well.
“Once the sun was all the way up, I went back out to Route 1 [by Moonstone Beach in Cambria, the last populated community heading north on the PCH before Big Sur] and stuck out my thumb. Within a few minutes, I had a ride in what must have been a 1960s Volvo wagon, driven by an ageless man with flowing silver hair. The car gave the impression of a bicycle within a cage that seated four, so it would hardly have shocked me to look down at the floorboards and see him pedaling. The dashboard looked and smelled like my grandfather’s old fishing boat. I am not even sure it had a speedometer. But the thing puttered along in its steady tortoise-like way, and the old man said nothing. He just looked at me with a Cheshire cat smile and nodded his approval. This is what he did for the whole ride to everything he saw. I imagined that he was on his way to spend the rest of his life at the Esalen Institute, or maybe to sit on a cliff in the lotus position for forty days to bring about world peace –or maybe he just drives his putt-putt wagon up and down the coast, looking for forlorn hitchhikers to smile and nod at. I just wanted to put more distance between myself and Cayucos, so I was up for a ride with anyone.
We passed the flats of San Simeon and Piedras Blancas, covered by the gray marine layer that I imagined made the Pacific look like the Irish Sea. About an hour into the trip (normally more like 40 minutes), we reached the mountains, the image from my teenage bedroom altar before us, where slopes drop straight into the ocean, their rounded peaks lost in the fog. The ancient wagon slowed to a near stop on the first incline switchback, but it had pulled these hills a thousand times and would pull them many thousands more, or so I was pleased to think. Soon we were into the thick of the clouds ourselves, and the little twigs that held the windshield wipers sprung to life, to the old man’s smiling and nodding delight. Then we briefly poked above the cloud layer and saw the great expanse of their sparkly white sunny side like a marshmallow sea, clear blue sky above us to the heavens. Then we dipped back down into the clouds and up above them again. We did this a few times, like a dolphin swimming through the water and popping up for air. The old man just smiled and nodded and took all the curves and dips and hairpin turns like we were riding on rails.
I rode with him up past Gorda, but there were some trails in that vicinity I was itching to hike so I jumped out shortly after. I could have stayed with him forever. I wonder if I was supposed to, and together we would drive off into that good night. But I guess it was not time to go yet. Too much unfinished business here. The driver smiled and nodded even more vigorously as I stepped out, and then he surprised me with a graceful two-fingered wave, like something you would expect from a messiah. Then I closed the door, and the little Flintstone car puttered off to God knows where. I watched it disappear around the next looping bend, wondering if I was about to wake up on the beach in Cambria. Or did the dream sequence go back even further?”