After an hour driving south on the 101 from the Bay Area, Silicon Valley’s sprawl gradually opens up to farmland. Tesla Roadsters and shiny Mercedes are replaced by pickups. Eight lanes of traffic dwindles to just four and vegetable stands pop up along the roadside. South of Gilroy, my grey VW wagon, with the empty child seat in back, streaks by some ancient Mexican adobe ruins and follows the highway as it starts climbing the coast range. The valley narrows towards the pass and the grassy hillsides steepen to form canyon walls thick with live oak and stands of eucalyptus. At the crest of the pass, the highway twists around a few massive boulders and then we start back downhill in the general direction of the Pacific Ocean. We’ve made our escape. Maria and I are taking our first trip without the kids in three years. We’re on our way to Big Sur and the Central Coast. We exit the freeway and take a two lane highway to the ocean. Then, we merge onto California’s famous Highway 1 where it skirts the massive wall of dunes that ring Monterey Bay. Sand drifts like snow on the pavement. Angel white gulls with snapping beaks careen across the sky. In the distance we see the piney ridge that forms the spine of the Monterey Peninsula. The surf is up and a misty layer of sea-spay fogs the lower elevations.
From my experience, there is no other place in the continental United States that can immediately alter your state of mind like the Big Sur Coast. Though technically not yet Big Sur, passing the roadside Jolly Buddha statue on the downhill run towards Carmel is where the mind warp begins. Here, where the coastal fog gets tangled in the pine bows, a measurable amount of mental sludge evaporates. This is only the first step towards a deeper unraveling. A few miles further, after curving around rocky bays and passing several misty redwood canyons, the landscape of Big Sur opens up. You see the jagged, raw hills, lifted by tectonic activity, standing tall in the sun above the turbulent sea. Wind and surf pound the exposed bedrock. Down on a rocky beach a sea-lion basks in the late afternoon sun, a scar in the shape of a shark’s jaw marks his belly. In Big Sur, all the planet’s forces are on clear display and one automatically feels small and insignificant. But then, as you gradually remember that you too were built, body and mind, for this wild world, a deep calm sets in. You stop at the first pullout, unbuckle your seat-belt, and scamper down to the beach like dog that’s finally let off leash. Big Sur takes you from zero to relaxed in 3.5 seconds.
That’s the ideal way to experience Big Sur, but Maria and I are in a hurry to get to our motel. We don’t even stop when I spot a pod of whales. It’s possible that after years of raising children while trying to keep pace with the great California suburban rat race we’ve forgotten how to slow down. Even a slap in the face from this sacred landscape doesn’t slow us down. Rushed is our identity, our habitual state of being. Also, this is the first time we’ve left our two-year old, Holden, home without one of his parents for more than a day. He’s in good hands with his Grandma and Big Sister watching him, but he had a cold when we left, and now, both of us are feeling a certain helicopter parent’s form of guilt. For two days, we actually debated cancelling our trip because of Holden’s runny nose. In the morning when we were scheduled to leave, we delayed and took Holden to the doctor instead. We made excuses that we were concerned about a persistent fever, but I think we were just looking for a professional endorsement that our drippy nosed toddler would survive his parent’s absence. The doctor said Holden would be fine and we ended up leaving four hours late. Then, halfway down the 101, Maria remembered there isn’t cell phone service in Big Sur. That’s why were in a hurry to get to the hotel. They have WiFi and we want to contact Grandma to see how the kids are doing. Maria and I aren’t good at taking vacations.
A few miles before our hotel we pass Point Sur Station. A herd of cows grazes near the fence. I make a note that this might be a good spot for a photo.
We check in at the motel, send Grandma a couple of messages, and then I talk Maria into heading back up the road for some sunset photos. We arrive back at to Point Sur when the sun is just a few degrees above the horizon. It’s a cloudy evening and the light is not so great but there is hope. I show Maria that there is a gap in the clouds just above the horizon. If the sun drops into that open slot, the entire sky will light up. And for once, my prediction comes true — the sun slips into gap at the horizon. Knowing time is short, I scramble around with my tripod. First, I shoot west. Then, I cross highway 1 and shoot the cows on the hill above us. While crossing back I take a couple of shots of Maria. I’m acting like a madman. Maria, takes a look at my LCD, she’s never been interested in the picture-taking process, but today she finally has a suggestion.
“In all your pictures you have that whole blob of rocks. Why don’t you cut it in half and focus more on the lighthouse?”
Ah, the genius of the beginner’s mind! Of course, why didn’t I think of this myself? A simple rule of thirds lighthouse photo! I try to make my photos so complicated these days that I didn’t once think to take the obvious shot, the right shot, the shot you see at the top of this post. Thank you Maria. And this was where the vacation started for me with the reminder that sometimes simple is best.
*David is a California Photographer
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