Silence in Big Sur, silence in between

Silence in Big Sur, silence in between

Big Sur 6

Posted April 9, 2020

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As I write this, the majority of the world is in isolation; the pandemic of COVID-19 has forced us indoors and away from each other. I am watching my friends and the global community struggle with this new-found stillness. This silence that occupies the space between busyness is daunting and terrifying, it is a space that most of us try to avoid at all costs, a gap we try to close. In the last year as I have traveled the world alone, the busyness ebbed away and I was left with nothing but the scary quiet. Instead of avoiding it, I dove in and crossed my fingers that somewhere in the isolation, I would find peace. 

“I have much work to finish and am seeking peace and isolation. I am completely out of the world there,” Henry Miller wrote about Big Sur in a letter to Anais Nin. I decided that if it was good enough for Henry Miller, it was good enough for me. Located about 150 miles south of San Francisco, this formidable and majestic landscape is a bohemian hub for writers, poets, artists, musicians, and mystics. Somewhere between the mountains and the ocean is a silence that if you let it, becomes the veil between worlds. 

“If it be knowledge or wisdom one is seeking, then one had better go direct to the source.” 

Driving away from the polished town of Carmel-By-The-Sea, the curtains are slowly drawn back revealing the rugged coastline of steep mountains dropping straight into the ocean. The highway teeters along cliffs, so close to the edge it feels as though you’re flying, then occasionally winding back into the deep stillness of the redwoods. 

My destination was Kirk Creek Campground, the only campsite located directly on an ocean bluff while all others are positioned on the inland side of the highway. There is no running water, flushable toilets, electricity, or cell reception; for five days there would be no noise or distraction from my books and my thoughts. Without the normal chaos I busy my mind with, I began to notice details that at any other time would have been nothing more than background noise. 

On the south side of the campground, there is a well-worn trail that ambles through wild shrubbery, leading first along an oceanside cliff, then down into a small valley. The path, canopied with an archway of trees and vines, follows Kirk Creek until it joins the sea at the private beach. Hours were spent lounging on these sun-warmed boulders, watching the fog roll in and out and pods of dolphins fan back and forth across the coastline. 

A short drive down the road, enticed by a void of other cars and lack of any markings, I followed mysterious wooden steps over a fence and into a field of lush green grass spotted with yellow flowers, only later learning I had stumbled upon Pacific Valley Bluff. The trail meanders to the clifftop edge of Sand Dollar Beach where I perched to watch the surfers ride the cerulean waves, envious of the intimacy they share with the water. Following the path further along, the smooth trail was occasionally interspersed with jagged and misshapen rocks where plants and flowers have made a cozy home in the small nooks—the charm of an old, grumpy man wearing a flower crown. The wooden steps made sudden sense when lost in a reverie of California blossoms and salty air, I almost bumped straight into a large black and white cow. Chewing grass like a teenager chews gum, she stared at me, and all but rolled her eyes—a local unimpressed by yet another wide-eyed, camera-toting tourist interrupting her lunch. 

Big Sur by Big Sur photo by Torrance McCartney2
Big Sur by Big Sur photo by Torrance McCartney

As time passed, I watched my thoughts bounce from gratitude to anger, sadness, peace and back again. The activity of the internal whirlwind was endless and at times exhausting. After three days in the quiet company of campground bunnies and beggar chipmunks, I was lured to the renowned Big Sur Bakery with the promise of espresso, fresh bread, and human interaction. 

This rustic 1930s converted ranch style house is made all the more charming by the manager, an effervescent Frenchman who bounds through the dining room entertaining guests with a mix of wit, theatrics, and genuine connection. After gifting me a bag of their gourmet trail mix, he invited me to return for dinner and offered the recommendation to visit the Henry Miller Memorial Library a short jaunt down the road, all of which I accepted. 

Big Sur photo by Torrance McCartney
Big Sur photo by Torrance McCartney

The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a bookstore and hub for community events dedicated to promoting the work of not just Henry Miller but also other notable Big Sur artists. Hours can be lost in this small, rickety house perusing books and the walls lined with a mess of art and memorabilia. In the silence disturbed only by the creaking floorboards, the history of Big Sur echoed through the pages and I felt myself standing in the footprints of all those who came before me. 

“The ideal community, in a sense would be the loose, fluid aggregation of individuals who elected to be alone and detached in order to be at one with themselves and all that lives and breathes.” 

Returning to the bakery, I made friends with the locals and tourists while the kitchen created a custom epicurean vegan feast—chewy, perfectly tart sourdough made with a 17-year-old starter and a simple salad with ingredients so fresh, each green burst with flavor that made my eyes melt shut and my mouth smile with each bite. I drove back to my off-grid oasis through the pastel swirl of the ocean sunset and sunk into the quietude, like slipping into a warm bath on a cold winters day. 

“They had skies of pure azure and walls of fog moving in and out of the canyons with invisible feet, hills in winter of emerald green and in summer mountain upon mountain of pure gold. They had even more, for there was ever the unfathomable silence of the forest, the blazing immensity of the Pacific, days drenched with sun and nights spangled with stars…” 

I had intended to spend the entire five days alone but the truth is that we humans do not thrive in complete isolation any more than we thrive being afraid of it. In the unforgiving terrain and wild beauty of Big Sur, I slipped between the busy moments and into the stillness. There, waiting for me, was not just a truce with my messy mind, but also a deep sense of connection to those around me, those who came before and those yet to come. 

It is now almost a year later and again I find myself isolated, this time in the snow-covered Canadian mountains, taking shelter from a virus that is ravaging the world. As alone as we may feel sequestered away in our individual homes, it is more evident than ever that we are all interconnected. We do not have to go to California to find the peace that lives in the silence in Big Sur, it exists in each and every one of us wherever we are. All we need to do is close our eyes, listen to our breath and meet each other in the silence in between. 

Big Sur photo by Torrance McCartney 5
Big Sur photo by Torrance McCartney

Quotes from “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch” by Henry Miller. 

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  • Torrance McCartney was raised on a fishing boat on the Great Barrier Reef by her nomadic family. She is a full-time traveler and having just returned from Europe, is currently embarking on her second road trip across North America. When she’s not writing or taking photographs, she can be found at a cafe drinking coffee, visiting a farm sanctuary, volunteering with rescue animals, doing yoga, or laying on a beach reading a book. Follow her on Instagram.