Do people still ascribe to the myth of California as the place of the endless summer ? A worry-free existence of plucking oranges off trees,with the surf as sound track? If so , the setting is surely somewhere along the California coast. The coast is where we all end, be it on wagon trains in Oregon, Okies on Route 66, or a harried commuter who takes the 38 Geary to the beach. The vast tableau of the ocean is empty canvas, one on which the viewer can sketch dreams, search for some elusive truth. It’s also a great place to build a bonfire or surf. Really either one is fine; the truth searching or the surfing. The myth, or reality, of the coast is about both.
At the beginning of the year, on my way home, I took my time, spending a couple of days journeying up the coast. This was not a rigorous tour, though I did have a couple of destinations in mind at Lo Jolla and San Simeon, along with visits with a few friends, and a stop at a hermitage for meditation. The coast worked its magic, triggering much thought, not just about my own professional detour of the last two years, and what may lie ahead this year, but the relationship of this extraordinary landscape on those who work, live, and ponder; along the coast.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
And wouldn’t it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong
You know its gonna make it that much better
When we can say goodnight and stay together
Wouldn’t it be nice
Working: The Salk Institute in La Jolla
High on an ocean bluff north of La Jolla sits one of the 20th centuries architectural masterpieces, Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute. Louis Kahn , perhaps more than any other, embodied a near monastic approach to architecture. His total devotion to his craft resulted in his work being so unique in a field, that ultimately differs little from other design arts in its mimicry of the current fashion. His total devotion to his craft also led to a somewhat tragic existence, he carried on separate concurrent marriages and families, (one son eventually wrote an incredible documentary about this – “My Architect”). His life ended on the floor of a Penn Station bathroom, broke, his briefcase still stuffed with architectural plans.His devotees spread out across the land after his death in the 70’s , and a number of them became entrenched at the University of Buffalo where I went to school, where this monastic approach was passed down in the form of too many all-nighters on those cold Lake Erie nights. But I digress.
We visited the Salk on a beautiful Southern California afternoon. Kahn’s concept for the institute was 2 lab wings flanking a serenely deserted plaza, with space infinite to the ocean beyond. The effect is mesmerizing:
The labs are in some way monastic cells themselves, with individual scientist offices housed in small bays that face the ocean, the zig zag pattern giving all a view:
I suppose the monastic theme is carried further by the lack of adornment, the work is spartan, raw, exquisite concrete with teak wood insets. Buffeted by the ocean weather, it has aged well.
Beneath this escarpment , sits a black sand beach, and above, paragliders sail in the Pacific breeze. I had the privilege of touring the complex and descending to the beach with a dear friend, part Architect, part surfer, so this is God’s country for him. It was all staggering beautiful. I imagined Louis Kahn descending to the beach in his pennyloafers, dropping his plans on the rocks, and his shoes in the sand:
Living: In Morro Bay
I left the next morning and headed north, my goal would be north of Santa Barbara, somewhere on the central coast. Along the way, I met another dear and close friend, known him for 44 years. We met for lunch near where he worked out near Ventura. A close friend not seen for a year, so much history, so much life shared, but at this moment, we would meet incongruously in a shopping center in the middle of nowhere. The lunch was too short as the setting melted away, but when we parted, I thought how strange to be with someone so familiar in such an anonymous place:
After lunch, as the LA metroplex finally released me north along the coast, I drifted back through time. While the Bay Area and LA Area have grown and changed with me over the years, my memories and experiences along the Central Coast are frozen in time. When I first moved here, it was a midpoint gathering place for us from the north and those from the south, hosted by another member of the group who lived out near Morro Bay, near San Luis Obispo. That was 20 years ago, and the memories, like the place itself, hadn’t been accessed recently, separated as they were by a jagged coast and modern distractions. By the time I arrived in Morro Bay, it was dark, and it was cold, being early January and all. The town affected that ghostly feeling one gets off-season in a beach town. I negotiated a $39 room at the mostly empty Sandpiper Inn with the proprietor, an Indian from Bombay. The sign was missing a critical letter , and it about summed it up :
“SA DPIPER INN”
How does a native of India come to run a motel in Morro Bay? I suddenly had a sense of us all as drifters, as I headed into the wind and down to the water. The central coast around here is unlike places north and south. It is not urban, nor is it exactly windswept rural like Big Sur or the north coast- its more like what you find back east, more blue-collar beach town (think Pismo Beach). Its a jumble of brightly painted boxes that tumble down to the water. In summer no doubt teeming, but on this cold night , it was just me, a few local denizens, and that rock out there in the bay.
One restuarant/bar was open, and I headed down for a beer and some food to go. I was tired. The place had a vaguely familiar feel to it, we must have all come here, some 20 years ago, fresh out of college. Naive, new to California, already it seemed at the time we were exhausting the possibilities of this continent, and planning on which to conquer next. For several of the group that would soon enough become reality. On this night, no tourists, just a few locals in the bar, a couple of people fished I think, a couple of others worked in some local shops. The ruddy after work crowd:
There was one guy in the corner who regaled a small group with stories, they all sat silently listening. And I thought of our friend who lived here once, a wonderful but sometimes shady fellow who made short work of this place and headed to Spain. That could’ve been him some night all those years ago, an inebriated George Baileyish concoction telling all with earshot how we was going to break loose from this place. I sat listening, the waves, the conversation, the wind carrying whispers of all that talk, all those years ago. Yup, real people do live by the water in California, in jeek by jowl plywood boxes, fishing , renting rooms, and dreaming.
Pondering: In Big Sur
The next day, the sun was out, and it was time to continue north. I decided to bypass San Simeon and its guided tours for the wonders of a folk-art original impossible to describe. Nit-Wit Ridge is a house made of junk. To me , this house symbolizes much of what this part of the coast has been for many, a place to get away, to start over, to reinvent. This ramshackle affair was gradually constructed over many years by Arthur Beal. Its made of leftover scraps from construction projects, (including San Simeon, where he worked for a period during its construction), along with detritus that washed up on the beach over the years. There are retaining walls made of abalone shells and beer cans, columns made of tire rims, and his and hers toilets, for, I was told, candid conversations. The house is now owned by a fellow who gives private tours. It’s a registered landmark, but no one wants anything to do with the place, he can’t get aid to stabilize it , so he makes a few bucks a day showing it to the curious passerby
Big Sur has always seemed to me an elusive place. Hard to get to, it seems more idea than an actual place. Its Henry Miller’s hedonistic hideaway, its hippies in the 60’s and 70’s, its Nitwit Ridge. Unlike areas to the north or south, the mountains come hard to the sea, and is heavily forested, which gives a slightly mystical quality. One can imagine in such a setting the creative energy that could be divined from the place, whether one was creating literature, or building a house out of beer cans.
My last stop on the journey was along this coast, on a bluff overlooking the sea; the New Camaldoli Hermitage. The Hermitage is a monastic institution, affiliated with the Catholic Church. And as a hermitage , it is quiet. No speaking on the grounds, except at the gift shop, and then the minimal required to check in.
In some ways, it’s a perfect reflection of Big Sur, very humble structures set in an extraordinary setting. For here, and really throughout this trip (except the SA DPIPER INN), buildings are merely frames through which to look beyond. My quarters for two days, a trailer on the side of a hill:
The trip had come full circle, taking me back to my earliest days of college, with old friends and an architectural masterpiece, through later years on the California Coast, and now on the side of hill, trying to stay quiet. I reflected on how I had gotten here, literally and figuratively. Driving to Big Sur required patience, the road had crumbled in several locations. Likewise, I’ve been on a detour the last two years, taking me in different directions. The patience required at times has been overwhelming (“thanks for calling, why don’t you check back in a month”), but I still hold fast that its taking me somewhere important, someplace I wouldn’t have gone to had my own road not washed away.
The coast is not a destination, it’s a journey. It’s about the roads you have taken to get here, and whatever truths might be revealed to one standing on a bluff are a result of those miles logged. As I readied for the last leg home, I tried on the notion of becoming a hermit. Hmmm, low overhead, great views, no cel phone reception……….. not bad. There had to be a catch, and there was. To support the order, one had to make, and eat, and sell this:
I backed away slowly, got in my car, and drove down the cranky driveway to head home. I drove north, heading into the new year, my head a jumble a new ideas interspersed with thoughts of monastic architects, drifters, nitwits, and fruitcake.