When Susan and I travel, there’s one consistent thread. Once we decide to find a place, no matter how hard it is to find, or whether it actually exists, we never give up.
Once, in Sicily, we were in search of a particular market described in our travel guide. But we simply couldn’t find it. After hours of walking I still insisted on looking at maps, Susan on asking for directions. At one point, we began to argue but agreed that we would only argue in our broken Italian. Voglio guardare la mappa!!! No, voglio quella direzione!!! Before long we were doubled up in laughter. We later discovered that the place no longer actually existed, but we did instead happen upon the Palermo Palazzo of Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa, now a museum.
We aren’t easily thwarted and there’s usually a payoff, even if an unexpected one.
So, early one evening we head down to Big Sur from Berkeley for three nights.
We had reservations at the Big Sur Lodge. More rustic, but certainly less expensive than the sky-high rates of some of the premier Big Sur inns.
We left our granddaughter’s 5th birthday party in Berkeley at 6:30, summoned Siri and were told that we could make it in 2 ½ hours. We’d be in by 9:00. Susan drove. There were no surprises on roads we had driven many times. We chatted amiably until, approaching Monterey, off to the southeast, I noticed a big billowy cloud above the encroaching evening marine layer. I wanted it to be an errant thunderhead, though I knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t fluffy white and I tried to convince myself that was just the sunset’s glow, though I knew it wasn’t.
The closer we got, the harder it was to deny that this was a forest fire, more or less in the direction we were heading. We had Big Sur in our sights. We didn’t pause and there was no discussion of turning back. A Google search turned up a small fire, but nothing alarming.
We dashed through Monterey,
passed the Carmel Valley road
and began down the winding two lane road to Big Sur. Now we were in smoke. Any reasonable person would at least start talking of the possibility that we might consider turning back. Susan kept driving. Signs warned of firefighting equipment ahead but no road closure. It was now 8:30, right on schedule to hit Big Sur at 9:00.
In the growing darkness and smoke, a continuous line of cars was coming the other way. On our side of the road heading into the fire, there was only us and one other guy. We started passing fire engines parked along the road and lots of activity. As we rounded one corner we could see the flames on the hillside above us.
At that point we both began to question the sanity of what we were doing. Later Susan said that, in her mind she always has an immigrant compulsion. It looks bad ahead but it can’t be as bad as where we’re coming from. We finally stopped to ask if this was crazy. A firefighter sitting in a large pumper told us the fire was a little way ahead, but to the east, and not threatening the road. We ought to be fine to Big Sur. And we were.
Well, fine is a matter of opinion. The smoke got heavier. I was hoping we would round the point north of the Little Sur River Beach
and, as if by magic, emerge on the upwind side of the fire into clear air and the view of the Big Sur Lighthouse.
As we rounded that point, the smoke only got worse. We weren’t to know but this was just the second day of the Soberanes Fire, before it even had a name, which burned for over a month, scorching over 90,000 acres of wildland, costing over 60 homes and a life. With only a few miles to go, we pressed on.
We passed the The River Inn filled with cars and running on generator power, soon arriving at Julia Pheiffer State Park and Lodge. It seemed darker than expected, actually there were no lights at all. We drove through the park, lost. Just a few walkers with flashlights emerged and were swallowed in the smoke. We finally arrived at a dark building. A person appeared through the smoke and confirmed that this was indeed the lodge.
We parked at the curb, the only car, and went into registration where we encountered three staff in the ghostly light of a gas camp lamp. It was just 9:00. Yes, we could stay. No, there was no power. No, they couldn’t say when it would be back on. Yes, they put a flashlight in each room.
We had persevered and reached our goal, Susan’s immigrant urge sated. But just because we had made it didn’t mean we could stay. The smoke made every breath a challenge. After a short discussion, we decided to head back to Monterey, passing through the troublingly beautiful nighttime view of the fire.
We wouldn’t be able to hike in Big Sur,
we would miss our dinner at the Big Sur Bakery,
our visit to the Big Sur River Inn sitting in big chairs in the middle of the river enjoying a snack and a glass of wine
and our lunch on the terrace of Ventana Inn overlooking the Pacific.
We’ll save those delights for another time.
Index of Links:
Big Sur Lodge
Point Lobos State Park
Little Sur River Beach
Big Sur Lighthouse
Julie Pheiffer State Park
Hiking in Big Sur
Big Sur River Inn
Big Sur Bakery