Dear Sur

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 28, 2001

Had you never heard of Christopher Columbus and his discovery, you would logically assume that the Earth ends here, where the Santa Lucia Mountains suddenly drop 1,000 feet and collide at their base with the Pacific Ocean.

Standing at cliff's edge, you wish the words "spectacular" and "grandeur" had never been uttered, so you could invent them and make Big Sur the standard for their use.

Several generations have fought to preserve this 80-mile stretch of coastal California, which is named after the tiny town within it. The battle continues. Although it no doubt discourages and tires those in the conservation trenches, the place is well worthy of the ceaseless effort.

It even has a special smell. I'd forgotten about it in the four-years since my last visit but instantly remembered it on a recent trip. "What is it?" I kept asking people. Everyone knew what I meant, but couldn't place it. Finally, a clerk at the Ventana Inn answered simply, "It's everything."

She was right. It's the smell of wild herbs baking in the sun, of wildflowers and eucalyptus leaves, of pine needles and redwood bark, of the salty ocean pounding rocks into tiny grains of sand, of sun and wind.

I generally prefer destinations that are new to me, yet grab every chance I can to return to Big Sur. The beaches, mountains and redwood groves never fail to delight, and there's always something new to discover. This time, my surprise was the old-fashioned, Midwestern-style swimming holes along the Big Sur River.

We came upon the first one about a half-mile along a path that starts at the Big Sur Lodge. A member of our party of six immediately volunteered to return to the lodge store in search of inner tubes and enough swimming shoes to protect 12 feet from the stony bottom.

Kids jumped from a huge rock into the deepest pool of water. Near the riverbank, someone had used rows of stones to channel a shallow cascade of water, creating a miniature white-water course. Small children were having such a delightful time riding the course on inner tubes that I couldn't resist, and begged a turn.

What I hadn't calculated was the depth of the water in relation to the depth of my personal overhang through the center of the tube. That section of my middle-age anatomy bounced along the rocks the entire ride until it slammed a rock hard enough to topple the tube and everything in it and hanging through it. But the ride gave great pleasure to family, friends and strangers who witnessed it, and would make a good comedic scene for a movie script, should I ever write one starring someone other than myself.

The most direct approach from major airports to Big Sur -- the region along Highway 1 between Monterey and San Simeon -- is from San Jose, which is 70 miles from Monterey. San Francisco is 110 miles from that northern gateway to the region.

Of necessity, we started from the southern end, in Los Angeles, and drove more than four hours before stopping overnight in Morro Bay, where Highway 1 turns toward the coast.

As it turns out, I liked driving in the northbound lane of the two-lane highway, completed in 1937. That lane curves along the mountain's edge. Sure, there are warnings about rocks falling from above. But you never feel as if you might suddenly veer over the side of the cliffs, as certain nervous people sometimes imagine when driving the southbound lane along the sea.

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