To Try Our Luck in California

Setting forth for the central coast of California, we, a Midwestern couple en route on our first spring break as adults’ post-college, ventured from San Francisco, where we sipped dark roast coffee in the Castro and ate at a cult-following sandwich shop predicated on love and an obscene offering of sandwich toppings. The sandwiches were substantial, like holding a toy poodle, and messy. We agreed that putting mozzarella sticks on a sandwich was not for us, but we soaked up the sun and the hilly peace of Mission Dolores Park, trying to ration napkins, but finally giving up and just pointing out what was on our faces. After our makeshift picnic, we hopped back into our teeny tiny subcompact rental, a Mitsubishi Mirage, painted silver like the tin can it was. We headed north.

We stopped in Salinas, home to novelist John Steinbeck and “America’s Salad Bowl,” where most of the nation’s strawberries, grapes, spinach, artichokes, and tomatoes are grown. As a girl who grew up on a family farm, the landscape felt familiar to me. Fields full of produce stretched out into the valley like a verdant green carpet. I wish I could say we visited the National Steinbeck Center or Steinbeck’s stately Queen Anne home, where he was born on February 27, 1902. No, our plans were much more mundane. To grab a few provisions at FoodMaxx before arriving in Big Sur. After grabbing water, clementines, dark chocolate, trail mix, wine, coffee, and toothbrushes, we continued driving, eager to see the coast of the Pacific until the sunset bled into dusk and then into darkness.

When we finally pulled into Treebones, sufficiently adrenalized with taking the smallest, cheapest rental car around Highway 1’s notoriously tight coastal turns, we paused at the hippie-beauty of a yurt glampground. We glimpsed a faint outline of a human-sized, manmade bird’s nest overlooking the Pacific, and we laughed out loud at the inviting whimsy of a circle of yurts, those tented accommodations that appease those who love to camp and breathe in the scent of real pine (me) and those who prefer beds and running water (you).

Just like summer camp, we would walk to the communal bathrooms in the middle of the night by flashlight or night vision, albeit the bathrooms at Camp Prairie Schooner were never this well-appointed and I doubt I would get stung by a wasp during a shower at Treebones.

The mid-March air was so much cooler than I had planned for as I pulled my pashmina up to my chin and held your hand while we went to get the keys, which exclaimed “sweet dreams, adventures, & memories.” Even if we only bummed around the yurt and took a few hikes, this vacation was already becoming one of our best.

We came at an auspicious time, all the locals said. After too many months of drought, it had finally rained just before we had arrived, and the forests and waterways, the California poppies and star-like succulents dubbed “live forevers,” were finally quenched.

In the San Francisco airport parking lot, before we drove the tin can up the coast to our destination, I had booked a 1 a.m. visit to the Esalen Institute, the hot springs estate where Hunter S. Thompson was once a homophobic, novelist caretaker before the Institute was ever built and the springs were then a gay hideaway. You loved the counterculture of Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac, and I loved Joan Didion and the idea of a nice, warm bath, so visiting Esalen after midnight also felt like a natural compromise, to soak in a thermal spring where playwright Henry Miller and songwriter Joan Baez once communed.

And when we found ourselves at Esalen, wondering whether we would strip down and take the plunge and do the communal naked bath thing, the ritual prudish, shy me was working hard to wrap her mind around while you had no problems dropping trou and settling into a tub with college co-eds on holiday. Me, as I debated this one life I was given and whether to bare all, I thought of actor and director extraordinaire Orson Welles and Hollywood siren Rita Hayworth and their blink-and-you-miss-it marriage.

Just before driving to Esalen in the darkest of night, we had eaten a late dinner at Nepenthe, which folklore has it Welles bought for “The Goddess of Love” as a gift. That myth, like all myths, is not entirely true, but I was fascinated with this idea of buying into a project you may not have the time or inclination to see through. How human, how supremely relatable, I thought, about Hayworth measuring the windows for curtains while Welles imagined how to pipe gas to the stove. “They never even spent one night” in the cabin together, Nepenthe’s website states.

But now, now I get how one could buy a dream cabin 800-feet above sea level, only to never return. How easy it is to get caught up in the immediacy of life’s everyday needs. How easy it is to forget that there is time and a little bit of money to go adventuring with the one you love, to explore places and tastes and sensations previously yet encountered.

I think back to this trip now, pocketing the memories as the unrelenting January winds of St. Louis make me retreat indoors, too timid to draw up a pashmina or to even imagine placing bare skin into hot water. Robinson Jeffers, the Walt Whitman of Big Sur, wrote that “Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.” Jeffers also knew how Orson and Rita let go of a dream on a cliffside overlooking the Pacific: “The rest’s diversion: those holy or noble sentiments, the / intricate ideas, / the love, lust, longing: reasons, but not the reason.”

When hot tea does not infuse enough warmth, I like to remember this trip out West, to remember to focus not only on the constant survival of living. Life, like poetry, has many reasons for being. Beauty, even amid everyday chaos, is what we will remember and what we stake this fleeting life upon.