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Big SurThe Making of a Prized California Landscape$

Shelley Alden Brooks

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780520294417

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520294417.001.0001

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Nature’s Highway

Nature’s Highway

(p.37) Two Nature’s Highway
Big Sur

Shelley Alden Brooks

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 2 examines the transformative effect of the opening of Highway 1 in 1937. This chapter argues that planning foresight positioned Big Sur to become one of the state’s best-preserved coastlines, while popular representations of its dramatic natural elements provided the justification for such preservation. Before the highway opened, Monterey County established some of the first ordinances in the nation to prohibit billboards and require well-designed construction along the highway. Tourists responded with enthusiasm, drawn by Jeffers’s powerful verse and countless national newspaper stories extoling Big Sur’s beauty. In 1944 the avant-garde writer Henry Miller settled in Big Sur. Like Jeffers’s work, Miller’s representation of Big Sur left the impression that people belonged in and to this landscape. The highway set Big Sur on an irrevocable course toward participation in contemporary society, but aesthetic zoning, praise from the national media, and accounts from residents like Miller, all worked to blur the modern aspects of this coastal destination. Visitors to Big Sur sought a glimpse of the frontier that had supposedly closed four decades earlier, but ironically, the frontier they encountered derived at least in part from government regulations that responded to California’s phenomenal growth.

Keywords:   Highway 1, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, billboards, zoning, regulation, tourism, frontier, Big Sur

An inviting land—but hard to conquer. It seeks to remain unspoiled, uninhabited by man.

HENRY MILLER, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

JUST TWO WEEKS AFTER THE official opening of the Carmel–San Simeon Highway on 27 June 1937, state officials reported that the road carried 60 percent more traffic than predicted, at anywhere from 1,800 to 2,000 cars per day.1 “No one in their wildest dreams had any idea it would be used so much,” remarked George Loorz, William Randolph Hearst’s construction manager in San Simeon. A “continuous line of cars” now passing the Hearst Castle prompted Loorz to exclaim: “We are no longer isolated here in San Simeon.”2 Given the small number of local residents, and the more efficient Highway 101 on the inland side of the Santa Lucia Mountains, these traffic figures indicate the considerable popularity of this new tourist destination during the Great Depression. The state could feel confident in its investment; by providing permanent access to this coast, legislators had dissolved the only barrier to Big Sur’s full incorporation into the burgeoning tourist industry.

Newspapers from the West and the East, and national magazines, did their part in casting Big Sur as a place apart—yet accessible. Media heralded the highway as a wonder, drawing Americans looking for a novel and inexpensive vacation. Situated within a day’s drive of San Francisco or Los Angeles, Big Sur became popular among those looking for a beautiful drive, a stay at a rustic cabin or lodge, or a camping experience among the stately redwoods. Adjectives such as “sublime,” “enchanting,” and “majestic” as well as “forbidding,” “grotesque,” and “wild” described Big Sur’s remarkable landscape. The New York Herald Tribune gushed over this newest link of coastal highway, labeling the region “a hundred miles of the least known, the wildest, the most inaccessible, the most scenic coastal reach in all our country.”3 Americans seemed both fascinated and perhaps intimidated by this near-wilderness suddenly open to society.

(p.38) With national attention now focused on Big Sur, outside forces increasingly shaped local land-management decisions. Paradoxically, deliberate management choices increased how wild this coastline appeared. This beguiling countryside could now be accessed by the very modern automobile, bringing visitors who delighted in a landscape made even more alluring by county zoning that prioritized residential and agricultural land use and limited commercial developments.4 And, with so much invested in the region’s infrastructure, Monterey County also prohibited billboards along the highway in order to maximize tourist appeal and protect property values. In short, as Americans idealized the supposed freedom and connections with nature in a place like Big Sur, multiple layers of government—from the national forest, to the state parks and highway, to county zoning—shaped the land and the opportunities available to inhabitants and visitors alike.

Despite the highway (and indeed perhaps because of the road’s setting), by the late 1930s Big Sur still had a reputation as a wild coastal landscape. One particular event confirmed the special nature of Big Sur, surprising the entire scientific community. For nearly a century the southern sea otter was thought to be extinct from fur hunting, but in 1938 a local couple noted what appeared to be otters swimming offshore from Bixby Bridge and contacted the local fish and game authorities. A scientist connected to Hopkins Marine Laboratory, on the Monterey Peninsula, confirmed this discovery and posited that in the years of the heaviest hunting, when over a thousand otters could be killed in a matter of months, these creatures had found a safe haven in the waters offthe remote and dangerously rocky Sur coast.5 The protection afforded these animals by the isolated and protected inlets of Big Sur allowed them to reproduce their average one cub every two years, and a 1909 international law forbidding the sale or possession of otter pelts protected California’s rediscovered otters. The California condor, the largest North American flying bird, also survived in Big Sur when egg hunting had helped drive the bird close to extinction.6 A 1941 federal report claimed that in Big Sur the condor “was making its last stand.”7 That Big Sur could be the home to such creatures served as further proof that this region deserved preservation-oriented management. The wildness that had been an obstacle for two generations of Big Sur homesteaders now became the area’s greatest asset as tourists and new residents prioritized nondevelopment.

For generations, open land in the West had provided hope and allure, and during an era of economic depression and a second World War, Big Sur’s beauty and undeveloped landscape offered an escape from the destructive (p.39) forces shaping society. Even in the more prosperous times that followed, others began to echo Robinson Jeffers’s praise for Big Sur’s separation. The author Henry Miller, who settled in Big Sur when the highway was still new, joined Jeffers in sustaining the notion of Big Sur as a place apart, a foil to the rest of the rapidly commercializing national culture, and as a place to retreat from what they both perceived as a government-led belligerent society. The popularity of their works beckoned the mass culture to Big Sur while their writings also helped to justify aesthetic zoning for this prized landscape. County officials would become strong allies in preserving Big Sur by employing innovative government regulations. By the mid-twentieth century, Big Sur’s land management and its artistic representations managed to reinforce each other, while defining new ways to treat wild and inhabited lands.

The Convergence of Government, Technology, and Tourism

Big Sur’s reputation as a timeless land- and seascape was built upon government policies that were themselves on the cutting edge of land management. In 1938, one year after the completion of the highway, a resident named Bassett moved his gas station half a mile down the Carmel–San Simeon Highway, and in so doing left a commercial district and entered an area zoned for agriculture. Instead of obtaining a permit for the new building or requesting zoning reclassification, Bassett went forward without county approval. When the county sued Bassett, he called the zoning ordinance unconstitutional in its restrictions on private property.8

Zoning emerged in the United States around the turn of the century to address the development issues associated with rapidly growing urban populations. In 1926 the U.S. Supreme Court decided Euclid v. Ambler Realty, a landmark zoning case. The court upheld a zoning measure that excluded industrial and multifamily buildings from a residential zone because of the adverse impact upon public health, safety, morals, and general welfare.9 The Euclid case addressed the externalities imposed on suburban residences by the introduction of high-density or industrial development, and challenged the rights of property owners to realize maximum productivity on their land without regard for the local impact caused by the subsequent pollution, traffic congestion, or other nuisances.10 With increasing land scarcity, regulation in the form of zoning became a means to protect the quality of life to be enjoyed (p.40) by those who could afford property zoned for low-density residential use. The justices acknowledged as much in Euclid, noting specifically the negative impact of apartment houses that, with their “height and bulk,” interfere “with the free circulation of air” and monopolize “the rays of the sun which otherwise would fall upon the smaller homes,” contributing to congestion while “depriving children of the privilege of quiet and open spaces for play, enjoyed by those in more favored localities.” The justices reasoned that “the residential character” of a neighborhood and its “desirability as a place of detached residences” could be “utterly destroyed” by apartment houses.11

Around the same time as the Euclid ruling, Monterey County developed restrictive zoning in anticipation of the highway’s completion. Though Big Sur was far from an urban area with increasing land scarcity, its sudden accessibility prompted important questions about future land use. The majority of coastal frontage property remained in private ownership and had great potential for commercial and residential development, limited only by county zoning. A scholar at the time noted that in developing zoning for the Big Sur coast, Monterey County sought “to protect adjoining property values, or the investment of public funds spent in the construction of scenic roads.”12 In 1938 Judge Maurice T. Dooling of the Superior Court of San Benito County presided over Bassett’s case and issued a groundbreaking decision that upheld the county’s zoning measures.13 Arguing that “scenic attractiveness” is a public asset because it brings and maintains tourism and is pleasing to residents, Judge Dooling denied Bassett’s right to relocate his gas station to an agricultural district. Aesthetics alone did not stand as a constitutional basis for disallowing the gas station, but Judge Dooling believed that in this case protecting the scenic quality of the highway in turn protected property values and stood to benefit the general economic welfare. Emerging on the cusp of changing opinion regarding the constitutionality of restricting private property rights, Judge Dooling’s decision echoed Euclid in protecting a certain quality of life and property values for nearby property owners. But Dooling went further, taking into account the aesthetic experience to be had along the Big Sur coast. He admitted that a higher court might decide that he had attempted to “force the hands of the clock forward too rapidly,” but remained confident that time would ultimately justify his judgment.” He reasoned that “any person of average sensibilities who has seen so many of our highways defaced with the customary clutter of hot-dog stands and other commercially used eye-sores” would have sympathy for the purpose of the zoning ordinance.14

(p.41) Dooling’s read on national sentiment was correct. The vice president of the National Municipal League noted as early as 1931 that the “rank and file of the people are coming to look upon [zoning] as merely a matter of maintaining or increasing property values,” and by the late 1930s many Americans approved of aesthetic zoning.15 Indeed, Judge Dooling’s opinion and the strict zoning ordinances that prohibited billboards along the length of the highway brought praise from around the state. An Inglewood newspaper opined: “the road is the more beautiful and unique in that no signboards were permitted through its entire length and buildings … must be erected under zoning ordinances.”16 Monterey County officials presided over one of the nation’s most remarkable natural treasures and proactively developed protective measures for this coastline well before public sentiment, the state, or the federal government demanded it.

As Robinson Jeffers had predicted, the highway brought important aspects of the modern economy to Big Sur. Even for some who were less emotionally attached to Big Sur than Jeffers, there existed perceptible discomfort with the idea of bringing together technology and areas of such beauty. In 1937 the San Jose Mercury-Herald reported on the new highway and gave voice to this particular dilemma: “For some, this invasion of an almost unknown land is sacrilege, despoliation of a truly virgin wilderness in the name of high-speed transportation. But to the vast majority of the motoring public, it is but a great forward step in the realization of California’s most abundant heritage, its incomparable scenery.”17 For decades, Americans had pointed with great satisfaction to their stunning landscapes, holding them up as the equal of Europe’s historic landmarks. The opening of Big Sur in the 1930s, along with the Blue Ridge and Natchez Trace parkways in the East, served as further proof of America’s wealth, and in the former case, of the significance of the West. If Americans looked to leisure in nature as a way to express the national character, then recreation within Big Sur’s majestic mountains, thousands of forested acres, and stunning ocean vistas could be a source of great pride for Americans.18

The United States’ entry into World War II, and subsequent gas rationing, meant that recreational travel necessarily slowed, bringing a little quiet to Big Sur after the rush of popularity in the late 1930s. The recent technological advance of the highway would now serve another national purpose. In early 1941 the federal government expanded its presence in Big Sur by establishing the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation for tank- and artillery-warfare training. High in the Santa Lucia Mountains, partially within the national (p.42) forest boundaries, soldiers practiced with the most advanced warfare technology, using the tanks and antiaircraft weaponry being churned out of American factories at astounding rates.19 The military chose this location for its diverse topography (and distance from population centers), believing that soldiers would gain experience on nearly every terrain that they were likely to encounter in the war. Despite the most modern equipment, the military found that in Big Sur mules still provided essential services for transport and rescue missions where vehicles could not handle the terrain. The political realities of World War II entered Big Sur, but as usual, the land itself helped dictate how events unfolded.

The U.S. Forest Service, too, would employ its latest technology and scientific understanding in Big Sur’s backcountry. Its policies would serve to alternately protect and develop this landscape. Bounding off large expanses of land from residential and commercial development, Los Padres National Forest protected vistas and habitats in accordance with parklike preservation. And though the forest service could not determine land policy outside its boundaries, its very presence circumscribed Big Sur’s residential and commercial development. At the same time, the forest service built roads and supported ranching and mineral exploration that spoiled the notion of a pristine landscape. Local ranchers, engaged in the primary agricultural pursuit that persisted in Big Sur past midcentury, relied upon the range offered within the boundaries of Los Padres National Forest. In support of this land use, the forest service provided stock-watering troughs and required no more than a small use fee from ranchers who could turn their animals out to graze on pastures that they did not have to maintain or seed.20

Arguably, Los Padres National Forest’s largest impact on the Big Sur landscape was its fire management. Internal improvements during the war years included more telephone lines and watchtowers to improve fire communication, new roads through the forest, and better-trained firefighters with more advanced equipment (at least where terrain permitted). Because of the severe fire threat posed by military maneuvers, the Civilian Conservation Corps aided the forest service in building fire roads and firebreaks throughout the forested and chaparral-covered mountainsides.21 Forest rangers actively suppressed fire to the extent that the interval between major fires became ever greater in the years after the founding of the national forest.22

This policy of fire suppression was not based upon Big Sur’s natural fire ecosystem. Recent studies of mudflows in the Big Sur River Basin and other indicators of past burns have led scientists to conclude that large fires (of (p.43)

Nature’s Highway

Figure 7. Aerial view of the Santa Lucia Mountains in Big Sur, including Highway 1, Bixby Bridge, and the winding, unpaved Coast Road.

(Photo: Carol M. Highsmith; Library of Congress image.)

roughly 50,000 acres or more) have occurred almost every seventy-five years over the past six centuries.23 In the mid-twentieth century, settlers and the forest service had not occupied Big Sur long enough, nor did they have the scientific data, to be aware of this fire pattern. Deliberate fire suppression allowed for the buildup of fuel and tinder to dangerous levels, while also hindering the growth of certain native vegetation that thrives in burned-over patches or depends upon fire propagation. Inevitably, massive fires did occasionally spread through the landscape, burning thousands of acres of forest as well as some residences and businesses. Subsequent mudslides washed out portions of the highway. Fire and its aftermath challenged the notion that even the latest technology could successfully tame Big Sur.

A government publication authored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1941 suggested that Big Sur’s remote, rugged terrain would not easily be bent to the purposes of an admiring public, nor, ostensibly, the designs of forest administrators. An assessment of this coastline led the author to argue that “the new highway brings every year a steadily growing number (p.44) of people to the fringes of the Big Sur country—but only to the fringes. The inner mountain fastnesses—fold after fold of rugged mountains—still guard their lonely isolation.”24 By the end of World War II, Big Sur lacked a clearly defined status. In many ways, it was distinctive for what it was not: neither a national park, nor a fertile agricultural or ranching center, nor a busy population center with increasing amounts of pavement and concrete, nor a back-country wilderness—though elements of each of these existed in this era. The powerful forces of tourism, technology, and government all exerted considerable influence on this coastline but could not entirely dictate the future of Big Sur, a place where residents were solidifying their own ideals for this landscape and would come to command considerable influence in land management.

Artistic Representations of Big Sur

Fewer than three hundred residents lived in the seventy-five-mile stretch of Big Sur after the highway opened. A local ballad asserting that “The South Coast’s a wild coast, and lonely,” suggested that residents appreciated their relative isolation, or at least understood that these qualities were what made Big Sur distinct.25 Local writers were inspired by and worked to perpetuate this reputation. Like Robinson Jeffers, they interpreted Big Sur for national audiences, thereby shaping the way that outsiders imagined and experienced this exceptional landscape. Such artistic representations of life in Big Sur inevitably influenced the way that the county and business-oriented locals framed future development.

As modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing and electricity crept into Big Sur, and as the country witnessed remarkable technological feats in the name of wartime defense, the idea of a frontierlike expanse along California’s popular central coast held growing allure.26 One resident, Lillian Bos Ross, capitalized on this fascination with the homesteading period by penning two popular novels set in the late-nineteenth-century Big Sur country. The Stranger (1942), followed by the sequel Blaze Allan (1944), met with literary success in the 1940s, and in 1974 Hollywood turned the story into a feature film, Zandy’s Bride (which enjoyed considerably less praise than the novels).27 Ross depicted the struggles of pioneer life in Big Sur, including the manual labor along the steep mountainsides and the intense isolation, but she also expressed the joy and camaraderie that came when the scattered settlers gathered to celebrate weddings or held multiday fiestas along the beach to (p.45)

Nature’s Highway

Figure 8. Deetjen’s Inn and restaurant opened not long after the completion of Highway 1. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

(Photo: Carol M. Highsmith; Library of Congress image.)

collect shipped-in supplies. Echoing the WPA publication from the previous year, Ross’s preface to The Stranger suggested that the “harsh and lovely” Santa Lucia Mountains still “hold fast to their ancient loneliness.”28 Ross painted a place of untamed nature, and though she wrote about the days of old, most homes in the 1940s still lacked electricity and regular telephone service. Readers across the nation likely imagined a unique and charming countryside far from most modern-day realities.

Less quaint was John Steinbeck’s treatment of this coastline, though he portrayed an equally timeless landscape. Steinbeck’s 1938 short story Flight follows Pepe, a young man trying to hide from the law in the thick forests and steep slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains. During a supply trip to Monterey from his native Big Sur, Pepe upholds his honor by challenging a man who speaks ill of him. Pepe knifes and kills the man, then races home in hopes of escaping retribution, where his mother and younger siblings prepare a horse and supplies for his escape into the mountains. His family recites their prayers as he rides away, considering him as good as dead as he sets out (p.46) along the steep trail to the east. Pepe rather easily avoids the mountain lions and rattlesnakes, but he suffers considerably from exposure and thirst. In an act of desperation, Pepe stands tall and accepts the rifle fire of the posse that is pursuing him. As he tumbles down the mountainside, he gathers rocks and earth and ends up buried beneath the slide. Though Steinbeck wrote extensively of Monterey, this short story was his only treatment of Big Sur. His description of its landscape reveals his familiarity with the area, which came from time spent working on a highway-surveying crew in the early 1920s.29 Steinbeck saw the area as potentially hostile to those who hoped to earn a living from its soil. His description of Pepe’s family’s farm is of an establishment barely surviving its harsh setting:30

The farm buildings huddled like the clinging aphids on the mountain skirts, crouched low to the ground as though the wind might blow them into the sea. The little shack, the rattling, rotting barn were gray-bitten with sea salt, beaten by the damp wind until they had taken on the color of the granite hills. … A little corn was raised on the sterile slope, and it grew short and thick under the wind, and all the cobs formed on the landward sides of the stalks.

With such a story Steinbeck potentially deterred would-be residents but also bolstered the image of Big Sur as a place to experience nature’s elemental forces. Published in the year after the opening of California State Highway 1, Flight did not depict a modern landscape tamed by technology but instead evoked the image of Old California.

Ross and Steinbeck brought heightened attention to Big Sur, and like Jeffers they emphasized the primitive qualities of life along this coast. But it would be another author—Henry Miller—who would create in Big Sur a mecca for those who not only loved its landscape but sought the freedom and artistic inspiration that it supposedly offered.31 Miller possessed a broad cultural perspective after spending ten years as an expatriate in Paris and Greece, during which time he published the controversial Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. The politics of war sent him home to his native New York, where a publisher gave him $500 to tour his home country and record his impressions of the people and culture he encountered in each region. As he drifted across the United States during the war, a stranger in his homeland, he consistently noted his disappointment, if not disgust, with the dominant culture. Indeed, he titled the book The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, and he did not mince words within it, either: “We are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues. … To call this a society of free (p.47) peoples is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?”32

Miller was troubled by much in the American character, including its disregard for the well-being of the earth. He was therefore predisposed to like what he found in Big Sur: a community content to live within a powerful landscape. Miller’s tour had ended by 1944, when he visited a friend and fellow artist in Monterey who suggested that Miller introduce himself to the artist Lynda Sargent of Big Sur. With little money and no home, Miller prevailed upon Sargent for a temporary landing spot along this coast, a region that he later described as his “first real home.”33 Prior to moving to Big Sur, Miller’s only familiarity with the region was through his reading of Robinson Jeffers’s collection “Women at Point Sur.” The place was an odd choice for someone who had spent his life in cities such as New York and Paris, but perhaps the ravages of war led Miller to seek seclusion in nature. He explained the move to a close friend as good for his work and his personal well-being: “I have much work to finish and am seeking peace and isolation. I am completely out of the world there.”34 It was from Big Sur that he finalized The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, contemplating modern American society from the vantage point of its apparent antithesis.

After years spent living abroad Miller nursed a romantic vision of his homeland that his cross-country tour had almost shattered. He had held in high regard his native land, “nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans—the poets and seers.” Disillusionment followed, however, when his assessment of the nation led him to believe that “some other breed of man has won out.” Miller found much to condemn in the newly invigorated postwar culture. He felt particularly disgusted with American materialism and the moral bankruptcy of the mass media, and he characterized the ubiquitous suburb as horrendous. Unimpressed by the technological prowess of the United States, Miller turned this achievement on its head. He used Walt Disney as an example: “Walt Disney … is the master of the nightmare. … Disney works fast—like greased lightning. That’s how we’ll all operate soon. What we dream we become. We’ll get the knack of it soon. We’ll learn how to annihilate the whole planet in the wink of an eye—just wait and see.”35

Miller’s tour through his homeland led him to condemn American society as the civilization most disconnected from the natural world: “Nowhere else in the world is the divorce between man and nature so complete.”36 This struck him as particularly self-defeating, for as he acknowledged: “We may (p.48) succeed in altering the face of the earth until it is unrecognizable even to the Creator, but if we are unaffected,” or “If we ourselves remain the same restless, miserable, frustrated creatures we were before … wherein lies the meaning?”37 Miller did not equate technological progress with progress as a society. He labeled America as deluded by a “false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful.”38 Miller, like Jeffers, held that modern technologies seemed to merely amplify and complicate the problems inherent in and among people.

But Big Sur became Miller’s saving grace, for it was here that he believed he had finally found “a region which corresponded to my notion of something truly American, something simple, primitive, and as yet unspoiled.”39 Such ruminations led Miller to feel “suddenly quite free” in his adopted home.40 But the landscape and community that Miller had come to love were themselves shifting entities. Half a century earlier Big Sur’s population sat close to a thousand inhabitants because of the work available in multiple extractive industries. By the time Miller settled along this coast, its population sat closer to three hundred, and no industrial operations remained.41 Big Sur’s natural resources were afforded a reprieve for several decades before the completed highway brought new types of investors. Arriving in Big Sur on the heels of World War II, Miller was privy to the full impact that postwar prosperity could make along this coast. But Miller found comfort in his conviction that Big Sur’s imposing landscape resisted incursions. Moreover, Miller believed that nature exerted a force upon residents that promoted preservation: “Something about the land makes one long to keep it intact.”42

In 1952, eight years after settling in Big Sur, Miller took his first trip to Europe since the outbreak of war, only to find himself homesick for the first time in his life. He claimed that he had experienced a shift, where no longer did he find satisfaction in the “cultural, intellectual life,” which he characterized as “too much talk, rehash, etc.”43 Now, far from the vibrant, cosmopolitan environment where he had spent much of his professional life (and as a child in the Bronx), Miller embraced the slow and unstructured pace of life of Big Sur. One of Big Sur’s best qualities, according to Miller, was the absence of a status quo, and he characterized Big Sur and its inhabitants as lacking pretense and conformity. What was more, Miller believed locals possessed kindness, an important “element of the American temperament,” to a remarkable degree.44 These desirable human elements, alongside Big Sur’s beauty, compelled Miller to query after years spent in Big Sur: “This is Heaven enough, why ask for more?”45

(p.49) Miller first arrived in Big Sur seeking isolation and instead found himself enmeshed in a satisfying community. Though certainly the best-known, Miller was one of several artists living along Partington Ridge. His close friends and neighbors, the Rosses, both produced notable work: Lillian, two well-known books; and Harry Dick Ross, numerous sculptures and hand-carved signs throughout Big Sur. Nicholas Roosevelt, a retired journalist and diplomat, was a prolific author, while other neighbors were proficient in pottery, ironwork, poetry, and screenwriting.46 These artists flocked to Big Sur for reasons similar to those of other artists forming colonies: to find a beautiful place of inspiration, to escape the distractions of an urban area, and to make a political statement of sorts by rejecting certain aspects of contemporary society. In Big Sur, these artists both rejected certain aspects of modernity—namely the suburbs and the Cold War—while taking full advantage of the highway and telephones that afforded connections to the larger world.47 In 1952 a local paper described the Ridge as a gathering of “artists, writers and simple-living escapists who by their own choice exist in a crag above Big Sur” because they view life as “too crowded and disturbing elsewhere.”48 It was called the “closest-knit” community within Big Sur, where the artists and those aspiring to become such were known to support one another’s endeavors. Surplus game, fish, and other food found its way into neighbors’ mailboxes throughout the year. Eve Miller, Henry’s fourth wife, whom he married in Big Sur, ran a local kindergarten in their home. Her students arrived from farther up the ridge with the mailman, who picked them back up at the end of his route.49 Big Sur served well those who embraced the idiosyncrasies of life along this coast and rejected those who could not make the break from mainstream America. It was a way of life that kept Miller rooted to this ridgetop home for nearly twenty years.

In 1957 Miller published a memoir that made a strong case for preserving this coastal community. The title, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, linked Big Sur to the sort of pleasure and freedom that Miller perceived in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. In this memoir, Miller exalted Big Sur as a place where “to give thanks to the Creator comes natural and easy. Out yonder they may curse, revile and torture one another, defile all the human instincts, make a shambles of creation (if it were in their power), but here, no, here it is unthinkable, here there is abiding peace, the peace of God.”50 Miller’s praise for this undeveloped landscape ultimately succeeded in drawing enormous attention to Big Sur, but this was not the only paradox. Though Miller craved the peace that Big Sur offered, he envisioned a time when many more people could experience the joys of life along this coast: “I (p.50) sometimes think how wonderful will be the day when all these mountain sides are filled with habitations. … This place can be a paradise. It is now, for those who live it.”51 Meanwhile, Miller’s appreciation of Big Sur did not prevent him from tossing his trash down to the ocean, below his house. He even found that such a chore brought him good cheer, for “as always when dumping the garbage, I had been rewarded by a breathtaking view of the coast.”52 Miller apparently felt untroubled by the incongruity of such a practice with a high regard for the scenic wonders of Big Sur. And despite his disapproval of the American lifestyle, Miller too tended to overlook, or disregard, the environmental toll of his daily activities. Like the vast majority of his contemporaries, Miller saw nature as something to be enjoyed, used, by humans. The complexities that Miller confronted in Big Sur (consciously or not) resonated throughout the state. To an alarming extent, Californians in the postwar era degraded their prized environment in the process of carving out their own piece of the good life, all the while proclaiming to the rest of the country the wonders of their state.

It is ironic that Miller found his haven in California, a hyper-American state where defense-industry jobs and the temperate climate led to astonishing growth. In 1957 California gained a new resident every 55 seconds, while suburban sprawl, automobiles and highways, commercial values, and rootlessness undergirded its mainstream culture.53 But California’s popular image was much more idyllic. Countless Americans saw along the Pacific edge a carefree, inventive, nature-loving society. The beaches, Disneyland, Hollywood, San Francisco, and the Sierra Nevada Range drew millions to the Golden State. The majority of newcomers settled in the Los Angeles Basin. From 1940 to 1955, 700,000 new homes transformed the landscape of southern California. As one local wrote in 1954 of the San Fernando Valley: “When I came here 20-odd years ago only a few thousand ranchers lived down there. Land sold for $10 an acre, and the main highway you came into Hollywood on was a country lane. Now half a million live in the valley, and more are moving in all the time. You pass an orange grove one day; the next, it’s gone and men are building houses there.”54

Generations of Americans had put stock in the promise of the American West, seeing in this relatively young society the chance to improve their opportunities and happiness. Miller went so far as to envision Big Sur as the anvil on which to forge a more meaningful and responsible American character. “The place itself is so overwhelmingly bigger, greater, than anyone could hope to make it that it engenders a humility and reverence not frequently (p.51) met with in Americans,” reflected Miller. “There being nothing to improve on in the surroundings, the tendency is to set about improving oneself.”55 During his time in Big Sur, Miller himself strove for personal growth in his role of father to his young children, Val and Tony, and as a neighbor and friend.56 By his own admission, he failed multiple times to achieve these goals, but he never stopped examining himself and his behavior. Given the reputation for lewdness that Miller developed after The Tropic of Cancer, it is noteworthy that he was so oriented toward domesticity while living in Big Sur. A typical week for Miller included walking to the hot springs to wash diapers and building forts with his children, as well as entertaining fellow authors, painting watercolors, and periods of intense writing.

His son Tony recalls his father taking them deep into the forest behind their home to the streams where the “mottled sunlight through the canopy of redwoods” provided the backdrop for his father’s stories, “wonderful stories of flying Tibetans, soaring over the chasms of the Himalayas and so forth” that derived from Miller’s deep personal interest in India and Tibet.57 Big Sur was a refuge for Miller, certainly, but it was also a place of torment when he had to admit his own shortcomings. Miller and his children’s mother divorced, and after a period of trying to raise Val and Tony on his own he admitted defeat and the children went to live with their mother. Perhaps parenting would have been easier in the postwar suburbs, with playmates in close proximity, playgrounds, and television, but such a life would have been stultifying for Miller’s writing career. This latter point was not lost on his children: Tony later reflected, “I know that artists basically shouldn’t have children or wives. … It is cumbersome and drains energy from the Art. And never forget which comes first. … And that is the way it should be. Otherwise, you just get TV sitcoms.”58

Miller liked to assert that self-delusion, a quality he detested in the general American population, had little place in Big Sur. Throughout Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Miller made no pretense about his inability to keep his family together or even consistently put food on the table. But he maintained that Big Sur was well suited to personal growth: “Here you get it quick and get it hard. … The result is that you either come to grips with yourself or else you turn tail and seek some other spot in which to nourish your illusions.”59 The opportunities for individualism, peace, and self-definition in Miller’s utopia were not a far cry from the alluring frontier qualities of America’s past. And Miller’s vision of Big Sur as encompassing the best of American culture, made available to all who wanted to participate, (p.52) was a reiteration of the promise of the American frontier: a place where good land was made even better by industrious (or, according to Miller, creative) individuals. In Big Sur, so it seemed, Americans could find redemption.

Writing from the Edge

From this imagined frontier at the edge of American society, Henry Miller joined Robinson Jeffers in critiquing the rest of the country as entangled in a political and cultural morass. Both writers achieved success during a period of intense political division and what they perceived as cultural devastation. These two writers, whose work resonated with such wide audiences, claimed insight into humanity, including war and people’s proclivity toward it. Jeffers in fact believed that it was inherent in human nature to seek conflict, so much so that “life seems to [humans] meaningless without it.” In the preface to his 1948 volume of poetry, The Double Axe, Jeffers proposed that Americans “could take a walk … and admire landscape: that is better than killing one’s brother in war or trying to be superior to one’s neighbor in time of peace.” However, Jeffers went on to query: “Do I really believe that people will be content” with these peaceful alternatives? “Certainly not.”60 Jeffers may have been pessimistic, but his poetry suggested ways for humans to fight violent or selfish instincts. Several decades earlier, as a young man, Jeffers had experienced conflicting feelings of patriotic duty and responsibility for his family, and finally enlisted for World War I (only to be turned away on account of his high blood pressure). He admitted that it was the condition of humanity to engage in war, and he did not see himself as a man apart.

Jeffers did not condone this belligerent behavior, even if he understood the motivations behind it. In a poem that his publisher excised from The Double Axe, Jeffers accused the former President Franklin Roosevelt of blowing “on the coal-bed, and when it kindled” deliberately sabotaging “every fire-wall that even the men who denied/My hope had built.”61 Jeffers essentially charged Roosevelt with the murder of thousands of Americans. Though Jeffers had been a well-regarded poet for more than two decades, his opposition to the war and his criticism of the president virtually ended his literary career.62 The Double Axe appeared in 1948, at a time when Americans generally regarded their recent actions as necessary and even laudable, and yet Jeffers asserted not only that the war was wrong but that it had set the stage for a subsequent world war and an international political climate in which (p.53)

Nature’s Highway

Figure 9. Robinson Jeffers wrote all his major works from Tor House, situated in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Jeffers built Hawk Tower, to the right, by hand.

(Photo: author.)

most of the world would unify against the United States.63 At best, Jeffers’s critique of society and war was too far ahead of its time to be popular or acceptable to most Americans.

Jeffers used the Big Sur landscape to create the setting for numerous tales of misery, seeing the region’s elemental forces and severe landscape as an appropriate backdrop. Given that Jeffers’s career spanned two world wars and a debilitating economic depression, neither his stance as a pacifist nor his ruminations on misery are surprising. Jeffers’s friends, however, did not mistake this harsh depiction of humanity as an indication of his aversion to people. Indeed, the photographer Edward Weston felt compelled to say of his friend Jeffers, “I cannot feel him misanthropic: his is the bitterness of despair over humanity he really loves.”64 In 1948, just years after the United States deployed nuclear weapons against Japan, and as the USSR developed comparable armaments, Jeffers composed “The Inquisitors,” in which he imagined three hills within the Santa Lucia Mountains as giant Indians squatting and examining the sad remains of human beings after an atomic holocaust. In Big Sur, more than most places, Jeffers must have been struck by the sort of politics that could bring destruction to this kind of beauty.

(p.54) Miller, too, had developed a reputation for working outside the general bounds of acceptability. The United States government banned the sale of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, published in France in 1934, calling the book obscene for its sexually explicit content. This book, along with the follow-up Tropic of Capricorn, sat on the banned-book list in the United States until 1961, when, on the grounds of free speech, the government lifted the ban (though the Citizens for Decent Literature continued to label the work obscene). This restriction at least partly explains Miller’s poverty in Big Sur and his dim view of politicians. Hitler’s advance in 1939 forced Miller out of his home in Paris and back to the United States, where he nevertheless soon found himself surrounded by the politics of war. Such events led Miller to consider politics a “thoroughly foul, rotten world.” He not only disagreed with politicians but saw their entire enterprise as futile and harmful: “We get nowhere through politics. It debases everything.”65

In contrast, Miller portrayed life in Big Sur as uplifting—a place where residents and even visitors could transcend many of the demoralizing realities of the mid-twentieth century. In depicting his paradise, Miller ignored (at least in his memoir) several aspects of the government and a wealthy, technologically advanced society that he presumably appreciated, including the restrictive county zoning and court ruling that perpetuated Big Sur’s pastoral landscape, the state highway, and the Department of Agriculture, which protected the vast forest. Miller, and countless others, depended on the highway built and maintained by government funds allocated in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., as well as the automobiles assembled in Detroit. The vast open spaces that to Miller reflected the work of the Creator had been very much shaped and protected by the U.S. Forest Service, California State Parks, and Monterey County planners. That such manipulations were nearly invisible only underscored how invasive they had become.

In a well-worn practice, Miller and Jeffers retreated to nature to critique a society apparently out of touch with the natural world. The lure of the open land in the West appealed to Miller and Jeffers much as it had done to Americans over the previous century. Both writers were born and raised in the East and spent considerable time living in Europe but ultimately chose to make their homes in the American West, where they could find seclusion, imposing natural elements, and a culture that seemed less set in stone.66 Like other cultural critics, Jeffers and Miller did not feel comfortable with many aspects of modern-day society, yet these two artists did not call for a return to traditionalism. Jeffers’s philosophy of inhumanism and Miller’s loose (p.55) sexual mores were rejections of the status quo, situating them more firmly in an alternative vision of modernity. Not that these artists had found a place truly removed from the society and government they critiqued but rather that in Big Sur they found encouragement and inspiration because human forces appeared subdued by the powerful landscape. In a sense, their sentiments aligned with the developing land management in Big Sur. Monterey County officials challenged prevailing American conventions by banning billboards in order to carve out for this coast a unique space that highlighted nature not as a rejection of modernity but as a measured response to and for its more superficial qualities.

Both these highly creative, introspective artists saw Big Sur as uniquely evocative of an American predicament. Here Americans could rediscover the totality of their connection to the earth and thereby save themselves from the worst aspects of modernity; and yet their praise for Big Sur threatened its prized separation from modern-day society in an era when reverence for nature became entwined with the automobile and commercialism. Miller and Jeffers retreated to the furthest edge of the United States, where they could experience, as late as the mid-twentieth century, a region little touched by the complex civilization they critiqued. Those who read these writers’ work, and many, many others, flocked to this coast for these very same reasons.

At midcentury, more than fifty years after Frederick Jackson Turner’s compelling epitaph “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Americans felt drawn to this dramatic perch above the Pacific, a place glorified for its rugged individualism and its artistic inspiration. A state touring magazine featured Big Sur in 1948, arguing “there is no place in the United States which better represents the last frontier, the most western and the most wild.”67 As a growing number of Americans happily consumed this wild stretch of the California coast, multiple levels of government smoothed their entrance into Big Sur. Property values, potential economic endeavors, even the reach of wildfires, looked significantly different in the wake of the highway. Indeed, at midcentury Big Sur was on its way to becoming as popular as Yosemite, as government-managed as any western landscape, and as expensive as a coastal metropolis. This stretch of California coast fit many categories, but more notably occupied a hybrid category of its own: an inhabited space that was nevertheless perceived as wild.


(1.) “New Road on Coast Popular,” Oakland Tribune, 7 July 1937. Newspaper clippings, Mayo Hayes O’Donnell Library, Monterey, California.

(2.) Taylor Coffman, Building for Hearst and Morgan: Voices from the George Loorz Papers (Berkeley: Berkeley Hills Books, 2003), 334, 337.

(3.) Bulletin, California Mission Trails Association, June 1937. “Great Scenic Highway,” Oakland Tribune, 25 June 1937. New York Herald Tribune, June 1937, newspaper clipping. CA Hist. Room_Hwy 1.

(4.) James Herrera, “Life of a Scenic Highway,” Monterey County Herald, 25 Apr. 1997. CA Hist. Room_Hwy 1.

(5.) Rolf L. Bolin, “Reappearance of the Southern Sea Otter along the California Coast,” Journal of Mammalogy 19, no. 3 (1938): 301–3.

(6.) Anthony Godfrey, The Ever-Changing View: A History of the National Forests in California, 1891–1987 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2005), 287. There was a period in which a condor egg could fetch up to $1,000.

(7.) Works Progress Administration, “A Guide to the Monterey Peninsula, Tour 3: Big Sur” (Berkeley: CA, Press of the Courier, 1941), 178–79.

(8.) Albert S. Bard, “Highway Zoning Sustained by California Court: Design in Community Planning Upheld for Monterey County,” National Civic Review, 26 Dec. 1938, 619.

(9.) Euclid v. Ambler Realty 272 U.S. 365 (1926), 395. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/272/365 (accessed 3 Sept. 2016).

(10.) Carol M. Rose, “Property Rights, Regulatory Regimes and the New Takings Jurisprudence—An Evolutionary Approach” (1990), Faculty Scholarship Series, Paper 1821. http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/1821 (accessed 3 Sept. 2016).

(13.) Mel Scott, American City Planning since 1890: A History Commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the American Institute of Planners (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), 350.

(15.) Lee Cooper, “Would Preserve Roadside Beauty: Many States Act to Guard Land along Highways from Blight,” NYT, 27 Dec. 1938. CA Hist. Room_Hwy 1. Richard Babcock, The Zoning Game: Municipal Practices and Policies (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), 12.

(16.) “New Highway Opened for Travel, San Simeon Area,” Inglewood Daily News, 28 June 1937. CA Hist. Room_Hwy 1.

(17.) “A Frontier Passes,” San Jose Mercury-Herald, 22 June 1937. CA Hist. Room_ Hwy 1.

(18.) Paul Sutter, Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 41–42.

(p.207) (19.) David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 618.

(20.) G-Permits–Los Padres: found in Record Group No. 95, Box 1, 1954–59, NARA.

(21.) “History of Fires in Los Padres National Forest,” Los Padres National Forest, Fire Records, 1911–1929, unfiled, NARA. William Brown, History of Los Padres National Forest, 1898–1945 (San Francisco: n.p., 1945), 125–27.

(22.) Allan J. West, “A Decision Maker’s Point of View on Fire in Chaparral,” undated talk delivered by Forest Supervisor, Los Padres National Forest, Goleta, California, found in Record Group No. 95, Box 16, NARA.

(23.) Neil G. Sugihara et al., Fire in California’s Ecosystems (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 333.

(26.) Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, 615–17. As Joseph Stalin famously remarked: “The United States … is a country of machines.”

(27.) Howard Thompson, review of Zandy’s Bride, written by Lillian Bos Ross and Marc Norman, directed by Jan Troell, NYT, 20 May 1974. CA HistRm_Big Sur.

(28.) Lillian Bos Ross, The Stranger: A Novel of the Big Sur (New York: W. Morrow and Co., 1942), “Note.”

(29.) California Cultural Studies, Sonoma State University, http://www.sonoma.edu/users/c/cannon/steinbeckmaptowns.html (accessed 10 Oct. 2015).

(30.) John Steinbeck, Flight, 1. SPECOLDAV.

(31.) Anthony Brandt, “The Fight to Save Big Sur,” The Atlantic Monthly 248, no. 3 (Sept. 1981), 70.

(32.) Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (New York: New Directions, 1945), 20.

(34.) Anais Nin, Diary of Anais Nin, vol. 3 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1969), 310.

(36.) Ibid., 20.

(37.) Quoted in Elaine Fitzpatrick, “The Raconteur and the Poet,” Jeffers Studies, winter 1999, 19.

(39.) Henry Miller “Big Sur,” BSGD, 1954. CA HistRm_Big Sur.

(41.) Jeff Norman and the Big Sur Historical Society, Images of America: Big Sur (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 59–77.

(42.) Quoted in “The Big Sur: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” A Guide to Highway 1 from Monterey to Morro Bay, ed. Emil White and Patricia Roberts (published by Big Sur Guide, Big Sur, 1954), 28–29. CA HistRm_Big Sur.

(43.) Anais Nin, Diary of Anais Nin, vol. 4 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1971), 102.

(45.) Elaine Fitzpatrick, “The Spirits of Nepenthe,” 19. CA HistRm_Big Sur. Miller’s son, Tony, recounts some of his favorite childhood memories of living in Big Sur with his father, suggesting that it felt like a paradise for more than just his father: “One of Dad’s favorite things to do was take my sister and [me] and the dogs on long walks into the Partington Ridge forest area. … And then, coming home the dogs exhausted from chasing everything, we would contemplate the unreal sunsets. … Our house and patio overlooked the Pacific with views unobstructed out in front and able to see clearly Nepenthe to the North. Great friends, food, books, people. … That is and was community for us. … We never forget our years there. … We don’t use photos or paintings or books to remind us. … It is within our family.” Tony Miller, personal communication, 28 Jan. 2010.

(46.) Norman and Big Sur Historical Society, Images of America, 54–55. Jean Hersey, “Big Sur: Utopia, U.S.A.?” Family Circle, Dec. 1951. CA HistRm_Big Sur.

(47.) For an in-depth study of an artists’ colony in the early twentieth century and its place within the larger tradition of artists’ retreats, see Flannery Burke, From Greenwich Village to Taos: Primitivism and Place at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2008).

(48.) “Coast Wonderland,” Game and Gossip, 6, no. 1 (1952). CA HistRm_Big Sur.

(50.) Ibid., 404.

(51.) Ibid., 402–3.

(52.) Ibid., 349.

(53.) Samuel T. Dana and Myron E. Krueger, California Lands: Ownership, Use, and Management (Narberth, PA: Livingston Publishing Co., 1958), 6.

(54.) George W. Long, “New Rush to Golden California” National Geographic 105, no. 6 (June 1954): 768. Los Angeles swelled with new residential construction as early as World War II and continued to attract new residents after the war as the G.I. Bill made buying a home an economic reality for millions of veterans.

(56.) Miller’s son, Tony, remarked about his father’s ability to love his family while still giving himself to his work, his art. As Tony wrote of his father in an e-mail interview: “Nature grabbed him and allowed him to channel energies into writing and painting. … All of his major works published in Europe were still banned here. … He wasn’t making any money. … There was nowhere else for him to go with two kids and a wife. He was a very loyal father and he constantly strived to do the right thing.” Tony Miller, personal communication, 20 Jan. 2010.

(57.) Tony Miller, personal communication, 28 Jan. 2010. Henry Miller, “Beyond Good and Evil,” New Yorker 74, no. 25 (24 Aug. 1998): 106.

(58.) Tony Miller, personal communication, 28 Jan. 2010.

(p.209) (60.) Robinson Jeffers, The Double Axe and Other Poems, Including Eleven Suppressed Poems (New York: Liveright, 1977), 173.

(61.) James M. Shebl, In This Wild Water: The Suppressed Poems of Robinson Jeffers (Pasadena: Ward Ritchie Press, 1976), 82.

(63.) Ibid., “So Many Blood-Lakes,” 132.

(64.) Robinson Jeffers, Stones of the Sur: Poetry by Robinson Jeffers; Photographs by Morley Baer; Selected and Introduced by James Karman (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 5.

(65.) “Henry Miller, The Art of Fiction No. 28,” interview by George Wickes, The Paris Review 28 (1962). http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4597/the-art-of-fiction-no-28-henry-miller (accessed 20 Sept. 2016).

(66.) James Karman, ed., The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers: With Selected Letters of Una Jeffers, vol. 1 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 914. Henry Miller, Big Sur, 403.

(67.) Charles Mohler, “The Unconquered Valley,” Westways, Sept. 1948, 13. Found in the archive of the Automobile Club of Southern California.