Literary Tourism: Big Sur and Monterey

I might be biased because I was lucky to grow up near Big Sur, but I think it is the most beautiful place in the world. And I’m not alone. Many writers and artists have made their homes among the Santa Luca Mountains and the Pacific coastline. Henry Miller is perhaps the most famous literary inhabitant. He lived in Big Sur for almost twenty years and said, “It was here in Big Sur where I first learned to say amen.” He is not the only writer to gain inspiration from this place. Lawrence Ferlinghetti also called Big Sur home and hosted Jack Kerouac in his simple log cabin providing the inspiration for Kerouac’s Big Sur. From Beat poetry to a Nora Roberts trilogy, Big Sur has been immortalized through the written word time and again. As a result, there is no shortage of good literary spots to visit around Big Sur and nearby Monterey.

henry-miller-memorial-library

First, I’d suggest stopping be The Henry Miller Memorial Library. This nonprofit arts center memorializing Henry Miller, who said he didn’t believe in memorials, sits in a house built in the 1960s by Miller’s best friend Emil White. Unlike most memorials, there’s not a lot to see at this so-called library. Tall redwood trees. A makeshift café. A bookstore featuring Miller, his contemporaries, and local authors. Somehow, I think Miller would approve of the space’s slow-moving, casual vibe. Still, the library’s motto “where nothing happens” isn’t entirely correct. Bands, films, and readings are regularly performed, and it has become a popular wedding venue. In fact, my sister is getting married there next year. If you read Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Henry Miller’s love letter to Big Sur, I think you will understand the appeal of the “peace and isolation” the author sought while living in this beautiful place.

During his time in Big Sur, Henry Miller frequented The Esalen Hot Springs, and Hunter S. Thompson once lived and worked on the property as the night security guard. If you desire some relaxation time and want to drive further south down Highway One this is not to be missed. The springs have been used in rituals and for healing for over six thousand years. Be warned though, the springs are “clothing optional” and local tradition is to bathe in the nude.

point-lobos

Driving north, towards Carmel-by-the-Sea, is Point Lobos State Park. The poet Robinson Jeffers describes the “gray granite ridges over swinging pits of sea” in one of his poems. Many people also believe that Point Lobos served as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Whether this is true or not the park served as the location for the 1934 film adaptation of the beloved classic. With clear water, dramatic cliffs, and lots of wildlife this is a must-visit place for me whenever I return to the area. The trails are, for the most part, not to steep and easy to navigate. I dare anyone to visit and not be completely in awe of the beauty around them.

Robinson Jeffers Tor House and Garden

My next to suggestion is to head into Carmel and see the Robinson Jeffers Tor House. If you aren’t from Big Sur or Monterey you may not have heard of poet Robinson Jeffers. He wrote many beautiful poems about the central Californian coast and is considered an early icon of the environmental movement. Jeffers built the granite home himself as a poetic refuge. It is where he would write all of his major works. Guest to the home included Sinclair Lewis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Langston Hughes. Aside from being an important literary landmark, the house would definitely appeal to anyone with an interest in architecture. Tours are only available on Fridays and Saturdays, so plan accordingly!

cannery-row

Before moving on, drive into Monterey and take a walk down Cannery Row, immortalized by the John Steinbeck novel. Here you see the home where the real Doc Ricketts lived and read quotes from the novel hanging from banners along the street. While the area is usually overrun with tourists these days, it’s still nice to take a stroll and imagine the Monterey that Steinbeck wrote about in his books.

If you have time, head to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Here you can learn about Steinbeck’s work and philosophy, as well as the experiences of agricultural workers in the United States, a subject the author felt strongly about.

Big Sur and Monterey have a rich literary history and enough natural beauty to inspire infinite works of literature and art. I’m sure the dramatic ocean waves, towering trees, and tall cliffs will keep writers and book lovers visiting in droves for many years to come.

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