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Following Robinson Jeffers' poetic path in Big Sur

He was taken with Big Sur's natural beauty and ruggedness. We let his writings be our tour guide.

September 06, 2009|Scott Timberg

BIG SUR, CALIF. — Big Sur, the 90 or so miles of rugged Pacific coast that unfurls south of Monterey, is known for pricey, reservations-only restaurants and as a capital of the New Age movement. It's a place, then, for well-fed people to get in touch with their inner selves in a spectacular natural setting.

But before the arrival of $120 prix fixe dinners, before the human potential movement was founded at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur was associated with one of America's most austere and, for a while, famous artists. He settled just north of the coastal stretch, in a foggy, barely inhabited area he loved for its remoteness. And even when Robinson Jeffers became so celebrated that he landed on the cover of Time magazine for his poems about hawks, stallions, sex and imperial decline, he kept working on his poetry and on the rough stone tower he built himself.

It was this vision of Big Sur -- an older generation of Bohemia that was about rigorous creativity and not hipster posing, a worship of nature rather than narcissism -- that my wife, Sara, and I drove up the coast in July to meet. We wanted to get deeper into Jeffers' life and terroir -- there's probably no American poet more specifically associated with a single location -- and the period of his heyday.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 29, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
Big Sur poet: An article in the Sept. 6 Travel section on poet Robinson Jeffers and Big Sur incorrectly reported that writer Henry Miller moved to Big Sur because of Jeffers. Although Miller became a friend and admirer of the poet, he moved to Big Sur for his own reasons. Also, the Henry Miller Memorial Library was described incorrectly as a shrine to Jeffers; the library is dedicated to Miller, not Jeffers.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 04, 2009 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Big Sur poet: A Sept. 6 article on poet Robinson Jeffers and Big Sur incorrectly reported that writer Henry Miller moved to Big Sur because of Jeffers. Although Miller became a friend and admirer of the poet, he moved to Big Sur for his own reasons. Also, the Henry Miller Memorial Library was described incorrectly as a shrine to Jeffers; the library is dedicated to Miller, not Jeffers.

The 1930s, when the poet's reputation was at its zenith and just before a decline as steep as the Big Sur cliffs, were also when the outside world began to make contact with this once-forbidding stretch between the ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains.

That's when Pacific Coast Highway was extended to what it is now, a simple two-lane road that winds through a canopy of trees. A huge patch of wilderness -- what is now the 1,000-acre Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where the son of the region's first European settlers lived in a log cabin -- was sold to the state for public use. This was, of course, a period of lavish public spending, much of it intended to jolt the nation out of the Great Depression: The spectacular Bixby Bridge, which offers overhead views of the waves crashing into beaches and rocks, was completed in 1932, the same year as Jeffers' Time cover.

I suspect Jeffers was difficult to get along with. Photographer Edward Weston called him aloof, a man who "belongs to stormy skies and heavy seas." But as a posthumous guide to one of the nation's prettiest places -- to what the Monterey-based Spanish called el pais grande del sur, or "the big country of the south" -- we thought Jeffers would be an almost-ideal guide.

Rugged coast

Driving along the precarious, twisty coastline north of San Simeon, we felt as though we were already in Jeffers country: The tableau of rough waves, towering redwoods and bent cypress trees, cows and horses grazing alongside PCH, is the landscape of his work.

It was just this scene that attracted Jeffers, a Pittsburgh native who had moved to Southern California as a teenager with his family. He graduated from Occidental College at 17 before studying at the University of Southern California and in Zurich, where course work was as varied as geology and medicine to Old English and Dante.

Happenstance brought him here in his 20s. Jeffers and his wife, Una, had considered a move to England's Dorset Coast, known as Thomas Hardy country, but they reconsidered when World War I broke out. A friend told them Big Sur was similarly rugged, and they settled in a place where, as Jeffers later wrote, "for the first time in my life I could see people living -- amid magnificently unspoiled scenery -- essentially as they did in the Idyls or the Sagas, or in Homer's 'Ithaca.'

"Here was life purged of its ephemeral accretions," he wrote in the forward to "Selected Poetry." "Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland, hovered by white sea-gulls, as they have done for thousands of years, and will do for thousands of years to come."

With that as our introduction, we thought it incongruous to stay in one of the region's pampering hotels. We settled on Ripplewood Resort, a series of rustic bare-bones cabins, some alongside PCH or, like ours, beside the Big Sur River. Jeffers' work could be passionate to a fault, and I find some of it overheated and long-winded. But sitting beside the river or at the wooden table under the redwoods was a heavenly place to revisit his work. Our favorite place in town, where we could not get a reservation, was Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, built in the '30s by a Norwegian settler I imagine as having a touch of the spirit of Jeffers, a rugged individualist who respected nature and solitude.

We could have happily spent large stretches of our stay in and around our cabin, especially because the combination of ocean fog and sheltering trees made the grove around our cabin cool, shady and fragrant with peat.

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