The Coast Road
rossing Malpaso Canyon meant that I was in the Sur again, this time late at night in summer fog so that the whole world seemed lost to me except what I held in memory as the land and seamarks of this coast, this sharp sea-wall, this refugia of all the old ones who have come and gone and come and gone, the dark watchers in this land of a thousand candles as the Spanish navigators sometimes called it when they passed, like now, in wildfire season.
I sip a beer and eat pistachios as the radio flicks in and out of comprehension past Soberanes, Jeffers' 'place for no story,' and Garrapata with its long sweep of sand and driftwood from its creekmouth and surf and upright stones and then past Palo Colorado, too, without a second thought even though in future years I would turn upcanyon here as if it were a songline I had long forgotten while what came back to me instead was a line from Dogen-Zenji that unless you leave home in the prescribed manner you will never reach the perfect enlightenment of the buddhas so that I asked myself whether I had ever really left home at all even as I was in the very act of leaving it again and further on at Rocky Creek gazed upcanyon as if I could have seen through the fog and years to where I sit now in an alcove of a one-room mountain hut and write these lines on a spring afternoon gazing up at the flank of Mt. Carmel as the creek flows past and my wife walks outside in the sunlight and irises after last night's storm that we huddled against since one of our sons has been missing for three days and we lean upon each other and lift each other up as tenderly as the rain that lingers on irises and mountain stars and on the first gooseberry blossoms that dangle like earrings in the sun.
I could have looked out upon the open roadstead of the sea, but wouldn't have seen that other pilgrim-self crossing the bridge at that same moment when my neighbor always asks me, are you coming from the mountain or the sea, while from that bridge in the summer fog there could've been no one in these mountains who quite resembled me, only an absent man, only all the vanished old ones in imagined vanished huts since I drove on along the ribbon of the road that clings to the last mountainside of all this continent and then falls to the sea as intermittently as a vaquero bridling his horse against this slope as well.
At Bixby Canyon a tramline ran upcanyon to where the limekilns are, and here the last vestige of the old coast road still turns inland to the same world old man Grimes knew when he drove the mail-wagon downcoast re-telling the stories that the homesteads along the way had taught him as if the way itself were a trapline that the smaller stories merely hung upon, longing, as all our stories do, to be absolved of themselves in the end.
Here Kerouac wrote Big Sur as the canyon walls closed in on him and the sea he sought to mimic flooded back against the currents of his mind where the demons who awaited him cast him back out again, flotsam and jetsam upon the shore. It is like that here where one immensity faces another and the human figure is small and ephemeral upon the slope between them as the moon casts the ether of its light into all the shadows, here where Cawdor's son fell from the height above me and Pepe from another stone after failing in his flight across these mountains, here where the sea offers no respite for those who cannot live within themselves, and where Fat Sing still dries seaweed on the rocks nearby and all those others seek refuge here who wouldn't or couldn't live in town since as Jeffers wrote, "Corruption never has been compulsory. When the cities lie at the monster's feet, there are left the mountains." And fire on the mountains. And a lone horseman on the coast ridge who looks down and shakes his fist at the builders of this road that carries me around Hurricane Pt. now and down into the Little Sur in the dim, diffused pulse through the fog from the lighthouse at Pt. Sur, as I still sip my beer, all signals from the radio gone as if the winds alone could blow them, too, towards the islands of the dead.
It used to be when I left this coast, late on a Sunday when the headlands and ridges were gold and olive and lavender and the sea would say there is no end I would feel as if I were heading in the wrong direction even though I was heading home. Perhaps it would be different now as I began a study of wilderness in the Christian contemplative tradition. Perhaps the gap could finally close between love and love, and home and home -- or would it widen instead into an absolute division between the self who always remains and that absent man who can abide nothing but the openness of this road?
While even a small valley in a landscape like this gathers the shards of memory back to itself and even the faintest trail leads back to a circle of stones or to a yurt in the mountains meant entirely for music with a single bed and a teapot on the hearth and a blue guitar in one corner and a dulcimer in another. And what was I looking for if not time of my own as a vast field of possibility instead of these cruel apportionments in which nothing realizes its appointed end, time to face whatever there is to face and then to pass even beyond that into the vaster spaciousness that is always crackling through the fissures of our own mortality? And where else to seek it except at this inn where two lovers face one another after a long separation in which everything had ended and everything had become possible again as they read in each other's face the inevitablity of their own demise which they could neither avert nor wished to -- and who could lead them, however tenderly, away from this table of their consent to a grief they consoled one another from even as they continued to create it?
"I am so happy now," she said amid the instability of candlelight, and it seemed to make amends for everything even as the husband at the table next to them asked his wife if she still loved him until she stirred her drink so long he could feel the blade of her delay along his throat as they walked back through the woods to a fire that would've said intimacy if it could have said anything at all, but instead tasted like ashes and the fleetingness of smoke.
Coming back to this coastland is like coming back to this desk, like coming back to this page where my hand moves in all the twists and turns of a labyrinthine land where every turn is another narrative and every headland the seedplot of someone's poetry along a paved route that only passes along the outskirts of it all, but also along the absolute liminal edge of all this continent.
I have come back inside this cabin again at that one moment when against the dreaming darkness I light the lamps and start the fire in a mountain hut that feels like the frame of my own consciousness, like the boat of my body towards which I feel so much affection now. The creek roars past below and I step outside for firewood and to remember the difference between mountain air and the fire in the stove of this cabin so small it is a membrane really between the darkness outside and the flicker of candlelight across this page.
I had thought of an absolute solitude once, but now I know it is more like this, coming and going and coming and going along a road that vast forces tell to go away even as human ones dynamite it clear again and clear culverts after each winter storm so that I feel like I am riding on the ribbon of my own impermanence and seeking a laura as much as reclusion since people still gather along some watershed or ridgeline, each place its own hieroglyphic self that no one can comprehend the whole of, like Partington Ridge where Jaime de Angulo lived above the magic circle and above Henry Miller and Harrydick Ross and Maude Oakes, seeker after his own lost shadow whose young son had died beneath him on this very bend of the road I traverse again as the wilderland crept back around him even as its spirits receded further and further back into the mountains in flight from the builders of this road which still carries me along a coast that drifts by like revery until I feel I am entering a district of my own, passing Esalen and Big Creek and Gamboa Pt., and then at Lucia I turn into the mountains at a whitewashed cross and climb towards the hermitage until at fourteen hundred feet I emerge above the fog to the varied breathings of a night that is never quite what I expect. No moon. No bells. Not even the clap of wood on wood at the triduum now. Only the vault of stars in midnight blue and the sound of my own footfalls across the cloister where friends sleep in their separate cells. Only the creaking of the floorboards in the ranch-house and a small room with a few books on a desk and one bag in a corner and a window left open to the imponderability of night.
I make my own compline this late at night within a chapel that feels like another womb of darkness where memories arise of friends prostrate on the slate floor before me, cowls drawn over their heads and the moist imprint of their faces and feet and hands when they arise, and I want to speak one clear word back into this darkness that I awakened from myself to join around the brazier on the portico whose small fire seemed like the one light remaining in the world, the firelight on all our faces and the lighting of our candles until the chapel was full of candlelight and incense and antiphonal prayer and ancient texts read in a precise sequence, one of which I read, too, the chrism, water sprinkled from a redwood branch, the illumination of our youngest daughter's face.
And all the other places I have known. The eremo in Tuscany. A nun on her knees at San Damiano. The zendo at Tassajara. A teahouse in Bixby Canyon. A certain perch above this creek. This deck. This stone. The owl that visits me. These deer.
©2001 by Chris Lorenc