(First published in the Winter 1997 issue of Jeffers Studies and reprinted here with gracious permission.)
We met early at the Coast Road corner near the mouth of the Big Sur River valley, satisfied with the morning's promise of a clear and perfect winter's day. Having left a vehicle a few miles up at the terminus of the Little Sur Trail to welcome our weary selves come evening, we drove northward to Palo Colorado and began the winding ascent through redwood forest to the trailhead at Bottchers Gap. Our plan for the day was to immerse ourselves deeply into Jeffers Country, venturing as far as possible from the asphalt's influence in hopes of experiencing for ourselves some of the unaffected inspiration that formed so much of his work. As William Everson put it, we sought to "recharge (our) energies on primal Jeffers landscape."
In his poem "The Inquisitors," Jeffers has the vaquero Azevedo ride by moonlight most of the route that we were to walk today. Did Jeffers himself actually pass this way? It's difficult to say for certain, but, as we would discover, the accuracy of his description and the remarkable feeling of place which he evokes surely makes the possibility seem probable.
Packs shouldered and spirits soaring, the three of us paused for a moment at the trailhead to take in the magnificent view to the southeast - the one Jeffers so aptly describes in "All the Little Hoofprints:"
not seen before. (This was
The first time that we visited Pigeon Gap, whence you look down behind the
great shouldering pyramid-
Edges of Pico Blanco through eagle-gulfs of air to a forest basin
Where two-hundred-foot redwoods look like the pile on a Turkish carpet.)"
It was from here that we could first perceive the potential for isolation in the remoteness and wildness which we were eagerly anticipating, with Pico Blanco's massive hulk standing guard throughout the day. The mood of each hiking trip is as memorable a part of the journey as the trip itself, and this trip was no exception. From inception our eagerness and excited anticipation seemed matched by nature's own promise of spring. The day was crisp, brilliant. We all felt physically empowered by the environment as if by music, with the walking was soon to begin.
The first few miles of the hike are easy ones, following a graded dirt road that switches back on itself as it falls away into the deeply forested Little Sur River basin. We passed through what was once the historic Swetnam Ranch (now owned by the Hearst Corporation and leased to the Boy Scouts of America for a scout camp) before crossing the alder-lined north fork by rickety footbridge amidst towering old-growth redwoods. The scout camp was thankfully abandoned for the winter, but one could almost hear the cacophony of jamborees past echoing through the peaceful forest.
Leaving the North Fork Little Sur and its beautiful riparian environs behind we started the long and arduous climb up the narrow Manuel Peak Trail to Launtz Ridge, passing beneath continuous cover of redwood, stately tanbark oak and sensuous madrone. The cool shade was welcome, as was our finally gaining the ridgetop and knowing that the hardest stretch of the hike was now behind us. After a short pause to catch our breath we began the descent into the South Fork Little Sur drainage, with occasional glimpses through the forest offering fine views of Pico Blanco to the west. Soon the dry ridgeline community of oaks and madrones gave way to cooler redwood forest, the trail at first being level with the top of one grand old specimen tree which seemed all the more gigantic as our descending steps only gradually brought us to its massive base. Here, in the dappled redwood shade of Duveneck's Hole, we pulled up for a welcome rest amidst the ramshackle remnants of the Pico Blanco Hunting and Fishing Lodge; a small group of hand-hewn redwood cabins - now collapsed and decaying - which haven't seen paying guests since the 20's. This sighting of former human habitation in an otherwise wild environment brought to mind Jeffers' poem "Hands", as we were here alone now but connected by time and the feelings generated by this special place to those before and after us; the setting remaining beautifully constant.
Saying: 'Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws. All hail
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down
And be supplanted; for you also are human.'"
This eventuality poignantly in mind we moved onward, the trail leaving the cover of forest and beginning a gentle traverse of the southerly flank of Pico Blanco. Hiking through the low brush and chaparral scrub of the sun-drenched mountainside, one's attention is drawn by the sound of rushing water to the redwood-choked gorge of the South Fork Little Sur River hundreds of feet below. Stark white fragments of weather-worn marble and limestone lay strewn about the hillside, scions released from the great white peak above us and making their way slowly to the streambed below.
Soon we passed near the locale of the legendary Silver King Mine, owned and worked long ago by one of Big Sur's more colorful residents past: Alfred K. Clark. Clark spent the better part of his life searching for the legendary Indian silver mine which was supposedly located somewhere on the south flank of Pico Blanco, living the life of an eccentric hermit at his homestead on the South Fork Little Sur. Jeffers and Clark had apparently met at least once, for it was Clark who Robin and his wife Una happened upon while riding the mail-stage to Big Sur for the first time in 1914, and about whom Jeffers wrote:
"In the cloud on top of Sur Hill a bearded old hermit met the stage to take delivery of a pilot biscuit he had sent for. Pilot biscuit! He had not a tooth in his head."
Bidding farewell to Uncle Al and his mysterious mine, we continued our trek down the south fork canyon. Crossing a slight rise we paused at a turn in the trail, the view before us magnificent. Far below was a large grassy meadow hanging on the edge of the dark redwood river gorge, a small herd of deer grazing quietly in the sun. Behind them and across the gorge the heavily wooded mountainside of the coast ridge rose steeply, its open emerald ridgeline sharp against the blue pacific backdrop. Pico Blanco loomed closely on our right. This very likely could be the spot, we surmised, where Jeffers took his inspiration for Azevedo's vantage point over the campfire council in "The Inquisitors:"
"Coming around a corner of the dark trail ... what was wrong with the valley?
In the brush by the trail, above the black redwood forest. This was the
Little Sur South Fork,
Its forest valley; the man had come in at nightfall over Bowcher's Gap,
and a high moon hunted
Through running clouds."
Rapture finally gave way to hunger at Pico Blanco Camp (a primitive Forest Service backcountry camp named for the mountain on whose foot it rests), where we took our lunch in the shade of a venerable tanbark oak at the edge of a gently sloping meadow. High above a red-tailed hawk swung lazy circles in the sky while we reclined languidly in the fresh green meadow-grass, arguing and discussing various aspects of Jeffers' work for the better part of an hour. Before leaving we dropped down into the river gorge just below the camp, to a fantastically magical site: a brilliant white waterfall into a deep circular pool of crystal clear but azure water. The limestone substrate of Pico Blanco, through which these waters run, deposits a large amount of calcium carbonate into the stream. This lends an almost phosphorescent quality to the water when agitated, creating strikingly beautiful falls and pools all along this riparian woodland paradise.
The afternoon was aging far more quickly than we had planned, and many miles still lay before us. Fortunately, the walk from Pico Blanco Camp to our vehicle on the Old Coast Road was almost entirely a gentle downhill grade so we set off freshened and intent on making time. This part of the hike, around the southwest side of Pico Blanco, is perhaps the most stunningly scenic of all. The trail skirts high up on the mountainside with sweeping vistas of the verdant canyon below and the white-capped ocean beyond, the view only occasionally broken when the trail ducks in and out of oak and maple shaded gullies. Presently we found ourselves back down in the redwoods where we passed the vestiges of Al Clark's long abandoned homestead - a large patch of feral periwinkle - before coming to a wet ford of the river. The canyon is narrow here, its walls steep. Towering redwoods line the streamcourse with many, having fallen victim to winter's violent storms, laying uprooted across the water-worn boulders. We made our way carefully across the cobbled streambed, the icy winter water surprisingly soothing to our trail-weary legs. As we sat on the far bank, drying our feet and lacing our boots, we noticed how strikingly similar this setting must have been during December's epic rain to that described by Jeffers in his poem "Night Without Sleep:"
"In the Ventana country darkness and rain and the roar of waters fill
The stream deals with them. The laurels are wounded,
Redwoods go down with their earth and lie thwart the gorge. I hear the
torrent boulders battering each other,
I feel the flesh of the mountain move on its bones in the wet darkness."
With the sun well set behind Sur Hill and the forest quickly darkening, we took solace in the fact that only two miles of trail separated us from our car. As it turned out, we emerged from the deep redwood forest at the trailhead just as the twilight was beginning to fade, wonderfully trail-weary and with the sense of having achieved the remote solitude that we had set out that morning to find. In fact, we saw not a single other person since leaving Bottchers Gap nine hours earlier. All agreed that we had just spent a perfect day.
Driving slowly southward back toward the highway on the rutted dirt track of the Old Coast Road we passed an old ranchhouse with a light in the window: the home of the Widow Hayworth in Jeffers' early poem "Ruth Alison." Soon we gained the ridgetop and caught the last fading glow of the set sun over the ocean, very near the spot where Arthur Barclay stood when he first gazed down at Point Sur on his way to the Morehead place . Here also is where Clare Walker first met Onorio Vasquez, before leading her bleating flock down to the South Fork Little Sur to water. And off to the east, faintly glowing in the twilight's last rays, stands solidly, as always, noble Pico Blanco. Jeffers' muse and inspiration for many of his poems still exists today, in all its richness, just as he experienced it. All one need do is go looking.