My sons and I just crossed the country on Amtrak--and yes, I talked to strangers, and slept well too, though Amtrak should really do something about all those awful thick plastic plates they throw away after each and every meal. (I suggest switching to china.) We spent a few days in San Francisco, and then made that breathtakingly beautiful and perilous drive down Route 1 to the Big Sur area. We checked into a charming, ramshackle inn, built of wood and personality, called Deetjen's Big Sur Inn. We had the top floor of a small cabin, so that I had one side of the room with a big bed, and on the other side of a curtained doorway, each son had a smaller bed under banks of windows. Completely charming. We ate great meals at the Inn, and also had a superb dinner at the Big Sur Bakery, which has also produced an excellent cookbook. Both places were simple and unpretentious and idiosyncratic; both operated at a high quality. It was a joy to have my children, both in their twenties, with me for breakfast, lunch and dinner for thirteen days. And I loved feeling snug in our quarters, all of us reading quietly after dinner until lights went out, one by one, rather early, as we were exhausted from miles of hiking.

I was awed by the views from the mountaintops; I couldn't even take out my camera. It was too big, too beautiful, and too perfect. I've seen photographs of this area over the years so it felt oddly familiar, and yet, I also felt what it must have been like to be a pioneer, coming over those mountains and gazing at the sea below for the first time. I don't have the words to describe the thrill--or rather, I'm impatient to get on to what really took my breath away.

What made me pull out my camera was a quiet little woodland trail I followed up behind our hotel one morning. It didn't feature views--those could be seen from benches sited off another branch of the trail. Instead, I climbed up and into the woods, along a stream that splashed over rocks and across fallen trees. And everywhere I looked, there were eery reminders of the Big Sur fires that ravaged the Basin Complex in the summer of 2008.

That summer, there were 1500 fires burning in California. Drought conditions, along with high winds, whipped up flames that had been ignited by lightening strikes. Of course, I remembered reading about the fires in the newspapers, but as is usually the case, nothing, not even television footage, quite captured the scale of the calamity. The gigantic, dead and fallen trees were eloquent. (I felt the same way last summer when I got caught in the floods in Tennessee. My friends on the East coast following the news in the media had no idea of the scale of the disaster.) 162, 818 acres were burned--acres that contained vast swathes of eucalyptus, redwoods, oaks, and pines. Houses, gardens, and possessions were swallowed up in flames. Animals that could not flee to the Pacific were burned alive.

I was shocked, at first, by the charred, blackened trunks of the once mighty redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens. What a handsome tree that is; a miracle of height and fortitude. Many of Big Sur's redwoods had burned to stumps. But some remained standing, and, astonishingly, alive, as the fire had not damaged the inner bark and the cambium layer under that. You could see, by following the scarred trees, how the fire had jumped down the mountain; not even the stream, which might have been quite low that summer if it was running at all, stopped it. Those trees must have burned like mythic torches.

Now all is quiet in the woods. What is truly miraculous is the new life stirring. Tiny shoots of redwood spring up around dessicated stumps.

The charred forms have a sculptural beauty; the texture of the blackened bark is remarkable. I couldn't take my eyes off the scorched earth--and I wondered whether it had the sort of fascination that a terrible wreck on the highway has. You slow down, peer over the disaster, feel grateful that you missed it, and wonder at the warning. Heads up. Slow down. I kept running my eyes over the scorched shingling, trying to make sense of the patterns. But of course it is senseless, in one way--so much devastation. And it is also, remarkably, the way of nature. Only 150 years ago, the redwood forest in coastal California was the size of Connecticut. Less than 3% of it exists today. Here we should stop a moment and give thanks that we have a Parks Department in this country.

I kept returning to that trail, over the next few days. My son Alex walked it with me, and he told me that the new redwood saplings that spring up in rings around the base of the old characters, the clones of the parent tree, are referred to as "the children." I almost don't want to look it up to see if it is true, or simply sweetly poetic.

Fires cleanse and renew, even as they destroy. Life goes on, even as it goes out. I couldn't take my eyes off these blackened views--more expansive than the vistas from mountaintop to sea. They are, somehow, views of eternal life. Or so they seemed to me, on my quiet, dimly lit walks.


Maria Grasso said...

Beautiful post, exquisite pictures.

Bruce Barone said...

Yes--beautiful and exquisite.

Anonymous said...

Well written and such beautiful photos.

mary said...

Dominique...what is true of the forest is true of us. New growth from ashes and grief..... thanks for reminding me that the new growth is all that really matters.

karenleslie said...

stunning pictures. the contrast is incredible -- as are your lovely comments.

Susan said...

We discovered Deetjens Big Sur Inn last summer, not in time to stay there, but did have a wonderful meal at the charming restaurant. It is a lovely place and we love Big Sur.

William said...

Jesus Dominique,

What a fantastic trip and great pictures! Don't count on Amtrak getting rid of those plastic plates on transcontinental trains ever - and frankly don't count on those transcontinental trains for many more years. My guess is within 15 years they will be history except for maybe the equivalent of the current day Orient Express - and quite possibly not even that. I was impressed and encouraged by the President's comment in last night's SOTU Address about the plan to connect 80% of the country with high-speed rail. I was equally discouraged to learn that the Washington - NY - Boston corridor will have true high-speed rail by 2040. Something is clearly wrong with that. Don't get me wrong, I love the Acela, in fact I love it so much that often I just hop on it to go to DC for the day to go to museums and walk around - but it's not the TGV or the newest Chinese trains. That's not good. As an aside, from your photos, who would abandon a 1967 Karmann Ghia convertible? - the Karmann Ghia is quite possibly the best and most beautiful car design in history. That's just not right!

Ann in SFBA said...

Such exquisite language you use in your writing. I lived in Big Sur when I was very young during the 70s...was there during the huge after-fire mudslides in 70-71 or so...stuck at Esalen for a few days as the mud that wiped out the old post office also covered hwy 1 for hundreds of yards and was totally impassable except by walking. Which I finally did after folks began to drive to either side of the slide and exchange vehicles and give rides to keep life going north and south.

Love Deejuns and the entire coast...thanks for sparking these memories.

carolegarden said...

The charred trees with new growth. What a metaphor for a life well lived. I am in airport mode awaiting a delayed plane for my not-slow life. Maybe this is that moment of change. Thank you also for the 2 a.m. Comfort about divorce, children and gardens. Your book and I spoke many nights.

Sixty-Fifth Avenue said...

Your trip sounds perfect and your writing is wonderful. Just found your blog.


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