Day 14: "The Land Taste Forgot"

Big Sur / Hearst Castle / Cambria

We left Carmel fairly well rested, and not too late. We had quite a drive. We would go through Big Sur, then hit Hearst Castle. We could have used two days, but still…you have to make do with what you have.

Big Sur has always been a place of mystery; also, hippies. Jack Kerouac wrote his last book here, “Big Sur,” in which he concludes the book by talking to the ocean for about twenty-four pages that nobody ever reads.

We were curious and slightly nervous since Big Sur was one of the areas that had been hit hardest by the forest fires. A few days prior, the road had been closed. It was now open again, but since the fires seemed to flare up randomly, we couldn’t be sure. Luckily, things were OK and the road was open.

Big Sur is quite beautiful, and despite residual smoke mixing with late morning fog, we had a good view. As we entered Big Sur itself, we passed a sign proclaiming “Welcome home, Big Sur souls”. It was not the last sign we saw – we passed several signs that all said “We love firemen” and “thank you firemen” or variations thereupon. (Come to think of it, it was probably “firepeople” – this is PC country, after all)

On both sides of us, the brush was burnt to a crisp and the ground was charred, though not all over, thankfully; it was more like pockets of dead land wedged in between the otherwise verdant landscape. It was odd to see these grey, dead patches in between the lively greens, but the alternative would have been terrible to contemplate. The firefighters certainly earned their pay.

We stopped at Nepenthe, to eat at the famous café. It supposedly has the world’s best view (a claim which a certain bar in Key West also makes on its own behalf), serves food and beer and you can buy macramé and incense to boot. Truly a convergence of commerce and culture. Of course, neither of us were interested in macramé, so we just had some expensive sandwiches and enjoyed the view of both the coastline and the shapely waitress instead.

Trying to describe the views you encounter on Highway 1 is a tall order, but you can’t really go wrong with any of the vista points there. It’s wonderful hiking and camping country, and I would have liked to explore more, but because of all the fire damage, it was easier to put it out of my mind. Besides, we still had to get to Hearst Castle.

Heart Castle is known as the place where good taste went to die, which only proves the writers’ narrative lack of imagination. In truth, it’s more like a theme park designed by a kid with full-on ADD. You can’t fault it for what it tries to be, I suppose, but had mr Hearst had a little less cash to throw around, perhaps a more unified vision would have been presented to the world. Thankfully, he didn’t have this problem, and we could fully enjoy the man’s scattershot vision of European-infused opulence on the hilltop overlooking the Bay.

The Castle is huge; surrounded by acres and acres of land, where wild animals from all over the world would roam freely, the compound has several pools, both indoor and out, a Spanish-inspired house with two belfries, medieval French tapestries, orthodox icons and so on. Hearst had the indoor pool decorated with tiles of 18-carat gold, as you would.

The area is literally strewn with statues bought and brought from all over Europe. They may have been timeless (if not priceless) works of art, and an example is as follows: an Apollo figure didn’t fit entirely on the pool fresco, so the legs were cut off and the now-shorter deity placed on his perch above the water. You have to admit Hearst showed a certain foresight here: it would take another 60 years before people like Damien Hirst would start chainsawing shit and calling it great art.

Hearst Castle is also unique in that it was designed by California’s first female architect. She spent decades of her life working for Hearst, the only provision being that she bring his dreams to life. She pops up for a few seconds in one of the clips detailing the construction. She seems almost – almost – out of place next to the flamboyant Hearst, and when he puts his arm around her slight frame and point to the camera, she smiles curtly and hides her face behind the blueprint, but not without humor.

Hearst the man is as known from “Citizen Kane” these days as he is from his own career, perhaps more so. While “Kane” was fiction, it hit close enough to home that Hearst more or less killed the movie commercially and put Orson Welles’ career on hold. But as we know now, Welles had a lot to answer for in regard to his own decline as well, and ultimately, visiting the castle does balance the scales somewhat:The impression one is left with of the man is that of a driven, but generally decent man with a lot of money who loved to be around people. (Check out the HBO series “Deadwood” for a somewhat less flattering portrait of daddy Hearst.)

Anyway, let’s face it: who wouldn’t really want to large it up a bit if we could? Personally, I’d go for something smaller, but I’m Norwegian, and tradition dictates that we don’t enjoy ourselves unless we’re uncomfortable. And you’d be hard pressed to be uncomfortable in any way at Hearst Castle.

We ended up in Cambria. The bars all closed at eight, so we bought some beers and enjoyed them on the porch. As much as we could; the neighbors were fighting and we heard a male voice: “leave me alone ten goddamned minutes, can you do that?” and so on. He came out on the porch, in utter darkness; we sensed he was there, most likely planning his wife’s murder, and so figured he needed his privacy. They went at it some more a bit later; I tell you, that was one car I was happy I wouldn’t be in.