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In Big Sur, Learning the Value of Being Alone

By Allison P. Davis

03.26.20

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The drive to Big Sur is an iconic one, memorialized in books and movies.

Photo by Lisa Corson

The drive to Big Sur is an iconic one, memorialized in books and movies.

One writer on how Big Sur’s all-encompassing beauty is what she thinks about when she can’t travel.

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This essay is part of a series on “happy places”—destinations we return to, again and again, even if it’s just in our mind. You can read the other stories here and here

Taking a couples vacation to a place you love—or sense you might immediately love—is such a gamble that I want to have a no-couples-vacation clause in my next relationship. After all, the memory of what makes a destination special becomes part of a love story, not just a travel one: the tiny bistro isn’t just the place with the best pâté, it’s the place with relationship-saving pâté—a meal so good you forgot you’d been fighting all day. The hotel on the beach didn’t just have “comfortable beds”; the bed and the beach view is a conjoined twin with the recollection of what you did in that bed. If that love lasts forever, or ends in a way that fosters good feelings, fantastic. But if things go the other way, then all of the sudden you’re like me and have to avoid Paris for a decade.

Big Sur was one of those high-stakes games of poker. I was living in Oakland at the time, a true New Yorker masquerading as a person who belonged in Northern California. I’d heard people mention Big Sur, but I’d never thought to look into it—a weekend in an idyllic beach town wasn’t part of my lifestyle of burritos and dive bars and house parties. But one day, I was at my entry-level job when a friend sent me photos from her sister’s wedding, a big group of New York/Philly kids taking perfect Instagrams at Glen Oaks and posting sunset pics from the fancy hotel. Through them, I saw how Big Sur could be a place I would love. I wanted to take the foggy walks on the beach, wearing jeans and flannel, like a Bon Iver song come to life. I wanted to end my evenings with beers around a fire pit. I wanted to make a specific “For Driving the PCH” playlist. I sent my boyfriend of a month or so a text: “Do you want to check out this place this weekend?” Love big sur, he wrote back. I can drive. 

I remember everything about that first trip: We’d hit the road right after work, and got caught in traffic leaving the city. He sucked at handling the curves on the Pacific Coast Highway, but he drove a Jeep, which felt like the right car for the occasion. I never did make a playlist, so we talked over the same Tame Impala album for the five hours it took us to get there, arriving at Glen Oaks late. We had just enough time to share a bottle of wine and con the hotel receptionist into giving us a 25-minute ride up to Esalen so we could soak in the natural hot springs, which are only open to the public between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., and jut out over the Pacific. We got back to the hotel three hours later with boiled brains, totally relaxed to the point of delirium, and had the kind of sex entire anthologies of erotic novels are written about.

On the beach in Big Sur; some of the coastline's dramatic vistas.

The hotel had no Wi-Fi, really, so for the next three days we read books, visited Pfeiffer Beach, and offended people by making out all over hiking trails. We’d take long walks and forget to say a word to each other, or sit and read with no sounds but the fire and the creek. For once in my relationship, I didn’t feel the nervous energy or drive to fill every moment with chatter. I was just there.

Eventually, I moved back to New York, and we stayed together, destroying a good relationship by trying to survive long distance. Big Sur became a touchstone of “when things were good”—it was our place. For the three years we kept things going, we went back again and again, sometimes staying at Glen Oaks, or Treebones Resort, or renting a house. We went one more time to celebrate his birthday—a last-ditch attempt to avoid breaking up—and took friends with us, booking an Airbnb set so far back in the woods I’ll never find it again. We sat in a hot tub and drank local beers, and passed out on the deck under the stars, waking up at 2 a.m. wondering if we were going to get eaten by a bear. We ended the trip with a fight on the way to the airport, and broke up not too long after.

In the immediate aftermath, I figured I could never go back to Big Sur. I mourned the loss of place almost more than the relationship. Even if it was part of a break-up story, it was also a place I most associated with peace and solitude and doing absolutely nothing. Where I could take long walks and never say a word, even if there was someone to talk to.

Whenever I think about Big Sur now, it’s like someone Eternal Sunshine-d me; the memory of my then-boyfriend faded to the background. I remember the drive—the thrills of navigating the hairpin turns in places where the guardrail drops and there’s nothing but a cliff. I remember the fireplace in my room at Glen Oaks, which was always lit by some invisible hotel staff and stayed burning all night. I remember waking up in total quiet, and going to sleep in quiet. If I got stir-crazy at the hotel, I could sit in the Henry Miller Memorial Library a few miles away, trading one reading nook for another. I remember feeling totally in sync with Big Sur, where the weather evolved just like my mood: foggy early in the morning, but clear with energy by the afternoon, until it turns cold enough at night to enter into a hibernation state. 

I often think about Big Sur when I’m peak stressed or can’t travel. On rainy days when I’m stuck in Brooklyn and have no desire to leave my couch, I pretend I’m back there with no Wi-Fi or reason to leave. Going there always felt like a vacation spot for one, now that I think about it. A place to lose yourself, entirely, and frankly, to lose another person, too.

When I remember Big Sur now, I think about it being a place of solicitude. And even though I went with someone, it was a place where I learned to value being alone.  

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