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The International Writers Magazine: California

Big Sur Country
• Fred C Wilson 111
Paradise Found
Northern California’s not the place to visit in early autumn. The weather’s cold, cloudy and it rains nearly every day, sort of like here in Chicago most of the year when it’s not snowing or roasting.

Big Sur

During one of my previous California trips I was so desperate to see the sun and feel it's warmth I signed on for a tour of a city prior to my visit I’ve only read about; Carmel by the Sea, the State of California’s idea of Paradise found. I paid my money and signed on. The tour included round trip bus fare, a gourmet luncheon and a guided tour of the city. As much as I hate guided tours it was the only way I could get to this city unless I wanted to rent a car (very expensive) or go Greyhound. Having neither the money nor remaining vacation time I opted for the tour which included the nearby city of Monterrey, the former capitol of the area.

When I was young and had legs that worked back in the ‘Stone Age’ I always made it my special point to be among the first to get on busses and trains. I’ve always wanted to sit near a window to take in the sights; my southern California odyssey wasn’t any exception. Most of my fellow passengers harbored similar feelings; there was a mad scramble to get window seats. Once aboard the Grey Line I immediately got comfortable. After everybody was seated and accounted for the bus drove off. I sat back in my reclining chair and soaked in the scenery as we left the city by the bay. The further we drove away from SF the more the sun shone and the temperature rose. The windows acted as solar panels distributing the sun’s warmth equally throughout the bus.

My fellow passengers were a quiet lot. They slept, read books, there weren’t any cellular telephones in those days and a few conversed softly with the person next to them usually a relative, friend, stranger or a significant other. People traveling solo like your writer looked out the window to pass the time. Since there were only a few kids aboard the noise factor wasn’t much of a problem.

My fellow passengers were an interesting lot; there was a late middle-aged married couple from New Jersey seated across from me. Her long suffering husband of many years merely smiled at his wife a woman who never shut up. Her mouth moved constantly. Luckily for us this chatterbox wasn’t loud, rude or obnoxious; she just talked endless to her significant other a man who tried to ignore her without hurting her feelings. I got to know her and her saintly husband. She was really a kind and gentle person who just talked too much like somebody else I know. Finally after a few hours we finally reached our destination the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Big Sur poster The mid-day sun shown brightly in the heavens; there was a marked change for towards the warmer so unlike the northern California cold. The bus parked but not before letting us off at one of the more luxurious hotels that dotted the cityscape. Once inside our party of about 50 souls was invited to partake of the lavish buffet prepared for our group. I was never partial to California cuisine despite it being my native state. As you may know from previous articles I’m partial to Chicago cooking.

Point—cold artichoke hearts dipped in vinegar just ain’t my thing besides dining on stuff best served on fat farms and health stores don’t satisfy my hunger cravings for fried foods generally of the poultry and pork varieties. I prefer fried pork chops, bacon, lechon (Philippine style roasted suckling pig), and chicken any day over vegetarian fare. The food presentation was right out of some fancy culinary magazine you pick up in beauty salons, better barber shops and health food cafeterias. The food was bland as was my fellow tourists excluding motor mouth the woman who aforementioned sat across from me on the ride over.

World famous Pebble Beach was the original name given to a rocky cove that once was part of ‘Rancho Pescadero’ a Mexican land grant awarded to Fabian Barreto in 1836 a few years before the Anglos arrived and seized the property including the entire Western North America in the Mexican War (1846-1848). In the 1850’s Chinese immigrants formed a number of fishing settlements along Carmel Bay in the vicinity of the beach before being chased out. The land was ‘purchased’ in 1860 by David Jack, then in 1880 by the Pacific Improvement Company part of the so-called ‘Big Four’ a cabal of super-rich railroad barons.
Big Sur view
Carmel CA In time the area also known as the ‘Big Sur’ the pais grande del sur (Big Country of the South) became the area where the rich and famous go to play. To make a long story short you may visit this place but unless you got money by the trunk full best keep movin'. You may look and buy stuff but you cannot stay. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a photographer’s vision of earthly paradise. The majestic white silver sands beach, the ocean view from your hotel if you’re rich enough to stay in one, the very controversial soon-to-be-canonized Blessed Junipero Serra’s original mission church with its’ full menu of Masses and other services is still in use today. The scenic resort city provides excellent photographic subjects. I had a field day.

When I was there I think the only native person I came across was me or at least half of me was. The once thriving Native American community were conveniently ‘removed’ centuries ago by a process known today as ethnic cleansing though in those days largely by the white man’s diseases (smallpox, measles, etc.) of whom the Aboriginals had no immunity against. Those who survived the microbes were neatly dispatched by Spanish swords, guns, torture, rape and artillery. The Big Sur and the entire Western Hemisphere lay open to European conquest and it was. What were left of Big Sur’s Native population was duly assimilated by the all conquering Spaniards and later the Mexicans.

During our free time I hiked through the hills, walked shoeless along the beautiful silver sanded beach and let the gentle ocean spray roll over my tired toes, legs and feet. I got a marvelous shot of the little tree that sits all alone in that little patch of ground between several rocks still growing defying the surrounding rocks. Being an art person though unfortunately light years behind the world class arts community who form Carmel’s artist society, I naturally visited as many art galleries as I could fit into our pre-planned schedule.

The Pebble Beach golf course is where movie stars and other global greats knock around a little white ball. The green with its’ white sand traps is an art work in and of itself if you fancy that sort of thing. Me I personally think golf is fascist, an utter waste of time, energy and precious water sorely needed to curb California’s on-going killer drought.

Big Sur country is home to Monarch butterflies. These beauties migrate from far inland and arrive on the West Coast in October. In mornings they cluster in colorful clumps on eucalyptus trees their favorite roosting spot. Scientists through an ongoing tagging program discovered these flying insects can travel up to 3,000 miles on their migration routes. One warning; these creatures are heavily protected by conservation laws; if caught molesting the Monarchs be prepared to pay a hefty fine—per butterfly! Look and take pictures but don’t touch.

After touring the resort city of Carmel-by-the-Sea it was time to tour neighboring Monterrey. The city of Monterey has the distinction of being California’s first capitol first under Spain then later Mexico. In 1846 it became part of the United States thanks to the Mexican-American War. This historic city played host to California’s first theater, public library, government buildings, schools, printing press and local newspaper. Like its’ nearby rich cousin Carmel-by-the-Sea a sizable number of high powered artists and writers call Monterey home.

When I visited the place our group was on a strict schedule so there wasn’t adequate time to visit all of the attractions though I did a walk through of Cannery Row aforementioned home of the now defunct California sardine industry. Then there is the Fisherman’s Wharf with its’ quaint restaurants with the wharf’s splendid view of the ocean. It’s also home to a myriad number of harbor seals and wow do this creatures smell! But then I guess so do human beings to harbor seal noses.
Monterey CA

At the annual end of the summer the city plays tribute to the Monterey Jazz Festival where the world’s jazz greats have been gathering every year since 1958. I never was one for Jazz not that I didn’t like it; don’t get me wrong I like Jazz but never found time to just sit and let the music soak in. To learn more about this really nice festival check out it's history; Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, John Coltrane, the very recently diseased B.B. King…EVERYBODY who was somebody in the Jazz world and Pop culture to a certain degree played Monterey!

There’s something about aquariums that always make me hungry which is why I rarely go to the one we have in Chicago; the world famous Shedd Aquarium; seeing all those fresh fish swimming around makes me imagine all the ways I can cook them. The way I fry catfish, broil tilapia and bake salmon steaks then spred on my homemade Louisiana Creole style remoulade sauce is legendary—yummy…mighty darn good. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the finest I’m told. Next time I’m in Monterey I’ll visit this place but after I eat first.

From my on site estimation the cities of Carmel-by-the-Sea and neighboring Monterrey are worlds apart. Carmel is for the super rich, Monterrey for ‘po folks’ though it’s been yuppified (Don’t get me started!) all out of sorts. While I enjoyed Carmel, Monterrey site of famed author (don’t I wish…) John Steinbeck’s two best sellers, the city didn’t impress me all that much; however the great novelist did.

When I toured Cannery Row the fish factories had closed only a few years prior to my visit. The fabled canneries went belly up after the collapse of the local fishing industry during the mid-1950’s. Many factors led to the destruction of Monterrey’s financial mainstay among them unfavorable oceanic conditions, over fishing and competition from other species of fish. Before it's demise the fishery was one of the world’s most productive thanks to the upwelling of cold nutrient rich ocean bottom water which no longer funneled surface water via the underground Monterey Canyon. Once the water changed the industry bottomed out.

Cities reflect the philosophies of its people. There’s no comparison between Carmel-by-the-Sea with its industrialized cousin Monterey. Carmel was constructed for pleasure, Monterrey work. Carmel is a playground for the rich; Monterrey is more Chicago namely working class. Carmel is pretty not so Monterrey. That’s just the way things are take it or leave it. While I found Carmel charming, quaint and artsy Monterrey was a reflection of the opposite extremes. Monterrey’s down to earth commercial and civic harshness; Carmel’s laid back serene beauty oddly complemented each other. The two cities reminded me of an oddly joined married couple; one party working class, stern, strict and efficient with the other partner soft spoken, pretty, delicate and rich yet somehow compatible. This dichotomy reminds me of my own marriage; my wife, pretty, a debutant and wealthy; me a hard-driving, crude spawn of Chicago’s slum neighborhoods.

Tortilla Flat (1935) was Steinbeck’s first commercial success. The book was about this group of local folks all World War One veterans and how they set out to totally enjoy their lives, friendship and getting drunk. After Tortilla Flat author Steinbeck stopped writing for free.

His other work Cannery Row (1945) was set during the Great Depression. The action mostly took place in a sardine factory where they canned those delicious little suckers that go great with chopped onions and crackers before they hit the shelves. The book was about the locals and their very ordinary lives. Both of these critically acclaimed novels were eventually made into movies and stage plays.

The bus rides were something else! Riding along the California’s scenic Highway One was a tour all by itself. Our itinerary included many photo stops en route and on the five hour ride back to SF. I won’t describe the magnificent sights I shot with my old 35 MM; it’ll take too long and after about five photo descriptions you’ll get bored. However I do invite you to see for yourself by searching National Geographic’s Road Trip: California’s Pacific Coast Highway. All I can say is if you ever make the trip it’ll be well worth your while. The scenery is literally breathtakingly beautiful! For a flatlander like me riding through this mountain highway that skimmed the ocean was a sight I’ll never forget. I urge travelers to make this awesome adventure a bucket list project.

If you’re contemplating visiting the Big Sur country and got some spare cash to cover expenses then by all means I’m with you. Here’s a list of useful sites you many want to consider before laying plans:

· (Book now)

Till next time drive carefully, God bless and see you in Big Sur country.

© Fred C Wilson June 2015

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