The first thing we encounter is the fog. Weaving in and out of the Pacific sea smoke along Highway 1’s voluptuous curves creates a dreamlike state. Signs of Big Sur’s iconic backside peek out in the distance, as preying hawks swarm above the meandering traffic. Around a wildflower-speckled bend the Bixby Bridge emerges, and time stops all but the silent waves crashing against the cliffside 260 feet below. This is the Big South, the West Coast’s colossal Garden of Eden.
We stroll into Pfeiffer and set up camp in the light-filled plot 90, which is flanked by gangly redwood trees and the trickling Pfeiffer Redwood Creek. We spend the afternoon catching up with friends, reminiscing about the past, embracing the moment. We poke at the fire cautiously with abiding confidence and test the heat with links of spicy sausage.
Before dusk we’re spared an ounce of sunlight. To celebrate, we drive to a gravel pullout overlooking a cliffside of purple wildflower groves that spill into the Pacific. For several minutes, we are held captive by Big Sur’s ethereal beauty, and we sit amongst the native seagrass in dead silence, sparing sips from our bottle of lambic ale so as not to break the transitory peace.
As we pull back into our campsite, we spot night creatures looting our makeshift kitchen — nature’s way of teaching us amateurs basic camping formality (never leave your trash out). After killing a bottle of Pinot Noir around the fire, we agree to catch a wink of sleep before taking the 30-minute drive to Esalen Institute for its lauded midnight baths.
The night is exceptionally warm for Big Sur in early June. As we walk down the dimly lit pathways to Esalen, not even the faintest of ocean breezes awakens our senses. We walk into the main spa room of the hot spring baths and instantly feel like intruders on some new-age cult. Signs direct us to “Silent” or “Quiet” sections of the spa. On a night just days after the last new moon, little more than a sea of stars and faint LED lights guides our way toward the stone-lined hot baths, where we spot nude bathers sprawled out in clawfoot tubs.
We slip into a vacant cliffside bath, feeling our way toward the wooden nozzle to release the spring. As we soak in the healing water, our bodies become weightless. We make out the sound of waves crashing 30 feet below, which gives us the remarkable sensation of floating on air.
The following morning we awake to a hot tent warmed by the early morning sun and sounds of feisty blue jays pecking around our campsite. After burning the last chunks of firewood, we pack up and stop for coffee and pastries at a sleepy general store, where waggish locals walk alongside their unleashed pets. Before making way up north, we pay respects to the Henry Miller Library, a wooden bunker shaded by redwoods that plays host to the Central Coast’s best literary, music and art events. After thumbing through Miller’s classic works and petting the resident longhair tabby, we get back in the car and savor our last grasp of Big Sur.