Big Sur and Falling Back in Love with America

I brought the pint of hefeweizen beer up to my mouth and took a satisfying drink as I looked out across the landscape in front of me. To the left, the lush green hills rolled along as far I could see, while just before me the cliffs dropped straight down where they were met with waves crashing against the shore. In the far distance, I was looking down at the thin layer of clouds that hovered just above the ocean and parallel with the cliffs.

It was a rare, yet immensely satisfying travel moment that had taken my breath away. It was a moment I had had often while traveling abroad, but one I hadn't had in my own country in a long time. If it was the scene of a cheesy movie starring Leonard DiCaprio, this would've been a good time to climb up the ledge of the balcony, spread my arms out wide, and loudly proclaim: "I'm on top of the world." Instead, I took a deep breath, drank another sip of my beer, and pondered how something so captivating wasn't thousands of miles away in an exotic country, but here in my own backyard of California.

I was in Big Sur, along the Central Coast of California and looking out from Nepenthe, a cafe located several hundred foot above the water overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was almost one year ago when I boarded a plane for Central America with no intentions of returning anytime soon. I didn't tell anyone this, but it's just how I felt about my tumultuous relationship with America, which was really much deeper than that, though I just wanted someone to blame. I was just over it. I had tried living what I considered to be a pretty "American" kind of life for 27 years. The result: disaster. I was over commercialism, corporate America, and what felt like a rite of passage (at least in the south) to marry and have kids by the time I was 27. Yet just a few months after leaving, I found myself stepping back onto U.S. soil. The first and last stop: California.

I can't quite put my finger on Big Sur. It's almost like all the beautiful parts of the world I love were conveniently placed in one destination. Rolling hills, nature, rugged cliffs, wildlife, the ocean, and mile and miles of...nothing. It's fascinating that Big Sur is located between two of the most well-known cities in the U.S., Los Angeles and San Francisco. However, many people traveling between the two cities skip out on traveling the scenic route through Big Sur, instead choosing to travel the quicker route on I-5, which is one of the most boring roads I've ever traveled. However, if you love driving straight four-lane highways and looking at miles of pasture, then I highly recommend driving down I-5.

If you're coming from the north, from Monterey and Carmel, then you immediately notice Big Sur when you start driving into it. You all of a sudden go from quaint beach towns to winding roads bending sharply around curves with beautiful scenic views overlooking rugged cliffs and the Pacific Ocean. California images of bustling beaches, surfers, and large metros are nowhere to be found when you enter Big Sur. Instead, it makes you feel as if you have crossed the border into another country, such as Italy along the Amalfi Coast. Throughout the drive, I couldn't help saying to myself: This is not America.

Big Sur can be a refreshing trip solo for the person who wants to disconnect, since cell coverage can be spotty at best, but I recommend traveling with someone else. Give yourself a few days to explore the region, with one person driving down and another driving back up. There are so many great views and photo opportunities, but you may not want to stop at every pull-off. While Google Maps may tell you that it can be driven in a couple hours, give yourself more than just a half day. In fact, give yourself a long weekend, if not longer. I recommend starting at Monterey and spending at least a day in Monterey and Carmel before heading south. Spend another entire day and evening in Big Sur so you can catch one of its famous sunsets, before continuing on down to Cambria or San Luis Obispo.

My must-visit list of attractions in Big Sur includes Point Sur Lighthouse, Pfeiffer Beach, and a meal or drinks at Nepenthe. You'll have to time your trip just right if you want to visit Point Sur Lighthouse, as tours are on a limited basis to preserve the isolation of it. Just down Highway 1 you'll come to Pfeiffer Beach, although keep your eyes peeled as you can easily miss the entrance, which is a narrow drive that winds a couple miles to the beach. There's a nominal fee to enter, but it's more than worth it when you come across the serene beach with rolling hills and cliffs rising all around you. On a clear day, few Pacific Coast beaches can rival Pfeiffer Beach for its sunset when the sun beams through a gaping hole in one of the large rocks just beyond the shoreline. Lastly, enjoy a glass of wine or beer and a cheese plate from Nepenthe, just a few miles south of Pfeiffer Beach. The food can be pricey and nothing special, but a cheese plate is a safe bet.

Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.-Miriam Beard

My trip to Big Sur this past summer was part of a new love for America. At the beginning of the trip, I wasn't so sure what was in the cards for my future. While I hoped that moving thousands of miles across the U.S. to San Francisco was permanent, I wasn't convinced yet. This trip down the California coastline gave me a new and different love for my home country. It confirmed that for now, San Francisco is in fact home and that while traveling abroad to a foreign culture can have significant implications for my life, traveling just down the road can have the same effect if I have the eyes to let it.

Have you explored your hometown, state, or country and had a similar experience?

Photo of me just above comes courtesy of Kirsten Alana and photo above it of Pfeiffer Beach at sunset courtesy of Krista Gray.