Big Sur, California

What is there to see here?

Lately I've been making myself useful by working at the multi-agency information station located in the Big Sur river valley. If you've made it to this station, you've seen at least 30 miles of Big Sur's magnificent 90 miles of coastline. The road hugs the coast and every half mile or so there are precious pullouts to stop and gawk at the magnificence. And yet, every day I get visitors that walk into the station confused, asking "What is there to see here?"

I'm supposed to be generously helpful and enthusiastically share (sell?) the reasons to love this place: the miles of wilderness trails, the rivers, grottos and waterfalls, the giant condors and redwood trees, canyons, mountain lions, whales, banana slugs — and yes, even the viewpoints. I should, at the very least, cheerfully share the two most popular attractions: McWay Falls and Pfeiffer Beach.

But I don't. 

I say in a friendly manner, "Nothing, really — just more of the same. You've already seen at least one-third of it just by getting here. That's pretty much what Big Sur is about.” I want to add, "If you didn’t like it, if it didn’t bring you to your knees, maybe you shouldn't be here." But I don't.

I watch the disappointment on their faces. "But isn’t there a downtown?”

My heart cries.

“My phone can't get a signal."

As if this were news to me. As if I will commiserate with the pain of screen dependence. I look at them expectantly, hoping for some sign of consciousness.

Tourist season draws more visitors to Big Sur than Big Sur can accommodate. There are way too many cars on the narrow two-lane road that precariously clings to this edge of the earth. The few and tiny parking areas fill up in a second. Public restrooms are hard to get to, reducing daytrippers to using the side of the road instead, leaving their evidence behind. Drivers stop in the middle of the 55 mph highway, oblivious to the line of fast cards behind them, so they can get the snapshot that proves their adventure. I get the feeling many tourists think of this place as Disneyworld, expecting spoon-fed attractions, guaranteed safety (newsflash: cliffs crumble, oceans swallow, cars crash) and a hospitality team waiting to pick up after them. 

This is not Disneyworld. This is the wilderness. This is the stuff that helps us remember who we are and what is truly important, when the facade of contemporary life fails to deliver. This is the stuff that keeps us humble, reminds us of our interconnectivity to all life on this beautiful planet of ours. This is life at its most profound — where it's easiest to connect with a universal something, a divine/cosmic power that exists, if it exists at all. It's a direct line to god, the gods, cosmic allies, energy, vortices, qi, angels, saints, spirit guides — whatever that higher dimension might be. It is here. And if you are not spiritually inclined, it’s just so damn beautiful. So how is it possible that the depth of this beauty, the reverence it inspires, escapes so many visitors?

I've asked this question to my friends and neighbors who live here. We all wonder the same thing. My answer, open for debate, is this: screens and pharmaceuticals. The eager consumption of pharmaceuticals and screen time, by definition, denies real life experiences. Seeing, seeking and experiencing (first hand) has gone out of fashion long ago. Engaging with our environment and the human experience has become just a passing idea. (More soma, please). This brave new world has disconnected people from their core so much that they now cannot even recognize it.

So, what is there to see here in Big Sur? Depends on what lens you are looking through. Here’s what I see: I see a river that snakes through the mountains, slowly working the land as it works its way towards the sea. And I want to flow over and around obstacles, like the river, with perseverance and humility. I see the trees, solid and reaching (sometimes twisted), older than all of us, cleaning our air, unafraid to die their annual death and be reborn. And I want to stand tall and strong like them to the very end, honestly and without fear. I see whales, our ancient aquatic elders, diving deep then breaking the horizon in slow motion for one simple breath. And I, too want to plunge to unfathomable depths, then return to purge and release. I see and hear the birds singing their day’s complicated songs, and I want to sing my own song with them. And then at night, when the last glow of twilight has faded, I see the moon, the stars, and our galaxy and I remember that what we think we know is so very, very little. 

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The Art of Being Barry Howard

Whether you think of yourself as an artist or not, the life we carve for ourselves can often be our most creative and daring work. However deliberately or haphazardly our masterpiece appears to unveil, and whether we yield to the status quo or fearlessly follow our own true passions, our constant intersection with each other’s lives makes us far more influential than we might like to believe. Usually, it’s the individuals who follow the less-traveled paths that cause the greatest agitation—challenging and inspiring the rest of us to consider our choices more carefully. Barry Howard is one of those people.

I first encountered Barry through a story that came across my facebook feed. He was living out of a gorgeous micro gypsy bicycle caravan that he had designed and built himself. Stationed in Venice Beach, he spent his days painting on the busy sidewalk and selling his work to delighted passerby. At night, just off a trail near the beach, he’d neatly pack things away, roll the top down and settle into his tiny home for the night. Once, a couple of curious cops woke him in the middle of the night to ask what he was up to and oh, had he made this himself? Satisfied with his answer, they apologized for waking him and bid him a good night. Not surprisingly, his blog attracted a lot of followers during those Venice Beach days.  But after a year, it was time for something else, so he advertised his micro gypsy bicycle caravan for sale online. It sold in 3 minutes. “Boom, I almost got whiplash from that one,” he recounts.

His next thing turned out to be Big Sur, which coincidentally, was also mine.

I was driving over the Bixby Bridge one day and saw him painting near the cliff’s edge. A number of people were peering into his white van, admiring the paintings displayed inside. I stopped to say a quick hello and ask him for an interview later. He agreed.

Privileged with the gate code to a private ridge road in Big Sur, I made my way over the summit to a 10’x12’ micro house that was accessible only by a narrow footpath. With a picture window that faced the ocean and fog-filled canyon, this was his current studio and home. He’d only been living here a few months, but 18 years ago, he was the one who actually built this little house.  

Barry first arrived in Big Sur in 1981 and like many, felt an instant, deep love for it. Integrating with the local community, his artistry adorns many private properties along this rugged coastline. But he’s a traveler at heart. And though Big Sur keeps calling him back, his life has been primarily mobile.

For most of his life, he's lived in rolling homes that he has customized himself, from a milk truck to a 1946 International bus to a 1955 Rainbow bus. Custom buses were his thing for a while. He’d take the roof off, cut off the back, raise the roof with bent douglas fir poles then put in French doors and stained glass windows. When he was ready to move on, he sold them. He hasn’t kept track of where they ended up.

Through it all, Barry’s focus has always been art, though he has no formal training. Painting with oils since his early 20s, he learned by studying the work of other artists. Inspired by the surrealists, he painted artificial, other-worldly landscapes in Venice Beach, pulling from memories of Big Sur and the Mendocino coast. Now in Big Sur, Barry paints what’s in front of him, focusing on more traditional landscapes and still lifes. “That’s the metronome of my life – painting,” he says. “Most of my bread and butter has come from being somewhere painting.”

And what a place to be.  “It’s spectacular. The first time I was here, it blew me away,” he says of Big Sur.

I know the feeling.

If you’re lucky, you might find Barry painting in the early part of the day at Bixby Bridge or the vista point just north of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. You can also follow him on Facebook.