Big Sur is a spectacular 90 miles of Californian coast. Henry Miller, the late American author, artist and one time resident, described it as "a region where one is always conscious of eloquent silence...the face of the Earth as the Creator intended it to look." It”s a protected habitat. Sea otters frolic where once they were trapped for their fur, while whales pass close by the shore on their annual migration.
Pacific Highway 1 snakes across and around Big Sur”s ocean battered headlands. In places, the seaward side of the road is bitten into by deeply gouged boulder strewn inlets. Sheer rock faces of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range threaten the landward side.
Negotiating the bends in this road fairly concentrates a driver”s mind. Passengers meanwhile, from car or touring coach, gape open-mouthed at the dramatic scenery or the sight of surfers delighting in the challenge of huge waves, which surge up the few small beaches.
When travelling this route from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a hired car we stopped off in Monterey. This was once a sleepy, Mexican Spanish town which developed important whaling and sardine industries. Now these businesses are defunct but the natural harbour and bay, the original attractions, still draw visitors.
Boat trips to catch fish, to scuba dive for ever closer encounters, to commune with sea birds or whales, sea lions and sea otters are on offer. While hang gliders and balloonists choose to drift in the sky above the blue water, other thrill seekers prefer free-falling with a parachute that allows a slowed down descent. For more mundane pursuits, the traffic free recreational trail bordering Monterey Bay appeals to joggers, cyclists, and those favouring roller blades.
We were content to build sandcastles on the beach and work up appetites before enjoying dinner with locally produced wines. Fisherman”s Wharf offers a choice of restaurants guaranteeing seafood “as fresh as it gets” from the catch of the day.
With the sea in front and mountains behind, Monterey seems to have been agreeable and inspirational for great literary figures. John Steinbeck, a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner in 1962, moved the few miles from nearby Salinas to Monterey in his early twenties. There, he gathered material for his novels, Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row. Where he once observed and wrote about the canning factories, the workers, the winos and other characters, there now stands the Monterey Bay Aquarium, considered one of the world”s finest. Cannery Row is now renamed Steinbeck Plaza, complete with a bust of the great man. It houses up- market shops, restaurants and art galleries. Steinbeck would probably not have been impressed.
Robert Louis Stevenson also travelled to Monterey. From Greenock, Scotland, “The Devonia” steamed down the River Clyde on 7th August 1879 to cross the Atlantic. "I am in fair spirits but a little off my nut," he wrote from the ship and was glad to arrive in New York some 10 days later.
He then crossed America by train from Jersey City to San Francisco. Yet another train, on a narrow gauge railway, took him south to Salinas. Finally, in ill health, worsened by the rigours of his journey, he was delivered by stagecoach to Monterey.
He endured all of this for love, or so he thought, thinking he was on his way to be married. But there would be no immediate fairy tale ending for Stevenson. His bride to be, Fanny Osbourne, was having second thoughts.
It was some time before Stevenson was well enough to appreciate his surroundings, saying - “on no other coast that I know shall you enjoy, in calm, sunny weather, such a spectacle of Ocean”s greatness, such beauty of changing colour, or such degrees of colour in the sound”.
Stevenson only stayed in Monterey for a few months, but left his mark. A private school is named after him and at nearby Pebble Beach, golfers playing the Spyglass Hill course tee off towards a hole called Blind Pew, fictional names from perhaps his most famous novel Treasure Island. Today, the town is much changed but some of the historical buildings remain from Stevenson”s time. The two storied adobe house where he lived is fronted by a flower garden. The property has been preserved in his memory and it”s enlightening to join a tour led through the house by a knowledgeable enthusiastic guide.
Seeing the author”s velvet jacket lying on his own bed alongside his other everyday furnishings is quite an eerie experience.
The "French House", as it was called locally was owned by a French-Swiss hotelier. He and his wife had a large family, so adding parts to the building to accommodate them all was an ongoing affair. Stevenson gave English lessons to some of the children in lieu of rent and also produced articles for the local newspaper. When he was not working he would roam the woods around the town or go further into the redwood canyons, still a popular pastime with hikers today.
Our guide through the French House was thrilled to learn we were Scottish and actually knew Stevenson”s Edinburgh haunts. She gave us directions for following another part of the author”s journey, to San Francisco.
From Monterey, Pacific Highway 1 northwards becomes progressively busier. The city”s one-way system is baffling, the lack of parking spaces maddening and the thought of wheel clamping or impounding, even worse. So, it was a great relief to be rid of the rented car and end that part of our journey.
RLS also concluded one journey and began another there. He finally married Fanny Osbourne in May 1880. A few months later, Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson began a return trip to Scotland by train and boat.
Hours before our own return to Scotland, we sat beside the galleon-topped memorial to the writer in Portsmouth Plaza on the edge of San Francisco”s China Town. In a chance meeting with a Chinese – American man, we discussed the author”s early life (born in Edinburgh in 1850) his Scottish influences including Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott and the fact that his books are still being read today.
First published in The Glasgow Herald
Further information: Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of his trip to America”s west coast is called The Amateur Immigrant.