I’d envisioned a night in Big Sur, somewhere near a view of the ocean, alone in a comically large tent. I’d fry a whole fish on my massive cast iron skillet. I’d wake up and make a cup of coffee in my little french press. I’d read. I might go for a run in the morning before I went home.
Of course none of that happened. I don’t know how to fry a whole fish. I spent the night alone in a creepy and comically large cabin in Gorda Springs. I wasted my daylight driving and eating dinner and all the first-come first-serve campsites were full by the time I found them.
I got the idea to camp in Big Sur about a week and a half before, while camping for a week at Point Reyes. Shannon and Cate would fly home at the end of the week and I’d stay in San Francisco the following week to work with Lee and Chris at the Code for America Accelerator. I’d drop Lee and Chris off at the airport and drive down the coast – reflecting on everything we’d learned at the Accelerator. Then I’d camp alone, monk-like in our family’s cavernous 6-person tent, meditating.
Of course none of that happened. Shannon and Cate went home. I missed them a lot, as expected. The Accelerator was intense and wonderful, exceeding all expectations. We ended our week with Code for America excited, exhausted, and overwhelmed with new ideas. We left in a hurry. I left Lee and Chris at the airport, and off I went to the coast.
I wanted to drive down the 1. I thought it’d be prettier and have less traffic than the other routes. It was, but it took longer.
I called my friend Scott – who’s from Santa Cruz – for advice on where to eat. He told me about a place called Nepenthe in Big Sur and that I should try to get a spot on the patio before sunset. The view would be incredible, he said. I decided to do that.
By then, I was rushing to find a campsite, rushing to dinner, and, rather than clearing my mind, the trip was agitating everything. Also, it was cloudy and gross. And there was a lot of traffic exiting Santa Cruz. And I wanted to talk to Shannon, but I couldn’t get reception.
I took this on the way in. I tried to text it to Shannon a million times. It never went through.
Big Sur was amazing though. It’s unbelievable. I got to Nepenthe with plenty of daylight left and got a seat on the back patio next to a fellow lone diner, an Irish ex-pat who’s lived in San Francisco for the past 8 years. We had a good chat. The food was fine (not great). The view was incredible. You’re so high up over the ocean, it feels impossible. It’s like something out of a fantasy novel.
Oh, but the service was so slow. And I burned all my daylight eating there. I paid and rushed out.
I’d driven no more than 1/4 mile further south on the 1 when I saw a sign saying “TONIGHT / BILL CALLAHAN / 7PM”. I thought, “That’s impossible”. I pulled over and walked up. It was Bill Callahan. $25. I didn’t want to pay, but I asked about a place to stay. The girl at the door gave me some pointers a few miles back north. I could hear Bill singing and I lingered a minute to hear him, but off I went.
Full. Full. Full. Everything was full. It had gotten dark. There were no more sites.
It’s worth pointing out at this point that Big Sur is different. The fantasy novel feeling of Nepenthe pervades everything because everything looks like part of a set design. It’s wonderful and funky and magical. I really wanted to stay at the places I checked, but I also felt like I didn’t belong there; they seemed too cool for a mere mortal like me (one of them would be hosting a Bill Callahan after party). People told me I’d have better luck heading south. Off I went.
I had no cell reception so I couldn’t update Shannon on my progress. All she knew was that I didn’t have a place to stay and that it was dark. It was really dark, a thick fog laid over the ocean, and gloom laid over the land. There was no fog to catch or block my headlights, but there was something in the air to make it extra black. The road curved along the mountains and a deep black void loomed on my right. I drove through a lot of nothing. I drove through a weird construction site. I found a dark and apparently empty motel.
There were about 10 people standing out in front of it. Other than their chatter, it was dead silent. I got out of the car. A woman with two little dogs told me that it was closed, that the people were just standing around talking. I walked over to a pay phone and picked it up. There was no ear speaker, just wires hanging out. I put it back. It felt like a David Lynch movie. Lost Highway, I guess. Off I went.
Another half hour or so, and I came to Gorda Springs, or just Gorda. They had vacancy and they were open. I walked into the convenience store / motel office and talked to the saddest man ever. Pink faced and blond and sad. I got a room from him. Later, when I was on the phone with Shannon, he closed up and walked home with a case of Miller. I wrote this in bed that night:
I’m writing this on my phone, in bed, in Gorda Springs, deep inside Big Sur, and apparently far away from any cell reception.
I spent the last hour or so driving deeper south into Big Sur, looking for any place to sleep, passing too many “campground full” and “no vacancy” signs. Two people told me I’d have better luck if I drove south, so I did. It’s where I’m headed anyway, desperately. I can’t wait to get home to my girls.
The only problem with driving south is that it led away from the already weak cell signals I was getting up north. It’s very nice to be free of the Internet, but I wanted to talk to Shannon and let her know I was ok.
All she knew was that it’s dark and I had ‘t yet found a place to sleep. All I knew was that she couldn’t reach me. And because I’m a worrier, I presumed she’d be worried too.
The ” vacancy” sign at the Gorda Springs lodge was a huge relief. I asked for a room for 1. The guy said it’d be $150. Sold. I’m so tired after the past two weeks, I wasn’t up to haggle. I just want to rest up for the rest of the drive to San Diego tomorrow.
He gave me my key to the Redwood Cabin and showed me how to find it on an elaborate diorama of the grounds hanging on the wall. There wouldn’t be a phone in the room so I had to use a pay phone.
I called Shannon collect. I recorded my name as “Jed! I’m ok!” which she was satisfied with. I was not. I still wanted her to pick up, so I called again. “Jed! I’m ok! Pick up!” So she picked up and told me that the call was $15 and woke up the baby. It was worth it (for me).
I walked back up to my lodge and heard something rustling under the steps up to the landing in front of my door. I stopped to see what it was. I saw movement, fur. Then it growled at me. I hurried up the steps and locked myself in.
My bed faces west. The foot ends at a big window. I’m guessing I’ll wake up to a great view of the ocean.
I was half right.
The place felt like a Murakami novel. Two other cabins were occupied. Their porch lights were on and cars were parked out front, but the terrifying idea came to me: no one was there. No one had stayed there for years. It was so quiet. The ocean was everywhere, black and silent.
I dreamt about Chile, and trains, and friends, and back stabbings, and I think maybe even actual stabbings. I woke up and wanted to leave, so I did. I didn’t use my french press. I passed a giant raccoon, dead on the side of the road. Did he growl at me?
Now the fog was thick. I couldn’t see the ocean for about an hour, but then I could and it was all beautiful again. The road straightened out, I sped up.
I saw elephant seals fighting in the water from the road. I pulled over to see them. They smell horrible and they make horrible sounds. More fantasy stuff. It was awesome.
And then I was out of Big Sur and I just wanted to get home. Off I went.
I drove all day, through Cambria and Cayucos, Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo, then the Santa Ynez Valley past Los Olivos and Lake Cachuma, over the Santa Ynez mountains and down into Santa Barbara. I stopped in Ventura and ate a Doritos taco (a pilgrimage of sorts; it was gross). I avoided LA, drove past Pasadena, stopped in San Dimas (homage to Bill and Ted), and cut south down the 15.
I finally saw my girls again at about 4:30. Cate seemed changed over the week. She makes different sounds now. She loves to hold my hands and walk around.
The second day of driving was better. I knew where I was going and I knew what waited for me. I had time to figure out that the great and daunting outcome of the Code for America Accelerator is the vacuum that I see. We spoke with a lot of people at the Accelerator about what we’re trying to do with Measured Voice, and they helped us see a massive opportunity.
After spending that night in Big Sur with the massive invisible ocean, I see that opportunity as a vacuum. It’s something we have to fill – pour ourselves into – to make it into something. And that’s what we’re going to do. Now that I’m back with my family, it feels very possible. I’m glad to have them with me.