Lair of the Wordsmiths

California’s Central Coast. A Haven for the Written Word

Words Jeff Buchanan — Photos Alfonse Palaima

After years of traipsing the globe, putting various motorcycles on gloriously winding roads and mountain passes from South Africa to Tuscany—Morocco to Mississippi, I find myself returning again and again to the Central Coast of California, specifically Carmel and Big Sur. This part of the world is my own personal refuge from the frantic swim of life, when events conspire to exhaust the spirit, and the soul is in need of repair.  

After years of traipsing the world on two wheels, Highway 1 on the Central Coast remains my favorite motorcycle ride.

Aside from its exquisite gifts as a motorcycle destination; offering up a stellar combination of scenery and engaging roads, this coastal region has proven a haven for the written word. The Central Coast was home to three authors who couldn’t have been more different in terms of craft and lifestyle; Henry Miller, John Steinbeck, and Robinson Jeffers. All three men shared a deep love for this part of the world, taking inspiration from its natural beauty and relative isolation, finding their own corner of the Central Coast, each identified with a specific enclave; Miller for Big Sur, Jeffers for Carmel, and Steinbeck for the Salinas Valley and Monterey.

The ninety miles of coast road between San Simeon and Carmel, the heart of the Central Coast, is unquestionably one of the most beautiful rides in the world. The lack of development—due the steep mountain ridges—has left this stretch of coastline relatively untouched, save for Hwy 1, which snakes the coastline like a string of pearls draped over the undulating landscape, with tall pines and jagged cliffs towering above on one side, the Pacific Ocean on the other.  

Ironically, it was unskilled convict labor from San Quentin prison that blasted and gouged the twisting turns of Hwy 1 out of the dramatic cliffs to connect opposing ends of the Central Coast. Begun in 1921, the daunting task paid inmates 35 cents a day and earned them a reduction in their sentences. Sixteen years later, on June 17th, 1937, the road was officially opened. I’ve often wondered who the first motorcyclist was that made the trip once the road was completed. I stumped the Big Sur Historical Society with this inquiry. They had no idea. Just think, somewhere out there a motorcyclist unwittingly became the first to traverse the coast road on two-wheels, riding into history without knowing it.

Traveling north on Hwy 1, San Simeon (with Hearst Castle prominently standing sentinel) marks the real start of the “motorcyclists’ Central Coast.” For the next sixty miles, it’s a virtual smorgasbord of twists and turns, each one inviting increasingly dramatic views. This stretch of coastline is a physical collage of natural beauty, famous for dense layers of low lying morning clouds that push in along the ragged coast and cloak the steep precipices of Redwoods in a rich soup of fog. In spring and summer months the sun traditionally burns off the fog by late morning, revealing seemingly endless views of the Pacific. The absence of cross-traffic and lack of cell service removes two of the major annoyances from our existence as motorcyclists, and one enters into a kind of mechanical poetry, sublimely weaving together the endless turns in a syncopation of throttle, clutch, gearshifts, and braking. This is the part of the world that author Henry Miller wrote, “the face of Earth as the creator intended it to look,” in his novel, “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.”

Henry Miller Memorial Library – Big Sur

The poster boy of bohemianism, Henry Miller transcended the popular, yet often erroneous perceptions of the artist’s life when he lived as an ex-pat in Paris from 1930 to 1939. Living hand to mouth Miller penned “Tropic of Cancer,” an unapologetic, intentionally uncensored autobiographical novel that famously chronicled his uninhibited sexual escapades as he struggled to become a writer. A sensation, as well as a controversy upon its release in 1934, Miller’s gifts as a fresh literary voice was overshadowed by the book’s explicit depictions of sex. In truth, the book’s theme is as much about the frailty of human emotions as it is about sexuality. “Tropic of Cancer” was banned in America on grounds of obscenity, however, copies of the novel were smuggled into the country, which grew an underground reputation for Miller as an outlaw writer.

Miller followed “Tropic of Cancer” with “Tropic of Capricorn,” another exploration of human nature drenched with graphic sensuality, which solidified his status as a writer unafraid to confront convention. In 1940, after nine years in France, Miller returned to New York. Desiring to see how America had changed in his absence he spent the next year wandering the country, transforming his observations into the novel, “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” which painted a less than optimistic picture of America, deeply critical of what Miller saw as the spread of consumerism.

During this period Miller wrote to a friend, “I have much work to finish and am seeking peace and isolation.” He found it in Big Sur and in 1942 took up residence in one of the structures that had originally been built to house the convict laborers that built Hwy 1. It signaled the beginning of a highly productive time. Miller went to work on the trilogy “The Rosy Crucifixion.” As with his earlier work it was banned in America but was well received in France and Japan. During this period Miller’s books, specifically the “Tropic” books, were finding new readers around the world, steadily growing his fame.

In 1961 “Tropic of Cancer” was published in the United States and was immediately declared obscene. However, in a notable event concerning pornography laws, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the state court findings and declared “Tropic of Cancer” a work of literature, ending its 30-year censorship ban in America. As a result, other books by Miller that had been banned were published, including “Black Spring,” “Tropic of Capricorn,” “Sexus,” “Plexus,” and “Nexus” among them.

Eventually, the hardships of living in isolation in the remote region of Big Sur became too much for the aging Miller and in 1963, at the age of 72, he moved to Pacific Palisades, a suburb of Los Angeles. Miller died of circulatory complications on June 7, 1980, at the age of 88.

Tucked into a canyon of redwoods in Big Sur is the Henry Miller Library. Miller’s legacy and work are preserved in a small building a few miles from where Miller lived. Allow time to peruse the bookshelves, read some of Miller’s letters to friends, and admire the watercolors he created in the serene environment he so loved.

Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House and Hawk Tower Carmel Point

Continuing north on Hwy 1 takes riders directly into Carmel Village. It was here in the early 1900s that poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife, Una, found “their place.” Born in 1887, Jeffers would become known for epic, often brutal and apocalyptic poetry, his writings often compared to that of the ancient Greeks. While studying literature at the University of Southern California in 1906, the young Jeffers met graduate student Una Call Kuster. She was three years older than Jeffers and married to a Los Angeles attorney. Jeffers and Una entered into an affair, which became a scandal that made the front page of the Los Angeles Times and led to Una’s divorce. Eager to escape the lingering gossip and judgment, they drove north and discovered Carmel. Jeffers famously said this was; “the greatest meeting of land and sea on Earth.”

In 1919 Jeffers purchased a plot of land on Carmel Point where the meditative mood of the barren surroundings—which was nothing but grazing area for horses—suited Jeffers’ desire for solitude. Jeffers apprenticed himself to the local stonemason he had hired to build a unique stone house. With an elaborate arrangement of block and tackle, Jeffers arduously hauled heavy boulders up from the coastline, averaging just two or three per day, the ocean-smoothed rocks eventually becoming the famous “Tor House” and “Hawk Tower.” Hawk Tower took its name for a hawk that was present during the building, and then mysteriously disappeared once it was completed.

Jeffers’ poetry was controversial, born from his concerns about the negative influence of man, with dark passages involving incest and murder. Jeffers drew heavily upon what he referenced as “the beauty of things” in nature, making comparisons between the natural world and the damaging impact of man. He acquired a philosophy he coined, “inhumanism,” to describe his belief that modern man was in an irreversible spiral of self-involvement.

Jeffers enjoyed fame unusual for a poet, at the height of his popularity appearing on the cover of Time Magazine. However, Jeffers would fall from favor with the public when he took a strong stance opposing U.S. involvement in World War II. He never again achieved the widespread fame he had enjoyed in the 20s and 30s, his output declining significantly, publishing infrequently. Jeffers and Una lived peacefully together at Tor House until Una’s death in 1950.

Ironically, when Jeffers passed away in 1962, Point Carmel, where he had built Tor House to escape the encroachment of civilization, was heavily developed, with other homes crowding the once desolate area and eroding the solitude Jeffers so ardently craved. Tor House and Hawk Tower have been preserved to honor Jeffers’ work and life, with the Tor House Foundation offering guided tours. An easy and scenic detour in Carmel, the coast road grants a view of the famous stone dwelling.

John Steinbeck – Salinas Valley and Monterey 

Just north of Carmel is the agriculturally rich Salinas Valley. It was here in 1902 that John Steinbeck was born. Over a prestigious and prolific career, Steinbeck wrote 31 books, including the novels “In Dubious Battle,” “Of Mice and Men,” “East of Eden,” “Tortilla Flat,” “Cannery Row,” and what many consider his masterpiece, “The Grapes of Wrath”—which earned him the Pulitzer Prize. The novel chronicled the plight of migrant farmworkers during the Great Depression, a subject matter close to his heart, Steinbeck having worked summers on farms alongside migrant workers. The experience fueled the fertile imagination of Steinbeck, who laced his novels with the harsh realities of migrant life; the injustices against the common man; and the struggles suffered by the working class—the stories bolstered by the author’s penchant for crafting authentic settings and characters born from his life experience.

In 1960 Steinbeck commissioned the building of a custom camper truck for a cross-country trip to see America before the new Interstate system changed the landscape forever. He named the truck Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse, and with his poodle Charley, headed off to visit the four corners of the country. Out of this experience came the novel, “Travels with Charley.” The book is full of both criticism as well as tributes to America. Most pronounced among the criticism was Steinbeck’s observation that with the budding super highways it would; “one day be possible to drive from New York to California and not see a single thing.”

Steinbeck’s last novel, “The Winter of Our Discontent,” published in 1961, was far removed from the humor of “Tortilla Flat” or the galvanizing hardships explored in “The Grapes of Wrath.” The book had a dark theme, expounding on the author’s perception of moral decline in America. The book was not well-received. Steinbeck, who was on J. Edgar Hoover’s radar as a potential subversive was audited every year of his life, Steinbeck believing Hoover—who couldn’t find a reason to prosecute him—was using his influence to have the I.R.S. harass him.

Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. However, harsh criticism and questions over his merits for being awarded the prestigious prize affected him deeply. As a result he wouldn’t publish any more fiction in his lifetime. John Steinbeck, a lifelong smoker, died in New York City on December 20, 1968, of heart disease and congestive heart failure. He was 66.

Today, many of Steinbeck’s novels are required reading in high schools, which is a striking contrast to when some of his books, including “The Grapes of Wrath,” were banned by many school boards. As recently as 2003 a school board in Mississippi banned the novel on grounds of profanity.  

Steinbeck’s boyhood home in Salinas has been preserved, and nearby is the National Steinbeck Center, the only American museum dedicated to just one author. On display is Rocinante, the camper truck he drove around America.

Having been immersed in the enchanting and mythical auras of Carmel and Big Sur, visiting the enclaves of three great writers who challenged literary conventions in their respective work, each taking strong, often controversial stances on censorship, politics and war, it’s interesting to note that just some 80 miles south stands Hearst Castle. The audacious structure, which is often referred to as “Zanadu,” was built by newspaper publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst, who made millions proffering somewhat dubious daily papers to the masses with sensational headlines, profiting from the public’s seemingly endless appetite for gossip and one-sided, often conservative opinion.  It’s hard not to draw cynical comparisons between the sensationalistic aspect of Hearst’s publishing empire—as epitomized in the flamboyant excesses of Hearst castle— to the important and influential writings Henry Miller, John Steinbeck, and Robinson Jeffers gifted to the world, the significant impact they each had on literature, and, ironically, their comparative monetary struggles during the course of their careers.

Descending the coast road, as the first hints of the city of San Luis Obispo appear as preview to the crowded environs of Los Angeles, I start thinking about how soon I can get back here, to the Central Coast.  

The Quail Lodge and Golf Club

Situated in serene Carmel Valley, motorcycle-friendly Quail Lodge and Golf Club played host to our literary explorations of the Central Coast. “The Quail,” as it’s referred to by locals, is a California ranch-style lodge situated on 850 acres, and home to an 18-hole championship golf course. The Quail enjoys a longstanding association with motorsports, hosting the exclusive “Quail Rally” since 1997, “The Quail, A Motorsports Gathering,” since 2003, and “The Quail Motorcycle Gathering,” which celebrates its tenth anniversary May 5th 2018. The Quail Motorcycle Gathering presents an exceptional collection of pre-war and post-war motorcycles alongside significant racing machines, which take over the green in front of the Quail clubhouse each year for what is fast becoming the premiere motorcycle event. Attendees of the prestigious annual gathering are invited to take part in the “The Quail Ride,” hosted by the lodge, which takes riders on a 100-mile tour of the Monterey Peninsula.

The Quail Lodge serves as a perfect base for exploring the Central Coast by motorcycle. Conveniently located amidst some of California’s best motorcycle roads, a full week of rides can be charted with The Quail as a start point. Aside from the legendary Hwy 1, there’s Carmel Valley Road, as well as the bastion of twisties in nearby Santa Cruz Mountains—where the famous Alice’s Restaurant serves as a weekend motorcycle hang-out. Also in close proximity to The Quail is charming Carmel Village and Beach, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Cannery Row. For serious motoheads, just over the mountain from Quail Lodge is Laguna Seca Raceway, home of the world-famous “Corkscrew.”

The Quail Lodge provides an excellent base to route out from each day and a pleasant retreat to return to each evening. On-site dining options at The Quail include pre-ride breakfast at the Covey, with a deck overlooking the pond, and after a long day in the saddle, there’s Edgar’s for dinner. With the bikes safely parked for the night, motorcycle enthusiasts can enjoy a drink at the Waypoint, a motorcycle-themed bar decorated with motorsports artwork and seeded with several vintage motorcycles (on rotational display) from the nearby Moto Talbott Collection.

The motorcycle-friendly Quail Lodge and Golf Club is conveniently situated in the wonderfully un-crowded Carmel Valley and has plenty of spacious and safe parking to accommodate motorcycles. 

Moto Talbott Collection — Carmel Valley

The name Talbott, which is synonymous with quality neckties and fine wines, is now gleefully aligned with motorcycles. The Moto Talbott Collection, situated in Carmel Valley (just a few miles from The Quail Lodge and Golf Club) presents a unique museum atmosphere celebrating everything two-wheeled. Robert Talbott, a life-long motorcyclist, who enjoyed a career racing motocross in his youth, has established an up-scale motorcycle museum and family-friendly environment with Moto Talbott.

The range of motorcycles on display is impressive, from pre-war Italian beauties to racing machines of all genres. The Talbott Collection needs an allotment of time to really savor and appreciate. Among the racing machines is one of Kenny Robert’s MotoGP Championship-winning Yamahas, alongside Wayne Rainey’s 1992 MotoGP World Championship title Yamaha. Rainey, a legendary 3-time World Champion makes his home in Carmel Valley. After you’ve satiated your taste for road-going machines, head downstairs for a room full of vintage motocross, off-road and dirt track racing machines, many with heady and significant pedigree.   

The Moto Talbott Collection is open Thursday – Sunday 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. There’s easy motorcycle access and plenty of parking.