In 1969, when my father was 18 years old, after his first semester at St. John's College in Minnesota, he bought a one-way plane ticket to Berkeley, California for $35 where he wanted to take an art class at the University there. He had not told his family where he was going and part of the reason he left was that he wouldn't cut his long hair like his dad wanted. I have a hard time piecing together the details about the order in which things happened in the next few years of his life. I know he was walking around the city of Berkeley, wondering what he would do now that he had arrived in California, when he hear the distinctive voice of a high school friend who allowed him to stay at his place for a while. He worked in a factory for about 6 months before he got called to the back by the boss for a phone call and answered to find his grandmother saying "You thought you could hide for us forever, didn't you?"
"Of course not, Grandma. I knew you'd find me." he responded.
"Well, we'll buy you a plane ticket home, just sit tight."
"No, I don't want to come home."
And so he kept going and traveling.
He lived on the Olympic Peninsula at some point. He was hitchhiking when a logging truck pulled over and the driver asked where he was from. When my dad told him the manager who had pulled over cocked his head and said "Midwesterners are hard workers. You want a job?" He worked in Estes Park, Colorado for eight months. He hitchhiked across the West several times. I can't be sure where in the story Big Sur comes in, but wherever it belongs, here is my version of the chapter, as I've heard it told to me several times throughout my life:
My dad was hitchhiking the PCH just south of the Bay area. When he reached a restaurant called Nepenthe, he walked up the long and twisty driveway to grab a cup of coffee and read his book. He found an incredible hideaway in the cliffs of Big Sur, overlooking the ocean from huge decks and floor-to-ceiling windows. I imagine his afternoon to be much sunnier than mine, though I feel like it was the same sort of folks around: not too many, sharing a lot of bottles of wine and cups of soup, maybe around the huge fireplace in the center of the dinning room, or basking in the sunlight outside. After a few hours there, my dad walked up to the bar tentatively and asked the bar tender - for some reason I remember him being British - if there was any way he could get hired there. The bar tender shrugged and said "Well, you'd have to ask the manager."
"Where is he?" My dad, younger at the time than I am now, asked. "Wait," He interrupted "Would I have to cut my hair?"
The bar tender looked my dad up and down, probably with a smirk. "I don't know. You'll just have to ask the manager. He's at the end of the bar." He nodded towards a man hunched over a pile of papers, writing up the schedule. He had a ponytail snaking all the way down his back.
So my dad walked up to him and asked again "There isn't a chance you are hiring right now are you?"
Once again, my dad got the once-over, and the manager thought for a second, then asked "What's your birthday."
Another beat of thought. "Okay. We need a Virgo in the kitchen. You're hired."
My dad stayed at Nepenthe for several months. This place is a family-run enclave for poets (Beat poets in those days, especially), artists, philosophers and anyone traveling along the PCH. He read the Lord of the Rings for the first time from the back deck, where the employees took their breaks. He explored his own spirituality from those cliffs. There is something magical about this place. I have always understood this from afar, listening in on my father's stories. Not just the amazingness of Big Sur, but this place in particular. My father found himself here, you can tell when he's talking about the place.
So when I decided to go to San Francisco this last weekend, I was cautiously optimistic we'd be able to drive up PCH and stop. After I told the story, Alfred agreed we should make the side-trip (yes - he appears to be a keeper). It was a cold and rainy day along the Pacific, and it was harder to see the cliffs along the road side as I would have liked, but there is also something to be said for snaking in and out of fog along the seashore, not being able to see where water ends and fog begins and suddenly coming across rocks jutting out of the water below, or finding the tops of the cliffs above you. We couldn't stay long. We just got some hot chocolate, tea and a quick meal at 3 in the afternoon. We had a busy day ahead still. We had to stop in Palo Alto at Stanford where Alfred did his undergrad and grad school, and still make it to San Francisco that evening. I did not see the dramatic views from the porch, and wasn't even able to sit outside, but we did get to sit beside the huge opened fire pit.
Sharing in your own family history is a humbling experience - especially when it doesn't disappoint. You are embraced with the awareness of your own life, how it came to be and the ways in which the people who defined you were defined in places you can only imagine. You realize the importance your life choices, how they expand and contract around you, become you as you become them. I didn't have cell phone service there so I couldn't call my Papa at home in northern Minnesota until after we were up the shore, but in some ways that was more important. I was able to simply be there, with my present and his ghost.