I had a life-changing experience recently. Well, let’s call it more of a road adventure.
I made reservations to stay at a monk retreat, you know, friars and monks and clergy and stuff.
Why? That part deserves its own story, maybe later.
I will admit freely that I had certain apprehensions about staying among not only monks, but also alongside the “strongest of the pure” lay clergy, the Oblates. My inner Jesus was not up to the challenge, I thought as I nudged my faithful steed Northward through the thicket on route to my destined interlude with some of God's own employees (and I guess that would make the lay people the interns), at a mountainous perch just south of Big Sur on Highway 1.
I drove my car north from work, leaving San Luis Obispo and by ‘rote reflex’
(yes I made that term up; it seems less cumbersome or a cliched term, don’t you think?)
...took 101 north, not really thinking if it was the best route, but dwelling only on clearing my mind for the immersion in my first ever weekend without talking.
This was to be my first-ever religious retreat as a newly minted Christian!
In the past I've attended spiritual, karmic, holistic, shamanistic, curandera/wellness and pagan celebrations, but now as a new follower of Christ.
I would say "born again" but that well-worn label is more of a euphemism to me, as I never regarded myself as ever having been Christian. Lo this half century earlier I guess I'd been a hybrid pseudo-Catholic, as by default you are so deemed if you are born into a Cuban family. Yes, I was baptized and received catechism, but outside of a few faded photos of me as a child, wearing a thin gold chain and crucifix (at age 4) or a Saint Christopher (at age 13), I did not consider myself Catholic, merely a believer in God as s/he may represent him/herself in objects, people, actions. I was later to become more and more spiritual but certainly not a Christian. Never a Christian, those were the hypocrites I knew and not people I could admire.
Although in some way, upon reflection, I think I must have held them (some of them) in high esteem and envied their storied, simple life from my naïve, skewed perspective.
Now arriving to Atascadero, some 30 miles north of my work, something made me start to think about my destination. That's when my highly developed sense of direction said, and I quote, “Big Sur on ocean. You inland. Must go west-er. To ocean. You dumb ****! West first. Then north".
To the west lies about a 20+ mile wide swath of semi-impenetrable mountains which separates 101 from CA 1; Only two or three East-West routes separate the next four hours of freeway driving, and one of the few exits was fast approaching.
My mind was now suddenly focused on two things:
One is, where is the highway 41 exit (or did I pass it already?) and
Two is, how am I going to laugh off this apparent moronic lapse in judgement? Knowing my wife, I would take this to my grave, else l will have her challenge my sense of direction often, and then quite deliberately let it leak out to her friends that I was born without the male gene for direction. While nothing could be further from the truth, I did muse about it for a while as I gratefully saw the sign for route 41 west up ahead.
To those of you unfamiliar with California’s lush and rolling hillsides (lush only a couple of months due to the winter rains) let me describe it to you as a high speed roller coaster ride fraught with blind curves and the occasional chance to dodge resident road rodents and the less frequent “resident rodents catchers”, the red tail hawks. Don't want to hit either. Not unlike the whack-a-mole adventure I was going to find further on my trip.
About 21 miles later, after what a passenger might describe more as a ride in a paint shaker like those used at hardware stores, I found myself on highway one known for it's (wait for it) lush and winding roads, much of which parallels the coastline.
Ah, back on course and no one needs be the wiser! Up ahead, just south of Cambria (due West of Atascadero), a collection of artists, recluses, restaurateurs and the ideal presumptive prerequisite distance to make it a highly attractive mini-trip destination to tourists. Cambria with it's picturesque hills and tree-covered roads, quaint-ness (sometimes perhaps a wee bit embellished and contrived) and thankfully a gas station with a knowledgeable "directions guy", was my first unplanned stop.
The reason I suddenly felt compunction to pull over in such haste? I'd just passed a sign that announced “highway 1 CLOSED 30 miles". Let me tell you; the dazzling speed of my brain's higher mathematical function, having determined that my destination exceeded that distance by a good 40 plus miles, instantly deduced that, with even the most Generous Fudge Factor added in, there was NO WAY that my destination could be reached. Not unless I had access to one of the monster trucks that frequent our town, a cigarette boat or that I had enough liquor to sufficiently cloud my judgement, would I stand a chance of even dwelling further on this thought.
As it turns out (not to be known until well into my third major course correction) the story's white-hat hero, "directions guy" was a bit less than candid in projecting his map and directions prowess onto a person with somewhat average capabilities (the kind most fathers were imagined to somehow posses during the 50s and 60s) and a sufficiently recent model GPS, and expecting him (me) to find, let alone to conquer the course that lay ahead. By his passing a swarthy backhand wave at a for-sale road map on a sell shelf in the Vanna White tradition, and assuring me with testosterone-laden stories of the best short cuts and how many times he himself has travelled the routes, and so on, he was a master of illusion at the Cambria Shell station.
With renewed determination, I returned to 101 East over the 41 and continued North for another 40 minutes. At some point I would find the exit for g18~g19 "Fort Hunter-Liggett", an active, remotely situated military base. Thence I should corral my steeds’ forward motion and continue bravely Westward until the road through a brief expanse of state park, the course of which was no doubt the inspiration for the original scavenger hunts, ended on Highway 1 near my destination.
The path seemed logical, if not too much resembling a previous dash through the mountains, again, again. This dash however would more closely resemble the jagged lines of a seismograph as seen following a 6-magnitude earthquake, but don't make me laugh about the pale comparison yet as I am still too flummoxed to laugh. I pray to God that I do not have to return this way.
About this time, my wife will be drawing her own parallels between this adventure and my fabled short-cut leaving on our first trip together to Big Sur. At that time I had taken a road that was not quite the road I remembered from ten years earlier (having come the opposite direction), which left our short-cut taking about 2-3 hours longer than returning home South from Big Sur. And did I mention she was sick before our journey?
A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step on the accelerator.
I drove past the turnoff after driving west to Hunter-Liggett. After pulling a U-ie and returning to the new road, a large military LED sign proclaimed "local property owners only" adjacent to a military-style booth entrance with armed guards.
Hm, (I thought) Shell gas guy didn't mention this.
My voice squeaked out my abbreviated story and a question about being able to get through (please?). The reply was a reassuring "sure" with the unexpected "I need to see your license, current registration and proof of insurance".
Yoicks. I KNOW I must have them somewhere, and so started the search. About what seemed like half a lunch later, I produced two pieces of paper which each expired in 2007 somehow. He said he would phone his supervisor.
Visions of blackhawk helicopters and marksmen surrounding my pale green car (an innocent!) contrasted my red flushing face. Feeling it, although I did not look in a mirror to confirm the heat.
I got out of my car to see if the papers might be in the trunk, but was told directly to get back in my vehicle. I couldn't hear the copters yet but just know I was being run through a database of misanthropes, rapists, newsviners, ne’er-do-wells and terror suspects. Right now an alarm must be sounding somewhere, I thought, and I certainly wasn’t going to spend the night where I had planned, let alone having a bunk roommate named “Churro”.
The cop returned to see the distress on my face. My wife tells me that I project every emotion and thought on my face, so this was not News, not this time. He tells me I have three options. He can give me a ticket because by law California motorists must have proof of registration and insurance, or I can turn around and go back (God, no!), or I can go with a warning. I'll take the warning, thank you!
Without hesitation I started anew on to the road to the retreat, still feeling the heat washing over my face. Fortunately, even though the forsaken road did not appear to have a name (long since obscured by generations of mapmakers who having seen fit to keep the “Ligget” part of the name over this particular interchange dared not correct it because those before them had set this tradition in course, and who were they to break from tradition? They were about to take lunch anyway, and asking would mean that they would probably start looking like one of those employees who always asks obvious things. The road stays obscured.
Let's see who else wants to go get nachos and beer.
Several times I would stare in disbelief as the ONLY line on my GPS (blue lifeline) would not be heading the same direction my car was driving. As a matter of fact, it was receding and curling away from the arrow (my car) at such an alarming rate as to make me think it may be broken, U turn, searching, searching, that must be the road. There it is.
Huh, no signs.
Okay okay okay CRAP! I'm off-route again.
U turn. Searching, why are all these military people staring at me. Oh boy, the helicopters. there it is.
Dang, dang, dang me! Why does this keep happening?
Now I must add that as a sign maker by trade, I'm pretty sure I can recognize one if I saw it. Didn't see one.
Finally I found myself in the woods (thank you, God) and a jillion squiggles on the GPS lay ahead between me and highway one.
I kept a sideways glance every 1-2 minutes from that point forward, even when it seemed no other dirt road or rabbit run might actually turn out to be the main road, just to be sure.
This road was beautiful, compelling, illuminated in dappled light, lichen-covered tree trunks and rocks, and all of a sudden, what must have been suicide ground squirrels started racing across the road in front of me for what must have been five miles of wheel yanking, brake mashing, omigads and fortunately, through divine grace I did not leave anything for the vultures and hawks to clean up after, but not through my own skill alone.
Today as I write this to preserve this as a vivid memory and revelation of sorts, I muse over the memory of my wife telling me to be a writer. “But I have nothing of interest to write about" I protest. God has a wicked sense of humor.
An example of His humor? When He invented the concept of "wife" for one, and when He created cartographers. And mudslides. And highway one.
Chapter Two: Gotcha
At this point I realized the road was becoming much narrower, as my attention focused on hair-pin curves from impossible directions, and as we went to all points of he compass, climbing from roughly 200 to 1800 feet in a nosebleed minute. I would find myself peering out the passenger window with my head about hip height to see forward into some turns. Better done when alone in the car, as to not induce panic.
Road engineers just mess with us sometimes, they must. I can imagine it while they are sitting, arguing over the route the road should take over a couple of beers. Should they take the logical switchback, should they build a pass or should they just screw with the driver? I believe the answer was obvious enough of the time. And how much they had to drink.
Almost four hours after I left on a two-hour trip, I got to beautiful, adorable, is that a new dress you're wearing, mmmm what's that smell, perfume-y highway one. Under construction. And now that my odometer was a little "off" due to the shortcuts, I couldn't use my wife's helpful reference of "85 miles up highway 1” anymore. So I turned and made my way through the construction area where they were shoring up the parts of the highway that did not yet fall into the Pacific, about 100 feet down the bluffs. Stunning geology but I can’t dwell on it when I’m the driver.
So, I get in line where part of the highway’s south-bound lane is now a platform for the seals and fishes, and see an overly-animated woman in her 60s with a brand new paddle stop sign and crazy-green vest and hardhat. Some of the drivers get out and stretch (how long have they been there?), and as I am about to, there is some commotion ahead. The smiley day-glo lady starts waving to the slow trickle of cars emerging from red-brown dust as if she knows each one and is personally delighted to happen to see them. It's not a good sign when the “road-collapsed-again” crew knows you on sight, I think.
Finally I get waved on (“hi! I can't believe it's you! How have you been” wave) and cross the remnants of this part of now-gone historic highway one, to find myself at the END of the town I was supposed to turn in the beginning of. This is why it is always good to have as a landmark, an “almost there”, a "here" and a "you missed it” point of reference. Highly recommended.
So I pulled another U-ie and queued up on the new South-bound line waiting to go back thru. This time I got the (“Hey, great to see you again” wave) and found the rather discreet entrance to the hermitage.
But I was a long way from being there still.
The entrance sign is more of a “you’re getting warmer” sign, by the looks of it. Almost exactly two miles of bumpy, “I could shake my medicine this way and turn it all into tiger butter” kinda bumpiness, unparalleled since asphalt was first invented. The meandering switchbacks and absolute absence of any form of guard rails tells you that they trust you, and/or they have a mighty God.
Along the way, “retreatants” scurry to the far shoulders of the maybe 6-7 foot wide road, seemingly pondering if it would hurt less to fall into the gnarled, thorny brush or get tapped by my grill. To the best of my knowledge, they were all accounted for by check-out time.
At each turn of the switchback road, another more amazing vista called for my attention and the shushing sound of the road gravel on the shoulders reminded me to steer, instead.
Chapter 3, I arrive
Beautiful, beautiful is God’s gift to us all who take the time to drink it in.
After checking in, I quickly found my room and learned a few common misperceptions; One is that monks do not in fact make your bed or physically feed you, you have to do both for yourself, although food is provided. Lots and lots of granola, soup, salads and monk bakery bread.
And two is that “being quiet” does not mean watching videos or TV, there are none. No phones, no cell service, no shower in your room. You actually have to go to the kitchen to bathe, but that is a story for another time; there are two showers in the kitchen room, which is flanked by four private rooms on each side, every one with a private patio and a view to die for, or perhaps a preview of heaven; the Pacific ocean for such a broad distance as to be able to see the horizon curve; all from a flowery solitude in your view, a nirvana at about 1500 feet above the waves.
I walked along the path with my camera, after asking if it was permitted to do so, and took some terrific photos of the vistas. How many times can you walk past something and not really see it for its simple beauty? A mushroom, some ferns, waterfalls, new growth, flowering buds, and an indecisive sky. We were due to have some rain, actually a storm the weekend of my stay, so I started to think about calling home to start to share some of my story. I unpacked, ate a little of the amazing monk’s granola and yoplait (must be a French or Belgian Abby) and unloaded all my worldly stuff.
I hopped into my car with only my cell phone, and as it was getting dark, and the telephone in the gift shop was closed in for the night, so I was pretty sure I knew of an area where those of us enjoying a delightful 2-year high-premature-termination-penalty plan with AT&T, might find service. Grabbed my iPhone and headed down the windy road to highway one.
Darkness was looming and fast encroaching, dwelling only at the locations where wealthy individuals could afford such lavishness, and leaving the rest of us to make our way in the dark. I made the one-hour trip up to Big Sur proper, and found that there was just enough service to leave a message because my wife had turned off her phone. Holy cow, what luck.
Just then, I decided to stop in at a restaurant called “The Bakery” where previous stops had shown us a plethora of incredible baked items (my Achilles heel) and the new owners had recently decided to de-emphasize the delicacies in the namesake (there was a dar, unlit case with two smal trays of something), for a new menu in the nosebleed section of the wealth stratum. Not what I would consider a thought worth deliberating. I headed back to Lucia, the spot of the highway where my hermitage was, but after 17 miles, saw an unfortunate number of brake lights several bends ahead in the night air, and knew that was not usually a good sign. People flashing their headlights at me did not help improve my mood, I must admit. Tonight would be my second test from God. I slowed and came to the 500-ton reason for the slight delay, a massive boulder easily the size of my room by about 10-12 feet in height, anchored a similar amount of fresh dirt from the mountainside, securing us from continuing and actually getting to where we were going, and having us pause to reflect. You could make out its brown hugeness in the headlights of the cars, and the outline of the headlights from the unhappy people on the other side.
Some gnatty kids had scampered to the top of the dirt pile, and without knowing if the mountain was done doing what it did, I immediately thought that was not a really smart thing to do.
I spoke with a number of people who had stopped (an old-fashioned chat room) heading in my direction, and they had decided to return, to paraphrase one, to find another place in which to become highly fecal-faced. Although appealing at that instant, it’s not what I had as one of my first, oh, twenty-five hundred first options that evening.
I tucked tail and returned for another roller almost-hour-long coaster ride of tail lights going up, down and around blind corners at a dizzying speed; I kept my distance.
Chapter 4: a bed, please
I wound up a little further up the road than on my original visit to call and tried to get the attention of the inn keeper/restaurant hostess/socialite/multitasker at the desk. It was about ten minutes before she could call Cal Trans (Their motto is, “if it falls down we get to rebuild it and usually get great brightly colored vests, since 1950-something” - They need a huge decal just to hold the motto alone. Cal Trans has an automated highway condition update, which mentioned the road being closed some 40 miles to the South, but not the closure that happened while I went to make a phone call. Would she happen to have an inexpensive room for the night?
God’s sense of humor #3: I was assigned the same room number as at the retreat. Except my toiletries, clothing, laptop, anything and everything was going to have to spend the night without me. I took a hot shower and used bar soap on my head. The sooner to get some sleep and to dream about the road opening the following morning.
I got back to the bedroom to find I’d missed a call, How could…?
It was from my wife. She had called the very moment I was underwater, and now getting dressed in my old clothes (does it help if you turn them inside out?) and stepping back outside into the bracing chill of forest air, I saw AT&T showing zero bars. Still I tried to call.
A sketchy connection, but it rang on the other side.
A dam of emotion burst and I tried to tell Nancy of everything that had happened, but decided to keep it brief and ended with “I’m going to make the best of my situation” (miracle #4).
Finally able to, I turned off my phone to conserve battery and fell into a hard sleep. A new couple next door kept the rhythmic beat as morpheus took me.
I woke as the dim light of morning washed in through the frosted bathroom window, and I rose to find out in a panic that my phone was dead. Apparently, certain phones keep on searching for a signal and killing the battery whether turned on or off. Something I will take up with a braniac designer if I ever get the chance.
I crossed the highway and called the 800 number for cal trans, only to find the same obscure information as the previous night, still no report on the closure that kept me from my reservation with God’s people.
I thought, I’ll take a chance and drive down the road- after all, what else can I do? You have to understand that while technically, yes, I could go around, that would entail driving up to Monterey, East to Salinas, South to Hunter-Liggett and yes, that would be most of my second day shot. So no, that was not an option. I drove on, and for miracle #5 God took the anxiety from my heart. If I can get through, I will, and if I cannot, I will wait. Case solved!
As I approached the line of cars already waiting to get through just before 8 Saturday morning, I spoke with one of the guys in the dayglo jackets, and he mentioned that they had made a hole wide enough for smaller cars, but not trucks or RVs to snake through. Just then! Praise God!
I got back into my car, elated, wired and thankful for the experiences and blessings I had received!
Driving triumphantly, I couldn’t help gushing out, “You guys areAwesome!” as I passed. Some 7 short miles later, I was back at the base of the road up to Camaldolese. At long last, my journey would begin.