Author T. William Wallin standing along the cliffs amongst the ghosts of Kerouac and his uncle while the eternal golden coastline of Big Sur vanishes into the horizon. | Photo courtesy T. William Wallin

Reading “Big Sur” in Shelter-in-Place While Going to Big Sur

A reflection from a former Lumberjack news editor
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A reflection from a former Lumberjack news editor

When the entire world is going mad and cities are in disarray and the economy is through the tubes and the government is ordering the people to stay indoors and keep distant from human contact and all the unknowns and uncertainties and precariousness are causing anxieties and confusion and insane isolated thinking, then the only logical solution is to search for the magnificent eternal golden light in Big Sur where Jack Kerouac lost his illumination and was succumbed to mad mad maddening disillusion and deterioration of mind.

Amidst a global pandemic and forced isolation (both for curving the spread of the disease and government say-so) Kerouac’s “Big Sur” may seem like an unlikely companion during cabin fever tendencies but he nails the coffin of loneliness surrounded by madness…and we are swimming in madness in 2020 and social distancing is causing us loneliness…he may be known for traveling on the road but the majority of his writing deals with the personal struggle of the unrevealed and intangible and intrapersonal relationships with exile and aloneness.

It was time to go back to find some sanity while the whole world was ravaging in chaos.

Last week I received a card from my obaasan written in shaky cursive:

“I’m not myself now/can’t think much things now…” Her youngest son died in the middle of all this virus business and the experience of losing her youngest before her own passing into the next existence and not being able to perform a proper Japanese funeral has weighed a heavy heart on my nearly 90-year-old reincarnation of the bodhisattva Quan Yin. The letter is marked from Monterey, my hometown, just a couple dozen miles from Big Sur, which I am currently in the thick of. Whereas Kerouac fell into his madness, I was born into mine…and it was time to go back to find some sanity while the whole world was ravaging in chaos.

Passing San Jose on the 280 at rush hour, or what normally is, and we stop not one time and I am convinced there is a God in heaven and miracles exist and coincidences mean something more than just what they don’t.

A pitter patter of rain began to fall as my partner and I sped away from our Arcata apartment and headed down the curvy empty roads of the 101 en route to console an ailing mother from 6 feet away. My paint-scratched and hood-dented Volkswagen happily ate the white lines through redwood country, wineries, extending bridges and golden rolling hills full of deer and foxes and chirping birds. With everyone staying in doors, the urbanized are becoming again what Gary Snyder calls “wild.” Only 10 cars on the Golden Gate Bridge and all of the city, void of the Tenderloin, which sidewalks are unseen due to the amount of popup tents and stretched out tarps and rucksacks rolling in the gutters. Passing San Jose on the 280 at rush hour, or what normally is, and we stop not one time and I am convinced there is a God in heaven and miracles exist and coincidences mean something more than just what they don’t. Seven hours and not a minute more since we left Humboldt County the magnificent sand dunes of my childhood explode into view as the sun sinks behind cannery row, the fisherman’s wharf and into the pacific.

We knock on the windowpane glass without warning. My obaasan, 4-foot-5 in frame in blue uwabaki and nearly all white thick Hokkaido curls reminiscent of the ancient Ainu people of our ancestors opens the door white as a ghost. We appear as road warriors traveling to find oil but she is happy nonetheless to see her most handsomest grandson and granddaughter in law (I know this because she tells us so in a faint whisper of grief). She is nearly silent and full of half smiles and sad lonely eyes staring off into a point in space I am unable to see. There is nothing more difficult than to deny a Japanese grandmother’s invitation of hot food and conversation… but these are harrowing times and one must put down their foot for the betterment of others… especially kindhearted compassionate grandmothers who want nothing more than to fill bellies and tell stories.

Without being able to hug her or get close enough for her to hear me hurt my soul but the space we shared amidst all the craziness going on filled my heart with such joy that I could feel the sanity I had lost while sheltering in place replenish.

We part for the night with three bows and head to Big Sur first thing in the morning. We were supposed to spread the ashes of my uncle but bureaucracies have slowed down (who would have thought possible they could move even slower) and checks clearing takes longer and so we had no urn and only mandatory intention of flying down the beautifully rugged pacific coast cliffs hugging the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east and infinite deep neon blue waters crashing west. All parks are closed and scattered hikers from who-knows-where park along the highway to hike in. We stop at Bixby Creek of Kerouac’s “Big Sur” but it is not the same for all the turnoffs are filled with parked cars and tourists and selfies… or maybe it is the same because on his last hitchhiking adventure up from Big Sur to Monterey 1,000-2,000 cars passed him by and he was no longer able to relate. We ate lunch beneath the shade of an oak tree 100 feet above the water and 15 miles from the hot springs. We were by ourselves with the lonely wails of the sea and the roaring of the waves and the ghostly spirits of Kerouac and my uncle.

On our way out of town we said goodbye to my grandmother. She stood behind the screen door as we stood in the sun with bandanas and masks wrapped around our faces. She was in a cheerier mood and her energy level was heightened. She wore full smiles behind her grief and talked about the chaos of the world being unbalanced. Without being able to hug her or get close enough for her to hear me hurt my soul but the space we shared amidst all the craziness going on filled my heart with such joy that I could feel the sanity I had lost while sheltering in place replenish. Kerouac pronounces, “The more ups and downs, the more joy I feel. The greater the fear, the greater the happiness I feel,” and I believe it to be important we share the same intimacies while we are submerged in the unknown dangers of threats and hazards.

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