Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Joy of Being an Animal

Just in time for Pride:

Why Some Animals (and People) Are Gay

Bighorn Sheep
Darrell Gulin / CORBIS

We have known for at least a decade that hundreds of animal species — including birds, reptiles, mollusks and, of course, humans — engage in same-gender sexual acts. But no one is quite sure why. After all, same-sex couplings don't usually result in offspring. (I say usually because when male marine snails pair with other males, one partner conveniently changes sex, allowing for reproduction.) Evolutionarily speaking, homosexuality should have disappeared long ago.



A yearlong study just completed at the University of California at Riverside offers several fascinating competing theories about why same-gender sexual behavior has endured. And although it's gay-pride month — and the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots that sparked the gay-rights movement — not all the theories will give same-gender-loving humans a reason to celebrate. (See the top 10 animal stories of 2007.)

One particularly charged finding is that in most species besides humans, same-gender pairings rarely lead to lifelong relationships. In other words, when one attractive bonobo male eyes another in a lovely patch of Congo swamp forest, they occasionally kiss and then move on to other oral pleasures, but they don't bother anyone afterward about trying to legalize their right to an open-banana-bar ceremony. In fact, they are likely to move on to girl bonobos: most animals that engage in same-gender sex acts do so only when an opposite-sex partner is unavailable.

And yet the study's authors, Nathan Bailey and Marlene Zuk of UC Riverside's biology department, report some exceptions, like the laysan albatross. Last year, researchers studying a Hawaiian colony of albatrosses found that nearly a third of all the couples involved two females who courted and then shared parenting responsibilities. (Albatrosses don't have U-Hauls, so no lesbian jokes, please.) Male chinstrap penguins also form long-term relationships, at least in captivity. And some male bighorn sheep will mount females only after the females adopt male-like behaviors. (Watch a gay marriage wedding video.)

What explains all these variances? Here are some hypotheses I collected from Bailey and Zuk's paper as well as from some of their original sources:

1. The boys-in-the-locker-room theory. Any guy who played sports in high school knows that homoerotic jokes and towel-snapping are an underlying part of the subculture. Similarly, male bottlenose dolphins use same-sex sexual behavior to maintain and strengthen their social relationships — although dolphins are far more explicit about their homosexual play, regularly mounting one another and (hide the kids' ears here) sticking their noses into certain boy-dolphin parts. (Very regularly: roughly half of male dolphin sex occurs with other males.) Among bonobos, same-sex sexual behavior is also thought to ease social tension and facilitate reconciliation. And among garter snakes, male-on-male contact may allow some solitary males to thermoregulate and, therefore, survive.

2. The emasculation theory. Some male animals might mount other males as a way of denying them access to the ladies. For instance, as the Journal of Natural History noted in 2006, male dung flies often must compete violently to impregnate females. In those situations, "the most sensible strategy for beating a competitor in the race to an arriving female would be to mount him and remain in situ for as long as possible." Then, when the lady dung fly finally sails by, the aggressor male can pull himself out from the dominated male and — because he is on top — get above to the female faster.

3. The "oops" theory. Among insects, same-sex sexual behavior is usually a case of mistaken identity. Male fruit flies, for instance, may romance other males because they lack a gene that enables them to distinguish between sexes. Even more surprising, male toads can't tell the difference between girl toads and boy toads, so males will routinely embrace other males, although the subordinate ones are equipped with a call that quickly results in the dominant male releasing. In other species, the "straight" males get tricked by other wily straight males who dress in animal drag: male goodeid fish, for instance, sometimes have a black spot that resembles a spot that females get when pregnant. Dominant males then court them rather than fight with them. While the dominant guys are busy courting the subordinate, ladylike fish, the latter are able to "sneak copulations with females," as Bailey and Zuk write. I'm going to dub this the Hugh Grant Theory: it's not always the most masculine guy who gets the most girls.

4. The let's-see-how-this-thing-works theory. Younger animals (particularly males, and including humans) sometimes engage in same-sex sexual behavior as practice, which may improve their reproductive success when they are ready for a heterosexual relationship later. Fruit flies who experiment with other members of the same sex as youngsters may have more baby fruit flies later on than those who don't experiment.

5. The two-plus-one theory. Among flour beetles, males routinely force themselves on other males. According to Bailey and Zuk, there's some evidence that sperm deposited during this male beetle rape is sometimes transferred to a female later on, increasing the chances that she will have offspring.

What all these theories have in common is that same-sex sexual activity is either an accident or a quirky genetic method of helping males impregnate females. Which raises the evolutionary question of why men and women who are exclusive gay and lesbian exist. One answer is that exclusive gays and lesbians are a relatively new creation: the concept of exclusive homosexuality barely existed before modernity; even a century ago, most same-sex-attracted men and women got married and had kids. (Read "Do Monkeys Pay for Sex?")

As Bailey, Zuk and many others have pointed out, no one has offered an adequate evolutionary explanation for the relatively recent development of exclusive homosexuality among humans. In January, the journal Evolution and Human Behavior published a paper exploring the idea that certain alleles increase the likelihood of homosexuality by blocking the effect of androgens during fetal development. Having all those alleles hampers the masculinization of some parts of the brain that affect personality, making you gay, the theory goes. Brothers of gay men who have only some of the alleles would turn out straight but less aggressive than typical guys. And because those brothers exhibit less psychopathology, they would attract more women and therefore have more kids. It was a provocative theory, but it turned out not to be proved: gay men's brothers don't actually have more kids than straight men's brothers do.

So we're stuck at square one. As the 40th anniversary of Stonewall approaches, the question that Alan Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa ask in their 2007 book about evolutionary psychology, Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, has never been more relevant: Will "the liberation of homosexuals, which allows them to come out of the closet and not pretend to be straight" actually turn out to "contribute to the end of homosexuality?" We may not know for a thousand years, but it's a great question.

See pictures of same-sex overtures across species.

See pictures of the gay rights movement.



Friday, June 26, 2009

Farewell, Michael Jackson

This Letter I wrote four years ago, published in USA Today, seems fitting today:

OP-Ed, USA Today 6-17-05

Jury finds no crime in Jackson's difference

The Michael Jackson trial was a circus because a celebrity was accused of child molestation. But what the trial really was about was something else: Jackson's being radically different (“Jackson free: Fans rejoice as jury acquits him on all counts,” News, Tuesday).

Will our society allow the strange behavior of a man who spends the night with boys who aren't family members? Will a jury acquit a man who has changed in appearance over the years to become a virtual freak? Is it believable that a grown man who appears so strange could have such an intimate relationship with boys without having sexual contact?

This jury, hardly of Jackson's peers, answered with a resounding “yes.” Over and over we heard “not guilty.” Being different, contrary to the bitter attacks of the prosecutor in this case, is not a crime.

This verdict is more than a victory for one lonely celebrity. It also is a victory for non-conformity. Bullies such as Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon, the prosecutor, deserve to be punished for abuse of their power. Mercenary mothers who lie for material gain, who prostitute their sick children for personal gain, should be punished.

Yet creative artists and performers who are wildly eccentric, who do not look like the rest of us, who live in a reality unfathomable to the majority, deserve praise, kindness and appreciation for their talent and their gift of genius. Vive la difference!

Jack Miller



Excellent editorial review from the New York Times: Love the part about Allen Ginsberg at the conclusion...

June 26, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

The Real Mob at Stonewall

Franklin, Tenn.

I WAS perhaps the unlikeliest person in the world to cover the Stonewall riots for The Village Voice. It was June 27, 1969. I had graduated from West Point only three weeks earlier and was spending my summer leave in New York before reporting for duty at Fort Benning, in Georgia. After a late dinner in Chinatown, I was about to enter the Lion’s Head, a writers’ hangout on Christopher Street near the Voice’s offices, when I blundered straight into the first moments of the police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar a couple of doors down the street. Even a newly minted second lieutenant of infantry could see that it was a story.

Across the street from the Stonewall, a crowd of maybe 100 was watching the police march out a dozen or so bar patrons and employees into a paddy wagon. The young arrestees paused at the back of the waiting paddy wagon and struck vampy poses, smiling and waving to the crowd.

This was not the way gays were supposed to behave when they were arrested, and the officers started shoving them with their nightsticks. People in the crowd yelled at the police to stop. The officers responded by telling them to get off the street. Someone started throwing pocket change at the officers, and others began rocking the paddy wagon. Then, from the back of the crowd, beer cans and bottles flew through the air. In a hail of coins and street debris, the paddy wagon drove away with two patrol cars, and the remaining officers retreated inside the Stonewall, locking the doors behind them.

Soon enough, loose cobblestones from a nearby repaving site rained down on the bar’s windows. An uprooted parking meter was used to ram the club’s doors. Someone lighted a wad of newspaper and threw it through the bar’s broken window, starting a small fire. The policemen inside the Stonewall put it out with a fire hose, which they then turned on the crowd.

Instead of dispersing, the people in the street cavorted sarcastically in the spray, teasing the officers with suggestive come-ons. A few moments later, patrol cars came screaming down Christopher Street from Sixth Avenue. And at approximately 2 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, the gay men decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. The clash outside the Stonewall went on for 48 more hours and become famous as the riots that started the gay-rights movement.

Amazingly, there was no TV coverage and only a few paragraphs in the city’s daily papers. Myths and controversies have arisen in the vacuum left by the mainstream news media.

One involves the argument about who is, and isn’t, a “veteran” of Stonewall. A handful can prove they were there by pointing to themselves in the famous photograph, taken by Fred McDarrah, that was on the cover of the following week’s Voice, accompanying my article and another by a colleague, Howard Smith.

For the record, I orchestrated that image. Fred was famously parsimonious as a photographer, in the habit of taking only a few photos for a story. Outside the Stonewall that night, he took a look at the scene and asked me to get a bunch of rioters together. I rounded them up and posed them on a stoop, and Fred got his shot.

A prominent Stonewall myth holds that the riots were an uprising by the gay community against decades of oppression. This would be true if the “gay community” consisted of Stonewall patrons. The bar’s regulars, though, were mostly teenagers from Queens, Long Island and New Jersey, with a few young drag queens and homeless youths who squatted in abandoned tenements on the Lower East Side.

I was there on the Saturday and Sunday nights when the Village’s established gay community, having heard about the incidents of Friday night, rushed back from vacation rentals on Fire Island and elsewhere. Although several older activists participated in the riots, most stood on the edges and watched.

Many told me they were put off by the way the younger gays were taunting the police — forming chorus lines and singing, “We are the Stonewall girls, we wear our hair in curls!” Many of the older gay men lived largely closeted lives, had careers to protect and years of experience with discrimination. They believed the younger generation’s behavior would lead to even more oppression.

In part, at least, they were correct. It would take several more years before major New York political figures came out in favor of employment anti-discrimination laws, and much longer before other gay rights would be realized.

Another myth is that the police raid on the Stonewall was part of a broader crackdown on gay bars in the summer of 1969, a mayoral election year. In fact, the Stonewall operation was the work of a Police Department deputy inspector, Seymour Pine, and officers from the morals unit, and they carried it out without the knowledge of the officers of the local police precinct, whom they suspected of taking payoffs from the Stonewall and other Mafia-run gay bars in the Village.

Deputy Inspector Pine had two stated reasons for the raid: the Stonewall was selling liquor without a license, which it was, and it was being used by a Mafia blackmail ring that was setting up gay patrons who worked on Wall Street, which also seems likely.

The owner of the Stonewall, Tony Lauria, was reputed to be a front man for Matty Ianniello (known as “Matty the Horse”), a capo in the Genovese crime family who oversaw a string of clubs in the city. New York’s gay-bar scene at the time was a corrupt system apparently designed to benefit mobster owners, who served watered-down drinks at inflated prices, often made with ill-gotten liquor from truck hijackings.

It worked like this: citing disorderly behavior laws, the State Liquor Authority ruled that bars catering to openly homosexual patrons were not entitled to liquor licenses. Gay bars were thus made effectively illegal, which left them to the mob, which happily ran clubs without liquor licenses and paid the police to look the other way. Several more years would pass before the first clubs with openly gay owners would be licensed — places like the Ballroom on West Broadway and Reno Sweeney on West 13th Street — and the mob lost its stranglehold, an early legacy of Stonewall.

On Sunday, the third night of the riots, I ran into Allen Ginsberg on the street and accompanied him into the reopened Stonewall, where he talked and danced with some of the young revelers. Afterward, as the last of the riot police packed up to go home, I walked with him toward his home in the East Village. He said everything seemed different after the riots — how grim, even sad, gay bars were compared to the “beautiful” scene at the Stonewall that night.

As I turned south on Lafayette Street, he waved and cried out, “Defend the fairies!” His jolly farewell was obviously meant in jest, because after Stonewall, they didn’t need defending any more.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, the author of “Dress Gray,” is writing an online novel, “General Bongo’s War.”


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Allende Nights

La Cucaracha: San Miguel's World-Famous Cantina

by Lou Christine

The beat-up and dingy bar Cucaracha doesn't exude glamour. An exception might be the hubba-hubba pin-up of a sultry Marilyn hanging off the crumbling plastered wall. She's naked and posed in a provocative position.
To define San Miguel's Cucaracha: it's late night personified. Located in the town's Centro, on Zacateros, it is just a stone's throw away, but polar regions apart, from San Miguel's well groomed Jardin.
The bar's torn leather furniture looks ready for the wood pile. The stark concrete floor is usually littered with unmentionables, including an always burgeoning field of crushed cigarette butts. Going to the restroom is like a walk on slippery slopes, a murky adventure within the dank darkness. Praise the Lord males don't hafta sit down. Females! I don't know what they do.
Forget the phoo-phoo crowd, La Cucaracha is far from a Mecca for designer wear. The hang-out's following are mostly clad in faded jeans and droopy tank tops. A bombed-out campesino, down for the count, head-plopped, mouth wide-open, the whole upper half of his drunken torso sprawled atop a messy table, could conceivably be the joint's welcome mat. More than likely, not much attention will be paid to the unconscious one.
Yet, despite a seedy impression, there's something intriguing taking place. Why else would this watering hole be so popular? It holds fast to its two-fisted, hard-drinking reputation.
Originally, Cucaracha was located a couple of blocks over, where a posh Banamex is now located. Back then, San Miguel crazies were knocking down booze almost round the clock, and Cucaracha was their temple. Notables like Kerouac, William F. Burroughs, the infamous Cassidy, Ken Kesey and the likes of Allen Ginsburg all frequented the place while living part-time in this town. The hangout was internationally renowned. Some chic, north-of-the-border monthly once rated the place one of the top bars on earth.
These days, Cucaracha is a last-chance bastion for freebooters. One shouldn't be averse to second-hand smoke, there's at least a pack burning in the air at any given time. The craving for nicotine can be fulfilled without flicking a Bic.
In contrast to the din, there's a perpetually-playing modern CD juke box spinning out a gambit of tunes. A Mexican ballad is followed by the eternal voice of Jim Morrison belting, "I woke up this morning and had myself a beer..." as half the place gets down and sings along. Throwing caution to the wind, couples dance in front of the juke box, on tables and on the bar itself.
The staff is laid back, or perhaps just oblivious, as they wait on customers. Serving strictly on a COD basis, popping beer caps is conspicuously taking time from their backgammon or domino games. One suspects that if those T-shirted bartenders suddenly discovered a sparkling diamond stuck inside the bottle of a quench Victoria, their blank expressions wouldn't change an iota. As long as things remain copacetic, everything's cool.
Around 2 a.m. San Miguel's off-duty wait help storm through the dilapidated, almost hanging-off-the-hinges doors, mixing in and meshing their semi-formal work attire with those donned in denim and wrinkled cotton. Things get cooking. The clientele is a potpourri of clandestine chic. They're the new-aged and the disheveled, the tattooed and snaggle-toothed, of all persuasions. They're mostly local, yet always hip. Dredlocks and super gelled up spiked dos, in shades normally reserved for parrots, and a number of skinheads, some by choice, others due to the aging process, bob in pandemonium. Having pierced body parts isn't a prerequisite to hang out. There are the freshly scrubbed faces belonging to first-time-away-from-home art students, those seamless fresas who are full of exuberance, chatting away with wrinkled-faced maestros. There are the like-wow chicas, with hour-glass figures, pretending to be seduced by burnt-out writers who, by all means, have bad intentions. World travelers wash in for some good, or bad, company for the sake of talking story, and even El antiQuario executives have been spotted frequenting the place from time to time. The forever hand-shaking wanna bes, willing to speak with anyone, "Wanna buy me a drink, amigo?" mix with the town's international flavor. French might be spoken in one corner while east-coast, big-city yacks from another. Exquisite bouquets of vacationing Chilean gals often become all the buzz, attracting a hornet's nest of bar flies who, if given a chance, might try and out-do the monarchs by winging it all the way to the foothills of the Andes.
By 2:30 the joint's a-jumping. Chocked with foxes and coyotes, Romeos and Juliets, in-laws and outlaws, the hybrid grooves to the blaring tunes. The pulsating beat of the juke box, along with the nudging of alcohol, helps erase the disappointment of the previous mundane day, now no more than a lingering memory. " One for the road" Joes should be sued for false advertising as, come the crack of dawn, they are still there, toasting away. After a certain hour, a non-seeing character affectionately known as Blind George gains visual parity with the rest, who see only cloudy images. Decibels rise.
Now and then some brothers go over the top, but there's usually enough level-headed types willing to step forward. There is that distinct air of tension. A pragmatic mind might ask, "What the hell am I doing here?" But ya gotta figure, "My man, it's the middle of the night and you're boozing in a place where the name speaks for itself!"
Frequenting the Cucaracha is not a boy-scout outing, nor will it be penciled in on the local Biblioteca's House and Garden tour. Perhaps it's a "right of passage" for young Sanmiguelenese. It boasts aspects one doesn't discuss with dear ole mom or the parish priest, except when whispering away inside the confessional. Yet for the most part, Cucaracha's a mellow place. One is more likely to shake a thousand hands there than dodging a swinging fist.
The standard pour is a fat mother, equaling perhaps the width of the meaty mitts belonging to a stevedore. After a number of sure-fire belts a pug face like me sees himself as more handsome, taller, thinner, wittier, with more hair, a sexy dancer, a grinning fool who's about to become bullet proof. Well, not always, but sometimes.
By golly, by 3:30 that steamy photo of Marilyn all of a sudden comes alive! The provocative-posed diva beckons. There's no doubt to the observer that her forever young-and-frozen, come-n-get-it sardonic smile is meant exclusively for them.
Although somehow the management doesn't give one the impression they've taken an art appreciation class, an eclectic collection hangs on the walls. Operating far beyond the borders of Gringolandia, a scowling Uncle Sam takes a shot at recruiting guys for the US Army. The "I Want You!" message calls from the yellowed, faded poster. There's a full-scale mural, painted with bold brush strokes reminiscent of Orozco's style, of a wild cantina scene. A terrific cityscape of ole San Miguel is suspended from another wall. The painting over the bar depicts a group of merry-making cockroaches, loitering on bar stools, all raising hell, toasting each other inside a surreal, roach-infested pub. It's a weird scene, no doubt created from the humorous confines of an artist's imagination, perhaps after a sordid night spent inside the Cucaracha. By the wee hours, the rathskeller reminds one of that far-out, alien bar in "Star Wars."
For many of San Miguel's young, and for those young at heart, the Cucaracha is a special gathering place a perhaps not-so-appropriate or fashionable conclusion to another dynamite day in Paradise. But what the heck... whatta ya think they're doing at 4:00 a.m. up in Tekamah, Nebraska?


Monday, June 15, 2009

Don and Chris- encore

THROUGH THE AGES Chris & Don: A Love Story examines the cross-generational relationship of Christopher Isherwood, left, and Don Bachardy.

from: http://newyork.timeout.com/articles/gay/30047/real-to-reel

Happened to see Chris and Don again tonight on Sundance. Up again come all my usual adjectives: poignant, astounding, moving, stunning, an endless parade of superlatives. It would take the best poetry to describe adequately that film or documentary if it must be labeled at all. My review from last year does a better job than I can do now, consumed as I am with tomorrow's trip to Mexico and all the emotions of this summer with Darryl. Suffice it to say that the love of those two men for each other is a love than which no greater can be conceived.

From my birthday last year:



Lorca, Dali, Bunuel

File:Lorca CloseUp.jpg
Lorca, thanks to Wikipedia:

The film Little Ashes is certainly gorgeous to watch, especially if you like beautiful men and Spain. The subject matter, regardless of the manner in which it is presented, is fascinating and poignant. Fascism, after all, is hardly gone from the world. It may get beaten, but it never seems to die, and rises up again and again in the world as surely as weeds do.
Having read a few lukewarm or downright negative reviews of Little Ashes, I went to see it with skepticism. There is much I love about all three of these men, and I don't like to see them reduced to caricature. Lorca is presented as a saint, of course. Bunuel the bully is a homo-phobe. And Dali becomes a clown rather than live up to his true feelings and talent. Yet, that being said, the film gave depth and color to the three. Sometimes overly sentimental, even trite in its "historical view," the study of the times and the three individuals revealed the depths of their love for one another and the impossibility of being authentic in a world of pretense, fashion, creativity, and rising Fascism. The man who keeps his ideals and his integrity is shot to death by Franco's men. Dali succeeds as an impostor. Bunuel flees to America and Mexico.
The film makes one want to read more about these artists, to go deeper, and to look again at their achievements. For that it deserves praise.

Friday, June 12, 2009

San Francisco, Russian River, Monterey, and Big Sur

You are invited to view Jak & Dar's photo album: westcoast09
Jun 11, 2009
by Jak & Dar

A small sampling of the 500+ photos we took. To be continued...


Monday, June 01, 2009

Return to Big Sur

With our travels to San Francisco, Russian River, Sonoma, Monterey, and Big Sur over the next ten days, Thought this article Starr found in Smithsonian Magazine apropos:

Post Ranch Inn Big Sur California
Big Sur's dramatic vistas entrance residents and day-trippers alike.

Big Sur's California Dreamin'

Untrammeled wilderness and new age enclave, Big Sur retains its rugged beauty and quirky charm

  • By James Conaway
  • Photographs by Catherine Karnow
  • Smithsonian magazine, May 2009

"Young people were living in cars and under the bridges," says Don McQueen, recalling the 1960s in Big Sur, the 90-mile stretch of California coast where the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge into the Pacific Ocean south of Monterey. "Once, I saw smoke coming from a field just north of here and went up to find two dozen hippies, their naked kids running around, and fires going. Fire's always a danger in Big Sur." McQueen, 80, is a commanding figure—6-foot-8, size 15 boots. "Some of the newcomers were worthless," he adds, "but some were OK. We were so stuck in the mud around here. The new people shook things up."

I first traveled to Big Sur in the fall of 1963, eager to explore its remote recesses, soon after I began a graduate program at Stanford University. I remember being dazzled by the coastal region's stunning near-verticality. It seemed a mythic landscape of impenetrable chaparral and massive redwoods stitched to headlands plunging into an impossibly blue ocean. Against this backdrop, ordinary concerns seemed to pale; to live here was to view the world through a unique lens of beauty and peril.

Scattered across the land were random clusters of wooden cottages, a few stores and campgrounds, a couple of bars and a gas station or two. The Los Padres National Forest, which includes much of the 6,000-foot-high Santa Lucia Range, edged the highway, where shaggy figures not yet labeled as countercultural stood on the roadside, hooking their thumbs in clear, dry air. At the time, Big Sur still rested in a happy sociological trough between the demise of the Beat Generation and the advent, in 1967, of San Francisco's Summer of Love, a watershed moment that would bring thousands of young people west.

In the intervening years, I returned to Big Sur several times, drawn by the physical beauty and the inspirational jolt that the first glimpse always provides. The place remains for me freighted with as much mystery as reality, intimately associated with the era that McQueen invokes.

McQueen's father, Allen, was a maintenance supervisor for the coast highway built here in the late '30s. Don constructed his own tourist campground along the same road in the '50s. "A few hippies thought they could make a living just by breaking into houses," he tells me, adding that a rougher element, some on motorcycles, hung out in the Redwood Lodge just up the road. "That place had a hard dope problem, with fights. I told the owner I'd clear it out if he wanted." McQueen admits to throwing "some people through windows" and to putting two troublemakers in a car, breaking the vehicle's distributor cap with a hammer, "so they couldn't start the engine," and shoving them downhill in the direction of Carmel, 26 miles to the north.

Today, the Redwood Lodge has long since been reborn as Fernwood, still a bar, but decidedly more upscale and friendlier. Big Sur's landscape, however, remains unchanged, wild country that has impressed—or intimidated—visitors since the arrival of the Spanish more than 400 years ago. Early seafarers stayed clear of the rock-toothed el país grande del sur (big country of the south), described in 1542 by the explorer Juan Cabrillo: "There are mountains which seem to reach the heavens, and the sea beats on them....It appears as though they would fall on the ships."

In 1770, the Spanish established a presidio and missionary headquarters in Monterey, capital of Alta (Upper) California, and soon founded a mission in Carmel. There, Father Junípero Serra set about enslaving and converting the coastal tribes who lived close by and any Indians who could be enticed from the inner reaches of inhospitable "El Sur."

In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War (1846-48), Mexico ceded California to the United States. In those early years, homesteaders could make a good living by felling redwoods—dangerous work in the steep canyons—and by harvesting tan oaks, used in the hide-tanning process. Supplies arrived in small steam vessels, braving a coast with little safe anchorage; timber went out the same way. The tiny population inhabiting the coast south of Monterey remained scattered.

Despite the fact that Big Sur's lone existing dirt track was hazardous and often washed out in rains or mudslides, a hardy few managed to pass this way. They included homesteaders; tourists who stayed in roughhewed "resorts," run by families like the Pfeiffers, descendants of the original 19th-century settlers; and, in the '20s and '30s, what might be called a new creative class. Among them was the poet Robinson Jeffers, an East Coast transplant who came to Big Sur in 1914 and built two stone houses on a wild spit of land near Carmel, today a National Historic Site. Jeffers, who would be thought of as the poet laureate of the environmental movement, called Big Sur "the noblest thing I have ever seen."

Helmuth Deetjen, the son of a deacon in Bremen, Germany, and a Norwegian mother, arrived in Big Sur sometime around 1936, where he bought 60 acres in Castro Canyon and built a small compound that included a house, antiques store and inn. A student of music, philosophy, art and politics, Deetjen had attended Germany's University of Heidelberg, where one of his classmates was an art student named Adolf Hitler. (Deetjen claimed that his last words to Hitler were, "You just don't understand the American cowboy," and fled Europe because he knew what Hitler was capable of.) Deetjen imported a quirky combination of sophistication and hominess to Big Sur, reflected in his quaint Scandinavian-style cottages, constructed of native redwood.

What became a local institution—Deetjen's Big Sur Inn—included a score of snug cottages, heated by wood-burning stoves. (Even today, guests who don't mind roughing it will find Deetjen's cabins to their liking.) Inside the cramped, low-ceilinged main building, pottery, sculpture and paintings, many of them created by a long succession of Big Sur artists, occupied walls and shelves when I arrived here in 1963. The funky display, now invested with a time-warped charm, is still there, just as I first saw it.

Deetjen had built much of the furniture himself. The food served in the little restaurant was basic, but appetizing. Certain attitudes of the '60s seemed to have derived from a quotation that Deetjen had carved into a lintel in the dining room, a passage from Mozart's The Magic Flute: "Within these sacred portals revenge and hate must cease/The souls of straying mortals in love will find release."

In 1937, completion of the coastal highway linking Northern and Southern California marked the biggest change to Big Sur since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Virtually overnight, the still-wild coast had become accessible by car, which brought an influx of even more artists, writers and mavericks of all stripes seeking an alternative to what novelist Henry Miller—a friend of Deetjen's and soon to be Big Sur's most celebrated literary figure—would refer to as America's "air-conditioned nightmare."

Miller had settled in a house on a slope above Partington Canyon, a ravine about four miles south of Deetjen's, in 1944. There he produced Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, a rambling account of the area's unfettered lifestyle. "The ideal community," he wrote in Big Sur, "would be the loose, fluid aggregation of individuals. It would be a God-filled community, even if none of its members believed in God. It would be a paradise." But in 1960 Miller lost his paradise, abandoning his fourth wife, Eva McClure, and two teenage children to go to Europe with Caryl Hill Thomas, a local waitress in her early 20s.

Eventually, in 1981, the Big Sur painter Emil White—a friend of Miller's—donated his redwood house on Highway 1, not far from Partington Canyon, to create the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Housing a trove of Miller's papers, the library today serves as a cultural and educational center. In season, an outdoor screen is raised across the backdrop of mountain and conifers so movies can be shown under the stars. Benefit concerts have featured artists such as Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Henry Rollins and Philip Glass. "All part of a mix that Miller would have approved of," says the library's director, Magnus Toren.

Miller's breakthrough novel, Tropic of Cancer, had been published in 1934 in Paris, where most of the story was set. The work was hailed by critics, but its explicit sexuality caused it to be banned in the United States until 1964. By then, Miller was being succeeded by the so-called beatnik writers, including Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road, an homage to cross-country road tripping and emergent alternatives to conventional American life, became a must-read for a new, rebellious generation.

Kerouac's friend, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and publisher of the poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and other Beat writers, had bought a cabin on Bixby Creek in 1960. Ferlinghetti's hideaway was prominently featured in Kerouac's 1962 novel, Big Sur, which recounted his brief, alcohol-fueled stay there the year before. Richard Brautigan's surreal A Confederate General from Big Sur was another fictional account of his own interlude there in 1961 or so. He described the rugged coast as "that thousand-year-old flophouse for mountain lions... that million-year-old skid row for abalone." Not surprisingly, the novel's laid-back, mood-enhanced characters are in rebellion against the status quo, inhabiting a landscape that was fast becoming, he wrote, "a hotbed of Secession."

By the late '60s, Big Sur had become known as the gravitational center of LSD and free love, an image it has never really shed, or even tried to. The Esalen Institute, the spa and self-styled spiritual center that became ground zero of the so-called human potential movement, contributed mightily to that myth. Co-founded by counterculture pioneer Michael Murphy, whose family had acquired some 27 Big Sur acres in 1910, the center was named, with a slight alteration in spelling, for the indigenous Esselen Indians, a tribe that had frequented the hot springs there. (Henry Miller once did his laundry in the springs' bubbling pools, according to local lore. Other notable visitors to the springs included novelist John Steinbeck and British author and social critic Aldous Huxley.)

Murphy's passion was Eastern religions; in 1960 he had teamed up with Richard Price, a psychology student at Stanford, to create a community where no single religion or philosophy would take precedence. This quickly evolved into a fusion of Eastern and Western traditions, one answer to Huxley's call for the exercise of transcendent "human potentialities." Esalen, which opened its doors in 1962, had an enormous influence on the counterculture tsunami that would partly define the decade. (Huxley would come to be regarded as the intellectual father of that movement.)

In its early days, the Esalen Institute had a staff of six, including Murphy and Price, who had leased the property from Murphy's grandmother. Murphy handled programming and Price oversaw administration. Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, says that he regards the early days of Esalen as "a kind of magical moment, during which there was a real synergy between a small group of cosmopolitan intellectuals and a vibrant youth culture."

In the beginning, Esalen was open to anyone "and free to good-looking women," says Mary Lu Toren, a professional gardener and wife of Miller Library director Magnus Toren. The original idea, she says, grew out of the Esselen Indians' belief that the baths had healing qualities. Visitors bathed together nude. Scented tapers were placed at the edge of the pools, intended to counter the sulfur fumes seeping from the water. "I can still smell those lovely candles," Toren recalls. "No one talked. You looked out at the ocean, or up at the hills. No negative thoughts were allowed, and the baths weren't for partying."

That came soon enough, along with the ever-increasing presence of drugs, sex and general misbehavior. One night in 1961, so the story goes, Esalen founders Murphy and Price, accompanied by folk singer Joan Baez and some other Esalen regulars, walked to the baths with Dobermans on leashes and dispersed a group of drug-addled revelers from San Francisco who had convened for an orgy.

Esalen evolved into a venue for psychotherapists of every persuasion; proponents of meditative and massage techniques; and academics from many disciplines. Co-founder Price was killed, at age 55, in 1985 by a falling boulder, while hiking in a Big Sur canyon. Many people, says Toren, felt that "with him died an era of honesty and openness, of true spirituality and integrity."

Murphy continued on alone, overseeing Esalen and attempting to put the institute on a more secure financial footing, largely by bringing in more paying guests for workshops and seminars. (Murphy remains involved in Esalen's work but stepped down as chairman in June 2008.)

In 1998, El Niño-induced rains triggered a mudslide that ripped away most of the old Esalen bathhouse. The $5 million replacement cost included hillside stabilization and an earthquake-proof foundation.

Today, workshops are offered for substantial fees in a quirky array of blissed-out topics, from Harmonic Presence: Primordial Wisdom to The Music of the Spheres. Last year, some 15,000 guests attended Esalen; an all-inclusive weekend stay costs a minimum of $385. Esalen director Gordon Wheeler, a clinical psychologist from Harvard, was hired in 2004 and charged with putting Esalen firmly into the black. "We've always been about personal and social transformation," which, he adds, means developing heightened awareness that "the world's in tough shape," and, as a result, "we have to step up locally as well as globally." As for Big Sur, Wheeler says "it's the land of the individualist and legendary because of that. It's outlaw country."

From time to time, sections of coast highway pavement, destabilized by torrential winter rains, have plunged into the ocean. (In 1983, a heavy-equipment operator was killed during road repairs, after a landslide sent him and the machine over a cliff.) Beginning in the 1960s, Don McQueen helped repair these gaps; McQueen recalls 20-hour workdays, rain so intense that workers couldn't hear each other talk, and a wall of mud slamming down the Little Big Sur River and, in less than a half-hour, washing out the road.

McQueen also worked on Nepenthe, the bar, restaurant and Big Sur landmark named for the forgetfulness potion in Homer's Odyssey. Nepenthe opened in 1949 on a point just north of Castro Canyon, on land that had been owned by movie director Orson Welles and his wife, Rita Hayworth. It was patronized not only by locals but also by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, much of whose film The Sandpiper was shot there. (The 1965 movie concerned a free-spirited single mother living on an isolated stretch of California coastline.) "Nepenthe was incredibly welcoming in the hippie era," says Mary Lu Toren. "Every month, there was an astrological birthday party for locals, with dancing on the deck."

Just down the road, Helmuth Deetjen's Big Sur Inn was transformed into a nonprofit trust following his death, at age 76, in 1972. Today, its upscale menu and romantic setting attract baby boomers and younger couples. Organic Big Sur greens with chanterelles, Scottish salmon and New Zealand venison have replaced what manager Torrey Waag calls "Deetjen's mystery stew." But there is no Wi-Fi for visitors. "If a guest needs to get his e-mail," Waag says, "we send him up the road to the Henry Miller Library."

The Ventana Inn and Spa, which opened in 1975, was Big Sur's first luxury resort. Designed in an artfully rustic style, Ventana transformed Big Sur into a "destination," to the dismay of some locals, many of whom nevertheless showed up to play dominoes at the bar. "Then they got all formal," says a former patron. "Waiters and waitresses were told they couldn't hug their friends anymore when they arrived. [Local] people stopped going."

Across Highway 1, on land once settled in 1848 by New Englander William Brainard Post, lies the posh Post Ranch Inn and its restaurant, Sierra Mar. Guests dine on ahi tuna and braised Kobe beef and gaze upon the ocean and, if they're lucky, gray whales bound for Baja. But beyond the tasteful confines of these resorts, there is unemployment and an acute housing shortage. Craig von Foerster, Sierra Mar's chef, lived in a van at the side of Highway 1 in his early days at the inn. Even today, he adds, "If you drive south toward [the town of] Lucia after 10 p.m., you'll see dozens of cars in the pull-offs. In most of them are the people who do Big Sur's work, asleep."

Big Sur's physical beauty extends to the 340,000 acres within Los Padres National Forest, a two-million-acre preserve that incorporates the Ventana wilderness on the eastern side of Big Sur's mountain ridge. Yet this backcountry, attainable only by several hours of difficult hiking, is rarely seen by visitors or residents. (A dirt road maintained by the U.S. Forest Service is closed to traffic.)

"Big Sur's all about the mountains and ocean, and the interface of the two," says Bruce Emmens, a 30-year veteran of the Forest Service, who is driving me to a view of massive green headlands, sunk like giant claws into the deep-blue Pacific. As he pulls the SUV to a stop, off to the left eight condors glide on thermals fed by a relentless sun.

Part of Emmens' job is helping to work out agreements that allow the federal government to acquire additional property and remove it from development. In 2002, for example, he participated in the largest recent transaction, a deal that transferred 1,200 acres of the old Brazil Ranch to public ownership, thereby providing the Forest Service access to the ocean and blocking plans for a hotel and condominiums. Some 500,000 acres in and around Big Sur were already protected by complex agreements involving both public and private entities. (Even so, palatial, if tasteful, houses continue to be built in prime spots, usually out of sight of the road, for owners including media mogul Ted Turner and television producer Paul Witt.)

In 2006, David Zimmerman took Buddhist vows at the Zen Center in San Francisco. Today, he is the monk who directs Tassajara, the first Zen monastery founded in the United States. "Tassajara," he says, "is the Esselen word for ‘a place to dry meat.'" (It is believed that the Indians used the site for this purpose.) Today, as many as 70 monks offer sanctuary to up to 85 guests at a time at Tassajara. Most stay for a few days. Some 5,000 pilgrims annually descend the bone-jarring dirt road to the monastery. Douglas and Anna, two self-described "life coaches" from San Rafael, California, are partaking of its amenities for half the $157 per person daily rate by chopping vegetables—"lots of onions"—in the morning. Afternoons, they swim in the crystal-clear water of the narrows on Tassajara Creek, or soak in the hot- springs-fed bathhouse.

Visitors are invited to follow the rhythms of the monastery: mornings filled with meditation; the sounds of chanting; and the ringing of a bell summoning guests to meals. At 8:30 p.m., a call to meditation sounds in the dimly lit zendo, or meditation hall, where a monk assigns everyone to a cushion facing the wall. The whisper of bare feet on creaking floorboards is the only sound, followed by soft bell strikes, then 4o minutes of silence. A light tapping on a drum and the muted ringing of a bell signal the end of meditation. Outside, the night is dark, cold and exhilarating. "It gets in your blood," says Zimmerman.

The road leading up to Partington Ridge follows a steep, twisting trajectory, rising from Highway 1 through coastal scrub—manzanita and yellow-blooming chamise—past a hand-lettered sign that dates to the '60s: "Caution: children, dogs, horses, poets, artists, and flowers at play."

Kevin and Jeannie Alexander, their 10-year-old son, Ryin, and 13-year-old daughter, Kaili, live in a 1920s house on the ridge that Kevin, a successful builder, is expanding. Kevin grew up in Big Sur as part of an itinerant family living in shacks, bathing free at the old Esalen and pouring cold water over his head in the mornings—the family equivalent of a shower. "We liked to keep things simple," he says.

"The old Big Sur values are dying off," Jeannie tells me. "Poets, artists and beatniks used to live off the land. They could just squat on a place and write a letter to the owner, who would write back and say, ‘Great. Just keep an eye on it.' Some new owners just move their old lives into new multi-million-dollar houses. The paradox is that rich people provide some jobs for those who stayed." In recent years, she adds, "we've lost 50 percent of the locals, as people sell out. Most service jobs are done now by recently arrived Hispanics; their children make up more than half the primary-school students."

The Alexanders say they are thankful for a life that they perceive as at odds with the American norm. "I see a difference in the kids up here," says Jeannie. "There's no television, no mall, no cellphone. They read a lot. They've got a feel for the land that kids in town don't have."

On June 21, 2008, Mary Lu Toren, who lives down the road from the Alexanders, was gardening at a neighbor's house when, she recalls, "I saw clouds rolling in from the Pacific, lashed by electrical charges, dark, beautiful and scary. I knew what was coming."

What was coming was lightning. Kevin Alexander witnessed the first strike in a meadow across the canyon. "It was the loudest clap I've ever heard," he says. "Immediately flames came up, and I called it in." Firefighters were soon battling the downhill creep of a rapidly expanding fire; during the night it moved around the head of the canyon."I cut some trees to act as a firebreak, but the heat was so intense it melted the gutters on one house."

Last summer's Big Sur wildfire, which soon became known as the Basin Complex fire, put the coastline in jeopardy—and in the news. Winds fueled the blaze, pushing it down several mountainsides overlooking the Pacific. Helicopters dumped seawater, and two big Coast Guard planes spread fire retardant, but the sky turned orange and the air acrid. Cinders the size of dinner plates fell on the deck of Nepenthe. The little hamlet of Big Sur, as well as the state parks and many houses, lay directly in the fire's path.

Don McQueen quickly bought a $150,000 bulldozer and brought in his two sons, both of whom were living in England, to defend the family's 70 acres. "We worked nonstop for four days," he recalls, piloting his all-terrain vehicle up a steep service road above his house. Today, downslope, an eerie, ashen defile, once dense forest, is now punctuated with blackened tree trunks. "What I regret most," McQueen adds, "is the loss of so many redwoods all over Big Sur. That means massive mudslides when the rains come."

The fire lasted for more than five weeks, burned nearly 163,000 acres, consumed 26 Big Sur houses and scorched entire mountainsides. Fighting the fire cost the state and other agencies $77 million. The town of Big Sur was spared, as was the Ventana Inn—firefighters there were fed from the gourmet kitchen—Deetjen's and the Henry Miller Library. Because Highway 1 acted as a firebreak, the Post Ranch Inn, Nepenthe and Esalen—all on the ocean side of the road—also survived. In the backcountry, Tassajara lay in the path of another fire but was saved by the efforts of monks and firefighters, who wrapped the buildings in flame-retardant sheathing.

While Henry Miller's former residence was also saved, along with the house of Mary Lu Toren and her husband, Magnus, tongues of blackened earth still lick at the borders of all the properties. Many residents of Partington Ridge began laying in provisions—lentils, brown rice, powdered milk, gasoline—in anticipation of what they believed might well be the fire's aftermath: rain-fueled landslides.

The rains of 2009, so far, have turned out to be mercifully light. Residents, including Mary Lu Toren, hope that a second catastrophe will not materialize. "Look," she says, pointing to a redwood sprig in the scorched earth near her house. "New growth's already pushing through the ashes."

Writer James Conaway's most recent book is Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes. Photographer Catherine Karnow is based in Mill Valley, California.

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