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Monterey Santa Barbara

6th August 2010

Twisting My Way Down the Big Sur and Learning About the History of Hearst Castle

    This morning I headed off under overcast skies down Highway 1. From Carmel Valley heading south, the highway twisted and turned along the cliffs toward Big Sur, one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in the world.
    This 100 mile wild length of coastline was named El Pais Grande del Sur, the "Big Country to the South", by Spanish colonists at Carmel in the late 18th century. Robert Louis Stevenson called it "the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world".
Bixby Creek Bridge
    That the road existed at all was a testament to local engineering. The Vetana Mountains plunged dramatically into the sea, leaving little coastal shelf on which to place a road. Beginning in 1919, Highway 1 took 20 years to build from start (in San Juan Capistrano) to finish (in Mendocino County). Big Sur had been preserved in its natural state, with no large towns and very few signs of civilisation in the area. Most of the shore was protected in a series of easily accessible state parks, that offered dense forests, broad rivers and crashing surf.
    I drove past Point Lobos State Reserve, Monterey's twin natural habitat of the Monterey cypress and soon came across the picturesque arched Bixby Creek Bridge, built in 1932. It was the world's largest single-arch span for many years, standing 260' tall and 700' long.
Point Sur Lighthouse on the Right Hand Volcanic Dome - Highway 1 Clinging to the Left Cliff
    A few miles further down, perched above a volcanic dome, was Point Sur lighthouse. This was manned until 1974, but like most lighthouses, had since been automated. It was connected to the mainland by a narrow spit of sand.
Rugged Coastline
    As I continued south, the skies would give an occasional hint of blue, but this would soon be obscured by thick fog a mile or two further on. The coast was usually inaccessible due to the high, steep drops down to the crashing surf. Large forests of kelp could be seen a short distance from the shore, but closer in the kelp disappeared to reveal deep waters with endless shades of turquoise to ultramarine.
    Further down the route was the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This gave access to an overlook where a 100' high bluff could be seen, over which the McWay Creek waterfall spilled onto a deserted, sandy beach. The canyon further up the creek was homesteaded by Christopher McWay in 1887.
McWay Creek Waterfall
    There were times when the rocky slopes down to the sea seemed quite treacherous. Numerous signs made it clear about potential rockslides that could happen. However, it was not possible to indicate the hazards of road slides; I guess people would not use the road if they felt in was going to disappear. Yet, on the 100 mile trip down the Big Sur, I came across three sets of roadworks where that might just have happened, and new foundations were being built for the seaward side carriageways.
Bluer Big Sur
Highway 1 Clinging to the Cliffs
    I continued down the coast to the old Spanish village of San Simeon. A few miles inland from the village, perched high on a hill, was Hearst Castle. The story behind this was rather intriguing. In the 1860s, George Hearst, a bit of a dreamer, left Missouri and went searching in the Californian hills for lead ore. He was convinced he had found ore, and he and his partner loaded 30 tons of it onto mules and undertook a 300 mile perilous journey over snow covered passes across the Sierra Nevada to get it smelted down. To their amazement, it turned out not to be lead, but silver, and George became a multimillionaire. He eventually married a 19 year old school teacher and had a son, William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951).
Hearst Castle Way Up on a Hill
    The family used to visit San Simeon a lot, and would haul tents up onto the hills to set up camp. They called it Camp Hill, and bought the surrounding property. William loved the area, and became very familiar with it. He "would rather spend a month here than anywhere else in the world".
    William's mother was quite adventurous and a keen learner, and decided to take William on an 18 month grand tour of Europe. It was here that William became totally immersed in European architecture and art, which had a tremendous influence on his later life.
    William grew up and became an ebullient personality who made his own fortune in magazine and newspaper publishing. In 1903, he married Millicent Willson, an entertainer from New York. On the death of his mother in 1919, he inherited the San Simeon property. He began to build the castle and grounds on the hill as a tribute to his mother, and employed the services of Julia Morgan, the first ever woman to graduate in architecture in Paris. She took to the project with all her heart and enthusiasm.
Staircase Leading to Bungalows
    Tents were erected on the hill for the builders, and everything else was hauled up a specially created road. Initially three "bungalows" were built to house William, his wife, and their five sons, plus other guests. The bungalows were extremely lavish, with gold leaf on the ceilings, and contained many rooms in the three floor structures, so that several guests could share each bungalow.
Casa Grande
    William wanted something grander, that could also house the huge art collection that he was acquiring. He therefore ordered the creation of the twin-towered Casa Grande, built in stages from 1922 to 1947. This had 115 rooms and held numerous artworks and epitomised the glamour of the 1930s and 1940s. The building, like all the others, was constructed from reinforced concrete in order to withstand California's earthquakes. As well as scores of bedrooms, the Casa Grande contained an Assembly Room, a Billiard Room, two pools, and a theatre. The exquisite heated indoor Roman Pool was entirely covered with mosaics of hammered gold and Venetian glass. All the rooms were full of furnishings and artifacts of European origin. These had been bought at New York auctions, after they had been shipped to the US after World War I. At that time Europe was desperate for cash and was willing to strip down buildings and sell the contents, together with art, to America.
Neptune Pool
    Outside, the white marble Neptune Pool was flanked by colonnades and the facade of a reproduction Greek temple. Many gardens were created in the grounds, and whole trees had been transported to make this a veritable Garden of Eden. Fruit trees were planted, and herds of cattle were kept too, allowing the castle to become almost self sufficient. Water was delivered from three natural springs high in the mountains. Anything else was shipped in.
    Hearst was also an animal lover, and had his own private zoo built in the grounds, and let bison, deer, zebra and other creatures wander on his 'ranch', which stretched as far as the eye could see.
    Now Hearst never lived here, it was one of his many country retreats. Every summer he would bring his wife and five sons here, as well as invited guests. However, at the age of 54 he found a 17 year old mistress, the actress Marion Davies. He did nothing to hide the affair, and eventually his wife agreed to remain in New York with their sons, provided she received an allowance, and could return to the castle when William was not there.
    Hearst and his mistress entertained guests at the castle for the next twenty years. Guests would include the likes of Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill. These would be flown to and from the airfield on the castle grounds, in Hearst's own DC-3. Dining was an interesting arrangement. Guests would assemble outside the dining room until Hearst appeared, and would follow him into the room. Hearst would sit in the middle of a long medieval table, with his mistress opposite him. He would have pre-arranged for new guests to be seated near him. Now Hearst invited guests, but he never asked them to leave. The longer they stayed, the further towards the end of the dining table they would be placed. One way of dropping a hint I guess.
    When Hearst suffered a problem with his heart in 1947, he moved to a house in Beverly Hills, where he died in 1951.
    The property was eventually passed on to the Hearst Company, which reared beef on the ranch, and still did. They in turn had sold the castle to California State, but maintained the ranch and herds of cattle. The Hearsts still maintain a secluded Victorian house on the ranch for themselves.
    I found the story behind the castle as intriguing as the castle itself; a man who let his heart follow his dreams.
    I headed south until I found a campsite for the night at Grover Beach; not easy to do, and made myself a pretty grim chilli, so grim I drowned it in tomato sauce. Like all good campsites, it was by a train track, and the van was literally bouncing about as a huge goods train came thundering past. Hmmm ..., hope they don't run all night.
    I had an evening chin wag with my neighbours around their campfire. They were from San Diego and had been touring up as far as San Francisco, with a 39' trailer, which must have been a nightmare to reverse into the postage stamp sized plots on the site (this was one of the sardine tin variety campsites). I say my neighbours, it was just a chap, his son and his father, who couldn't speak much English. They were Mexican originally. There were eight bikes outside, so it must have been a packed trailer. I found out from them why Grover Beach was so busy. It was a quad-bike Mecca apparently, the endless miles of sands and dunes being the perfect environment for them. Once I stunk sufficiently of smoke, I wished them goodnight and left them to try and extinguish the mountain of wood they were burning.
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Monterey Santa Barbara

Uploaded from Hotel State Street, Santa Barbara CA on 07/08/10 at 19:00

Last updated 8.8.2010