California Big Sur + Famous Writers | Motorcycle Travel
At play we were, making a nimble game of the myriad turns of Highway 1, snaking up the coast of California, the Pacific Ocean our loyal accomplice, steadily reeling in our destination: Big Sur. We were aided and abetted in our escape from the city by two very capable sport touring motorcycles, the Honda Interceptor and Triumph Sprint ST.
We had decided on an overnight coastal jaunt to test the two machines in their natural environment. The moderate distance between Los Angeles and Big Sur, following the serpentine coast road, would allow us to stretch our legs in a game of cat-and-mouse that would take us through one of our favorite touring destinations.
Our sojourn had a theme as well: to visit the homes of two of the Central Coast’s most famous literary residents, the racy novelist Henry Miller and the meticulous poet Robinson Jeffers. Interestingly, we couldn’t help but draw parallels (and perpendiculars) between man and machine. Miller and Jeffers were attracted to this same area by their mutual appreciation of its inspirational qualities, but contrasted one another in their individual work in much the same way that these two motorcycles, though sharing the sport touring moniker, contrast each other with their own distinct personality.
Refreshments can be had in Gorda. (Click image to enlarge)
The Honda Interceptor, with its F/1-influenced VTEC engineering, is sleek and sexy with a refined persona, reflecting aspects of Robinson Jeffers’ intricate, concise poetry laced with smooth, subtle power. The Triumph Sprint ST, with its quirky three-cylinder powerplant and raw demeanor, draws more from the raucous, spontaneous spirit of Henry Miller. Like the writers, the two machines are inspired, but with two very different approaches.
Being that it was mid-week, the coast road was wonderfully uncluttered. We embraced the opportunity with handfuls of throttle and waltzes through the countless corners. The rocky cliff face on our right was a blur. To our left, a short stone wall was all that guarded against the 500-foot plunge to the Pacific. The occasional car, with a comparatively tortoiselike pace, was handily dispatched with a flick of the wrist, reducing it to a mere apostrophe in the litany of corners that swooped us steadily toward the Sur and our first stop, the Henry Miller Memorial Library.
The silky-smooth 781cc, 90-degree V-4 engine cradled in the Honda utilizes VTEC engineering which transitions from two valves to four at 6500 rpm, capitalizing on the torque of a two-valve configuration at lower rpms, but then switching to the performance inherent with the superior gas-flow of four valves. And therein lies my only minor criticism of the Interceptor. While it is considerably improved over previous iterations, nevertheless the transition from two- to four-valve breathing can occasionally produce an unexpected hole in the power delivery or, conversely, even a slight surge. The Interceptor gives away over 250cc to the Sprint, so true power comparisons are a little unfair. Although the Honda does not have the instantaneous torque of the Triumph, it does produce plenty of adrenaline-pumping pull throughout the entire powerband. When the revs climb above 8,000, it takes on the crisp howl and mechanical sophistication of an F/1 engine.
By contrast, the Triumph, with its extremely powerful, triple-cylinder 1050cc motor, borrows not only the DNA of its naked Speed Triple brother, but some of its rowdy attitude as well. The Sprint ST is an impressive, visceral machine, with a pleasant vibration ushering from the engine, reminding you that you are astride a real motorcycle. The mid-range torque is wonderful, and the seamless fuel injection makes the Triumph truly easy to ride fast. Growling all the way to its redline of 10,500, the Sprint then issues a seductively throaty pop-and-crackle from the exhaust when rolling back off the throttle. The Honda and the Triumph both are happy to be wrung out in the higher ranges of the tachometer, but also quite content to purr along at a leisurely pace—a duality that is vital to a sport touring machine.
Both machines employ 6-speed transmissions, with the Honda getting the nod for succinctness. Gear changes are effected with just a whisper of touch from the left foot to seamlessly find the next gear. By comparison, the Triumph gearbox is just a tad clunky, and finding neutral can be a little tough while at a standstill. However, this is almost an extension of the visceral aspect of the Triumph, as the transmission is perfectly syncopated with the raw feel of the motor in the same way as the Honda’s elegant shifts complement the high-tech powerplant.
The Sprint ST stretches its legs. (Click image to enlarge)
Henry Miller (1891-1980), perhaps best known for his controversial Tropic of Cancer, settled in Big Sur in 1944, following his now-famous expatriate years in Paris (subject of the 1990 film Henry & June). Inspired by the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Miller visited the Central Coast during his two-year American odyssey which became The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, and decided to stay.
Though noted for his bohemian spirit and an exuberant love of life, Miller was not without his share of controversy. Tropic of Cancer set off a 30-year censorship debate. Penned in 1934, the semi-autobiographical novel was so sexually explicit that it was banned in America until a landmark 1961 legal decision declared it not to be obscene, and Miller thus helped usher in a dramatic change in censorship.
While living in a rustic shack originally built to house convict labor hired to gash Highway 1 out of the coastal cliffs, Miller wrote Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, The Rosy Crucifixion, and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, among others. The current owners of Miller’s humble abode (he left in 1962) grew understandably weary of the endless throng of admirers wishing to look in on the writer’s digs and, regrettably, put an end to visits. However, the Henry Miller Memorial Library is located nearby.
Tucked amid the towering redwoods, the library is a kind of literary depot, a stopover point for rare and hard to find copies of Miller’s many novels to flow through. Some of the books are new, others are old and attractively battered with well-thumbed, aged pages that carry the alluring scent of the past. Typical of Miller, the man one biographer referred to as, “one of the most famous—and infamous—writers of the 20th century,” each of the books have a colorful history that can be recounted by the knowledgeable and friendly staff.
A mile up the road from the Miller Library was our second destination and stop for the night, the Ventana Inn & Spa, an oasis of relaxation and rustic exclusivity. Appropriately enough, given the motorcycle/literary theme of our trip, Ventana—Spanish for “window”—was the brainchild of film producer Lawrence Spector of Easy Rider fame.
Two great sport tourers outside the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Photograph by Jeff Buchanan. (Click image to enlarge)
Perched atop the mountains overlooking the Pacific, Ventana Inn & Spa was built in 1975 and seems to be a million miles away from everything, reinforcing the feeling of detachment from the rest of the world so prevalent in Big Sur. From its original ten rooms, situated on 243 acres, Ventana has smartly and unobtrusively grown into 60 luxurious, well-appointed private suites. All the usual spa services, as well as swimming, hiking, horseback riding, yoga, massages, astrology readings, saunas, and hot tubs are available to the guests—though simply doing nothing is what the hotel was originally intended for, and perhaps what the tranquil environment of Big Sur is best suited to. Ventana’s restaurant, Cielo, boasts “views to forever.” Cielo translates from Spanish into “sky” or “heaven”; pair Ventana and Cielo and the result is a “window to heaven.”
Traveling the Central Coast during the off-season, we were unexpectedly rewarded with sunny weather completely devoid of the famous soupy gray fog that can shroud the cliffs with dense moisture. The sun greeted us early the next day and toasted away the morning chill in time for our 25-mile dash up the coast to Carmel to visit the renowned home of poet Robinson Jeffers.
This road was made for riding. (Click image to enlarge)
Pushing north up Highway 1, we quickly found a rhythm befitting the two sport touring machines. Both possess softly sprung but well-damped suspension, and that translates into wonderful, neutral handling with effortless, predictable turn-in manners. More sport than touring really, both are equally stable in corners, as well as providing relatively upright riding positions, plush rides, and comfortable seats for the long haul.
Continuing our notion of contrasting styles, our two test motorcycles represented some of the options available today with regard to brakes. Both can be fitted with optional ABS (anti-lock braking systems), as was the case with our Triumph Sprint ST, whereas this particular Honda came sans ABS, but was equipped with Honda’s patented linked braking system (the rear pedal actuates both the front and rear calipers).
The Interceptor took the honors for sheer stopping power; the linked brakes proving to be a sure-footed, controlled system. The Triumph brakes are certainly adequate, but possess a slightly spongy feel in the front lever. The Triumph’s ABS system, however, renders a phenomenal level of braking performance without any of the strange, disconcerting oscillation that plagued the operation of early ABS systems. The benefits of this option on a touring machine—which will most likely collect many of its miles on unfamiliar routes, in adverse weather conditions and loaded with the additional weight of luggage and passenger—make it a sensible decision and a justifiable expense.
Pacific Coast Highway requires frequent stops, if only to gaze. (Click image to enlarge)
The Honda Interceptor is available in Pearl Black as well as a complementary Pearl White. The Triumph Sprint ST is available in Aluminum Silver, Caspian Blue, and Sunset Red. The Honda has a 5.8-gallon fuel capacity, compared to the Triumph’s 5.2, which, in either case, renders enough range that you’ll most likely be stopping to stretch your legs long before either fuel tank is exhausted.
When modern American poet, Pennsylvania-born Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) and his wife, Una, first saw Carmel and the Big Sur coast in 1914, they knew they had found their “inevitable place.” Jeffers wrote of the area that it was “the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world.”
Having decided to stay in Carmel, Jeffers apprenticed himself to a stone layer to learn how to make “stone love stone.” Over the next decade, laboriously transporting granite boulders up from Carmel Bay, he built, by hand, the famous Tor House and Hawk Tower, where all of his major poetical works were created.
Carmel and Big Sur figured strongly in the passionate, and sometimes violent, poetry of Jeffers. Early in his career, his poetry was often changed by printers who thought the writer had made errors with his punctuation, not realizing that the poet was following his own dramatic rhythm which went against the grammatical conventions of the time.
Like Miller, Jeffers was viewed by the government as a subversive—Miller, because of his audacious and unconventional writing, and Jeffers, simply because his strong convictions against war surfaced time and again in his work. Also, like Miller, Jeffers invoked sex in his writings, using the themes of rape, incest, and adultery to drive home his strong beliefs that modern man was sliding into a maniacal self-centeredness.
Jeffers’ house and the adjoining tower both are easily recognized by their storybook appearance. Given the density of homes in the area today, it is hard to imagine that when Jeffers began work on his beloved Tor House, Carmel Point was virtually uninhabited, grazing horses and cows making up the bulk of the bluff neighborhood. Jeffers’ daily routine was a healthy balance between intellectual study and physical labor. Mornings were spent writing, afternoons were devoted to building.
Tor House is filled with a kind of mystical timelessness and warmth, echoing with whispers of the many souls that passed through the Jefferses’ lives. Sinclair Lewis, Charles Lindbergh, Martha Graham, and Charlie Chaplin visited, to name just a few, each leaving behind a friendly piece of spirit.
Sadly, it was time for us to return home. As we headed south, retracing our path through Big Sur and past the Ventana Inn, I was taken back to 1969, when Easy Rider hit America, rattling the establishment with its counterculture theme on its way to iconic status. I was all of 12 years old. Although the film contains a plethora of memorable scenes, oddly enough, the most significant one for me was near the beginning, just after Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper had taken possession of their gleaming Harley-Davidsons. Before embarking on the journey across America, Fonda takes off his watch and, quite poignantly, tosses it into the dirt. That still stands as my earliest recollection, my initial grasp of interpreting cinematic symbolism, and forever imbued the idea of motorcycles with freedom. How appropriate to be in the timelessness of Big Sur.
Honda Motorcycles | powersports.honda.com
Triumph Motorcycles | www.triumph.co.uk/usa
Henry Miller Memorial Library | www.henrymiller.org
Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation | www.torhouse.org
Ventana Inn & Spa, Cielo Restaurant | www.ventanainn.com