Travel: The beat goes on at Big Sur: Lovers of literary gossip are lured to it, thousands make the trip for its physical beauty. Tony Perrottet rides Highway 1 to the West Coast refuge of Miller and Kerouac

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The Independent Culture
'PEACE and Solitude]' rhapsodised Henry Miller in 1955. 'I have had a taste of it - even here in America]' Inspiring this outburst was the magnificent stretch of Californian coastline known simply as Big Sur, where the banned author of Tropic of Cancer and Sexus (notorious for his exuberant accounts of low-life Paris in the Thirties and for his vitriolic attacks on all things American) had retired to uncharacteristically rustic simplicity 11 years before.

Miller believed Big Sur to be a world apart from his hated homeland - and dozens of artists, poets and composers agreed with him, flooding the area after the Second World War to escape the leaden conformity of Cold War America. Shelves of books began appearing with the region's name in their titles, notably Miller's own Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch and Jack Kerouac's Big Sur - recounting a tormented, drunken visit to the region by the beat writer in 1961.

In those days, Big Sur was cheap and difficult to reach, two good reasons for setting up an artists' colony (although Miller never liked calling it that. 'Artists don't thrive in colonies,' he sniffed. 'Ants do.') Today, the region lies on Highway 1 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a route taken by thousands of travellers every year. Most people now head to Big Sur for its undeniable physical beauty. But for lovers of literary gossip, the biggest lure is still the prospect of visiting some unique literary shrines - including the fabled Henry Miller Memorial Library, set up by one of the writer's oldest friends.

The best way to visit the area is by hiring a car in San Francisco (which, this being California, turned out to be both easy and almost absurdly cheap). After a couple of days exploring the city's dark bars and bookstores - themselves full of memories of the West Coast literary 'renaissance' of the 1950s - I set out along Highway 1, south through Monterey and along the mountainous coast.

Four hours later, the first dramatic vision of Big Sur revealed why Miller, in a peculiarly lyrical moment, described it as 'the face of the earth as the Creator meant it to be'. The coastline is one of the wildest stretches of scenery in the world, where the Pacific meets the land with extraordinary violence. Thick fogs billow around even at the height of summer, and a cool breeze whips down from the mountains behind. At several points next to the roadway there are 500-metre drops down to jagged rocks, where the sound of surf mixes with the barking of seals.

The 'township' of Big Sur is nothing more than a few log houses and stores scattered along an empty road. There are several small guesthouses and campsites, but Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, an eccentric wooden hotel with smoke drifting from its many crooked chimneys, has always been the place to stay. Built by a Norwegian settler at the turn of the last century, Deetjen's has grown somewhat pretentious in its old age. The rooms are cosy but expensive, each with its own twee name, like Grandpa's Room or the Wedding Suite - all without locks. 'We don't need keys in Big Sur,' explained the woman in an orange kaftan at the front desk. Her condescending look told city folk and foreigners that, here in the backwoods, there was no room for mistrust - except where payment was concerned. Rooms had to be paid for in cash: 'No credit cards. No personal checks.'

Rusting old mailboxes are the only signs that there are houses hidden in the forest along Partington Ridge, where Henry Miller made his home after being forced out of Europe by the war. He had left Paris in 1939 after giving up hope that Anas Nin would ever marry him, and when war broke out he was in Greece, where the US consul cancelled his passport. Miller dejectedly returned to New York City, and a car tour of the United States (recorded in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare) only confirmed his conviction that America was a cultural black hole. Then, in 1944, Miller visited Big Sur at a friend's request. He was captivated by the area's raw beauty and, because he was flat broke, took up residence in a friend's borrowed shed. He was in his fifties.

While Miller lived in Big Sur in semi-seclusion, obscenity charges about his work began being heard in courtrooms around the world, making him the most controversial writer in the English language. Almost all of his books were banned in the US and Britain, and Miller survived on meagre royalties from his work and handouts from friends and admirers. Eventually, the profits from the French edition of Tropic of Cancer allowed him to buy a house on Partington Ridge.

But writing on sex was only a small part of Miller's prolific output. During his years at Big Sur, he turned to more spiritual matters, putting his thoughts on life and art into Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. Two of his five wives left him in the meantime - Janine Lepska, a young Polish refugee with a philosophy degree from Yale (with whom he had two children) and an admiring 28-year-old pen-pal named Eve McClure who turned up at the house one day and wedded the writer soon after. Miller left Big Sur in the early 1960s and died in 1980 at the age of 89, but his two children, Tony and Val, still live in the Miller house on Partington Ridge and guard their privacy as closely as all the residents of Big Sur.

Just down the road from Deetjen's Inn is the celebrated Nepenthe Bar, which may well have the world's most spectacular setting for an afternoon drink: jutting out over a mountain headland, it commands a view of a long stretch of Pacific coast, which is bathed in pink light at sunset. It was named after a drug, described by Homer in the Odyssey, which induced forgetfulness of sorrow and woe. For most people who flock there the surge of excitement they feel when standing on Nepenthe's balcony makes the name seem appropriate. But forgetfulness of woe was exactly the opposite of what one of Nepenthe's most famous guests, Jack Kerouac, found when he came here in 1961 and got stuck into his choice of drug: booze.

Nepenthe was where Kerouac began one of his most celebrated drunken binges, recorded in his novel Big Sur, starting out on double bourbon and dry and expiring some time later on sweet port in the log cabin of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Kerouac had been desperately unhappy since the 1958 publication of On the Road had brought him an unwanted image as king of the Beats. He had come to Big Sur to meet Henry Miller, but as he became drunker, Kerouac kept calling up to postpone. Finally, it was approaching midnight. 'I'm an old man now, Jack,' Miller told him, and said he could wait up no longer.

Kerouac spent his more sober periods in Big Sur either suffering from the DTs or in a 'Zen mystical mood', wandering out on to the rocks and writing poems to the sound of the sea. (One of them goes 'Ah si Ah so shoot silver mix ha roll tara. . .') Big Sur turned out to be one of Jack Kerouac's last books, capturing a little of the energy and honesty that had made his earlier prose so popular. He died a lonely death not many years later, coughing up blood over a typewriter while living with his ageing mother on the East Coast. Two unusual tributes to Henry Miller still remain in Big Sur. The first is a permanent exhibition of his watercolours in the Coast Art Gallery the writer was quite an accomplished painter, and original works, often of clowns, still sell for about dollars 1,000.

The second is the bizarre Henry Miller Memorial Library, set up after Miller's death by his best friend, Emil White, a painter who escaped the firing squad in Hungary. White ran the library personally until his own recent death at the age of 87; today a team of Big Sur residents keeps the library open from 10am to 4pm, every day in the high season (May to October) and on weekends in the low season.

Instead of the palace of debauchery that many people expect - or even furtively hope for - the literary shrine, housed in a wooden house in a lush green garden, is more academic than decadent. Laid out on one table is a rare collection of Miller first editions smuggled into the US by GIs returning from France. The whole of Miller's vast output is available for sale, while a video screen in a back room shows documentaries about his life. And along the library's crowded stained-wood walls are photos of the sprightly Miller and his friend White, taken when Miller was in his seventies and had gained international recognition and considerable wealth. The ageing Miller lapped up his reputation as a sex guru and posed playing ping-pong with naked models for Playboy.

The first time I visited the library, Emil White was still holding court, sitting bolt upright in an old tweed coat. He made the daily effort to attend the library despite his advancing years and the ravages of Parkinson's disease. 'Come on in,' he gasped, before pointing out some of the more peculiar soft-porn photos, including a portrait of White's face framed beside a young woman's naked bottom. In his old age, White was becoming less ambitious. He got by with insisting on kisses from every woman who entered the library, putting his shaking hand around their waists and reminiscing about the day he first met Miller.

'I met Henry completely by chance one day in Chicago,' he explained. 'The newspapers said he was somewhere in town, so I went out into the streets looking for him. I didn't know what he looked like, except that he was bald, so whenever I saw anyone wearing a hat, I went up and said: 'Are you Henry Miller?' I asked so often that I finally ran into him.'

The meeting changed White's life. He followed Miller to Big Sur, took up painting at his friend's urging and became quite successful. White remained devoted to Miller, while the writer, for his part, dedicated the Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch to White 'the only friend who has never failed me'.

White had kept the candle burning ever since Miller's death. While I lazily browsed, he sat quietly, apparently asleep. Only when a woman visitor was about to enter or leave did he struggle to his feet, striking a balance between gallantry and lechery as he kissed her cheek. After all, this was no ordinary literary shrine. He had a reputation to uphold

(Photograph omitted)