I was poisoned in Carmel, poisoned by the rancid toxicity of the town, by the streets lined with greed and parkways of envy, by the righteousness of success and arrogance brought by riches. It made me retch for days. Petulant retirees roamed the boutique-lined boulevards. Residents returning to their million-dollar homes constantly usurped our right-of-way at the stop signs within the city limits. Drivers of Jaguars (or were they Maseratis?) laid on their horns when we performed a legal left turn on a busy street, delaying their travels for nearly 17 seconds. The nearest we got to a reprieve was at the library where patient and old librarians provided us with amperes and WiFi and frugal local residents checked their portfolio performance on Morningstar and CNBC.com.
Was this the goal? Here, millionaires retired, played golf, waited to die. This was supposed to be the dream, the pinnacle of success – retire right next to Pebble Beach. These people had bought freedom, hadn’t they? They were rich, that was certain, by any measure. But they were terrible trolls. They didn’t have … enough. They could have had more, if they had done things slightly differently, taken a different course. Here they were now, facing death, and filled with regret. Regret so thick it stunk like a rotting corpse.
And that wasn’t it. They were rich, but there were barely hanging on. There were club fees and mortgage payments and mutual fund administration charges and dinners and drinks and grandchildren … everything took a chunk. There are only a handful of ways to become fantastically wealthy – business tycoon, luck in lotto or mining, fame – but there are a billion ways to spend money, too many to keep control of it. They’d built a fortress of freedom with their money, but the walls needed to burn to inhabit it.
Money needs to be constantly protected. It’s easy enough to earn some of it – you just need to do a little bit of work and commit a bit of time – but keeping it when you had enough of it, that was the trick. Keeping it meant you needed to be willing to be a scoundrel or you needed power or both. If you couldn’t become president, well then you’d just have to buy the government’s favor. Mitt Romney needs to be elected to protect his tax breaks. The Koch brothers have puppet governors doing their bidding. It’s a disgusting, filthy business keeping your money. Greed will poison your soul.
Residents of Carmel, keep your city. You deserve it, you filthy, pathetic scoundrels. I want nothing more to do with it.
We barely slept the night after visiting Carmel. Winds out of the north were blowing the toxicity into Big Sur, spoiling our attempts at rest. The next day, we raced south, trying to escape, to find new hope. We passed fat, bulbous elephant seals defending their turf and their harems. We were tailed by locals on the winding roads, impatient to get through, to get past the beauty and wonder that is Big Sur. They had no interest in the whales swimming along the coast, of the fog blowing in from between the peaks, of the waves crashing along the craggy beaches. They had tired of it all and were impatient to get through. Well us too, sirs. Let us leave! Let us find new scenery to explore.
We got as far as San Simeon and settled down to camp. We decided to watch the sunset from the beach. The path from the campground led past vultures and sea gulls feasting on the rotting flesh of a dead seal. It reeked of death. On the beach, as the sun dropped behind the clouds, the tiny snowy plovers fed along the waves. They nest along the beach, but are easily startled. If scared, they’ll abandoned their eggs in their nests unprotected. Because of this, they were endangered and dogs weren’t allowed on the beach. Naturally, there were three dogs on the beach. The rules obviously did not apply to those dogs. In fact, we were the only group on the beach without a dog.
The poison of Carmel gave me murderous fantasies. I wanted to kill the dogs in front of their owners then beat those idiot humans with the lifeless carcasses. I bet they were all members of the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, and subscribers to National Geographic. Love your dog all you want, Miss, but give the snowy plover a damn chance. But it wasn’t their fault entirely, the California Parks Department signs are pathetically small and enforcement of the rule is non-existent. The snowy plover is doomed thanks to the smug superiority of the dog-owning citizens of California and the complicit Parks Department. Wastes of humans, all of them.
The next day, we were serenaded by Alex Trebec as we bussed up to the Hearst mansion. On the tour, we learned Heart’s real castle was in Wales, his big ranch, the one with a million acres, was in Mexico. This, the “little ranch”, was an early prototype of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch complete with zebras and a polar bear. “Get ready for your enchantment to begin!” Trebec exclaims before reminding you that you’re not allow to chew gum or eat food or drink anything other than water on the property. Only step on the special carpets in the house. Only touch the metal guardrails and the concrete outside. Everything else is hands-off, you commoners.
While Andrew Carnegie gave his money to libraries and universities, Hearst spent his serenading the only people left on earth that could ennoble him further – politicians, business leaders, celebrities. Now his home is maintained by the State of California, a sweetheart deal for the surviving members of the family that still get to use it but don’t have to pay for the upkeep. Berkeley University turned down an offer to gift them the place, it would be too expensive to maintain, they realized. It’s a grotesque display of materialism, a cornucopia of consumerism bought together, sorry brought together, by a man raised with every conceivable privilege. Coddle the rich? We FELLATIATE the rich, idealize their greed and social insecurity, get on our knees for them with open wallets.
“I’m at a castle,” a surly teenager sighs into his cell phone.
“Hearst Castle! Hearst Castle!” his younger brother shouts.
I want to shake the teenager. Yell at him. Drink the Kool-Aid, kid! See that? That’s from Egypt! See those? They’re from Italy. Take a look at that ceiling! It’s from Spain, made in the thirteenth century! This is the dream, kid, the biggest wet-dream materialism has ever seen. Better get started. Make sure your father’s rich. Get Mitt elected to abolish the income tax and the inheritance tax and all this could be yours! Just buy up the culture of the world. Sure you can buy it. Everything’s for sale, kid, for the right price. At least all the pieces of culture that can be bought are for sale. Better get saving. Open a bank account. Start buying stocks and bonds. You’ve got a lot of money-making to do to catch up to old Grandpa Hearst! See that glimmer in your dad’s eye? He’s got the fever; he’ll reach for the dream. You’re nobody without a mansion, kid. Success is judged in dollars. So buy a t-shirt! Get a copy of the DVD! Maybe a steak too! And a mug for your mother! And join the Friends of Hearst Castle and keep the legacy alive! Come back for the private tour, it’s $750, so start saving your allowance money! Stop texting and start earning! This is the American Dream!
The merchandising attacks me from every angle like a team of over-eager prostitutes. Enough! Get me out of this place. Get me out of California. Henry Miller’s refuge isn’t enough. The entire place is crazy. “At the end of the west is insanity,” I read in a book about the California coast*. The proclamation is proving to be true. We’re ready for new scenery.
*This quote is attributed to Professor Patrick Morrow by John McKinney in his book, A Walk Along Land’s End.