Big question, short answer in Big Sur
Along the central California coast is a place called Big Sur. Supposedly isolated, it is linked to the rest of the county by a single two-lane scenic road. In a hundred miles of this rugged, wild coast lived perhaps 300 people fulltime when I moved there many years ago. Yet it was here, in those days, that we decided to build a small resort hotel. "A place apart," we called it, for people seeking peace and privacy, a reduction of stress from the busy worlds they left to come and stay with us for a while.
As I sat at my desk near our restaurant, managing the operations, I could see a tiny speck of a cabin on top of one of the towering mountains that surrounded us. I never saw any sign of activity near that cabin. No one coming in, no one leaving. I thought it might be abandoned, but I never found time to explore it. For we were busy in a way I'd never known, running our little resort.
The most popular question I was asked by guests was: "Don't you get awfully lonely up here?" My answer was simple: "No." I was never lonely. I was too busy running a suddenly successful resort. In such a vast space - nearly 1,000 acres - I sensed that those who asked the question were somehow unnerved by all that grand space. You don't hold onto thoughts of your own importance very long in Big Sur.
While guests found peace and privacy, those of us helping to run the place felt as if we lived on Tokyo's Ginza or New York's 42nd Street. As is typical in business, more than 51 percent of my time was spent refereeing nearly 100 employees and their concerns. Then the guests wanted to chat with me. Many of the guests were celebrities, and I needed to spend time with them. When our little spring ran dry, we had water problems. When the septic system collapsed, we had deeply unhappy guests. Getting supplies or ourselves through the frequent mudslides, forest fires, storms, or the occasional earthquake kept me on a fast track. Boredom was never an issue.
For my own peace and privacy, I took long walks through our campground, an ancient California redwood grove, which we treasured for its magnificent specimens, the world's tallest living trees - and some of its oldest.
One of the most impressive things about the redwoods was a sense of nature's order and care for them. When lightning, a rockslide, or something else damaged a redwood, it responded as though it had a warning mechanism within it. Almost immediately, an injured tree would begin to adjust its roots, sending them in new directions to balance itself, keep itself steady and safe. A forestry expert told me that redwoods would respond in just the right way to continue their growth. That idea refreshed and inspired me.
One day, I drove up that long, twisting coast ridge road above our property that led to the top of the mountains. I saw a man in a Jeep coming down toward me, hauling a fuel tank. When we met on the road, I said patronizingly, "May I help you?" I wanted to be sure this obvious trespasser knew I was important on this road. He replied, "No, I'm fine. May I help you?"
Having now signaled each other that we both belonged here, we admitted we'd never met. He told me he often stayed up the road in his little cabin, the one I'd been staring at for so long. He didn't look the type to live in an isolated cabin. No long beard, no John the Baptist wardrobe. Not even an earring. He looked freshly bathed, neat and tidy.
He invited me up later that day to visit his cabin. It was indeed a tiny place: just one room, fuel in a tank for all his energy needs, and a tiny spring and storage tank for water. It was furnished very simply, but everything he needed was there, all orderly, each in its right place. In the center of the room, next to a window with a 50-mile ocean view, was a large desk. A writer? I was guessing, thinking, and not listening to him. He was talking about the weather. He mentioned twice how cold it had been in Sweden that winter, before I finally picked up on it.
"And what were you doing in Sweden?" I finally asked. He was so pleased.
"I was receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics," he said softly.
The expression on my face was his reward. I looked about the room. "Is this where...?" I began. "Yes, mostly," he replied. "I love to work up here and think things out." Before I realized what I was saying, out fell the beginnings of a terribly familiar sentence: "But do you ever feel lonely?" Then I stopped, feeling the fool. How many times had I been asked the same thing?
He opened his front door and showed me a tiny sign hanging on it. "It's in Gaelic," he said quickly, as I stared at the sign, trying to figure it out. "What is says is: 'Solitude without loneliness.' "
I WROTE it down, both in Gaelic and English. A week later I had a sign made of the phrase and put it on my own front door. I hung it up because I believed in it, because it was a more helpful answer than my "No" could ever be. I just hadn't figured out that this was what answered that question for me. Well, what's so bad about having a Nobel laureate nearby to answer my own deepest questions?
These days, I live on an isolated, rugged peninsula near the sea in France, a place called Brittany. I'm never lonely; I love all the solitude I can grab during my busy days. And Brittany's second language, appearing on all their road signs? That's right: Gaelic. I'd been given a preview of coming attractions in my own life a long time ago by a guy driving a Jeep down a country road who asked, "May I help you?"