PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – You've seen the Lone Cypress. It stands along famously scenic 17-Mile Drive, raked by wind, swaddled in fog, clinging to its wave-lashed granite pedestal like God's own advertisement for rugged individualism.
It may be 250 years old. It might be the most photographed tree in North America. It sits alongside one of the world's most beautiful (and expensive) golf courses. It's a marketing tool, a registered trademark, a Western icon.
David Potigian, owner of Gallery Sur in Carmel, explained it to me this way: This tree is to the Monterey Peninsula what the pyramids are to Egypt, what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. No wonder its keepers are hoping it will last 100 more years.
But let's face it: This is one spindly old conifer, small for its species, scarred by a long-ago arson. For more than 65 years, half-hidden steel cables have held the tree in place.
If you pay the $9.75 per car to cruise 17-Mile Drive (which is private property, part of the 5,300-acre Pebble Beach resort), you will see the Lone Cypress and behold the spectacular collision of land, sea, golf and wealth that is Pebble Beach. But you won't get within 40 feet of the tree. Chances are you'll be joined by a few other tourists. Maybe a tour bus too.
This is the challenge of a classic postcard destination. Like many travelers, I'm drawn to these places – the Lone Cypress, Yosemite's Half Dome and Monument Valley, for instance. Yet when I arrive, I don't want a warmed-over experience. I want a jolt of discovery.
Even if you haven't read Don DeLillo's novel "White Noise," you have felt like the character in it who gazes upon tourists as they gaze upon the most-photographed barn in America. "No one sees the barn," he says. "Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
I want to see that barn – or, in this case, that lonely tree. I've seen plenty of Lone Cypress images but never stood before the genuine article and stared. When you finally get to such a place, you want to spot something that will draw you closer or transform your perspective. You want to understand what's changed and what hasn't since that first postcard photographer rolled up in his Ford, or maybe his Packard. And you want to know what waits beyond the edge of the postcard view.
These stories are my stab at that. This is the start of a series in which photographer Mark Boster and I revisit iconic Western destinations.
So, Cupressus macrocarpa, the Monterey Cypress. Once you reach Pebble Beach, about 325 miles north of Los Angeles, you enter 17-Mile Drive, pay the booth attendant, then head past well-tended fairways, sprawling estates and coastal open space to stop No. 16.
On your way, remind yourself that as a species the Monterey Cypress naturally occurs no place on Earth but around Pebble Beach and Point Lobos. Every one of these natives is a rarity.
At No. 16, you find about two dozen parking spaces lining the two-lane road. Above the surf, rocks and foliage, there's a wooden observation deck, and nearby there's a fenced private home that has stood within 200 feet of the tree for about half a century. (It was a woman in this home, Frances Larkey, who saw the flames and called authorities when an unknown arsonist set the tree afire in 1984.) And out there on the rock, there's the Lone Cypress.
Some tourists shrug and stay two minutes. Some make out and stay 20.
Above and below sea level, it's a rich coastline. Elsewhere along 17-Mile Drive, you can stroll the beach at Point Joe, prowl the tree skeletons at Pescadero Point and take in the wide panorama at Cypress Point (which closes April 1-June 1 for seal-pupping season).
If you prefer to do your coastal rambling on foot without golf courses and private estates, it's only a few miles south to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve ($10 a car). If you ask Kim Weston, grandson of famed photographer Edward Weston and a longtime Carmel local, Point Lobos beats Pebble Beach hands-down as a place to prowl with a camera.
So did I see the tree anew? Not exactly. We visited it morning, noon and night, watched tourists ebb and flow, chartered a boat to see it from the ocean. More than ever, I have a soft spot for that singular figure on the rock. But the best minute of the trip – the travel moment that felt fresh, enduring and uniquely rooted in this corner of the world – occurred just up the road.
I'd rented a bike. The sun was low, and I was meandering north from the Lone Cypress toward Point Joe. Ahead, 17-Mile Drive, nearly empty, gently rose, fell and curved.
I began to sense a deepening connection, began to feel as if I'd finally wedged myself between the landscape and everything else. A chilly breeze. Squawks and barks from Bird Rock. Orange sky. I have no picture to show of that happy, unobstructed moment, but I have the moment all the same.
The long life of the Lone Cypress
A look at key dates in the history of Pebble Beach's famous tree along 17-Mile Drive.
Before 1813, experts think: A Monterey cypress seedling takes root on a chunk of granite on the Monterey Peninsula.
1880: Railroad magnates Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins want to lure more Americans west. Through their Pacific Improvement Co., they open the Hotel del Monte, a grand resort on the dramatic coastline near Monterey. The following June, they open a path for horse-drawn carriages and call it 17-Mile Drive.
1889: Correspondent R. Fitch, writing in the Monterey Cypress newspaper, reports that "a solitary tree has sunk its roots in the crevices of the wave-washed rock, and defies the battle of the elements that rage about it during the storms of winter."
1897: The nine-hole Del Monte Golf Course, the first venue of its kind on the peninsula, opens and soon expands to 18 holes.
1901: Pacific Improvement Co. starts charging 25 cents for passage on 17-Mile Drive. Highlights include the Ostrich Tree (downed by a storm in 1916) and the Witch Tree (downed in the 1960s). The Lone Cypress is seen at Midway Point.
1919: Samuel F.B. Morse (a distant relative of the Morse Code inventor of the same name) buys the resort, which now includes a hotel, a lodge and two golf courses. On stock certificates, Morse includes an image of the Lone Cypress, which becomes a company trademark through the decades.
1941: Photos show the cypress' rock has been shored up by stonemasonry.
1948: The U.S. Navy, which leased the Hotel del Monte during World War II, buys the hotel. (It's now the Naval Postgraduate School.) Photos show the Lone Cypress is now supported by steel cables, but tourists can walk up to the tree and picnic.
1969: The tree is fenced off to protect its roots. Morse dies at 83, having built the resort into a promised land for golfers. Its ownership will change several times during the next 30 years, and the Del Monte imprint will fade as new management emphasizes the Pebble Beach name.
1999: A group, including Peter Ueberroth and Clint Eastwood, buys Pebble Beach Co. from Japanese owners.
2012: An upstart cypress begins creeping out of the Lone Cypress' rock base, raising hopes of renewal for the landmark. Then comes a storm. The upstart is obliterated; the Lone Cypress remains.
2013: Pebble Beach Co. now operates three hotels, four golf courses, a spa, a beach and tennis club, an equestrian center and 17-Mile Drive. Neal Hotelling, the company's director of licensing and unofficial historian, notes that a Monterey cypress in ideal conditions can last 500 years. As for the Lone Cypress: "We certainly suspect it will continue to live a good while. I would hope at least another 100 years." The company has no plan for when the tree dies, Hotelling said, except that "we think the trademark will live on even if the tree doesn't."
Dos and don'ts for a Lone Cypress visit
Tips on where to eat and stay and what else to do, by distance from the Lone Cypress.
1.1 miles away from the tree: Do splurge on dinner at the Bench (Lodge at Pebble Beach, 17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach; 800-654-9300, www.pebblebeach.com), which offers wood-grilled entrees, $19-$31. Your reservation gets you onto 17-Mile Drive for free. It costs a pittance compared with the three Pebble Beach hotels, where rates start at $635 a night.
1.1 miles: Do get a $10 sandwich at the well-stocked Pebble Beach Market (17-Mile Drive and Cypress Drive, Pebble Beach; 831-625-8528, www.pebblebeach.com) if you need a bite that won't break the bank. Picnic tables outside.
1.2 miles: Don't buy gas at the Pebble Beach Chevron station (2700 17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach; 831-625-8517). It's full-service only and in early May was charging $5.99 for a gallon of regular.
1.2 miles: Don't play the Pebble Beach Links (17-Mile Drive, Pebble Beach; 800-654-9300) unless you're ready to pay $495 for 18 holes. (The neighboring Spyglass Hill and Spanish Bay, at $370 and $265, respectively, aren't as expensive.)
3.5 miles: Do drive Carmel's Scenic Road, which begins at the foot of Ocean Street, creeps past dozens of immaculate cottages with nicknames such as Periwinkle, passes the stone tower of poet Robinson Jeffers' Tor House, skirts the white sand and twisted trees of Carmel Beach City Park, and finally leads you to the Carmel River State Beach parking lot at Scenic Road and Carmelo Street. To return to Ocean Street, continue straight north on Carmelo. It's a 2.8-mile loop, basically flat. Except for the lot, precious little parking.
3.7 miles: Do book a room at Lobos Lodge (Monte Verde Street and Ocean Avenue, Carmel; 831-624-3874, www.loboslodge.com) if you want a walkable Carmel location in an affordable 28-room venue that feels like a converted '70s apartment complex. Rooms for two, $130-$205, more for suites, free Wi-Fi and parking.
3.7 miles: Have a late dinner at Dametra (Lincoln Street and Ocean Avenue, Carmel; 831-622-7766, www.dametracafe.com), a Mediterranean place that serves until 11 p.m. Odds are good that one of the owners will grab an oud and strum an accompaniment while cook Antonio Ramos emerges from the kitchen to sing "Besame Mucho." Dinner entrees about $15-$27.
3.7 miles: Do check out Carmel's art galleries. For a healthy sampling, all within about three blocks, try the landscapes and photography at Kevin Milligan Gallery (Lincoln Street near Ocean Avenue, Carmel; 831-625-3450, www.kevinmilligangallery.com); the large-format color photo landscapes at Sur Gallery (Sixth Avenue near Dolores Street, Carmel; 831-626-2615, www.gallerysur.com); the art photography at Weston Gallery (Sixth Avenue near Dolores Street, Carmel; 831-624-4453, www.westongallery.com); and the contemporary work at Winfield Gallery (Dolores Street near Ocean Avenue, Carmel; 831-624-3369, www.winfieldgallery.com).
3.7 miles: If you're on a budget, consider the siblings Monte Verde Inn and Casa de Carmel (both on Monte Verde Street near Ocean Avenue, Carmel; 831-624-6046, www.monteverdeinn.com). Rooms for two usually $125-$395. The Monte Verde Inn, slightly nicer, has 17 rooms and a pleasant courtyard. Casa de Carmel has seven rooms.
3.8 miles: If you're bringing your dog, do book the Cypress Inn (Lincoln Street and 7th Avenue, Carmel; 831-624-3871, www.cypress-inn.com). It dates to 1929 and is co-owned by the famously animal-friendly Doris Day. Most rooms for two: $245-$595. If you don't mind a few stairs, ask about the amazing Queen Tower suite (views on three sides).
3.8 miles: Do stay at the 75-room La Playa Carmel (Camino Real at 8th Avenue, Carmel; 831-293-6100, www.laplayahotel.com) to see how a 2012 renovation has changed a century-old community favorite. The great gardens, views and lobby fireplace remain. Rooms for two usually $319-$549. Don't look for its Terrace Grill (it's been closed), and don't ask for one of the cottages across the street (they've been sold).
3.8 miles: If you're bringing the family, need a kitchen and have an ample budget, do book the Carmel Cottage Inn (San Antonio Street and Eighth Avenue, Carmel; 855-894-2424, www.carmelcottageinn.com) if you want one of those five cottages, now very well-appointed, that used to be part of La Playa. The most-requested unit is Log Haven, a two-story cottage that sleeps 10 and includes log walls built in 1907. Units usually $350-$775 a night.
3.8 miles: Do get an affordable family-friendly breakfast or lunch at the Cottage (Lincoln Street near Ocean Avenue, Carmel; 831-625-6260, www.cottagerestaurant.com) or Little Swiss Cafe (Sixth Avenue near Lincoln Street; 831-624-5007; no website), a locals' mainstay that takes only cash (and checks from locals). At both places, breakfasts and sandwiches usually are less than $10, lunch entrees less than $17.
3.9 miles: Do breakfast at La Bicyclette (29 Dolores St., Carmel; 831-622-9899, www.labicycletterestaurant.com), where the baked goods and Euro-style are notable. Breakfasts $7-$11, dinners $14-$28.
3.9 miles: If you want to put a line in the water, do check in with Chris' Fishing Trips (48 Fisherman's Wharf, Monterey; 831-375-5951, www.chrissfishing.com), which has three boats and a long local history. Cod trips are $75 per adult.
6.5 miles: Do see the Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row, Monterey; 831-648-4800, www.montereybayaquarium.org). Admission $34.95 for adults, $21.95 for kids 3-12.
6.6 miles: Do rent a bike from Blazing Saddles (750 Cannery Row, Monterey; 831-776-9577, www.blazingsaddles.com) in Monterey. From there you can ride a gorgeous stretch of coast, including Lovers Point in Pacific Grove, then join 17-Mile Drive (free to cyclists). You can cover the whole drive and loop back to Cannery Row in about three hours. Cost is $36 per day for a hybrid bike.
9.3 miles: Don't bring your dog (they're banned), but do get to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve (Highway 1, 3 miles south of Carmel; 831-624-4909, www.pointlobos.org, www.parks.ca.gov).
10.7 miles: If you're interested in photography, do think about renting Bodie House (831-624-8111, www.kimweston.com), a studio cottage at Edward Weston's old house on Wildcat Hill at the southern fringe of Carmel. Besides leading workshops and selling prints, Kim Weston and his wife, Gina, often rent Bodie House at $175 a night. Tricky driveway, great hospitality.