GORDA, Calif. — Life here in this tiny town built on the continent-ending cliffs of the Pacific coast has always had an anxious “when,” not “if,” quality to it. And much of that uncertain fate, season to season and year to year, has been tied to the two-lane road that runs through it.
Highway 1 is a California spectacle, a Depression-era monument to the state’s quixotic ambitions and stunning beauty. It runs from the Orange County surf haven of Dana Point in the south into cannabis-cultivating Mendocino County, carrying heavy traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge and under the bluffs of Santa Monica, where it is better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, on its 650-mile route.
But it is here in the middle, in one of the highway’s emptiest and most awesome stretches, where it is also most in peril. California’s shifting weather patterns are presenting new threats to this exotic road as wildfire reaches into places it has never been, leaving raw landscapes and fresh dangers in its burn path.
Late last month, pounding rains brought a torrent of mud and tree trunks the size of small boats through the narrow culvert at Rat Creek, about 25 miles north of here, where a wildfire had burned just months before.
The slide washed away a 150-foot section of road and severed prime wine country to the south from the marine wonderland of Monterey Bay to the north, an isolation that will take months to end. The tourists who once filled the simple hillside cabins for rent here have been replaced by cleanup crews.
The engineering folly of a road built on sheer cliffs has meant that closures are annual events — the “whens,” not “ifs” — for the people and the economy it supports.
But the wild card now is the increasing frequency of wildfire along a roughly 100-mile stretch from William Randolph Hearst’s hilltop castle at San Simeon to Carmel, which is stripping fragile hillsides of stabilizing vegetation and causing more slides and more serious washouts across a region known broadly as Big Sur.
“We understand our winters — we’re Big Sur people, and we know this happens,” said Patricia Nuñez, who on a recent day was working the register at the town’s minimart, which also rents cabins and oversees the Whale Watcher’s Café, a business known collectively as the Gorda Springs Resort. “This is an expensive, high-maintenance road. But it has to stay open because this is a place that is for more than just tourists. We live here.”
‘They’ll repair it, they always do’
The state has spent $200 million in emergency funds over the last 5½ years on Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast, an amount that covers one big repair and many smaller ones. If it were any other road, the high cost and temporary returns of keeping it open would raise questions about whether preserving Highway 1 here is fiscally responsible.
But it is not any other road.
This sweep of highway has been the home of beatniks and bohemians, the backdrop to a million honeymoon drives, the wide shot for an equal number of adventure car commercials — its dips and climbs, hair-pinning hundreds of feet above a rough Pacific, an elemental part of California culture and economy.
At the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, a breeding ground for the jumbo, bad-humored mammals just north of San Simeon, Ryan Riezebos and his wife, Lori, made the hours-long drive from the Central Valley recently for a look at the animals and the ocean along Highway 1.
They do it often, sometimes heading north along the road into Monterey when it is open.
“They’ll repair it, they always do,” said Riezebos, a 55-year-old dairy farmer. “It’s a big tourist deal and they will make it work. They have to.”
California’s changing climate — toward one of extreme wet seasons followed quickly by extremely hot, dry months — has imperiled other landmarks once thought protected by their geography. “Burn scars,” “debris flows” and “atmospheric rivers” have joined the state’s thickening lexicon of natural-disaster terminology, now used in everyday conversation.
In the past year, long-standing coastal redwood groves have burned for the first time in modern memory. Unprecedented evacuation orders have been issued along Highway 1 north of here both during fires and in their aftermath — the landslides and mud flows that often prove even more deadly and damaging.
In 2016, the Soberanes Fire along Highway 1 just south of Carmel burned nearly 60 homes and killed a bulldozer operator, making it among the most expensive fires to fight in state history at the time and the cause of dozens of debris flows that temporarily shut down the road in subsequent months. Some hiking trails in the area have yet to reopen.
The whiplash shift from fire to flood was captured most terribly three years ago in Santa Barbara County, a few hours south of here, when hillsides charred just weeks earlier by the Thomas Fire gave way under hard rain, flooding the neighborhood of Montecito and killing 23 people. Some of the roads covered by the mudslide took years to reopen.
What happened here last month followed a similar pattern.
During a dry, windy August last year, the Dolan Fire sparked up along the Santa Lucia Range and burned nearly 130,000 acres of hillside, including the south wall of the culvert cut by Rat Creek. It took firefighters, 15 of whom were injured in the process, four months to contain the blaze, which also forced a number of temporary closures along Highway 1.
The rains came last month, blowing in from the Pacific and stalling over the Santa Lucia. Before the storm moved on it had poured 15 inches of rain on the Big Sur region and brought the surface of the mountain down at Rat Creek in a 40-foot wall of mud and debris, which overwhelmed the preventive drainage measures installed by highway engineers and then the road itself.
Although the most serious, the washout was not the only one. Dozens of slides occurred along the cliffside stretch. Today, dump trucks, bulldozers and excavators along the route are busy with more minor cleanups.
“It’s year-round maintenance now, with special attention paid to the winter rainy season,” said Kevin Drabinski, a spokesman for the state Transportation Department, known as Caltrans, during a recent tour of the site. “And it’s the burn scar we’re really dealing with now. But this is also a very active geological zone.”
Highway 1, or at least its surface, now sits in a pile of gray shards on the north side of the washout, its double yellow line visible on the larger pieces.
The choice of a road
This stretch first opened in 1933, as the highway welcomed traffic in stages down the coast, a hopeful draw for tourists and new agricultural access to the oceanside pastures south of here. In a sign of things to come, parts of the highway had to be closed before the road was entirely open, because of slides.
The work to repair even this 150 feet is monumental. It requires deep engineering expertise just to begin the cleanup process, now taking place in a mud-filled pit on the edge of the cliff. A $5 million emergency contract is paying for the cleanup’s first phase.
Drone surveys and on-the-ground assessments have been conducted. On Thursday, Caltrans announced that it would build a new road, rather than construct a bridge, over a filled-in culvert still surrounded by the threat of loose ground. Parts of the south wall hold the charred trunks and the singed tufts of shrubs from the Dolan Fire, which did not jump across the creek.
The choice of a road, rather than a bridge, will be a less expensive option for Caltrans. It is also a project with a far shorter timeline and could mean, weather permitting, that the road could reopen to at least some traffic as soon as this summer.
On a recent morning, four excavators worked in the pit, their long bucket arms swinging in choreographed tandem, dipping into the bog to scoop out mud and redwood trunks for deposit in a designated pickup spot.
“Do you have the bottom yet?” called out a worker with a chain saw, his job cutting the tree trunks into sections that will fit into the backs of the caravan of dump trucks.
In response, the excavator driver pushed the arm as deep into the mud as he could. It sank and sank, finally hitting something like bottom at about six feet and lifting the front of the excavator off the ground.
The worker with the chain saw shook his head at the digging out left to do.
To Steve Balaban, the Caltrans project engineer, that hard bottom is “OG,” short for “original ground.” The cleanup has to locate “OG” across much of the pit before the culvert can be refilled in earnest. There is much work to do to get there.
“This section lasted almost 100 years, so that’s a pretty good track record,” said Balaban, who has been working projects on the coast for 3½ decades. “In any case, we always try to anticipate future geologic hazards and strive to incorporate preventive measures in our repairs projects.”
An even larger stretch of Highway 1 reopened in 2018 after a 14-month closure at Mud Creek about 20 miles south of here. The road was buried — not washed away, as in Rat Creek’s case — when the rocky ground above it gave way in hard rains.
The repair project cost $54 million, and today, Caltrans engineers say the hillside is stable. A fence made of coils of heavy wire, hard against the hillside, lines parts of the repaired section. Engineers also added a hefty stone retaining wall to protect the road.
“We literally built the road across the slide,” Balaban said.
‘Highway 1 is the lifeblood of Big Sur’
Big Sur is both a region and a specific place — many would also say a state of mind — and the town known as Big Sur lies about 14 miles north of the Rat Creek closure. The north endured the brunt of the Soberanes Fire several years ago and, like any town along the highway’s length here, it feels the pinch of a closure.
“Highway 1 is the lifeblood of Big Sur,” said Kirk Gafill, whose family has owned Nepenthe, a Big Sur restaurant, since its opening in 1949. “It’s of paramount importance to us as a community. It makes all things possible.”
Calling Nepenthe a restaurant is a bit like calling the Sistine Chapel a church. It is a restaurant and gift shop, as well as a kind of cultural happening. Everyone knows it. Jack Kerouac, in his 1962 novel “Big Sur,” talks about drinking away hangovers overlooking the Pacific from Nepenthe’s cliffside terraces.
For Gafill and other business owners along Highway 1, it is location, location, location that matters with every closure. Caltrans estimates that as much as 70 percent of the nearly 1 million cars and trucks that travel this section of Highway 1 annually come from the north, meaning that the Rat Creek closure will hurt Gafill’s business but not decimate it.
Over the decades, Gafill has seen the washouts and mudslides range from “inconveniences to extraordinary events,” among the most memorable being the El Niño year of 1998 and the dozens of washouts that left sections accessible only by helicopter.
He acknowledges that fire and the volatile burns left behind are a relatively new worry, and how lucky the region got that a storm did not follow the Soberanes Fire.
The increasing frequency and coastal locations of the recent fires — historically, most in the area have been inland — make them a growing concern. But not enough, he said, for the state to give up on a road key to its broader tourism economy.
“This is going to be a big responsibility and challenge for the state to keep the highway repaired and open,” Gafill said. “But this has been the case since the highway first opened and what comes from building a road along the edge of a continent.”
The southern end of the Highway 1, as it passes through Ragged Point and into Cambria, feels the economic downturn from a closure at Rat Creek far more sharply.
At Sebastian’s, a general store and tasting room for the Hearst Ranch Winery, business was just getting started again when the road was washed out.
The mostly indoor business had been closed for months because of state health regulations designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Those were recently eased, but then Highway 1’s southbound tourist traffic stopped.
“And before that we had just got the other section reopened, got the business back online,” said Jim Saunders, owner of the Hearst Ranch Winery, who estimated that his tasting room business might fall 40 percent because of the closure. “Fast-forward to where we are today and I don’t think anyone thought that covid would last this long. And here we are, just trying to survive, when the road washes out.”
‘We stay open’
The tasting room was busy on a recent weekday, the seaside picnic tables nearly full despite a stiff, cool breeze that shook stands of eucalyptus trees and filled the air with their astringent scent. But Saunders is pessimistic that, with tourists unable to complete the trip north along Highway 1 through San Simeon, his business will regain its footing anytime soon.
“We were hoping it would be back by this spring or summer at the latest,” Saunders said. “Now I don’t think that will happen. What we didn’t need was another punch.”
This closure, because of the fire, is also proving to be far harder on this town of 11 people.
In 2017, the Mud Creek landslide blocked all traffic to Gorda from the south. For tourists traveling one-way from the Bay Area, though, there was still a detour available along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, a 25-mile link just north of Gorda connecting Highway 1 and Highway 101, a major north-south route farther inland.
But the Dolan Fire and January rains have shut that road to the general public, reserving it almost entirely for emergency traffic. The result is that Nuñez, among others, first has to travel south for hours before then making her way north.
Twice a month she takes her 10-year-old daughter, Victoria, to a rehabilitation appointment at Monterey County Hospital for a hip problem she was born with. The drive usually takes 90 minutes round trip. Now, with the closure, it is a seven-hour journey there and back.
“Let me tell you, amigo,” Nuñez said, “if something happened to the road south of here now we’d be in big trouble. We’d be completely cut off. It’s already much worse than last time for us.”
Nuñez, 51, has lived along Gorda’s cliffs for seven years. There are many challenges, she acknowledges, but she loves the beauty and camaraderie of the place.
Fortunately, Pacific Valley School, where Victoria is the only member of her class, sits just to the north of Gorda and so is not cut off by the closure. When the road floods, teachers often make the trip to see Victoria rather than force her to travel a dangerous route.
The minimart is the center of town, a place where residents in the hills get their mail and some list as their home phone numbers along a stretch where there is no cell service. For now, a new economy rising around the closure has helped replace some of the tourist-driven business that disappeared last month.
The cubby holes holding keys to the 14 rooms and cabins Nuñez rents out are nearly all stuffed with messages and mail. Eleven of them are being rented now by Caltrans workers and contractors, who get a breakfast and box lunch from Nuñez to take to the site.
It is the inn’s only income.
“We’re still open,” she said. “No matter what. We stay open.”