BIG SUR, Calif. — The first thing you notice is the silence, punctured by birdcalls and the far-off roar of water moving through canyons.
You usually can’t hear these sounds, drowned out as they are by the 2 million tourists who flock here annually just to drive Highway 1, the route that cuts through Big Sur on California’s scenic Central Coast. But today the tourists are gone and Highway 1 is car-free, home instead to pickup basketball games, mothers pushing strollers, and skateboarders whizzing by at speeds approaching the 45 mph limit.
The “island” of Big Sur — for that’s what this iconic stretch of coastline has become — is entering its ninth week of nearly total isolation, thanks to punishing winter storms, landslides and a failed bridge. The rain ended California’s five-year drought, but it left 45 miles of Highway 1 cut off from the rest of California, with few services for the 450 men, women and children who live here. That means no mail delivery, a limited supply of gasoline, and a single deli where you can buy eggs. Even the resident monks have been forced to pass around the modern-day collection plate known as GoFundMe to help repair the road leading to their monastery.
“To have your habits cut off so suddenly. . . . There’s a nightmarish aspect to it,” says Peter Marshall, a gardener who has lived here 33 years.
Legendary restaurants and businesses have been temporarily shuttered and the majority of their staffs laid off. Workers are dipping into 401(k) accounts just to pay their rent. Esalen Institute, that crucible of personal transformation, is raising emergency relief funds to “help weather the storm.” For the time being, the only way in and out is a grueling hike, a pricey helicopter ride or an otherwise closed road to the south that is accessible briefly in the morning and again in the afternoon.
Yet it’s springtime and the California sun has re-emerged. The mountains are at their most verdant in recent memory, their slopes splashed with yellow poppies. Wild turkeys strut across the highway, and casual neighbors embrace at chance meetings, eager to recount their sightings of foxes, owls or a bald eagle on a turnout.
“It’s so stunningly beautiful and peaceful, like a real Shangri-La,” marvels Erin Lee Gafill, an artist and teacher who was born and raised here. “Every day there’s nowhere else I want to be. But then I’m constantly checking to see when the road is going to open.”
Gafill’s grandparents founded Nepenthe, the fabled restaurant perched on a cliff 800 feet above the Pacific Ocean, in 1949. She lives in the log cabin that her grandparents purchased from Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, the same cabin in which Henry Miller resided and wrote “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.”
Two weeks ago, her brother Kirk, who is Nepenthe’s manager, had to lay off 100 of his 115 employees. It was a harsh reversal from the summer, when the restaurant served 500 lunches a day and there were two-hour waits for a seat on the terrace. As president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, he points out that this modest stretch of coastal highway is responsible for as much as $600,000 a day in revenue.
“When you think about the loss of revenue every day this road is closed to the public, it’s incredibly impactful,” he says.
Even so, many residents admit, almost sheepishly, to a feeling of relief. They had been hoping for a road closure — just a week or two, something “that would give us a nice little break,” as Martha Karstens, chief of the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade, put it.
Before the closure, the traffic was relentless and locals had quit gaping when visitors parked in the middle of the highway and ran to a precipice to take selfies. They had even become inured to the often-disgusting waste left behind at many of the turnouts.
“Highway 1,” Karstens says, grimacing, “is one big toilet, in my opinion.” She and other residents had raised concerns with elected officials, the state transportation and parks departments, the U.S. Forest Service and the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.
“All these people,” she says, “and nothing happens.”
Then came November and the arrival of rain. The ridges and slopes of the Big Sur wilderness had already been eroded by the drought and multiple wildfires. The land just couldn’t hold when it was walloped with 82 inches of rain in two months. Trees, rocks and debris careened down the mountains, making private roads impassable; creeks flooded, trapping people in their homes.
In mid-February, the ground under Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge had become so saturated that the bridge sank and had to be demolished. Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge had not been the most dramatic span on Highway 1. It was only 100 yards long, and most people barely noticed it. But its destruction changed the landscape, splitting Big Sur in half — separating families from one another, residents from their jobs and children from their schools.
With the road from the south almost entirely closed by landslides, there were only two ways of getting in and out. Helicopters had been used to evacuate guests from Esalen early in the crisis. They were used for dropping in food and supplies to the 45 miles of affected roadway, for transporting residents who could afford the $680 charge, and for flying in the occasional teacher.
But it was an abandoned trail through parkland that consumed the community’s attention. Longtime residents recalled its existence, and within days of the bridge closure, a few intrepid souls began exploring ways to reach “the other side.”
“We saw people on our property, crying ‘Can’t you help me?’ ” says Carissa Chappellet, who lives on a ranch that runs contiguous to the demolished bridge. “We started bushwhacking our way out. My brother-in-law was walking up the canyon with his backpack filled with 60 pounds of food and supplies.”
When California State Parks announced it would take five weeks to get the trail up to code, residents revolted. Within days, 100 locals had been deputized to work alongside state employees to build the trail. Together, they finished the job in a record 10 days.
The trail runs nearly one mile, climbs sharply in places and switchbacks around redwoods scorched in a 2008 wildfire. Seventeen children walked it for the first time, at 7 a.m. on March 30. They were met by school buses as they emerged from the forest. Among them was Stephanie Gutierrez, 17, a junior at Carmel High School, lugging a 40-pound backpack full of textbooks and worried about catching up on math and American literature.
Kindergartner Amauta Alcon-Loveland couldn’t wait to get back to Captain Cooper Elementary School. Her father spent three days working on the trail. Her mother, Sarah, hiked alongside her and was confident that her daughter could manage it: “Amauta’s grown up hiking her whole life. She’s got pretty good stamina.”
The half-hour hike may eventually prove tiresome even to Amauta, as the new bridge won’t be completed until at least September.
Yet the outside world continues to beckon. Post Ranch Inn, where rooms cost $1,000 to $2,500 per night, plans to helicopter in 40 guests on April 20. Nepenthe hopes to reopen on the same day, offering a limited menu to locals. And the New Camaldoli Hermitage may soon be welcoming guests again. The monastery’s GoFundMe campaign has raised about $275,000, most of it to repair the road connecting its 11 monks to the outside world.
At Esalen, the phones keep ringing, even though workshops have been canceled until June.
“I feel the earth here has needed this cleansing,” says Sunnie Davis, guest services manager. “It’s just the impact on the community that’s tragic.”
She gives a big hug to a visitor and then leads the way to a wooden bridge. “This gives all of us the opportunity to become closer and more intimate and show that Big Sur spirit,” she says. “Let it shine.” She leans over the edge and gazes at the turbulent river, the rapids swirling below.