Palo Colorado residents come together to weather the floods.
Thursday, February 19, 1998
"Get your mind off of wintertime, cause you ain''t goin'' nowhere."
Mud. Thick and rich and dark like chocolate. Mud is the first thing you notice when you walk up and down Palo Colorado Road. Mud of Biblical proportions. Propelled by gravity and guided by the landscape, mud slowly oozes its way down every creek and canyon and crevice with little regard for the remnants of civilization that lie in its path.
High above the mud, at poet and publisher Ric Masten''s house, you can watch another drop-dead, knock-your-socks-off, awe-inspiring sunset sink into the sea. You''d never know you were in the middle of a federal disaster area.
To get to Masten''s house, you travel 2.5 miles up Palo Colorado Road before reaching a steep dirt road that rambles precariously another half-mile up a ridge. Needless to say, Masten''s road is toast.
"The better the view, the worse the road," explains Masten, who has lived in Palo Colorado Canyon for 37 years. "And I''ve got a great view."
The area referred to as Palo Colorado Canyon actually includes the watersheds of Garrapata Creek, Rocky Creek and Turner Creek, as well as the ridges that rise in those waterways. A 7.5-mile county road, which starts where the mouth of Palo Colorado Creek meets Highway 1 (14 miles south of Carmel) provides access for most residents of the "canyon." The county road provides access to a dizzying array of dirt roads, which lead to many of the canyon''s nearly 200 homes.
For the better part of the past three weeks, many canyon residents have gone without--for varying lengths of time--road access, electricity, propane, heat and water, not to mention the countless luxuries most of us takes for granted-hot showers and a new video in the VCR each night. The wrath of El Ni¤o toppled hundreds of trees, knocked over numerous utility poles, washed away paved and dirt roads with equal indifference, destroyed vehicles, damaged homes and wreaked a veritable bounty of havoc and destruction on this small, rural and suddenly isolated community.
"It''s amazing how powerful nature is," says Oona Hull, a massage therapist and student who has lived along the Big Sur coast most of her life. "In just one night the storm wiped us out."
Canyon dwellers, though are hardy lot. Even the most cynical regard the disaster as a challenge, while the more optimistic are calling it a party. A surprisingly festive atmosphere prevails as old-timers compare and contrast the storm''s handiwork with that of the infamous rains of 1983. "This one is better," boasts Masten.
Better? "These are the best of times," explained Masten. "People show their true colors. We get to see who are quitters, the cheaters, the whiners, the helpers and the heroes."
In this small, tight-knit community, the heroes have sprout up like mushrooms on a misty canyon morning. "The real heroes are anyone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and help the community," says Barbara Cox, dispatcher for the Mid-Coast Fire Brigade and a 20-year canyon resident.
This time around, the first major storm had hardly subsided when canyon dwellers began the slow, grueling task of digging themselves out--literally. "We have not been waiting around to be rescued," explains Cox, who works as a gardener when she isn''t helping to coordinate disaster relief efforts "People in the canyon are tough and tenacious. We''re survivors."
Barbara and her husband, fire brigade chief Jim Cox, operate the unofficial disaster headquarters out of their home on Garrapata Ridge. As they inform their neighbors of evacuations and helicopter drops, their voices can be heard echoing up and down the canyon, thanks to the wonders of technology, or in this case, two-way radios provided by the fire brigade.
Due to the efforts of the Cox family and other volunteers, two potential medical emergencies were averted. Helicopters airlifted out a dialysis patient and a pregnant woman suffering from complications--no small challenge when you consider that the nearest feasible landing zone for the helicopters was 1.5 miles from the nearest county road.
Time and again, canyon residents talked about the sense of community that exists here in the face of a crisis.
"Everyone has shared what they have and nobody has gone without," says Jim Cox, who works as a ranch foreman during calmer weather. "The community has really come together as a team."
During a break between storms, canyon kids pour out of their homes like the bright sunshine that pours down through the mist-shrouded redwoods, unleashing a wild exuberance that''s downright contagious. Unable to attend school, the youngsters appear quite content to simply slosh around in the mud on their mountain bikes and skateboards.
"Twenty years from now the kids won''t remember what they would have learned this week in school," says Masten. "They''ll remember this for the rest of their lives."
Niki Severson, who has lived in the canyon since she was 7, took the interruption in her school schedule in stride. "I''ve missed too much school this semester to go back," says Severson, who was taking general education courses at Monterey Peninsula College. "But it''s fine with me. I''m taking tai-chi classes in the canyon from Catherine Elber, and I''m looking into an apprenticeship program with an herbalist."
Many canyon residents took advantage of the storm damage to reward themselves with a well-deserved vacation. "I can''t imagine another scenario where I would have an opportunity to spend this much quality time with my wife and my daughter," says Darrow Schumann, who works as a massage therapist in Big Sur. Schumann''s three-month old daughter Juniper is perhaps the youngest canyon dweller to weather the storm.
For the minimalists and survivalists among us, this has been a time to live out any latent post-apocalyptic fantasies. Several canyon residents dusted off long-retired military garb, while others have backpacked to town for supplies with remarkable enthusiasm and alarming frequency.
Schumann says he is still discovering new and exciting ways to cook brown rice and lentils. For many canyon dwellers, though, a steady diet of rice and lentils has already worn out its welcome. Mark Hudson, a local contractor, isn''t about to turn down a little abundance when the opportunity presents itself.
"Four of us hiked down to the Rocky Point Restaurant the other day," says Hudson, a lifelong Big Sur resident who has lived in the canyon for three years. "They gave us 200 pounds of lobster tails and prawns. We''ve been eating like Romans." Hudson adds that he could go on living like this "indefinitely," although he concedes that wet socks, cabin fever and chain saws are getting a little old.
As the weather cleared up bit last week and electricity was restored, many canyon residents were ready to resume their normal lifestyles and patterns of consumption. Others, perhaps the wiser half, noted that El Ni¤o is forecast through the month of May.
"Anyone who doesn''t have a month''s worth of fuel, food and water is a fool," Masten insists, then adds with a wink, "It''s not over yet, thank God."
I let the everyday mail
The bills and propositions
push me to a place
Where I would welcome
A calamity of nature
A catastrophic flood
A life that has become
A complicated nuisance
Leaving behind an acre
Of mud and muck
To deal with
To dig out from under
All of us
Left in the aftermath
With coffee in a paper cup
Talking it over around
A fire brigade truck
Along the Big Sur Coast
You''d be surprised
How many there are