The Ghost Coast
Big Sur residents are marooned in paradise.
Thursday, February 26, 1998
Valentine''s Day weekend is usually one of the busiest days at Big Sur River Inn. Its 20 rooms are booked months in advance with couples anticipating a stay at one of the most rugged, romantic landscapes in America. But the very forces of nature that draw millions of visitors to the South Coast each year conspired to keep them out, as tons of rock and mud covered Highway 1 north and south of Big Sur. Most recently, slides have closed the highway north to south at Hurricane Point at the 58-mile marker and at a variety of points along the highway moving south to north. With even weekly convoys in and out now out of the question, Big Sur residents are living in A) a ghost town, or B) paradise, depending on whom you talk to. Whichever it is, this community has lots of practice pulling together in a disaster.
Janet Lesniak, general manager of the River Inn, says she took a loss of about $6,000 on what is usually one of her busiest winter weekends. "We''re shut down, and we''re running out of money. Only three out of 35 employees are working." The only business she''s doing now is putting on morale-boosting, $5-a-plate pasta dinners for the locals. Lesniak says wryly that she''s had ample time to rollerblade on the deserted highway, but she''d rather be greeting customers.
Despite the financial worries, business owners remain upbeat. They hope to play catch-up during the busy spring and summer seasons, when the tourist traffic increases to thousands of cars a day, as people from all over the world come to see the dramatic scenery. Laura Moran, president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, says she''s taking advantage of the lull to do some maintenance on Deetjen''s Big Sur Inn. "We''re painting and doing other jobs that we usually don''t have time for when guests are here." She says the community has really pulled together, as they always do when nature cuts them off from the outside world. She''s been fielding calls from foreign journalists, fascinated by the Wild West, rugged individualist aura that Big Sur projects to the world, especially during times like these.
One week after the road closed on Feb. 3, Monterey County issued a mandatory evacuation order for any residents who couldn''t be self-sufficient for one to four weeks. Four hundred cars formed a convoy over the Soberanes Point slide, taking two and a half hours to traverse the makeshift road. Residents in Palo Colorado Canyon were stuck for 12 days, huge holes in their only access road completely cutting them off from help. When the county didn''t show up, firefighter Jim Cox and his neighbors got together and began clearing the road themselves.
Now some 800 of the 1,200 residents have returned to a much quieter Big Sur. Most have electricity and phones, although pockets of the South Coast remain totally cut off. For some, like Barbara Woyt, the slides bring a welcome reprieve from the crowds. "Big Sur''s just being herself," says Woyt. "The natural processes go on about their business regardless of human creations. As soon as the rains stop I always run out to look at what changes have occurred. That''s why many of us moved here, to be in close proximity to the wild, something that''s becoming a rarity in the late 20th century." Even the raccoons are having a field day dumpster diving because of the slower garbage collection.
Longtime Big Sur resident Penny Vieregge has been coordinating Red Cross emergency efforts from the Multi-Agency Facility in Big Sur. It''s there residents find out about road conditions, get relief supplies, or get messages to those without phones. The phones are buzzing. A woman at Esalen calls and says her mother is dying. Vieregge must decide if it''s a legitimate claim, and find her passage over the slide. Without a mayor, this office serves as a de facto command post and residents who have no phone or power check in by cell phone or complicated CB radio relays.
"While FEMA is talking about wrapping up operations elsewhere, we are hunkered down in the thick of this disaster," says Vieregge. "We''re still completely cut off."
CalTrans officials this week were vague as to when they might have Highway 1 opened to even limited car caravans. They state cautiously that repairs to Highway 1 will be complete by early April, depending on the weather. That''s the wild card, as heavy rains further erode already washed-out areas. According to CalTrans spokeswoman Val Houdyshell, new tree stumps keep plugging existing culverts and they''re hard to dislodge. "This never-ending deluge challenges our ability to stay ahead of the damage." The price tag so far is $6.4 million and rising. Over 150 CalTrans road workers and engineers have been called into service. The road was broken in 20 different places, the most serious being the slide at Hurricane Point, which has closed the road to all but foot traffic. Slides have also closed the road at Wing Gulch. At Lucia, the highway has virtually washed away.
Highway 1 through Big Sur was opened as a dirt road in 1934, and was paved in 1938. Many locals loathed the thought that their rough land to the south would be inundated by curious travelers. Others said the road could never hold on to the ever-crumbling cliffs. In 1982 a gargantuan slide closed the road south of Big Sur for 12 months. The bill was $10 million. In 1972, debris and mudflows destroyed the Big Sur general store and library. Last year a 300-foot section of road fell away near Gorda, again blocking the road to the south. More than four million visitors pass through Big Sur in a given year these days, but far fewer stop and soak in the power and majesty that sends 25-foot waves crashing against the rocks, and 25-ton rocks crashing onto the highway. With the flow of cars all but halted, those artists, writers, and nature lovers who moved to this remote outpost to get away from civilization are celebrating, and others are simply waiting to be reconnected again. cw