M.C. NOW - Sara Rubin

WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO PROTECT (AND SHARE) BIG SUR?

Good afternoon.

One unexpected silver lining to sheltering in place has been the opportunity to rediscover local places that I love. There have been a lot of day trips and weekend trips to the Carmel River, the Salinas River, Arroyo Seco, bike rides down River Road in the Salinas Valley and on Fort Ord National Monument. 

In March and April, travel was virtually at a standstill and Big Sur was at peak beauty with green hills. For the first month of SIP, before the U.S. Forest Service closed most Big Sur trails on April 16, it was a chance to rediscover Big Sur. I hiked popular trails that felt like my backyard eight or nine years ago, before they became places to avoid as they became too crowded. 

That round of closures was meant to help with SIP compliance. A new round of closures, this time of four dirt roads, is meant to stave off a surge of visitors that is too much for Big Sur to handle. But as staff writer Asaf Shalev reports in today’s issue of the Weekly, there’s still an unprecedented and ever-growing volume of visitors. In one case, on Aug. 8, a man who was camping on Prewitt Ridge had overdosed on recreational drugs; it’s impractical for an ambulance to get up there, so a helicopter was called—and had to circle for 20 minutes before landing, because campers had to gather their gear to make space. 

The story describes a scene unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in Big Sur, crowds gathered for a ridgetop rave (in a time we’re supposed to be avoiding crowds, no less). It also describes the first-ever data reporting on how many vehicles drive these dirt roads, thanks to ingenuity from a local who invested in a few simple devices, one of which counted 716 cars on South Coast Ridge Road in a single day in July. 

The data confirms what’s long been anecdotally understood: Big Sur is being loved to death. 

It’s just a few years ago that I used to spend weekends driving around on Big Sur’s dirt roads, searching for a perfect remote campsite to get above the fogline and to unplug. It was easy to find a place off the beaten path, and likely to see zero other people. I have been to the now-defunct Nacarubi Festival in Big Sur, which was well organized with porta-potties, designated camping areas and parking out of the way. I remember driving down Highway 1 with friends on a Saturday in search of an established Forest Service campsite, and landing a scenic spot easily, no reservation needed. 

Now, I don’t go to Big Sur on weekends in the summer. I don’t go to places like Point Lobos on weekends at all. I don’t attempt to reserve a Big Sur campsite on a weekend, because none are available

I’m all for sharing public places with the public; they belong to all of us, and locals get the benefit of access even in the off season (I’ve discovered you can indeed book a Big Sur campsite on a rainy weekend in December, for instance). 

There is work underway on a sustainable tourism plan for Big Sur, but the vehicle data and the rise of big parties in places that used to be a place to seek solitude suggest something deeper has happened that can’t be solved with a traffic plan or the installation of restrooms or better illegal campfire enforcement. A place that used to be remote and was a place to escape to has become something else entirely.

-Sara Rubin, editor, sara@mcweekly.com

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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