Environment & Science

Into the Big Surreal: 36 hours in California’s isolated, lonely island

Dusk at Mud Creek slide after a day of walking and hitchhiking down mostly closed Highway 1 in Big Sur.
Dusk at Mud Creek slide after a day of walking and hitchhiking down mostly closed Highway 1 in Big Sur.
John Sepulvado/KQED

It is true — we could have gotten close to our destination by car — but the idea of rushing a story about life in the new Big Sur seemed the journalistic equivalent of slamming a fine wine like it’s a Jell-O shooter.

It’s also true that locals and officials warned us not to walk Highway 1, as there are stretches that could crumble, making it almost impossible to get emergency personnel to any injury scene.

But I heard stories: There were mountain lions walking in the middle of empty roads, and longtime recluses sunbathing naked on the highway, and kids hiking miles just to get to school, and I had to see for myself if any of that was true.

So we grabbed some snacks, water, recording gear and a camping knife, threw on a pair of comfortable shoes and started on a 36-mile, 36-hour journey into California’s newest coastal island.

The “we” is my friend Gabrielle Gaudet and me. We traveled by foot and by thumb from the site of the ruined Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in the north to the gigantic Mud Creek landslide just south of the hamlet of Gorda. As we walked and hitchhiked, we met a dozen people who are living on this landlocked island. We also walked long stretches where the only sounds came from the sea crashing against the rocks far below and our shoes hitting the sun-bleached pavement.

Nature has severed the road connecting much of Big Sur to the rest of the world. From the Mud Creek slide to Pfeiffer Canyon the only route out is the winding, steep, slow-moving Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. And continuing trouble at a spot called Paul’s Slide has frequently blocked the coast highway — including last weekend. When that happens, the only way in or out of a 23-mile stretch, home to many Big Sur residents and businesses, is by boat or helicopter.

What we found is that this historic road closure has created a dangerous, beautifully deserted slice of California, filled with spectacular vistas of the mountains walling the Pacific, the landscape eerily vacant of people, as though it has been cleared to film a post-apocalyptic movie.

The former site of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur.
The former site of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur.
John Sepulvado

All that is left of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge is one sawed-off, homely stump. It’s reminiscent of the ending of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” — if the tree had been a massive concrete structure built in 1967. The stump stands as a reminder that modern engineering is often no match for the shifting landscape of Big Sur.

A mile-long dirt trail, in some places no wider than 2 feet, connects the heart of Big Sur south of the bridge with the outside world to the north. Children use the trail each day to get to the bus that drives another 20-plus miles to school.

Divided Big Sur Gets Some Help as New Trail Links North and South

The hike is full of moderate inclines and descents, steep steps and wild critters. As we crossed with a state park ranger, we saw a small box snake. The ranger said they routinely see rattlesnakes.

There is a quicker, more direct way across the gorge, but it has been fenced off and is supposed to be used only by construction workers trying to meet their September deadline to build a new bridge.

The temporary fencing is plastered with signs reading “KEEP OUT,” but on Memorial Day weekend, we see people quickly cross the small wooden stairway and bridge spanning the side of the canyon. The lawbreakers shave a half-hour off their trip.

Signs warn against entry near the site of the now-demolished Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge.
Signs warn against entry near the site of the now-demolished Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge.
John Sepulvado/KQED

On the south side of the canyon, there is a row of cars and trucks. Some of the locals have cars on both sides of the canyon, so they can drive to the pit where the bridge once stood, get out, sprint across the wooden span or hike the gorge, then get in another car and go to town.

This vehicle arrangement is a novel solution that can bring on what’s called “Big Sur problems.” For instance, when someone loses or forgets a set of keys, which turns out to be a surprisingly common occurrence.

That forgetfulness proved fortuitous for Gabrielle and me. Two beekeepers from the New Camaldoli Hermitage who had forgotten the keys (for the second time that week, no less) to their car on the north side of the canyon wound up offering us a ride south as they returned to fetch them.

“I can’t believe I did it again!,” one of the pair exclaimed, slapping palm against forehead. (I’m withholding the name of the “bonehead” — their word — to save them further embarrassment.)

“I can’t believe you did either,” the other deadpanned.

In our 35-minute drive south to the hermitage — a Roman Catholic monastery — we talked to our new friends Rich and Vicky about everything from Big Sur gossip to climate change to future hopes and dreams.

“We don’t get to talk to many new people at all,” Vicky explained.

‘There are families and workers who have been here for years, you know, like fixtures of the community, and they’ll have to leave if something doesn’t change soon.’Rich, a Big Sur beekeeper

“Yeah, it’s really great to see people on this side,” Rich said.

“Slow down just a bit,” Vicky said, looking carsick.

“These roads wind on you,” Rich said, a little defensively.

“Especially if you’re driving them fast,” Vicky replied.

“So you’re not worried about getting pulled over or getting a ticket?” I asked.

“We haven’t seen anyone pulled over since the bridge came down,” Rich said. That was in February.

“I think there’s a sheriff car parked on this side,” Vicky said.

“Yeah, but I think that’s more for show so people don’t drive drunk from the tavern,” Rich explained.

There are only a few businesses open along the highway. One of them is the Big Sur Taphouse, just south of Pfeiffer Canyon, which has become the de facto community center for the people who remain in the area.

A helicopter sits on Highway 1. Since February, it’s been one of the few ways in and out of the area south of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge
A helicopter sits on Highway 1. Since February, it’s been one of the few ways in and out of the area south of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge
Krista Almanzan/KQED

It’s there that the rumors about Big Sur’s famous recluses, renegades and burnouts swirl, along with gossip about local businesses, sexy Caltrans workers, bridge completion dates and idle speculation about what the future might hold.

As we neared the end of our ride, Rich asked if we could get the message out that workers and businesses, cut off from the usual flow of visitors and tourist dollars, are suffering.

“It’s not just money,” he said. “There are families and workers who have been here for years, you know, like fixtures of the community, and they’ll have to leave if something doesn’t change soon. There are already several businesses who have basically shut down after Paul’s Slide. And everyone’s wondering when they’ll ever open.”

“If they’ll ever open,” Vicky corrected.

We said goodbye, got out of their Subaru and started walking south. Soon, we came across a “Road Closed” gate and walked around it.

Paul’s Slide began moving back in mid-December and is still going some five months later.

As we approached the slide, we saw gray PVC pipes jutting out of the mountainside, installed to drain groundwater. Clear liquid trickled out of the pipes and pebbles fell continuously from the top of the mountain.

Closer to the slide’s center, water streamed from the pipes, while fist-sized rocks bounced off the ground. As the highway narrowed and boulders appeared on the pavement, the water practically gushed onto the roadway.

Water drains off Paul’s Slide onto what exposed surface remains of Highway 1.
Water drains off Paul’s Slide onto what exposed surface remains of Highway 1.
John Sepulvado/KQED

Gabrielle cupped her hands and drank some of the water.

“How’s it taste?” I yell over to her.

“Like water,” she yelled back.

“Like good water?” I asked.

“Well, I’m not going to taste it long enough to get sick,” she said. “I don’t know what’s in it.”

While Gabrielle wondered what was in the fresh water coming from the mountain, you could see the mountain in the seawater below. Normally, this stretch of the California coast is colored in deep greens or blues, but the earth from Paul’s Slide had turned a large swath of the water immediately below us turquoise.

“It looks more like the tropics than California,” Gabrielle said.

‘One feels exposed — not only to the elements, but to the sight of God.’Henry Miller, on living in Big Sur

As we walked closer to Limekiln State Park, we saw 13 big vehicles, including bulldozers and dump trucks, parked along the side. In the distance, we saw bicyclists and could hear the faraway laughter of kids echo off the coastal rocks.

On Saturday, about 30 families were camped at Limekiln State Beach. There were still open campsites during what’s usually one of the year’s busiest weekends. Apparently, getting to this majestically beautiful spot wasn’t worth the extra hours of travel over the challenging Nacimiento-Fergusson Road for many of those who made reservations.

After Limekiln, we began a 7-mile hike on the road to Mud Creek. The occasional Audi and BMW, having made it over the mountains, sped past with an abandon usually reserved for splashy car commercials. Gabrielle and I fell into the silence of walking contemplation.

Along this stretch, I was taken with the wildflowers along the highway. There are golden California poppies, lupine, monkey flowers, wild mustard and radish. As we head south, the ocean sends a fierce wind rolling over the flowers, stretching their stems to the mountains, their buds pointed toward the earth like little ears hoping to find rumors in the dirt. As the day became evening, the flowers again stretched –- this time toward the west, as the wind from the Santa Lucia Mountains pours over the land, pushing them and their petals toward the sea.

The novelist Henry Miller spent nearly 20 years in Big Sur and once wrote, “One feels exposed — not only to the elements, but to the sight of God.”

If there is truth to that statement, then God knows the elements are testing those who live there in a biblical manner.

First there was a drought that was good for succulents but turned many creeks in the area into a trickle. The drought was followed by last summer’s epic Soberanes Fire, which sent smoke and soot into the sky for months and killed a bulldozer operator. After the fire came this winter’s deluge, with more than 100 inches falling on some areas, swelling creeks and rivers and reawakening slides that have sent earth and rocks tumbling onto the roads.

What could be next?

Heavy equipment sits near the landslide on Highway 1 near the Bg Sur hamlet of Gorda.
Heavy equipment sits near the landslide on Highway 1 near the Bg Sur hamlet of Gorda.
John Sepulvado/KQED

“The joke around here is that the locusts are on their way,” said Magnus Toren, the executive director of the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. “Jokes aside, it is very traumatic to have your whole life swept away by water and moving soil. For the people left without a job … they are being displaced, and I think many, many of them are living with relatives elsewhere. So, Big Sur has been depopulated.”

Most of those who work in the resorts and restaurants along this stretch of road have been laid off. Because they often live on-site at their workplaces, they have also lost their housing. For the handful who remain, they have to travel 50 miles over the mountains to the Salinas Valley town of King City to file for unemployment and make follow-up appointments.

Most of these workers don’t have cars, meaning those who do file for assistance have to walk and hitchhike to get to their appointments. The manager of a small cafe in Gorda tells me some of her employees went to King City for temporary assistance and never came back. They might have tried to call, she said, but there’s been no phone service to Gorda since the Mud Creek slide on May 20.

Another man told us he is sleeping in a spare room at the restaurant where he works. He lives only 3 miles from work, but because his home is on the south side of the Mud Creek slide he now travels more than 100 miles to get to work on the north side — without a car.

Caltrans officials said the road will be out at least a year. But highway workers we ran into are skeptical. They say it will be at least two years and might even require building a bridge to bypass the slide area.

learly, someone at Caltrans has a wicked sense of humor.

On the north side of the Mud Creek slide, a yellow “Rough Road” traffic sign is the only indication that a road once existed there.

Up close, the enormity of what’s happened here goes far beyond anything caught in pictures.

The scene is surreal: An entire mountainside has moved, giving birth to a new landscape with new contours, adding a new bulge to the California coastline.

By the time Gabrielle and I got to the slide, it was dusk, and we spent a half-hour trying to get a picture that captured both the detail and magnitude of the scene. We failed, and instead watched the sun fall on this new coastline.

On the horizon, we saw the white mist of whale spouts shoot into the air. The sun disappeared, and a sliver of moon hung high in the light-purple sky. We felt cold gusts blow from the north, and we could smell the slide’s raw, newly exposed earth.

Here we were, standing in the middle of one of the world’s most celebrated highways, a roadway empty of people yet still full of life. We thought about taking a selfie, but the light was fading and it seemed small to focus on ourselves. Somehow, traveling down this isolated sliver of coastline, the Earth seemed much bigger than when we started.