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The Big Sur ‘island’: Life no paradise for those cut off by storms, landslides

BIG SUR, California — Bringing home the groceries has taken on new meaning for residents of this hamlet perched along California’s famous Highway 1. With a vital bridge gone, they have to hike in — toting backpacks, shopping bags and even the occasional wheelbarrow.

If you’re in good shape, navigating the 1-mile trail’s switchbacks and steep spots might take 20 minutes. For others, count on up to 40 minutes of huffing and puffing.

Welcome to Big Sur, where coastal residents’ willingness to live on nature’s terms has been severely tested: Historic drought usurped by two unrelenting wet winters has eroded hillsides and sent cascades of mud and rock onto highways along Big Sur’s 90 miles. Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge near here had to be demolished and is being rebuilt.

The perils of living (and driving) on the edge of California captured headlines late last month when 1 million tons of rock closed the highway 40 miles south of here.

There’s a sense of déjà vu for old-timers who’ve been cut off from the outside world before. The ordeal at Pfeiffer Canyon has lasted more than four months, testing the artists, poets, free spirits and business owners who call this rugged place home.

Big Sur presents an interesting dynamic. Residents love the beauty and seclusion, but they are dependent on tourists. That traffic has dropped to a trickle because of the road closures. On a stretch of coast where sky, sea and majestic mountains coalesce, isolation has been taken to another level.

The damage: $1 billion, and counting

Big Sur has become an island of sorts, set off by the closure at Pfeiffer Canyon on the north and landslide-related closures to the south. Residents, known for their self-reliance, are helping each other through a very difficult time.

With a natural barrier of rugged mountains to the east, the road — known as the Pacific Coast Highway farther south of here — is the only effective means of accessing this and other seaside communities a few hours south of San Francisco.

The iconic highway includes a stretch that runs from Carmel south to San Simeon. With most of the businesses and residents living along the road, few tourists venture into the interior.

Unceasing rain that damaged the support system rendered the Pfeiffer bridge impassable. It’s being rebuilt, but the work is a challenge and it won’t reopen until at least late September.

Farther south, near Gorda, the massive landslide last month added an exclamation point to the misery. Highway 1 in that area has been closed almost continuously since January. Authorities haven’t put out a timetable for when the road will be cleared, but it’s expected to take about a year.

Another Highway 1 calamity, dubbed Paul’s slide, is not expected to be cleared until mid-July.

Repairs across the state already have exceeded $1 billion, and the bill is expected to increase.

To access the Big Sur community, one must sign a waiver. The hurriedly upgraded and constructed path from the road is intended for residents who can’t drive in from the north. It is expected to open to the public soon.

Despite the beauty of hiking in the shadows of enormous redwoods, the trail is not for the faint of heart. Upon ascending the terminus of the trail, you’re met by enormous cranes and a flurry of construction vehicles working feverishly to build a new bridge. Just beyond the maze of construction, it becomes immediately apparent why those who live here choose to do so.

The magic: Why they live here

Karen Gafill, an artist born and raised in Big Sur, knits with five other women. The deck is high above the Pacific Ocean, which provides its own palette of colors.

When asked to explain the allure of the place, she says: “It’s not just a selfie standing next to a bridge; it’s experiencing a moment in life that can be really transformative.”

The road lies just beyond the group. It is stunningly quiet, the sole traffic cruising around its bends are the majestic California condors soaring upon the thermals above. The only sounds are those of blue jays in the trees and the telltale bark of California sea lions wafting up from steep ravines deep below. In an eerie walk down the center line of Highway 1, one takes in road signs heralding upcoming destinations, beckoning nonexistent travelers.

Big Sur has long lured the curious and the unconventional. Among those who lived there, but eventually left, were writers Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller.

“The ideal community,” Miller wrote, “would be the loose, fluid aggregation of individuals. It would be a God-filled community, even if none of its members believed in God. It would be a paradise.”

Many who live here above the Pacific Ocean came to find meaning, inner peace or a job with an awesome view. Some have said Big Sur is a state of mind, where people are dwarfed by something bigger. But living here doesn’t come easy.

A weathered San Francisco Chronicle article posted at a business here includes the musings of a hippie from April 1968: “I want to live there but I can’t. You can make it for a while, and then one day you have to leave. It blows your mind.”

The blogger: An eye of fires, road conditions

Kate Novoa, or “Big Sur Kate” as she’s called, knows the area’s roads well. Beginning with some of the devastating wildfires during the drought years, her blog keeps Big Sur residents abreast of the latest detours around road closures.

From high atop a ridge overlooking miles of Big Sur in all directions, Novoa found she could more quickly and effectively inform her fellow residents than larger and slower government-backed services.

Novoa says the closure is welcomed in many respects. “It’s turned her back in time to where we now have some breathing room … to recover from all of the damage that she has taken over the last five or 10 years.”

About 400-500 people live in and around the Big Sur community, and they are dealing with some real logistical challenges. Mail is being delivered only once or twice a week. The closest health center is a couple of miles north of the closed bridge (you can get there via the trail and a walk up the highway; a larger hospital is about 25 miles beyond that).

Attempting to drive in is nearly impossible. You can’t do it from the Pfeiffer bridge to the north, and coming up from the east and south is no picnic. The access road is narrow and treacherous, and residents and delivery trucks have intermittent and very short windows when escorted convoys are allowed. Supplies are in short supply, and the lack of large towns in proximity to the coast there means one must buy them hours away.

The stress: A hefty drop in business

As the hamlet takes time to make repairs and catch its breath, the local economy has largely tanked, because the normal torrent of visitors has turned into a trickle. Fewer dollars because of the isolation have meant temporary layoffs, and some people have left town.

Those retailers that are open may see only a handful of customers a day. Some, like Gafill, have turned to social media to supplement earnings. Unable to teach in person, Gafill and her husband improvised a video system instead and she has had to rely more on the web for sales of her creations.

Her brother, Kirk Gafill, runs the landmark Nepenthe restaurant, which his grandparents opened in 1949.

He has 115 employees, many of whom have been with him for decades. He worries about their well-being, noting that 90 of them have had very little or no work, though Nepenthe remains open.

“Getting my staff back means everything to me, keeping those bonds as strong as possible, but it’s pretty tough when they’re not getting a paycheck,” he says.

Just a short walk down the road, Steve Mayer stands behind the bar at the local watering hole, the Big Sur Taphouse, with nary a patron in sight. Many people in the community note how Steve and his father, Kurt, the owner, pushed a wheelbarrow through the woods with goods that kept the business and neighboring Big Sur Deli open without interruption.

“We’ve stayed open through wildfires in the past, and we stayed open for the community because they support us year-round,” Steve says. “If you don’t expect crazy things to happen if you own a business in Big Sur, then you’re not in the right mind.”

The long view: We’ll be back

Expecting crazy things to happen in Big Sur seems deeply ingrained in the mindset here, where crises like this year’s are always possible.

Kirk Gafill, the restaurateur, is philosophical about the recent downturn. Things will get better for Nepenthe, he says. Business before the road closures was at record levels.

But he acknowledges each person must weigh the benefits versus the ordeals that come with living in an isolated area. They must constantly evaluate whether the “inconveniences are offset by the incredible opportunity to be here during these times — and have Big Sur to yourself during these quiet periods.”

For now, quiet rules. Until the roads are repaired, today’s Big Sur has been catapulted back in time to the Big Sur of a century ago, when self-reliance was paramount.

One day, however, the condors will again soar above an endless procession of tourists.

At least, that is, until Mother Nature launches a new salvo.