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Closures, Thoughtless Visitors Try Big Sur Locals' Patience

Caltrans contractor Arleen Guzzie gives directions at the Ragged Point road closure. |  Photo: Brian van der Brug/Getty Images
Caltrans contractor Arleen Guzzie gives directions at the Ragged Point road closure. | Photo: Brian van der Brug/Getty Images

A common occurrence around Big Sur is tourists stopping locals to ask directions. “Where is Big Sur?”  Even with a bridge failure and its replacement under construction at Pfeiffer Gulch and two massive landslides further down the coast, the usual response is the same now as it was when the highway was unobstructed, “Where are you trying to go?”

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What's open?

Visitors can drive south from Carmel to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and north from San Luis Obispo to Ragged Point Inn, and over Nacimiento-Ferguson Road to reach Treebones Resort and the campgrounds at Limekiln, Kirk Creek, and Plaskett.  All businesses and campgrounds in these zones enthusiastically welcome visitors. 

Henry Miller Library is closed at its Graves Canyon location, but has temporarily relocated for events and visits at The Barnyard in Carmel. 

Post Ranch Inn, Nepenthe Restaurant and Hawthorne Gallery are open via helicopter from Monterey Regional Airport but will also soon be reached via a shuttle and hike and shuttle.

Ventana Inn and all businesses south of Nepenthe are closed: Deetjen’s, Coast Gallery, Esalen, Lucia, and the Hermitage.  At the San Luis Obispo County line, "Road Closed" signs block passage on Highway 1 just north of Ragged Point Inn. 

Big Surians are imagined to be all Peace, Love, and Granola; but think about it: with the Hermitage and Esalen closed, there is no freshly-baked Holy Granola for sale nor sunrise disco dancing.  Yet, the outside world believes that Big Sur has suddenly become the most remote spot in North America, and this is not so.

 

Residents of the unincorporated coastline suffer from road closure fatigue. Residents coexist in a delicate balance with the highway closed and only a northern trail and a treacherous east-west county road that is shared by many drivers. 

Aerial view of the Mud Creek slide | Photo: Caltrans
Aerial view of the Mud Creek slide, with buried highway visible at lower left | Photo: Caltrans

The trail is for north coast Big Sur residents to use as a footpath to their cars parked north of the bridge construction, so that they can drive and resupply or work in the cities of Monterey Peninsula. 

The county road is Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, used as an aorta by both north and south coast Big Sur residents.

Before the highway closed, tourist traffic overwhelmed travel all day, every day.  Scenic vista pull-outs were crowded. Bixby Bridge parking overflowed such that one tourist simply parked his car in the southbound lane on the highway and then walked away to view the historic bridge, ignoring honking motorists unable to pass his car because of nonstop northbound traffic.  Toilet paper and trash littered the roadsides.  Lines of bathroom users overwhelmed septic systems at many businesses. Wary residents resorted to town trips solely in the wee hours of the morning to avoid the crowds that grew thicker throughout the day until the silence of sunset inspired tourists to pull-over at scenic vistas and restaurants for dinner.

Most residents drove Highway 1 north or south for town trips. Few ever drove Nacimiento-Ferguson Road because it is a very narrow switchback with maximum speed at 10 mph.  Town trips to obtain groceries, animal feed, attend medical appointments, or just meet up with friends and family, were possible when it was a mere hour and a half via Highway 1 to Monterey or San Luis Obispo. 

Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge demolition | Video: Caltrans

Now that residents only have access out via Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, it’s an hour and a half to King City, two hours to Paso Robles, and three hours to Salinas or San Luis Obispo.  Town trips are now an 11-hour day away from home. All of this while sharing that sole county road with Caltrans and its contractors heading to work to rebuild the highway and the visitors getting away from it all to Big Sur. And then there are the necessary convoys closing Nacimiento-Ferguson Road for the day, usually Thursdays, but sometimes also Tuesdays, led by California Highway Patrol to allow the big trucks hauling steel, sand, or aggregate to the bridge jobsite.

 

Town trips require prior planning via Big Sur Kate’s blog because each week might bring new road closures due to construction or sudden earth movement, or bridge construction supply convoys that close Nacimiento-Ferguson Road.  Kate Novoa, a 32-year resident, maintains multi-agency relationships with Caltrans and Monterey County Department of Public Works for road conditions, and CalFire, U.S. Forest Service, and the Big Sur Fire Brigade for emergency response and backcountry issues.

Big Sur closure map | Image: California State Parks
Big Sur closure map | Image: California State Parks

Since the Basin Complex Fire of 2008, when a June lightning strike near Coast Gallery grew into the Gallery Fire and converged with two other fires in the backcountry, Big Sur Kate has provided the community a central command blog of reliable information gratis. Last summer, when an illegal campfire ignited the Soberanes Fire, the most expensive wildfire in recorded U.S. fire history, these indispensable agency connections allowed Kate to inform the community of fire progression, evacuation areas, and if highway travel was affected. 

She hasn’t caught a break from reporting yet. Although the October rains finally quenched the Soberanes Fire, falling rocks and small slides from winter storms impeded road travel. And then the slides slid, blocking the road in two places to the south. And then the bridge failed, severing the lifeline from the north. 

Police, fire, and rescue response are extremely delayed due to the bridge construction and the slides.  Fish and Wildlife still patrols the coast, as does the California Highway Patrol on the road and U.S. Forest Service in the backcountry, but all systems are not currently engaged to save someone if they go over a cliff or to readily extinguish illegal campfires. 

The rainy season has ended and the dry season begins, so in addition to road fatigue, there are added worries of illegal and unattended campfires causing wildfires, wandering curiosity seekers in the closed road construction zone, and lost hikers requiring evacuation assistance.

 

Weary residents returning from town queued northbound at Paul’s Slide during one of the rare and greatly-appreciated Friday noontime half-hour passages, and watched three white vans empty their caravan of travelers onto the highway, led by a fiddler wearing a rainbow tie-dyed long john and a leaping gal in a pink pony costume. 

Visitors to Big Sur raise local ire by blocking the road | Video: Anneliese Ågren 

The youths proceeded to do-si-do a square dance in the southbound lane and yelled “Car!” each time a line of southbound vehicles attempted pass through.  Once clear, they’d resume fiddling and dancing.  Those of us waiting for the signal sat unamused, fuming even, as we know enough to be ready to boogie once Caltrans allows us to travel through the slide.  When Caltrans was asked why they allowed these visitors through what is supposed to be a Residents Only access they explained the flagger was told by the caravan that they had “permission by their professor” to visit UCSC’s Big Creek Reserve for a class assignment. 

Visitors to Big Sur should focus their enthusiasm for having safely arrived on this wild coast by celebrating at their destination, not during the journey.

When Big Sur Kate posts the newest access updates on Paul’s Slide for residents, garbage service, and propane delivery, tourists post comments asking her if they can reach scenic destinations.  Meantime, residents schedule medical appointments to avoid busy inbound tourist traffic.  One man booked a place in town for ease in post-surgery rehabilitation, rather than attempting weekly return trips. A pregnant Big Sur resident is moving to her cousin’s house outside of Big Sur, so as to not risk being unable to drive to the hospital once she goes into labor.

In February mail deliveries halted. Big Sur Post Office’s address is just south of the failed bridge, so mail operations had to relocate to the basement of Monterey Post Office. Mail delivery has now resumed on Wednesdays and Fridays, but UPS and FedEx ceased driving Nacimiento-Ferguson Road and if you call the hub inquiring how to pick-up your package, more frequently it’s lost or it was delivered to a business in northern Big Sur, even though no other address was ever provided for delivery.

Big Sur Jade Fest, an annual popular fundraiser and a market for local craftspeople, was canceled last summer due to the Soberanes Fire.  The Fest was rescheduled for this May, but then canceled again due to the Highway 1 closure.  Reinstating Jade Fest at its annual second weekend this coming October appears unlikely, thereby further reducing opportunities for locals to generate income.

Using the internet to support local craftspeople is a good idea in theory, but not when there is no mail service. Online commerce expects purchases to ship within 24 hours of order. Otherwise, merchants receive bad reviews, which downgrade their reputation. 

 

The northern trail is proposed to open to the public July 1 with shuttle service from Andrew Molera State Park to the trail, and then a shuttle on the south side to dispatch riders to Nepenthe. Paul’s Slide is tentatively scheduled to open to one lane at the end of July.  The bridge over Pfeiffer Gulch is scheduled to open at the end of September. Mud Creek doesn’t have an open estimate. 

In early May, a week before Mud Creek completely obliterated Highway 1 and Paul’s Slide re-activated, it was Big Sur Kate at the quarterly Big Sur Multi-Agency Advisory Council (BSMAAC) who cautioned everyone to consider that “We are in this for the long haul, as in, it is possible this may take a year.”  Kate asked for a long-term multi-agency coordinated plan.

We need a long-term plan to safely find where is Big Sur.

Opinion pieces and articles have appeared in newspapers asking if the highway can be rebuilt, if it should become a toll road, or if it should simply be abandoned as too unstable and impractical, as was the case for Mendocino and Humboldt counties’ Lost Coast. 

Big Sur road closure sign | Photo: Anneliese Agren
Big Sur road closure sign augmented with local sentiment | Photo: Anneliese Ågren

A recently-published article detailed a 36-hour trip through Big Sur by a journalist and his pal, who hiked the northern trail that is currently closed to visitors (it's for emergency access only for residents) and walked through Paul’s Slide while it was shut down by Caltrans due to unsafe conditions. Local reaction to this piece was concern that a monkey-see, monkey-do effect will encourage others to do the same. Caltrans, in partnership with CHP, will issue citations to anyone in the road-closed areas.

Another recent article extolled the virtues of the closure which now makes Big Sur a “remote escape for campers.”  Except it’s not remote and it’s not an escape. Now more than ever comes the need for everyone to bring their common sense to the emergency situation.

Last week, a hiker out alone in the closed Ventana Wilderness due to last year’s Soberanes Fire, got lost and ran out of water, then activated her emergency beacon to be airlifted out by a CHP helicopter. 

This week a fire started at a turnout on Nacimiento-Ferguson Road.  Almost an hour after the fire was reported, trucks arrived onsite and extinguished the flames spreading downslope.  The fire is under investigation to determine if it was started by a campfire or a tossed cigarette. 

When tow trucks were called to haul away a Friday afternoon head-on collision at one of the many hairpin curves on Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, the estimated tow arrival window given was “anywhere between three to eight hours.”  Luckily, no ambulance was needed for this car crash, although the occupants sustained injuries.

A long-term coordinated plan must consider the long-term needs of construction workers to rebuild the highway, for kids to attend school, for emergency services, for residents to resupply and get to doctor and vet appointments, as well as for locals to find work now that their six-month unemployment benefits will soon expire. The question is whether that employment is outside the area now, or if the local can wait for businesses who desperately want to open to tourist traffic and to employ those very residents.

A long-term coordinated plan for visitors: leave pink pony costumes at home, be mindful of the emergency situation here, don’t toss lit cigarettes, and limit campfires to designated fire rings in campgrounds, not in the backcountry.

Banner: Highway 1 in Big Sur | Photo: Fred Moore, some rights reserved

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