The Precarious Future of Big Sur’s Highway 1

On the afternoon of March 3srcth, Magnus Torén, the director of the Henry Miller Memorial Library, in Big Sur, California, had a plane to catch, the first leg of a long-planned vacation in northern India. Shortly after three o’clock, he and his wife, Mary Lu, left their house in Big Sur and drove north along

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On the afternoon of March 3srcth, Magnus Torén, the director of the Henry Miller Memorial Library, in Big Sur, California, had a plane to catch, the first leg of a long-planned vacation in northern India. Shortly after three o’clock, he and his wife, Mary Lu, left their house in Big Sur and drove north along Highway 1 toward Monterey, where Torén planned to get a bus to San Francisco International Airport. But shortly after crossing Bixby Creek Bridge, the ravine-spanning landmark featured in the opening credits of the HBO series “Big Little Lies,” they saw a truck pulled over with its lights flashing. After a rainy weekend, a piece of the southbound lane of Highway 1 had slid into the sea. “It looked like a big shark had taken a bite out of it,” Torén later recalled.

The couple figured that Caltrans, the California state transportation authority, was likely to close the road. Mary Lu, who was driving, steered carefully past the crumbled edge of the highway, staying in the northbound lane, so that her husband would make his flight. They were on a stretch of coast with no cell service, on the sole road that gives access to their region.

There are no official borders to Big Sur, a seventy-five-mile span of the California coast which, because of both challenging topography and strict land-use regulations, is one of the few remaining shoreline areas between Los Angeles and San Francisco without wide-scale development. Since the winding ribbon of Highway 1 opened, in 1937, driving the route—past vistas of the Santa Lucia mountains flanked by redwood groves and moody views of the Pacific—has become a rite of passage for tourists from around the world. Mythologized by Jack Kerouac, Richard Brautigan, and the photographer Ansel Adams, the landscape of Big Sur has a storied place in the national imagination. Henry Miller, who lived there for eighteen years, wrote a memoir titled “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch,” in which he described “skies of pure azure and walls of fog moving in and out of the canyons with invisible feet.” But since January, 2src23, when, after heavy rains, a major landslide on Highway 1 blocked access to most of Big Sur from the south, it’s been impossible to take the iconic road trip through the landscape in its entirety. Two more landslides on the southern portion of Highway 1 earlier this year, caused by heavy rains, further limited access.

After the collapse that Torén witnessed near Big Sur’s northern end on March 3srcth, the two thousand or so residents who live in Big Sur found themselves almost entirely cut off in both directions for more than a month. The state parks were closed; the McWay waterfall made its plunge from a cliff to the ocean without any tourists photographing themselves in front of it; and the monks at the New Camaldoli Hermitage reached new levels of reclusion. Residents rode horses and went jogging along the normally busy highway; they pulled over at empty turnouts to look at whales. But beneath it all was a simmering anxiety: tourists are the foundation of the economy here; without them, most of the people in the region were out of work. “One has to be a little sensitive to the people living paycheck to paycheck,” Torén said. “But, for those of us who can survive these periods of isolation, then, of course, they are the best times of them all.”

Until May 17th, when a traffic light was installed which allowed northbound and southbound traffic to take turns along the single open lane, access to Big Sur was limited to twice-daily convoys monitored by the California Highway Patrol, in conjunction with the California Sheriff’s Department, which guided cars past the road failure at seven in the morning and five at night. I visited Big Sur on April 2srcth on a press pass. At the time, only residents and essential workers were allowed through. The day was an unofficial holiday for weed smokers; it also happened to be a Saturday of exquisite spring weather. I was hoping to get there early and visit a craft fair for marooned residents at an event space called the Village, which had been advertised online as “Quiltchella.” But I woke up to a flat tire and missed the morning convoy.

Instead, I met up with Sam Farr, who represented Big Sur as a Democratic congressman, from 1993 to 2src17. Farr, who lives in Carmel, grew up spending summers in Big Sur and owns a property there. Over a Diet Coke at a restaurant, Farr gave me a history of the area. Originally the homeland of the Esselen people, it was mostly avoided by Spanish colonizers because of the steepness with which the mountains descended to the sea. Ranchers and farmers only began settling there in significant numbers in the late nineteenth century. Construction of the highway—which entailed blasting cliffsides, filling canyons, and felling redwoods, along with dumping a massive amount of debris into the ocean, possibly contributing to the extinction of the local abalone population—began in the nineteen-twenties; until then, much of the region was accessible solely by horseback.

The completion of the road coincided with many Americans’ desire to escape rapid urbanization and return to nature. Early ordinances limiting billboards and regulating construction sought to preserve the “unspoiled” appearance of the coast. In the seventies, Farr told me, there was a campaign, led in part by Ansel Adams, who photographed California’s landscapes, to designate the area a national seashore. It was met with pushback from homeowners, who did not want the land to be managed by the federal government and opened to mass tourism, and who argued that the human community of Big Sur was as important as the scenery. These residents, many of them wealthy, instead developed their own conservation agreement, which was adopted by county and state agencies in the nineteen-eighties. Among other measures, it banned new construction in the “viewshed,” or areas of land that could be seen from Highway 1, with the aim of preserving the visual experience of driving along the road.

“This is natural,” Ryne Leuzinger, the board chair of the Community Association of Big Sur, who is also a librarian at Cal State, Monterey Bay, told me, of the landscape. “But it’s not that natural, in the sense that a very carefully engineered preservation here took a lot of work and purposefulness to pull off.” Highway 1 was always a delicate prospect: a major fault line, the San Gregorio-Hosgri, runs through the area, and a combination of steep slopes and weak rock make the earth prone to movement. From above, the mountains erode toward the sea, causing landslides; from below, waves pound at the cliffs, compromising their stability.

Aside from a school board, there is no municipal government in Big Sur. Dome-shaped cabins, rustic redwood homes, and glassy mansions are hidden in off-the-grid hollows behind private gates. Living here is a lot of work: the local electricity provider reaches most but not all of the coast; sewage is handled through septic tanks or leach fields; and water comes from wells or rivers. Politics in the region are negotiated among competing interests: wealthy homeowners and retirees who dislike all the tourists; businesses that depend on them; teachers and carpenters who struggle to find affordable housing; government agencies that manage the state parks and national forest; and countercultural pilgrims still drawn to the idea of an Edenic place removed from society. But all these interests are heavily dependent on Highway 1. “The locals know every detail and history of the highway,” Farr told me. “Their ancestors helped build it, along with convict labor, in the nineteen-thirties. Every spot has a local name, like Grandpa’s Elbow, Rain Rocks, Cow Fence.” Every road failure, too, is given a local place name. The March 3srcth slip-out has been named Rocky Creek, in reference to a nearby bridge.

A lot of residents keep a stock of food in place in case they’re cut off. Many recall the ten-week closure of the highway in the early nineteen-eighties. That was when locals first learned the meaning of an El Niño year, when a shift in Pacific Ocean currents brings heavy rains, which in turn result in landslides. For a long time, however, a local east-west road out of Big Sur offered an alternative. But a combination of wildfires and prolonged rainfall in 2src21 washed out multiple sections of that road, too, and it has remained closed ever since.

Indeed, the past decade has seen an unrelenting series of calamities, some related to climate change. A forest fire started by an illegal campfire in 2src16 destroyed more than fifty homes, at the time California’s costliest wildfire. A bridge collapse and a mudslide on Highway 1 in 2src17 left one section of Big Sur accessible only by foot for eight months. This was followed, in 2src2src and 2src21, by fires and pandemic-related closures, and a rare winter wildfire, in January, 2src22. Then the heavy rains of another El Niño year arrived, and in early 2src23 came the landslide that closed access from the south. Between 2src16 and 2src23, Caltrans spent three hundred and fifteen million dollars in unplanned emergency work in the area.

I asked Farr if anyone in Big Sur was currently experiencing existential doubt about the future of the highway. (“Why Highway 1 Is the Climate Challenge that California Can’t Fix,” a recent Washington Post headline read.) He countered that if the road through Big Sur were left to decay, then the entire state of California, and maybe the whole country, would experience existential doubt.

“This old two-lane craggy road along the coast is probably becoming one of the most expensive roads on the coast of California,” he admitted. “On the other hand, it is classic California. It’s the Yosemite of the coast.”

Just before five, I pulled my Subaru into the tail end of a long line of cars, behind an S.U.V. with a Big Sur-themed vanity plate and a bumper sticker that said “HONK IF YOU’RE LONELY.” We were in the prettiest traffic jam in the world, overlooking the Pacific’s milky blue, which faded out into the distance. The sound of the surf filtered in through my open window. A temporary cell-phone tower had been set up so that the people in line would have service, and a couple of cows, who had been grazing nearby, scratched their heads against it.

A sheriff drove slowly down the line to verify documentation. A few cars of what appeared to be tourists did U-turns and headed back in the direction of Carmel. Nearly an hour passed before the line began to move. The convoy followed a truck with flashing lights, passing through the choke point where construction crews were installing steel dowels into the rock cliff beneath the ruptured highway. After the truck escort pulled over, the cars sped up and spread out. It was strange to see the place so desolate.

The first sighting of people was at Quiltchella, which was winding down. Muddied four-wheel-drive trucks were parked along the highway, many with dogs’ noses sticking out of the open windows. A small group of people dressed in flannel shirts sat drinking in the back of a pickup; a d.j. was playing a rap remix of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I decided to watch the sunset at a place called Vista Point, where the white waves crashing against the rocks below took on a cast of pink. For the better part of an hour, only a single car drove by.

The next day, I went for breakfast at Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, one of the few places that was open. The restaurant was decorated with a kind of nineteen-eighties whimsy: statues of angels, harlequin dolls, dried flowers, and string lights. I chatted with three locals partaking in a ritual of coming in on Sunday for “church”: Clovis Harrod, who is ninety-four, and her friends Kevin Southall and Shelley Newell. Harrod had moved to the area, in 1959, as a single mother with kids. Southall gave up a career as an academic at Berkeley to live here. In the mid-sixties, Newell had come down from Pacific Grove, a then dry town thirty miles to the north. “It was wild down here,” she said. “Down here, I was not a weirdo. I didn’t stand out.”

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