It was raining hard and our view of the Pacific Ocean was limited to pretty much nothing. We were working our way north through Big Sur country along California’s iconic Highway 1 perched on a cliff high above the Pacific Ocean. An orange Cal-Tran’s (the California Department of Transportation) sign warned us to be prepared to stop. And we were. You pay attention to such things when you are driving on a wet, narrow, curvy road with the threat of an all-to-brief flying lesson.
“There’s the flagger,” Peggy warned, and I slowed down from turtle to snail pace. No one else was in line so I stopped at where he was standing. He signaled for me to lower my window. I expected him to tell us that the road was one-lane ahead. Closures are to be expected on Highway 1 during the winter. Either the downhill side is sliding into the ocean or the uphill side is covered with rocks and dirt. This time it was different.
“We have a spotter just up the road,” he told me. “He’s watching for rocks bounding down the cliff.” I looked ahead and saw the spotter 100 feet ahead. “As soon as he is sure nothing is crashing down, we’ll give you the go ahead to cross the area. Don’t stop.” Don’t stop? Talk about unnecessary advice. A rousing game of dodge ball with bounding boulders has never appealed to me. I was just sorry I couldn’t race through at 100 miles an hour. So were Quivera the van and Peggy. I made my way across at a nervous 30 while Peggy looked up the cliff for rocks— mentally forcing them to stay put while floor-boarding the gas pedal in her imagination. I’m pretty sure her right foot was cramped afterward.
Landslides along Highway 1 are frequent during the wet months. The nature of the rocks and soil in the area, frequent California earthquakes, and ocean waves crashing against the cliffs all contribute. When water from rain or springs is added to the equation as a lubricant, portions of the hillsides go tumbling into the ocean far too often. Highway 1 through Big Sur has been closed over 55 times since it was carved out of the cliffs in 1937. The heavy rains this past season have made for one of the worst years ever.
I had planned to drive down the Big Sur coast from Carmel to Hearst Castle on my recent trip to the Central Coast but the road was blocked 20 miles down the road. The rains had caused the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge to crack and it couldn’t be repaired. Cal Trans was forced to knock it down. The transportation department estimates the bridge can be rebuilt by September. A landslide was also blocking the road further on. Businesses along the highway were suffering. The normal thousands of visitors had slowed to a trickle. One resort had even turned to flying in guests by helicopter.
And it was about to get worst.
On Saturday, May 20, four weeks ago and one week after I had left the area, over one million tons of rock went sliding into the ocean just north of Gorda, about 60 miles south of Carmel/Monterrey. It’s in the same area where Peggy and I had played dodge rock a few years earlier. Locals are calling it the Mother of all Landslides. One third of a mile along Highway 1 is now covered by 65 feet of dirt and rock and there are 13 acres of new shore front property. Someone (with apparently too much time on his hands) has estimated that 800 Olympic sized pools could be filled with the dirt.
Who knows how long it will take to clear the area, but Cal-Trans is working away. Keeping the road open is a priority, regardless of time and expense. Highway 1 is regarded as one of the most scenic highways in the world. And I heartily concur. In addition to driving the road many times and camping out along the ocean, I have also bicycled it, which was an incredible experience.
The area’s renowned beauty has also served as a prime attraction to writers, artists and counter-culture types. One was Henry Miller, who has a memorial museum located just south of the now defunct Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. Miller moved to the area in 1944 while his semi-biographical books, The Tropic of Cancer and The Topic of Capricorn, were still banned in the US for obscenity. I had managed to pick up copies and read them in the early 60s, before either they, or I, were yet legal. I don’t remember anything about the sex, but I do remember Miller’s incredible power of observation and description. It totally transported me to another world. (The museum has been temporarily relocated to the Barnyard Shopping Center in Carmel.)
If you keep driving south on Highway 1 another 20 miles or so below the Miller museum, you come to Esalen, known worldwide as a center for the human potential movement and new age thinking. The shotgun-toting writer, Hunter S. Thomson, served as a caretaker for the Big Sur Hot Springs before it became Esalen. At the time, the old hotel on the property was occupied by a Pentecostal group while the hot springs were normally filled with gay men from San Francisco. (It’s difficult to imagine Thomson, the Pentecostals and San Francisco gays in close proximity during the late 50s.)
Michael Murphy and his friend Richard Price leased the land from Michael’s grandmother in 1962 with the idea of creating a center for non-traditional studies free from the restraints of academia. Encouraged by Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Gregory Bateson, they founded Esalen. Workshops on encounter groups, sensory awakening, and gestalt awareness were soon being offered. The faculty was close to a who’s who of the human potential movement. Included among the luminaries were Joseph Campbell, Abraham Maslow, Arnold Toynbee, Ansel Adams, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Linus Pauling, Carl Rogers, BF Skinner, and Fritz Perls. I was amused at how many of these people have written books that I’ve read over the years, which I guess says something about me.
While my trip down the coast wasn’t to be, I did drive the few miles I could and captured enough photos to provide a feel for Big Sur country— but the dramatic, thousand-foot cliffs you find further south along the coast are absent. Those will have to wait for another trip. Maybe I’ll take a class at Esalen and re-up my New Age credentials. (grin)
NEXT BLOG: Join me as I encounter Patty Hearst, a.k.a. Tanya, and her kidnappers/comrades, the 1970s terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
I’ll be out backpacking by myself for several days, which means I will be totally away from any internet connections. I did pick up a Spot Gen 3 Satellite GPS messenger at REI yesterday, however. If I break a leg, I can hit the SOS button and shoot out a message to local emergency responders with my exact location. Peggy worried enough about me when I went off traipsing in the wilderness by myself when I was a brash young man of 60. Now I am an older, more mature fellow of 74, she worries even more.