California’s second most famous bridge – runner-up only to the rust-coloured towers of the Golden Gate Bridge – is draped in haze, the cliff s behind it shrouded in clouds feasting on the edge of the North American continent. The Bixby Creek Bridge pull-off along Highway 1, which hugs the weathered California coastline from Mendocino County in the north all the way down to Orange County in the south, is usually mobbed with visitors competing for parking spots and prime photography perches. But on this rainy midweek afternoon, only a few hardy souls have abandoned their cars to snap one of the region’s most iconic scenes: the bridge’s graceful concrete arch bookended by rolling hills, with the powerful Pacific Ocean surf frothing below. I pull on my parka and join them.
This is the gateway to Big Sur and the northern entrance to California’s most revered road trip. For the last two summers, it’s been impossible to traverse the entirety of Highway 1, as winter storms and massive landslides left significant sections of the road closed for repairs. Now, with the highway fully open for its first full summer high season since 2016 and a wave of visitors expected to return, locals and businesses along the route are bracing for the impact of increased tourism and grappling with how best to welcome travellers back while protecting Big Sur’s magic.
A rugged swath of coastline stretching 145km from Carmel-by-the-Sea to San Simeon, Big Sur is a version of California that inspires poetry and pilgrimages. Author and long-time resident Henry Miller called it “the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look”, while Jack Kerouac wrote of retreating to a remote canyon cabin in the area in his 1962 novel Big Sur.
It is a place where land and sea collide – where redwood-forested ridges plummet to the Pacific Ocean, turquoise waves batter rocky shores and mist clings to treetops rising skyward. Most of the land here is untamed – wild country only interrupted by a smattering of homes, restaurants, hotels and the Pacific Coast Highway, a scenic, two-lane river of asphalt that winds its way along the coast.
After the Soberanes Fire scorched over 53,000 hectares of land in 2016, a historically wet winter sent hillsides tumbling. A landslide in February 2017 closed Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, preventing travellers from San Francisco from reaching the region. Another landslide that May buried the highway at Mud Creek, cutting off traffic from Los Angeles. Sandwiched between the closures was a 58km-long terrestrial island, accessible only by foot, helicopter or an extremely lengthy detour. The bridge reopened in October 2017, but the Mud Creek Slide wasn’t cleared until July 2018, 14 months and US$54 million worth of repairs later. According to destination marketing organisation Visit California, the closures cost the region at least half a billion dollars in economic impact.
Hawthorne Gallery was situated on that island. Pulling over at the elegant structure, designed by famed Organic architect Mickey Muennig, with its soaring curves and jagged angles that reflect the natural landscape, I’m greeted by Shelby Hawthorne. Her parents own the gallery, which features works by two dozen artists, including Hawthorne’s father, aunt, uncle, cousin and Hawthorne herself. “One cousin is a nurse – she’s a weirdo,” Hawthorne jokes with a warm smile.
The 29-year-old glass artist, whose plates appear in the acclaimed restaurant of the nearby Post Ranch Inn, says that everything was a challenge during the closures. “To get groceries we had to hike a mile trail [around the bridge] with a backpack.” But, she concedes, it was a refreshing reset “to have Big Sur back to the basics”.
Across the street at Nepenthe, the landmark restaurant named after a mythical sorrow banishing drug, which has drawn visitors for 70 years, Kirk Gafill says that the number of diners dropped from between 500 to 1,000 each day to around 30. The general manager, who speaks like a local historian and sports a trim moustache that dances as he talks, focused on turning Nepenthe into a community hub, taking inspiration from his grandparents, who opened the restaurant back in 1949, when locals played dominoes in the dining room and the aforementioned Henry Miller would stop in for a game of ping-pong.
“It’s not just a throughway, not just a tourist destination, not just a museum”
When the bridge bypass trail opened to the public during the summer of 2017, Gafill welcomed visitors who’d trekked two miles along a forest footpath then down the highway to try the restaurant’s famous Ambrosia Burger on his balcony and drink in the legendary panorama. “We were getting to share with people we knew had made a concentrated effort to get here,” he says. “It was just incredibly gratifying.”
Squeezed into a chair at Big Sur Bakery, Butch Kronlund, the executive director of the Community Association of Big Sur, says the eight months of isolation were like stepping back in time. The retired construction contractor, who still sports the tan of someone who spends most of his days outside, turned a corner one morning and a pair of mountain lions were standing in the road, basking in the strange new reality. “Once we got into the rhythm, it was an amazing thing,” Kronlund recalls. “You got a sense of what it was like here 100 years ago.”
Today, the landslides have been cleared and the bridge repaired. Heading into the first summer in three years with Highway 1 fully open, there’s a renewed dedication to preserving Big Sur; to welcoming visitors back but asking them to tread lightly – to leave only footprints, take only pictures and park only where it’s safe to do so. But the same remoteness that makes the region so visually spectacular presents problems for travellers who arrive unprepared. Petrol stations and public restrooms are few and far between, and cell service is virtually non-existent. During the high season, pull-off parking spots overflow with cars, leading visitors to park in the roadway. Some travellers resort to using the highway’s shoulder as their bathroom.
“Historically, people came here because of the allure of what Big Sur is. They wanted to camp and hike and touch and smell,” says Rick Aldinger, general manager of the Big Sur River Inn, with a wistful smile. The historic hotel, which opened in 1934 and looks out onto its namesake river, is the first business in Big Sur that travellers hit when driving from the north. Today, Aldinger says, many arrive with a check-box mentality. The boxes? Photos of Bixby Creek Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach and McWay Falls. “Oh, and use the bathroom at Big Sur River Inn,” he adds.
Twenty kilometres south of the inn is McWay Falls, an impossibly perfect composition of beach, cove and waterfall that’s one of the internet’s favourite photo-ops and only viewable from an overlook. You can buy posters of it online, but I have the vista all to myself when I stop to marvel at the cascade pounding an unreachable patch of sand below. At least I think I have it to myself, until I see a man and woman hop the guardrail and slide down a hill to the clearly closed Waterfall Overlook Trail. “Tak my picture,” the young woman demands when she hits the dirt.
The check-box mentality doesn’t just frustrate business owners who hope drivers will pull over for a meal or to stay for a night – it also prevents visitors from experiencing the best of Big Sur. That attitude misses the server at Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn asking regulars if they want their coffee black “or with the moral support of cow’s milk”. It misses a rainy morning hike through Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where banana slugs inch along the ground and ravines bristle in a thousand shades of green. It misses the sweet and spicy ginger scone at Big Sur Bakery, a moment of solitude at Partington Cove and sunset over the Pacifi c at Post Ranch Inn, when the sky is stained in sherbet shades and you feel as if you’re standing on the edge of the world. Indeed, my favourite moments in Big Sur aren’t the landmark photo opportunities; they’re everything in between.
Together with the Monterey County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Aldinger is working on a Sustainable Moments campaign that encourages responsible travel, and Kronlund and other community members have created the Big Sur Pledge, a vow to respect the residents and environment and “honour the spirit of Big Sur as it honours me”.
“It’s everybody’s right to blow through as fast as you can and not touch the place,” says Krolund, but you’re better served by moving slow, pausing to connect with the people and the landscape. “There’s something special here. It has a way of getting under your skin and filling you in a really great way.” “It’s not just a throughway, not just a tourist destination, not just a museum,” says Matt Glazer, general manager of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, which is rebuilding four rooms damaged by slides. “The magic of Big Sur is stopping at the places along the road. Look around. Breathe the air.”
On my final morning, I wake to sunshine at Big Sur River Inn and an insatiable urge to get outside. I dig sneakers from the depths of my suitcase and search for a running route that might gaze at the ocean. I settle on Old Coast Road, and as I climb the dirt path away from the highway, the valley glows golden in the morning light. Around a bend, a family of deer pauses from their grassy breakfast to stare at this panting human, while beyond them, the ocean’s expanse goes on forever. In wandering away from the tourist artery, I’ve unlocked the wonder of Big Sur. It’s so breathtaking that I laugh out loud.
This article was originally published in the May 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine