Outside the Big Sur Taphouse, a little before 9 p.m., the hint of marijuana is in the air. A country-psychedelic-surf rock band from Monterey plays on an iPhone propped on a stone ledge, and Blake Cusack is skipping rope in the parking area just off Highway 1.
“Thirty-six, 37, 38.”
Cusack hopes to hit a hundred, and there is little to distract him, neither the sweep of headlights nor the swoosh of passing cars. The road is dark, and the night is silent but for the hushed voices of the few locals who have gathered beneath the stars.
This is a rare moment in their lives. “You can hear the birds,” said Cusack, taking a break from his exertions. “You can hear lizards running across the road.”
For more than a month, the highway has dead-ended just up the road at the ruined Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and far to the south where landslides have undermined the southbound lanes. Fences and traffic cones block the cars that carry the visitors who would normally swarm to this treasured stretch of coastline. With only residents getting through, Big Sur has slipped back in time.
Conversations spring up on the highway. Wildlife emerges from the hollows, and the community, once at odds over the traffic and congestion, has found solace in the touchstones of its past: the sound of surf, of rushing creeks, the solidarity of their isolation.
“It’s like being in the Hobbit,” said one man watching Cusack. “Everyone knows everyone.”
Since mid-February, the southern end of Highway One, just north of Ragged Point, has been struck by a number of landslides, forcing the closure of the road.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Caltrans inspector Tony Pascual, left, and construction engineer Wayne Walker examine a landslide that took out the southbound lane and shoulder on Highway One, in a section known as Mud Creek along the Big Sur coast.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Caltrans spokeswoman Susana Cruz gets an up-close view of a bolder that came down on Highway One north of Ragged Point.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
A landslide in the Big Sur Valley damaged the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, forcing the closure of Highway One. The bridge, which was condemned, since has been demolished. Caltrans hopes to have a new bridge in place by October.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Workers take steps to stabilize the slope after a landslide took out the southbound lane and part of the shoulder in a section of Highway One known as Paul’s Slide along the Big Sur coast.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Workers take steps to stabilize the slope along a damaged section of Highway One known as Paul’s Slide along the Big Sur coast.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Along with landslides, Caltrans will have to repair the asphalt on Highway One in Big Sur, which was damaged by runoff from winter storms.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Workers climb a massive slide area above Post Creek near the Ventana Inn in order to replace a water line that had been severed by debris.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Of all the properties in Big Sur, Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn was perhaps hit hardest by the winter storms. Falling redwoods damaged several of the hotel’s historic buildings.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Doris Jolicoeur, 64, stands in front of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. The historic hotel lost several cabins to falling redwoods during the winter storms.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Jeannie Alexander, second from left, a medical captain with the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade, enjoys a moment with other residents after she playfully touched the beard of Josh Case, left, an employee at the Ventana Inn & Spa, during a gathering of townspeople near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
With the road taken out by a massive landslide, Big Sur resident Scott Moffat and his son Roman, 4, hike through muck and debris above the Ventana Inn to get to their truck.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
When the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge was condemned in mid-February, residents on its south side were unable to get to the cars they had parked on the north side of the span. One afternoon, they bushwhacked their way into Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in order to move their cars to make room for the construction crane that would demolish the bridge.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Big Sur resident Carl Swanson, left, gives a helping hand to Carissa Chappellet while navigating a trail inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in order to get to their stranded cars.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
In the absence of visitors to Esalen, Verity Howe, 39, helps tend the center’s community garden with her son, Calder, 4. Howe is married to the retreat’s gardener.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Clouds roll in over a section of hillside above the Ventana Inn in Big Sur on March 4, 2017. The area has been isolated since winter rains closed a stretch of Highway One.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Sander Koning, 39, right, high-fives Adam Olthof during an impromptu barbecue for employees at Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur on March 4, 2017.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
With Highway One and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park closed to the public, a walkway overlooking the park’s famous waterfall is deserted. On a normal afternoon, the site would be crowded with visitors from around the world.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Richard Wangoe, with his dog, Zoie, an Australian heeler at his side, enjoys the warmth of a fire as he takes in the sunset from the top of his 54-acre property above Hot Springs Creek.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Rosa Gallo and her husband, Vicente Hernandez, executive housekeepers at the Ventana Inn in Big Sur, watch the sunset at a vista in Big Sur on March 6, 2017.(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
But they know this idyll won’t last long. Caltrans hopes to open the highway to the south by June and the new bridge by October, and until then the quiet that’s returned to their lives reminds them of what they’ve lost.
Once a haven for the self-reliant, Big Sur has grown dependent upon outsiders.
The community is home not just to ranchers and hermits, artists and poets, but also retirees and refugees from Hollywood and Silicon Valley, jewelry and book sellers from Chicago and Florida, masons and irrigators from the Santa Inez Valley, executive housekeepers from Mexico, chefs from El Salvador, mushroom hunters and skiff fishermen from the Monterey Peninsula, interpretative rangers from Oregon and the Bay Area.
Their interests are divided, but they also know they share common ground.
Most came from elsewhere, drawn by the promise of a more simple, more free, more creative life — or merely the prospect of being left alone — but the outside world is chipping away at all that and now seems like the time to ask why.
Once a haven for the self-reliant, Big Sur has grown dependent upon outsiders.
Not everyone agrees when Big Sur started to change. Some say it was at the onset of the drought when California’s endless summer became truly endless. Others point to the proliferation of cellphones when every headlong vista made its way around the world over Facebook and Instagram.
What was once a seasonal destination became year-round, with summers the worst: bumper-to-bumper traffic jams into Carmel, turn-outs used as parking lots and toilets.
Last summer’s Soberanes Fire was the most flagrant insult, a historic inferno started by an illegal campfire that turned mountains into ash.
When the rains came, they fell first as a balm, extinguishing the embers, but then they didn’t stop. One storm after another plowed into the coast with increasing intensity, 83 inches of rain in all. Creeks and springs exploded, and the land did what the land always does. It started to slip and slide.
Pummeled to the north and the south, Highway 1 was the conspicuous casualty. Then a landslide in the Big Sur Valley pushed a column supporting the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge off center. The innocuous span started to sag, and within days it was condemned.