It was a just a hairline crack in the asphalt, but it caught flagger Arleen Guzzie’s notice as she parked her white Chevy truck this spring to control busy Highway 1 traffic along her beloved Big Sur coast.
Each day, the crack widened. And grew longer. She watched as a pretty orange nasturtium flower slowly crept, oddly, down the ridge. Guzzie told her supervisors: The land is sinking.
Now that 300-foot-wide failing flank of mountain bears her name — Arleen’s Slide — forever etched into official Caltrans maps and Big Sur’s history books.
“It is such a big honor,” said Guzzie, 64, wearing a fluorescent green vest, her gray ponytail tucked under a hat. “I’m still flabbergasted.”
For years, as the steep Santa Lucia Mountains crumble toward the ocean, a warm and gracious Guzzie has stood between frustrated drivers and deadly boulders. Arleen’s Slide — along with the much larger Mud Creek Slide — have shut down the dangerous stretch of Highway 1 for at least a year.
At the edge of almost every major pile of detritus along the route, she’s been there — cautiously waving drivers through, or telling them they can go no further.
From her perch, a destination for millions of people, “I’ve seen good-sized rocks come down,” she said. “Large enough to wipe out a small car.”
Far from her home in Arroyo Grande, Guzzie endures fierce rain, dense fog, gale-force winds and hot sun.
“Arleen’s smile is like a lighthouse beacon on the stormy coastline,” said John Madonna of John Madonna Construction Co., which is excavating the highway for Caltrans.
She’s cherished by locals for her patience and deep commitment to a hard and thankless job.
“Known her through many, many closures. … Always a smile,” said Kathleen Novoa, a retired appellate lawyer who blogs as “Big Sur Kate” and lives on top of a nearby mountain peak. “I always feel welcomed by her, as do so many.”
If you’re a Big Sur resident, Guzzie likely knows you. If not, she’ll ask for your ID, or maybe a utility bill in your name, because the route is closed to visitors.
“May I?” she asks her partner on the other side of the slide, over a Motorola handheld radio, before releasing drivers to travel over the treacherous route. Both work for a Caltrans contractor, Associated Traffic Safety of San Luis Obispo.
“10-4,” he responds. Or: “No. Hold traffic.”
If you’re a tourist, and it’s too dangerous to travel, she sends you away, recommending a detour.
“You get people who yell and holler,” she said. “I’ve been cussed at a lot.”
There was the motorcyclist on a big BMW who slowed as he approached — and then suddenly gunned it, riding past Guzzie, through the landslide and past her partner, knocking him to the ground.
Or the woman in a truck, pulling a trailer, who drove into the lane of oncoming traffic.
“She kept coming at me, yelling and screaming and hollering at me,” Guzzie said. “I’m dumbfounded, and finally I said: ‘I am really sorry. This is how it is.’ It’s a waste of time to get in an argument.”
She spends a lot of time trying to explain road closures to befuddled tourists. “Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Swedes, Germans,” she said.
When all else fails, she pulls out her phone and shows them her photo of a giant boulder.
Rocks: the universal language.
“Everybody understands once they see it,” Guzzie said.
If there’s a long hold, she lets them get out of cars and admire the scenery. “I say ‘Welcome to my office!’ It’s so beautiful. Most people don’t get mad at you.”
There are moments of solitude and serenity, when traffic eases and she’s alone in one of the loveliest places on Earth.
Then, she gazes out at the vast Pacific. She’s witnessed spouting whales, migrating birds and one vast pod of diving dolphins — 300 to 400 animals stretched out across the blue horizon.
Before Guzzie started flagging a decade ago, she ran a riding stable that rented horses to the public to ride on the beach. She’s flagged all over the Central Coast in Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
Big Sur is known for its fierce beauty, prone to mood swings. She never forgets that, in a moment, it can turn on you.
There are white-knuckle moments when driving across slide zones. Twice, rocks have blown out tires on her half-ton pickup. “You drive over cracks, 2 to 4 inches wide. Or all of a sudden, the asphalt drops a foot or so,” she said. “What happens, happens. I am where I want to be.”
This winter’s storms were the worst in recent memory. “Sometimes you’re standing in a foot of water rushing down Highway 1, and you’re trying not to slip and fall,” she said. “You grab your hard hat so it doesn’t fly away. You hold your paddle, so it doesn’t hit you in the face.”
Then the day came when it was no longer safe.
Only one day before the mountain collapsed, she and other workers were pulled off Arleen’s Slide and the Mud Creek area. It was a prescient — and likely life-saving — move.
On Saturday night, May 20, a million cubic meters of earth fell. Highway 1, if it still exists, is buried under 80 feet of dirt and rock at its deepest point.
Now, transferred to Pismo Beach while Highway 1 is excavated, she yearns for the people and places of wild Big Sur.
“I’ll be back,” she vowed. “I love what I do. I want to send my smile around the world.”