BIG SUR — When the chief pilot for a Watsonville helicopter company announced he would shuttle stranded Big Sur residents around landslides that isolated them, he figured it was a helpful public service that would be jammed with takers.
What he found after the first day, however, is that residents of this bohemian community, where dreadlocks and tie-dye are still fashionable, were quite happy to be blocked off from the rest of the world, thank you very much.
“This is a very strong breed of folks out there,” said pilot Chris Gularte of Specialized Helicopters, who expected at least 30 locals to accept his offer for rides at a steep discount, but got less than half that.
Yes, locals here are used to toughing out the elements, from ferocious wildfires to flash floods to earth-altering mudslides. But as wild turkeys and skateboarders take over abandoned stretches of Highway 1, the residents who are drawn to live in this corner of coastal California perfection are reminded that being stuck “inside the slide zone” can also mean getting trapped in paradise.
On Friday, after more than a week of hunkering down with both ends of Highway 1 cut off by a series of slides, Caltrans opened for daytime travel the southern end of the coastal route that connects Big Sur to the rest of California. The northern end, however, will remain closed, possibly till the end of the month.
The only way into Big Sur from the north is a treacherous mountain passage — a four-hour detour requiring a full tank of gas for what is usually a 45-minute drive to Monterey.
Many locals stayed put until earlier this week, when Caltrans opened to pedestrians a sliver of the Rocky Creek slide area 15 miles north of Big Sur for a half-hour each morning and each afternoon. A fence prevented them from falling into the ocean, as the southbound lane of Highway 1 did March 16.
Sara Carr, 34, looked like a refugee as she hiked a half-mile up the steep and winding Highway 1 past the slide this week with her 4-month-old strapped to her chest, lugging a car seat in her hand and a 20-pound pack of laundry on her back.
“I’ve lived through the fire, too,” Carr, who works at the Fernwood Inn, said of the 2008 fire that raged through the area. “This is way better than the fire. There’s no anxiety, just inconvenience.”
Big Sur is used to natural calamities. Landslides in 1983 cut off the town for a full year. In 1998, locals were stuck for three months because of landslides.
After the first slide last month, at Rocky Creek north of Big Sur, cut off access to Monterey, two more slides south of town blocked the route to Hearst Castle and San Luis Obispo. When a slide was cleared at Limekiln, the turnoff to the east-west Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which crosses the mountains — a steep, narrow route not recommended for RVs — opened up, giving locals the four-hour option. The second slide to the south now has been cleared enough to allow travel in the daytime, though drivers are cautioned to stay alert.
Most gift shops and some galleries have closed. Motels are lucky to have Caltrans workers fill some of the rooms. The number of diners at the iconic Nepenthe Restaurant just south of Big Sur is down about 90 percent.
“On a normal day, there would be a waiting list and people out the door and every table filled,” said Erin Gafill, as she looked at the empty terrace of the cliffside restaurant built by her grandparents in the 1940s. “But it’s just me and a waitress circling.”
Still, many locals who got stuck “inside” the slide zone feel sorry for the ones left out.
Those inside were “blissing out,” as they like to say, on the wildflowers and whales, sunshine and solitude. Skateboarders and rollerbladers were making the empty Highway 1 their own, and skunks and wild turkeys that are often road kill this time of year roamed freely across the highway.
“We call ourselves Big Sur survivors when things like this happen,” said Soaring Starkey, a former fire lookout, an interfaith minister and a concierge at Post Ranch Inn. “We pride ourselves with going with the flow and dancing with the beauty that’s all around us. You learn to be content in the moment because you’re in paradise.”
This is a town where drum circles meet at sunset, mothers name their children Oceana and Cosmo, and shamans and energy healers thrive.
It’s not just the rugged beauty of the iconic California coastline, or the stunning sunsets that affect the local disposition, they say, it’s the “negative ions from the ocean” and the “purifying energy” of the recent rains.
It even seems to make an impression on people anticipating the Big Sur effect. Local resident Trey Kropp, 31, said he was parked on the southern end of the Limekiln slide for three hours last week, waiting for Caltrans to allow a one-hour window of traffic, when several carloads of people heading for a retreat at the Esalen Institute — a self-described alternative educational center — didn’t hear the order to get back in their cars and proceed.
“They were dancing in the highway. One girl was doing yoga,” Kropp said. “They were chanting and doing group hugs.”