Battered by winter storms, Big Sur is cut in half - and cut off from California

Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 has been closed and condemned because of damage from storms in Big Sur.
Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Highway 1 has been closed and condemned because of damage from storms in Big Sur. Bay Area News Group

Isolated residents of this breathtaking coastal retreat are surviving through stockpiled food, airlifts and cooperation after this wild winter’s storms have cut off Big Sur, buckling a bridge and burying the asphalt along America’s most picturesque highway.

One key bridge could be out of service for a year; its demolition is set for Monday. Instead of the rich and famous dropping by for spa treatments at the Post Ranch and Ventana Inn, helicopters are dropping supplies to about 450 remaining residents of this glorious ZIP code. The community has turned to self-governing; there’s no law enforcement, elected officials, public services or tourists.

For three weeks, Big Sur has not only been cut off from California – it’s also been cut in half.

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“Before, with other natural disasters, we were isolated as all one, together,” said Jon Knight, fire captain with the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade, who lives south of the debilitated Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, while his wife and young daughter have moved north, for her work. “The problem with this is that it’s divided the community right in half.”

South of the downed bridge are the fire station; post office; and Big Sur’s famous but now-shuttered retreats like Nepenthe restaurant, Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, Post Ranch Inn, Ventana Inn and the Esalen Institute. To the north: schools, medical care, grocery stores, hardware stores, livestock supplies and almost all the locals’ homes.

Starting Friday, a steep and narrow half-mile footpath opened for 15 minutes at a time, three times a day, linking both sides of Big Sur’s divide.

Highway 1 is eerily silent here and could be out of service for a year, which will cancel anyone’s plans to make the classic coastal drive between Northern and Southern California.

“We’re severed in half … with two of the most amazing cul-de-sacs in the world,” said Big Sur native Kirk Gafill, manager of the world-famous Nepenthe.

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The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge’s failure has stunned this community, highly dependent on nearby Monterey and the San Francisco Bay Area to the north. And while the route south is now partially open after a landslide, the little towns of Cambria and Lucia can’t meet all of Big Sur’s needs.

Unlike the famed bridges that cross Bixby Creek, Rocky Creek, Big Creek and others, Pfeiffer Canyon is a short and modest bridge, ignored by even longtime residents. Marked mostly by the change from asphalt to concrete, it looks more like a viaduct.

“This was not on our radar” – but it’s geographically essential, said Martha Karstens, chief of the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade, whose firefighting team is now divided in half.

The storms caused no fatalities, but guests were rushed to safety before a January landslide damaged the historic Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, where three handmade cabins have been lost to mudslides and eight falling redwoods. The Inn, a nonprofit organization, is seeking funds to help its employees and to rebuild.

Big Sur’s businesses quickly shut down, and the community shifted to surviving.

“We really buckled down,” said Doris Jolicoeur of Deetjen’s. They rationed food, such as fresh fish from Monterey Bay and salads from Salinas, which had been well-stocked for Valentine’s Day guests. Propane fuel was saved to keep refrigerators and freezers running.

Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn General Manager Doris Jolicoeur stands in the damaged Stokes House in Big Sur on Wednesday. Lipo Ching - Bay Area News Group

At Nepenthe, Gafill said, “we went through the perishables first. Now we’re looking at variations of sliced onions, potatoes, pasta, rice and a lot of hot sauce, to create flavor. Every once in awhile, someone shows up with fresh chanterelle mushrooms.”

But at homes, supplies have begun to run low. To help feed their three young children, Molly and Scott Moffat backpacked 120 pounds of food, bought at Costco by a family member, to their isolated ridgetop home. They also made a second trip for chainsaws and gasoline.

When hay and grain ran low, the ASPCA bought 400 pounds of feed in Salinas for the Moffats’ animals, then arranged for it to be dropped by air.

“The kids saw the helicopter and were so excited, saying ‘It’s an angel!’” Molly said.

Butch Kronlund drove up driveways, asking more than 400 residents to list their essential needs.

“I knocked on every door,” said Kronlund, president of the Coast Property Owners Association, which is also seeking donations. “There were a few guys in cabins counting bullets, the Ted Kaczynskis, but most people were so stoked and happy that we cared.”

Volunteers went to the Safeway in Carmel at 3 a.m. one morning to buy groceries, which helicopters dropped onto nine pallets that were loaded onto Kronlund’s truck for delivery.

“We’re not getting mail,” said Richard Villa, 69, whose cars and horse trailer were submerged by a mudslide.

Families miss each other and connect by phone, said Viancy Cortez, 24. “It’s been hard. My dad, sister and boyfriend are on the other side.”

Jeannie Alexander, center, and Scarlet Moffat, 6, left, offer cookies to EMT Roman Rosas, right, on the south side of the closed Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge on Wednesday. Lipo Ching - Bay Area News Group

About 1,000 residents are out of work, and jobs may be slow to recover. Those who are still here fear injury or illness, which means being carried out through the forest or in a $30,000 helicopter ride to a local hospital.

Fuel is dwindling at the only gas station, down to 2,000 gallons from 5,900 gallons before the storms.

Meanwhile, Mother Nature has emerged, evoking a time when the region was an unexplored and unmapped wilderness. And Esalen has opened its famed hot baths to locals.

“I am hearing the creek running down the canyon below us for the first time in my life. There are no cars, no people,” said Erin Gafill, a landscape artist. “Waking up this morning, I heard five distinct bird calls.”

Neighbors stroll down the center of Highway 1, exchanging greetings. “It’s like having Main Street right here,” said Jeanne Alexander, a nurse who volunteers with the fire brigade. “We’re taking the time to breathe and just be with Big Sur.”

But there is anxiety over the future. The foot path will only help the able-bodied, during daylight hours. And it may not be enough to support all the employees needed to staff the famed retreats.

“How long will the new bridge take? Is there room for a bypass, for temporary transit, until it’s done? “ asked Kirk Gafill. “With this access shut down, will it change people’s travel plans? Will it change decisions to come to coastal California?

“We are going to reopen. When we do, it will be beautiful.”

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