The waitress was slightly star struck when she realized her lunch customer on a recent afternoon in Cambria was Kathleen Novoa — otherwise known as Big Sur Kate.
The savvy, passionately protective Big Sur blogger/journalist/crusader and former public defender, at 70, seemed somewhat nonplussed by all the attention.
“I get a bit of that in Big Sur,” the individualistic Novoa said. “But in Cambria?”
She’d moved to the gloriously scenic, semi-counterculture Big Sur area in 1985, living off the grid and now on her own. Her blog at bigsurkate.blog — which combines stream of consciousness with breaking news and calls to action — has come to define the woman who symbolizes the modern activism of Big Sur and who acts as the area’s online Paul Revere during emergencies.
Novoa’s voice is at its strongest when there are wildfires, dangerous weather conditions, political kerfuffles, landsides and other natural disasters, accidents, thoughtless drivers tearing up the natural terrain, lost, found or abandoned dogs, health hazards, pollution, lost people, or hordes of selfish, selfie-taking tourists blocking Bixby Bridge and causing huge traffic jams.
It was during Novoa’s nearly 24/7 reports for weeks about two of those emergencies — the Soberanes and Chimney fires in 2016 — that many online readers in San Luis Obispo County adopted BigSur Kate as their own, just as her life often brings her south for groceries, errands, medical appointments and more.
‘The loudest’ voice in Big Sur
The disabled activist was in Cambria last week to have lunch with a friend after completing a two-day round of errands and van-conversion repairs.
When you live on top of a hill in southern Big Sur, 5 miles from Highway 1, “up a nasty dirt road,” she said, and 45 minutes north of Cambria, the nearest town, you combine away-from-home tasks and do your shopping batch style.
Novoa had to head home quickly that day, however, because she had reams of research to do on “STRs” in Monterey, the problematic short-term rentals that San Luis Obispo County residents call vacation rental homes.
Her report on that issue was due soon to the editor of the online “Voice of Monterey” publication to which she recently began to contribute. Being a journalist is new to Novoa, but she’s ready for it.
Her blog began in 2008 as a rant against a dangerous law-enforcement decision July 4 to close Big Sur’s Highway 1 to any traffic other than emergency vehicles during the Basin Complex-Indian Fire, with the promise to arrest any resident caught on the roadway no matter what the circumstances were.
Since then, Novoa has evolved into the voice of Big Sur for many with her blog and on Twitter, although she would dispute that. “Big Sur’s voices are so varied and so diverse,” she said. “I just happen to be the loudest.”
Her rapid-fire online reports on those devastating 2016 fires, as well as the 18-month closure of Highway 1 at Mud Creek, Paul’s Slide and other areas, have cemented her iconic status as the person who knows what’s what in Big Sur and beyond, and who shares that inside knowledge quickly and accurately.
As Big Sur Kate, Novoa’s mission for Big Sur is to “protect her against people who don’t understand how delicate she is.”
Escalating fire season keeping her busy
On June 8, soon after Novoa unpacked her groceries and other purchases made on her trip south, one of her many sources alerted her to a fire, on Bee Rock Road near Lake Nacimiento.
So, even with her journalistic deadline and other responsibilities staring her in the face, Big Sur Kate hit the internet with updates. It’s simple: That’s what she does.
The Bee Rock and a raft of other small blazes have launched a fire season that’s already been head-shakingly busy in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties, among other areas.
Alan Peters, unit forester for Cal Fire’s San Luis Obispo unit, said June 12 that fire crews countywide had already dealt with “dozens and dozens” of spot fires and wildfires this season, including the more-than-1,700-acre fire that began near Shandon on June 12. The blaze briefly caused the closure of both lanes of Highway 46 near the junction with Highway 41.
And the escalating fire season isn’t just in rural areas.
On June 10, a blaze erupted in the Salinas riverbed immediately adjacent to the Niblick Bridge in Paso Robles, with smoke and flames reaching above the top edge of the span. Law enforcement closed the busy bridge for a time; fire crews hit the fire with everything they had and contained it quickly.
Wary, already weary firefighters agree that it’s going to be a long, hard fire season. So does Big Sur Kate.
From public defender to ‘Big Sur Kate’
Novoa was born in San Francisco in 1949 to an artist father and nurse mom, who later divorced. The family, including son Jeff, then bounced around the LA/Orange County area.
She joined the U.S. Women’s Army Corps in 1967, then was in an auto accident the following year, an incident so serious her right leg had to be amputated to save her life. She’s now wheelchair-bound because of the amputation and a chronic injury to her left knee. In typical Novoa fashion, she’s become an advocate for the disabled.
After working as a Unicom operator, she married and had two children as she was studying photography and general education, then getting her Associate of Arts degree from Orange Coast College. She completed her law studies at Western State University College of Law in 2 1/2 years, in the process becoming executive editor of the Law Review and graduating cum laude at the top of her class.
She went directly into the Orange County public defender’s office, where she worked for five years. Then Novoa discovered Big Sur. She’d been taking twice-a-year decompression timeouts at the Esalen Institute there, but it was at a women’s gathering in Newport Beach where she had her Big Sur epiphany.
The gathering’s assignment was simple: Write a bucket list. To her surprise, at the top of Novoa’s list was “live in Big Sur,” something she hadn’t overtly considered before, but which had obviously been bubbling around in her subconscious for some time.
Novoa doesn’t do anything halfway.
Within four months, the divorcee had sold her house in Fullerton, quit her job, bought her first Big Sur home and went to work in Salinas at the Monterey County public defender’s office, where she worked for four years. She, her four dogs and her laptop lifeline to the outside world now live in a mountaintop cottage, a 1,300-square-foot home she designed and built (with the help of a carpenter) in Big Sur’s South Coast area.
“It’s a challenge and an honor to live in Big Sur,” she said, “with no electricity and no infrastructure... except neighbors.”
The site has jaw-dropping views overlooking the Pacific in one direction and Cone Peak and the Santa Lucia range in the other. Her second ex-husband, Ralph Novoa (nicknamed “Rock Knocker, from his days working for Caltrans), lives on the next hill over. After a rancorous divorce, the two are now best friends who even travel together.
“We just can’t live together,” she said with a laugh.
She worked at the Pacific Valley School in Plaskett for a couple of years, first in the office, then as a teacher. She then established her own law office, doing indigent criminal appeals for the State of California. She retired in 2013. And then there’s the blog, which has grown like Topsy to take over Novoa’s life.
Doesn’t pull any punches
Big Sur Kate will continue to push for improvements on many fronts, while acknowledging that change has come to the Big Sur she loves, change that will continue. Change comes at a price, she says, and some costs simply are too high to bear.
The crusading blogger/journalist doesn’t pull any punches.
As she wrote in her “Voices of Monterey Bay” piece on the Bixby Bridge traffic jams on Highway 1:
“This is a two-lane road that snakes its way across the side of mountains that are always trying to return to their natural state. It is a tough road to drive under any circumstances, but now the danger has reached epic proportions...
“The danger of this situation can no longer be ignored by anyone who cares about Big Sur; it is now a crisis... the cause — whether it is overpopulation, over-tourism, overuse, over-advertising, social media, or all of it — no longer matters. It is a crisis. It is a danger to the health and safety of all residents and visitors.”