Cambrian: Slice of Life

Journey to the top of a landslide made for quite a ride

The scene at the 1984 reopening of Highway 1, which had been closed by a massive mudslide.
The scene at the 1984 reopening of Highway 1, which had been closed by a massive mudslide. ktanner@thetribunenews.com

What’s it like to stand at the top of a landslide area overlooking Highway 1 and the Pacific? Awe inspiring, fascinating and frightening.

Getting there was even scarier.

We were staring down at a steep cliff face, up close and personal with repairs of what state officials had called the largest landslide in California history. I was clutching a couple of tiny Matchbox toy bulldozers, but more about that later.

The governor was due to join us momentarily.

Was this recently at Mud Creek, just north of Ragged Point, where a one-third mile of the scenic route between Cambria and Carmel is buried under tons of mud and rock from a series of landslides, the worst of which happened May 20 this year?

No.

Our memorable experience was on March 16, 1984, and the governor we were waiting for was George Deukmejian, who was helicoptering in with Assemblyman Eric Seastrand.

The governor’s visit was part of the payoff for a well-orchestrated, countywide effort to plan ahead for the party of a lifetime.

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The slide

Waiting for the governor, we saw firsthand what man, determination and a bunch of earthmoving equipment had spent more than a year carving out from under millions of cubic yards of rocks and goo.

According to reports in The Sun Bulletin’s 20-page “Slide Souvenir Section” on April 12, 1984, that slide “had originated about 1,300 feet above the ocean and 1,050 feet above road level. … An average of 45 men and women worked an average of 11 hours a day, seven days per week” for more than a year “near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park … Workers ripped, blasted and pushed into the ocean more than 14 million cubic yards of mountain,” estimated to be enough to fill the Los Angeles Coliseum 11 times plus.

Crews from Caltrans, Walter Construction and various subcontractors used equipment that consumed about 40,000 gallons of fuel a week, equipment that included 38 dozers. Herb Filipponi, Caltrans maintenance engineer on the project, recalled Friday, May 26 of this year that Don Walter had begged, borrowed and bought the equipment for the job from all over the country.

Ride to the top

But back to March 16, 1984. The governor and assemblyman might have ridden in on a helicopter, but the rest of us had a nail-biter of a ride to get to the same place.

At the highway level, media members and others clambered into pickup trucks and Jeeps, and, as Toni Ramos (Barnett) wrote in the Sun-Bulletin’s souvenir section, they were “driven to a shelf cut 350 feet above the height of the old roadway, dodging bulldozers along the way, to await the arrival of the governor’s helicopter. The steep climb and 45-degree switchbacks were reminiscent of an amusement-park ride.”

I am not a rollercoaster enthusiast.

Our escort began our thrill-a-minute, zig-zag trip by driving forward on a steep, narrow ledge. When that intersected with the next ledge, which was just as narrow and even steeper, the driver BACKED the vehicle up the slope.

And so it went, backward and forward, all the way up to the helicopter-landing area.

Husband Richard, lucky fellow, was seated by the Jeep’s door. “I could see the Jeep’s tire riding inches from the outside edge of the ledge.”

Planning ahead

Why us?

We owned a Cambria bakery, and I was vice president of Cambria Chamber of Commerce board. I’d also been drafted to co-chair the Highway 1 Reopening Committee, a broad spectrum of business folks and others, most of them from Cambria and San Simeon. Among us were: Pete Sebastian, representing area history and residents near Ragged Point; Filipponi representing Caltrans; Maggie Cox on behalf of the SLO Chamber; Ron Whaley of the Hearst Castle concessions; Millie Heath, Bill Wagnon and I representing the Cambria chamber; and several others.

It had been a tough year for our area, with widespread, frequent press coverage around the world about the famous road being closed. With no Internet then, travelers had a tough time getting the latest news about what was accessible (Hearst Castle) and what wasn’t (Big Sur).

Committee members had brainstormed for a couple of months, plotting for the glorious day when the slammed-shut highway section finally would reopen.

We knew we’d have only one chance, one day, to drive home the message that visitors could once again travel our stretch of Highway 1.

Rather than focusing on the “woe is us” aspect of the situation — the wordwide gloomy publicity, continuing soggy weather and tourism downturn (losses eventually estimated at $34 million in 1984 dollars) — we all set our sights on how to launch the reconfigured highway with a huge splash that would resonate around the world.

(Perhaps some of us should be doing that now?)

It was fun.

For instance, when Whaley conned Richard and me into making a 52-foot-long, ribbon-shaped carrot cake for the ribbon cutting, I got even. I suggested tiny toy earthmovers as the commemorative gift for the first motorists traversing the reopened roadway … and then stuck Ron with acquiring the toys and making them memorable.

Gentle payback can be so satisfying.

Eventually, the Reopening Committee took its well-organized presentation to Carmel for a Caltrans-hosted planning session about the reopening celebration.

We weren’t surprised that our neighbors to the north felt the festivities should be up there, but they hadn’t yet determined how that should happen.

What apparently impressed Caltrans and Seastrand was how thoroughly and well San Luis Obispo County’s contingent had researched, planned for, plotted out, scheduled and organized the celebration we wanted to hold about halfway between Carmel and Cambria, within sight of the landslide area.

We won.

And that’s why I was in the nosebleed section on March 16, 1984, high above the neatly terraced new slope, Highway 1 and the Pacific, clutching the two tiny earthmover commemoratives, waiting for Deukmejian and Seastrand, and fervently hoping that our trip down the cliff face would be as safe and secure as the terrifying ride up had been.

P.S.: It was.

Editor’s note: For more about the 1983-84 slide and the governor’s visit, go to http://bit.ly/2rOEVP2.

Highway 1 today

Once again, it’s been a tough winter for Highway 1 between Cambria and Carmel. Sections of the scenic byway are impassible, and through traffic is blocked from Ragged Point to midway in Big Sur.

In the Mud Creek landslides (about 9 miles north of the Monterey-San Luis Obispo County line) rocks, mud and more about 35 to 40 feet deep cover nearly 1/3 mile of Highway 1 pavement, and some rockfall continues. A new slide-created point arcs 300 yards out into the ocean.

Caltrans now estimates it will take at least a year to reopen that stretch of the highway.

At another landslide location, crews are still battling earth movement at Paul’s Slide, 12 miles north of Mud Creek. Workers also are building a new bridge at Pfeiffer Canyon in Big Sur, about 45 miles north of the county line. The old bridge was torn down in March after movement of rain-soaked earth below the structure damaged its support pillars.

But, to focus on the positive, should local leaders be planning now for the event that will officially reopen the entire stretch of All-American Highway?

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