This past year, California has had one of its wettest winters on record. In a state known for dramatic weather environments and diverse geographical systems, this has resulted in a lot of weather-induced incidents. This winter’s rains have been especially significant for Big Sur.
Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, the Carmel-San Simeon Highway - these are all the different names that the windy stretch of two-lane road that travels 90 miles from Carmel to San Simeon go by. It’s often taken by tourists driving the long and scenic way driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles (as opposed to along I-5 through the central valley filled with large scale vegetative and animal agriculture). The highway is also no stranger to weather related closures — over the decades it’s had to close numerous times because of damage to bridges that traverse canyons, or mudslides that have covered portions of the road.
In this article posted by NPR last night, it highlighted the demanding nature of the landscape and the toll it takes on residents through describing the alternative means of transportation many had to take to get to work and school: walking. And while Big Sur is known today as a scenic tourist destination that appeals to hikers, campers, bucket-listers, and free-spirits alike, it wasn’t always that way.
The Carmel-San Simeon Highway first opened to the public in 1937. Prior to that, the Big Sur coastline was home to ranchers (the original Post Ranch owned by the Post family), homesteaders (the Pfeiffers of Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park), and itinerant laborers working as miners, loggers, and any other manual labor required in an economy based heavily around natural resource extraction from the local environment. With the opening of the highway**, however, the culture and community of the coastline shifted toward natural preservation and a tourism-based economy. Even this NY Times article contributes to maintaining that image of Big Sur by reaching out to its nation-wide audience to say Hey! Big Sur still exists! And you can still visit it!
While the NY Times and others work to maintain the tourism potential of Big Sur, others are asking, is it worth it? The California coast line has always been a rugged place. When my family lived in the area, people told us about how the cowboys (yes, cowboys) would ride into the Carmel Valley Village on their horses still into the 1980s. Down on the coast, the homesteading lifestyle of the pre-highway era has been replaced. While many homes are still off the grid either running on generators or solar energy, the transportation infrastructure has changed, and the closures along the highway have illustrated that the community is not equipped to handle a throw-back transportation infrastructure.
In contrast to the heavy tourism along the central coast, California’s north coast remains sparsely populated and sparsely visited. Highway 1 continues up through San Francisco, into Marin and Mendocino counties (still popular tourist attractions) yet veers inland instead of continuing along a similarly rugged landscape. Known as the “lost coast” and part of federally protected lands, this part of the state has had a different history than Big Sur. I would suggest that it’s due in part to the (mis)fortune of not being situated between two major metropolitan areas within a days drive of each other.
The popularity of Big Sur rests on the visitors being able to enjoy the experience from their car seat. If that is no longer feasible, what becomes of the region? How does this shift California’s economy? What impact does that have for Carmel and Monterey’s tourism? For Hearst Castle? And how can we understand these changes in the context of climate change on the one hand, and economic shifts on the other?
*This post’s title is taken from Rosalind Sharpe Wall’s memoir “A Wild Cost and Lonely: Big Sur Pioneers” in which she chronicles growing up in Big Sur prior to the opening of Carmel-San Simeon Highway.
**I should note that the highway’s development was in part to more easily facilitate the tourism that had already been happening in the region.
Rusty Bartels, PhD teaches in Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition.