Massive boulders the size of houses, creeping landslides and flooding have finally pushed Big Sur over the edge. The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, which had long served as southern California’s gateway to Big Sur, is officially beyond repair, according to Caltrans.
The sink and the aftermath
On Feb. 11, a homeless man living under the bridge reported cracks in its support columns. A month passed and the bridge continued to shift, sinking into the creek bed. A 6,000 pound wrecking ball and 23-foot-wide crane failed to demolish the bridge on March 13, halting the process. The demolition resumed March 16.
There remains a 47-mile closure from Big Sur Station to south of the Monterey/San Luis Obispo county line, according to Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers. The new bridge could take up to a year to construct.
But Big Sur may never be the same.
As of March 10, only locals have 24/7 access from Ragged Point to the Big Sur Post Office between delivery dates and on weekends, but given the bridge’s “dynamic instability,” everyone must be 100 feet away from the bridge at all times.
“Full closures are for the greater public, but whenever we can find an opening or a wrinkle or some kind of access, we try our very best to do that for the local people and the local businesses,” Shivers said.
The closed-off area includes everything from state parks to hotels, restaurants and art galleries. Shivers said many of them may have to, or have already closed up shop.
“This is a major international tourist route, so there’s a lot of impact to the economy — no doubt about it,” Shivers said.
Just like the bridge, businesses are sinking too
From the outside, a small, staggering lookout called Ragged Point has become the region’s temporary sanctuary. From the inside, employees and management are struggling to make do. Coming from the south, Ragged Point is the first and last stop to get into Big Sur. The road’s “closed” signs hang on the north end of the Ragged Point Inn’s property.
Rori Cosma has worked at the inn — the only restaurant and lodging in Ragged Point — for 11 years. For the first few weeks after the bridge’s closure, business has plunged by 90 percent, according to Cosma. An employee, who asked not to be named, said business has picked up again, but is still down by about half. They’re severely short-staffed too.
“We had to lay people off,” Cosma said in a phone interview. “We’re just holding on with a skeleton crew.”
Many of the underemployed are leaving Big Sur entirely, according to Cosma, and some are going to have to apply for unemployment. Cosma describes the mood as somber. Road problems and rain have always been a part of the package of living on the coast, but the 11-year drought eluded their preparations for a situation of this magnitude.
“We’ve fallen into the ‘really not thinking that it would happen’ stage,” he said. “But when the heavens opened up, it put a cruel reality back in our thinking of the way it used to be.”
Cosma said the only business the inn has at the moment is from foreign tourists who may have missed — or can’t read — the signs on the side of the road.
“They end up here and then they’re shocked and upset because they didn’t see the closed signs,” he said. “They just assume that it’s all still open.”
Cosma estimates that 50 percent of their business comes from foreign tourism, as with most other establishments in Big Sur.
Shivers said Caltrans is sensitive to the needs of businesses like Ragged Point Inn — and ones even further up the coast — who rely on international tourism to keep them afloat through spring.
“We understand that having the highway open is part of the economic engine, if you will, for the tourists and for the business people,” Shivers said.
From solitude to tourist attraction to solitude again
For some however, the solitude comes almost as a relief from a wave of tourism that has become unsustainable.
Over the last several years, foreign tourism has overloaded Big Sur, according to Magnus Toren, director of the Henry Miller Memorial Library that also doubles as a sylvan music venue. It was beginning to become packed all the time. Gridlocking and the dynamic weather conditions were too delicate to support the overflowing number of visitors.
“All the turnouts are full with people, traffic jams going in and out of Monterey, and all of that is very concerning,” Toren said. “It was just a matter of time before it became a really serious problem, and we’ve only tapped into the very top of the international tourist iceberg.”
This is especially true for the Henry Miller Memorial Library, whose niched celebratory status of the late American author Henry Miller draws crowds from all over Europe and beyond. Many of the library’s visitors are academics and almost 70 percent of them are foreigners. In a stroke of bad luck, Toren has since left Big Sur to recover from a major hip surgery.
“This is suddenly a kind of critical mass,” Toren said. “[Big Sur] has gone viral.”
By critical mass, Toren means that in very simple terms, Big Sur no longer needs advertising. Toren points to a conspiracy of factors — Facebook and the internet have transformed the way people travel, and have made it much easier for people to find Big Sur.
Everyone who works at the library, except him, are likely filing for unemployment.
“We should share Big Sur amongst ourselves but also be cognizant of the fact that if everyone comes at the same time we’ll destroy the very resource that we want to preserve,” he said.
Its demise hits hard for visitors, too. Devotees like mechanical engineering senior Joseph McGill may never see Big Sur in its entirety again. McGill, who is a trip leader for Cal Poly’s outdoor adventure group Poly Escapes, said Pfeiffer Beach is one of their most popular destinations.
McGill said scheduling Big Sur trips has been particularly challenging, especially after the fires last fall and rains from this winter. According to a report from the Guardian, Big Sur has had 60.25 inches of rain since the beginning of California’s rainy season, making it historically the wettest season to date in 102 years.
“‘Indefinitely’ is a scary word,” McGill said. “Hopefully they can make some sort of repairs so that we can go up there again.”
Luckily — or unluckily — they may be able to. Shivers said he anticipates businesses to reopen once the highway does, which means tourists should be able to travel to the iconic enclave once again, come the completion of the new bridge. For some, it may be a saving grace. But for others, like Toren, it marks the beginning to yet another end.