Slice of Life on the South Coast The challenges of simple errands and illegal campfires

Big Sur | Kate Novoa


By Kate Woods Novoa

I had an appointment on a Wednesday late last month with the Veterans Administration optometrist. It had been a while — six years, it turned out. I needed new glasses. It takes me two and one-half to three hours one way from Big Sur due to road construction and traffic. It is hard to do a round trip in a single day anymore.

The next day was the annual luncheon for the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau. This is when they lay out the annual report for the current year, and the business plan for the next year. I find it valuable to understand the goals of this organization, how it’s intended to achieve them, and how MCCVB money is obtained and spent. Friday was the Democratic Women of Monterey County’s brunch with Adam Schiff. That afternoon, I had a second appointment with the VA optometrist. 

Rather than fight traffic for three days, I stayed in town for those three nights so that I could accomplish all that I wanted to. which meant I only had to fight the traffic home on a single day; unfortunately it was the  Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Sigh. I vowed to relax and enjoy it — but I couldn’t relax. People would suddenly pull over with no warning, no signaling, making everyone behind them slam on their brakes. At least there was no road construction. And blissfully, Bixby was fogged in, so the traffic jam there was only a minor irritation.

But once I got to the dirt road to my home, the challenges increased. Saturday of Labor Day weekend. Lots of traffic on a one-lane dirt road made for an interesting drive. The first was a nose-to-nose encounter with a big 4×4 truck from Texas. I was going uphill, so I had the right-of-way, plus he was closer to the best wide spot in the road — a driveway, and the final test? I was bigger. That’s when it first got interesting. 

The driver of the big 4×4 truck from Texas did not know how to back up. Twice he almost put his rear passenger wheel over the edge. I had visions of him getting stuck, and me not being able to get by. The second time, I signaled him frantically, and he avoided disaster and I was able to pass.

Not a quarter mile later, another nose-to-nose encounter. This time a van. Although he tried several times to back uphill, he failed. His van was not 4×4 and he could not get any traction. After three tries, another vehicle came up behind him, so we both gave up. Sigh. I backed my huge Sprinter van up along the edge. Fortunately with the excellent mirrors that came with it, it was an easy maneuver, even being that close to a 1,000-foot drop — straight down. He was able to squeeze past, between me and a vertical rock wall. 

'I was not impressed by his nudity.'

Not too long after that, there was a guy and a girl camped in a tent on a corner, in an area cleared not as a camp spot, but for road drainage. Tight, but doable. The male portion of the couple had decided to let it all hang out on this busy corner, waving and yelling at passers-by, particularly me. I was not impressed by his nudity.

The only other surprise, which really wasn’t, was the crowds — everywhere. Every possible spot was filled, some with huge parties. Campfires were going to be a danger this weekend. My son, Brendon Shave, was planning on doing fire patrol, speaking to campers with illegal fires he encountered on the ridge.

He has been doing this “fire patrol” for a few months now. Most every night after dark. It gets old, but he has never lived up here through a fire, and would rather not get that experience. 

On Saturday night’s patrol, there were four fires and lots of gunfire. It was opening day of dove season, and the continuation of deer season, but at night? Also, at least one group was using handguns and shooting into the ground. At what? Snakes aren’t usually active at night. One couple was camped in between two groups who were shooting, and they were very worried and nervous.

Sunday, for the first time in a long time, the local CHP was driving up here and he was putting notes on people’s vehicles. I sure would like to know what those notes said, because when my son went on patrol Sunday night, well over half the campers had left early, and, blessed be, there were NO campfires for the first time in a month. Later, Brendon saw the local CHP and asked. The officer said he was warning drivers that fines for people caught with illegal campfires faces fines of up to $5,000. 

Once a month, on the first of the month, during fire season, the employees of the Los Padres National Forest go to specific sites to take fuel moisture level readings. It is helpful to have this data so they can anticipate fires and fire behaviors. 

On Sept. 1 the fuel moisture levels finally reached the critical level here in the Monterey Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest. That was Sunday, the first night we had no campfires. Now we don’t breathe until we get 2 inches of rainfall. I pray it will be early.

There are so many challenges to living up here. Town runs and fires are only two of those. I have always enjoyed a challenge. It is why I was a public defender and an indigent appellate attorney for almost 35 years. It is also why I taught high school. High schoolers are, perhaps, the greatest test of one’s courage. 

Nights are getting cooler, the big leaf maples are losing their leaves, although the valley oaks have not yet started their conversion. There will be different challenges this winter. A friend asked three of us if we felt we had to leave Big Sur due to the complexities of living here, where would be go? Two of us (including me) said we would never leave, one never answered, and the person asking the question did not share her answer. 

There may be challenges, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. It keeps us young and paying attention, especially when there is a young man on our dirt road letting it all hang out.

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Kate Woods Novoa

About Kate Woods Novoa

Since 1985, Kate Woods Novoa has lived in Big Sur, working as a public defender for Monterey County. She started the bigsurkate blog ( during the 2008 Basin Complex fire and kept at it when she didn’t intend to.

4 thoughts on “Slice of Life on the South Coast The challenges of simple errands and illegal campfires

  1. Thanks for you intelligent and humorous writings based on factual observations. Living in Big Sur does have challenges! Having been born and raised in Carmel when it was a small village of residents, I deal with the onslaught of over tourism by staying home, working in my garden, staying put during high traffic hours. If I looked back and mourned my losses, I’d be constantly in tears. Instead, my concentration focuses on creating a haven for plants, wildlife, family and friends, looking out to the Pacific Ocean and my small view of Pt Lobos. I’m so sorry Big Sur is being overrun. It was lovely back in the days when few but locals visited. That, of course, isn’t fair thinking for those who have businesses. Keep up your good work!

  2. It’s still shocking to me to read how much of a public circus the “old road home” has become. I know exactly why even with all this, it is heaven.

  3. Kate, I love reading your blogs and posts…so enlightening. How crazy that you have to deal with so much traffic on your little dirt road…you are braver than I!!!! Thank you again for the amazing insight you provide to all of us who follow you.

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