A Winter’s Tale on the South Coast Living with isolation and uncertainty during an extended natural event is par for the course


By Kate Woods Novoa

After 16 days of constant, all-day-every-day reporting on the storms for my Big Sur Kate blog, my Voices of Monterey Bay editor contacted me Monday night with an assignment: “Can you write up an article for us?” he said. “And oh, I need it by Thursday morning,”

With weather clearing, this week was my opportunity to venture out of the South Coast and traverse the ruddy muddy roads for needed supplies. During a quick run to King City earlier in the week, I collected my thoughts.

But just as I settled in to write on Wednesday, I was overwhelmed with phone calls and email and I spent a lot of time with a reporter from The New York Times, who was thorough and wonderful. But while on the phone with her, I received a call from a neighbor. The guy she takes care of is out of heart medication.

I have been out of blood pressure medicine myself since the first of January. That’s just one of the nagging issues that arise when dealing with the natural calamities that are so routine on the South Coast. You always try to be prepared, but …

I have some reserve blood pressure medicine in my ex’s RV in Paso Robles, but I can’t get to it because of the Polar Star landslide on Highway 1 to the south. I had some meds mailed to the Big Sur Post Office, but we had a new slide north on Saturday night and there are other impediments as well, so that’s out.

I had my doctor call in a prescription to a pharmacy to the east of me. Good thing it is not a controlled substance, since I now have drugs spread out over two counties, at the Big Sur Post Office, in Soledad and in Paso Robles. One of them will finally catch up to me, I hope.

In the meantime — garlic, lots of garlic.

What is it like being completely isolated and cut off from the world outside one’s own neighborhood? Oh, the first week is heaven. It is quiet, except for the sound of the rain on the metal roof that one has to have here in wildfire territory. The rain on metal may be as loud as a drum solo, but it is peaceful. Except for the howling of the wind and the tossing of everything across the deck and down to the next county.

Okay, maybe it’s not all that quiet and peaceful after all. When Mother Nature throws a fit, we have a front row seat.

It is fascinating to watch the reports from across the state as the rain totals and inch-by-inch predictions climb into the “feet” category.

By the start of Week Two of Atmospheric-river-geddon, or whatever they’re calling it, I think we are used to this. And mostly we are, at least most of us are, but it is rare that we are cut off in all three directions. Some people are getting antsy, not yet panicked, but they are getting antsy and needing to resupply.  By the start of Week Three, when the sun comes out, some tempers have been lost, most found the next day with an apology, but not always.

The events that are my favorites are ones which tell of neighbors helping neighbors, and there are lots of those tales. Most of my stories only deal with my neighbors on the three ridges south of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. There is Los Burros Road, Plaskett Ridge Road and Prewitt Ridge Road, south to north. All these ridges/roads connect up in the back at South Coast Ridge Road. It is about seven miles from Plaskett to Los Burros and only two miles to Prewitt, then another five to Nacimiento.

Los Burros had a slipout on its “front side” (closest to Highway 1) so only the back way was open … that opening didn’t last long as there was a slide on South Coast Ridge Road in an area called “Burma.” A group of six guys and one gal inspected the slipout on the front side and decided on a course of action for a temporary fix, which one of the guys undertook.

Three vehicles were able to do a quick supply run to the north before that slipout gave way. The same local who provided the temporary fix then went to work on the slide on the South Coast Ridge Road and he was able to fix that. That gave my friend, Rock Knocker, a way out and he came and got me and we made our way to King City.

On the way to King City we saw six more of our neighbors from Prewitt/Alms Ridge in groups of two, cleaning off a steep section of Coast Ridge Road that is prone to rock falls. It was the first sunny day, and our own version of a neighborhood rock party.

South Coast Ridge Road wasn’t hit too bad. A few trees came down and some good neighbor cleaned them up with a chainsaw. Nacimiento-Fergusson was a mess, not quite as bad as it was after the debris flows from the Dolan Fire of 2020, but quite similar.

Rock Knocker had to stop and redirect the water at one point because if it kept going in the path it had found, it would undercut the road. That’s happened in the past, and if you’ve seen it happen before you’ll know it’s best to take care of things before it happens again. That’s the South Coast way. Rock traveled with empty gas cans, shovels, chainsaws and an empty propane bottle. (It would come in handy later.) The gates were closed and locked as they have been since the road was officially closed during and after the Dolan Fire due to damage.

On Fort Hunter Liggett, we were stopped by a military police officer. He wanted to know who we were, where we lived, where we were going, and whether we knew the road was closed. He saw what we were carrying in the back of our truck, so he knew we weren’t up to no good.

Another example of neighbors helping neighbors happened on Sunday morning. One of the amazing, hard-working volunteers with Big Sur Fire, Thomas Leahy, checked on a neighbor down by the Monterey/San Luis Obispo County line, where he found his neighbor on the floor. He called in the South Coast Engine crew, which showed up within a half hour.

They transported the patient to Ragged Point, whose lawn is used to land helicopters all the time. The firefighters spent most of the day on phones provided by Ragged Point, with one of them staying with the patient in a room that the business provided. These four firefighters — including Caleb Chesser, Joel DePola, Mike Handy and Leahy — spent all day trying to find a way to get this patient out of this closed and blocked off area and to a hospital.

Finally, after trying so many ways and people, the Army National Guard sent a helicopter that landed on the lawn of Ragged Point and flew the patient and his wife to a local hospital, where he remains as of this writing. It landed in the dark and rain. Hats off to this pilot and to our South Coast crew of the Big Sur Fire Department —  neighbors helping each other.

Today, I started hearing complaints and receiving indications that patience lost now will not be found by tomorrow, but will only return when we are “allowed” out of this beautiful “prison” Mother Nature has created for us. Now, with two days of sunshine, resupply runs are being planned. I’m already planning my next resupply trip.

The New York Times reporter asked me if I would consider moving from here due to these hardships. No hesitation: Absolutely not. I cringe when I think about sharing walls or being separated from other dwellings by only a small yard. I love being close to Mother Nature. I can breathe here. Towns? They are for visiting. Not for living in.

One thing I have learned, though, is that I need to keep more than a month’s worth of blood pressure meds on hand. I also think I will get some garlic pills, and stock up on dog food. I am fine with everything else.

During disasters — fire, floods, road closures, etc. — I always get lots of questions from my readers/followers. It is the crystal ball questions I find most humorous. When are they going to open the road? Hmmm … when it is safe, maybe? Well, when will that be?? Hmmm … when it is no longer dangerous? Honestly, people, have I ever claimed to be clairvoyant?

Then there are questions about the road falling, collapsing, sliding and otherwise closing itself. This road has done this since the day it was built, and will continue to do it as long as it sits on the edge of a continent where the mountains are continually marching toward the ocean from whence they came.

We are a hardy and resilient group of people down here, cut off from the rest of the world temporarily most winters, and not just here on the South Coast. Big Sur proper (the Valley) has become an island in the past. It is the life we signed up for in order to live so close to nature in such beauty.

Not everyone can do it or is mentally prepared for it. Most of those people don’t last long if they only love Big Sur during the beautiful days of spring or summer. Loving her during the storms, floods and road closures of winter may be tough, but it isn’t a burden if you are prepared for and can learn to enjoy the season’s slower pace.

This has been one of the easiest winters for me because I was so prepared.

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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 (https://bigsurkate.blog) during the 2008 Basin Complex fire and kept at it when she didn’t intend to.