By Kate Woods Novoa
Slides on the South Coast are common. We are used to it. I often say that it is not a matter of if the road will close, it is only a question of when, where and for how long.
Highway 1 is the lifeline for our community and the road that services both tourists and residents alike. It is also the road that most residential enclaves count on for access to town. A slide on one end or the other makes access difficult; slides on both sides makes it impossible. And that’s the situation we are facing after the January storms.
There are accessibility options, but none of them are good. Nacimiento-Fergusson Road has been closed since the Dolan Fire of 2020. It was severely damaged in the fire and then in the rains that followed. There are several dirt back roads that are under various jurisdictions. Los Burros Road is a county road and the responsibility for maintaining it is Monterey County’s, but work crews usually only come once a year to grade it. Plaskett is a combination county road (first 1.3 miles) and U.S. Forest Service road. South Coast Ridge Road is also a Forest Service responsibility. These usually get graded once a year as well. They all eventually lead to Highway 1 and/or Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.
It has always been difficult and complicated to live in the South Coast of Big Sur — just read any of the histories of this area as found in books like Rosalind Sharpe Wall’s stories in “The Wild Coast” and “Lonely.” Town resupply runs are usually planned out days, if not weeks, in advance. I start planning mine the day I get home from one.
“What am I low on and where do I need to go to get it?” Those are just some of the questions we must ask ourselves. My North Coast friends used to ask me when I first moved down here in 1989, “What if you forget something?” I go without until the next town trip. One only does that once with one’s favorites or necessities. Lists become my life blood. I have a minimum of two of everything I can’t live without and of those things I prefer not to live without. When the second one gets opened or accessed, it is added to the list. I have a special place where I store all my extras.
I never really thought about it before these slides, but there is a continuum upon which people’s reactions to life down here may be found. On one end are those who think they can mold Big Sur to fit their lifestyle and, on the other end, there are those who easily mold themselves to suit Big Sur and the South Coast. I have the luxury of having the time to sit back and observe individuals and their reactions to this and other disasters and observe where they sit on that continuum.
I know how the closures and isolation have affected me, but I also wanted to know how it affected others, so I asked a couple of people to write something about how the impact of being between slides affected their lives.
Joking through the hardships and brainstorming solutions
Sarah Harvey is a mother of three boys ages 11, 9 and 6. She is also the secretary of the Pacific Valley School Parent/Teachers Organization (PTO). Pacific Valley is the epitome of the one-room schoolhouse, but with three rooms: one for K-3rd grades, one for 4-6 grades, and one for high school. Normally, her boys are in school four days a week and getting fed by the school twice a day, but school has been closed since winter break in December.
Harvey is self-employed in the hospitality industry. There is no hospitality industry between the slides. Her income has disappeared and her grocery bill has increased at the same time.
In her words, this is a glimpse of what life between the slides is for her.
On a not-normal day, when the highway is closed, all of the teachers are faces on a screen. It is a screen which keeps freezing every couple of minutes because a cypress tree with over a dozen of wind-blown widow-maker branches is blocking the satellite transmission. A screen that my children are on the other side of, in my kitchen as I’m making breakfast, goofing off and screaming with the microphone muted, showing their bare feet, making funny faces, and constantly pressing emojis that fly across the presentation while their educators patiently attempt to teach.
I have enjoyed the experience of being immersed in learning — both my children’s learning, and learning how their teachers have the skills to persevere through the difficulties of keeping multiple children in multiple grades somewhat on track, focused, and at least moderately paying attention from all the distractions that are happening in their homes. These distractions come from normal household things that occur throughout a day, in my case from three boys, and also from distractions that come from trying to participate in learning while we are in the middle of an isolated FEMA disaster zone.
The day that rain was falling down the mountain we live on in such torrents that it jumped the culvert and made a car-sized hole in our driveway, my 11-year-old’s teacher kindly allowed him extra time off the screen so (my son) could use his manpower to help us fill and place recycled plastic grocery bags filled with mud, and shovel swales to divert the water.
Harvey shares with me that the PTO has been a lifeline. Members communicate with each other through a text thread they set up, as some of them are within the closure area, and others are outside it. Their communication is constant. There is solidarity in knowing that all the parents are experiencing similar lifestyle changes.
“We find a way to joke through the hardships,” she said. “And when the going gets really tough, we have a way of brainstorming solutions that always leaves me feeling proud.”
That’s what they did when they realized that many of the families of the students at Pacific Valley School were hurting financially. They set up a GoFundMe that has been successful. It can be found here.
Harvey explains that part of the reason for a GoFundMe is the red tape required to apply for EDD, grants, etc.:
I find myself lost in the disaster EDD (Employment Development Department) system as a self-employed hospitality person, I am becoming more reliant as time goes on on the grants from CABS [Community Association of Big Sur], the SCCLT [South Coast Community Land Trust], and our GoFundMe fundraiser. I have spent over five hours between the internet and phone attempting to apply (to EDD) and have gotten nowhere. I have spent hours doing the identification requirement and then getting well into the application only for an error to occur and redirect me to the beginning, with all the information I had provided deleted. I called and the wait to speak with a representative was 30 minutes, so I chose the call-back option. They never called back. I plan on contacting governmental agencies on Monday to ask for assistance because this maze is clearly not meant to be navigated by mothers who are home-schooling their children.
The stubbornness of Los Burros Road
Ellen Hall is the K-3rd grade teacher at the school. She has no internet at home, so she must go to the school to teach her students on all sides of the slides. Her husband, Bill Volpe, owns an excavator. The dirt county road, Los Burros, which provides access to Highway 1 and which she travels to get to school, was undermined. Volpe and another neighbor, Ron Villa, who owns a backhoe, managed to provide a temporary fix, so Hall could get to her students.
In addition to the slip-out on Los Burros Road, the very long arduous way out the back to the USFS-managed South Coast Ridge Road had a serious slide that blocked it. Then the temporary fix on Los Burros Road gave out and several dozen people who depend on the road were literally trapped. Volpe and Villa went to work on the county road again and provided a temporary fix and then went out to the USFS road and cleared the slide. It is still pretty treacherous and at least one resident lost a front bumper trying to navigate it.
The Community Association of Big Sur, through the efforts of board member Tom Collins, who lives down here, Tom Collins, is paying for a load of rock to be brought into the USFS road. It commissioned Dave Martin of Black Tail Engineering to do the work. This road will be the only route for resupplying the residents of Los Burros with propane, as the 4×4 truck is too large to go up Los Burros until the slip-out gets fixed.
We are all “off grid” down here. There is no commercial power for a 30-plus mile stretch and never has been. We generate our own power with solar, backed up by generators. Some generators run on propane, not gasoline or diesel. We also use propane for hot water, refrigeration, and cooking. So propane delivery access is critical for our survival.
Caltrans workers have families too
The state Transportation Department is a part of our community. The Caltrans children go to our school like everyone else. The spouses join the PTO and help out the school. But being a Caltrans spouse during the winter is fraught with difficulties. I know. I was a Caltrans wife for nine years.
The hours are long and difficult during the winter. All a spouse can be counted on for is getting up at dawn and having coffee and something to eat, packing lunch and snack for a very long day. He or she comes home, eats dinner and falls asleep in the chair.
“We were pleasantly surprised when we moved here (from Idyllwild) that there were no night shifts,” said Katie Day, a Caltrans wife. “And during rain the crew would be in by 5. What a change from 12-hour night shifts in the snow.
“I was so glad … that the hours and rules remain that way here for nights. I soon came to understand why. When you can’t see the rocks falling in the dark, things tend to get a little dangerous.”
She knew I would understand her concerns, as I had also lived them.
She did feel that this assignment at Willow Springs Station probably caused the most unrest, out of all of the assignments her husband has had. “Life between the slides has been very COVID-esque for me as a Caltrans wife and Pacific Valley mom,” she wrote.
A very few members of the community have been vocal about their anger at being stuck between the slides and have voiced that anger to the media and directed it to Caltrans — not aimed at the local crew – but it still affected them.
“Who gets the brunt of that anger? It is my husband and his crew…. there’s an extra level of distress in this place that I haven’t experienced so drastically while he’s been with Caltrans,” Day wrote to me.
She recognizes that it is just a few who are going to the media to express their displeasure with Caltrans.
The recent helicopter resupply drop helped to reunite and connect the community in our isolation. Everyone I have spoken to said it was crucial to healing and coming together. “We feel the love and I hope others did too,” wrote Day. “After this week, we are even more grateful for what we gained when we came here. True, real people. Look what our friends at Big Creek made.”
It took quite a few individuals, organizations, and agencies cooperating and working together to bring the airlift of supplies to those of us between the slides, and for which we are all extremely grateful. We are hopeful that there will only be the need for one more next week, and then after that, hopefully the Polar Star Slide to the south will open.
Our isolation is not over. There are at least two more weeks left on two of the slides, and for the third, Paul’s Slide, there is no estimate of how long it will be closed. From Paul’s Slide to the closest groceries and gasoline, is approximately 45 minutes to Cambria, a town of only 6,000 people. It has most of the basics we need, and for more, we can travel to San Luis Obispo or Paso Robles.
This week of sunshine has been most welcome for our mental health and for the earth and creeks to absorb the torrents we endured. However, I remind myself and others, it is only the beginning of February. Who knows what storms Mother Nature may throw our way before winter ends?
It won’t take much to bring it down again, so we will run to town, restock on everything we can, then hunker down for the next storm. It is what we signed up for when we moved into the wildness of this place we call the South Coast.
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