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In Big Sur, California dreamin'

The road's open! After the rains, a top-down drive to revisit Highway 1's fabled views and sybaritic resorts.

June 14, 1998|By Susan Spano

BIG SUR, Calif. -- The Great Deluge of 1998 ended symbolically on May 21, when the California Department of Transportation announced the reopening of storm-ravaged California Highway 1 through Big Sur. At least that's what I took the announcement to mean (I'd just moved here from New York). So to celebrate, I bought a car, the first I'd owned in 20 years; packed a bag and headed north.

I'd been to Big Sur before, but never in a new black Miata convertible. And never before was I so aware of what the Big Sur coast is: one of California's chief beauty spots, one of the world's. There the land meets the sea along the steepest coastal slope in mainland America, with the westernmost ridge of the Santa Lucia Mountains hugging the ocean for 90 famous miles from San Simeon to Carmel.

Geologists say that this breathtakingly jagged littoral is the result of collisions between huge floating land masses called tectonic plates. Anyone who looks at it would say so, because clearly these plates are not getting along.

But many things set the place apart, such as the artists, writers and millionaire dropouts who have run away to Big Sur and never come back. Because it lies at the overlap of two ecological territories--the cool northern Oregonian and the warmer Californian to the south--its plant and animal life is unusually abundant--including, above all, the great coast redwoods, which spring up in nursery groves along moist private canyons no farther south than about Salmon Creek. Guarded by the secretive Santa Lucias and a citizenry that tolerates only a minimum of development, Big Sur remains, to the average tourist's eye, almost as pristine as when condors flew freely over it and the Portuguese explorer, Juan Cabrillo, sailed by.

And then there's the highway, built in fits and starts between 1922 and 1937. As funds dried up or flowed, work crews from state prisons were enlisted (shortening their sentences by two days for every three days worked), and 36 canyons were spanned by bridges. Part of Highway 1's northern section follows the route of the old dirt road that linked the homesteaders in the Big Sur River Valley to Carmel, a trip that took 11 hours by wagon as late as 1920.

Even so, the coming of the paved road was rued by many who lived in this gorgeously lost cubbyhole, including Big Sur bard Robinson Jeffers, in a poem called "The Coast-Road." "Where is our consolation?" it concludes. "Beautiful beyond belief the heights glimmer in the sliding cloud, the great bronze gorge-cut sides of the mountain tower up invincibly, not the least hurt by this ribbon of road carved on their sea-foot."

Ironically, during El Nin~o's brutal pummeling this year, it was the highway that was hurt the most. Slides, plugged culverts and undermined roadbeds developed in 40 spots along the coast, locking in the little community of Big Sur for more than three months and requiring a massive reconstruction effort.

Caltrans made it a priority to get the road in passable shape before Memorial Day, but a week before the reopening the skies opened again, briefly closing one of the worst patches 13 miles south of Carmel at Hurricane Point. Just before I left I learned that I could take the convertible through, though lanes remained closed in about 10 places, with flagmen directing traffic from both the north and the south.

I pondered long and hard about the route because I wanted the trip to be perfect. Taking U.S. 101 north to San Luis Obispo, where Highway 1 strikes off for the coast, seemed the shortest, most direct approach--310 miles from L.A. to the Ventana Inn, where I planned to spend my first night in Big Sur.

But if I stayed inland all the way north and got on Highway 1 at Carmel, I could make a more elegant circular route (about 380 miles to the Ventana), catching the best views from the driver's side of the Miata in the southbound lane.

Then I heard about a third option, the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which cuts across the rugged heart of the mountains in Los Padres National Forest about 20 miles north of Paso Robles. Accessible from 101 at the hamlet of Bradley, this paved country road passes by lonely Mission San Antonio de Padua in the Hunter Liggett Military Reserve, dead-ending at Highway 1 just south of 5,155-foot Cone Peak. Through the winter it remained an open lifeline, for use by Big Sur residents only.

But Caltrans said I could drive it now, provided I had a reliable car and didn't mind perilous switchbacks. Before I moved to California from New York, I never thought of driving as a pleasure. But heading to Big Sur in a sports car is a joy ride--like having a fling with someone young and inappropriate.

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