On Friday the 13th, Big Sur rejoined the world. After a winter that saw the region drenched with over 100 inches of rain, massive slides along the always precarious Highway 1 blocked the road to the south just past Ragged Point and so severely destabilized the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge to the north that it had to be demolished. Residents feared more than a year of isolation. But in a minor miracle of streamlined governance and civil engineering, Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge was rebuilt in a mere seven months.
Two days beforehand, my husband read on Facebook about a ribbon cutting ceremony to take place that Friday. Fond of Big Sur and emotionally invested in its well-being in our own small, at-a-distance way (we’d donated to the monks at New Camaldoli hermitage to help keep the monastery running for the months they could have no retreatants), we impulsively decided to see the bridge reopening.
The tide of tourists into Monterey ebbs somewhat by October, but even so and especially with a fifty pound dog in tow it was difficult to find rooms on such short notice, so we ended up in Carmel, Monterey’s tonier cousin. Leaving after work, we rolled into town at about 8:00 and after unpacking in a room so small that it boasted only a single end table and a double bed went in search of dinner.
We drove through the dark, twisty streets of an expensively rustic neighborhood to nearby Forge in the Forest, a cozy exercise in decadence from the pistachio crusted seared ahi appetizers to the lobster linguini tossed with a cornucopia of mushrooms in a lobster bisque sauce. There was a separate menu for canines, a phenomenon I always find simultaneously endearing and disturbing. When we declined to order for Guinness, the waiter brought her some chicken scraps anyway.
The dinner was well prepared and the patio a rustic fairyland, dotted with strung lights and anchored by a gas-fired open-sided brick fireplace. And the conversation around us went about like I expected.
“What is the difference between a four million dollar house and an eight million dollar house?”
“Oh, it’s all about the style.”
“I thought you were heading home today.”
“We were, but you know – the air quality in San Rafael is so awful from the fires, we decided to stay on for a while. It’s inconvenient, we’d rather be home, but what can you do?”
Inconvenient? I growled internally. Dozens of people dead, others packed into shelters and you’re feeling inconvenienced because you’re “stuck” in Carmel? People have had their homes burned to the ground, they have nowhere to live anymore, and you’re talking about inconvenient?
And even as I was struggling to rein in my temper, one of the men added, “At my restaurant, we’re making a new drink. Drambuie and Absolut Vodka. We’re calling it ‘Absolute Devastation.’”
For a few moments I pondered the pros and cons of dumping my salad on his head, but ultimately decided to stuff my mouth with sourdough while deriding myself as a coward.
The bridge opening was rather an antidote to all that. The Facebook instructions had been at best vague and at worst downright incorrect about how close to the ceremony we could drive, but a cheerful Highway Patrol officer waved through locals and politely turned the rest of us back with directions on where to actually park. As he let one middle-aged woman through he called, “And fasten your seat belt!” She laughed sheepishly and reached up to buckle in.
I had expected to park closer and the sheer quantity of unrelenting uphill was daunting, but gamely grabbed a walking stick and some water and started the climb. We had gone about half a mile when a sedan with the Caltrans logo pulled up next to us. “Hey, you guys want a ride?” We piled in gratefully, dog and all, passing other Caltrans cars heading back to pick up more weary hikers.
There were seats and a microphone set up for the speakers, but for the moment people were mostly clustered around the tables of food, all provided by local restaurants – cheese plates and pastries, coffee and juice and a brightly colored taco truck. Most of the crowd seemed to be either locals or politicians, so I felt a little odd person out, but it was a scene that I see played out so seldom that I was pleased just to witness. There was a festive air to the occasion, knots of people converging then straying, happy to see each other and staring at the newly poured concrete beneath their feet with a wonder usually reserved for ancient cathedrals and the Grand Canyon.
Far below the bridge we could see the makeshift trail residents had used for months to get out to Big Sur Station where the road resumed. The mood of the day was encapsulated by two little girls with untidy brown hair and worn shift dresses splashed with big floral patterns who, when asked whether they were glad not to have to use it to walk to school anymore, responded with a resounding, “Yes!”
The politicians’ speeches, of course, tended toward idolizing the values that the little plank trail represented as opposed to the weariness of walking it every day. And yet, watching the adults around me respond emotionally to the statements, I sensed that for them both were true. It was wearying. But it had brought them together.
And it had brought everyone else involved in both sustaining the community and rebuilding the bridge together too, and they all praised each other with pleasure as the audience cheered along. The state senator thanked the residents for their patience and endurance while a plan for the bridge was worked out. The assemblywoman thanked the state park rangers for bending the rules a little to put more boots on the ground, using powers of deputization perhaps more freely than they were comfortable with. The head of the Chamber of Commerce thanked the Highway Patrol for managing traffic with good humor all those months. Caltrans thanked the construction company for working such outrageous hours to ensure completion in such a short time. And the contracting supervisor had a pleased bewilderment to his voice as he said that in all his years working in construction, he’d never had anyone bring fresh-baked cookies to his crew.
After each speech a translator gave a summary in Spanish. Everyone was attentive and no one (other than small children, but everyone expected that) was impatient. When the assemblywoman switched partway through to Spanish the translator opened with, “Gracias por su ayuda con mi trabajo,” and nearly everyone laughed. And everyone did laugh when he looked reproachfully at one speaker, who had read lengthy prepared remarks, and said, “You didn’t give those to me ahead, but I’ll do the best I can.”
We were quiet, and kept our distance, as befit observers rather than participants in the event. But Guinness built her own furry bridges, as knots of children came over to pet her and give her hugs while she licked pastry crumbs off their fingers, and when she finally collapsed to the ground in boredom and stretched out for a nap, a laughing Caltrans employee came by with a camera to kneel down and take some pictures of her snoozing on the concrete.
The only discordant note was struck by a pack of cyclists passing through. They paused to drink at the periphery of the speeches, talking – not quietly – the whole time. One of them mocked a gnarled old woman who tried to hush them, pointing a finger and sneering, “You hush!” When they’d finished their refreshment they muscled their bikes through the center of the crowd, to dark looks and a few catcalls of “Use the trail!”
Finally the speeches were spoken, and several hundred people ambled to the south side of the bridge while a blue and gold ribbon was stretched across the span and “cut” with giant, silver spray-painted cardboard scissors. Then to shouts and applause a motley procession of vehicles drove across the newly finished bridge: a Cal Fire truck with flashing lights and honking horn, followed by State Park employees, the Highway Patrol, Caltrans, and a smattering of unmarked official vehicles, with the largest cheers reserved for the Postal Service employee trailing behind them all in his little white van.
Perhaps it is a kind of sacrilege, but I found the procession stirring in a way that no Pledge of Allegiance before a council meeting or Star Spangled Banner at a ballgame could match. There was a bit of pageantry – a thing that I normally don’t love. There were undertones of civic pride – the politicians saw to that, though in a low key way. But it was also deeply meaningful, in the most immediate manner possible.
People had suffered, and were saved by both each other and by strangers. The mechanics behind making helicopter drops of supplies to residents trapped in between the slides and the bridge collapse involved a staggering number of people, including the residents themselves. So did the planning and implementation of the bridge – from the State Senate level to a civil engineering student at Cal Poly. And they were all there to celebrate what they had achieved together, rather than pointing fingers and saying, “You didn’t deserve that,” or “You didn’t do enough.”
When the procession was finished we walked back to our car, mercifully downhill all the way. We paused at the Point Sur Station intersection to let an SUV with a Queensland Heeler in the back cross in front of us. A park ranger had been cooing at Guinness, then burst into laughter as our mutt and the Heeler discovered each other and started growling and barking in whatever displays of dominance they could manage at a fifteen foot remove. It was a shock, if a delightful one, not to have someone frown at us as if our dogs were poorly socialized, evil incarnate hidden behind a deceptively cheerful demeanor. They were just dogs, after all, doing what dogs do – not the worst of creatures, not the best of creatures, just canines going about their daily lives.
When we reached the Forester, rather than head back to Monterey right away we decided to pop into Pfeiffer Big Sur for the first time in nearly two years. And it immediately reminded me of everything I always find magical about this stretch of coast – the brooding trees, the rippling river, even the hazardous mottling of the ubiquitous poison oak. Every time I visit I imagine myself into a life here – a life, I think, of meaning. No more video games (we wouldn’t have the bandwidth for it), no more politics (who cares while the trees endure?), just endless hours and days of contemplation. But then I imagine myself into the rest of it. A conservative hour to get to a supermarket. The horror of a medical emergency so far from anywhere. The threat of fire driving us out and the threat of storms penning us in – drastically, as the ceremony that morning reminded us.
It would have been easy to be envious of the locals sharing their well-deserved moment of delight today. But then I asked myself, at what cost? Months of isolation – in some cases, as one speaker said, parents separated from their children if they were at work on the wrong side of the road when the bridge cracked and crumbled. The anguish of watching supplies dwindle, until the helicopters came. Hard-won triumphs are just that, and it’s too easy as a visitor to see the delights and not the dangers, to romanticize what in the living of it might just be drudgery interspersed with moments of terror.
Big Sur stares into my soul, but I always blink first. And get in my car, and drive home, to my acre of oaks a mile from the freeway and three miles to the grocery store, where 911 summons help within minutes, where friends flung as far as Los Angeles and Canada are only a headset away.