Playing Dodge Ball with Bounding Boulders on Big Sur’s Iconic Highway 1

Waves crash against the shore along Big Sur’s picturesque coast.

It was raining hard and our view of the Pacific Ocean was limited to pretty much nothing. We were working our way north through Big Sur country along California’s iconic Highway 1 perched on a cliff high above the Pacific Ocean. An orange Cal-Tran’s (the California Department of Transportation) sign warned us to be prepared to stop. And we were. You pay attention to such things when you are driving on a wet, narrow, curvy road with the threat of an all-to-brief flying lesson.

“There’s the flagger,” Peggy warned, and I slowed down from turtle to snail pace. No one else was in line so I stopped at where he was standing. He signaled for me to lower my window. I expected him to tell us that the road was one-lane ahead. Closures are to be expected on Highway 1 during the winter. Either the downhill side is sliding into the ocean or the uphill side is covered with rocks and dirt. This time it was different.

Lane closures are to be expected along California’s coastal Highway 1 north and south of San Francisco.

“We have a spotter just up the road,” he told me. “He’s watching for rocks bounding down the cliff.” I looked ahead and saw the spotter 100 feet ahead. “As soon as he is sure nothing is crashing down, we’ll give you the go ahead to cross the area. Don’t stop.” Don’t stop? Talk about unnecessary advice. A rousing game of dodge ball with bounding boulders has never appealed to me. I was just sorry I couldn’t race through at 100 miles an hour. So were Quivera the van and Peggy. I made my way across at a nervous 30 while Peggy looked up the cliff for rocks— mentally forcing them to stay put while floor-boarding the gas pedal in her imagination. I’m pretty sure her right foot was cramped afterward.

Landslides along Highway 1 are frequent during the wet months. The nature of the rocks and soil in the area, frequent California earthquakes, and ocean waves crashing against the cliffs all contribute. When water from rain or springs is added to the equation as a lubricant, portions of the hillsides go tumbling into the ocean far too often. Highway 1 through Big Sur has been closed over 55 times since it was carved out of the cliffs in 1937. The heavy rains this past season have made for one of the worst years ever.

Crashing waves are responsible for some of the Pacific Ocean’s most scenic views, but they can also undercut cliffs leading to landslide danger. Note the lone fisherman with a red coat perched on the rock trying to catch fish in the pounding surf.

I had planned to drive down the Big Sur coast from Carmel to Hearst Castle on my recent trip to the Central Coast but the road was blocked 20 miles down the road. The rains had caused the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge to crack and it couldn’t be repaired. Cal Trans was forced to knock it down. The transportation department estimates the bridge can be rebuilt by September. A landslide was also blocking the road further on. Businesses along the highway were suffering. The normal thousands of visitors had slowed to a trickle. One resort had even turned to flying in guests by helicopter.

And it was about to get worst.

On Saturday, May 20, four weeks ago and one week after I had left the area, over one million tons of rock went sliding into the ocean just north of Gorda, about 60 miles south of Carmel/Monterrey. It’s in the same area where Peggy and I had played dodge rock a few years earlier. Locals are calling it the Mother of all Landslides. One third of a mile along Highway 1 is now covered by 65 feet of dirt and rock and there are 13 acres of new shore front property. Someone (with apparently too much time on his hands) has estimated that 800 Olympic sized pools could be filled with the dirt.

Who knows how long it will take to clear the area, but Cal-Trans is working away. Keeping the road open is a priority, regardless of time and expense. Highway 1 is regarded as one of the most scenic highways in the world. And I heartily concur. In addition to driving the road many times and camping out along the ocean, I have also bicycled it, which was an incredible experience.

A scenic view along Highway 1 in Big Sur.

The area’s renowned beauty has also served as a prime attraction to writers, artists and counter-culture types. One was Henry Miller, who has a memorial museum located just south of the now defunct Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. Miller moved to the area in 1944 while his semi-biographical books, The Tropic of Cancer and The Topic of Capricorn, were still banned in the US for obscenity. I had managed to pick up copies and read them in the early 60s, before either they, or I, were yet legal. I don’t remember anything about the sex, but I do remember Miller’s incredible power of observation and description. It totally transported me to another world. (The museum has been temporarily relocated to the Barnyard Shopping Center in Carmel.)

If you keep driving south on Highway 1 another 20 miles or so below the Miller museum, you come to Esalen, known worldwide as a center for the human potential movement and new age thinking. The shotgun-toting writer, Hunter S. Thomson, served as a caretaker for the Big Sur Hot Springs before it became Esalen. At the time, the old hotel on the property was occupied by a Pentecostal group while the hot springs were normally filled with gay men from San Francisco. (It’s difficult to imagine Thomson, the Pentecostals and San Francisco gays in close proximity during the late 50s.)

Michael Murphy and his friend Richard Price leased the land from Michael’s grandmother in 1962 with the idea of creating a center for non-traditional studies free from the restraints of academia. Encouraged by Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and Gregory Bateson, they founded Esalen. Workshops on encounter groups, sensory awakening, and gestalt awareness were soon being offered. The faculty was close to a who’s who of the human potential movement. Included among the luminaries were Joseph Campbell, Abraham Maslow, Arnold Toynbee, Ansel Adams, Buckminster Fuller, Timothy Leary, Linus Pauling, Carl Rogers, BF Skinner, and Fritz Perls.  I was amused at how many of these people have written books that I’ve read over the years, which I guess says something about me.

While my trip down the coast wasn’t to be, I did drive the few miles I could and captured enough photos to provide a feel for Big Sur country— but the dramatic, thousand-foot cliffs you find further south along the coast are absent. Those will have to wait for another trip. Maybe I’ll take a class at Esalen and re-up my New Age credentials. (grin)

Big Sur is noted for its classic bridges that were built during the Great Depression of the 1930’s as a means of putting people to work. This is the Garrapta Creek Bridge built in 1931.

Another of the Big Sur bridges I photographed on my trip.

And a third. Bright colors at the base caught my attention.

Even these classic reminders of another era can’t escape graffiti.

Numerous flowers, such as this Milk Thistle decorate the roadsides in Big Sur.

The Milk Thistle gets its name from the white sap that flows through its veins.

This beauty belongs to an Ice Plant, which is actually an invasive species.

I assumed that this was a morning-glory.

Another shot.

No trip to Big Sur is complete without visiting the beach, assuming you can get to it.

Crashing waves are a given. Hear the roar! Feel the spray!

Each wave has its own personality, which varies per second.

Crashing over rocks adds another element of beauty and drama.

An old-time black and white rendition.

Another perspective.

And another.

Impressive rocks always catch my attention.

I’ll conclude today with this blue-gray shaded granitic rock that contrasted sharply with the gold-colored sedimentary rocks beyond it.

NEXT BLOG: Join me as I encounter Patty Hearst, a.k.a. Tanya, and her kidnappers/comrades, the 1970s terrorist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

I’ll be out backpacking by myself for several days, which means I will be totally away from any internet connections. I did pick up a Spot Gen 3 Satellite GPS messenger at REI yesterday, however. If I break a leg, I can hit the SOS button and shoot out a message to local emergency responders with my exact location. Peggy worried enough about me when I went off traipsing in the wilderness by myself when I was a brash young man of 60. Now I am an older, more mature fellow of 74, she worries even more.


45 thoughts on “Playing Dodge Ball with Bounding Boulders on Big Sur’s Iconic Highway 1

    • Brief but dramatic. 🙂 Not surprised about the fishermen in Australia.
      The fisherman in Big Sur was closer to the waves than I would have been. Normally you are safe when you are up that high, but those were big waves… –Curt

  1. Dodging boulders sounds a little scary! I enjoyed learning some of the history of the place. I’ve always wanted to visit Esalen and have read quite a few of those author’s books, too. Beautiful photos!

    • Checked out you blog, Cheryl, and I can see why you have read several of the authors. I can’t think of a more beautiful place in the world to explore your inner-self than Esalen. Thanks for stopping by. –Curt

  2. Highway 1 is a pure gem, I so agree with you, Curt. I love coastal Maine Route 1 and some sections of Acadia National Park remind me of California Highway 1.
    But still less breathtaking.
    And yes, this winter has been pretty harsh for the area even though water was so needed. The rock slides are dangerous and I’m relieved that you were not caught up there.
    I must also applaud your energy. 74 and still backpacking! You rock!
    Cannot wait for Patty Hearst!

    • I agree on Maine Route 1, Evelyne. It has something of the same wild feel to it… and beauty. Certainly there is a tradeoff between the much needed water and the damage, but otherwise the damage would be fires. So we are all appreciating the rain and snow. We’ll see about the backpack trip. I’ll be going slow an easy. 🙂 My only concern is knees.
      Patty is coming up! –Curt

      • Watch out for these knees! We are so lucky when we don’t think about them. The only problem is that we were then too young to remember now how if felt to bound and rebound 🙂
        And yes, rain is an invaluable asset against fire.
        Temperatures are sky rocketing now in central California.

  3. Some of the biggest waves are in the Australian Bite. This is where the real sailors differentiate themselves from the mere salt-lickers. Even with large ocean-liners being fitted with stabilizers many still roll about making for most passengers ( and many crew) to get sea-sick. Helvi and I did not, during our honeymoon trip to Australia from Finland during 1965. We were about the only ones to turn up for lunches and dinners. Even cracked a fine bottle of Suave sauvignon blanc. It was a good omen. (no seas too rough etc.)

    • So far in my life, I’ve avoided sea sickness, too, Gerard. Good for you and Helvi. It takes a strong constitution, or at least a balanced inner ear. 🙂 Now you mentions Australian waves, I remember all of the surfer competitions! –Curt

  4. Perhaps the fellow who stopped you to warn about bouncing boulders was Big Sir. I still remember the day in grade school that my geography teacher realized I’d slightly misunderstood not only the spelling, but also the identity of Big Sur. Thank goodness for education!

    I’ve never made that drive, and never been to Big Sur. The biggest surprise of your post was the bridges. Everyone who writes about the area or posts photos (at least the ones I’ve come across) focus on the rocks, the sea, the precipitous drop. That’s all well and good, but those bridges are flat cool. Thanks for including them!

    • Speaking of objects crashing into other objects, I noticed the Japanese Coast Guard was assisting the USS Fitzgerald after that weird event, and thought about your son. How a Navy ship and a container ship can run into each other in open water with clear conditions is just beyond me. I’m anxious to hear how this one sorts out. It has been amusing to read all the “what really happeneds” from people who clearly don’t know the pointy end of a boat from the flat end.

      • I talked to Tony today. I should have asked him. We were too busy discussing the tree house he is building at the backpack trip I am going on. And you are right. One would think with all of the modern navigation equipment, it couldn’t happen. I am reminded of the fairy boat captain who grounded his ship near Seattle because he wanted to wave at his girlfriend. –Curt

    • Always have loved the bridges, Linda. They are a lot like we have in Oregon, at least the ones that were built by WPA during the Depression. The new one that is Cal Trans is building totally lacks the class, as least as far as I can see.
      Laughed about the Big Sir! –Curt

  5. I hitch-hiked that road, slept on those beaches and camped in the canyons so many times that I could have been considered a resident – but that was a long time ago.

    • My experiences tend to go back in history a bit as well… to the 60s and 70s. (grin) Suspect you have some good stories! I make a point of returning every few years, however. It is still wonderful and wild. –Curt

  6. So glad I found your blog. Loved the story, and the pictures are too beautiful for words. I have this ongoing fascination with Big Sur in the ’60s that I sometimes have to put on hold for the sake of my own sanity. But, since I found your blog, can’t hurt to ask, do you know of any stories / legends about the place being either haunted or containing spirits / energy? I know they filmed Incubus there, and the common wisdom was that the movie itself spelled bad luck, but that’s about it.

    Like I said, I’m researching it on an on-again, off-again basis, but thought I’d ask. Besides, it’s much more fun that way.

    • Hi, Helsinki-Budapest. Thanks for stopping by. I’ve been in love with Big Sur for a long time. Occasionally, I have written about ghosts, and have possibly had an encounter or two. 🙂 Don’t know much about the haunts of Big Sur, but I do know it is a magical place! –Curt

  7. Pingback: Playing Dodge Ball with Bounding Boulders on Big Sur’s Iconic Highway 1 — Wandering through Time and Place | World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum.

  8. Yikes! That is one hairy road and I hope they can open it up soon again! There is such a creative energy about the area and yeah, imagine signing up to Esalen!😀 The photographs are stunning and as we are roasting in a real heatwave I fancy walking into those waves to cool off…reckon they’re rather ferocious though! 😀

    • Have to watch those waves! Might go for more of a swim than you were planning on depending on undertow. But one thing is guaranteed, you’d cool off. The northwest is noted for it’s cold current.
      We too have been experiencing a heat wave, Annika— a week of over 100 + F days. 🙂
      Esalen would be a trip. I have a friend who goes down every year for a session. –Curt

    • I had a large rock just missed me a couple of years ago as I was driving a back road over to the coast here, Juliann. I saw it as it went dashing by the front of my car. Usually I just see the rocks after they have fallen. And the Big Sur experience was weird! –Curt

  9. . Only got out of my car once and that was to visit Point Lobos – this makes me wish I’d stopped more often and for longer …

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