Whether it's viewed from a 16th-century flotilla or a 20th-century Ford, the near-vertical Big Sur Coast looks like it could fall on your head. The very drama that kept intrepid explorers at bay attracts today's bermuda-shorts-and-camper types who wind their way along the serrated coast on a 32-foot ledge called Scenic Highway One.
But the mountains do fall occasionally, as the ocean reclaims its territory.
And on this month's 50th anniversary of the completion of the tenuous asphalt link between sandy southern beaches and rugged northern coast, Californians have just finished digging Highway One out of the biggest landslide in state history.
The slide at Anderson Creek, nine miles south of here, cut off the isolated coastal route for over a year. The effects of it give insight into the nature of a highway economy and how a strand of black-top draws a community together.
The 150-mile strip of highway between Carmel and San Luis Obispo leads motorists to such gems as the Hearst Castle, the famous Nepenthe restaurant - a gathering spot for artists and writers - the cozy village of Cambria, and the tiny Henry Miller museum. These sites, part of what one politician here calls ''the mental kingdom of California,'' are tucked away in appealing isolation, which turned to economic undesirability
when word of the slide discouraged motorists from traveling here.
Business losses totaled $16 million north of the slide and $18 million south of it, including a $1.8 million loss to the Hearst Castle, the only state park that normally operates at a profit. The area was given federal disaster status, enabling it to get federal funding to fend off creditors, while California road crews terraced the 1,000-foot slide to stabilize it.
''Highway One is a temporary-permanent highway. . . . It's phenomenal that it even exists,'' says Gary Koeppel, owner of the Coast Gallery, which is lodged in an accommodating crevice south of Big Sur. There were 62 slides on the highway in 1983, he adds.
One of these slides north of town occurred near the time of the big Anderson Creek slide and cut off Big Sur completely for two months. Unemployment immediately hit 90 percent, and electricity and communication with the outside world were cut off - and local residents say life was instantly more idyllic and reminiscent of the isolated Big Sur which Henry Miller wrote about in the 1940s.
Because of the ''temporary permanent'' nature of the road, Koeppel, who also chairs the newly formed Chamber of Commerce, disputed the California Transportation Department's (Caltrans) road-clearing process - a $27 million, year-long job that one engineering geologist here called the biggest road-clearing project ever. Koeppel said that the longer the job took, the more the road's reputation suffered, until negative publicity drove off over 50 percent of the normal motoring tourist parade.
A former Cambria leathershop owner, Jim White, says he sold his business because of the uncertainty of the highway's reopening. But others, like Koeppel, find that to be a part of the appealing character of an isolated wilderness, where there isn't even television reception.
Today Caltrans officials do not suggest that their work is permanent. The highway is a popular institution that promises full-time employment for road crews.
Pavement was still fresh at the slide site this month as hundreds of coast residents converged at opening ceremonies. There were mixed feelings about the opening.
Lois Scamara, who cut the ribbon at opening ceremonies of the highway 50 years ago, was on hand to do the honors again. She marveled that the countryside looked as untouched as it did 50 years ago.
On the other hand, local artist Doug Madsen arrived on his Arab appaloosa and complained that he'd rather keep the traffic out of town. ''I can get on my horse and get to King City faster than you can on this highway.''