The highway to Big Sur has always been a road less traveled.
A ribbon of asphalt skirting one of the world's most spectacular and inaccessible coastlines, the highway's completion in 1937 permitted a colony of artists, nature lovers, and seekers of all stripes to find a home amid the area's cliffs and Redwoods.
Eventually, the colonizers helped define the Bohemian lifestyle for which California became famous in the years following World War II.
But the roadway also triggered a tourism bonanza that local resident Henry Miller seemed to foresee in 1946. From a rented cottage once used by the very convict laborers that constructed the road, the not-yet-famous author wrote of his beloved Big Sur: "How long will it hold out against the invaders?"
Miller's heirs are asking the same thing today.
They've had plenty of time to think about it. Winter has turned to spring along the California coast, and life has moved on for communities ravaged by El Nino. Except Big Sur. This hamlet of 1,500 remains isolated 11 weeks after its link to the outside world was severed by February storms. It'll be early May before the highway reopens.
Having now glimpsed the beauty and remoteness that inspired the prose of Miller, the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, and the images of Eugene Weston and Ansel Adams, many of Big Sur's modern-day artists worry that they are about to lose paradise to the invaders - for a second time.
Not that they have a choice. This road is now a fixture of the California experience. It traverses the state north-south, defines the western edge of mainland America, and has become almost a rite of passage for anyone wanting to understand why this behemoth of a state has a different world view. This road will be rebuilt.
But Big Sur is a place of dreams, and the current fantasy is to wonder what it would be like if the road never reopened.
Barbara Spring was a dreamer and a scavenger when she grew up on the coast of Wales. Now one of Big Sur's most respected sculptors, she has a hard time identifying where her life as an artist began. The closest she can come are recollections of her solitary wanderings along the beaches of Wales in search of wreckage from the sea: "That may be where it started. The freedom of being alone."
She's had that in spades in Big Sur during the past 25 years. This is a place, she says, where nature "fights you." Sublime one day, treacherous the next. Like in February, when she lost electricity for 11 days and lived by candlelight.
As a weekend visitor in the 1950s, Ms. Spring remembers Big Sur when its population was 100. She's been reminded of that recently. "It's wonderful to have nothing on the road. We've become such a close community. Actually, part of me wishes [the highway] would never reopen."
Up on Partington Ridge, east of the highway and up dirt roads fit only for goats and four-wheel drive, the Emmonses are living on the edge of a ravine with a breathtaking view of the Pacific. Spring grass and wildflowers surround their cottage. It's quiet up here, so quiet that the only man-made sound they normally hear is the dull hum of passing traffic on the highway below. Not now. Taking its place is a visibly and audibly larger bird population.
For Ronna Emmons, a painter, the highway closure "has been a godsend." Michael Emmons, a sculptor, says, "It's brought back the wild and lonely part of Big Sur."
But for all its benefits, the road closing has also brought financial problems. Like many locals, the Emmonses have a mortgage on their little piece of paradise, and that's added an edge to the solitude. Mike works occasionally in local restaurants, a source of income that has largely dried up.
Also facing tougher times is the Esalen Institute, famous for its New Age curriculum and cliff-side mineral baths. Esalen suffered $2 million in damages from the El Nino storms and told supporters in a recent letter: "We urgently need your financial support to survive."
Laura Moran, president of the local Chamber of Commerce, says the community is losing about $100,000 a day in revenue because of the road closure. Tensions are high, particularly among families with children. Some have sent their children to board in Carmel, where they attend school, because the trip back and forth is so taxing. Highway repair crews let traffic through only early in the morning and between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. The only other option is the Old Coast Road, a twisting dirt road through the mountains that is long and not for the faint of heart.
Gregory Hawthorne, an artist and owner of a successful local gallery, understands both the problems and the allures of the community's isolation. "It's kind of fun to have your own precious island. But after two months, it's enough," he says.
Magnus Toren, director of the Henry Miller Library, says the isolation's appeal may just reflect the community's anxiety, which he shares, that "there is a gradual change that is diminishing the wild environment in the area." It's not only development, but also a wealthier clientele and skyrocketing land values that have given Big Sur a more polished feel.
But at its heart, Big Sur possesses "a particular artistic spirit," says Mr. Toren. After a pause and in a tone that suggests he's trying to convince himself as much as a visitor, he adds philosophically: "When the highway is open you can share some
of the spirit with people as they go by."