Paul’s Slide Changes Everything

To the north near Carmel is Malpaso Creek and to the south near San Simeon is San Capoforo Creek, between the two is Big Sur. Erupting out of the Pacific Ocean rise the Santa Lucia Mountains. The Coast Highway rises and falls here, its winding path cuts through the steep rock and rubble, the highway engineers conjured what they had hoped would not be a temporary two-lane highway along the face of the westernmost edge of the North American continent.

Last winter the Santa Lucia’s were pummeled by a series of powerful storms, so-called atmospheric rivers, long ribbons of clouds that set up out on the ocean stretching thousands of miles back to a warmer and wetter Hawaii. The pinwheeling low pressure systems out of the Gulf of Alaska then whipped these long water-soaked plumes like a fire hose right at the heart of Big Sur.

In the storm’s path sits a section of highway known as Paul’s Slide. You will find this section north of Lime Kiln State Park. If you don’t know Paul’s Slide, you still may have seen something like this place, not so much from your windshield of your car more likely from the front pages of your local paper. Paul’s Slide will never sit still. The rubble field extends several thousand feet from the shoreline up to the higher reaches of the Santa Lucia’s.  

Even on a good day Paul’s Slide behaves just as you would expect a rubble field to do. The rubble wants to continue its journey from high on up the mountain to down as low as it may get to the Pacific’s shore. There is no such thing as bed rock at Paul’s Slide, there is nothing here but a house of cards waiting to obey the laws of physics.

South of the slide is Kirk Creek Campground. Perched on a bluff a few hundred feet above the Pacific the sunny camping site hosts 60 visitors each night. Once away from Paul’s Slide there are a mix of sheer rock cliffs, then in some parts outcroppings where sizable flat meadows extend out and away from the steep mountains. Anywhere there is steep terrain there is in the event of a big storm the chance of chunks of the mountain coming down.

You live here in spite of everything you have been told. Big Sur is to put your life at risk, you’ll come to live among contrarians and wild pig hunters. A good many famed writers landed here, their lives and purses full, betting on solitude, a kind of loneliness writers imagine will help conserve their most precious resource— undistracted writing time at their writing desk.

Paul’s Slide has nothing and everything to do with climate change. The slightly more powerful storms, these wetter deluges activate Paul’s Slide. Since January work crews have been hard at it seven days a week trying to get the highway reopened. Last week with the new road beginning to take shape there was another collapse and the new road fell more than 50 feet from where it had been cut into the side of the mountain.

The setback makes certain the road will not be open anytime soon. California’s Department of Highways is hoping for a mild winter, and with luck they’ll open for the summer of 2024. Harder eggs on the repair crew, the men I spoke with all see 2025 as the soonest possible date for the road to open, and if you get a little Jack Daniel’s into the men, you’ll find out many suspect the road will never open again.

The team repairing the slide are housed at a motel in Gordo. It’s complicated. Bulldoze operators don’t talk to the truck drivers, the young guys are all looking for women, the older guys for whiskey, the engineers spend their off hours worried, and the whole lot of the men would prefer to be on a project that has a chance of being a success instead of working day in and day out on a road with such an uncertain future.

Nobody can say for sure with El Niño gripping hold of the Pacific Ocean whether Paul’s Slide can ever be fixed again.

I’ve imagined a roadside saloon, restaurant and motel in this mix of part truth and part fiction. I see the place south of Paul’s Slide where the barricades are up, and the road is closed. Here a tour bus with a bossa nova singer, samba dancers and her band will arrive. Unable to continue north on the coast highway the performers decide to put on a show here. 

Instead of a slide the roadside saloon, restaurant and motel is threatened with the steep cliffs beginning to show signs of instability. They could break off from the mainland and collapse into the ocean below.

That’s not a plot yet. We’ll need to put our characters into action, some will want to sing, some will want to sell food and drinks. How do we react to a road that may or may not ever open, how do people react to a whole building threatened by a chunk of land collapsing?

Those worries tend to come in and go right out of our mind. Instead, we tend to think about our singing careers, the pretty girls in the samba dancing troupe, when the road will be opened, and where we want to live once our career in show business provides us enough money to buy a place of our own. Almost none of us plan our lives around the climate emergency, in fact the mind isn’t particularly well designed to factor in such catastrophic events.

And that potentially bakes into this story what we can all take to be funny. The human mind isn’t organized to think geologically. Whole epochs defy human understanding. We know that there are such things as 100,000 years ago, we all know that is a long time, but we don’t understand how all that time might impact the world we live in now. Most of us are limited to seeing the world through about seven or eight decades, and that’s usually framed by our education, who we love and what we decided to do with our life.

None of us this makes sense. We know there are storms, but we are not prepared to pickup and migrate to higher ground. We don’t think of moving away from forests prone to wildfire. We don’t expect that there will be record breaking heatwaves, nearby rivers will go to flood stage, or that a windstorm will knock down hundreds of trees in our neighborhood. We are only beginning to consider such events; we are only beginning to build our lives on the assumption that most of what we take to be permanent and fixed and unchangeable is in fact all very uncertain and tentative.

Our climate emergency ultimately means that all bets are off, that everything is subject to change, that we don’t just have to worry about our melting icecaps, but instead there are a wide range of events that can change everything we thought we knew about how we will have to adapt to survive in this slightly warmer and wetter world we have created.

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