Big Sur’s California Dreamin’

Untrammeled wilderness and new age enclave, Big Sur retains its rugged beauty and quirky charm

Big Sur's dramatic vistas entrance residents and day-trippers alike. In 1912 or so, watercolorist Francis McComas described the landscape as the "greatest meeting of land and water in the world." (Catherine Karnow)
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On June 21, 2008, Mary Lu Toren, who lives down the road from the Alexanders, was gardening at a neighbor's house when, she recalls, "I saw clouds rolling in from the Pacific, lashed by electrical charges, dark, beautiful and scary. I knew what was coming."

What was coming was lightning. Kevin Alexander witnessed the first strike in a meadow across the canyon. "It was the loudest clap I've ever heard," he says. "Immediately flames came up, and I called it in." Firefighters were soon battling the downhill creep of a rapidly expanding fire; during the night it moved around the head of the canyon."I cut some trees to act as a firebreak, but the heat was so intense it melted the gutters on one house."

Last summer's Big Sur wildfire, which soon became known as the Basin Complex fire, put the coastline in jeopardy—and in the news. Winds fueled the blaze, pushing it down several mountainsides overlooking the Pacific. Helicopters dumped seawater, and two big Coast Guard planes spread fire retardant, but the sky turned orange and the air acrid. Cinders the size of dinner plates fell on the deck of Nepenthe. The little hamlet of Big Sur, as well as the state parks and many houses, lay directly in the fire's path.

Don McQueen quickly bought a $150,000 bulldozer and brought in his two sons, both of whom were living in England, to defend the family's 70 acres. "We worked nonstop for four days," he recalls, piloting his all-terrain vehicle up a steep service road above his house. Today, downslope, an eerie, ashen defile, once dense forest, is now punctuated with blackened tree trunks. "What I regret most," McQueen adds, "is the loss of so many redwoods all over Big Sur. That means massive mudslides when the rains come."

The fire lasted for more than five weeks, burned nearly 163,000 acres, consumed 26 Big Sur houses and scorched entire mountainsides. Fighting the fire cost the state and other agencies $77 million. The town of Big Sur was spared, as was the Ventana Inn—firefighters there were fed from the gourmet kitchen—Deetjen's and the Henry Miller Library. Because Highway 1 acted as a firebreak, the Post Ranch Inn, Nepenthe and Esalen—all on the ocean side of the road—also survived. In the backcountry, Tassajara lay in the path of another fire but was saved by the efforts of monks and firefighters, who wrapped the buildings in flame-retardant sheathing.

While Henry Miller's former residence was also saved, along with the house of Mary Lu Toren and her husband, Magnus, tongues of blackened earth still lick at the borders of all the properties. Many residents of Partington Ridge began laying in provisions—lentils, brown rice, powdered milk, gasoline—in anticipation of what they believed might well be the fire's aftermath: rain-fueled landslides.

The rains of 2009, so far, have turned out to be mercifully light. Residents, including Mary Lu Toren, hope that a second catastrophe will not materialize. "Look," she says, pointing to a redwood sprig in the scorched earth near her house. "New growth's already pushing through the ashes."

Writer James Conaway's most recent book is Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes. Photographer Catherine Karnow is based in Mill Valley, California.


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