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The Ups and Downs of Highway 1

California's coast road offers a beautiful drive—but it keeps falling apart

Stretching 644 miles along the coast of California, Highway 1 stands as an asphalt metaphor for the Golden State. It links the "Baywatch" beaches of Los Angeles, the sheer cliffs of Big Sur, San Francisco's Golden Gate and the charm of Mendocino. It is estimated to bring the state several billion dollars in tourism every year.

But Highway 1 goes where no road was meant to go, crossing protected wetlands, deep arroyos, active landslide areas and earthquake faults. The challenge of finding creative solutions to keep the highway open falls on those who work for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

Writer Heather Millar drives the length of Highway 1, providing glimpses of the rain-soaked cliffs at Malibu that collapse and destroy dream homes; elaborate rock nets that protect drivers from falling rocks; and the complex engineering required to protect endangered species living below bridges under repair. She introduces the construction workers who live at Camp Wannamoochee during the week, away from their homes and families while they replace the Burns Creek Bridge south of Big Sur.

The history of keeping Highway 1 open is told through the stories of Don Harlan, 74, who has worked on the highway most of his life; C. J. Caswell, who loves the scenery and the remoteness and lives in a camper year-round; and Coy Bright, who specializes in bridge repair and understands the risks construction workers must take to keep the highway in good shape. But most agree that the beauty of the scenery, and the preservation of the environment, make the challenging work of keeping the road open worth the cost.

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