Before there was a highway …

As I sometimes do, when I make a town run east, I stopped outside the FHL main gate yesterday at the old Jolon Store, and contemplated how difficult life was for the original settlers of the South Coast – you know, the Plasketts, the Prewitts, the Mansfields, and the Harlans. They made their trip across the Santa Lucias by horseback and mule, and eventually wagon. It took 3 days. They camped out on the way. They didn’t have propane to run out of, but cooked with wood. They didn’t use gasoline for generators, but used kerosene lamps and candles for light. They made a “town trip” once a year to get some basics like coffee, salt, sugar, flour, and beans. The rest they raised, forageaged, or bartered for with neighbors. Today, life is easier and for many, “town trips” are considered a necessity and are way too frequent. I surmise that one of the reasons we go through these fires and floods (besides Mother Sur taking care of herself) is to remind ourselves of why we are here and what we love about being here.   It is our opportunity to allow the land to refresh and for us to reconnect with it. We can discover that many of us sit no more lightly on the land than do our visitors. I learned to cook on my wood stove to conserve propane. It works very much like a crock pot – just make sure to have lots of liquid and a tight fitting lid. I have candles and oil lamps galore and the glow of them, vs. electric lights makes for a very different feeling and ambiance. I have reconnected with my library and my dogs.  It can be a joyful time, if you let it be.


The Jolon Store, photo by bigsurkate, taken 2/23/17.


33 thoughts on “Before there was a highway …

  1. “Before” needs a direction of travel to answer. North, South, East, and West are the preferred methods of getting information about a particular spot, but in this case, the “old road” is no longer there.

  2. I meant: where was the old road in the area before the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge was built? Or maybe there wasn’t one. Curious. Thank Kate for all you post.

  3. I cherished reading your beautiful words here, Kate. And now tears are flooding my eyes. I remember being allowed to spend nights with my grandmother and many of her 12 brothers and sisters who were all born in Forest Home, the house that their father built back in 1800s. It sits beneath majestic Mount Shasta, and during those summers when they gathered to camp out they built fires, cooked over them, played poker, drank too much liquor, and their racous laughter reverberated throughout the tall timbers. I felt so honored to be among them, listening to the stories of when they’d walked 3 miles to school every day through up to as many feet of snow, wearing the only pair of shoes they owned, many with holes in them. The family was the first to settle in that part of northern California, and my grandmother, being the eldest daughter, spent many hours a day — both before school and after — cooking meals, washing clothes ( by hand, of course ) and looking after her younger siblings. All but 2 of those pioneers lived into their late 80s and mid 90s, with wrinkles that spread across their faces that gave evidence of the beautiful smiles they’d born. Thank you, Kate for reminding just how blessed we are to be living here, even when Mother Nature reminds us that she lives here as well.

  4. Thank you, Kate. As I drove the highway this AM to pick up Esalen evacuees and take them to their cars, the empty road made my heart leap with joy. Although I know many are suffering now with unemployment and housing issues, I couldn’t help rejoicing and feeling like the 20-something I was in Big Sur in the’60’s. The stillness, the light, the breathtaking beauty of blue sky and green slopes, the new little water falls pour down from the hills; and yes, warm memories of kerosene lamps and candles although my aging eyes now require more light if I want to read at night. We use to see how long we could go between town trips, how long we could stay on the ridge. Is it the faster pace of life in general or my own inability to sit still that takes me down to and along the highway these days with thoughtless frequency?

    Whatever…I am hoping to help those in need, as I can, while riding waves of gratitude and appreciation for the incredible good fortune that brought me to Big Sur and has granted me the rare privilege of living here over the decades.

  5. Yes, yes, yes, to all of the above. Teary eyed with joy and appreciation for Big Sur, and really for what our planet would be like, if only … humans did not consider themselves superior.

    The present ‘inconveniences’ in Big Sur are only pointing to what Big Sur is not!

    …. Feeling an overwhelming love for all that is wild!

    On the other hand, call me a hypocrite, ’cause I absolutely revel in the fact that I can click ‘Post Comment’

  6. There are so many great books about the first pioneers of Big Sur. Strong people. Have you read the Big Sur Trilogy? The first two, The Stranger and Blaze Allen, they are amazing. The third is called The Road and it’s about the original construction of the road and how so many locals were against it. Great reads.

  7. These are a few thoughts that I had shared with a friend. They seem to fit here.

    …On the Big Sur coast we stand tall because we stand on the shoulders of pioneers who saw this land in its raw form and embraced it for what it was because they understood it for what it was. These storms have only moved us a tiny fraction back towards what my great grandfather worked with as he tried to survive on this very same land. We are happy to be alive and to witness with humility nature’s power. Having absorbed the grandeur of nature’s force we seek perspective for how well we have fared. What we face is a mere pittance compared to what so many have endured.

    What disaster has done in our little part of the world is what you would expect – reinforced community with neighbor helping neighbor. Sharing resources, sharing the work and sharing the pain. A better community will emerge from Mother Nature’s little tantrum. It is said that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, and we will get through this. For now we are just waiting for the situation to stabilize so that we can plot a path forward.

    One of the most beloved people in my life shared this thought with me often: “All things, good and bad, come to an end.” I’m sure she smiles down on me now knowing that I have a little better understanding of what she was trying to convey from her ninety years of wisdom.

  8. Yes, I have read the trilogy, Rosalind Sharpe Walls’s book, and dozens of small, privately printed ones. I am fascinated by the history here.

  9. Well done Kate. Brings back memories of growing up in Carmel Valley in the early 1950’s. Village life centered around the the three local bars. As a kid, if I wanted to find dad on Friday night, I would check with the Stirrup Cup first (now Running Iron), Rosie’s Country Club Bar in the back of Rosie’s Cracker Barrel store, or the The Bucket (of blood) located just above Camp Stefani. Occasionally, the Bar at Prince’s Camp run by Rex White was busy in the summer months in Cachagua. The Holman Family held an annual Rodeo and Barbecue on the Holman Ranch…and the entire community watched the parade through the Village and walked up the hill to the festivities on the Ranch. The Carmel River flowed year around and the fishing was incredible.On the weekends in the summer months, families would get together at the chalk rock pool below the Bucket in Camp Stefani. The kids would dive for a ton of Crawdads…and the parents would boil them for dinner. Big Sur was magic for the family, as we spent time camping at the State Park often. Regarding Esalen, it was Slats Hot Springs to me and my fellow classmates at Carmel High back in the day. Nothing like sneaking into the baths, and hoping we wouldn’t get caught and have to pay, or worse.
    Are we better off today with all of the amenities that you mentioned in your post? The answer is no. Nothing compares to living off of the land. You learn the skills that make life doable. You learn to respect the land and pay homage to mother nature. Step back folks. Enjoy the inconvenience and use your imagination and “can do” attitudes to make the most of this. Truly a rarity in todays world, where technology has damn near killed the pioneering spirit and created a society of mediocrity.

  10. Reminiscing – Before the road was fully open, 1936, Frank Trotter wrote of a few slides and how they dealt with one of them.
    Feb 2nd – they had gone up to see Jaime De Angulo on Partington ridge – ‘A big slide came down. We had to shovel it out to get home.’
    Feb 20th – trying to get to High School in Monterey. – ‘Rained all last night. Got to school, had to take an advisory period on account of big slide. Got home O.K. Slide came down the other side of Post’s delaying us awhile.’

  11. The other way of getting supplies to our Coast before the highway was the coastal schooner, steam powered. I imagine neighbors got together to put an order in. I know about Cape San Martin, Partington, Bixby and perhaps Lopez Point. Where else did those Coastal schooners drop off supplies?

  12. Notley’s Landing out there in front of Palo Colorado, Kenny, was a big stop. And from what I’ve read, when the schooner’s landed with supplies, it was party time.


  13. Years ago, after a long winter we decided to have a gathering. We spread the word (by mouth, and CB) that there would be a gathering on the cliffs of Sand Dollar on such and such a day, bring your instruments, food and cheer. The gods smiled and the weather was mild!—–Good time was had by all! —-

  14. Kenny, I have an old photo of a schooner hitched up against the landing at Partington. Aaron Harlan, my kids’ great-grandfather who homesteaded up Anderson Canyon got schooner deliveries at Anderson—when he moved his family from there they traveled out by boat. The schooners must have also taken out product from the tanbark operation in the canyon. Also, at Gamboa Point there are still remains of the heavy duty hardware used to winch supplies up from boats below.

  15. Kenny, Lucia was a landing for families in this area. Just below the cabins is a house-sized rock that sits half in deep water and half on the beach. Set into the top of the rock is a large iron ring. If you have been to the wagon caves, it is the same as Grandpa set into the cave ceiling on a larger scale. My understanding is that two times per year a three-mast sailing ship (probably followed by steamers) would anchor off shore and cables were run from the rock to the ship by row boat. An additional cable was run from the rock to the top of the cliff. Everyone in the area, with the help of a misfortunate mule, would trolley goods to shore and then to the top of the cliff where they were sorted by each family’s order. The orders were placed by mail to San Francisco – why not Monterey; I do not know. From what my father told me, this was mostly heavy goods like stoves and building supplies and not so much food. Apparently the process to land, sort, distribute and haul the goods took several days and involved all of the local families.
    As Kate pointed out, once per year Wilbur Harlan and several other families would drive hogs and cattle up and over Nacimiento on foot and with horses or mules. I always wondered what it would be like to drive hogs anywhere, let alone up that canyon. Grandpa had tack and a wagon stashed at the wagon caves and they would take the wagon on to King City. In King City the livestock was sold and provisions purchased with the proceeds. Those were transported by wagon back to the caves and then by mule back to the coast. Think about that next time you are swearing at tourist for making the trip to town too slow.

  16. Oh, how I wish these old stories would go on forever! I love hearing/reading about ‘how it was’ back then, and to imagine having been there, and making due.

    I also wish I was still in big sur with you all right now, and could share goat cheese/milk, eggs, and produce. Take care all…and I know you all will enjoy the solitude! And please continue with the stories of times past!

  17. Thank you Kate, I just watched ,”Zandy’s Bride”, with Gene Hackman. It gave me a feel for what it must have been like living on the Big Sur Coast in the 1800’s.

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