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Beauty Of California's Highway 1 Also Means Frequent Damage

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

California's Highway 1 is the road you imagine when daydreaming about driving along the West Coast in Big Sur. The two-lane highway hugs a steep mountain with the Pacific Ocean directly below. A winter rainstorm has washed out a section of the road yet again. As Erika Mahoney reports from member station KAZU, the natural beauty of the landscape makes it vulnerable to disasters.

ERIKA MAHONEY, BYLINE: There are faster and easier ways to get between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but Highway 1 is about the journey. Every now and then, that journey has roadblocks. I'm standing on the side of Highway 1 in Big Sur. North, I see a ribbon of the roadway that spans into the distance - south, orange cones and a big pile of rubble. A winter rainstorm created a huge gash in the roadway.

Kevin Drabinsky is with Caltrans, the state's Department of Transportation. Of all the highways on the Central Coast, he says...

KEVIN DRABINSKI: This one has had the most large-scale damage events.

MAHONEY: Drabinski and I walked down a muddy trail into the 150-foot chasm. We're standing underneath where Highway 1 used to be. This is a fragile spot. The recent rainstorm set off a debris flow from land burned by a wildfire. It sent water, huge boulders and redwood trees down the hillside and clogged the drainage infrastructure. The highway crumbled.

DRABINSKI: Like many roads in America, this was built in the 1930s and has required updating and maintaining. And we're committed to keeping it open for the years to come.

MAHONEY: Caltrans will fill the chasm with dirt and construct a new road on top. The highway is expected to reopen early this summer. After a long history of closures, some wonder, why not just move the highway inland? Drabinski says what makes Highway 1 difficult is what makes it desirable.

DRABINSKI: It slows you down not only because there's 15-mile-an-hour turns and curves, but it slows you down to appreciate nature and gives you pause.

MAHONEY: For decades, Highway 1 has drawn tourists from all over the world, which means it also draws business. The closure interrupts through traffic, but people can still access the town of Big Sur from the north. That's where Nepenthe restaurant is located.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRILL SIZZLING)

MAHONEY: A cook grills a row of burgers for diners. The restaurant is located right off Highway 1, about 15 miles north of the washout. Owner Holly Fassett says the closure, the wildfire, the pandemic have all made for hard times.

HOLLY FASSETT: It's been tough. It's really scared me to walk through the restaurant and see it empty or very, very, very quiet.

MAHONEY: Fassett's family moved to Big Sur in the late '40s to open the business. Mudslides have always been a problem, she says. Residents know it's not if the highway is going to close, but when. Still, they love it.

FASSETT: I was thinking of that song that John Legend sang, talking about, I love your curves. I love your edges. That's how I feel about this highway.

LARRY ALLEN: This is Bella. She's a long-haired Chihuahua. She loves Highway 1 also (laughter) - maybe more than we do.

MARTIN: Big Sur visitors Larry Allen and Nancy Stone picked this trip down the scenic coastal highway as their first romantic getaway.

ALLEN: Peace, comfort, relaxation.

NANCY STONE: We both enjoy nature.

MAHONEY: They can't imagine California without Highway 1. Construction commotion every now and then is a price to pay, but they say it's worth it.

For NPR News, I'm Erika Mahoney in Big Sur. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.