Bridge closure leaves California's Big Sur community reeling

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BIG SUR, Calif. – Almost all the hotels, restaurants and state parks cut off when a bridge on the Central California coast crumbled last month remain closed, but Kurt Mayer chose to keep his deli and taproom open — even though it’s costing him.

Heavy rains this winter damaged the span on iconic Highway 1 beyond repair, splitting the touristy Big Sur area in two and stranding more than 400 residents on one side. Visitors have been blocked from reaching part of the community known for its luxury spas, posh hotels and scenic retreats.

For Mayer, the bridge closure means a six-hour, round-trip route several times a week to buy goods to stock the shelves. He also had to temporarily lay off 11 of his 16 employees.

Yet he’s keeping his doors open for locals who need produce, milk and propane.

“They support me all year long, and I appreciate it,” Mayer said. “In the bad times, you’ve got to try to come through for the people who come through for you all the time.”

The damaged Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge sits on an active landslide, which pushed out one of two columns holding it up. Crews are working to tear down the old span and replace it with a single-span steel bridge across the canyon, which will not sit on the slide.

Susana Cruz, a spokeswoman for California’s transportation agency, said construction is expected to cost about $20 million and take six to nine months — too long for some.

“We as a community simply will not survive in any way that is recognizable without a timely rebuild of that bridge,” said Big Sur Chamber of Commerce President Kirk Gafill, owner of the historic Nepenthe Restaurant, which has been serving Big Sur since 1949. The area also is without law enforcement and public services.

Gafill said Caltrans needs to prioritize the bridge replacement over other projects, or some businesses may go under. He had hoped for a different bridge design that could be built more quickly, but Cruz said the work is being expedited.

The bridge closure also has affected Gafill personally. His wife and 14-year-old son have moved to a friend’s condominium in Monterey to keep the boy in high school, creating chaos for the family.

“We are constantly packing and unpacking,” he said.

East of the bridge, a 2-foot-wide trail is under construction to allow people who live south of the damaged span to bypass it by walking about 30 minutes each way through steep terrain. Fire brigade escorts will bring them back and forth in the morning and evening.

“It’s a godsend compared to what we have now, which is nothing,” Gafill said. “People are going to be in the best shape of their lives.”

The New Camaldoli Hermitage, a monastery known for its ocean views, is among the places that have been cut off. The two dozen monks and staff members there have been working on their spiritual fitness.

“The morale of the house has been really good,” Prior Cyprian Consiglio said. “We are using this to simplify and get back to basics.”

Staff cooks are no longer on the property, so the monks have been making meals. When the phones went down, they communicated with walkie-talkies.

The monks usually make money by hosting at least 15 people at a time on their sprawling property. But with access cut off, the rooms sit empty. An online fundraiser has generated about $245,000 of at least $500,000 needed to recover from the lost income and repair an entrance road damaged by walloping rains.

Getting fuel is also challenging.

“We are going to conserve some more,” Consiglio said.

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Bender reported from San Francisco.

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