Empty Highway in the Land of Slides

Goat Trails
by Ryan Masters
June 2017. I am walking down the center of Highway 1 south of Gorda, a two-lane road carved into 1,000-plus feet of precipitous marine terrace in Big Sur. It is silent. Buffered by strong gusts of afternoon wind, turkey vultures wheel in the sky overhead, their wings tipping back and forth. Fat western fence lizards bask on the warm, gray asphalt. Creamy white poles of yucca flower dot the steep hillside. Because of their huge, flame-shaped inflorescence, the Spanish called these blooms the Lord’s Candle. They take about five years to flower and then die. The world is unperturbed. Other than the empty road, there is no sign of humanity.
We live in a world that glorifies apocalypse; a perfectly logical subconscious reaction to overpopulation, I suppose. Seven-point-something billion people are alive right now eating, working, having sex, defecating, fighting, laughing, crying, locked up, starving, drunk, meditating, sleeping, giving birth, etc. According to the United Nations' World Population Prospects report, that number grows by something like 83 million people each year.
I have days, as I’m sure we all do, where I cannot stand the sight of people. Not any one person in particular, just the dumb, destructive, petty human race as a whole. Until recently, I was a reporter for a daily newspaper. This is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 most stressful jobs in America. As a reporter, it is very easy to begin loathing people wholesale.
You become disgusted with the lack of compassion; the selfishness. People hate immigrants, they hate drug addicts, hate the mentally ill, hate the poor, hate the rich, hate the homeless. Before long you begin hating these people for their hate. For their lack of self-awareness. For their humanness. And just like that you can begin to hate yourself.
When I was a very young man, I briefly believed the human race was evolving. I was surrounded by other idealistic kids at the fat end of life; kids who possessed an innate sense that their generation was more important than any other that had come before it simply because they were a part of it. A common symptom of youth.
Decades later, I’ve been around the country and world. I’ve watched new wars erupt for the same old reasons. I’ve seen the poor grow poorer and more populous. And I’ve seen the rich grow fewer and more powerful.
It’s clear to me now that a certain percentage of the human race is designed to do “evil.” They are not equipped with the same moral compass. They are free of empathy. They do not feel guilt. They see the world as a ruthless game with winners and losers. And that will never change. Some of these people are better at hiding their true selves than others, but they will always be among us. And they will almost always be the ones in power.
So I have quit the newspaper business for the second time and come to the South Coast of Big Sur to detox from all this. I want to see the Mud Creek Slide with my own eyes.

# # #
The nature of Big Sur is to slide perpetually into the ocean. It is a land of slides. It is a restless place. Yet even by Big Sur’s standards, the scale of the May 20 Mud Creek Slide inspired awe in even the most jaded of geologic engineers.
When 2 million metric tons of rock and earth gave way, one-third-mile of Highway 1 was gone. Erased from existence. The Mud Creek Slide was so massive, in fact, it added 16 acres to the Big Sur coast.
“And what shall we name this youthful peninsula?” quipped my friend Mike Splain, executive director of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance, when he saw photos of the new land mass.
The Caltrans photos that had been circulating around the Internet did not do it justice. As I rounded a bend on Highway 1, the mighty Mud Creek Slide hovered into view. It was gargantuan.
Highway 1 -- asphalt, dotted yellow line, mile markers, white guardrail -- had simply been swallowed in one gulp by the slide. A Caltrans worker with a sense of humor had left a yellow caution sign at its terminus that read, “Rough Road.” Beyond the rubble, it was impossible to imagine a road had ever existed. The totality of the slide was complete. What had been a highway was now just mountainside.
The slide topped out 1,000 feet or more above where I stood on the road deck. Up there, the stiff afternoon wind blew huge, ominous clouds of loose dirt into the sky. It suddenly occurred to me how unstable the northern end of the slide continued to be. Involuntarily, I took a step backwards the way I had come. As if on cue, a bowling ball-sized rock came free. I watched it tumble down the long tongue of the slide, which unfurled down, down, down into the incomparable blue Big Sur ocean. Gray waves broke upon the shore, slowly licking at this new peninsula.
Nothing is at rest. Ever. We are all continually in the process of decomposition and recomposition. Standing before the Mud Creek Slide, it occurred to me no difference between the two exists.
What remains of Highway 1 is buried under 80 feet of dirt and rock at its deepest point. With all due respect to the people of Big Sur who rely on tourism, this fact makes me immensely happy. I want it to remain closed. Forever. I want to wander down the middle of Highway 1 for the rest of my life and never see another car. Perhaps I even want every human to disappear along with this road, myself included. I’d rather be that turkey vulture wheeling in the sky, or this lizard or that yucca bloom.
But somehow, the engineers will clear it. How, I don’t know. It will take more than a year by all accounts, but it will open.
So I will turn from this massive shrug of mountain and begin the long walk back to Gorda along this empty highway. Just another human among 7-point-something million humans. But despite that large percentage of humans who will continue to wage war and destroy habitat and withhold affordable healthcare for profit, I will feel better for having seen how quickly and how easily it will all be erased.

Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the world at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes an occasional column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.

More essays and a poem by Ryan:

Read Lost and Found: Sea to Summit on Big Sur’s Cone Peak.
Read Bosysurfing: The Ecstatic Motion.
Read a tribute to the late, great Don Wobber, Good Bye to a Waterman.
Read Ryan’s poem "California".