Cut off from world, Big Sur bridges gap with technology

Cut off from world, Big Sur bridges gap with technology

When Big Sur was cut off from the rest of California by El Niño rains and mountain slides in 1998, there was no technological workaround for its isolated residents. Cellphones were uncommon and social media nonexistent.

But today, with Big Sur locals once again cut off because of pummeling winter storms, mudslides and — the piece de resistance — a failed bridge, technology has allowed them to stay connected to one another and the world.

It sounds almost quaint in 2017: cellphones, email, blogs, Facebook — holy mackerel, the internet! Well, at a time of emergency in a place like Big Sur — always a place apart — those kinds of everyday gadgets and services can make all the difference.

“Twenty years ago it was supposed to work, but it didn’t — the email, the online learning,” said Tom Birmingham, a photographer who has lived on the isolated stretch of coastline for much of the past 35 years. “This time, all the businesses are using technology to weather the storm, so to speak. All the people here are participating in meetings remotely, as if they’re there. All these things that used to be a little bit pie-in-the-sky are just happening, working seamlessly.”

So listen to these stories of Big Sur locals, living since mid-February in an isolated world — but bridging the gap with personal technology.


Jose Gutierrez, wife Martha, and their children live to the south of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, which was damaged in the storms and hassince been demolished. This presented a conundrum: daughters Stephanie, a high school junior, and Sarah, a sixth-grader, attend public schools in Carmel, about 25 miles to the north. For seven weeks, there was no way to get them there. How to keep up with their lessons? Using an online learning management system called Moodle, their teachers in the Carmel Unified School District sent handouts, worksheets and quizzes to the girls. But this proved problematic, too.

“For some reason, we’re in a black zone where we can’t get any kind of internet connection,” Gutierrez explained. “But the girls needed to do their homework, so we’d take them over to the Taphouse.”

The Big Sur Taphouse may seem an unlikely place to do school work. One of only two businesses south of the bridge to remain open throughout the crisis, it’s a place to sit with friends over mugs of beer.

But since mid-February, when the bridge closed, it also has functioned as a community center, a place where families gather to keep up on news of the latest road closures — and to mooch off the internet connection. Owner Kurt Mayer encouraged it — the more moochers, the merrier — and Stephanie and Sarah got to do their homework.

In recent weeks, a mile-long trail — steep and often muddy — has opened up, allowing the sisters and all the other school kids to hike through state park lands, circumventing the bridge. The school bus now awaits them each morning on the other side; no more Moodle. But dad Gutierrez continues to mooch: “When it’s time to do online banking — go to the Taphouse!,” he says, laughing. “Pay my bills!”


Known as “Big Sur Kate,” blogger Kate Novoa has become an indispensable news source for locals — and everyone else who’s interested in the unfolding saga of Big Sur. While national media outlets have published splashy feature stories about the crisis, there’s very little day-to-day coverage. Novoa has helped fill in the vacuum by putting out the word on garbage pickups, food distribution points, availability of gasoline, helicopter schedules, lost dogs and lots more, including the barrage of Caltrans notices on road closures, which can appear contradictory and require clearheaded interpretation.

“I’ve developed a reputation for putting forth information with as much clarity and as much accuracy as possible, and when I got it wrong, I admitted it immediately,” says Novoa, a former public defender who is accustomed to dealing with people in emergency situations.

She founded her blog in 2008 and has since covered a series of natural disasters. Last year, on the third day of the fast-moving Soberanes Fire, which ultimately burned more than 132,000 acres, about 85,000 readers turned to her blog, she says. Lately, her average daily readership is about 3,000, says Novoa who lives five miles up a dirt road at an elevation of 3,272 feet.

Her blog isn’t always about disasters. She’s posted photos of wildflowers, too, and the view from her house.

But lately I haven’t had time to do a lot of that kind of stuff,” she says.


Erin Lee Gafill, a painter and teacher, lives with her husband, Birmingham, in a log cabin on one side of the vanished bridge. Her studio is on the other side. It’s just 4.3 miles away, but it’s only reachable via that steep trail through the woods. That makes teaching inconvenient, to say the least — even on her side of the bridge where Gafill’s spring workshop was canceled at Esalen Institute, just down the road from her home. The personal transformation mecca called off her class and all the others it has scheduled until June, thanks to the storm-related road closures.

So Gafill decided to create a virtual classroom with help from her husband — and a collection of widely available gadgets and services.

“Instead of just losing the revenue from teaching,” she explains, “we created a new way to capture interest by filming with a very low-tech system.”

They shot video on a Nikon D90 camera. Gafill recorded her voice-overs on an iPhone 6 using the Voice Memos app, and she and her husband edited footage with Core Video Studio. They shared their videos via Vimeo.

Gafill sends instructions to students using Constant Contact email. Students join a secret group on Facebook, where they upload their work, usually captured on their phones. Gafill gives them critiques there as well. Her online sales are generated through her Facebook page and herpersonal website.

While the virtual classes look professional, she’s able to charge less per student, because they were inexpensive to produce and she anticipates several dozen sign-ups, more than her regular in-studio classes. She already has four lessons ready to go.

Given the crisis, she felt it was time “to create this new model.” Combined with modest revenues from selling her prints online — about $1,000 came in one recent week — technological solutions are “helping us out at a difficult time and it’s making it possible to pay our rent,” she says. “It’s meaningful.”


In March, Gafill invited her private Facebook writing group to take on a monthlong project called “Writing through the Storm.” She asked each member of the group to write for about 10 minutes a day about their lives. While some group members live in Big Sur, others live as far away as New Zealand.

“They’re all kind of fascinated by the specific details of what we’ve been through here,” she says.

Lately, Gafill’s been revisiting her own stories from the project and has noticed how her feelings have changed.

“I see the days when I was so frustrated and angry: Is the road open or not?,” she says. But more recently, she adds, “I was thinking, ‘I don’t even want to leave,’ it was so sunny and quiet and beautiful.”

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Published at Fri, 05 May 2017 17:00:48 +0000