The author of Where The Road Begins, Peter Gray Scott, is a resident of the Oakland Hills, born and raised in Berkeley, and educated at Stanford. Mr. Scott is an architect who wrote this three-part book, Where the Road Begins: The Saga of Big Sur’s Pioneer Families, and Environmentalism in America.
The first part provides the history of American settlement in Big Sur, initiated by English-American William Brainard Post and his Ohlone-Rumsen wife, Maria Anselma Onesimo. The second part focuses on the building of the coast road through the Sur in the 1930s, and the effects once the world rushed in and “discovered” Big Sur. The third part, with only two short chapters, is about the new people in Big Sur, “. . . who were financially secure or whose income came from somewhere else. They may have come for the beauty of the place, but they had no essential dependence on the land.”
Mr. Scott details a “Golden Age” on the south coast of about 70 years, from the 1870s to the 1940s. This Golden Age grew out of an American idealism of individualism, self-reliance, and the pursuit of frontier and wilderness as one’s destiny. The early settlers considered land stewardship their obligation to community: “Protect the water supply, mitigate erosion, avoid uncontrolled fires, handle waste appropriately, tend the essential plantings, and ensure the livestock had enough to eat without destroying the pasture.”
The Golden Age was an insular time when few outsiders passed through, and those who came and went, were provided food and shelter at a ranch, so long as they worked for their supper and bed.
The highway creation itself was a State-managed project, with no environmental impact reports and no strategic planning. Promises were made to residents of culverts and bridges, and promises were broken. Rights of way weren’t paid to residents, yet the residents’ were paying the taxes that went to the road being dynamited through their land.
Once the highway was built, the Sur opened to the world. With the highway construction completed, the Big Sur economy changed from a dependence on the land, to a tourism economy, now comprised of serving meals and providing lodging for the many post-World War II automobile travelers. ”The highway that brought the tourists was also the breach in the fortress-like geography that had protected Big Sur for nearly a century. The dead-end residential road morphed into a link in the State’s transportation system.”
The obligations remain the same, though, ”Protect the water supply, mitigate erosion, avoid uncontrolled fires, handle waste appropriately, tend the essential plantings, and ensure the livestock had enough to eat without destroying the pasture.”
“Save Big Sur? From what? For whom?”
And then came Ansel Adams. Ansel was one of the directors of the Sierra Club in the mid-sixties when he moved to Carmel Highlands. Ansel was never a resident of Big Sur, nor did he ever ask the opinion of any of the 800 Big Sur residents, but Ansel decided that the Sur needed saving and proposed the “Big Sur National Scenic Area.” A National Park like Cape Cod, except that Cape Cod National Seashore, with its 40 miles of wide sandy beaches, eleven nature trails, and three acre residential lots, isn’t like Big Sur. Imagine a one acre parking structure, built ten stories high, in Big Sur, and, if truly emulating Cape Cod National Seashore, then include picnic areas, comfort stations, shuttle buses and additional parking lots. Also, carve out a municipal airport. All these amenities were to accomodate an anticipated twelve million annual visitors*.
How did the Sur escape such a fate? Buy Where The Road Begins: The Saga of Big Sur’s Pioneer Families, and Environmentalism in America.
*Current estimate is about three million annual visitors.