Paul’s Slide threatens Big Sur monks' link to Highway 1

Dec 31, 2018

There’s a mountain side on the south coast of Big Sur that has been slowly slipping. Known as Paul’s Slide, it drops rocks, dirt and mud onto Highway 1. Paul’s Slide is also threatening the road that connects a group of monks to the rest of the world.

The New Camaldoli Hermitage sits high on a mountain in Lucia. It’s a small cluster of cabins, a chapel and bookstore with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean.

Father Cyprian Consiglio said the 14 Catholic monks who live here dedicate their lives to prayer, work and study. The Hermitage is also home to a support staff and welcomes visitors searching for a peaceful retreat. He says Big Sur is a good fit.

“We’re such a small congregation and a little bit eccentric even among the other Benedictine monks, and Big Sur tends to be kind of on the edge,” said Father Consiglio, Prior of New Camaldoli. "So we feel comfortable there."

But life on the edge can be perilous. The one lane road that connects the Hermitage to Highway 1 is dropping at the spot where it meets Paul’s Slide.

Over the past two years, the road has dropped down about 13 feet and out another 20 feet. Even freshly sections of road are full of cracks.

“As Paul’s Slide keeps moving, it's actually taking our road with it. It's just one corner, but that actually cuts off the whole bottom half of the road,” Fr. Consiglio said. “If the rains comes, this whole thing could go. We’d be cut off."

Only this small corner of the Hermitage’s 890-acre property actually touches the massive slide.

“Paul's Slide, like a lot of the big landslides on the Big Sur coast, is a series of interrelated landslides,” said Ryan Turner, a CalTrans geotechnical engineer.

Turner helps manage the slide’s impact on Highway 1. He says Paul’s Slide has been active since the mid-1970s, but movement really picked up in early 2017. That’s when storms wiped out Highway 1 in several parts of Big Sur including this location.

Now at Paul’s Slide, the northbound lane of the highway has been converted into a catchment area for all the slipping dirt and rock. One way traffic gets by in the other lane and is controlled by a stoplight.

Turner said they’ll be managing this slide for years to come.

“So our best guess and our best engineering judgment tells us this slide is going to continue to move relatively slowly, but the magnitude of that movement is going to be significant,” Turner said.

Up the mountain, the only solution for the Hermitage is to build a new road away from Paul’s Slide. Work is underway; this new road will cost more than $1 million. It will wipe out the savings of the Hermitage.

“It's probably one of the hardest things we have to do, is ask for money,” Fr. Consiglio said. “But I always try to put it in terms of it's not for me. It's not even for the monks. It’s for this place. This magic holy place that I think really needs to survive. So I'm asking for that.”

To spread the word, the Hermitage has set up a GoFundMe page and also created a YouTube video.

Donations have been coming in from across the country and the Big Sur community. John and Corinne Handy of Treebones Resort have joined four other business leaders to pledge $10,000 apiece. Now they’re looking for other donors to match it.

John Handy said in Big Sur there’s no local government to handle projects like this, so it's up to neighbors to step in.

“But also I understand that what they're doing is very special," Handy said. "That they can set aside their lives to basically pray for the world, pray for the rest of us and meditate. And so that's a powerful thing. And they’re such a peaceful community."

The new road to this peaceful community could be complete in three months, depending on the rain.