Kirk Gafill has seen this before — winter rains playing havoc on all roads into Big Sur. No traffic in or out. No tourists. No supplies. Choking-off business to Nepenthe, the famous restaurant his grandparents founded 69 years ago.
But this time the duration is much longer. The February storms that caused the collapse of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge left this small coastal community mostly cut-off from the rest of the world. And that was before the recent massive landslide that closed Highway 1 to the south. It’s already been four months with scant access to the outside world — save for a two-mile hike down a dirt trail — open only to residents.
“It’s part of the drama of Big Sur,” Gafill said, sitting in the midst of his empty restaurant during what would normally be the frenetic afternoon rush. “And Big Sur has always been a dramatic place.”
This drama has all the frustrations of a Sisyphean dilemma and would likely be even worse if not for the tenacity and creativity of Big Sur’s residents and business owners like Gafill — who opted to keep the restaurant open seven days a week despite the absence of one crucial element — many customers.
Gafill said his motivation for the less-than-lucrative offering is to keep at least a few of his once 120-member staff working — and to contribute some sense of normalcy for the roughly 400 people stuck inside the scenic enclave.
“What we’re trying to accomplish here,” Gafill explained, “is just enough kind of energy that we can get the recovery of our area going.”
But until the recovery arrives, Big Sur’s inhabitants are weathering a lot of inconvenience; Gafill’s wife and kid are temporarily living North from where crews are racing to rebuild the collapsed bridge — so his child doesn’t have to walk down the trail every day to go get to school.
The trail has become a human highway as residents and business owners lug backpacks filled with supplies, groceries and anything else needed to survive. Each weekday the trail is filled with dozens of young students hiking toward school buses.
“You see the guys carrying the case of beers,” said Alicia Hahn Peterson who hikes the trail to get to her manager job at Nepenthe. “A lot of Trader Joe’s bags, a lot of backpacks.”
Gaffill calls the trail the “great equalizer” with people of all ages, all economic brackets making the same trek in or out.
“If you own a business, if you are an entry employee, if you are well-educated or no education,” Gafill said, “everybody is going through the pipeline of that trail — and we’re all carrying our own burdens.”
Gafill said business at Nepenthe has plummeted to about 30 or 40 customers a day instead of its usual thousand people a day. He said the restaurant is getting a little help from nearby businesses like the Post Ranch Inn which began offering vacation packages that included a helicopter ride in and out — the only way the public can access the area.
“We are trying to be as creative as possible to create as much energy here,” Gafill said. “We’re doing ping-pong tournaments, we’re having a luau this Saturday.”
Gafill’s sister Erin Gafill, a fine arts painter, began creating online painting courses after the Big Sur art school where she teaches closed due to lack of student access. Instead she and her husband filmed instructional videos which she posted to Facebook, resulting in more than 50 paying online pupils.
“I’m absolutely able to maintain my livelihood as a teacher,” Gafill said, “and I’m also able to share my work.”
Kirk Gafill said the closure not only sparked a wave of resourcefulness, it thrust Big Sur back into a time before the 1930s when the highway was constructed, leaving the area in a peaceful, carless tranquility — reemphasizing the area’s remoteness. The few visitors making the journey to Nepenthe are rewarded with staggering views, choice seating and an appreciative staff.
“We get very excited as soon as we see anyone walk across the deck,” said Hahn Peterson.
On a recent morning, as the restaurant sat empty — even after the doors opened sharply at 11:30 a.m. — customers Dominique and Lauren DeCruz slid into two seats on the deck that opened to a vast view of the Monterey Bay. The pair said they were there to support the restaurant — which in turn was supporting locals with a familiar destination.
“It might be challenging but life continues,” Dominique said. “And let’s have a good time.”
That was a sentiment Gafill echoed as he glanced across the restaurant, having just done an interview with an Australian news crew documenting the closure. He noted the bridge wasn’t scheduled to reopen until September, presenting a summer of diminishing returns. Yet he said the challenges posed by the area’s severed lifeline also created a unique period for Big Sur — which would only register as a blip on the restaurant’s long timeline.
“It’s inconvenient — it’s not what everybody’s looking for,” Gafill said. “But there is a certain kind of magic to it.”