For 18 long months, Northern and Southern California were—like Brad and Angelina—definitively separated. On May 20, 2017, a mudslide changed the landscape of one of the state’s most famous vistas, shutting down California Highway 1—more commonly known as the Pacific Coast Highway—in the Mud Creek region of Big Sur. The location suffered tremendous damage, resulting in nearly 50 acres of land displaced, making it impossible to drive the iconic highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The Mud Creek slide was daunting in size and called for an emergency response with all hands on deck to prop up the PCH—a highway that ordinarily spans a spectacular 650 miles and has thrived for 84 years of California’s history.
The goal of the reconstruction? To realign the highway affected by the landslide using new reinforced embankments, netting, and retaining walls along with other techniques and materials to stabilize the site. State planners, geologists, engineers, and countless others worked tirelessly to reconnect the communities affected by the slide.
On July 18, the road reopened, two days ahead of schedule. This section of the highway is now designed to work with nature. Midway up the slide site are two massive retaining walls, positioned as security arms designed to both catch future debris and funnel it down the hillside safely, where there is more space.
Moreover, this section of roadway now curves out toward the ocean. A highlight of the Caltrans rebuilding included adding a new curve to the highway, providing a catch zone for any lasting material that might break free from the hillside above the roadway. The overall result is a fantastic work of engineering artistry that is once again attracting visitors to this motoring mecca.
To commemorate the highway’s reopening, a group of us gathered above Monterey County’s cloud coverage at Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca for Dream Drive, a road trip organized by Visit California. Lined up in rows together, 84 cars representing 84 years of Highway 1 were ready to head south to Morro Bay. After a quick lap around the racetrack, we cut through Carmel Valley to cross the iconic Bixby Bridge before breaking for brunch at the Ventana Big Sur resort.
My instrument of travel was a stunning 1965 Alfa Romeo Giulia Spider 1600 Veloce, dressed in slate gray over a red interior. The Veloce specified cars feature a twin-Weber carburetor engine, high-compression European cams, Girling front disc brakes, a five-speed manual gearbox, and a recorded top speed of around 112 mph. In all fairness by today’s standards, this two-door rear-wheel-drive sports car isn’t the quickest in the collection, but it doesn’t have to be. Perfectly paced and tuned for the windy roads of Highway 1, this elegant and spirited little Alfa performed flawlessly.
The owner and co-driver on this adventure was Pebble Beach resident Steve Yu. He and I have been familiar for a number of years, as members of the Pebble Beach Sports Car Club, so we were excited to represent the Peninsula together.
“With a classic car, any road trip is an adventure. It’s amazing to think that the treasures of Highway 1 are part of my neighborhood and that people from all over the world make special trips to experience it,” says Yu. “I think it’s the perfect car for the drive because it’s a great handling convertible with beauty that complements the California coastline. The car is easy to drive and quiet enough that we can have pleasant conversation while admiring the scenery.”
Down the path we went, cutting in and out of misty fog and patches of sunshine, passing by landmarks such as the Julia Pfeiffer State Park waterfall, the Henry Miller Library, and countless scenic overlooks. Around 40 miles north of our next stop, all the hard work was revealed. The site of the Mud Creek Slide was visually arresting for all of us, with freshly paved roads and a brand-new hillside built to withstand future natural disasters.
Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, had this to say about the importance of repairing this patch of road: “Because Highway 1 is such an iconic California experience, losing that connectivity and access to destinations along the coast was crippling—communities surrounding the closures saw a sustained loss of $500 million in just the first few months. As travelers put off their vacations or were rerouted, businesses that rely on visitors had to work hard to keep their doors open, so getting traffic back on the Pacific Coast Highway is of huge importance to both our local and state tourism economies.”
Overall, Beteta was pleased with Dream Drive and hopes it will put focus back on our California coastline. “Driving Highway 1 is a bucket-list experience for travelers from around the world. And in California, we like to dream big,” she says. “So, to celebrate the scenic highway that’s been part of our state’s history for more than eight decades, we were proud to highlight its past and future with the Dream Drive, shining a global spotlight on the fact that California’s central coast is open for business.”
Reaching our destination at the base of Morro Rock, we parked for a party—and it looked like the entire county had come out. We toasted and cheered while reminiscing about the drive. After all, the road is again open—and so are the possibilities.