HomeSandpiper SelectsBonded by isolation, Big Sur students thrive along Pacific coastline

Bonded by isolation, Big Sur students thrive along Pacific coastline

Published Dec. 15, 2022

BY EMMA BROWN

After roads into Big Sur closed in 2021, senior Isabelle Perez-Nevarez (left) and friends enjoyed a picnic along the coastline. (photo by ISABELLE PEREZ-NEVAREZ)

For most Carmel High School students, the 10- or 15-minute commute to campus every day requires minimal effort, but for those who live in Big Sur, every morning entails a nearly hour-long drive lined with sprawling green mountains and stunning ocean views that draw in hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. When students make their way back down the coast at the end of each day, they assimilate into relative isolation, forging bonds with neighbors and working to make a positive impact on their community.

In recent years, Big Sur locals have been forced to adapt their routines to accommodate landslides, wildfires and collapsed bridges that plunged the community into times of stress. During the 2017-18 school year, the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge underwent construction, inhibiting students’ ability to drive to school. In response, a bypass trail was constructed, and each morning middle and high school students hiked nearly a mile uphill to the nearest bus stop.

“That experience really has formed me into who I am and made me so grateful for my education because it can be taken away so easily,” says CHS senior Stella Foster, who lives on a 300-acre ranch nearly 30 miles south of Carmel, and was in seventh grade when the bridge was under construction. “I remember missing a lot of school in the beginning stages when the trail was not formed yet.”

Senior Stella Foster immerses herself in nature, walking the grounds of her 300-acre ranch with her pig and dog on the weekends. (photo by Stella Foster)

While these disasters added stress to residents’ lifestyles, they have also led to the creation of a culture of kindness within the community, one where neighbors share produce weekly during the pandemic at the Big Share and help clear roads to allow friends to get home safely. 

“We have a close community, almost like a family,” says junior Hannah Liss, who lives at Palo Colorado Canyon.

Though the majority of tourists finish their trip down the coast at Pfeiffer Beach, much of the Big Sur community reside miles beyond there, far down the redwood-lined roads and well out of range of cell service. In seclusion, the community has come together to organize events and activities that bring locals together, be it events at Captain Cooper Elementary School or the Stage Kids theater program where students can create performances for the town.

“The Big Sur Jade Festival is super significant to me,” says CHS junior Emilia Gorton, who lives near Palo Colorado Canyon. “There’s so many talented people in Big Sur and supporting them is super important. The Big Sur Fashion Show is another huge event that has a special place in my heart. I’ve been a part of it a few times and it is unique to Big Sur.”

The connectedness of the community sometimes draws students back to the coastline and away from the CHS campus, dedicating time to helping the town rather than engaging in extracurriculars. 

“Rather than being in a ton of sports or in a ton of clubs here at school, I’m always down there doing something for the community in Big Sur,” says CHS senior Isabelle Perez-Nevarez, who works at the Big Sur River Inn along with her relatives. 

For some students, Big Sur’s distance from Carmel creates a frustrating barrier between them and friends in town or school events. 

“After living in Big Sur for about nine years, I’ve learned to be more patient,” says senior Hannah Fridrich, who lives near the Point Sur Lighthouse. “I can’t always hang out with friends or go somewhere at a given moment, so I’ve grown to go with the flow.”

Every year on Clear Ridge, musicians camp and perform live music for Big Sur locals to enjoy the show. (photo by ISABELLE PEREZ-NEVAREZ)

Students residing down the coast often work at places in Big Sur like Nepenthe, a restaurant with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, or the Big Sur River Inn, a bar and eatery where patrons can enjoy the outdoors while sitting in wooden lawn chairs in the Big Sur River. Outside of work, students immerse themselves in nature, be it through hiking, spending time at the Big Sur Gorge or surfing. 

“Most Sundays, I’ll just walk around for hours and I’ll take our pig to the beach and hang out with the horses,” says Foster. “It’s a good way to de-stress through being isolated in a way. Coming here to school five days a week, I’m surrounded by lots of people. But then I’ll have a day of the week where I’m by myself on acres of empty land, and it’s honestly kind of nice.”

That connection to nature shapes Big Sur natives’ understanding of the world around them. Big Sur students note that growing up along the coast has given them a greater appreciation for environmentalism and sustainability. 

“My favorite part of living in Big Sur is the appreciation you gain for nature and untouched beauty,” says CHS senior Elijah Epstein, who lives near Palo Colorado Canyon.

Though living in Big Sur poses challenges, being a part of a supportive community in such a unique location is a formative experience for students, and one that they express gratitude for.

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