ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
More than a million tons of earth crashed down on a stretch of coastal California road last weekend, cutting off a section of the Pacific Coast Highway just south of Big Sur. This is one of the most picturesque roads in California. It's a top tourist attraction. And for people who live in a nearby town, it was the latest in a series of mudslides that have cut them off from the rest of the world. This community has come to be known as the island.
Heavy winter rains first cut off access from the North and South back in February. And with each successive landslide, the community becomes more isolated. Hundreds of people who live there are now using new hiking trails to get groceries and go to school and work every day.
Erin Gafill is a local artist who lives on the island. Thanks for joining us.
ERIN GAFILL: You're welcome. It's a pleasure to talk with you.
SHAPIRO: Now that there aren't any tourists, what else is taking up your time these days?
GAFILL: We're playing a lot of ping pong. Let me tell you (laughter).
GAFILL: We've revived an old tradition. Yeah, I grew up at Nepenthe Restaurant, and...
SHAPIRO: It's a famous restaurant in Big Sur, yeah.
GAFILL: Yeah, Henry Miller, the author - we used to come down and play ping pong with my grandfather during the long, slow winter months when there was no business. And we've pulled out the old ping pong tables, and we had our first ping pong tournament in decades just last weekend.
SHAPIRO: Are people generally in good spirits, or do they seem really put out by what they have to go through?
GAFILL: You know, it's a rollercoaster. Largely, people are making the best of it, but there's so much anxiety about the future. And you know, everyone's out of work, and (laughter) it's really, really challenging as you see your bank account kind of zeroing out. And there is a longer projection for the highway reopening completely because of the new mudslide. And that can get to you emotionally.
SHAPIRO: I can't imagine how an economy that subsists on tourism can survive that long without tourists being able to easily access it.
GAFILL: Right, I mean absolutely. The highway is our lifeline. We are really digging deep, and it's daily conversation of economizing, thinking creatively. How do we serve our community during a time like this?
SHAPIRO: Have you had any surprisingly positive interactions that were brought about by this disaster?
GAFILL: Yeah, I'm a painter, so my daily life is very visual. I am able to set up my easel on a terrace that usually has 450 lunches served on it - and now it's as quiet as you can imagine - and just gaze out over this incredible landscape and paint with no interruptions.
And the other day when I was painting, a condor perched on a tree behind me and was just peering down and watching me as I was painting. And when I saw him, I just had to stop and gaze up at this magnificent bird. So the wildlife is really coming back. We're hearing birdsong. We're seeing bobcats. And we're really feeling like nature is reasserting itself, which is really cool.
SHAPIRO: Sounds like as challenging as this time, it's the sort of thing that years from now you'll tell a younger generation wistfully about what it was like.
GAFILL: Our whole community has just really been shaken. And at the same time, it's brought us into a place of quieting everything down. We're all walking more. People are having conversations with each other on the path, which we all use to get wherever we need to go instead of driving by one another in our cars, being in a hurry. Everything takes so much longer to accomplish, and yet you feel so much more satisfied in the accomplishment of something.
SHAPIRO: Erin Gafill, thank you for joining us, and congratulations on keeping such great spirits through this whole thing. It's impressive to hear.
GAFILL: Thank you so much, Ari.
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