‘Every crisis has a silver lining’: why Big Sur’s isolation is inducing people fitter

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Winter blizzards battered this stretching of coastal California, blocking the sole road but residents forced to leave their autoes at home have been feeling the benefit

A community on the stretching of coastal California known as Big Sur has been largely cut off from the outside world since winter stormscollapsed a bridge to the north and triggered landslides to the south, blocking the sole road.

For residents who remain, the only way in and out bar helicopter is on foot, via a steep, rugged hiking trail carved out of forested slopes. From dawning till dusk “theyre using” it get to and from school, work, grocery store and other amenities.

Six months of huffing and puffing afterward the Big Sur health center has noticed something: all the workout is inducing people healthier.

Every crisis has a silver lining, said Sharen Carey, the executive director. People have lost weight. Theyre improving their cardiovascular system. Theyre sleeping better.

One patient who had diabetes, and declined drug, is all but cured, she said. He was required to walk the trail five days a week. Since February he has lost 24 lb. His numbers ran from diabetic to pre-diabetic. His blood pressure is normal. On newspaper hes just about normal.

Another patient with diabetes, and one with pre-diabetes, also depicted marked improvement, told Carey. Many other patients reported simply feeling better and more energised.

Theyre get outdoors and working. The ones who have lost weight have reported that theyre more energetic. Sleep, blood pressure, heart rate, they all benefit.

The trail was a mile and a half a three-mile round trip. That comprised about 4,000 steps which burned approximately 200 to 300 calories, said Carey, citing her Fitbit. It doesnt sound like much but its not just about burning calories, its get your heart rate working.

A new road giving foot access to a cut-off part of Big Sur. Photo: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

Residents interviewed on the road agreed. John and Frances Hoeffel, retired laboratory technicians in their 70 s, said they enjoyed the hike. They were returning from the library.

John and Frances Hoeffel returning home from a library visit. Photo: Rory Carroll

Others reported an additional benefit: commuting on foot via a narrow, winding road rather than driving on the Pacific Coastal Highway has bolstered their sense of community.

Its been a leveller, told Erin Gafill, whose household owns the Nepenthe restaurant. We all have to walk that road together. You get a sense of each others routines. Were not as divided. Long-term residents had newfound respect for how hard Latinos who juggle multiple tasks run, she said.

Erin Gafill at the Nepenthe restaurant. Photo: Rory Carroll

Her mother, Holly Gafill, agreed. That trail is so intimate. Youre virtually touching people if not hugging them because you havent seen them in ages. I look at the road with so much gratitude.

Few assured a bright side when torrential blizzards buried the road in massive mudslides and washed away the Pfeiffer Canyon bridge, cutting off segments totalling 35 miles along Big Sur, a scenic coastal ribbon between San Francisco and Los Angeles which depicts 3 million tourists a year.

The isolation has devastated hotels, restaurants and resorts, inflicting job losses and hardship.

Not all residents enjoy hiking the trail which emergency crews carved out of the hillsides in February.

I find it pretty arduous, but then Im overweight and I smoke cigarettes, told Bill Crain, 56. I paid a guy $50 to bring my cats back from the vet.

Bill Crain hikes the road about once a week. Photo: Rory Carroll

Other neighbours grumbled too, he said, despite the benefit: They may not like it but its good for them.

Cubans experienced a similar phenomenon but on much more dramatic, painful scale in the 1990 s when the economy collapsed, slashing food and gasoline consumption.

A new bridge is expected to open in September, restoring the tourist flow and letting residents once again drive to schools and amenities.

Yet the unexpected positive side effects of isolation have made some nearly wistful about the experience. Ill be sort of sorry to see the bridge go back up, told Carey. Were all hiking that trail all the time, but next year how many will still do it?

Gafill, the restaurant owner, said the stillness and quiet harked back to the areas bohemian 1950 s epoch. There will be a sense of loss when we go back( to normal) because weve gained so much a return to a time when you had time.

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