Remembering Alta Vista: An Historic Big Sur Homestead Lost in the Basin Complex Fire

Alta Vista in 2005

While we realize that nothing is forever and that acceptance of impermanence and change is the first step on the road to happiness and enlightenment, we still haven’t been able to shake a strong sense of loss over the enormous amount of Big Sur history wiped out by the Basin Complex Fire.

Fire is a fact of life in Big Sur and there have been plenty of fires over the years, but the number of historic structures destroyed by the Basin Complex Fire was completely unprecedented. These places, built by the hands of the pioneers, and steeped in the tears and sweat of generations, provided the Big Sur community with a good deal of its unique identity. Built, never larger than need demanded, from the stone of the mountainsides and the redwood of the canyons, these irreplaceable homes defined Big Sur style, attitude and consciousness.

While Big Sur has been moving away from that early aesthetic and toward homogenization with the modern world ever since the highway opened in 1937, with this loss it seems that the break with the past is now complete. The pioneers and their works are now largely erased from the landscape. Like de Angulo’s Ne-sia-Hualala, they have followed the sun into the West.

We don’t know what Big Sur will become in the years ahead, only that it will be something new and different. And perhaps that’s as it should be.

But before we head off toward that future, we’d like to take another look back …

We’re starting here with a look at the Overstrom Place, Alta Vista, a ridgetop homestead far from roads and accessible only by trail. We expect to follow this up with photos of other iconic places now gone.

We don’t have photos from Alta Vista’s early days, so we’ll start in the ’70s. The following 10 photos, from 1971, were taken by, and are presented here courtesy of, Sterling Doughty. We highly recommend his website for more photos, as well as stories, from Big Sur in the ’60s and early ’70s.

Front Yard


Barn Interior

Drill bits by the window

Rock & Redwood

The Ironing – note the redwood block floor

Redwood cabinetry around the sink

The Lady of the House

Root Cellar Door

The Laundry

Jeff Norman at the Alta Vista gate – Easter 1980

Easter – 1980


Honey in the Window – Summer 1988

Jeff at the door – Summer 1988

Above the root cellar – November 1988

Barn Repairs – 1989

The Animals – 1990

Judith Goodman and sweet peas – 1992

Packer Jeff – 1993

Cat at the door – 1990s

Growing the Grape Arbor – 1990s

In the shade of the grape arbor – 2003

Boon evicts a rattlesnake – March 2008

My last look was from the backseat of a helicopter

Still smoldering – July 8, 2008

Sorting through the rubble – April 2, 2009

Click here for More Alta Vista Memories


14 Responses to Remembering Alta Vista: An Historic Big Sur Homestead Lost in the Basin Complex Fire

  1. firefox says:

    Thanks for posting those great pics! I never realised that the Buddha shot was from Alta Vista. I had only been up to the place once on an invite from Jeff, when I was secretary for Big Sur Historical Society.
    Has the mock orange above the root cellar sprouted back?

  2. firefox says:

    I must disagree with one point though, the works of the pioneers is not lost on the coast but is writ large all over the landscape if you care to look. From the vinca and amaryllis growing in every canyon and homestead site to the paths of roads and trails, to the place names. These things will far outlast the redwood and stone of any one homestead and the will last long past even you or me.

  3. bigsurkate says:

    What great historical perspective, and beautiful shots. Thanks for posting these, XT. I do agree with firefox, that although some wonderful homes have been lost over the years, the pioneers live on in many ways. Their spirits have blended with the landscape and the people here.

  4. Lois DeFord says:

    Perhaps now that the photos are posted on this incredible site, someone may know who the “lady of the house” was in 1971. Thank you Sterling and Xasauan Today. I love the way Kate puts it, “the spirits of the pioneers have blended with the landscape and the people here”. We mourn what we’ve lost; thankfully there are a lot of great photos to document, as Sterling so well put it, “precious intersections of sublime beauty beyond that of normal space and time.”
    Big Sur is timeless, and those of us who are privileged to partake of the breathtaking wonder that still exists recognize it as a world apart.

  5. Mark P. says:

    Great photos.
    I also have some of my own photos from family visits with Judith in the early 90’s.
    You’re welcome to add them to this page.

  6. Judith Goodman says:

    Many thanks for this posting of many photos I have never
    seen of my beloved Alta Vista. You are welcome to use
    anything of mine that I have made available before for
    Jeff’s memorial. Sorry I am not computerized at present
    as there are more photos I would like to share and many stories.

  7. boz williams says:

    i think ”the lady of the house” in 1971 was named gaynor. she was a gypsy, i think, and a friend of my mother-in; law yolanda. we went up to visit about that time. she and her guy were living there, caretaking for richard clements, who owned it then. i think she had a baby at alta vista, a breech birth! she gave us a bunch of the overstrom’s mason jars, which we used for years, and gradually broke. so it goes—

  8. Chris L says:

    I’m just stunned — wandering across this cross-section of lives and time again. Thanks so much. I’ll be re-visiting this very page often. You *can* cross the same land- and mindscape twice.

  9. Kevin Le Blanc - Joy of Life! says:

    Ms. Gay allowed me to stay in my GI tent at AltaVista for several weeks in mid 1971, about a quarter mile up the ridge. I found out that several years after I left, Ms. Gay let my younger brother stay as well. I saw her ‘minister’ to many a traveler. When search engines were first introduced one was called AltaVista. I’ve wondered if someone she befriended along the way named it after the homestead. It was a place I dreamed, and have dreamed of since. I left California but Big Sur has never left me. Blessings to all who keep this place real.

  10. Michelle Bisnett says:

    When I hiked to (from Partington) and through (on our way to Pic Valley) Alta Vista, I was in awe of the serene beauty which has always remained in my heart and mind. Thank you so much for the memories!

  11. Chris L says:

    It’s so nice to bounce back in here and re-visit Alta Vista again. Thanks again, XT, for these images and this site.

  12. Marian Fricano says:

    Seeing this was fascinating, as I visited Ventana during the fire and just got out in time. I am wondering if anyone stil read this and if so, if you know if the place on Partington’s ridge that was built by Richard Van Giesen Clements is still there???


  13. Regina Clark says:

    I was at Krenkle Korners. He was my closest neighbor for a time. He hosted a “Pink Birthday Party” for Sarah’s 2nd birthday, at her request. He packed up a bunch of toddlers in saddle bags. What a trooper! I miss that old fart.

  14. George St Clair says:

    Thanks for sharing all these great pics, and for remembering the incomparable Jeff Norman!

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