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|Region of California|
The Big Sur Coast
Map of Big Sur
|Region of California|
The Big Sur Coast
Map of Big Sur
Big Sur is a sparsely populated region of the Central Coast of California where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. The name "Big Sur" is derived from the original Spanish-language "el sur grande", meaning "the big south", or from "el país grande del sur", "the big country of the south", referring to its location south of the Monterey Peninsula. The terrain offers stunning views, making Big Sur a popular tourist destination. Big Sur's Cone Peak is the highest coastal mountain in the contiguous 48 states, ascending nearly a mile (5,155 feet/1571 m) above sea level, only three miles (4.8 km) from the ocean.
Although Big Sur has no specific boundaries, many definitions of the area include the 90 miles (140 km) of coastline from the Carmel River in Monterey County south to the San Carpoforo Creek in San Luis Obispo County, and extend about 20 miles (32 km) inland to the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucias. Other sources limit the eastern border to the coastal flanks of these mountains, only three to 12 miles (19 km) inland. Another practical definition of the region is the segment of California State Route 1 between San Simeon and Carmel. The northern end of Big Sur is about 120 miles (190 km) south of San Francisco, and the southern end is approximately 245 miles (394 km) northwest of Los Angeles.
Three tribes of Native Americans—the Ohlone, Esselen, and Salinan—is speculated to be the first people to inhabit the area now known as Big Sur. Archaeological evidence shows that they lived in Big Sur for thousands of years, leading a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence.
Few traces of their material culture have survived. Their arrow heads were made of obsidian and flint, which indicates trading links with tribes hundreds of miles away, since the nearest sources of these rocks are in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the northern California Coast Ranges.
They followed local food sources seasonally, living near the coast in winter to harvest rich stocks of mussels, abalone and other sea life, and moving inland at other times to harvest oak acorns. The native people hollowed mortar holes into large exposed rocks or boulders which they used to grind the acorns into flour. These can be found throughout the Big Sur region. The tribes also used controlled burning techniques to increase tree growth and food production.
The first Europeans to see Big Sur were Spanish mariners led by Juan Cabrillo in 1542, who sailed up the coast without landing. Two centuries passed before the Spaniards attempted to colonize the area. In 1769, an expedition led by Gaspar de Portolà were the first Europeans known to set foot in Big Sur, in the far south near San Carpoforo Canyon. Daunted by the sheer cliffs, his party avoided the area and pressed far inland.
Portolà landed in Monterey Bay in 1770, and with Father Junípero Serra, who helped found most of the missions in California, established the town Monterey, which became the capital of the Spanish colony Alta California. The Spaniards gave Big Sur its name during this period, calling the region el país grande del sur (the Big Country of the South) which was often shortened to el sur grande, because it was a vast, unexplored, and impenetrable land south of their capital at Monterey.
The Spanish colonization devastated the Native American population. Most tribe members died out from European diseases or forced labor and malnutrition at the missions in the eighteenth century, while many remaining members assimilated with Spanish and Mexican ranchers in the nineteenth century.
Along with the rest of California, Big Sur became part of Mexico when it gained independence from Spain in 1821. On July 30, 1834, Mexican governor José Figueroa granted the 8,949-acre (36 km2) Rancho El Sur in northern Big Sur to Juan Bautista Alvarado.:21 Alvarado later traded his Rancho El Sur to his uncle by marriage, Captain John B.R. Cooper, in exchange for Rancho Bolsa del Potrero y Moro Cojo. The oldest surviving structure in Big Sur, the Cooper Cabin, was built in 1861 on the Cooper ranch.
In 1848, as a result of the Mexican-American War, Mexico ceded California to the United States. After passage of the federal Homestead Act in 1862, a few hardy pioneers moved into Big Sur, drawn by the promise of free 160 acre (0.6 km²) parcels. Among them were settlers like William F. Notley, who homesteaded at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon in 1891. He began harvesting tanoak bark from the canyon, a lucrative source of income at the time. Notley's Landing is named after him. Many other local sites retain names from settlers during this period: Comings, Gamboa, Pfeiffer, Post, Partington, Ross and McWay are common place names. Consistent with the Anglo-Hispanic heritage of the area, the new settlers mixed English and Spanish and began to call their new home "Big Sur."
From the 1860s through the start of the 20th century, lumberers cut down most of the coast redwoods. Along with industries based on tanoak bark harvesting, gold mining, and limestone processing, the local economy provided more jobs and supported a larger population than it does today. In the 1880s, a gold rush boom town named Manchester sprang up at Alder Creek in the far south. The town boasted a population of 200, four stores, a restaurant, five saloons, a dance hall, and a hotel, but it was abandoned soon after the start of the 20th century and burned to the ground in 1909. There were no reliable roads to supply these industries, so local entrepreneurs built small boat landings at a few coves along the coast like Bixby Landing. None of these landings remain today, and few other signs of this brief industrial period are visible to the casual traveler. The rugged, isolated terrain kept out all but the sturdiest and most self-sufficient settlers. A 30 miles (48 km) trip to Monterey could take three days by wagon, over a rough and dangerous track that ended in present day Big Sur Village. Travelers further south had to follow a horse trail that connected the various homesteaders along the coast.
After the brief industrial boom faded, the early decades of the 20th century passed with few changes, and Big Sur remained a nearly inaccessible wilderness. As late as the 1920s, only two homes in the entire region had electricity, locally generated by water wheels and windmills. Most of the population lived without power until connections to the California electric grid were established in the early 1950s. The California coast south of Carmel and north of San Simeon was one of the most remote regions in the state, rivaling nearly any other region in the United States for its difficult access.
During the 1890s, Dr. John L. D. Roberts, a physician and land speculator who had founded Seaside, California and resided on the Monterey Peninsula, was summoned on April 21, 1894 to assist treating survivors of the wreck of the S.S. Los Angeles, which had run aground near the Point Sur Light Station about 25 miles (40 km) south of Carmel. The ride on horseback took him 3 1/2 hours, and he became convinced of the need for a road along the coast to San Simeon, which he believed could be built for $50,000.
In 1897, Roberts traveled the entire stretch of rocky coast from Carmel to San Simeon, and photographed the land, earning him credit as the first surveyor of area. He initially promoted the road for allowing access to a region of spectacular beauty. Roberts was only successful in gaining attention to the project when State Senator Elmer S. Rigdon, a member of the California Senate Committee on Roads and Highways, promoted the military necessity of defending California's coast. A $1.5 million bond issue was placed on the ballot, but construction was delayed by World War I.
The state first approved building Route 56, or the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, to connect Big Sur to the rest of California in 1919. Federal funds were appropriated and in 1921 voters approved additional state funds. San Quentin Prison set up three temporary prison camps to provide unskilled convict labor to help with road construction. One was set up by Little Sur River, one at Kirk Creek and a third was later established in the south at Anderson Creek. Inmates were paid 35 cents per day and had their prison sentences reduced in return. Locals, including writer John Steinbeck, also worked on the road. The road necessitated 33 bridges constructed, the largest of which was the Bixby Creek Bridge. Six more concrete arch bridges were built between Point Sur and Carmel, and all were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
After 18 years of construction, aided by New Deal funds during the Great Depression, the paved two-lane road was completed and opened on June 17, 1937. The road was initially called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway, honoring the current President (Franklin Delano Roosevelt). Actual cost of the construction was around $10 million. The road was frequently closed for extended periods during the winter, making it a seasonal route. During World War II, night-time blackouts were ordered as a precaution against Japanese attack.
The route was incorporated into the state highway system and redesignated as Highway 1 in 1939. In 1940, the state contracted for "the largest installation of guard rail ever placed on a California state highway", calling for 12 miles (19 km) of steel guard rail and 3,649 guide posts along 46.6 miles (75.0 km) of the road. After World War II ended, tourism and travel boomed along the coast. When Hearst Castle opened in 1958, a huge number of tourists also flowed through Big Sur. The road was declared the first State Scenic Highway in 1965, and in 1966 the first lady, Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, led the official designation ceremony at Bixby Creek Bridge. The route was designated as an All American Road by the US Government.
Highway 1 dramatically altered the local economy and brought the outside world much closer, with ranches and farms quickly giving way to tourist venues and second homes. Even with these modernizations, Big Sur was spared the worst excesses of development, due largely to residents who fought to preserve the land. The Monterey County government won a landmark court case in 1962, affirming its right to ban billboards and other visual distractions on Highway 1. The county then adopted one of the country's most stringent land use plans, prohibiting any new construction within sight of the highway.
In the early to mid-20th century, Big Sur's relative isolation and natural beauty began to attract writers and artists, including Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Edward Weston, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Emile Norman, and Jack Kerouac. Jeffers was among the first of these. Beginning in the 1920s, his poetry introduced the romantic idea of Big Sur's wild, untamed spaces to a national audience, which encouraged many of the later visitors. In the posthumously published book Stones of the Sur, Carmel landscape photographer Morley Baer later combined his classical black and white photographs of Big Sur with some of Jeffers' poetry.
Henry Miller lived in Big Sur from 1944 to 1962. His 1957 essay/memoir/novel Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch described the joys and hardships that came from escaping the "air conditioned nightmare" of modern life. The Henry Miller Memorial Library, a cultural center devoted to Miller's life and work, is a popular attraction for many tourists.
Hunter S. Thompson worked as a security guard and caretaker at Big Sur Hot Springs for eight months in 1961, just before it became the Esalen Institute. While there, he published his first magazine feature in the nationally distributed Rogue (men's) magazine, about Big Sur's artisan and bohemian culture.
Jack Kerouac spent a few days in Big Sur in early 1960 at fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in the woods, and wrote a novel, Big Sur based on his experience there. Big Sur acquired a bohemian reputation with these newcomers. Henry Miller recounted that a traveler knocked on his door, looking for the "cult of sex and anarchy." Apparently finding neither, the disappointed visitor returned home. Miller is referenced in Brautigan's A Confederate General at Big Sur, in which a pair of young men attempt the idyllic Big Sur life in small shacks and are variously plagued by flies, low ceilings, visiting businessmen with nervous breakdowns, and 2,452 tiny frogs whose loud singing keeps everyone awake.
Big Sur also became home to centers of study and contemplation - a Catholic monastery, the New Camaldoli Hermitage in 1958, the Esalen Institute, a workshop and retreat center in 1962, and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Buddhist monastery, in 1966. Esalen hosted many figures of the nascent "New Age", and in the 1960s, played an important role in popularizing Eastern philosophies, the "human potential movement," and Gestalt therapy in the United States.
The area's increasing popularity and incredible beauty soon brought the attention of Hollywood. Orson Welles and his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth, bought a Big Sur cabin on impulse during a trip down the coast in 1944. They never spent a single night there, and the property is now the location of a popular restaurant, Nepenthe. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in the 1965 film The Sandpiper, featuring many location shots of Big Sur, and a dance party scene on a soundstage built to resemble Nepenthe. The Sandpiper was one of the very few major studio motion pictures ever filmed in Big Sur, and perhaps the only one to identify real Big Sur locales by name as part of the plot. The DVD, released in 2006, includes a Burton-narrated short film about Big Sur, quoting Robinson Jeffers poetry. Another film based in Big Sur was the 1974 Zandy's Bride, starring Gene Hackman and Liv Ullman. An adaptation of The Stranger in Big Sur by Lillian Bos Ross, the film portrayed the 1870s life of the Ross family and their Big Sur neighbors.
From 1964 to 1971, the Big Sur Folk Festival was held annually on the grounds of the Esalen Institute, with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Mimi Farina frequently performing. (Celebration at Big Sur is a documentary of the 1969 Big Sur festival.) The Beach Boys devoted the three parts of their California Saga on the band's 1973 album Holland to a nostalgic depiction of the rugged wilderness in the area and the culture of its inhabitants. The first part describes the outdoor environment of the region, the second part is an adaption of the Robinson Jeffers poem The Beaks of Eagles, and the third part discusses local literary and musical figures. Big Sur is also mentioned by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in their 2000 single "Road Trippin'". The song tells of a road trip in which lead singer Anthony Kiedis, guitarist John Frusciante and bassist Flea surfed at Big Sur following John's return to the band. Among other notable mentions of Big Sur in music are Buckethead's song "Big Sur Moon" on the album Colma, the song "Big Sur" by Irish indie band The Thrills from their album So Much for the City, Jason Aldean's "Texas Was You", and Siskiyou's song "Big Sur", the 7-minute-long penultimate track from their debut self-titled album. Death Cab for Cutie's song "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is about a bridge (Bixby Creek Bridge) near the cabin in which Jack Kerouac stayed.
Big Sur remains sparsely populated, with about 1,000 year-round inhabitants, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Big Sur residents include descendants of the original ranching families, artists and writers, along with wealthy home-owners. These wealthy homeowners, however, are usually only part-time residents of Big Sur. The mountainous terrain, environmental restrictions imposed by Monterey County, and lack of property available for development have kept Big Sur relatively unspoiled. As a result, real estate prices are high, with land and homes prices above $2 million. There are no urban areas, although three small clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels are often marked on maps as "towns": Posts in the Big Sur River valley, Lucia, near Limekiln State park, and Gorda, on the southern coast. The economy is almost completely based on tourism. Much of the land along the coast is privately owned or has been donated to the state park system, while the vast Los Padres National Forest, the Ventana Wilderness, and Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation encompass most of the inland areas.
The Basin Complex Fire of 2008 forced an eight-day evacuation of Big Sur and the closure of Highway 1, beginning just before the July 4 holiday weekend. The fire, which burned over 130,000 acres (53,000 ha), represented the largest of many wildfires that had broken out throughout California during the same period. Although the fire caused no loss of life, it destroyed 27 homes, and the tourist-dependent economy lost about a third of its expected summer revenue.
Like in several of its other segments across the state, Highway 1 occasionally suffers damage due to California landslides and erosion. In March 2011, a landslide in Big Sur forced the road to be closed for several months.
Big Sur typically enjoys a mild climate year-round, with a sunny, dry summer and fall, and a cool, wet winter. Coastal temperatures vary little during the year, ranging from the 50s at night to the 70s by day (Fahrenheit) from June through October, and in the 40s to 60s from November through May. Farther inland, away from the ocean's moderating influence, temperatures are much more variable. The weather varies widely due to the influence of the jagged topography, creating many microclimates. This is one of the few places on Earth where redwoods grow in close proximity to cacti.
The official National Weather Service cooperative station at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park reports that January is the coolest month with an average maximum of 60.0 °F (15.6 °C) and an average minimum of 43.2 °F (6.2 °C). August is usually the warmest month, with an average maximum of 77.3 °F (25.2 °C) and an average minimum of 50.2 °F (10.1 °C). The record maximum temperature was 102 °F (38.9 °C) on June 20, 2008. The record minimum was 27 °F (−2.8 °C), recorded on December 21, 1998, and January 13, 2007. There are an average of 8.8 days annually with highs of 90 °F (32 °C) or higher and an average of 1.4 days with lows of 32 °F (0 °C) or lower. Average annual precipitation at the state park headquarters is 41.94 inches (1,065 mm), with measurable precipitation falling on an average of 62 days each year. The wettest year was 1983 with 88.85 inches (2,257 mm) and the driest year was 1990 with 17.90 inches (455 mm). The wettest month on record was January 1995 with 26.47 inches (672 mm) and the most precipitation in 24 hours was 9.23 inches (234 mm) on January 31, 1963. More than 70% of the rain falls from December through March, while the summer brings much drier conditions. Measurable snowfall is rare in coastal Big Sur, with the maximum monthly snowfall of only 1.0 inch (25 mm) recorded in December 1932, but is common in the winter months on the higher ridges of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The abundant winter rains cause rock and mudslides that can cut off portions of Highway 1 for days or weeks, but the road is usually quickly repaired.
Farther to the south, near San Simeon, weather records were kept at the Piedras Blancas Light lighthouse until 1975. Based on those records, January was the coldest month with an average maximum of 58.6 °F (14.8 °C) and an average minimum of 45.3 °F (7.4 °C). September was the warmest month with an average maximum of 64.2 °F (17.9 °C) and an average minimum of 51.9 °F (11.1 °C). Temperatures rarely reached 90 °F (32 °C) or higher, occurring only 0.1 day annually; nor dropped to 32 °F (0 °C) or lower, occurring only 0.5 day annually. The highest temperature recorded was 91 °F (33 °C) on October 21, 1965. The lowest temperature recorded was 29 °F (−2 °C) on January 1, 1965. Annual precipitation averaged 20.28 inches (515 mm). The wettest year was 1969 with 41.86 inches (1,063 mm) and the driest year was 1959 with 9.71 inches (247 mm). Measurable precipitation fell on an average of 48 days annually. The most rainfall in one month was 18.35 inches (466 mm) in January, 1969, including 5.28 inches (134 mm) in 24 hours on January 19. Today, weather records are kept at the park headquarters at San Simeon and published in some newspapers.
Along with much of the central and northern California coast, Big Sur frequently has dense fog in summer. The summer fog and summer drought have the same underlying cause: a massive, stable seasonal high pressure system that forms over the north Pacific Ocean. The high pressure cell inhibits rainfall and generates northwesterly air flow. These prevailing summer winds from the northwest drive the ocean surface water slightly offshore (through the Ekman effect) which generates an upwelling of colder sub surface water. The water vapor in the air contacting this cold water condenses into fog. The fog usually moves out to sea during the day and closes in at night, but sometimes heavy fog blankets the coast all day. Fog is an essential summer water source for many Big Sur coastal plants. Most plants cannot take water directly out of the air, but the condensation on leaf surfaces slowly precipitates into the ground like rain.
|Climate data for Big Sur|
|Record high °F (°C)||81|
|Average high °F (°C)||59.7|
|Average low °F (°C)||42.9|
|Record low °F (°C)||27|
|Precipitation inches (mm)||9.10|
|Avg. precipitation days (≥ 0.01 in)||10.3||11.2||10.3||6.5||3.7||1.1||0.3||0.4||1.3||3.5||7.5||10.3||66.4|
|Source: NOAA |
The many climates of Big Sur result in an astonishing biodiversity, including many rare and endangered species such as the wild orchid Piperia yadonii, which has a highly restricted range of a total population of few individuals. Arid, dusty chaparral-covered hills exist within easy walking distance of lush riparian woodland. The mountains trap most of the moisture out of the clouds; fog in summer, rain and snow in winter. This creates a favorable environment for coniferous forests, including the southernmost habitat of the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), which grows only on lower coastal slopes that are routinely fogged in at night. Many inaccessible redwood forests here were never logged, and in 2008 scientist J. Michael Fay published a map of these old growth redwoods as a result of his transect of the entire redwood range. In areas where they were logged, the redwoods, aggressive regenerators, have grown back extensively since logging ceased in the early twentieth century. The rare Santa Lucia fir (Abies bracteata), as its name suggests, is found only in the Santa Lucia mountains. A common "foreign" species is the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata), which was uncommon in Big Sur until the late 19th century, when many homeowners began to plant it as a windbreak. There are many broadleaved trees as well, such as the tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus), Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), and California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica). In the rain shadow, the forests disappear and the vegetation becomes open oak woodland, then transitions into the more familiar fire-tolerant California chaparral scrub.
Numerous fauna are found in the Big Sur region. Among amphibians the California Giant Salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus) is found here, which point marks the southern extent of its range. In 1997, the Ventana Wildlife Society began releasing captive-bred California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus) in Big Sur, and a nest was discovered in a redwood tree in 2006. This population has been successful in part because a significant portion of its diet, carcasses of large sea creatures that have washed ashore, are unlikely to be contaminated with lead. Lead poisoning is an important cause of mortality in condors, and usually occurs when a bird consumes the remains of a game animal that had been hunted and killed with lead bullets or shot.
Point Sur State Marine Reserve and Marine Conservation Area and Big Creek State Marine Reserve and Big Creek State Marine Conservation Area are marine protected areas offshore from Big Sur. Like underwater parks, these marine protected areas help conserve ocean wildlife and marine ecosystems.
The United States does not define a census-designated place called Big Sur, but it does define a Zip Code Tabulation Area (ZCTA), 93920. Because Big Sur is contained roughly within this Zip Code Tabulation Area, it is possible to obtain Census data from the United States 2000 Census for the area even though data for "Big Sur" is unavailable.
According to the United States 2000 Census, there were 996 people, 884 households, and 666 housing units in the 93920 ZCTA. The racial makeup of this area was 87.6% White, 1.1% African American, 1.3% Native American, 2.4% Asian, 0.0% Pacific Islander, 5.5% from other races, and 3.0% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.6% of the population.
In the 93920 ZCTA, the population age was widely distributed, with 20.2% under the age of 19, 4.5% from 20 to 24, 26.9% from 25 to 44, 37.0% from 45 to 64, and 11.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 43.2 years.
The median income in 2000 for a household in 93920 ZCTA was $41,304, and the median income for a family was $65,083.
Settlements in the Big Sur region, between the Carmel River and the San Carpoforo Creek, include:
At the county level, Big Sur is represented on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors by Supervisor Dave Potter . In the California State Assembly, Big Sur is represented by Bill Monning as part of the 27th Assembly district. In the State Senate, Big Sur is represented by Sam Blakeslee as part of the 15th State Senate district. In the U.S. House of Representatives, Big Sur is part of California's 17th congressional district, represented by Sam Farr.
Although some Big Sur residents catered to adventurous travelers in the early twentieth century, the modern tourist economy began when Highway 1 opened the region to automobiles, and only took off after World War II-era gasoline rationing ended in the mid-1940s. Most of the 3 million tourists who visit Big Sur each year never leave Highway 1, because the adjacent Santa Lucia mountain range is one of the largest roadless areas near a coast in the contiguous United States. The highway winds along the western flank of the mountains mostly within sight of the Pacific Ocean, varying from near sea level up to a thousand-foot sheer drop to the water. Because gazing at the views while driving is inadvisable, the highway features many strategically placed vista points allowing motorists to stop and admire the landscape. The section of Highway 1 running through Big Sur is widely considered as one of the most scenic driving routes in the United States, if not the world. These breathtaking views were one reason that Big Sur ranked second among all United States destinations in TripAdvisor's 2008 Travelers' Choice Destination Awards.
The land use restrictions that preserve Big Sur's natural beauty also mean that tourist accommodations are limited, often expensive, and fill up quickly during the busy summer season. There are fewer than 300 hotel rooms on the entire 90 mi (140 km)) stretch of Highway 1 between San Simeon and Carmel, only three gas stations, and no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food outlets. The gas station in Gorda has one of the highest prices in the United States. The lodging options are rustic cabins, motels, and campgrounds, or costly, exclusive five-star resorts, with little in between. Most lodging and restaurants are clustered in the Big Sur River valley, where Highway 1 leaves the coast for a few miles and winds into a redwood forest, protected from the chill ocean breezes and summer fog.
Besides sightseeing from the highway, Big Sur offers hiking, mountain climbing, and other outdoor activities. There are a few small, scenic beaches that are popular for walking, but usually unsuitable for swimming because of unpredictable currents and frigid temperatures. Big Sur's nine state parks have many points of interest, including one of the few waterfalls on the Pacific Coast that plunges directly into the ocean, located at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, although visitors are not allowed on the beach itself to preserve the natural habitat. The waterfall is located near the ruins of a grand stone cliffside house that was the region's first electrified dwelling. Another notable landmark is the only complete nineteenth century lighthouse complex open to the public in California, set on a lonely, windswept hill that looks like an island in the fog.
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