Geologists found this idea absurd. It would be a temporary solution, at best, lasting only until the newly formed lower slope succumbed to the inevitably violent erosion. Still, Caltrans had to at least make it seem like they were considering this alternative. So in the early 1990s, the department sent an exploration team to survey the area. A group of three or four scientists maneuvered a whaling boat through the waters below the Slide, deploying a bottom-sounding device to locate its base. Like most days, the surf was ferocious. It flooded the deck. Caltrans officials overseeing the project from the shore watched in horror as the boat capsized. The scientists managed to swim to land. And that was the end of the Marine Disposal Alternative.

As Lempert's experts begin pitching their ideas, though, it soon becomes clear that even the brightest minds can't come up with anything much better. Raise the roadway! Except that doesn't address the unstable cliff face that makes it vulnerable to collapse. Install drainage holes to keep the rocks light and compressed! Except all it takes is one big rainstorm to overwhelm the setup. A viaduct! Except the relentless tides would clobber the construction, then eat away at the elevated roadway's columns.

And on and on it went. Eventually, a bearded man near the door speaks up. His name is Doug Hamilton, and he is a geologist. He was looking forward to this meeting. He was on his couch, watching the news when he learned about the rockslide. Curious, he pulled out some aerial photographs from an old project he'd worked on around there. And that's when he saw it. A possible shortcut. From the area north of the Slide to the area south of the Slide. Right through the mountain.

He pitches the idea. Soft-spoken but with an air of confidence, Hamilton explains that a tunnel would be a permanent fix to the road, that its environmental impact would be negligible, and that its cost would be comparable to that of the bypass. Lempert is hooked. So is Barrales. They hadn't heard of this possibility before. Caltrans hadn't built a tunnel since 1964. Back in the 1970s, a Caltrans geologist had floated the idea of a tunnel for Devil's Slide. But the department, full-steam ahead with the bypass, quickly shot down the proposal after preliminary evaluations, claiming that it would cost too much. The idea never resurfaced.

Until now. Lempert and Barralles ask around the room for reasons why the tunnel wouldn't work. But they find no serious dissent. Lempert feels a surge of relief and excitement. He doesn't yet know how it will happen. Doesn't yet know of the political wrangling ahead, the grassroots campaign and the ballot measure and the lobbying for federal funding.

Lempert's mind is calm as he strolls out of the conference room. All he can think is that he's found a solution to the Devil's Slide problem. Whatever obstacles lay ahead, that's for tomorrow.


The next day should be easier. By then the road should level and begin to decline. The horses are tired from the steep climb. This part is the hardest, they say. It's Day One on the Half Moon Bay-Colma Road, which the newspapers called "as treacherous a piece of road as can be found. Death stalks in front and lurks behind in every foot of the climb to the summit."

The summit must be near, but it's hard to say with all the fog. Not that the thick white haze is unwelcome. The wagon teeters with every bump over the rocky terrain, and it's probably best that the drop beyond the cliff stays hidden. For sanity's sake. The lifeless wagon up ahead, though, has come into view. It sits on the side of the trail, abandoned and with a busted wheel. What happened to those folks? But there is no time to linger and wonder. It is perhaps another full day's travel to San Francisco.

They've called that place the Emporium of the Pacific, full of wonder and jobs and brothels. The depression of the Reconstruction has passed, and this city, as far from that Eastern carnage as you can get, seems an ideal place to build a life.

So there is much ground to cover before nightfall, when the mountain turns into a cold, howling Golgotha. In those hours, the wilderness is in control. And there is nothing to do but lay prostrate at its feet, praying for mercy.


Blame the frogs. There wasn't even supposed to be a bridge here. The original plan was that a normal road would lead into the tunnel's north portal, which meant filling in this corner of the Shamrock Ranch with concrete. Early environmental reports, though, noted the presence of endangered red-legged frogs. So the plans changed. Now there's a thousand-foot bridge going up and an official protocol for what to do if any of the little guys wander onto the construction site. Find a bucket — one of the specially designated frog buckets — drop it over the frog, then phone whichever of Caltrans' three official biologists is on call that day. A rescue team mobilizes and transports the animal back to its habitat with a stern warning.

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2 comments
kathieyount
kathieyount topcommenter

What a beautiful and poetic piece!  Reminiscent of Steinbeck, this new young California voice never disappoints like "an archer aiming just above the target in order to hit the bullseye."  Wonderful history of the long assault on Devil's Slide.

 
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