But when the diggers, the Kiewit construction guys, burrowed into the mountain, they were caught off guard. They ran into, say, Category 3 rock and Category 1 rock when they just expected a block of Category 2 rock, and so on. This confused the whole operation.

Support systems had to be switched to match the new conditions. This cost time and money. Kiewit had won the Caltrans contract with a $272 million bid, $50 million cheaper than the next closest offer. But that bid did not account for all this new support construction. So with each new safety structure, Caltrans' bill ballooned.

As the anticipated costs and delays grew, Caltrans cited the unexpected "geologic conditions." Hamilton took offense. Zerga didn't understand it either. Any professional construction outfit, they thought, knew that geologic blueprints were mapped out in intervals, and that a good faith bid would account for the inevitable rock mixtures. Especially when the project employed the design-as-you-go principles of the New Austrian Tunneling Method, which Caltrans' project manager Skip Sowko once described as: "every time a piece is excavated, the mining engineer looks at the rock fractures and the soil types to evaluate what methods to use to support the excavated ground."

But it's all federal funds anyway, so who can complain? The important thing is getting this next machine into the mountain. It inches through the dirt, engine rumbling. Deeper into the mountain. The natural light is gone now. Only a dim yellow glow from lanterns hanging like Christmas lights illuminates the machine's steady progress.

The machine is a roadheader, 50 feet long, and nearly half of that a trunk-like snout. At its tip, a thick steel log covered in spikes — a terror for loose rock. This is the workhorse, responsible for most of the digging.

The machine reaches its foe. The rock face stares back with a sinister silence. The machine strikes. Its spiky log spins with a growl, tearing away at the mountain's gut. The shredding rages on and on, like a boxer on a furious offensive.

Then the crumbling slows. The tumbling rock bits have dwindled to a trickle. The mountain has applied its best defense. The rock face has turned hard.

If the mountain will be conquered, it will bleed every dollar and every day it can out of its conquerer. The men who make the decisions know that there is no more taste for delays, no more time to keep rolling their machines in and out of this hole. The roadheader stays in the game. It grinds away, inches at a time, with solid rock and man's historical failures standing before it. But behind this machine, there's now limitless money and generations' worth of technological innovation — 150 years of human progress driving it forward, grinding the rocks and the failures to dust. Until there is nothing more ahead, only daylight, and it is almost as if there was never anything in this long hole to begin with.


The car is idling by the sign:

DANGEROUS FOR AUTOMOBILES

TAKE ROAD VIA SAN MATEO

The drive changes from this point on. They say the northbound road is impassable, a haven for terrible wrecks. More than 250 curves, they say, many of them hairpin turns and backward turns and turns with angles never meant for automobiles. There are ski-slope inclines and over-eager boulders and potholes inside potholes. The road plays hell on even this brand-new Model B. One magazine has said, "Even with a thoroughly reliable driver and trustworthy car, Pedro Mountain road is in such poor condition that anyone going this way is simply inviting disaster." (Luckily, an army of men starving for work and New Deal money has started constuction on the coastal highway that will one day render this broken road obsolete.)

But those who have made it through speak of dazzling views and air that smells like what Eden probably smelled like.

The car accelerates ...


... And glides up the bridge, coasting into the tunnel. The portal comes out of nowhere, blended into the mountainside with its green and brown walls, artificially textured to match the environment around it. Those walls were designed by the same guy who crafted the rocks for the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. This tunnel sure feels like a ride, an amusement now, tamed but pretending at peril — adventure as ornament.

The amusement cost around $450 million, and just opened, in March 2013 — $175 million and two-and-a-half years past projections. But the Devil's Slide problem has finally been solved, to huge fanfare. "The People's Tunnel," many call it. But the GPS on the dash lists it as the "Tom Lantos Tunnels." Whatever its name, it's a smooth drive and a straight shot for nearly a mile. This mountain must have been a hell of an obstacle for them to pump this much money into punching a hole through it. Man's cold-blooded efficiency over time supplanting the adventure, the peril. Certainly, there must be a history of struggles here, all forg— Oh, this is a good song, turn it up.

Boys tell stories 'bout the man / Say I never struggled, wasn't hungry, yeah I doubt it ...

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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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