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Assault on Devil's Slide: A 150-Year Tale of Man Versus Mountain 

Wednesday, May 1 2013

Illustration by Jared Boggess

On one side, a rock wall shoots a hundred feet into the sky. On the other, a hundred-foot drop onto jagged rocks and cold, crashing Pacific Ocean waves. Between them, there is 20 or so feet of twisting road, one lane each way, with no margin for error. Which makes for a frightful proposition when the northbound 18-wheeler dead ahead drifts into the opposite lane. It's come around a curve so sharp that five seconds ago there was no 18-wheeler, just a view of infinite sea and a blind turn around the edge of San Pedro Mountain ... now, well, there's nothing to do but tap the brakes and hope the rosary hanging from the rearview mirror serves its purpose.

Ggggrrroooooosssshhhh ... the semi roars by, safely but close enough to smack with a left jab through an open driver's side window. The road doesn't ease up after that. It's three more minutes of threading between mountain and cliff, trusting that the dozens of drivers about to tear past keep their hands at 10 and 2 and fight the urge to stare too long at the sunset. It's fitting that this stretch of California Highway 1 is called the Devil's Slide, the way it tempts us with such a satisfying scene. Because all it takes is one bite of the apple and ...

But the mountain has shown mercy today. And soon the road straightens and slopes down to rolling flatlands. A couple more miles south, past the coast-side hostel and the ranch-style houses and the Mormon Church, a right turn into a narrow road leads to sea. And perched over the sand and the water is the Moss Beach Distillery, pouring drinks since its days as a Prohibition speakeasy.

It's packed this evening. But there is an open seat at the bar, beside four men in jeans, work-boots and light jackets. They have broad shoulders, thick necks, and calloused palms. A bartender named Melissa Vega slides them fresh pints, and they eagerly take their first gulps. They lean forward on elbows or slouch into chairs, with the serious eyes and relieved grins of hard-earned fatigue.

You guys working on the tunnel? Vega asks. One of them answers Yes. She asks them how the digging is going, and they reply that it's been rough. They say something about unexpected rock formations and something about the holes you need to drill for dynamite sticks and something about support structures and so on and so forth.

There was something on the news about that tunnel, the twin tubes that would cut through San Pedro Mountain so nobody would have to drive Devil's Slide anymore.

They started digging the thing some months back, in September 2007. There was a whole ceremony at the construction site then. "When opened to traffic in late 2010, these state of the art tunnels will finally provide a reliable connection for coastal communities," Caltrans gushed in a press release. "It is fitting to mark the beginning of the end to the Devil's Slide problem by a public celebration."

Look around the restaurant — everybody here knows about "the Devil's Slide problem." That stretch of Highway 1 got its name because of the rockslides that bury the roadway every few years, shutting off the main artery connecting San Francisco and San Mateo County's coastal towns, home to the best beaches this side of Santa Cruz. The Slide's irritability has often doomed passage around the San Pedro Mountain's Pacific coast edge. Less than 20 miles south of San Francisco, the mountain is a 1,000-foot tall barrier, sitting at the northern tip of the Santa Cruz Mountain Range and occupying the western part of the peninsula's corridor. Eight times over the last century, the mountain's fury has closed the Highway 1 route for weeks or months.

Vega certainly remembers the last one. It was 2006, and her 20-minute commute from San Francisco turned into a 90-minute, bumper-to-bumper affair that looped around the mountain, south on Interstate 280, then west on Highway 92, then back up north on Highway 1. And after all that, she'd walk in to find an empty restaurant. Potential patrons in San Francisco, Marin County, and the East Bay wanted no part of the San Mateo County coast. The Distillery lost 75 percent of its revenue over those four months that the road was closed.

When the rockslides weren't clogging the artery, the accidents were. The Distillery staff always knows when there's a crash on the mountain by the sudden drop in customers. Other locals — those with living-room windows facing the Slide — tell stories of watching cars plummet into the ocean, and sheriff's deputies repelling down cliffs to rescue people trapped in vehicles lodged between big rocks.

It's as if the mountain takes offense at man's efforts to cross it. And these tunnelmen, sitting at a bar after a day of trying to cut a hole through its gut, know it. For more than 150 years, the mountain has defended itself with waves and rockslides and fog. Now, too, it fights with the secrets it keeps inside itself. As work on the tunnel progressed, this has made the mountain dangerous in brand new ways. One of the men looks up at the bartender. This is gonna take way longer than anyone expected, he says.

Ages ago, when San Francisco was an infant metropolis, its growth depended on taming the mountain, the lifeline to the grain and cabbage and cheese and potatoes. The march of progress brought new tools, but none ever quite up to the task, none a permanent solution. The mountain is still in the way, isolating the produce and beaches of the south from the commerce and bright lights of the north.

Until, finally, man begins the final siege on the mountain. Right after this beer.

The man grunts as he picks up the sack, heavy with grain. Forearms flexed and brow furrowed, he tosses it onto the pile with the rest. Then his eyes lock on to the next sack 100 feet up. It's lying at the edge of a cliff. Somebody up there gives it a heave, sending it skidding down the rickety wooden ramp that ends at the ship's deck.

About The Author

Albert Samaha


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