by Michael Koepf, April 6, 2016
“Take the back roads instead of the highway.” –Minnie Pearl
Minnie Pearl was right. If you want to take the pulse of America, forsake the interstates of commerce and the stately boulevards where the big shots live. Try a back road to see what’s what.
Take mine: the Philo-Greenwood road, eighteen miles long. To the east, several years ago, the county “chip sealed” a section of this road. Tire companies applaud it. It reduces mileage on your tires. However, I mostly use an eight-mile section of my road to travel down to Elk, that shining village of enlightenment nestled next to the sea. I usually go to the store to buy a quart of milk where I can also purchase the Mendocino Beacon—a vanished shadow of the paper it was. I primarily read this paper to see how much rain we’ve had, and also to occasionally check into Charlie Acker’s column about my little town wherein he’s the first writer to actually use the English language to preform lobotomies without a knife. I go to town to eat at Queenie’s Cafe, which serves the best breakfast along the coast. But, most of all on Friday nights, I need my road to drive to the bar—the Beacon Light Cocktail Lounge for a glass of “chateau shit-face” served up by the “chief,” the legendary R.D. Beacon himself. That’s where my eclectic friends hang out to piss and moan at the world exclusive of Elk’s progressive, downtown crowd. There are exceptions. Norman de Vall, a former president of the Mendocino Board of supervisors, often drank at this bar. Sadly, he was recently 86ed—tossed for attitude not for drink, which by guilt of former association, brings me back to the financial and political implications of the Philo-Greenwood road: who the hell’s in charge of this mess?
The last time I drove to town, I counted 196 potholes, most of them showing dirt. One hole was actually a spring with water flowing out, and there’s a pothole near the Liljeberg ranch where two bicyclists attired in full Mylar disappeared without a trace. Their screams were heard at night: help, help…share the road; get us out of this God-damn hole! Volunteers from Elk’s fire department carefully searched the scene. Consequently, there were far too many potholes to locate the one to drop the rescue rope into. Tragically, the fire chief was also lost in the search. There will be a benefit at the community center, and the CHP has cautioned its patrolmen to avoid the Philo-Greenwood road. Police lives matter in Mendocino. One pothole has grown so large, that a dope grower has added starts. But potholes aren’t the only problem. Down the hill from Dick Mitchell’s house, something grotesque has happened to the road. Locals call it the ski jump. Something beneath the road has pushed the pavement up to form a substantial hill of risen road. Hit it at thirty-five miles per hour and your vehicle catches air. Local teenagers love this spot; tourists not so much. A Tesla lost a wheel and burned up to a crisp. A BMW hit it at sixty-five miles per hour; performed a corkscrew turn in the air and came to earth as a wreck. Bob Matson runs the garage. He’s made a fortune with his tow truck returning repeatedly to this spot. Closer to my house, there’s a landside on a curve that protrudes into the road. It’s existed for several months. There are long swatches of broken asphalt that resemble the skin on crocs, but the worst of the very worst is the pavement that’s been “repaired.” Periodically—not exactly every year—county trucks bearing steaming asphalt show up to “repair” the most damaged parts of the road. They deal with broken asphalt, cracks, and potholes that have reappeared. The damage is covered and rolled. But here’s the problem. Year after year, these sections continue to deteriorate along with adjacent parts of the road. The re-patching’s gone on forever—re-patch over re-patch, which has resulted in a labyrinth of patchwork of mounds that resemble moguls on a ski slope. Some moguls are as high as buckets, but in spots they form depressions deep enough to bathe a dog. Several years ago I wrote a letter to NASA suggesting that children who ride the school bus along the Philo-Greenwood road would make excellent astronaut candidates, because they are continually subjected to weightlessness as they travel to and from their school. Currently I believe that the best use of the Philo-Greenwood road would be for testing M-1 tanks.
Who’s in change of my road? The Mendocino County Department of Transportation. I went to the county website, but no name or names appeared. Smart. However, I did find the mission statement for our beloved Department of Transportation. It’s to provide an adequate, well-maintained, efficient, and safe network of County-maintained roads that expand into the unincorporated areas of the County to form the State Highway system, and provide for both area and regional surface transportation needs of the country. My road is inadequate, poorly maintained, inefficient, and definitely not safe. I’ll bet your road’s as bad a mine.
Facts and figures to kick around: There are 1,018 miles of county roads in Mendocino County. The price of oil determines the price of asphalt. Asphalt is little more than cooked tar-oil, sand and gravel. Currently, the price of oil per gallon is as low as a gallon of coke. On-line estimates for one mile of repaving are one hundred and twenty thousand dollars per mile ($120,000). It could be lower; could be higher. What do I know, other than how to poorly use Google search? Repaving every mile of country road would come in at $122,160,000. That’s one hundred and twenty-two million. According to the Grand Jury and the Sheriff, the gross for Mendocino dope last year was 5.4 billion dollars to people who paid no tax. Dope growers say it’s realistically closer to 2.6 billion. Wine brought in one hundred and twenty-two million; timber seventy-five. Yearly pensions paid out to retired Country workers add up to about thirteen million dollars last year. Interest on the county debt incurred by an endless succession of elected morons, who thought the county budget was their private, magic checkbook: 20 million bucks! It would cost about two million to resurface my crappy road. Chump change compared to the rest. What would it take to fix your road? I think the county will have to fold, before they ever fix our roads.
Good roads are the basis of successful country; bad roads point to a country in decline.