Don Harlan would be rolling over in his grave – An Editorial

Don Harlan is the original “road warrior.” He was the supervisor of the Willow Springs Station for several decades. He was passionate about the maintenance of this road and getting it open as fast as possible. He was a “balls-to-the-wall” leader, who taught his men to be as passionate as he was. (Sorry ladies, Angie is our first female at Willow Springs.) He wasn’t worried about lawsuits. He worried about the safety and convenience of his men, and the traveling public. Don cared about the road and checked out the work of the “new” Cal-Trans long after he retired in the mid-80’s. He ALWAYS wore his hard-hat. I often wondered if he slept in it. I knew Don, but only after he retired. Rock Knocker was trained by him, and often quotes him. For this slide, Rock Knocker said Don would be stomping up and down on the highway, yelling, and throwing his hardhat down on the Highway, demanding that his men work to get the road open. I (not Rock Knocker) think he would have had this road open in 24 hours. It wasn’t a big slide, or that serious, or that difficult to clear.

Before I get into my “rant” I want to note that I have a great deal of respect for Cal-Trans here on the Big Sur coast. They manage “the road that defies gravity” in unimaginable ways. I was married to Cal-Trans for almost ten years. I’ve been on dawn patrol. (Sshh, don’t tell, we weren’t supposed to do that, even back then!) I care deeply about our local men and women. But some things have to be said. And some things, I can’t be quiet about.

Some say Cal-Trans has lost sight of the passion Don, and those that worked for him, had for this road and its care and maintenance. Maybe so. I don’t think even Don could have gotten the road open any faster with the Alder Creek slide that happened last year. But I have some serious doubts about the “Rockshed” slide, as this one was dubbed.

Even per the CHP, they had one lane open last week “for emergency traffic.” Hmmm … interesting, as “one lane” has been all there was for over a year here. UPS got through late last week, albeit carrying medical supplies. Locals report to me that they went through after dark, as we are prone to do down here.

This morning, as I headed south for supplies, having canceled TWO important medical appointments for today north, I saw over a dozen Cal-Trans vehicles from out of the area proceeding north. I got to ask one of them in San Simeon around 10:30 am what was up. “The road is going to open today.” O-k-a-y then. They knew, and must have known at least an hour earlier, as I suspect most of these guys were coming from San Luis. And to be honest, the way things move with ANY state agency, I suspect they knew last night. We, the local media (as I guess I am now considered) weren’t notified until moments before the actual opening. I actually got the call at 1:28 pm for a 1:30 opening. (I do think Cal-Trans did a great job of keeping us informed and thank them for that.) But I think the PIOs were sharing only the sanitized version of the story deemed sufficient for the public. Cal-Trans insiders clearly had more advanced notice.

Local rumor has it that GBS didn’t want the road to open, as the slide gave them the opportunity to do some drilling on the inside portion of the construction zone while the road was closed. I doubt I can get confirmation for that “insider” information, so I call it rumor. But the fact of the matter is that on Sunday, Rock Knocker checked out the slide with field glasses and saw that the road was clear, and the crane had been moved out of the slide area, yet the road did not open. But for the construction going on, this slide should have been cleared within 24 hours. Even WITH the construction, it was clear much earlier than reported to us.

Cal-Trans has learned the art of media manipulation. I noticed that they finally implemented a strategy I had been doing for a few years – providing photos. Photos tell the real story more than many words. Only for this slide, most of us couldn’t get photos, as we couldn’t get close enough. They sent the media photos showing slide material brought down in the scaling operation, not photos of the original slide before work began.

I can no longer be quiet and simply report what I am told to report. Don Harlan’s memory deserves no less, and I feel an obligation to report not just what I am told, but to question what I am told, when it doesn’t make sense. And this closure for 10 days makes no sense. I, for one, will be questioning those who provide us with the information they want distributed. Don would have told it like it is. I can do no less. Don, we miss you!

So that is my rant. I am saying what many of us down here are thinking, I suspect, but do not know. Maybe I am the only one questioning what happened with this closure, or maybe I am the only one with both a forum and a willingness to air my questions publicly. Remember, this was an editorial, and does not necessarily express the opinions of anyone other than bigsurkate. PS, I notified Cal-Trans of this editorial, and given them the opportunity to respond publicly here, on my blog tomorrow. We shall see if they do.

12 thoughts on “Don Harlan would be rolling over in his grave – An Editorial

  1. This was a total lame move on Cal Trans part. Really, we needed the net up. The net has only been there for perhaps 20 years. We all seemed to drive it without the net before then. Tax payers money hard at work. Yo0u sure can tell it is Gov. workers and not a capitalist business fixing that road.

  2. Well stated Kate. As the designated, or only media that seems to care, your editorial is necessary. My cynical observation from afar, having once been a state employee is there is much overtime to be made on this particular job. Unless someone speaks up, as you are here the calender does not get bumped up.
    In fairness CalOSHA has imposed so many checks re-checks and double re-checks since I left the state hurrying a project may not even be an option.

  3. I think that your editorial is a potential education to these guys that things could have, should have, been done with more reference to local access sooner, and maybe it will help improve the relationship down the road.

  4. I appreciate your perspective Kate, even though I completely disagree. But that’s the great thing about America. The main thing I want to mention concerns the netting. The Pitkins/Rain Rocks section has some of the most frequent rockfall of any along the coast highway. Opening the highway before at least minimal drapery was restored would have been irresponsible, possibly jeopardizing public safety. I can assure everyone who travels Hwy. 1 that their safety is and will always be Caltrans highest priority, even if it generates inconvenience and criticism. Also, I was at the slide last Friday and with the slide debris serving as a pad on the roadway for the crane, there was no way regular vehicles could get through.

    Considering the instability and steepness of the hillside, I think a 9-day closure during mid-winter was reasonable.

    Finally, I would like to thank everyone in the Big Sur community for their continued support, cooperation and patience during this slide and highway closure. Caltrans District 5 remains as committed, dedicated and passionate as ever in our ongoing challenge to keep the most breathtaking highway on the planet open and safe for the world to use.

  5. We had a group of three men stay with us who were told by the Cal Trans workers that once they (the Cal Trans workers) left on Friday that they could do what they wanted. They drove through the slide area on Friday night arriving to the Northern part of Big Sur by 6:45pm. They did not express any problems getting through.

  6. By the way Kate, it’s “Caltrans.” One word, no hyphen, and a lower case “t.”

  7. So, from what Colin Jones posted I am assuming the next time they experience difficulties at Pitkins/Rain Rocks that I will be able to walk through. During this most recent closure I was not allowed to walk through to get to work. (I work about a mile north of the bridge project) It was the first time in 35 years that I was told I could not walk through.

  8. B T W Kate , I am curious as to what happened to the Willow Springs Caltrans workers that we were taken away by the Sheriff’s , some time ago ?
    This another issue that would roll Don in his grave .

  9. Douglas … The saga of the CT workers continues, and continues … One of them early on got retirement, moved to LA, and decided to end the madness by a plea of no contest, agreeing to pay $2000 – of the $100,000 originally charged. The other four court cases have been continued ad naseum, earning the two private law firms big bucks, and keeping the others’ lives in perpetual limbo. I don’t think Don would be rolling over in his grave over my publishing his essay – in fact, I think he would be tickled. He liked to submit essays to The Round-up. I think he would chuckle over what he wrote 43 years ago.


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