The last nine miles involves moving 35 million cubic yards of dirt and rock, says Stan Hyatt, the state Transportation Department's resident engineer. How much is that? If spread on a football field, 1 million cubic yards would rise 560 feet, Hyatt says. So, 35 million would stand 19,600 feet, or 3.7 miles, tall. The main project is a six-mile section where crews of up to 125 work during the day and 75 at night, operating drilling rigs, water wagons, dump trucks, articulated trucks, track hoes, motor graders, frontend loaders and generators for lights. One machine is the largest piece of equipment Caterpillar makes: a $3 million shovel with a bucket that scoops 26 cubic yards of debris at a time, about the size of a small bedroom. Details like this excite Wallin. He discusses the construction as a child might an amusement park ride. "Lookee!" he says as the massive load dumped by a truck seems to teeter, undecided whether to fall toward its designated spot or Wallin's yard.
There was one morning when, as he ate breakfast, a dump truck full of gravel flipped over four times. The driver survived. And the noise? Wallin copes sometimes by turning down his hearing aid. He sums up: "There isn't any point of being upset or negative to it. Like I told some of the neighbors, you can't fight this thing." Besides, he says, the road represents a promise of tourism and other industry. Mars Hill now has a couple of fast-food restaurants and its first chain hotel. "It's not ever going to be like it was," he says, waving his hand as if wiping away the past. For Buckner, however, losing the past is not something to wave away. Pavement isn't grass, cars aren't trees, and once the blacktop replaces mountains, life won't be as good. On a recent morning one drill was working, and Buckner, a soft-spoken man, had to speak loudly to be heard by someone sitting next to him on his porch. Some days, four to five drills work at once, and in the afternoon, dynamite blasts break up the rock.
The completion date is 2002. "I've got to listen to this until then," he says. A seismograph sits in Buckner's backyard near his five apple and two pear trees, just up a hill from his 45 head of cattle. One blast created a rock slide, and the brand-new house of his daughter and son-in-law already has hairline fractures in the foundation. The house is new because the highway right of way swallowed up Dale and Luretha Fluty's 10 acres, with their home, their woodworking business, several barns and outbuildings. The state paid them $339,400 for it all, but they, too, say the money cannot replace what was lost. They thought about moving and even found one place that they seriously considered. "But in the end, we just didn't feel like we could leave," says Dale Fluty. Adds Luretha: "Our roots are pretty deep." Theirs was one of about 40 households uprooted. Three cemeteries were moved. One church, Ivy Baptist, was relocated. Buckner, who moved to this valley at age 5 with his parents and six siblings, first lived in a poplar log house. "We moved in October, and the snow blew in through the cracks," he says. "By the next winter, Dad had fixed it up better." His brothers and sisters are scattered across the country now - Arizona, Alabama, West Virginia and elsewhere. "I'm the only one that cared anything about this mountain," he says.
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