Sisyphus Lives: Repeat performances for rocky road in North Carolina

         I was eight years old and riding on the New York State Thruway with my parents when I saw my first "Fallen Rock Zone" caution sign.  I found myself looking up a lot for the rest of the drive.

         More than 50 years and millions of car miles later, I still have not seen a single boulder on a road or been diverted around such an event.  If I lived in the Asheville area, it would be a different story.  In late October, a trillion pounds of rocks slid down a mountain and

State transportation crews in North Carolina are like Sisyphus; pushing rocks out of the way only to have them fall back down.

onto Interstate 40 in North Carolina, near the Tennessee border, just the latest in a long series of slides that have plagued that roadway since it opened in 1968.  Fortunately, no one was hurt in this slide, but the road will be closed for at least four months.  A week ago, state transportation officials were still trying to figure out how to remove the largest boulders.  They were leaning toward dynamite after inflatable Kevlar bags proved no match for the big rocks.

         Before the road was built, engineers warned it would be subject to the slides.  They were right.  I-40 has been one big fallen rock zone almost since opening in 1968.  Just four months after dedication, a slide closed all four lanes.  In the early ‘70s, a series of mostly annoying small slides were followed late in the decade by two big ones that dropped tens of thousands of tons of rocks on the road, injuring seven people.  During cleanup, with two of the four lanes opened, three people were killed in a head on collision.

         Despite a few years of work to divert four miles of the roadway away from the danger zone, rocks continued to rain down on I-40 through the 1980s and ‘90s, costing millions of dollars in cleanups and causing untold damage to Asheville's economy.  Rick Vogel, one of our faithful readers and a former innkeeper in the Asheville area, writes:  "We were able to measure [the negative impact] in our B&B business."

         The odds of dying from a rockslide are longer than those of being hit by lightning.  But if you live in the Asheville area and travel the Interstates, chances are fallen rocks will cause you a major inconvenience at least a couple of times a decade.  The Asheville area has become extremely popular among retirees and, in recent years, has seen a mass influx of Florida snowbirds re-migrating north.  At times, mountain traffic will seem depressingly familiar to them.