Back-Seat Driver

In the stormy Sierra, Alta residents cut off by washed out mountain road

With Morton Road washed out, Alta residents are stranded at their homes with no major road out.
With Morton Road washed out, Alta residents are stranded at their homes with no major road out. California Highway Patrol

Most of us take the street in front of our house for granted. Dawn Sibley and her neighbors sure don’t. Not this winter.

Sibley, a school teacher, lives in an enclave of rustic homes tucked into the pines outside tiny Alta at the snow line.

Last week, she was driving home in the dark on Morton Road, the only paved entrance to the rural neighborhood, when she saw something troubling in her headlight beams. Canyon Creek, normally an ankle-deep trickle 30 feet below the road, had ballooned to near the road surface, with water swirling.

Placer County officials say trees limbs and other storm debris had clogged the culvert below, essentially turning the road and the berm it sat on into a dam.

Minutes after she got home, a neighbor called with bad news. The “dam” had just burst. Perhaps 30 feet of roadway was gone, along with an estimated 30,000 cubic yards of the berm that had held it up. Sibley and a dozen neighbors had lost the only route out of their hillside neighborhood. The Union newspaper in Nevada County first wrote about their plight.

In a rural area where being independent is a way of life, Sibley, her husband and their neighbors know how to make do. But this was a more serious challenge.

Some of the neighbors own tractors, trucks, backhoes. But one look at that the gaping maw that once was Morton Road made them realize it would not be rebuilt soon. Their access to the outside world will be gone for weeks, if not months.

There is, however, an escape route. It’s a narrow dirt road through a neighbor’s property that zigzags up a steep hillside. That neighbor has given the OK for residents to use it. But, it’s more goat trail than road, and initially it proved to be unusable, too muddy and rutted to climb.

So Placer County officials called in Teichert Construction to lay down a bed of rocks on the road. Neighbors can now inch out to get to jobs and stores.

But firetrucks can’t get in. Propane companies either. To save on gas, Sibley is cooking dinner over wood. Neighbors check in with each other and pick up items. Sibley’s pantry was well-stocked, just in case.

The latest storm at the end of the week made things tougher. It dropped snow on the road. Sibley’s husband’s four-wheel-drive truck with snow tires got stuck on the trail out. Ken Sibley had to hand shovel around his tires to get going again.

Sibley owns a snowplow, but it’s too unwieldy to use on the trail. She sent an email Friday to county officials asking them to help with a snow-removal plan.

Meanwhile, county road superintendent Kevin Taber said officials are puzzling over when and how they can get Morton Road fixed.

“Do you replace the culvert? Do you put in footings and fill in dirt. Or do you span a bridge?” Taber said. As for when, it could be weeks, or longer. “A lot will depend on what the weather brings us the rest of the winter.”

It drives home an understanding, Sibley said: It’s very important to be prepared, but you can’t be prepared for everything. “We are definitively not in control of our destinies all the time,” she said.

Or, as one observer on Facebook wrote after seeing photos of the Morton Road washout: “Nature bats last.”