On a clear and breezy Friday around rush hour, Gerridina "Dinie" Lean was finishing the last of the day's chores. The sun was beginning its descent behind the hills and a few more horses still needed to be fed. On Lean's 42-acre Tompkins Hill ranch in Fortuna about a mile from Highway 101, the Ferndale Valley stretches out below, green and vast, and the sparkling Eel River winds its way to the Pacific. "That's Centerville Beach," Lean said, pointing to a dark blue sliver on the horizon. Wearing tall rubber boots and dirty jeans, she opened a metal gate and tromped through the mud and horse manure toward a big stallion at the far end of the fence. Feeding on hay, the horse seemed scarcely to notice the little woman who worked on the buckles of a jacket that wrapped around his torso. The weather had been cold lately and most of the 12 horses were wearing coats for warmth. The night before it snowed. Stepping out of the corral, Lean, 59, headed up a steep hill toward the top of her acreage and talked about the huge snowflakes that blanketed her hilltop property the day before. There was no evidence left of it now.
And that afternoon, Lean told another story that was slightly hard to believe: The noise of the highway was deafening. There were days she felt like she was standing in the middle of traffic. But go figure, today, there was nothing, not a peep from the river of cars below, just bird song and wind in the trees. She knew it seemed implausible to a newcomer, particularly to a city slicker - if you can call Eureka a city - that such an irritating noise would plague this place. And as much as she loathed the roar of the 101 she seemed to want it back at this moment more than anything.
With her head cocked to the side and her greenish-blue eyes dancing on the torn earth, she got quiet and listened hard. Nothing. She tried covering her ears with her gloved hands and then quickly removing them and listening hard again. But it didn't help. The city slicker wished for the sound, too, but it was no use. The northern wind was too strong, according to Lean, and was masking the sound. But if the breeze were coming from the west, well, you'd want to get your earplugs then. It would be so loud you just might pull your hair out in frustration. In fact, Lean's hair is getting wispy, and she thinks it's stress-related. The noise bothers her that much. The topic chokes her up, brings tears to her eyes because, she said, things just aren't the way they used to be. It was always so quiet here, not like Southern California where she grew up. And that's why she loved her home so much. It was the definition of peaceful.
A noise started then, a grumbling engine, but it was just Lean's partner, Rogar Hespelt, hauling hay on a quad. He confirmed Lean's claims: The noise was really obnoxious at times. They've both talked with Caltrans about the problem, which they say has gotten worse since the agencylaid new asphalt on a section of the highway between the 12th Avenue and Fernbridge exits a couple of years ago. At first, Lean said Caltrans told her they actually had used a noise-deterring asphalt, but later corrected that and said it was a special porous asphalt that minimizes the risk of hydroplaning. As the years go by, the sound gets worse and Lean and Hespelt guess that as the asphalt degrades it gets noisier. They're hoping that next time the area is repaved, Caltrans can use a different type of concrete.
Caltrans engineers could not comment at length about the topic before deadline, but Mark Suchanek, Caltrans deputy for maintenance and operations for District 1, said that there was no before and after noise study done on that section of the highway. "If anything," he said, "repaving should have made it quieter, not noisier." Suchanek said, however, that he can't discount that Lean is hearing more noise now, since the decibel levels were never measured. The highway is typically repaved every five to 10 years, he added.