Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Until yesterday, there was a sinkhole in my backyard. It formed over the winter when most of my swimming pool gradually leaked through a faulty valve, unnoticed under the pool cover, and washed away some of my real estate. It started out small, and as holes tend to do, it grew and grew. Eventually it reached a depth of about six feet and a diameter of nearly twelve.

I hired Gene to find out why the sinkhole developed. Gene is a good ole' boy in the very best sense of the phrase. His body is sculpted by hard physical labor, too much fried chicken, and way too many beers, and he knows how to solve structural landscape problems.

Gene and his crew dug down twelve feet, quadrupling the size of the hole in the process, to find that a drain pipe had immediately crushed twenty years ago when it was installed. The resulting gap between the crushed pipe and the intact section created an outlet for the soil to leak away. It wasn't a problem for nineteen years until the swimming pool valve failed and water trickled from above the broken pipe all winter.

After digging the hole and exposing the problem, Gene disappeared for about six months, leaving an even deeper hole as the erosion continued, and a large pile of dirt next to it. Through the spring months, rains washed away the pile until there wasn't nearly enough dirt to refill the hole.

In late spring, I began to look for someone to fill in the hole. A friend referred me to Tom, who does large scale work on roads, city parks and the like. Tom took a long look at the sinkhole, which is at the bottom of a very steep, wooded hill and shook his head. "I could fill this hole in twenty minutes", he told me, "if I could get my equipment down here, but I can't. I'd have to tear up your entire backyard in the process and leave you with a bigger mess than you have now."

Tom offered to deliver six yards of fill dirt to the top of the hill and suggested that I hire some cheap manual labor to move the dirt down the hill with a wheelbarrow. He figured it would take four men two or three days. "Then, again", he offered, "if a load gets away from you, the wheelbarrow and the worker are both gonna end up in that lily pond at the bottom of the hill."

Next, I called Rubin. Rubin has done a lot of yard work for me with a small tractor that has a front-end loader and a shovel. He dug up a hedge I wanted removed with that small tractor once and hauled it away in less than an hour. Unfortunately, Rubin couldn't see a way to get his tractor down that steep, wooded hill, either.

While all this head scratching was going on, I had a large birch tree cut down and hauled away by a company that used a small bulldozer called a Bobcat. It made the process amazingly fast and easy, so I asked the Bobcat operator what he thought about filling the sinkhole. "A Bobcat would do it, alright", he told me with great authority, "but ours has wheels. You'd need one with tracks. And it will tear up your hillside."

In the meanwhile, Gene, whom I hadn't heard from since early spring, finally returned my call and came by once more to look at the sinkhole that he, himself, had enlarged. "Here's what we can do", he told me. "I have a huge vinyl tarp. We can load dirt on it at the top of the hill and have two or three fellas pull it down the hill and dump it into the hole."

Ingenious, I thought. It's a steep hill covered with grass. A tarp should slide right down it. I was somewhat reluctant to give Gene the job, though, because it would mean validating one of the oldest business models around-- get someone to pay you to dig a deep hole somewhere very inconvenient and then go away and wait for them to pay you to fill it back in. In the end, I gave him the job because his solution was so creative and because no one else had a clue how to solve the problem.

By the time work had started, the crew had either forgotten about the tarp idea, or perhaps tried it and found it didn't work, after all. In any case, they began loading an old wheelbarrow. If you've never tried to push a heavily-loaded wheelbarrow on a steep surface, you might not appreciate the challenge.

The wheelbarrow is balanced on a single front wheel and if it tips just a little too far to either side, the load gets dumped on the ground and you have to reload it. Even if you keep lateral balance, pushing the thing down a steep hill means slowing its descent so it doesn't get away from you and then stopping its inertia at the bottom of the hill. This job required both. The wheelbarrow had to be balanced on its front wheel while slowing it's downhill descent and eventually stopping at the sinkhole, load after load after load.

Now, men like to watch other men work on construction jobs, whether it's filling a hole, cutting down a tree or building a skyscraper. We enjoy watching these activities when we're five and we still enjoy watching when we're 65, which is one of the examples women use to argue that, deep down, men are always little boys. I don't disagree with them.

I remember sitting in my father-in-law's backyard with a few other grown men watching a guy on a tractor mow a steep hill with a bush hog. The hill was so steep, he had to stand up on the tractor because if he had sat on the seat, he would have fallen off. We watched for an hour, wondering if he would fall off the tractor or the tractor would roll over on its side. He finished the job without incident and I couldn't tell if the others were impressed with his skill and nerve, or disappointed because the tractor didn't tip over. Given this inherent male compulsion, I occasionally looked out the back window to watch the hole-filling process in my backyard.

I watched the workers bring down the first wheelbarrow-full of dirt. The top two-thirds of the hill was blocked from my view by trees, but I saw them emerge from beneath the foliage near the bottom. One worker steered and tried to "put on the brakes" while the other walked alongside and tried to keep it from tipping. It was a slow, laborious process and I couldn't imagine how they would deliver a hundred or so loads of dirt this way in my lifetime. The tarp idea seemed a lot more attractive and I wondered again why it had been abandoned.

I went inside for a while, but after about an hour my inner five-year old took control and I needed to check on progress. I walked out onto the deck where I could hear the workers speaking Spanish at the top of the hill, though I couldn't see them for the trees. Suddenly, I heard what sounded like a deer running down the hill beneath the foliage and I was reminded of ski slopes from my younger day.

Faced with a steep run, adults will slalom down the hill from side to side, sloughing off speed by digging their edges into the snow and turning back and forth across the face of the slope. Eight year old's, on the other hand, will point their ski tips toward the bottom of the slope and fly straight down that hill at top speed. When they reach the bottom, they kill time waiting for their parents to finally make it down. I used to think this was because they were only three and a half feet tall and didn't have far to fall, but it is more likely a result of their lack of appreciation for imminent death. I suppose the theory, if there is any thought given to this strategy at all, is that, as with bicycle riding, speed brings stability.

The frightened deer beneath the foliage began to sound more like a black bear crashing down the hill, though I considered that an unlikely event within the city limits of Chapel Hill, and suddenly a white streak emerging from beneath the foliage into the clearing at the bottom of the hill caught my eye. A young worker in his mid-twenties had removed his T-shirt and tied it around his head and it flew behind him like a flag on a windy day. He ran at top speed downhill behind the wheelbarrow, with huge strides, making no effort to slow its descent, in fact just trying to keep up with it, and aiming it a little right of the lily pond and straight for the sinkhole, just like those kids on the ski slope.

I was startled, but if I had time to think I would have asked myself how he intended to stop this runaway train before both he and it fell into the six-foot deep sinkhole yawning just three strides ahead of him. My question was answered in a heartbeat.

One more stride and he lifted the handles high into the air and let go. The wheelbarrow flipped ass-over-teakettle and the load of dirt flew through the air and right into the hole. While I tried to process what I had seen in those three seconds, a YouTube moment spoiled by my refusal to keep a video camera permanently in hand, he calmly walked over to the wheelbarrow, picked it up and began slowly walking up the hill for another load.

Three days to manually fill in that sinkhole? Heck, they were nearly done by noon.

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