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Manholes and other holes in the high country

A strange place for a manhole? Supposedly, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation, its use on Molas Pass is for something else. (Courtesy photo)

Dear Action Line: On U.S. Highway 550 heading north up Molas Pass, there is a concrete pad on the right side of the highway shoulder. Where oh where do the manholes go? – Wondering or Wandering on Molas Pass.

Dear Wondering: Assuming these were the works of the Colorado Department of Transportation, and not survivalists, Action Line contacted the former. This response came from Lisa Schwantes, CDOT’s Southwest regional communications manager:

“One cool summer evening, while sharing stories about high country mountain passes, CDOT Maintenance Supervisor Vance Kelso divulged a deep dark secret. Kelso whispered under his breath, ‘Legend has it that there are manholes at various locations on the mountain passes that lead to classified passageways – a network of tunnels that allow CDOT crews to avoid traffic jams along the 550 mountain corridor.

“Kelso further revealed (with a glint in his eye), ‘... and in the winter when the wind begins to howl and the snow starts to flurry, we will hunker down beneath those manholes, emerging only when the storm has ceased – ready to battle the snow-covered highway and attack the heavy snowpacked slide paths.’”

Action Line was at this point pretty excited to boast once again how this column is always going underground to dig up the truth.

But then Schwantes revealed that she was in on a hoax. After all, CDOT crews don’t wait for storms to cease. The 21st-century public can’t wait that long. So, there are no tunnels, no top-secret passageways, she and CDOT confessed.

The concrete pads with steel manholes are, in fact, designated locations critical to winter maintenance operations, Schwantes said. The holes, protected by steel plates, are rigged with devices that hold gunnery equipment in place for avalanche control work. This allows crews to more quickly and easily set up the equipment.

“And more importantly,” Schwantes concluded, “it ensures the equipment is set up in the same spot every time and stabilized for accuracy when the shots are fired at snowslide paths.”

In other words, Dear Wondering, there may be secret passageways somewhere on Molas, but CDOT is not revealing where they are. Unless the whole “avalanche control” thing is also a hoax. In which case ... oh, never mind.

This outhouse atop breathtaking Molas Pass was full, literally, so the Forest Service had to shut it down. (Inside, it was very breathtaking.) (Action Line)

Dear Action Line: Signs at the bathrooms at Andrews Lake, Molas Pass and the Colorado Trail trailhead near Little Molas Lake say they’re “Closed for the season.” When would we imagine “The Season” is? – Not Still Holding ...

Dear Not Holding: It pains Action Line to think of the steady stream (hmm, is “stream” the wrong word?) of people who have been near to bursting, then suffered this potentially calamitous letdown when finding a closed restroom.

Indeed, it’s not a seasonal issue per se. The toilets literally are full. Or were full, but we’ll get to that. The signs were modified since your visit, with “for the season” covered by a printed paper sign that said “full.” That didn’t mean full of people, but full of ... um ... other stuff.

“We are expeditiously working to hire a contractor to pump and reopen those toilets,” said Lorena Williams, public affairs specialist with the San Juan National Forest. Last year’s contractor did not renew. “Once a contract can be established with a local vendor, services will resume.”

So, the good news since Action Line began reporting on this situation is that the Forest Service was able to reopen the toilets. So if you still have to go ...

“We were able to get these toilets pumped, although we are still working to secure a longer term contract,” said Rebecca Robbins, acting public affairs officer with the San Juan National Forest.

Pretty much every toilet is operational in the Columbine, Dolores and Pagosa ranger districts, Williams said.

“Just to be clear, budget constraints are not a consideration in this case, and the agency has no intention of closing these bathrooms permanently,” Williams said.

Action Line knows the Forest Service is busy, but in this case hopes that at least some of its efforts go to waste.

Email questions and suggestions to actionline@durangoherald.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. Action Line has asked CDOT for a tour of the underground tunnels, but so far no response.