Halfway between the Virginia and Maryland shores, Jim Ruddell unleashes a chunk of tobacco from his cheek, pivots in his cowboy boots and inhales the magnitude of what surrounds him.
Directly ahead is the Wilson Bridge, flat and rusty, shaking from the cars and trucks that bounce across. Behind the project construction engineer stands its replacement -- giant, V-shaped piers rising from the depths of the Potomac River, surrounded by sky-touching cranes, steel beams and all other manner of building.
"That's why I love construction," he says, gesturing around him. "There are very few professions where you can just go out and witness the progress of your work and the legacy you've done.
"A marquee job like this is every engineer's dream. To work on something of this elegance is really the pinnacle."
This bright morning in early May is almost exactly a year from the scheduled opening of the first of two six-lane spans. After the old bridge carries the last of the millions of vehicles that have crossed its tired body, it will be torn apart and replaced by a second six-lane bridge set to open in 2008. Several Beltway interchanges near the bridge will be rebuilt by 2011, 23 years after a formal study of the project began.
At $2.43 billion, the new bridge is the second-costliest transportation project in the nation. More than $1 million worth of work is completed each day. It has been under construction for five years, and more than 1,000 people are putting it together.
This is their story, a tale of five men and women -- Ruddell, a traffic engineer, an environmentalist, a pile driver and a Mr. Everything -- and a week in the life of building a bridge designed to connect the Washington region for the next three-quarters of a century.
The day has not begun well for Ruddell. A key employee walked into his office at 7:55 a.m., five minutes before a staff meeting, to say he was quitting, effective in two weeks. The worker handles 30,000 "submittals" -- plans submitted by contractors -- and Ruddell has no one else who can do the job.
If the submittals aren't properly processed, work stops. "We'll have to pull someone and force-feed them," Ruddell says.
Ruddell is where he spends most of his time, in a glorified trailer park off Eisenhower Avenue, where he juggles the demands of 32 major contracts and 1,200 tasks that require government permits.
After the meeting, Ruddell is out of his office, making one of his routine drives through the project.
He scurries under a screed machine, which sets and smooths concrete, to check on a pour that will one day be the outer loop. Consistency looks good. Moisture looks good. Concrete looks good.
He inspects a pier-building operation and checks on work out over the water, all the while calling to other workers -- "How ya doin'?" he says to one; "Haven't seen a tattoo like that," to another.
This is what Ruddell, 50, likes: walking the job and seeing all the concrete and steel coalesce into a structure that had existed only on paper and in the minds of engineers. He laments that paperwork keeps him from doing it all but eight to 10 hours a week.
For now, it's on to the Maryland side, where pier sections big enough to walk through sit on a dusty field that stretches the equivalent of four city blocks.
A towering machine that is little more than an erector set of steel beams set in a wide, open square moves the sections of pier. It looks like something out of a science fiction movie, like a device made to sift through the broken fragments of what's left of the universe.
Behind it, crews are high in the air pouring concrete into pier molds. Ruddell scoots up a rickety ladder to inspect it. This pour also looks good.
Time to get back to the office. Time to find someone to handle all those submittals.
Wilson Bridge drivers don't know Marcelino Romero, but they're sure familiar with his work. He's in charge of every road change -- lane closings, signs, detours -- in the project's 71/2 -mile corridor.
Contractors hustle to his office all day, almost begging for his approval of plans that require road changes. If Romero likes what he sees, he maps detours, re-times lights, arranges for traffic police. Every detail down to how big the lettering on warning signs will be.
Then he spends hours riding around and making sure it works on the roads as well as it did in his head.
This day will be a long one. Two lanes of a four-lane section of the Beltway near Indian Head Highway will be closed for road work tonight. It falls to Romero to make sure that the orange cones, electronic signs, police officers and other safety measures are in place.
Romero could consult the reams of regulations tucked inside volumes with such snappy titles as "Virginia Work Area Protection Manual," that crowd his office. But he doesn't need to, not after almost four years on the job.
Still, if the site isn't safe, traffic clogs, construction stops, money is wasted, someone might be killed and everyone will be mad at Romero. "We've had some close calls where drivers have gone behind the work zone," he says, grateful for nothing worse.
He swears that his gray hair is hereditary.
At the start of the evening rush, Romero leaves his corner of the Eisenhower Avenue offices to check on Route 1 traffic. This interchange has jammed daily because of a roadway switch that has backed up traffic miles into Old Town Alexandria. Cars crawl this day, too, but the slowdown extends only a couple of blocks.
That's not so bad, considering. So he turns toward the Beltway to check bridge traffic. Within minutes, tires squeal and bumpers meet. A fender bender. Traffic stops short, but Romero doesn't flinch. He has seen his share of accidents, and this one turns out to be minor. The drivers don't even get out of their cars.
Romero feels lucky. If the accident had been worse, he would have had to arrange a detour for all those cars trying to get to the Beltway.
Traffic is backing up several hours later, at 9:40 p.m., when the Beltway lanes are being closed. Romero eyes the orange cones, electronic arrows and other safety devices to make sure the contractor is doing it all right. If not, he will.
Before long, red brake lights fill the night.
Romero, 44, is sympathetic. "There's too much traffic" in the Washington area, he says, his eyes fixed on the cars and trucks. "Traffic here is just unreal. . . . Unreal."
Stephanie Spears is sitting in the cab of her pickup truck, with the "Treasure the Chesapeake" license plate, staring at a giant, empty bald eagle's nest. Suddenly she whips around, grabs her binoculars and looks through the passenger window up and over eight lanes of Beltway traffic.
"That's one of the eagles," she announces, pointing to a dot in the distance.
The well-being of the eagles -- George and Martha -- is her responsibility, as are the osprey, peregrine falcons and other wildlife that call the project area home.
She also has the unenviable task of trying to get all of the construction crews to work in a way that doesn't damage the environment. This means nagging them to water down dusty roads to protect air quality and prevent erosion, to make sure mixed cement doesn't spill and to watch for oil spills.
"A lot of these contractors are old school," says Spears, 42. "They need to be massaged. It's almost like talking with a child."
On this day, she checks on some equipment to make sure it's not leaking hydraulic fluid, and she inspects a silt fence to see if it has been put up properly. "I'll be out for the first rain to make sure it's holding," she says.
Then it's onto a boat used to deliver supplies. Spears climbs to a metal perch in the boat to view the expanse of the Potomac, the open water to the south, the Capitol to the north.
The boat pulls next to a crew that often shortcuts environmental regulations. "I see about 12 things I want to talk to them about," Spears says, noting spilled concrete and a gas can perched precariously on the edge of a barge.
She walks up to the crew chief and asks him to be more careful. He tries to laugh her off. She talks some more. He smiles and laughs some more.
After several minutes, Spears leaves and he goes back to his business. "This is a fight we've had for a while," she says.
On shore, she says: "Being a woman in construction is a strike against me. Being an environmentalist in the construction business is a second strike against me. Some days, I get really upset and frustrated." But "somewhere along the lines I stopped taking things personally."
An 8,000-pound steel beam, or pile, that will one day support a retaining wall on the Maryland shore is loaded into a steel frame and is ready to be pounded into the ground. Two workers at its base position it and hold it in place. They shoot hand signals to another worker, who signals to Wes Price about how to maneuver his 250-ton crane that controls the frame and the pile.
Price, 56, is dozens of feet above on an embankment and can't see the bottom half of the 90-foot-tall pile. He's relying on these men to put it in the right spot. And to make sure he doesn't crush them.
As if that's not enough, the pile is in a reverse position because there's no room where his crane would normally go, so Price is working his machinery backward.
Price orchestrates his masterpiece. He's working lead lines with foot pedals and twisting and turning the 130-foot-tall crane with a bank of hand controls.
He tries to get the hammer right on top of the pile. He misses. He repositions but misses again. On the third try, he gets it, and within seconds an eight-ton hammer pulls back in a high-pitch screech that ends with a violent pinGGGGG, pinGGGGG, pinGGGGG as it crashes relentlessly on the pile.
A thick, gray-and-black smoke explodes into the air, adding a few degrees to an already hot spring day. The sound rings through earplugs. Specks of grease rain down, gradually bathing the men at the base of the pile in a coat of black.
"It's the same thing over and over," Price says. "It's dirty work. It's noisy, dangerous."
Which is why no one wants to do it anymore. Which is why Price has a bit of pride about what he does. The crews aren't like they used to be, he says.
Price is out of his crane now, talking about bridge neighbors who complain about the incessant thump-thump-thumping that comes with driving piles. "This is for them," he says. "They want to sleep late, that's all."
Enough of that. Price is back in the crane, back to work, back to thump-thump-thumping.
Dawn is cracking over the Potomac, and a crew has already been pouring and smoothing concrete for an hour. Preston Gaus, the resident troubleshooter, is on hand, too, ready for whatever the day brings.
"I've set beams, I've turned a wrench, installed standpipe systems, run fiberglass conduit inside steel beams," says the burly Gaus. He can also drive pile, operate a crane, drive a tractor-trailer, you name it.
So what'll it be today? "Oh, who knows," he says, with a wry smile. "It's early yet."
Soon enough, a welding machine breaks and Gaus is called to duty.
"Now the day starts," he says.
And he's off, shooting up several flights of makeshift stairs from the dirty underside of a highway ramp to get to the top, where the machine has conked out.
He tries to fire it up. Nothing. "I'm going to have to get some wrenches," he says, scurrying back down the stairs. That doesn't work either. "I thought it was going to be a quick fix," he says. "It's not." The welding job on those steel supports will have to wait.
Then there's a critical problem. Two pressure washers that keep concrete at the right level of moisture are on the fritz, jeopardizing the entire pour. So Gaus has to do his least favorite thing: drive on the Beltway. At 8:15 on a Friday morning, no less.
Gaus, naturally, switches hats. Hard hat off, Mack truck hat on. On the highway, he calls someone else to get the welder going.
"How much farther?" he asks no one in particular, lost in the new, strange setting of morning rush hour.
Another call comes in. They ran out of bales of straw to prevent runoff. So he drops off the washers and is off to the store to get more straw.
"Sometimes I hate it, doing another little task," Gaus says. But that's a short-lived sentiment. "My philosophy is this is not a job: Every day's an adventure," he says.
How long does he figure to do it? "Till I can't get out of bed and walk out of the house, my man. This is what I enjoy."