How Small We Are

This past weekend, I drove down to Washington DC from western Massachusetts, a route I probably have driven at least a dozen times in the past few months.  It’s a route which crosses three major rivers – the Hudson, the Delaware and the Susquehanna.   Each one of these may have taken just a few minutes to cross over, and if it weren’t for EZ Pass, I would have been held up by the tolls much longer than by the crossing of the river.

So, here’s the deal, the historic deal.  Two hundred years ago, these rivers would have loomed much larger in our lives than they do now.  First of all, people didn’t make that kind of trip, sometimes never in their lifetime leaving a small radius around their homes.  Despite our national self-image, it was only a small fraction of people who ventured further westward, to push back the frontiers.   For those who did have to venture out (and it was a “have to” because nobody traveled such a distance just to go skiing), rivers figured as either the obstacle and delay, or as the quickest means of transport.

Photo by Adam Elmquist, Google Earth

Whenever I see the Delaware Memorial River Bridge, I think back to the first time I paid any attention to it.  I turned the corner off the NJ Turnpike and came upon this towering steel monument, an awe-inspiring engineering feat unimaginable in Gabon, where I had just returned from spending three years in the Peace Corps.  That sight was as much a culture shock as anything I encountered upon my return.  Travel overland in Gabon was constantly interrupted by having to wait for ferries to cross even small rivers; most bridges in the interior were precarious wood structures, sometimes nothing more than logs laid across even a small ditch.  Coming to a river meant a delay, to wait for the ferry to return or to get out of the car and help the driver steer his tires across the slippery logs.

The Millard Tydings Bridge over the Susquehanna is not as inspiring as its sister structure over the Delaware, except that its drive surface may be even higher over the water, since it connects cliffs on either side.  In addition, the crossing is so seamless most of us never pause to think of the name of the bridge we just crossed, let alone the Maryland governor it was named for.  Without the towers and cables, drivers space out (except on windy days) listening to their audio books or music and never even realize what a magnificent feat of historic progress they just experienced.

In 2014, a bicentennial will be celebrated (I hope)  in Columbia, Pennsylvania, marking the construction of the first bridge over the Susquehanna.  Who has heard of Columbia, a small and mostly forgotten town now, but the site of a ferry crossing prior to 1814, and then the bridge?  Its ferry crossing meant that with just a few votes more, it could have been the capital of the U.S., or years later of Pennsylvania.

The diminishing influence of rivers in our national psyche was also driven home this past summer, as my family re-traced (in the comfort of our air-conditioned, hybrid SUV) the Lewis and Clark expedition.  One of the more striking aspects of the whole trip was how hard it was to even see the Missouri River.  Hardly ever did the road follow the river, causing us to drive endless triangular movements due north and then due west just to catch a site of its massive, snaking body.  For Lewis and Clark, with whom we were on a first name basis by the end of the trip, the river was everything – their means of travel, their daily adventure, their obstacle to be surmounted.

Now, rivers are an afterthought.   But look at the picture at the top of the page of the Susquehanna, and you can’t help but be struck immediately how small we are crossing the Millard Tydings Bridge.

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