Between Inexperience and Wisdom

Some milestones are big and some are small and some don’t look or feel like milestones at all. This milestone was a river and a bridge and a bridge that wasn’t.

At walking mile 340 of my journey, I arrived at the shores of the Columbia River in Vantage, Washington. It should have felt like some kind of achievement, reaching this feature that divides the state in two– desert on one side, mountains and sea on the other–, but having been camped on its windy banks for three nights already it felt anticlimactic. I wet my toes, took a photo, and walked away from its lapping waters and the chinook salmon rotting on its shores rather unchanged.

I was eager to cross the river, but like capturing a feeling of accomplishment, walking across the Columbia was not easily achieved. The Vantage Bridge, part of Interstate 90, is not pedestrian friendly. In fact it’s downright illegal to cross on foot. I looked south to find another crossing.

Ten miles south of Vantage is the official foot-crossing of the Columbia on the Great American Rail Trail: the Beverly Trestle. Trestle Bridges were the technological marvels of their day. They tollerated tens of thousands of pounds and massive dynamic stress loads with relatively rudimentary materials and designs. From the mid-1800s, trestles were built from iron and timber, and designs were based on simple polygons. Designs and materials evolved and improved rapidly, including arcs and utilizing steel and concrete, but even these were not foolproof. Around the turn of the 20th century, it was still common for trestles to collapse under the enormous dynamic stresses of a moving train, parts bending and twisting until the truss simply ripped itself apart. Trains moved at just 10 to 18 miles an hour, and it was not uncommon for railway workers to jump off a moving train as it approached a trestle then chase after the moving train and reboard once it had crossed without incident.

The half-mile long Beverly Railroad Bridge, constructed in 1909, was hailed as a modern marvel. It outperformed previous bridges in reliability and longevity. It was built of steel on concrete piers 85 feet above the river’s surface, allowing river traffic to pass easily underneath. It utilized two Warren trusses (featuring two longitudinal girders joined by angled trusses to form equilateral triangles, thus ensuring no individual piece was subject to bending or torsion, only compression) flanking a single Pratt Truss (a design composed of interior diagonals under tension with vertical elements under compression, mounted to a polygonal upper chord) expressly designed to span long distances like the Columbia without flexing. This combination allowed the bridge to withstand massive loads and huge but often indeterminate stresses. While other railroad trestles succumbed to the pressures of their purpose, the Beverly Trestle endured. All of this engineering could not, however, save the Beverly Trestle from that oldest and wildest fascination of man: fire. In 2014, at the age of 105 years, the wooden bridge deck succumbed to fire.

The Beverly Trestle still stands, all its metal and concrete intact, but it’s deck blackened and falling away. It is missing just one thing, but that one thing is the most critical for safe transit. I pondered the simultaneously enduring and ephemeral nature of human construction as we drove south past the Beverly Trestle in search of a bridge across the Columbia I could actually walk on.

Thirty-four miles south of Vantage, the Vernita Bride spans one of the few remaining free-flowing sections of the Columbia. Despite the 56 years that elapsed between the construction of the Beverly bridge and the Vernita, the Vernita utilized the same basic Warren truss, though built in camelback style, with a number of interesting reinforcements and additions meant to accommodate a future downstream dam project that never came to pass. Thankfully and more pertinently, it’s deck is long-lasting (and intact) cement and it is legal to cross on foot, making it superior in both respects to its northern neighbors.

By the time I arrived by car at the Vernita Bridge, I’d had time to learn all this, as well rhuminate at length on the utter necessity of bridges to cross-country travel. For days, I’ve been walking on old railroads that revolutionized cross-country travel. While we tend to chalk up the revolutionary nature of early railroads to the speed or efficiency of the locomotives, what was perhaps most revolutionary about railways was the way they rendered rivers– the great natural barriers of this vast county– absolutely moot. It was the railroad bridge that made the western reaches of the U.S. accessible to the majority. With this in mind, it felt strange to be traveling so far and past so many bridges to find one I could transit on foot not east to west but west to east.

By the time we had arrived on the west bank of the Vernita bridge and pulled into the adjacent rest area, I fully expected another anticlimax. At a half mile, it would take me a bare ten minutes to cross after all. I scrambled up the highway embankment and turned my feet east, striding quickly along the narrow shoulder. A few feet away, semi-trucks roared past at 60 miles an hour. Gravel skittered from beneath their tires across the pavement. Hot sand wind blew from nearby Hanford Reach. By all measures, this was a dangerous venture, not a romantic one, but as I reached midriver the steel of the bride sang beneath my feet– the ringing of a crossing semi-truck– and in it I heard so many things. I heard industry. I heard engineering and innovation. I heard the footsteps of millions of people crossing this land before me, and I felt small. I felt like one tiny little person walking back the way so many had come.

The Columbia River has a history of its own. A history of bounty and beauty. A history that defined the identity of millions of people that inhabited this place before I or my ancestors ever set foot here. It is a history so vast I struggle to comprehend it. Out there, on that bridge, I felt like I could see just far enough to begin to understand how small I am in that great sweep of history. Despite my insignificance, I felt incredible gratitude to have made it this far, to be able to lay me feet in the footsteps of history.

As my feet landed on the eastern shore of the river and the singing faded, the enormity of my undertaking dawned on me. With the Columbia now behind me, only the desert lay ahead. The desert in July, with long barren stretches devoid of water, shade, and human activity. For a moment, I wondered what in god’s name I gotten myself into? I comforted myself with the knowledge of all those who have come before me. I am not original or unique in my undertaking, though perhaps I am profoundly stupid in my refusal to rely on all the innovations those before me built. All except the bridge, that is, because, let’s face it, I’m not about to swim across the Columbia.

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