A Bridge to Nowhere

Beginning on March first of 1938, the Los Angeles region experienced one of its largest floods in history, caused by the convergence of two Pacific storms that generated a year’s worth of rain in the matter of a few days. The flooding killed more than a hundred people, caused $78 million in damage (in 1938 dollars), and completely washed out an ongoing road project that would have connected the San Gabriel Valley to Wrightwood, about seventy or so miles northeast of LA.

San Gabriel Bridge to Nowhere. Maybe even worth the hike. Victorrocha at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s no doubt the East Fork Road would have been a pretty drive, cutting through some of the most gorgeous scenery the gorgeous state of California has to offer and crossing over the East Fork of the San Gabriel River on a picturesque truss arch bridge that is 180 feet long and stands 120-feet over the riverbed below.

After the flood the road project was abandoned and today still lies in ruins, with only the occasional bit of asphalt visible. But the bridge remains as something of an oddity in the California wilderness. Locals call it the “Bridge to Nowhere” and it can be reached by a somewhat treacherous 10-mile roundtrip hike.

Though I probably would, I’ve never visited, so all I can tell you about the hike is what I’ve read online. Apparently, it involves a good bit of river fording, an activity which has been responsible for quite a few deaths of adventurous people over the years. There’s a lot of bouldering required, too, and some steep climbs. One description of the trail I read says that at one point you get to choose between two additional water crossings (some of which are apparently waist-deep) or a hefty climb followed by a rope-assisted descent down a steep rock wall. And if that’s not enough adventure for you, there’s also a company that will let you bungee jump off the bridge once you get there.

I’m probably crazy enough to hike to it. I’m certain I’m not crazy enough to bungee jump off of it. Mitch Barrie, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite the difficult nature of the trail, almost every description I read cautioned that the trailhead would probably be busy for this very popular hike. The bridge serves no real purpose, but apparently, people love a bridge to nowhere.

And I think I get it, because I have a recently acquired a bridge to nowhere of my very own in my back yard. Mine didn’t come from an abandoned construction project of course. It was a leftover decoration from a picture backdrop for a prom in a small-town high school in 1969.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, or if you’ve read my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories, then you may recall that my dad is a retired high school math teacher. In that role, he happened to be the class sponsor for the class of 1970, who as juniors were responsible for planning the senior prom of 1969. The students decided they wanted a foot bridge and so they got some help from the art teacher to design one. Then when prom was over, no one knew what to do with it. My dad, who had a pretty big backyard and a couple of little kids at the time, said it could be stored there.

It never really served much of a purpose in the yard, but my brother and sister loved clomping over it, jumping off of it, and playing Billy Goats Gruff. It became a fixture of their childhood and eventually of mine and my other brother’s as well. Over the years, it was borrowed again and again for ceremonies, dances, and community and school plays. Between each use, it was repainted barn red and returned to our backyard where it was kind of an oddity that also became a fixture of childhood for a series of grandchildren.

Family Bridge to Nowhere. Ozzie is a fan.

It’s sustained damage over time and been rebuilt a lot. There’s not likely a single original board in it, but it’s always been the same design and it’s always (unless loaned out) been in my parents’ backyard. That is until now.

Not too long ago, a storm brought a large tree down on the bridge, leaving it in pretty bad shape. My dad, whose grandchildren are now beyond the Billy Goats Gruff stage of life, decided maybe it was time to just let it go, but before he did, he asked us if we wanted it.

It turns out, I’m pretty fond of bridges to nowhere. We loaded it up and delivered it to a new home in our backyard where we rebuilt it and gave it a fresh coat of barn red paint. I’m sure our neighbors are scratching their heads at our new backyard oddity, but if they want to come check it out, it’s a pretty easy hike to get to it. There are no rivers to ford or rope-assisted descents over rock faces. If it makes them happy, they can even jump off of it, no bungee cord required.

And if one of the local high schools needs a bridge for a dance or a play, they’ll know where to find it. It’s in my backyard, going nowhere.

Trendy Escapes and Impressive Cleverness

At 7:15 on the morning of June 12, 1962, the guards of Alcatraz prison made a surprising discovery. During the night, three inmates had escaped the allegedly escape-proof prison. Frank Lee Morris, John William Anglin, and Clarence Anglin made it out of their cells, onto the roof of the prison and into the San Francisco Bay without detection. The escape required teamwork, resourcefulness, and a great deal of cleverness.

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Alcatraz Island. Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And it turned out these guys were pretty clever. They drilled out the ventilation systems in their cells, work performed mostly by hand with rudimentary tools, though for a while they did attempt to use a makeshift drill run by a vacuum motor one of them managed to come by.

Using soap and toilet paper they fashioned crude paper-mache dummy heads painted with supplies from prison craft kits and topped with hair harvested from the prison barber shop. These they placed in their beds in order to avoid early detection.

With glue they stole from the prison glove factory, they joined pieces of rubber raincoats to make a raft and life vests. They may even have converted a concertina into a bellows to aid in the inflation of the raft.

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Dummy head found in Frank Morris’s cell. Not bad at all for crude paper-mache. FBI, public domain

Really, if these men had applied their ingenuity and resourcefulness to more societally accepted occupations, they probably could have done well for themselves, and spent significantly less time in prison. But it’s a fascinating story, certainly worthy of a book and a Clint Eastwood film.

I’ve had escapes on the brain lately. It’s a hot trend right now in education and entertainment. Patterns for classroom “break-out” boxes have spattered the Internet and full, themed escape rooms have been popping up across the country. They’re all pretty similar, requiring participants to gather clues and decode puzzles to solve problems, open locks, and escape the room within a time limit.

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Since the boys had access to a time machine, we figured fifteen extra minutes wasn’t really a big deal.

When my oldest son turned 13 recently, I decided to design an escape room for him and his friends, based on the quirky and beloved British sci fi show Doctor Who, which they all seem to love. If I were a different sort of blogger I would offer a step-by-step, photo-illustrated how-to guide to constructing your own Doctor Who escape room, but I’m not nearly ambitious enough to be that kind of blogger. Still, if you’re interested and want details, drop me an e-mail.

It was a big success, and so about a week and a half later when I got the opportunity to go to an escape room myself, I thought it might be nice to see someone else’s version. Along with my sister and my husband, I was “locked” into a room designed to look like an attic and tasked with opening a secure treasure box. We had an hour and no idea where to start.

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My crude paper-mache project was a Dalek piñata that the boys exterminated in less than two minutes.

Fortunately, we’re a good team of pretty resourceful people. And we’re also fairly clever. We uncovered our treasure and made it out of the room with twelve minutes to spare. The boys in the Dr. Who room were not quite as quick, but to be fair, their team consisted of six thirteen-year-old, hyperactive boys. Cleverness can only compensate for so much. They did make it out in about an hour and fifteen minutes with some occasional redirection.

Morris and the Anglins made their escape, too, becoming the only people to have ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz. Of course there was never any physical evidence that they managed to survive the cold water of the Bay and make it all the way to the freedom they wanted. Enough circumstantial evidence turned up to suggest to the FBI that the men perished in the attempt, and that became the official finding. Even so, it was an impressively clever escape.

The Ear-splitting Crack of My Broken Backyard Dreams

On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Bahamas. He hoped he would find gold, spices and silks, and a faster trade route to China. What he found instead was fertile land, an easygoing and hospitable people, and hammocks.

When he returned to Spain from that first voyage in March of 1493, Columbus brought with him a few of the people, a little gold, some tobacco plants, and, most importantly, some hammocks. Because, as everyone knows, hammocks are one of the greatest things in the world.

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Surely the highlight of any Caribbean voyage. Or possibly a view of my backyard. photo credit: shizham Tenggol Island via photopin (license)

By then, Natives of Central America had been using hammocks constructed of bark and plant fibers for around 500 years already, and though Columbus never did discover his direct water passage to the east, hammocks were certainly not a bad find. Europeans took to them right away, particularly finding them useful aboard ships.

And today, they are widely used for swinging in the light breeze suspended from two trees beside a white sand beach while sipping a piña colada. Or, possibly, in that great imaginary beach that exists in my suburban backyard.

When my husband and I bought our first little house, a few years into our marriage, it came with two posts in the backyard, perfectly spaced for a hammock. Obviously, we had to install one. We each spent many happy naps swaying in the backyard, often while cradling our oldest son who was a baby at the time. Because as perhaps the not-so-surprising research of skilled hammock scientists now tells us, human brains go to sleep faster while rocking. Apparently that’s even true of grownup human brains.

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Now that’s livin’ photo credit: crowdive Audrey and the hammock via photopin (license)

Unfortunately the next house didn’t have a convenient place to install the hammock, and when we thought about hanging it in the house after that, we discovered that while we’d been neglecting to use it, a colony of ants had discovered that they, too, enjoyed spending time in a hammock, though I don’t know that any skilled hammock scientists have studied that.

It took us an embarrassingly long time to get around to replacing it, but when we moved to Missouri a few years ago, we decided it was time. Last fall, my husband dug holes, poured concrete, and secured the strong posts. Then we hung the hammock and made a discovery that may have escaped the notice of the highly skilled hammock scientists: children in the middle grade to pre-teen range don’t seem to be soothed by the rocking motion in quite the same way. In fact, they may have the exact opposite response.

Because to my children, the hammock quickly became something to jump on and try to shove one another off. I get it. As much as I enjoy a nice nap, their way sounds fun, too. But, it turns out that may not be the best approach to maintaining strong, stable posts.

The first post snapped within two weeks. My husband was pretty cool about it. He shrugged and said he’d thought there was a troublesome knot in the post and wasn’t particularly surprised. He replaced it and all was well. Then winter came.

It’s been a mild one, with lots of spring-like breaks, so we haven’t put the hammock away, though it’s obviously not seen a lot of use. But this week the boys decided to give it a swing.

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An actual view of my backyard and the sad state of my hammock.

I wasn’t outside when it happened, but I heard the spectacular ear-splitting crack as the second post broke, followed by the cries of a very upset (though thankfully unharmed) boy. My sons tell me they weren’t jumping or wrestling on the hammock at the time. And I believe them, though I’m sure there was jumping and wrestling involved prior to the moment one of them laid back only to find himself landing on the ground.

This time my husband wasn’t quite as cool about the whole thing. He didn’t yell, but there was a sad look in his eye when he sighed and said he didn’t think it was worth replacing. Actually, what he said was, “They’re why we can’t have nice things.”

So I suppose, at least for now, you won’t find a hammock in our backyard. Or an imaginary white sand beach. You also won’t find gold, silk, or spices, or a direct water passage to Asia. But you can still find easygoing and hospitable people. And maybe even the occasional piña colada.