If You Build It

by Bruce Patterson, August 10, 2016

I think it was back when that travelling Alaskan flea circus chipmunk Guvnor Sarah Palin was all the rage that the Neo-Democrats, hoping to prove these Neo-Re-pugs of the Kool-Aid Patriot Party are the opposite of “Fiscal Conservatives,” exposed what, for at least fifteen minutes, became infamous as “Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere.”

In Alaska stands an island, you see. It’s surrounded by ocean and the islanders feel detached, abandoned and forgotten. They need a bridge to the mainland to make them feel appreciated and the Neo-Pugs in Congress approved the funding to buy them a bridge more beautiful than they could’ve imagined. I forget how many millions of dollars the bridge was “projected” to cost, but I do remember thinking that a single Federale file clerk with a briefcase could’ve stepped ashore on that island at sunrise, offered every islander two million bucks cash to have their asses and their stuff moved to the mainland before sundown and, when darkness fell, not only would we taxpayers have saved ourselves millions of dollars, we’d be getting ourselves a free Wildlife Refuge to boot.

So there was “public outrage” and “the project” was “put on hold.” “Put on hold” being like, after acting up in class, having to sit facing the wall out in the hallway. You know, for the ninety seconds left before Recess. Because, woe is we, once nobody was looking, the Bridge to Nowhere got built. Except, given the “opportunity costs” caused by the obstructionist’s delays, and the terms of the cost-plus contract (“the more you spend at Tiffany’s, Tiffany, the more money you make”) the final, total, itemized cost of the bridge has yet to be finalized, redacted, signed off on and made public.

While I’ve been tempted to search the internet for a “where are they now” sort of story regarding the rescued islanders, I’ve fought the urge. To get answers I’d first hafta refuse to “learn more” about the latest Igloo Men’s and Women’s Hydration Bladders and Oshkosh kayaks available in all sizes, shapes and colors “shipped anywhere free.” I’d hafta say “no thanks” to carved walrus ivory collectibles, snow seal puppy hats, Eskimo Pies and glossy-domed, ex-military bush pilots offering 10% off safaris to wherever-the-fuck-you-want. “No thanks” to super sniper big game hunters hawking gift cards, wilderness guides for all seasons, certified health spas, survival schools, spiritual retreats, dude ranches, second, third and empty Prestige Homes shrunk-wrapped within robo-landscaped Walled Communities, magical hot springs with sprites sprinkling angel dust, “must sell” discount ocean view parcels, cabins, cottages and villages, duty-free superstores, factory outlets and luxury getaways into carefree days filled with celebrity seminars, transcendent testimonials and free lunch pitches for timeshares, tax dodges and surefire investment opportunities. All this and more I’m supposed “navigate” through just so I can find out what’s happening with the islanders now that the world has come to them bearing strange gifts? (Yes, as Anderson Valley and countless other remote suburban areas have long` been pining for, people on Nowhere Island have Wi-Fi).

I’d rather guess on my own. Seems to me it’s reasonable to assume that after the gathered Alaskan and DC dignitaries cut the ribbons being cut and bridge opened for business (tolls are communistic), the islanders renamed their island “Nowhere” and immediately set about attracting tourists. At least a dozen food outlets and curio shops have opened on Main Street, and the island’s bestselling postcard is the one of the bridge under a cobalt sky featuring hang gliders floating like butterflies above the caption: “Alaska’s Famed Bridge to Nowhere.”

Little doubt that, to escape the noisy tourists and their exhaust fumes, the island’s more prosperous property and business owners have moved to Seattle (A great place to learn how to speak Red Chinese—a lot cheaper than living in Vancouver, BC, too). Back on Nowhere Island, their homes are being leased to jetsetters, wholesale distributors, illicit lovers and Goodwill Ambassadors. It’s a good bet that their portfolios of income properties are being professionally managed and rented out to Nowhere’s young service sector employees, they getting “discounted” rents so long as they show up to work on time, do as they’re told and, back home, keep up the property while never, ever pestering their landlord or his/her Authorized Agents. Or, as it’s called in the biz, they take Oaths of Silence.

Since the growing season on the island is July through August between the hours of one and four in the afternoons, I imagine there’s been a mini-boom in hydroponic greenhouses providing the ristorantes with wholesome and locally-sourced fruits and vegetables. Oh, and the village has at least one bike rental shop so “visitors” can ride bikes back and forth across The Bridge while taking Selfies and tweeting their families and friends.

Regarding the much touted proposal to “engineer” a network of bike trails to allow visitors to familiarize themselves with the island’s pristine, if slightly oil-stained, plethora of flora and fauna, unfortunately that has proved to be impractical. Rising seawaters have forced polar bears to swim over to the island’s hills to escape the mainland’s sucking mudflats, and bicyclists in spandex might make tempting meals.

Also there’s a colony of walruses on the island and the insurance companies can’t risk having reckless and/or out-of-control bicyclists banging into them. If just one bicyclist crashes, sails through the air, knocks heads with a walrus, breaks his neck and is killed—nowadays getting killed is worth a whole lot more money than dying is—it’ll wipe out a whole decade’s worth of the bicycle shop’s profits. And if, by chance, the victim survives but is left crippled and helpless—good god almighty the financial consequences could be catastrophic. Just getting saddled with a half-century’s worth of monthly pain and suffering payments, lost opportunity costs payments, medical diagnosis and treatment, physical rehabilitation, tests, re-tests, drugs, more drugs, other drugs, revolutionary new drugs, counselling, tutoring, mentoring and, finally, out-sourcing would be enough to bankrupt every damned bicycle shop in Alaska.

So, not only are bicyclists forbidden to ride anywhere outside the village limits, if they get caught they get fed to the polar bears. The son of Chairman of the Village Council owns the sightseeing boat moored at the island’s brand-new public pier, and it’s strongly recommended that those interested in catching feeding time secure their tickets at least 20 days in advance. (Note: A second, even bigger, better and faster sightseeing boat will soon be joining our Jolly Rodger #1 at the pier and be taking aboard ticket holders. (Up there in Alaska, holding an advance ticket to anything is taken as a mark of distinction).

Since the village is located atop an ancient tidal bluff, it’s also conceivable that, what with the permafrost melting under their feet and the lung-burning stench of methane rising from the muck, the island’s stakeholders have very quietly and methodically proceeded to “abandon ship,” so to speak. It’s also possible that the bridge is now closed since it needs seismic retrofitting. If that’s the case, I imagine the villagers are mired in recession, the idled service workers feeling hopeless and resentful, the landlords demanding their full cuts; their creditors demanding theirs. Seeing how long completing a Feasibility Study of a bridge retrofit can take—one thing our Law-Givers are flush with is “public input” seeing how it helps them drag their feet, asses and palms when it comes time to change anything—I suppose we’ll soon be hearing reports of walruses waking up feeling hungover and discovering they’re minus their tusks.

Breaking News: Alaskan polar bears now getting clandestinely ground up into Big Macs, Bonus Jacks and Whoppers. Since, in Alaska, it’s customary to salt your beef with moose, caribou and musk ox, grizzly and black bears, badgers and wombats, even with its fishy taste very few of the natives have noticed the pinch of polar bear getting added to the mix. Polls of those who have noticed suggest that the majority find it a welcome addition.

* * *

In my bit, Shy of Izee, I mentioned that out in Oregon’s Seriously Remote we’ve discovered a super-two-lane highway connecting nowhere to nowhere. Or, more precisely, an engineering marvel being shared by the Honorable, if extremely scarce and threadbare, Citizens of Grant and Crook Counties. And even though just California’s Bay Area megalopolis has more people, internal combustion engines, deferred maintenance and cultural dysfunctions than all of puny little Oregon, you know that, as federal taxpayers, Californians paid far more for that wondrously smooth and serene stretch of super-two-lane than Oregonians did (Want to stop being a jive-assed Fiscal Conservative and become a real one? Start by firing every paid lobbyist in the lobbyist-infested USA).

Just because that super-two-lane is designated a State Highway doesn’t mean Oregonians paid for it. Doesn’t even mean Oregonians wanted it. Near as I can tell, nobody even knows they’ve got the damned thing. How could they? The Yellow Brick Road connects Munchkin Ville to Emerald City; super OSH 380 connects nowhere to nowhere. Who’s gonna drive all that way just to get to nowhere when they’ve got so much of it close to by?

A while back, heading for Baker City, Trisha and I took the two most direct backroads. They were both in excellent shape since, without anywhere to buy anything, there’s no need for delivery trucks. Then just a handful of hunters and fishermen have ever heard of the Middle and North Forks of the John Day River, and far fewer have ever gotten out thereabouts. So when we rejoined the main state highway at Austin Junction some 150 miles away from home, we’d only seen a handful of pickup trucks. I mean, we sighted not a single car or truck that we could reasonably assume was transporting tourists.

The highways were spooky-empty, really, the landscapes filled with thumbprint hints of better times, lost or broken dreams and, rising above all, missed opportunities. Yet ascending up the lower North Fork and the upper Middle Folk was something we hope to do again.

* * *

In the lobby of our Baker City motel I pick up a fat glossy “Eastern Oregon Memories Regional Trip Planner.” There they are: numbered “scenic road trip loops” opening up the back country to big city people with cars, time and money. Since there are millions of such people living in the Pacific Northwest, why not? How many hobby clubs are there for roadsters, bikers and bicyclists? While it’s true that the backroads of the Blue Mountains were not made for land yachts, they’re perfect for all sorts of light-travelling Outdoorsmen—if you built it they, at least, will come, won’t they?

Since a description is a prediction and the past is the best predictor of the future, the dictum “if you build it” tells the story of the American West right up till tomorrow. Plow the dirt and the rains will come. Salt a hole in the badlands with golden nuggets and the prospectors will come. Build a railroad and hang a “talking wire” and Civilization arrives like clockwork. Punch a freeway through a greenbelt and Prosperity blooms while every town becomes every other; popular national brand-name roadside attractions as Interstate America’s religious icons. “If you build it, they will come” taken as God’s Invisible Hand of Justice happily patting us atop our worthy heads.

Los Angeles started off as the most geographically isolated American settlement this country has ever paved over. Eastward beyond the extremely rugged Transverse Ranges sprawled the vast Hellfire and Brimstone Southwestern Deserts—the opposite of the genteel “High Deserts” now being advertised as prime “get away from it all” real estate parcels offering access to state of the art “healthcare facilities,” safe and sane recreational opportunities and ridiculously low Costs of Living and landscapes rich with Senior Discounts.

Welcome to Phoenix, folks, have your moving trucks back up right here. Welcome to Yuma; welcome to Boulder City. Welcome to 120 degrees in the shade with the nearest shade just a dot under that faraway, half-dead, lone Joshua tree you find yourself feeling sorry for. To the north of LA, beyond the mountain wall, more mountains and desert and not a single settlement worth the trouble getting to. West and south, ocean. Further south Baja: outlaw country; rattlesnake, sunstroke and foot-long scorpion country.

It wasn’t till the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe Railroads reached LA that immigrants started arriving from Back East, and it wasn’t till the christening of US Route 66 in 1926 that the real flood started rising. It wasn’t till LA got a “free” spider web of freeways in the 1950s and ‘60s that Fossil Fuel Man destroyed the city’s isolation in nature and replaced it with the isolation of four-walled Sprawl rolling on radial carpets of air in jerky ranks and files. For those LA natives who couldn’t handle the population explosion and the abolition of Nature, it was welcome to Barstow. Welcome to Vegas.

So I can see how those who’ve given Eastern Oregon a nice network of super-two-lanes connecting nowhere to nowhere could’ve sincerely believed that one fine day their Good Works would bring Settlers, Civilization and Prosperity. They were, in effect, stealing food out of the mouths of hungry American children but, hey, at least they were being forward-looking. Onward to the next project is their motto. Perpetual Motion is the only kind they know.

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