Saturday, June 25, 2011

Striving for Relevance

In their day, they were all viewed as marvels of modern engineering, feats of human genius that had become icons of society.
By the time we left our Las Vegas hotel the temperature was well into the 80s and climbing. The familiar hot wind immediately dried our eyes as we rode east to Boulder City. After a quick breakfast and a little playful photo opportunity with a local street sculpture, we climbed back into our already sweat-soaked motorcycle gear and headed for the Hoover dam. Straddling the Arizona/Nevada border, this 1935 monolithic structure is imposing even by today's standards. We were left to imagine how this depression era work program actually accomplished the construction of the largest concrete structure in the world at that time, 2 years earlier than expected and under budget. It still provides a significant amount of electricity, while at the same time protecting downriver land against flooding as well as providing irrigation, all part of its original purpose.
High above the dam arches the new Tillman Bridge (named in honor of the football player turned soldier who was killed by friendly fire in Iraq). Until its completion in 2010, traffic on Highway 93 had been seriously constrained due to post-9/11 security concerns, as well as the road width that traversed the top of the narrow dam. At 840 feet (360 m), the bridge is the second highest in the United States, and the longest concrete bridge in the Western Hemisphere. While it claimed only one death during its construction, as opposed to over 100 deaths, during the construction of Hoover dam, this bridge was not built on time or on budget.
Temperatures were stretching through the 90s by the time we were on the road again, headed for Oatman, Arizona (population 128), a virtually forgotten town with its Main Street straddling a portion of the famous Route 66. The odd, somewhat disjointed, Gold Rush theme town was as curious as the well-behaved burros that roamed its streets without much regard for cars or human occupants. We had an early lunch, comprised mostly of guzzling down glasses of ice tea to quench our thirst, at the oldest (1902) building in town, the Oatman Hotel, where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon in 1939.
Leaving the tiny town, with its desperate desire to hang on to its past importance and the tourists it could attract, we ventured out onto what was known as the most treacherous portion of Route 66. This Highway was the main transportation route between Chicago and Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the subject of numerous famous folk ballads and a 1960s TV show by the same name. I remember watching it with fascination as Martin Milner and George Maharis drove their Corvette over that famous road experiencing innumerable adventures. The 10-mile an hour hairpin corners gave credence to the road’s early reputation. The patched pavement, very steep grades and lack of any guardrails reflect nothing of the modern highways to which we had become so accustomed.
Ironically, our day ended much as it had begun, with a dam and the bridge. By late afternoon we were exhausted from the heat and decided not to go further, having stopped to enjoy the ritual of a burger at "In-N-Out Burger" in Lake Havasu City. This town was largely developed in the 1970s due to the construction of the Parker dam, and later made famous by the reconstruction of the original London Bridge, imported piece by piece from its original location to Arizona in the 1980s. While we did not visit the dam, the bridge seemed to have lost much of its appeal in the translation, although it is the second most popular tourist attraction in the state.

During the mind-numbing 75 mile an hour, 114°F portions of laser-straight desert highway I found myself thinking about relevance. Each of the historical sites we took in seemed to be clutching at their own relevance. London Bridge has become a displaced orphan, serving the tourist trade but without any practical purpose. Route 66 has long since been "declassified" as a highway and struggles to maintain even a semblance of its former glory. Of these three, only the Hoover dam remains critically relevant. How many man-made objects, created long before I drew breath, can be placed in that category? And what about my life? Is it even relevant today? Or will it even be a footnote in some historical reference? Can I hope to leave a legacy that is relevant long after I am gone? Maybe this is too much thinking for a Parkinson's diseased brain crammed into a confining helmet for too many hours in the hot sun.

1 comment:

  1. Bob, your life has and will always be, relevant to me! Ride on.