The news stories that flooded front pages in the wake of Hurricane Irene late last month focused mostly on surging rivers, torn-up homes, downed trees, and the fate of New York City. But one story in particular caught my attention: the state of Vermont lost several of its historic covered bridges, those pleasant reminders of a bucolic North American past, beloved by so many-including, as of only recently, me.
Just hours before Irene slammed into the Eastern Seaboard, my girlfriend and I were driving aimlessly around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, filling to the brim our box of vacation memories, already bursting at the seams with scenes of sunrise in coastal Maryland and rainy hours whiled away in the American rooms of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Partly on whim, partly because of fond childhood memories, and partly because it just seemed like a good way to organize the morning, we decided to see as many of Lancaster County's famed covered bridges as possible.
By noon, when the rain started falling, I was hooked.
The architectural impetus for covering a bridge has less to do with beauty than with sheer practicality. In the northeastern states and provinces of the U.S. and Canada, the arrival of the industrial revolution in the 19th century caused a massive population explosion, and a corresponding need to bridge the terrain's many rivers and streams in order to allow the free movement of people and goods across the land. Bridges made of stone, as those in Europe generally were, didn't make sense in North America, because violent temperature swings meant that the bridges would freeze and thaw and require maintenance every year. To build them instead with wood, plentiful anywhere in the Northeast, made sense. To then protect those wooden bridges with walls and a ceiling-after builders realized that such shelter would prolong a wooden bridge's lifespan tenfold, to nearly a century-made even more sense.
While the existence of covered bridges can be traced back almost 3,000 years to ancient Babylon, they reached their architectural apex, and surely their greatest numbers, in 19th century North America. In Quebec alone, over a thousand covered bridges were built during the century and a half they were in vogue.
But by the 1950s, stronger building materials had been developed, making it no longer necessary for builders to cover bridges in order to extend their lives and ensure that construction of new spans would be a worthy investment. Residents of towns with covered bridges were suddenly embarrassed by them, thinking the wooden structures evidence of backwardness compared to the modern steel bridges of which neighbouring towns could boast. Many bridges were demolished in the decades between when they stopped being built and the time, not so long ago, that people began to realize how special the remaining covered bridges were, and actively moved to preserve them.
After that morning in Lancaster County, I began researching covered bridges, and found that there were nearly 100 still standing in the province of Quebec. I resolved that at the first opportunity I would head into the countryside to see some of them.
With only minimal coaxing, I convinced two friends, Sam and Jack, to join me for a recent Sunday drive. Neither had any prior experience with covered bridges, but both are enthusiastic and willing to thoroughly immerse themselves in new things. I did sense some initial skepticism about my new obsession, though, so my friends proved an interesting experiment for observing how excitement steadily begins to grow in a bridge-hunting initiate.
So how do you find Quebec's covered bridges? It's surprisingly easy. My new favourite website, www.coveredbridgemap.com, imposes the locations of Quebec's surviving ponts couverts on Google maps; by zooming in closely, you can carefully trace a route from bridge to bridge and back home. I drew up a short plan of action, including whatever historical and expository information I could find online for each of the bridges, and had Sam, acting as navigator in the passenger seat, read the directions as we went along.
After getting slightly lost in Notre-Dame-de-Stanbridge, we rounded the last curve on a small dirt road and, to whoops and hollers (disproportionately mine, I admit), finally pulled up to examine our first bridge. Sam read from a brief history of the town and the bridge that I'd pulled off a local website.
Built in 1884, the Des Rivières Covered B ridge is painted barn-red, the typical uniform for most North American spans. The interior is dark, all wood, weak light shining thinly through cracks in the walls and from the far end, like a short tunnel. The floor of the bridge consists of dusty wooden slats, some more stable than others, with noticeable grooves from one entrance of the bridge to the other, where vehicles have worn down the wood over the last century. Small spare boards thrust into spaces where the wall beams fall just short of their intended marks makes the construction feel spontaneous. Through a small cut-out window in one of the walls, you can watch the stream humming along, dipping below some willow trees on the bank, and disappearing from view - precisely what you would have seen in the same spot more than 125 years ago.
We returned to the car, opened some lawn chairs from my trunk, and enjoyed thick slices of mango in the sun.
Inside one of the next bridges we saw, someone had spray-painted in orange block letters: "VIVE L'AMOUR!" However vandalous, such an inscription is appropriate enough: another name for a covered bridge is a "kissing bridge," because young couples back in the day used the darkness of the bridge to cloak whatever heinous things young couples used to do. Even today, the dark interiors of most covered bridges continue to host the conjoined signatures of lovers past. I should probably admit that there's a bridge somewhere in Lancaster County sporting a careful engraving from my own set of Honda keys.
The last stop on our route, the Balthazar Bridge in Brigham Township, was, as Jack declared, "the finale." Built in 1932, it spans a section of the Yamaska River that features a brief section of Class 3 rapids, as we learned from a group of kayakers who had just arrived from somewhere upstream. We stood on the bank throwing large sticks into the current, admiring how the water flowed smoothly over the rocks before forking around a small island and disappearing around the bend.
Quebec's covered bridges, unlike New York's, don't have signs that say you can be fined $1 for driving over the bridge faster than a walk, but the idea, I think, is implicit. Ready to return to Montreal, I slowly coaxed my car over the precarious wooden slats and onto the other side, where, along the riverbank, a dozen cows sat fatly in the grass, mooing and chewing in the shade.
"Oh shit, oh my God, oh shit!"
So a woman cries-literally, cries-in a video that has circulated around the Internet in recent weeks, showing the collapse of her beloved Bartonsville Covered Bridge in Vermont into the raging waters of the Williams River below.
The video is really sad: a few locals stand around in Hurricane Irene's fierce rains, watching the bridge-as if at the deathbed of an old friend, as if by standing guard they might prevent the inevitable. Suddenly, the bridge, built in 1870 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, crumbles into the water and is promptly swept away.
While efforts have already been launched to eventually restore the Bartonsville to its proper place and glory, another YouTube video, showing the crumpled-up remains of the bridge where it washed up downstream, makes success seem unlikely.
But maybe it's not even so obvious that covered bridges should be preserved at all.
"Preservation is transformation," notes Roger McCain, a professor at Drexel University who has done some academic work on the economics of historical preservation, and runs an amateur website on covered bridges.
If a bridge still exists with only a fraction of its original wood, is it still the same bridge? McCain believes that sometimes it doesn't even matter.
"If you want to preserve something that's attractive and picturesque and lends distinction to your community, because it's either been there for a long or there once was something very much like that was there for a long time, then it makes perfectly good sense to maintain them," he says.
Covered bridges can be pleasing to look at even if their historic aura is only a façade.
Unfortunately, President Barack Obama has chosen this inauspicious year to "consolidate" 55 highway- and bridge-related programs in the U.S. Department of Transportation into just five stream-lined categories. That means that projects previously funded by the National Historic Covered Bridge Preservation Program will now have to compete for funds against other, admittedly more forward-looking projects under the department's new "Livability" goal.
Other programs folded into this awkward category include "Recreational Trails" and "Safe Routes to School." The question begs itself: what politician would vote to divert funds from that latter program to maintain a covered bridge only a few romantics care about? Imagine the TV ad: "Barack Obama wants America's schoolchildren to plunge helplessly off cliffs. Is that change Virginia can believe in?"
All the same, Professor McCain believes the impact of the federal preservation program being cut won't be nearly as destructive to the bridges as the recent floods. Besides, he says, it's really a decision local communities will have to make on their own.
"A little federal money might encourage a local community to do more than they would do otherwise," he said. "But federal involvement in local issues is always political, and we can't make the whole world a museum."
Sam, Jack, and I managed to get slightly lost again trying to find the highway, and were all late for various appointments we had in Montreal later in the afternoon. That didn't really matter. A day out in the country left us refreshed and fortified against whatever aggravations big-city life always promises to have in store.
Perhaps even more than finding the bridges themselves, the joy, as ever, was in the hunt. Navigating unknown terrain, meeting unknown characters, turning one another on to good songs and interesting clouds - we agreed that while looking for covered bridges isn't necessarily the only way to see Quebec's countryside, it's as good an excuse as any to get out of the city on a beautiful autumn afternoon. Theoretically, you can just decide to go for an aimless drive in the country on a Sunday afternoon, but realistically, you never will.
There's nothing specifically profound about the points on that map of covered bridges in Quebec. It's all about the connections you make in between.