Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Bridges of Bridgeville

The 1925 Bridgeville Bridge over the Van Duzen River
Closed to vehicular traffic today and replaced by the modern bridge whose shadow you see crossing the picture from lower left to middle right. If you enlarge this picture by double clicking on it, you can find my friend Carl on the bridge and one of the teen-agers, in a white tee-shirt, under the bridge.
Taken at Bridgeville, Humboldt County, California

In the February 2007 issue of Smithsonian (which arrived in today’s mail), travel author Bill Bryson reminisces about growing up in the Des Moines, Iowa of the 1950s. He talks about the number of children that filled the streets, the parks, the playgrounds, and he makes quite clear the fact that the children were outdoors playing all day long. What he implies is that it was safe for the children to be outdoors and on their own. In June, 1962, we moved from the rural community of Colusa, California, in the Sacramento River Valley to El Cerrito, a bedroom community directly across San Francisco Bay from the Golden Gate. This was the summer before I turned twelve, and for the next twelve years I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. By the time I moved back to Montana in 1975, I had lived fully half my life in the suburbs of the City by the Bay.

I often think back to those days and wonder if life really was that much simpler, or if my parents were just na├»ve. I can remember riding my bike into downtown Oakland. My best friend Roy and I spent entire days climbing on the cliffs in Tilden Regional Park. We’d take the AC Transit buses across the Bay and spend a day wandering around San Francisco. We were in Junior High School at the time. In many respects I’m glad I don’t have children of my own. I’m terrified when Gypsy runs up to the edge of the cliff overlooking the Pacific. How would I react if it were my child about to throw himself into the sea? How could I even consider letting him ride his bike into any part of Oakland? How could I conscience him wandering the San Francisco streets alone?

The last time I visited San Francisco was ten years ago (well, nine plus to be precise—in 1997). That year I made eight trips to the City, mostly to see the SFBF as I refer to John—the San Francisco Boy Friend. The final trip was to attend my thirty-year high school reunion, with John, the SFBF, at my side. I haven’t been back to the Bay Area since then. It’s time for a visit. Besides, the 40-year reunion will be this year.

One of the trips ten years ago was made in the company of the Rev. Bob Varker, at that time the United Methodist Campus Pastor at The University of Montana. Bob and I traveled to San Francisco to begin the process of setting up a spring break experience for the students involved in Campus Christian Ministries. We were looking specifically to have our students work with the folk at Glide Foundation, an outreach program affiliated with Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. One of our meetings was with a woman who had a teen-aged daughter. I expressed my concerns about the difficulties and dangers of raising children in the 1990s, and the woman told me I was right to be concerned. She added, however, that I was probably concerned for the wrong reasons. It seems that in the 1990s (and I doubt that things have changed much in the past ten years), the main danger to our children was other children. Children kill or maim other children to get their sneakers, their jackets, their jeans. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “peer pressure.”

Cleft in rock cliff above Swimmer's Delight
(Had the water been higher and the temperature warmer, I'd have been tempted to strip off and jump in.)
Van Duzen River flowing through Van Duzen County Park
Humboldt County, California

Since 1997, I’ve made fewer trips away from home, and since 2001, the only metropolitan areas I’ve visited have been Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. I can’t say that I’ve seen very many children in either city. In Missoula when I’ve been out late at night, I’ve been amazed at the number of young people who are milling around downtown after midnight. I’ve heard policemen say that they’re afraid to go down certain Missoula streets alone after dark. I can only imagine what it must be like in larger communities.

For the past year, living in Smith River I’ve seen a few children and adolescents, but almost no one of high school age around town. In Crescent City, and to a lesser extent in Brookings, Oregon, I have noticed high school aged youth on the streets, and for the most part they seem to be wandering aimlessly, as the song says “with no particular place to go.” Visiting Arcata, home of California’s Humboldt State University, I’ve seen groups of high school aged youth gathered in the town’s central plaza—looking as if they are homeless. Now admittedly, I’m at the point of becoming an “Old Fart” if I haven’t already passed that point, but shouldn’t we be doing something to help our youth? Is it even possible to get things back to a point where our children are safe from each other—and our adults are safe from our children?

I don’t have the answers to these problems—problems that frankly impress me as being intractable. Somehow parents stopped parenting and left children to their own devises. I guess that’s the main difference in my mind. Certainly when I rode my bike into Oakland, it wasn’t because my parents didn’t care. Rather it was that most children’s parents did care and took responsibility for their children’s upbringing. Most kids my age knew right from wrong, and knew that our parents would be certain to correct us, should we cross the line. I’m not sure that parents today correct their children, or that children today expect anything from their parents. This worries me. And maybe I’m just out of touch.

Pampas Grass, considered a noxious weed here
Growing above the Van Duzen River
Near Bridgeville, Humboldt County, California

Yesterday, Carl and I drove off in search of photo opportunities, heading south to Eureka only to find the fog become increasingly dense the further south we drove. About twenty miles south of Eureka, we turned off US 101 onto California 36—one of the mountain roads that connects the coast with the Central Valley. In this case, 36 runs between Fortuna at the west end and Red Bluff in the Valley. We were quickly out of the fog as we drove through Hydesville, Rohnerville, Riverside Park and Maple Grove. We passed through a town whose name has intrigued me for years—Carlotta. Carlotta, unfortunately, was no Spanish dancer. She wasn’t even wearing red. What can I say. We stopped briefly at Humboldt County’s Van Duzen Park and even more briefly at Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park. We finally stopped to eat our lunches in Bridgeville, a town with a population of 300 according to the city sign. I have no idea where they hid those 300 people. As I wandered around, camera in hand, I had the feeling that the entire town was “Posted—No Trespassing.”

What ties Bridgeville in to my theme of today’s children and youth is that the largest structure we saw in this town was the Bridgeville School. The school was bigger than all the houses in town combined. They must draw their student body from the homes hidden in the hills. We stayed in town long enough that the School released its inmates and I saw two items of interest—two scenes that reminded me of growing up in the 60s or of Bill Bryson’s 1950s Des Moines.

First, a couple of teen-agers came down the street, passed me where I was changing lenses at the car, and crossed the 1925 Bridgeville Bridge. After stopping for a while to thrown things off the bridge, rocks I presume, they wandered off the far end and made their way down to the Van Duzen River below. In time they were joined by other youth until a small group of them had gathered in the shadow of the bridge to break chunks of ice and smoke cigarettes. I have no idea how long they remained at these tasks, because we left before they did. I guess that in Bridgeville, instead of going behind the barn, you go below the bridge.

The other thing that caught my eye was a group of younger children walking down the only street in Bridgeville to go to the Post Office. What was noticeable was that there were five children and four dogs. The dogs were all on leashes, and the dogs were larger in some cases than the children. These were not Gypsy sized dogs. These kids all looked like they were having fun the way we used to do. (Well, I never smoked under a bridge, but I did break ice.) I would hope that such fun is available in towns larger than Bridgeville.

Kids and Dogs
Bridgeville's One Street
Bridgeville, Humboldt County, California

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