Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Highway Design Seen Sideways at High Speeds: Bus Crash Interstate 40 23 Miles North of Lake Havasu City, Late July 2002

It was the left front tire that blew, and we were doing 75 when it happened, on Interstate 40, in a Van Hool luxury bus, with Bill at the wheel.  Bill was a million-miler, a retired Army vet who’d been with the company for a decade.  We’d had him for about a thousand miles, from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, back to Gallup, Acoma Pueblo, up to Durango, Colorado, then along the winding highway to Silverton, back down to Purgatory, then westward to the Grand Canyon.  At a rest-and-tourist stop outside of Ash Fork, I’d watched Bill check the tire pressure and run his hand over all ten of the big tires, while I was on the mobile to the Department of State concerning a kidney infection on a participant from, it think,  the United Arab Emirates.

We had come down the elevation to relative ground level, and it was suddenly hot.  We'd been warned away from the normal route to Las Vegas because we had a bus full of foreigners, many of them from the former Soviet Republics and as many from known Muslim nations, like Egypt and Uzbekhistan, all of them fully vetted by the Department of State and six weeks into a sponsored American Studies Institute, but still too risky to allow over various bridges and dams. We were going to take I-40 to US-95 up to Vegas, Baby! As Neil, my fellow guide used to call it.  This had an added benefit:  it put California as a notch on the states-we-saw-in-the-States list, and California was a jewel-encrusted notch.

It was the left front tire that blew, and we were doing 75—the speed limit, not a bit over, for Bill was a by-the-book driver.  We lurched, and I was thrown out of my seat.  From the floor, I watched the bus veer wildly while Bill struggled with the steering wheel and the contents of the overhead compartments spilled out into the aisle.  We headed down into the gravelly median, as Bill steered us past a guardrail that would have impaled the bus and sent me, at least, hundreds of feet forward through the windshield to die. 

In the gravel, the bus settled down: 70; 60; 50; then it slid onto its side, the gravel flying like a bow-wave as the prow of the bus rose into the oncoming lanes of traffic racing at us at 80, 85, 90.

From their first incarnations in New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York State, high-speed limited access freeways have wound through artificial landscapes of the picturesque.  Take the Merritt Parkway or the Wilbur Cross, even today, and you’ll see rusticated stone overpasses marked with Gothic Revival details, set within a bucolic landscape of native trees, brilliant red and yellow shrubs, brief swatches of meadow, dark green or golden, close-cropped in places, in others left to grow tall and wave gently in the gentle breezes directed to them by scrupulously located groves of maples and oaks. On the Wilbur Cross Parkway, the median was a wide swatch of well-groomed lawn.  The entrance to the Merritt Parkway in Greenwich dove through an apple orchard, then cut through stands of evergreens interrupted by tall individual hardwoods;  on either side, rough cuts of granite rose and fell, their rock faces in winter brilliant with ice cascades. On the Taconic State Parkway, maples and other fall-foliage hardwoods crowded up to the lanes, and rills and waterfalls tumbled down the hillsides and raced underneath the traffic lanes.

All this was originally designed to be seen by a new kind of driver, part tourist, part commuter.  The parkways and freeways were both vectors and destinations, and their architectural details and landscape designs were meant to be seen at appropriate speeds:  35 to 45. When landscape architect Gilmore David Clark was commissioned to design the Taconic, he was already a celebrated practitioner, with the Central Park Zoo and the expansion of Riverside Park to his credit; he organized the parkway’s vistas to expand and contract, showing mountain vistas, swaths of Hudson Valley, river views, and the more intimate details of rock and rill, maple stand and greensward.

That’s all very well when you’re building in the ‘30s and ‘40s, for cars with bias-ply tires, drum brakes, bench seats, wide plate-glass windshields and windows that rolled down to let the breeze in, and 40 mph is pretty thrilling.  It’s fine when the climate is seasonal but temperate and the rainfall is predictable and the watertable high. 

Out in Arizona, on I-40, there’s no water at all most of the year, and the closest you’ll come to landscape design is a few cacti planted on the rest areas. That’s about the only place anyone would notice the scenery anyway, when the speed limit’s 75 and everyone’s doing 9 miles over that, if they worry about the radar, 20 miles over if they’re hot and irritable and in a hurry. If you’re bored, there’s low, brown mountains twenty miles away, but no matter how fast you’re going, they pass too slowly to qualify as scenery. The rest is desert scrub, sandy soil and trucked-in gravel for the median.  Compared to the older back-east ones, it’s wide, and rather than doming slightly, it cups down in a V, so the flash floods will race off the pavement to be captured in the storm drains that run underneath the center, at the lowest point.

We hit the bottom of that V hard enough to lurch back upright before coming to a stop, front wheels—one of them smoking-hot metal without a hint of rubber left on it—hanging disconsolately a couple of feet above the pavement. Bill turned to me as I pulled myself back upright, and I could see his hands as he tried to loosen them from the steering wheel.  It took a minute before he could, and the tremors went up his arms and into his shoulders with a regularity that reminded me of the stripes on a rotating barber pole.  In front of us, three cars had stopped and one of them was putting out flares while the others ran down the shoulders of the eastbound lanes waving frantically to slow the semis and the SUVs and big sedans that were barreling back to Grand Canyon Village and Flagstaff and Albuquerque and beyond that:  Amarillo, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville.

It took the state cops a couple of hours to cordon us off, sort us out, and write us down.  By that time it was 1050 and most of us had left our water bottles rolling around under the seats as we dove for the door.  Some of us huddled in the meager shade the bus provided, but wary as we were of the thing tipping over, we didn’t leave ourselves more than a single-file sliver, and it wasn’t much cooler there anyway. 

Then the cops ferried us over to the nearest exit, where there was a Pilot Travel Center with a Wendy’s.  It was air conditioned, and there was water for sale.  It took a few hours to get a replacement bus out from Flagstaff, and by then the relief had turned to boredom and even discontent, and one of the European women, the one with the best shoes, had noticed injuries that might require the healing touch of an American lawyer.  

Not the Muslims, you can be sure.  They were too busy trying to blend into the formica and laminate dinettes—a little hard considering Ahmed had decided to dress that morning in full-on Saudi costume to demonstrate the virtues of Middle Eastern garb in hot desert climates, and most of the North Africans had followed suit, partly to outdo him in the brilliance of their plumage.  The truckers pulled in with their little American flags tied to the rooflines of their cabs and their Let’s Roll! slogans painted on the doors, and pretty soon they’d be clustered in small groups around the diesel pumps giving us the hard stares. Eventually they’d disperse, noisily blatting and airhorning their way back onto the interstate, and after a hiatus, another group would assemble.  Even the state cops were getting patriotic; one of them decided to take Ahmed aside for a little quiet interrogation and I had to explain to him that the State Department wasn’t going to take kindly to my phone call if he followed through. Vigilante justice isn’t just a movie theme in Arizona;  it’s a hallowed tradition. 

We made it out, though, and the European woman never did get satisfaction for the trauma she’d endured, despite calls to various American acquaintances who she hoped would know the right lawyer.  The State Department had flown her over and put her up for six weeks and paid us to teach her and to ferry her around the scenic U.S. of A. and our Washington rep had a certain disdain for ingrates.  When her story got around, the rest of the foreigners pretty much shunned her, and she had a miserable last two weeks of it, especially since she periodically forgot she was injured, arriving late at the new bus in the morning having forgotten to don her makeshift sling, leading her to reenact the injury in steadily more incredible melodramas to steadily more contemptuous audiences.  In the group debriefing in DC, she tried one more time to unmask the bus company and Bill in particular for wanton disregard and cruelty, and she was loudly shouted down by the rest of the group.  I think there was a little shoving involved, too.  It was heartwarming evidence that they’d been studying the natives even in a Wendy’s attached to a Pilot Travel Center twenty miles north of Lake Havasu City, Arizona;  they’d learned a little vigilantism, and Ahmed even did a passable Clint Eastwood, derived from the Westerns we’d been showing on the bus in the long flat stretches on either side of Oklahoma City.

I never did get to Lake Havasu City that year, though I’d planned to skip town and drive down there from Vegas, leaving Neil to keep the foreigners from losing their stipends at the blackjack table.  I wanted to see the London Bridge they’d bought, dismantled, shipped over, and rebuilt as a tourist attraction. I didn’t make it back for a few years.  After that trip, we changed the route, skipping the Grand Canyon and taking in the Navajo Res and Monument Valley instead.  We kept the same bus company, but try as we might, we couldn’t get Bill to drive us again.  

All in all, though, it was worth it, even if I didn’t see the London Bridge.  Later, when I went, I would find it was the wrong one, anyway—not the spectacular Gothic Revival  Tower Bridge but the low, ornament-free New London Bridge designed by the brilliantly innovative Scottish engineer John Rennie.  Rennie’s design was revolutionary, for it allowed far longer spans between piers, and no complex superstructure. Stripped to its bare, functional bones, it is the model for most modern American highway and freeway bridges.

And that’s the problem.  Out there in Lake Havasu City, New London Bridge looks like every other bridge you’ve ever driven over at 65 or 70 or more. It spans a turbid little cutoff of the Colorado River between two artificially widened bays; on one side there’s Papa Leone’s, on the other, Barley Bros. Brewpub. To juice it up, they’ve illuminated it with colored spotlights, but they don’t do much for the stolid grey stone of the bridge. Far more sublime was the sight of the bus, still cantilevered over the fast lane, as we saw it looking over our shoulders out the rear window of an Arizona State Patrol car driven by a fastidious young man trying his best not to gawk at Ahmed in his bisht and turban, and Fatou in her takchita, crammed into the front seat next to him. 

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