The audacity of the imagination, of the spirit. I thought about it -- I had plenty of time to think about it -- while taking the "causeway" into New Orleans, a bridge long, straight and true as a razor's edge for 30 miles across Lake Pontchartrain. Pontchartrain is the near-circular body of water that lies just north of the city. Famously, Hurricane Katrina violently churned its waters, which flooded into the canals that run south through the city. Those floodwaters breached levees and inundated block after block of the city. That unprecedented deluge is what caused the real damage in this city.
Pontchartrain is so much part of the city, of its sense of itself, that this almost seemed like a betrayal.
But as catastrophic as Katrina was, this is not about her. Back on the Pontchartrain causeway -- from somewhere about five miles onto it, until about five miles from the other side, I can see no land in any direction, not even in my rear view mirror. What I see instead is the road stretching before me, cars rushing towards me, cars going my way as if on a joint quest for something to hold on to in this place of water. A vast sheet of water, calm today, but that very calmness hints at the destruction Katrina unleashed.
It's mundane, I'm sure, to remark on the awe you feel in the middle of a long bridge. Yet that's the point. That mundane-ness is possible because of the audacity of the original thought: let's fling a road thirty miles across this water; this water that, from its middle, offers no hint of a break from water.
Something about that nerve takes my breath away.
The same feeling, tinged with a chill, surrounds the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel, in Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay is a watery wedge driven between the states of Maryland and Virginia on the west, and their "eastern shore" on the east. The eastern shore is a jagged-edged peninsula named Delmarva, for Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. (Delaware is carved from its northeastern part).
To travel from Virginia Beach, on the southern reaches of the bay, to the southern tip of Delmarva is perhaps 25 miles for a crow. But if you're merely human, it used to be a journey of several hundred miles, all the way around the bay. Which naturally set some people thinking, why not a bridge across the mouth of the bay, to cross it as a crow would?
And while imagining that, remember that the bay is a busy shipping channel, so any bridge must not close that off. Yet it probably is not practical to make the bridge high enough for large ships to pass underneath, and perhaps a drawbridge in the middle would just be too slow, both for ships and cars. So what's the answer?
Simple: a bridge that turns into a tunnel. Twice in that 25-mile stretch, the road actually disappears underwater. Seen from the air, long fingers snake out from either shore. Lonesome in between, like a shadow of the fingers, is a span by itself.
I've driven across this marvel twice; both times I've felt a small ripple of fright as we burrow at 55 mph into the tunnels. The sea above me. What a thought.
And then there's a narrow offshore island in North Carolina called Hatteras. On Cape Hatteras where the island makes a right angle north, there is a lighthouse. Built to warn ships nearing this so-called "Graveyard of the Atlantic" -- hundreds of vessels have sunk off these islands -- the lighthouse originally stood 1600 feet from the shore. Over a century, the sea eroded that to a mere 100 feet, most of it sand. Grave danger to a beloved landmark, but what could be done?
Simple again: in 1999, a team of engineers moved the lighthouse. Not brick by disassembled brick, but whole. The entire 200 feet high spire of stone and mortar, all 4400 tons of it. Over three weeks that year, on some days as much as a few hundred feet, they shifted the thing fully half a mile, to where it once again stands 1600 feet from the shore. Proud, tall, undamaged, secure again. Besides, because the spot where it stands today is three feet higher than the old spot, its warning beacon can be seen even farther out at sea.
The audacity of such a move, the will to make it real: I've been on the trail.
Yet with these examples, I mean no unthinking paean to American ingenuity and initiative, not at all. For these wonders only remind me of so many others -- the Chunnel, the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, penicillin, flight, a telescope in space, even the fantastic shipbreaking yard at Alang in Gujarat. Yes, even Alang, where on a long beach, busy teams of wiry men tear apart great hulking beasts of metal almost entirely by hand.
Sometimes, I like to think about those things. Or see them if I can.
We live in cynical times. We are polarised on many lines, suspicious of politicians' motives, guarded about our childrens' safety in an uncertain world, worried about water quality and terrorism and unpredictable violence. It's a boom economy, but people slaughter other people. There's a new confidence and a flowering of aspirations suppressed too long, but bombs go off on trains. Whether Bollywood or new millionaires, India has captured the world's imagination; but a woman at Atlanta airport leaned over to ask, why do I see so much poverty in India?
With all that, cynicism comes easily, obscuring the vibrancy of the human spirit. And so I sometimes like to go in search of the ways we've built great things, managed to identify and address so many hard problems. I like to marvel at the audacity that makes so much conceivable, possible, real. I like to be reminded of the potential in us.
I mean, moving a lighthouse. Think of it.