It is one of the cruel ironies of living in Missoula that the most desirable season to hit the road is also the time of year when we block off, tear up and repave virtually every one of them.
As I sat at a dead standstill the other day on Reserve Street, waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Retiree to negotiate an illegal U-turn in their three-bedroom condominium with a wad of bicycles and jet skis in tow, I had a daydream: All these RVs were camped on the flatbed of a freight train, with water and electrical hook-ups, showers, a few T-shirt shops and a Starbucks. Montana Rail Link had turned the whole shebang into a seniors party train so these folks could travel the countryside in style without maxing out their Discover cards at the Conoco station or killing Dad's lumbar with 26 hours of white line fever.
OK, so maybe it was the heat, or the absurdity of our predicament. Stretching half a mile in both directions was a line of cars laden with mountain bikes, kayaks, canoes and inner tubes, a population of people hooked on recreational mobility all stuck in neutral. I thought to myself, it's time we get more resourceful about getting around town.
After all, Missoula is a city that owes its very existence to creatively moving people and goods from one place to another: wagon trains, freight trains, guys who floated the Clark Fork River on trees they just logged. Other cities erect statues to fallen war heroes and elder statesmen. In Missoula, we likewise honor the Iron Horse, built in an age when modes of travel had style and grace, when infrastructure reflected the spirit of the times.
Somewhere along the way, getting from here to there turned sterile and dull. Consider, for example, the three design sketches for the proposed Orange Street Bridge on public display in Missoula City Hall. Any one of these designs would provide our city with a sturdy span across the Clark Fork, as functional and stylish as a 1950s high school gymnasium.
So, what are features that distinguish one bridge from another? Not whether the bicycle and pedestrian lanes are separated from the level of automobile traffic (they aren't), or what facilities are provided for handicapped, bicycle and pedestrian access to the riverfront trails (there aren't any). No, the criteria that differentiate one bridge design from another are whether the streetlights stand upright or overhang the road, whether the support pillars are triangular or rectangular, and whether the bridge's façade is constructed from stone or concrete.
For a structure we can only hope will last a hundred years, is this the legacy we plan to leave to 21st century Missoula? From a generation that produced Olympian Eric Bergoust, someone who can do with Newton's Law of Gravity and a pair of skis what Janice Joplin did with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a microphone, will we be remembered for a bridge no one will ever see on a postcard?
In contrast, the Van Buren pedestrian bridge is a cultural artifact that reflects Missoula in motion. More than just a bike route to the Rattlesnake or a shortcut to Grizzly tailgates and the University of Montana campus, the foot bridge is a place where people linger. Art students go there to paint watercolors of sunsets and fly fishermen. Homeless guys whittle walking sticks from wood gathered along the river bank and sell them to tourists. Kids anchor themselves to the girders with rope and boogie board down below.
How do you inject the spirit of creative travel into city planning? Start with an introductory course in today's poetry of motion. Tune in to ESPN2 on any given Saturday afternoon. You can doze off on the couch for half an hour and when you wake up, someone has invented two or three new sports while you were asleep-street luge, rollerblading duets on the half pipe, aerial skydiving acrobatics.
I'd like to see these folks have a hand in designing the new Orange Street Bridge. People who spend their free time on human-propelled wheels don't need to be instructed on the concept of ramps and handicapped accessibility. Look, there is nothing that says getting around town has to be either tedious or a pain in the ass. Consider the Mountain Line trolley which zigzags through town playing Elvis and Sinatra tunes from loudspeakers. There's a place to start. But how about some open-air transportation four to six months a year, powered by eight to ten hard-core Montana cyclists?
We could put some of those ergs wasted on exercise bikes to good use-say, if Gold's Gym sponsored a civics lesson in pollution abatement. Sound crazy? Tell that to the International Human Powered Vehicle Association, who built such a vehicle. These folks also designed a bicycle called the "Cheetah" that set a land speed record of 68.7 mph on flat ground.
For creative minds and active bodies like theirs, discussing public transportation in the same breath as recreational sports is not a comparison of apples to oranges, just a reflection of the spirit of our times.