Saturday, April 18, 2015

Under Cover

     Picture pieces of rainbow shot out of a big red cannon. That's the image in a publicity photo promoting this weekend's Tour of the Battenkill. Cyclists aglow in their colorful lycra are the bits of rainbow. The big red cannon would be the Eagleville Covered Bridge with the peloton bursting out of its northern portal.

     I'm into biking and this is a big event with up to 3000 participants. Still, this old curmudgeon is as much interested in the covered bridge as in the racers. Eagleville is near and dear to my heart
(and a whole lot of other people's as well). The genesis of my Washington County thing can be traced back to this simple structure and the river that flows beneath it.
     The ink had barely dried on my drivers license when I discovered the bridge on a Sunday afternoon road trip. This spot soon became base camp for long runs on the idyllic dirt roads that fan out from here - the Binninger to Rich loop, Roberson with Hickory Hill and, on high energy days, up Murray Hollow and beyond. The evening workouts always ended with a cold Battenkill swim and a colder can of Budweiser.
     Later, I got a road bike which expanded my explorations to include the countryside from Salem to Cambridge to Arlington, Vermont. The Eagleville Covered Bridge was still the anchor of my orbits, the river and a brew still the reward at the end of my rides.
     This was also about the time my buddies and I got into paddling. Trips started at either West Arlington and drifted down to Eagleville or began there and wound thru Shushan to finish at the covered bridge at Rexleigh. This opened up new swimming options, with the sanctity of the beer finale remaining (Sorry Mr. Maclean, but a river and other liquids run thru my tale too).

     This is how landscape love stories unfold. First there's a spot that ignites a spark. Over many good times, memories are built and a relationship with place blossoms. Soon enough you realize that this is where you belong, this is where you want to be.
     I don't know Robert McIntosh but I suspect we have some things in common, including a fondness for the hill country, its many streams and the covered bridges that cross them. McIntosh is the author of The Covered Bridges of Washington County, New York and he will be giving illustrated talks on Monday, April 20 at 7pm at Crandall Library in Glens Falls and on Wednesday, May 13 at 7pm at the Salem Courthouse. His book is a 62 page spiral bound volume that grew out of his work with the Covered Bridge Advisory Committee.
     The very existence of covered bridges is tenuous and fraught with challenges. The book chronicles  six currently standing in the county. Eagleville and Rexleigh are in active use over the Battenkill. Shushan also crosses the 'Kill and is used as a museum. Buskirk carries traffic over the Hoosic River into Rensselaer. The Seedhouse Bridge is a small pedestrian structure in the center of Cambridge and McIntosh constructed his own little span over Pencil Brook ( a tributary of the Owl Kill ) outside of Cambridge.

     McIntosh's book gives the backstory of each bridge, goes into engineering details and outlines the valiant effort to save them by a small but dedicated group. Lest you think gridlock is a Washington D.C. thing, consider the opposing views on bridge preservation in Washington County. One contingent sees concrete and steel as the modern, sensible way to get from one bank to the other. Then there are those who believe wooden covered bridges can be both practical parts of a modern transportation network and monuments to our ancestors ingenuity.
     It's a conflict that gets played out often. Do we widen and pave every road or leave some narrow and dirt? Can these old barns be repaired and repurposed or bulldozed and replaced? How can we justify taking the time to build a home that's a good architectural fit with its neighborhood when we can have a double-wide modular installed in a few days?
     The answers aren't always clear and easy but when the choice is preservation and sensitivity to a places past the results are often gratifying. And they can also make economic sense. With much of America looking depressingly "franchised" some communities are finding they can market historical charm and protected open space to their advantage. Maybe part of the reason Washington County is hosting a big bike race with the economic boost it brings is because we've saved some covered bridges for riders to zip across, providing great photo-ops in the process.
     Whether your interest is bikes, books or bridges the next few days should be great fun. See you out there.


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