Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Falls in the Fall - Part 1

The Falls in Fall – Louisville

Big Four Bridge – Falls of the Ohio State Park

5.7 miles / 2:40 / 13:20 – 16:00

Part 1

Fall’s great.  The air’s clear, the temperatures are manageable, and the color of the foliage and the clarity of the air help make this time of year an excellent time to go for a walk.  Fall has grown on me over the last few years, and the visually and meteorologically favorable conditions prove the perfect backdrop for exploration.

Louisville, in particular, is filled with high-contrast deciduous trees, so every November is an aesthetic treat.  While others had their mind on Thanksgiving, family visits, and staying in from the chilly breezes, I was excited to get out and crunch some leaves underfoot.

Today’s walk is the first inter-state walk on Miles By Foot; while not impressive by most standards, I hope that it becomes the precedent for larger and longer walks within the scope of what we’re trying to do.

Being a river city, Louisville’s interest in bridges has been a necessary economic and urban planning infrastructure development.  More than any other public works project, people have an opinion about every bridge we have and every bridge we plan to build.  Currently, we have four ways to cross the Ohio, with two more on the way to be completed within five years.  It took decades to get these two new bridges built, but finally, both sides have pulled the trigger, and not a moment too soon; congestion and traffic jams are typical at nearly all times of day at the bridge bottlenecks.

Let’s start our walk at one of the most interesting bridges in Louisville: the Big Four Bridge.

The Big Four Bridge was a former railroad bridge that, over the past two or three years, has been converted into a scenic walkway that, as of this summer, allows non-motorized traffic its first dedicated means to cross directly from Kentucky to Indiana via the Ohio River.  The old truss bridge was refurbished after years of disuse and reinforced to support new traffic.  The bridge itself is 120 years old, and by far, it’s the most fun way to cross the river.  The bridge is quite elevated; each state has built a ramp to reach the lofty deck, and Indiana finally finished theirs this summer, completing the link between the two states. 

On the Indiana side of the bridge, the charming town of Jeffersonville sprawls out east and west along the Ohio River.  To the west is New Albany, and between here and there is an historical state park called the Falls of the Ohio, named for the waterfalls that exist along the northern bank.  Although I’m sure its proximity and my father’s affinity for natural parks drew me to it once or twice in my childhood, I don’t remember it at all, so I decided it was a fair target. 

To the bridge!

Although I’d planned the walk several months ago, the opportunity to complete it presented itself rather suddenly one Saturday afternoon in late November.  After a coldsnap that saw temperatures dip below freezing unseasonably early, complete with snowfall and school cancelations, a windy warm front swept in.  The sun was out, the thermometer was hanging just above sixty, and the high-altitude cirrus clouds patterned the sky.  With little time to prepare, I borrowed my wife’s Nikon D5000 and rushed out the door.

The Big Four Bridge’s Kentucky-side ramp is situated east of the Waterfront, a large, relatively recent urban park on the southern bank of the Ohio, about two miles east of downtown.  This whole area used to be industrialized, with factories, parking lots, and shipping containers.  About fifteen years ago, these old relics were swept away to revitalize the area for use by Louisvillians.  The ramp was completed a few years ago, before the walk opened, and I was utterly confused as I drove by it every day, wondering if they were going to make it a vehicular bridge, but being confused by the physics of the impossibly sharp curve the ramp made.

I elected to leave my coat in the car, lest its bulk become a burden later.  A couple was taking what I assume were wedding pictures at one of these great pillars holding up the ramp.  The ramp makes a sweeping circle around the south end of the bridge, allowing bicyclists to both climb and descend easily.  Having done it on a bike once before, I’d like to thank the engineers for that foresight. 

For this time of year, it was already clear that the bridge was particularly busy.  It has become a casual destination for people from all walks of life; teenagers come and loiter as they walk the bridge’s span, and older adults come here to get their exercise or simply enjoy a blithe stroll over the broad river below. 

After years of organizational and community debate, the city finally decided on how and where to build the bridges our traffic and geographical position had so thoroughly demanded.  This is the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge (locals call it “the Kennedy Bridge” or just “the Kennedy”), one of two bridges built for Louisville in the 1960s to cross the Ohio.  Construction has been underway for the better part of a year on the bridge designed to ease the load on this overtaxed span.  They’re still several years away from carrying their first car, but it’s still exciting to see the new bridge take shape.

There’s that handsome city of ours!  In my mind, a city isn’t a city without a significant skyscraper, and we’ve got several of those.  

I passed a casual friend of mine on the way up the ramp, but the sun was so bright, I didn’t recognize him until I was nearly past him.  Darn that beautiful day!  It was even difficult to hear him greet me, as the wind’s howling had only grown louder as I ascended.

The Big Four Bridge only ever had one railway, and they’ve decided to preserve its location on the walking deck, where it more or less bisects the path.  In their remodeling, they left the vast majority of the original structural steel of the bridge, and you can see how more than a century of weathering has rusted the metal to the point where it’s coarse to the touch.  Totally safe, though.

Lights illuminate the path at night, and there’s even a couple speakers along the path that broadcast classical, jazz, and other taste-neutral music to the bridge’s passengers.

The most interesting music, though, came from somewhere else.

Not halfway across the bridge, I encountered this man, sitting on one of the newly installed metal benches that line the side of the walkway.  He was just setting up shop when I arrived, plugging in his Stratocaster clone, adding batteries to his radio, and tuning the unamplified strings, their quiet hums and twangs inaudible over the breeze.  He had a box of assorted batteries for his different electric devices.  I watched him for a moment and, although he hadn’t started playing yet, I reached into my wallet for a dollar bill.  I asked him if he minded if I took a picture of him, lowering the bill into the white industrial bucket he’d marked for tips, which at the moment only contained more batteries.  He gave a resigned response: “Eh, I don’t care.” 

As I released the dollar bill in the bucket, the wind swelled up and swept it right out of the bucket and, presumably, over the side of the bridge.  I ran over to where I thought it went, and it was gone.  He laughed and admitted, “Never seen that happen before.”  I looked in my now empty wallet to find reinforcements, but after finding no backup there, I slid the few dimes and nickels from my back pocket into his bucket, apologizing.  He said it was fine with a bit of a chuckle.  Even for a tip like this, I always hate giving change.  People have to lug all that metal around after all. 

I thanked him for the picture and went on my way.  About thirty seconds later, I heard his guitar come to life, distortion, amplification and everything.  His fingers found a lick from a Metallica song.  He wasn’t bad at all.

Because the Big Four is the easternmost downtown bridge, gawking upstream offered a minimally adulterated view of the river.  If you look for a long time, you can mentally remove the modern buildings from either side, replacing them with trees or shrubs and blending the colors together, and you can picture what the Ohio looked like hundreds or even thousands of years ago, where locals milled about peacefully along the river’s banks.

Steel truss bridges like the Big Four Bridge were common throughout the country at the end of the 19th century, and they continued to be common for decades after.  In fact, the Big Four Bridge isn’t even the only truss bridge in Louisville that crosses the Ohio.  Seeing old steel structures tends to elicit memories of the industrialism we read about in school, and we can imagine the sound of each rivet being installed and the hailing calls of the foreman to his team and their liturgical response. 

The bridge is about a half-mile from one side to the other, so a solid walk can get you from one bank to the next in no more than ten minutes, even if you pause occasionally for a picture.  Seeing the boathouse out there like that reminds me that most people used to travel to Louisville by boat, and many still do. 

Up until around the middle of this year, a metal barricade kept pedestrians from going down the other side of the bridge, but this has since been removed.  The sparkling new ramp beckons you down to a nascent city park, constructed to welcome pedestrians into their fair state.

If you looked over the edge of the railing on either side, you were now above Indiana soil.  A young girl had a bag of candy in her hand and was telling her sister/friend that she wanted to drop a piece of candy over the edge to the street sixty feet below.  She quickly recoiled her hand from the railing.  “No, I’d never do that,” she said, and ran to catch up with her parents.  Good kid, but I’d be tempted to do it.  Or maybe I just wanted a bag of candy.

For those who live near a river prone to swelling, you’ll know immediately what this concrete wall is.  This is a floodwall, designed to keep water out of the main part of the city; the Louisville side has one, too.  The Indiana shoreline is slightly angled to act as a natural levee, and this helps keep the flood level low enough so the floodwall doesn’t have to bear the full brunt of the surge.  Almost twenty years ago, Louisville (and presumably Indiana’s towns like Jeffersonville and New Albany) suffered a massive flood, spreading river water miles inland.  I can still remember riding with my parents along the interstate Kentucky-side and looking down at so many houses that were wholly underwater.   

That’s why these are here.

This freshly planted park, which the sign indicated was called “Big Four Station,” is still in its infancy, but I love simple parks like this, even if this were to be the final product.  It’s just nice for a city to stay, “we don’t need revenue for this part of our city; we’ll just give it back to you.”  Down the ramp we went; I considered the exhilaration of riding down this on a bike, a nice straight shot with no pedestrians might be especially fun.

As one of our oldest architectural forms, monolithic-like structures like this are still beautiful and fascinating in their simplicity.  Although I’m sure this one was dedicated to a particular community group or individual, I didn’t notice a plaque indicating that.  On the other side of the monument, three or four men were working in a pit on the stone walk that surrounded the monument.

Right outside the park, at the corner of Pearl and Chestnut, I found this charming frozen yogurt shop.  Although it was closed for the winter, it certainly wasn’t too cold today to go in and grab a bowl.  I hope that having the Big Four Bridge passage will sprout businesses like this on both sides of the river.

Instead of stopping for a cold snack, I pushed down Pearl Street to meet my mark, Court Street, which is Jeffersonville’s main street.  Pearl Street is actually a block over from the cross street I had intended to use, so at the corner of Pearl and Maple, I hooked a right, where I passed a funeral home.

Funeral homes don’t often spring up; in some cases, a funeral home is the steadiest, most venerated business in a community.  Funeral homes are such uncomfortable places, no matter how hard they try to hide it.  In a way, the calming, gentle appearance of a funeral home is a Pavlovian trigger point for sadness and grief.  It’d almost be better to hold in a harshly-lighted Shell station just so you wouldn’t be in an environment you associate with the passing of a loved one.

One pallbearer stood sentinel in the portico.  I watched him for a moment, and he didn’t budge.

As I passed the home, I looked in to see a couple dozen people of all ages dressed in their Sunday best.  One gentleman looked out the slitted window at me and, surprisingly, gave me a big smile.  

I turned the corner and marched up Spring Street.  A cyclist whizzed past me on the sidewalk, his majestic grey locks fluttering in the wind.

He wore what appeared to be a leather, Native-American-patterned jacket.  I caught up with him at the corner of Spring and Court, one block away.  I crossed the street while he paused to roll his own cigarette, something I’ve never seen with my own eyes.

He looked like he had a neat life; I wondered how his day was going, and where he was biking off to.   
Maybe he’d pass me again.
This is the first part of a four part series; updates go up every Wednesday!
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