Highways and dams

Old rivers just get wilder every day ...

-- John Prine

There's something vaguely fascist about the interstate highway system.

I think this as we are--as Hank Stram would say--matriculating our way southwest down Interstate 30 toward Bismarck and DeGray Lake. We are making progress and reaching our goal seems likely, but twice we've come to full stops and several times slowed to a crawl.

God bless ArDOT, my lovely wife does not say. What she does say I'll keep between us.

At least, I note, we are not trying to head northeast. Coming out of Little Rock we noticed those poor souls backed up beyond Bryant. I make a note to take the long way home on scenic Arkansas highways. (I will miscalculate and waste a lot of time and gas trying to dead reckon our way back home, but that's a subject for another column that I will likely never get around to writing.)

You can thank the automakers and their lobbyists for these concrete ribbons that disrupt ecosystems and habitats, contribute to urban sprawl and increase reliance on private vehicles (which results in greater carbon emissions, which hastens climate change, if you believe in that sort of thing).

Highways bisect and divide the cities they run through, invariably creating a right and a wrong side to be on, and dry up the little villages they skirt, pulling all the commerce out to generic plastic boxes with drive-through windows and self-checkouts. Ain't that America.

About the only advantage I can see to I-30 right now is that it does sustain the jobs of a lot of orange-vested people with shovels and graders who seem to constantly work to repair, widen and maintain them.

Never mind that our extensive investment in highway infrastructure comes at the expense of not only public transit and rail systems, but of all sorts of other public services such as education, health care and social programs. Diverting resources away from these areas to support the interstate system is a missed opportunity to address pressing social problems and make human lives better.

I know, we're Americans; we fetishize our gear. We name our cars. Ours is a big country with relatively low population density; we need our space. We distribute ourselves like a Texan manspreading on a "New York Ciddy" subway car. We don't huddle our masses nohow.

But an interstate is a choice, and I made it, and even with all the stress and road work it's not much over 90 minutes to our destination. Which makes me wonder why it's been so long since we've made the trip--15 years at least.

We are headed down to meet my sister and brother-in-law, who have flown in from Georgia to revisit, after 42 years, the site of their honeymoon. Last time they were here they'd borrowed a vintage motorhome to camp on the shoreline of the then-relatively new man-made lake. This time they are staying in a cabin that only looks rustic, maybe half a mile from the state park's gate, overlooking a golf course that's not getting enough play. (The temperature is in the 90s.)

They've rented a Murano, a nice car but hardly--as a friend of mine who once owned one jokingly called his--"a truck." It's got a touchscreen and leather seats. I meant to ask if it's as nice as his Bronco, but I never got around to it.

My sister, some of you will remember, is sick. I would say "dying," but that's something that could be said about all of us. She called off her chemo treatments earlier this year and traded her oncologist for a palliative care specialist. Now she's traveling around, ticking items off her to-do list. She spent a week on Saint Simons Island last month; next week she and our mom are flying to Louisiana to visit our sister in darkest Cocodrie.

(Not actually Cocodrie, they just say Cocodrie because nobody has ever heard of Chauvin, the census-designated place where they do live. My other brother-in-law hunts alligators. This despite the fact they have a Piggly Wiggly and a sculpture garden right up the road.)

After that, who knows? She'll see how she feels. She wants to see mountains.

She wanted to meet our dogs. We brought them. She crouches down and Savannah licks her face. Good girl.

We talk, and surprisingly it's not awkward. It's not morbid. We come at things obliquely, elliptically. The Saint Simons house she stayed in was owned by Ralph Boston, the Olympic long jumper who, in 1960, broke Jesse Owens' 25-year-old world record. Boston lent the beach house out to family and friends. He was a cancer patient too, she met him in treatment.

After he died in April, there was some talk that the place might be converted into an Airbnb. But his family continues to make it available for Boston's friends. My sister makes a joke: She says she might go back next summer.

I didn't think to mention it, but Karen's father was a high school classmate of Jessee Owens. "Nice guy," was the most I ever got Yanko to say about him. It's about all my sister says about Boston. Nice guy.

We load up and go to a Mexican place in Bismarck--Ricardo's Cocina. It was recommended to us for the food, but we choose it mostly because it has a screened and roofed area where we can bring Paris and Savannah. They treat us well (excellent service, five stars) and the food feels authentic--not too fiery or Tex-Mexy. I worry that it might be too spicy for my sister but she says it's fine, it's good. Her problem is not getting it down but keeping it down.

While we're eating a storm passes through, dumping rain, and the temperature drops a bit. It feels good outside, in Arkansas, in June.

My sister looks good, considering. I remark on this carefully and she says it's because she stopped chemo. "I should have done this two years ago," she says.

My brother-in-law does not agree, but he's done arguing.

He looks frail. He's a month or so older than I am but looks older than my mother. A former distance runner, he looks stooped, tired. His eyes are long, fastened on shadows menacing on the horizon.

I try to talk to him about the lake, about how the Army Corps of Engineers dammed up the Caddo River to control flooding. He's polite, but I'm boring myself.

I don't think I much like dams holding back the natural tumult of a river--I like my rivers wild and snarling. That's not how I live, I regulate--I don't drive too fast or drink too much or eat cheeseburgers every day--but at least part of me puts that caution down to cowardice. All we can obtain is the illusion of control, so why do we work so hard to maintain it?

I've built a dam, and what's built up behind it--what stresses it--has a terrible weight and potential. It only looks placid, calm and navigable.