Sunday, February 13, 2011

Glenn Jackson Bridge

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The ongoing bridge project finally takes us to the Glenn Jackson Bridge, which carries Interstate 205 over the Columbia River. This one had been on my TODO list for quite a while, but it took a while for me to get around to it. I'd covered a few other bridges in the past on lunch breaks from the office (one advantage to working downtown), and others (the Interstate Bridge included) by getting an early start and visiting before work. The Glenn Jackson Bridge was just too far away and too long to make either of those work. I considered walking it on a weekend, but this is still just an idle and rather pointless project, and it was never a very high priority when it came time to decide what to do on the weekend. I do have a life, you know, and a reasonably normal one in fact, despite what the contents of this humble blog might lead you to believe. In any case, I finally managed to work it in when I took a staycation back in July, and even then it was competing against a long list of other things I thought I might like to do.

The first hurdle to get past is realizing the bridge is walkable in the first place. It's a big, long, wide freeway bridge, and it would not be at all unusual for such a bridge to have no pedestrian or bike facilities of any kind. That tends to be the rule rather than the exception. (See I-205 Clackamas River Bridge, I-84 Sandy River Bridges, Abernethy Bridge, Boone Bridge, etc.). The Glenn Jackson Bridge does have a pedestrian path, however, and a rather unique one at that. Rather than the usual configuration with north and southbound sidewalks on the edges of the bridge, there's a single walkway up the middle of the bridge.

The sheer length of the bridge is kind of a problem too. The bridge crosses a rather wide part of the river, plus Government Island in the middle, and it curves while doing so, so the bridge is over 7000 feet from bank to bank. Meaning that if you walk across and back, it's a nearly 3 mile round trip. Which is fine and all for anyone in reasonable shape; it just means it'll most likely take longer than you can get away with squeezing out of the start or middle of a work day. And besides the length, the bridge is also not flat. The Washington side of the river features high bluffs, and the bridge connects to the bluff top. So if you're heading north on the bridge, the main span from Government Island to the Washington shore is uphill the entire way, which is annoying.

Parking was kind of a problem too. I'd hoped there was a way to just ride a bus or MAX to somewhere near the bridge, then walk across one way, and catch another bus back across the river. But that just isn't possible. The Washington side is firmly in suburbia, and the Oregon side is semi-suburbia, and there just isn't a wealth of transit options out there. So I had to fall back to the old routine of driving to the bridge, finding somewhere to park, and then walking across and back. And unlike the Interstate Bridge there aren't city parks with parking lots on either end of the bridge. The Oregon side does have big box stores with huge parking lots, at least, which is the next best thing other than the small but nonzero possibility of being nabbed by one of the city's predatory towing companies if they figure out you aren't a customer. As I did with the North Portland Harbor bridge, I superstitiously appeased the retail gods by going in and buying something. The closest store is the Home Depot on Airport Way, so I picked up a couple of houseplants, which have already appeared on this humble blog at least once.

The approach would be a lot simpler if you arrived on the I-205 bike path; the pathway on the bridge is just the logical continuation of the bike path further south. If you get on the path right at the foot of the bridge like I did, I suspect you're in an extremely small minority. Still, it's possible.

So assuming you found somewhere nearby to park in the vague area of the Home Depot store, you first want to find the stairs or ramp up to the bike path, since it's already elevated nearly to freeway level. Once you're up there, look around for an intersection. If you head straight north, the bike path dead ends at Marine Drive. If you turn west at the sign that cryptically says "WASH POINTS", you'll cross over a freeway ramp, and then under the northbound side of the freeway (an underpass that tends to be a bit garbage-strewn), and then you get to a sharp corner you can't see around. Around that corner you'll find a ramp leading up to the bridge walkway, in a sort of narrow canyon. While walking up the ramp, I looked behind me nervously a couple of times to see if any TIE Fighters were chasing me, but they must've had the day off too.

Once you're up the ramp, you're on the bridge, or at least on the way to the bridge. It's kind of weird having 3-4 lanes of freeway traffic zooming by on either side of you. Weird, and very noisy. You might want to bring earplugs, really, or a good pair of headphones. Or just deal, I mean, you probably aren't going to get permanent hearing loss or anything, it's just kind of annoying.

Anyway, it's a long slog just to get to the river, and then you cross to forbidden Government Island, where big signs instruct you to stay on the pedestrian path and not run across a bunch of lanes of freeway traffic and then tumble down a steep slope to get to the island. Similar signs warn drivers there's no access whatsoever to the island from the freeway. There are a couple of docks so boaters can set foot on the island, but even then you aren't supposed to venture inland. This is all quite peculiar. Government Island is technically a rather obscure Oregon state park, but the center of the island is either owned by or leased to someone who grazes cattle there. Or at least that's the cover story. It isn't hard to dream up conspiracy theories about the place. As I was walking along this part of the bridge I realized I was humming the theme to Jurassic Park. No joke. I mean, suuure they're raising cows, but only so the velociraptors have something to eat. Besides, with a name like "Government Island", you just know they're up to no good.

While you're walking this leg of the bridge, you might notice that planes taking off and landing at PDX often fly right over the bridge at a very low altitude. This is a big reason why the bridge doesn't have a great deal of aesthetic appeal when you drive or walk over it. Any type of bridge that featured towers or suspension cables would be considered a safety hazard and the FAA would veto it.

So after the island you still have to walk, and walk, and walk, and it's uphill all the way to the Vancouver side. And once you're there, there's another ramp down to street level. There, everything else is shaded by the bridge, but sunlight streams down from the ramp as if it belonged to an alien spaceship (as seen in the closing scenes of E.T. & Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example). Before heading back, walk over to one side a few steps for a view of the bridge's titanic columns. It's all just a little otherworldly. Although you're still in the 'Couve, and mundane suburban traffic is whizzing past behind you as you wait for the aliens to descend.

Unless you have a ride arranged on the Vancouver side, you'll eventually have to retrace your steps: Up the ramp to the mothership, and then back past the velociraptors and under the jets, down the Death Star trench, and back to the mini-mall we go. At least this time it's downhill. On a bike I expect this would actually be kind of awesome. A mile and a half, paved, no cars to worry about, downhill basically the whole way -- where else in town are you going to find something like that? I counted about two dozen cyclists on the bridge on this little adventure, about 2/3 of them heading in the downhill direction. And zero other pedestrians.

We can't wrap this up without touching on the obligatory "not dying" angle, which as usual is a real stretch. Although it's incredibly noisy at times on the bridge, you're pretty safe from traffic unless there's an apocalyptic CHiPS-style mass car accident, with big explosions, semis hurtling through the air, that sort of thing. You could possibly die of old age while walking back and forth, so there's that. Also, you could mistake an actual alien mothership for the Vancouver bridge ramp, and walk up the wrong one, and end up in a bizarre alien lab where they're trying to learn about human mating behavior, and eventually die of exhaustion. So there's that too. Or the velociraptors escape and get you. Or maybe the pterodactyls. There's just no end to the bizarre imaginary dangers if you really put your mind to it.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

I've only ridden over this bridge once, and unfortunately it was northbound (uphill!). I haven't had the pleasure of trying it the other way. (That trip I ended up returning to Portland via the I-5 bridge.) I didn't find it too pleasant because of all the noise. I don't think I would ever want to walk over it, unless we achieve a post-apocalyptic Mad Max world of scarce gasoline and hardly any vehicles on the roads anymore. But then you'd have to worry about the roving bands of marauding mutants, so probably not even then.