It took two hours and thirteen minutes to travel the 13 miles from the Barnstable bus stand to Sagamore Bridge, the definitive point between “on Cape” and “off.” I took a front seat, looking over the bus driver’s shoulder at the road ahead, as we pulled onto Route 6, flying for those first few miles. Then, a long line of brake lights lit up like a Christmas strand. The Sagamore Bridge, where peregrine falcons considered nesting amidst its metalwork last year, is under construction. The pair was spotted only once this year before they fled, surely, from the noise and construction, the men hoisted into the heavens by cranes and lifts, bringing blowtorches and making human thunder. Bridges have always fascinated me, the engineering feat of building such structures that can stand for decades of dedicated use, letting us leap over water, canyons and gullies.
I’ve been equally fascinated by the human ability to plan things either poorly or well. The plan to not start construction on the bridge until early spring and finish by Memorial Day, including working during the peak On-Off Cape traffic times, falls distinctly in the latter category. Maybe they’re on schedule, but summer—like the herring and the ticks and the flower buds—came early to the Cape this year, along with the traffic. They surely waited to avoid bad winter weather, but there was none. The season went by without a single big dose of winter-like weather, not one isolating snowstorm to dig out of, or anything else that would have indicated we’re up at 41 degrees north latitude. The barren trees and an occasional biting wind had to suffice.
Now, the leaves have leafed out, a feast for the rapacious, invasive winter moths that munch upon them in this new environment where the cute little buggers lack natural predators. But you can’t spot the damage as we zoom down the highway, or even as we, all too soon, slow to a stop in the snarl, stuck between SUVs and kayak-topped Subarus and bike-besotted sedans. There was fleeting news recently of renewing rail service to the Cape. An intriguing concept, but not a new one. 140 years ago, the Old Colony Railroad traveled from Boston all the way to Provincetown. The reports on the radio said the service would have paid for itself immediately, but nevertheless was rejected by the authority in charge. It’s a time of austerity, was the thinking, and it would seem extravagant to extend service. Brilliant. And so we sit, among all those who have few other options.
The bus driver does his best. He tells us riddles and radios back and forth with other drivers, sharing information, and trying alternate routes, each one leading to a clogged artery, traffic always moving, but by the inch. An hour into our journey, not ten miles from home, I take a nap. I awake refreshed many minutes later, three-quarters of a mile down the road.
The weather is luscious. The sun shines from a brilliant blue sky, with white clouds so high up they seem a dream, but our air quality is abysmal according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report 2012. The report gave picturesque Martha’s Vineyard an F. Barnstable got a D. This traffic can’t help the ozone, but mostly the blame is cast on coal-fired power plants in Ohio, the ones that killed nearby Hathaway’s Pond two generations ago when the water became transparent—lifeless from acidity. I kayaked Hathaway’s last month, and happily saw fish dodging about in the murky shadows below and a pair of red tails soaring overhead in courtship. As we limp down Route 6, the mega wind turbine next to the highway is at a standstill, and most of the Cape seems pitched against the idea of Cape Wind, which could produce 420 MW of power, providing three-quarters of the Cape’s electricity needs. Trains. Wind turbines. It sometimes seems like some of these issues around transportation and energy were better sorted out 150 years ago.
Finally, we approach the Sagamore Bridge, like a Holy Grail of escape, and I can see the officers in orange vests standing as useless sentinels, but there is another bit of action. Standing by the side of the highway, a dozen protestors are gathered with their signs calling for the closing of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant, 15 miles up the road. The only nuclear power plant in Massachusetts, its license is set to expire this year but will likely be renewed. Even if closed, there’s no plan for the spent fuel rods that remain onsite, waiting expectantly for a safe place to go or means of disposing them. The Cape Cod Times reported that all the fuel ever used at the plant is contained in more than 3,000 12-foot-tall rods. They are stored in a small blue pool of water that was designed to hold 880 spent fuel rods when Pilgrim first came online 40 years ago.
Should anything ever go amiss, the Cape is downwind and this bridge we’re attempting to cross along with one other that’s just as small are the only means off Cape, unless one takes to the water.
Protestors hold a banner, “Pilgrim-Fukushima: Same Design, Same Danger.” (The woman across the aisle from me asks, “What’s Fukushima?”)
Two men are dressed in radioactive suits. One holds a sign:
“How’s that evacuation route working for you?”