The Day We Tempted Fate

Every once in a while we do things that make us shudder after the fact. The possibilities of what could have been are sometimes daunting.

One such thing happened to my wife and me last week.

Praveena and I were on the road, driving along a segment that we have travelled many times before. An unremarkable section, if you ask me.

Not last Friday.

We were carrying on a happy conversation on the phone with our son to salvage an otherwise drab period of driving.

As we were moseying along, south of Fairfield on I-680N and approaching the Marshview interchange, we came across a captivating and dangerous sight.

We saw thick smoke. We saw it develop into black smoke.

A few hundred yards closer, we saw actual flames on the west side of 680 North, in the median. The wind was fierce and caused the smoke to scoot eastward before it had any chance of rising.

The wind kindled the flames and drove them towards the road surface. We actually saw the flames jump over the road where we would have been travelling just a few seconds later.

Slowly, and uncertainly, we took the exit and followed some vehicles eastward. That road just got us to a frontage road close to the freeway. We saw one of the vehicles, a truck which was right in front of us on the off-ramp, make a left turn and travel north braving the flames which had already spread to the brink of the frontage road by that point. It was now or never.

It looked more never than now.

Chickened out

Photo by Praveena Raman

As I slithered over to the stop sign at the end of Marshview Road and needed to decide which way to go on the frontage road, I started to turn left as though I was going to do the same maneuver as the truck. Praveena’s heart stopped, I am sure, for a moment. Incredulous, she was blurting out “What are you doing?” in a rather forceful way. In my usual calm and collected manner, I said nothing and did a cool u-turn, offering Praveena the best seat in town to see the flames and take a video of it using her iPhone. We got the picture above!

After I crawled back to the on-ramp to I-680 and found it hopeless in terms of offering safe passage, I did another cool u-turn right in the intersection—much to the bewilderment of the two cars stopped at the off-ramp stop line. Our eyes met and there was a visibly puzzled question arising out of the lead driver: “What are you doing?”

It was the day for that question to be hurled at me with equal intensity by two completely unrelated individuals in a span of two minutes! I dutifully indicated what I was about to do and that spurred that driver into quick action whereby she got in front of me going eastward!

At the end of the T-junction again, I made the only choice left—an inevitable turn to the right. It took me away from the fire and I felt safer. Only, the road took me in the direction I didn’t like. Eventually, I did turn around and headed right back to the troubled messy area.

Of course, I was at the tail end of the line of cars waiting to get back to the freeway. We saw firefighters beginning to get set up to fight the fire.

As we dutifully waited in line, we saw another pick up truck swiftly pass us all in one fell swoop and smoothly reach the on-ramp to I-680N and turn in there!

What? Is that allowed?

As I was pondering that question, I saw that every vehicle in front of me in the line dared the same maneuver. I promptly followed the truck in front of me, not to be left behind.

Video by Praveena Raman

As we were approaching the on-ramp, our hearts sank. There was thick smoke with very little visibility and an acrid smell welcoming us to the on-ramp. Our solace was the truck in front of us. With a high perch if he could see things and feel safe enough to brave that landscape, who am I to complain! I confidently entered the on-ramp.

Perhaps I gave too much credit to the truck driver.

With a fire engine blocking half of the on-ramp, he was gingerly trying to find his way to the freeway. We saw him driving over actively burning brushes.

I had enough clearance behind the fire engine on the road, but wanted to make sure I didn’t scrape it. I had to be slow when I didn’t want to be.

Within a hundred feet of this ordeal lay clear skies and fresh air! We left the smoke and fire behind.

So, what’s the problem?

Our ordeal seemed to be minimal. Why shudder after the fact?

Just that fires can spread really fast (remember the Santa Rosa fire or the Paradise fire?) and all the cars on the highway were sitting ducks with nowhere to go, should the fire have gotten out of control.

But more than that, we voluntarily entered the on-ramp, expecting a quick passage through the trouble spot, but got stuck behind the truck right in the smoke and the fires still going strong, mere feet from our van.

We were able to do that because we had arrived on the scene right when it happened and the police hadn’t yet arrived to stop/reroute the traffic.

Later that night, we learned that we had escaped a two-hour closure of the road. We were very lucky to have had minimal delay and also no damage to the van due to the fire or our lungs due to the smoke.

Only, our van still stinks of smoke!

Sundial Bridge: A Sight to Behold

I stood mesmerized by the sleek, slanted, gleaming white column brightly lit by the evening sun against the clear blue sky. The cables tying the column to where I was standing, a pedestrian bridge across the Sacramento River in Redding, California, with see-through glass panels for the deck, made it all the more intriguing and aesthetically pleasing.

I got the first glimpses of the Sundial Bridge when a friend of ours had visited and posted its pictures years ago. 


Designed by Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish Swiss architect of renown, the bridge sports a massive tower. As a structural engineer, Calatrava has a long list of projects around the world known for their architectural statements. The tower, slanted at 42 degrees, appears to reach for the heavens.  It acts as a cantilever and counterbalances the weight of the bridge with the help of the 14 cables. The strength and integrity of these cables are vital. They support both the tower and the bridge and keep them in place. Their visual aesthetics are what we see and enjoy as we take a stroll.

Interestingly, this bridge uses gravity in a creative way. The conventional design has supports on either bank (and sometimes more) of a river. This keeps the deck of the bridge from collapsing due to gravity. Calatrava’s design uses the gravitational pull on the bridge as well as the pylon tower to cancel each other through the tension in the cables. 

I visualize these by picturing two yoga poses: the plank and the modified boat pose. Plank exemplifies the conventional bridge where the torso and the legs act like the deck of the bridge with firm supports on both sides, namely the feet and the hands (or elbows depending on how the yogi does it). The modified boat pose I am thinking of is where the body is in the boat pose but the hands are grasping the legs. In this picture, the legs are the bridge deck and the upper body is the pylon, with the hands acting like the cables that help the two parts counterbalance each other.

While it looks sleek and inviting, the cantilever design is not as strong as the regular construction. Think of someone pushing the yogi in the poses above. It would take considerable effort to push a yogi in the plank pose to fall over. But it is quite easy to do the same to the yogi in the boat pose. The Sundial Bridge endures this reduced stability due to the cantilever design. But as it serves just pedestrians and bicyclists and the challenges to stability are more manageable.

Aesthetics and Driving Traffic

The engineer in me marveled at the delicate details of the construction. But the artist in me just saw the aesthetics and the ambience on that cloudless, balmy, summer day. 

The evening sun adding shimmer to the full flow of the Sacramento River

The emphasis on aesthetics at the expense of robust engineering appears deliberate. The project started in the early 1990’s with a goal of increasing tourism in the Redding area. It was a conscious decision to add a bridge where there was none before and drive more traffic to the area. The project ended up costing eight times the original estimate. But it was successful after its opening in 2004. Visitations rose 42% in the first year. Millions of dollars’ worth of commerce and tourism ensued each year thereafter. 

Sundial Bridge cares about ecology

One of the design decisions was to leave the river free of obstructions for salmon to migrate up the river during the salmon run. The Sacramento River offers an important spawning habitat for the Pacific Salmon that swim upstream to multiply for the next season. 

The 700-foot span of the bridge has no touch point in the river itself. The cantilever design made this possible, as seen below.

The cantilever design leaves the river undisturbed

Translucent glass panels on the deck of Sundial Bridge

Another aspect of the bridge that’s special is the translucent structural glass panels that form the deck of the bridge. These allow light to pass through them, and this is supposed to maintain the natural environment as intact as feasible (by not blocking sunlight) for the salmon in the water. (Photo on the right by  Razster at the English Wikipedia)

But the bridge is lit from below in the night. That ruins the advantage of translucence; it compromises the night experience for the salmon! The only beneficiary seems to be the pedestrians and cyclists who would have light in the night for their own safety and enjoyment.

The Sundial

Keeping with the theme of entertaining tourists, another twist in the construction adds to the experience: The sundial. The 42-degree angle of the cantilever tower, as it is pointing precisely North, opens up the possibility of a sundial. There is a sundial patch built into the grounds. The shadow moves about one foot per minute, so you can see it move! But it may be that it is more of a talking point than of any utility. It indicates the correct time on only one day of the year: the summer solstice, on June 20 or 21. Regardless, it gives the bridge its catchy name.

Sundial Bridge: A Worthwhile Stop

All in all, the Sundial Bridge lives up to its purpose. It attracts tourists with interesting architecture, beautiful views of the Sacramento River and fun with the sundial. It is situated in the city of Redding with quick and easy access from Interstate 5. Yet, it is secluded and shielded from city noise for a peaceful sojourn. 

I am glad I went and enjoyed the bridge and the surroundings on a summer day. I think I will visit it again, this time on the summer solstice, to experience the sundial in precise action!