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Armchair Field Trip: Iowa's Stonehenge

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Have you ever wanted to speed across a bridge that’s half a mile long and 13 stories in the air, pretending you’re in Tron? Yeah, me too. Good news: the next time you’re in Madrid, Iowa, stop by the High Trestle Trail Bridge and you totally can.

But before we get to Tron, we have to go back a few years. Hundreds of years ago, pioneers dreaded the treacherous trip across the Des Moines River Valley. They had to ford the river, Oregon Trail-style; they didn’t always make it. Even when railroad tracks were finally laid in 1881, it was still not a trip you’d take with your feet up and a newspaper spread out in front of you. The curves were sharp and the valley walls were so steep that trains had to careen down one side at reckless speeds just to have enough oomph to get back up. There were enough crashes that in 1912, the railroad decided just to bypass the valley entirely and build a half-mile bridge across the whole thing. It got an update in 1973 when Union Pacific provided 22 concrete piers that would better withstand flooding. The new bridge was in use for just 30 years when UP decided to discontinue the route. Though the decking was removed and repurposed, the piers remained (at up to two million pounds each, they weren’t really budging). The surprisingly eerie sight of 22 concrete pillars supporting a ghost bridge across the river valley prompted many to call it “Iowa’s Stonehenge.”

Many abandoned rail routes across the country have been converted into bike trails, so the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation figured, hey, why not use this one to link up a couple of existing trails and provide some pretty spectacular views while we’re at it?

The project was finally completed last year after much fundraising, but this is no ordinary bridge - it’s an art installment. (Here’s where Tron comes in.) In a tribute to the old local mining industry, the twists and turns of the metal cribbing over the bridge combine with perspective to make it feel like you’re entering a mine shaft. It’s amazing in the daylight - and totally techno when the sun goes down and the blue lights embedded in the cribbing turn on. The bridge is bathed in this blue glow until midnight every night, so there's plenty of time for sci-fi cycling enthusiasts to pretend they're entering a vortex while hurtling a half-mile in the darkness.

Image via woodwardia.org

Just in case Tron wasn’t enough ‘80s flashback for you, there’s this: someone managed to profess their love for ‘80s WWF wrestler The Ultimate Warrior with graffiti down one pillar. That is a dedicated fan right there.

One more picture to give you an idea of the height:

Is there anything awesome and unexpected like this where you live?

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©noisytoy.net via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA-4.0
The People of Texel Island are Professional Beachcombers
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©noisytoy.net via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA-4.0

If you’ve ever tossed a message in a bottle into the ocean from anywhere in Northern Europe, it’s likely it ended up on Texel Island. Located off the North Coast of the Netherlands, Texel is at the intersection of several major currents, and close to several shipping routes. For the last 400 years, Texel residents have survived, in part, by scavenging items that have been lost at sea.

According to documentarian Sam Walkerdine in a piece for The Mirror, the practice has faded as other economic opportunities have opened up, but many residents still scour the beaches for lost items. One professional beachcomber, Cor Ellen, claims to have found over 500 bottles with letters inside—and has even answered some of them.

Ellen is one of the subjects of Flotsam and Jetsam (2012), Walkerdine’s 13-minute documentary on the Texel Island beachcombers (you can watch it above). In the film, a handful of Texel Islanders show off their best finds, and share their stories and strange observations. Ellen, for example, brags about scavenging crates of food, fur coats, powdered milk (“I didn’t have to go to the milkman for one year”), and even umbrella handles from passing cargo ships. Another beachcomber reminisces about finding something more personal: the collected photos and memorabilia of an English couple who had broken up and tossed their memories into the sea.

One of the weirder observations comes from Piet Van Leerson, whose family has been beachcombing for at least five generations: he claims that only left shoes wash up on Texel’s shores. The right shoes, meanwhile, end up in England and Scotland. (The shapes cause them to go in different directions.)

Beachcombing is such a big part of life on Texel, they’ve even opened several museums to show off their weirdest, funniest, and most interesting finds.

If you do decide to try and get a bottle with a letter in it to Texel, the residents have a few suggestions for you: drop the bottle somewhere off the coast of England, weigh it down with pebbles so it doesn’t get caught by the wind, and of course, remember to include a return address.

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YouTube / British Movietone / AP
A Film Tour of London in 1981
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YouTube / British Movietone / AP

Earlier this month, the Associated Press began releasing loads of archival video on YouTube. A large part of that collection comes from British Movietone, which has uploaded thousands of videos of all kinds, including many newsreels.

I have scrolled through countless pages of such videos—most without sound and/or extremely esoteric—and I finally discovered a 1981 gem, This is London. It's a sort of video time capsule for London as it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, comprising plenty of stock footage of all the sights, royals, and ceremonies you can imagine.

If you've been to London, this is a great glimpse of what it once looked like. If you've never been, why not check out London circa 1981?

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