The Conde B. McCullough Bridge looms over Coos Bay like a Gothic cathedral. Its archways evoke stained-glass windows; its network of crossbeams hark to barrel vaults; its twin spires rise like steeples. The bridge is of another time, and serves as a poignant remnant of an era when, faced with unprecedented adversity, the United States responded by creating the infrastructure we now can't even afford to maintain.
But this bridge, unlike so many of the people driving across it in this economically depressed scrap of Oregon, still works.
A hooded figure appears in the distance along its narrow footpath. He's walking one way, and your humble narrator is heading the other. We meet in the middle; were this quandary to be settled in the manner of Robin Hood and Little John, a duel would commence. That would be unfortunate; the stranger would win. He's a big, strapping dude. And it's 100 yards down to the churning waters below.
But Rob Hanson doesn't want to fight. There's been enough of that in his life. He wants to talk.
You're from San Francisco, eh? A torrent of city-centric tales ensue. Newspaper columnist, eh? It stops. But only for a moment. Hanson laughs deeply and smiles. "Boy, have I got a story for you."
The San Francisco RV Park is not in San Francisco. This, park workers inform your humble narrator, is something visitors who make their reservations sight-unseen tend to "figure out eventually."
It sits atop a gorgeous slip of oceanfront land in Pacifica; the ocean drew marginally closer recently when a bluff unceremoniously gave way and the park lost 50 spots to the forces of gravity.
At 8 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, the guy chain-smoking in an unlit trailer, the fellow inadvertently coating himself with charcoal dust while scouring a Weber grill, and multiple maintenance employees flinging trashbags into a dumpster suddenly turned giddy when queried about Hanson's story. They point to the chaise lounges and barbecues they scored, or unearth cellphones to provide photo documentation of their haul. "I made out like a bandit this year!" shouts one smartphone-wielding worker.
And that means Rob Hanson's story is true.
Hanson, too, figured out the San Francisco RV Park isn't in San Francisco — eventually. Back in September, he was residing there in the back of his camper, which is mounted atop a 1991 Dodge pickup sans a working odometer and a Cummins diesel engine that won't turn over unless you jiggle the key just so. "I've lost much of the material wealth I had in the past," he says. "But I still have that truck with the camper on it." When times were bad, he lived in it. When times were worse, he slept in a small boat that now goes without a name as it was christened after an ex.
On this day, however, Hanson was peering into the deep blue of the Pacific and doing something he doesn't normally do: "Feeling bad for myself." In a generous impulse, he'd given away his bike rack to a troop of Mormon missionaries pedaling through town (an appropriate gift for Mormon missionaries). And now he was pining for one.
So it was more than a tad serendipitous when a man struggling with a large bike rack wandered into Hanson's ocean view. The 67-year-old great-grandfather was up and running with a determination reminiscent of his 30 years as a Riverside cop. He caught up with the bike rack-wielding gent at the dumpster area.
You're not going to just throw that away are you? He was. Would Hanson like it? He would.
The bike rack was nearly unused — but it was coated with a strange dust that just wouldn't come off. Hanson had never seen dust like this. But he didn't think about that just now, because the oddly accented stranger asked him if he'd like a bicycle to go along with that bike rack.
Hanson found this arrangement acceptable.
And that's when he discovered the lucrative secret of the park's "long-termers" and staff: "Christmas in September." All it takes is a confluence of foreigners fooled into thinking they're bunking down in San Francisco; massive quantities of their peculiarly dusty, little-used merchandise; and a strange festival Hanson had never heard of, called "Burning Man."
News of the guy in the '91 Dodge with the bike rack spread through the park, and right quick. More strangers with odd accents materialized bearing gifts: Additional bicycles; cutlery; cooking sets; clothing; cleaning supplies; and vast quantities of food — things the foreign burners couldn't carry on the plane with them when they returned blissfully to their homelands. Hanson is a teetotaling Seventh-Day Adventist, but his fellow RV residents were not. Spectacular amounts of booze were bestowed upon the park's tippling population. Some were walking serpentine for days.
The "Burning Man people" steadfastly refused to accept any compensation, even as Hanson's 8-foot-long trailer was filled to capacity. "They said it was part of their ethic," he says. "They weren't exactly a religious group — but they were very nice!"
Hanson glances up from his plate at the Crossroads Cafe, a volunteer-run nonprofit along the main strip in North Bend, Ore. Hope you like meatloaf sandwiches or soup with a cup of coffee and a piece of cake — because that's all there is. But it's good food, costs only $1.50 a meal, and keeps the town's working folks and retirees fed.
In San Francisco, such an establishment would be overrun with vagrants, close down, and give way to a joint serving identical fare to hipsters for 10 times the price.
In another generous impulse, Hanson buys your humble narrator's lunch. But Hanson has provided lunch for lots of people.
It felt good to be handed so much. But it felt better to give it all away. When he got back up to North Bend, Hanson began disseminating the burners' largesse. He motored about town and handed out food to those in need. He stocked up the food bank where he works — one of at least half a dozen in a town of 9,700.
But he kept that bike. "It's decorated very conspicuously in what my friends now tell me is a 'burner design,'" says Hanson. "It has all these blue lights attached to it on top of the fenders and the basket.
"I don't think there's anything quite like it in North Bend."
So, Hanson may well be back this way. And, this time, he might bring a bigger trailer. North Bend is counting on it.