The view south of the coffee shop where I spend most Saturday mornings lures nobody to the spot. But I’m going to miss it. The construction site covers a couple of city blocks. Furthermore, the building behind it rises “only” a couple of stories high. In every other direction in that area, skyscrapers rise like a towering urban forest obstructing the desire of horizon gazers. An underground parking area has already been dug out, a concrete pad laid over the top, and now the rebar starts to reach for the sky. In just weeks or months, a new high-rise will likely displace current viewing ability. At first, my interest will follow its progress before fading into a feeling of loss over the current nondescript yet nonetheless open view. Fleeting places and sights abound all around us in the world.
Most fleeting sights we hardly notice until they disappear. Others beckon us not to miss the chance to see ‘em before they’re gone. Some taunt us with their impending demise but most slip away gradually while something else holds our attention. Every now and then, we get to lay eyes upon some iconic natural feature with awareness of its imminent demise. In this article, I muse upon those fleeting places that I have both seen and just missed. Join along and think about similar places in your own life along the way.
Glaciers provide a whole category of fleeting places in my life. Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park stands as a perfect example. Significant changes in its position now meet me every time I visit. Growing up, folks used to recall the days when Portage Glacier extended well out into Portage Lake. In those days, icebergs littered the lake and the glacier’s face was visible from the visitor center. Nowadays, the frozen river sits at lake’s edge in a valley behind a mountain ridge. While it has stabilized, its former tributary—Burns Glacier—now sits half way to the top of the mountain! Worthington Glacier represents another river of ice easily accessible from the Alaska road system. Recent visits allowed me to stand on bare smooth rock that previously lay under ice. While retreating glaciers take away, they also give in the form of newly revealed landscape.
Unlike the relatively slow action of glaciers, dams change landscapes in much shorter order. I visited Three Gorges in China but not before its massive dam buried a world wonder full of history. And in spite of the loss, the new fjord-like green lake stretching between steep cliffs still took my breath away. I got a look at Lake Powell a few years ago. A manmade wonder in the desert aided by Glen Canyon Dam, the lake now ebbs slowly away. Back in Alaska, I can only wonder how Eklutna River might have raged with an unobstructed pathway to and through the Thunderbird canyon system. Meanwhile, decades of plans and talks about blocking the mighty Susitna River at Devil’s Canyon means I really should visit while I can. In Sichuan, I looked upon a lake some ten years after its creation. The 2008 earthquake buried a village beneath it.
Speaking of earthquakes, nothing rearranges the landscape as forcefully and suddenly as they do. On that Sichuan trip, I visited a stunning beauty called Jiuzhaigou. While I knew the visit probably represented once-in-a-lifetime for me personally, an earthquake some eight months later assured it. The seismic activity drained whole lakes and re-routed entire waterfall complexes! Taiwan’s 1999 Jiji earthquake continues to affect the island. The event uplifted land and suddenly created Daan Canyon. Now, typhoons and flash floods work to erase it. Meanwhile, the North Cross-Island Highway from Taichung to the east coast still remains closed. This current reality will probably never change. In Alaska, the 1964 earthquake took out a whole neighborhood in Anchorage and forced relocation of the entire Valdez townsite. It also dropped the Million Dollar Bridge into Copper River permanently cutting Cordova off the road system.
Bridges come, go, and alter views as well. When I visited Tiger Leaping Gorge in southern China, early stages of preparation for building a bridge across the timeless scene had commenced. At the time, I gratefully took in the unobstructed scene. Now, I want to see the finished bridge! Another kind of bridge—arches—threaten to collapse. While I made it in time to gaze upon on iconic Delicate Arch, park materials told of fallen neighbors. I feel blessed to have been able to see both of those scenes. Meanwhile, chances still remain high that eventually a bridge will span Knik Arm near Anchorage. And should it take place, it won’t take long before it becomes hard to remember what it looks like now! Fleeting places shift and disappear both by what comes and what goes providing bridges to other times and places.
Shortly after the start of my first year living in the land of beautiful rivers and snow mountains, I learned about this character — 拆 (chai). It showed up painted on the walls of an old building by our house. That two-story building sat well below my 7th story apartment and between once-in-a-lifetime mountain views. 拆 represents the character for demolish. My concern was not the demolition but the potential replacement. As fast as things often happen in China, I could reasonably imagine lost views in a matter of weeks. Thankfully, the building outlasted my stay. A friend who also outlasted my stay later sent me a photo of the razed site. However, he moved to another place leaving my imagination to wonder what stands on the lot now. But at least I saw the timeless view before it possibly went the way of fleeting places.
All kinds of disasters, developments, and decay constantly touch the fleeting and iconic places all around us. Make the most of the views and scenes in your life today. For indeed, today might represent the last best chance to see ‘em before they’re gone.
What fleeting places does this article recall to your mind? Share a few in the comments below.