It’s been over five years ago that LPMN’s Bridge Maniacs were first formed, with a chance meeting of two catalytic personalities during a chapter “workday” at the Colorado River Refuge. Jim Estes and Nick Nichols were drawn to each other over a crass and inscrutable case of “power tool envy.” Given a mutual disdain for conventional thinking and traditional authority, the two formed a bond. Later, as other followers joined in, the group acquired its unfortunate but telling name. . . and the aberration continues to this day. This group takes on the most inglorious of environmental tasks. To date, they have built eight bridges, installed an outdoor classroom on the banks of the Colorado, put in culverts, created innumerable benches, cut new trails, done erosion control work, removed cedar, mesquite and yaupon, constructed a homemade irrigation system, wired several structures for electricity and mowed acres of up and downhill trails in all kinds of weather. They continue to worship their power tools, the more bizarre, the better.
I’ve pondered deeply the mysteries of this eccentric group, trying to understand its origin and the force that drives it. I believe it’s genetic, having been passed down through eons of natural selection. . .they can’t help themselves; it’s instinct. My theory is that the roots of their breed come from a syncretic combination of the Greek god
Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. Both were gods of magic in their respective cultures. These influences led eventually to what was later to become known as alchemy, whose practitioners have, from antiquity, claimed to be the precursor of profound powers. While alchemy played a significant role in the development of early modern science, it’s way different from modern science—relying on practices related to mythology, magic and mystery. The medieval forerunner of chemistry, alchemy is based on the supposed transformation of matter. The maniacs have certainly transformed their share.
For the last two years, the maniacs have auctioned themselves off to the highest bidder—as slaves, as property, as chattel—in a silent auction to benefit the chapter. 2014’s winner was Lori Baumann, determined at our July picnic. I can just imagine how she broke the news to her husband: “Honey, you’ll never guess what I bought at auction today.” Never, in his wildest dreams!
The maniacs never know the motivation of a purchaser. Whatever it is that needs doing, the maniacs pledge at least ten people, working for at least three hours on any and all projects. It’s like discovering a magic lamp—whatever your heart desires. According to ancient beliefs, the elements of earth, water, air and fire do not work
properly at temperatures below forty degrees or above ninety. So it is with maniacs. Rain also renders maniacs inoperable. Such climatic delays meant the first visit to the Baumanns didn’t occur until late 2014. Mike Barrett served as coordinator on this project (there’s never a leader, only a type of rotating shaman, who disappears into the ether after a job is done).
Suffering the ravages of the 2011 wildfires, there was no shortage of tasks on the Baumann property. As it turned out, the primary charge was to build a bridge across a ravine that regulates a bright and beautiful pond during heavy rains. Getting Bridge Maniacs excited about bridge building is like encouraging puppies to bite! Foreman Barrett paid several visits, consulted with the Baumanns, estimated materials, rendered drawings and slowly the concept took shape. It would be an especially sturdy structure, designed to support the weight of a main battle tank, yet retaining that rustic, old-world cedar look of a common footbridge. Several preliminary visits ensued, by differing groups, all excited to get a look at the work to be done. Early this year, a concrete footer was poured and four solid upright support posts were placed. This was not the main event. . .just a preliminary step, an ordinary Wednesday work session as far as we were concerned. That’s when Lori’s cooking was discovered.
We normally go out for lunch after a work session, but this particular day Lori had something else in mind. She surprised the maniacs with an impromptu lunch of delightful ingredients, topped off with cold beer. We had been wooed when we least expected it! As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but
there’s something arresting about a good meal—and this one was not traditional. It was a combination of hearty and light, with a hint of extravagance, suggesting a trace of exotic blood in her heritage. This meal fibrillated through the network, all but ensuring a full turnout of workers on the scheduled payday several months later.
That payday finally arrived in March of 2015. The Baumanns went all out, calling in family reinforcements from as far away as Dallas to help prepare the main meal and the worksite. The crew showed up early for a welcome breakfast on an overcast morning, which made everything look mysterious and unsolved. Over juice, coffee and cinnamon rolls final plans were hatched. The huge logs that would undergird the bridge had been selected and brought near the worksite, the lumber and hardware had
been purchased, the generator and pneumatic nail gun were readied, the chainsaws gassed and oiled and construction tools had been assembled. It took a longer time than anticipated to lay the three heavy runner logs by hand, but once they were in place, boards were cut, an exit ramp was built and extension logs were bolted down.
Watching Bridge Maniacs work can be disturbing. There is a certain disdain for written plans—with their implication of only one right way to do things. Alas, for maniacs, plans are as meaningless as borders to a bird. This results in everybody taking charge or nobody in charge—a banker would never give a construction loan to this crew! Work stoppages are common: to debate the finer points of bridge construction, languish in glorious confusion. . .and there is a lot of horseplay. Construction drawings, if they exist, are seldom consulted. This can be tough on property owners. But as the bridge slowly begins to take shape, glimmers of recognition take hold and everyone steps up to do what needs to be done without being told. It’s
reminiscent of kicking an anthill. By the time we broke for lunch, it was clear the bridge would not be completed in the allotted three hours. That’s largely because lunch turned out to be a banquet. Delicious food, cold beer and camaraderie. Although job completion was on the radar, a return trip to finish the bridge would be necessary. Yes, absolutely necessary.
Due to an unusually wet springtime, it was another month before we could finish. This had, from inception, become a six-month project! Finishing entailed placing the decking, reinforcing the mid-section with yet another huge log and selecting/fastening the cedar handrails. Magically, this all got done—incredible as it may seem—in time for lunch. We ate like Romans (again)! Finally, there it stood: a hardy, unyielding, monolithic bridge as enduring as the Great Wall of China.
It takes about a year of constant association for “new” maniacs to acquire the customary swagger and confidence, regardless of gender. Although most of the maniacs are made up of guys, ladies don’t hold back. You easily find them on the business end of chainsaws, wrenches and motorized implements of death. They sweat, they bleed and work like rented mules. The major distinguishing characteristic between the sexes: females are slightly less impulsive and sometimes practice discretion, traits generally lacking among the males. Messing with maniac women, however, is like taunting a mountain lion with a sharp stick. It’s not unlike a family of highland gorillas—insular, self-assured and fearless. If this group were to be mysteriously transported to the early days of
mankind, it would be mentally equipped to not only survive, but to hunt big game armed with nothing but a large stick.
So here we are in a few weeks, facing a new chapter silent auction and the promise of a new graduating class of naturalists.
The Bridge Maniacs will most assuredly be placing their skills and spirit on the auction block once again. If you have projects
around your property that you’ve intended to take care of for a long time but never seem to accomplish, this is your cue. . .belly up to the bid sheet and give it your best shot! But keep an eye on the bidding. . .there are more leader changes than in a NASCAR race. You will be amazed what 10 maniacs can get done in three hours! Experience first-hand the mystical art of alchemy. . . it’s like watching some weird half-world unfold before your eyes. My prediction: the maniacs will cut through your property like a ghost ship through a safe harbor! Remember, bid high and often.