My father used to marvel at the lack of rust on Oregon cars.

My father used to marvel at the lack of rust on Oregon cars.

"You don't see 'em like that back home," he'd say, running a hand along the rocker panels of my car.

This would inevitably lead to a Frank Costanza-like litany of complaints about his community in Illinois, where salting the roads was but one wave in a sea of troubles. Dad wasn't the easiest man to have a conver-sation with. But if he wanted to see Oregon through rose-colored glasses, I was down with that.

"I just want to say one word to you," I'd say. "Just one word. Salt."

I told him Oregonians were proud of a progressive heritage that includes some of the nation's early initiative and referendum laws, the country's first bottle bill, public beaches in perpetuity, a cantankerous refusal to salt snowy roads.

Now the Oregon Department of Transportation plans to use salt on the Siskiyou Summit. Officials say that's because California does it on their side. Which sounds a lot like Dad's rejoinder when he wouldn't let me do something and I claimed everybody else was doing it.

"If everybody else jumped off the roof, would you jump too?"

The salting could start as soon as this weekend. Somewhere, the old man is groaning.

We could govern by imperial ukase, cordon off our beaches for the private use of yuppies with oceanfront homes, line the roads with rivers of no-deposit beer bottles, like they do in Nevada, and it wouldn't rile him like the thought of all those rusted-out undercarriages and wheelwells and brakelines.

One question is, if you insist on driving over a mountain in a blizzard, preferably without the bother of chaining up, aren't you entitled?

The whole history of salt is filled with bad mojo. If God is really angry with you, what kind of pillar does he turn you into. Mud? Sauerkraut? A big wurst? Salt.

When Moses wanted to scare the bejeebers out of the children of Israel, what was the image he paired with sulphur to describe God's wrath? Frankincense? Myrrh? Oregano? Salt.

Then there were the Romans. Miss Gamely, a junior high history teacher with a helmet of curly hair universally held to be a wig, told us that when the Romans took Carthage in 146 BCE, they killed the men, sold the women and children into slavery, burned the city and salted the land. She produced a shudder at the last item.

Flash forward 2,000 years. Traveling in Portugal, my daughter came upon a stone memorial in Lisbon marking the former site of the palace of the wealthy Tavora family. It seems that in a policy tiff with the ruling oligarchy, family members were killed in leisurely and amazingly unpleasant ways, as was the custom, and their estate razed.

Then, to underscore the consequences of dissent, guess what common table substance was added to the land (hint: it wasn't pepper). Since then the place has been known as Beco do Chao Salgado, or "alley of the salty ground."

We're putting more than 20 million tons of salt on the nation's roads each winter. It works by lowering the freezing point of water, and its great virtue is that it's cheap.

But the stuff rusts cars, including underneath stuff you don't want rusted. It corrodes bridges, many of which are already in need of repair. It even corrodes rebar. It winds up in streams, lakes and groundwater, threatening vegetation and aquatic life.

And it's far from the perfect answer. It's best when temperatures are in the 20s. Much colder than that and the amount required goes up in a J curve. So you have to mix it with substances such as calcium chloride, magnesium chloride or a dozen other chemicals.

These substances leach into the ground and poison vegetation. They make their way into the watershed. We've been working on cleaning up Bear Creek for a long time.

Many communities are trying to wean themselves from salt. The city of Seattle won't use it (officials cite the environmental damage). In Chicago they're trying to lessen the environmental impact by mixing salt with sugar beets. You can joke about the Loop awash in industrial strength borscht, but the mixture is less toxic.

Meanwhile, about those ancient Romans. Julius Caesar rebuilt Carthage, and the region became a breadbasket, helping the Romans to expand the empire, keep large stables of gladiators and invent pizza.

All of which cast doubt on the Carthage-salting story. Historians now say the tale was made up by a 19th-century German writer with the unlikely name of Ferdinand Gregorovius.

OK. Salt isn't nuclear waste. But do we want it going into the watershed? Finding its way into Bear Creek? Will the Siskiyou summit someday be known as El Paso do Chao Salgado?

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to