By Paige Dempsey
There are a few kinds of places on this planet that cause my deepest, deepest self to shriek you could die here. Among them are the tops of cliffs and ski lifts. But mostly, I think of Deception Pass, where a bridge skips its way between three rocky spurs of land a stone’s throw from Washington’s border with Canada. There, cars can zoom over the strait and tourists can meander down a pedestrian walkway, snap photos, and admire the rugged cliffs of Whidbey Island and the waters of Skagit Bay. Deception Pass Bridge itself isn’t particularly big or impressive—nothing compared to the Golden Gate, or the Brooklyn, or the I-35 in Minneapolis that spans the Mississippi. In fact, its height—180 feet above the water—makes it feel as thin as a wire. It shudders as cars roar over it.
Among the jagged green and glassy blue of the strait, that bridge is all black railing and narrow highway. I have visited it twice. I have trailed my friends out to the pedestrian walk, stepped onto the metal platform, glued my eyes to the rail, and shuffled across, towing a sticky terror behind me.
I’m not exactly scared of heights. Give me a harness, a helmet, and a secure rope, and I’ll gladly zip-line or climb through the treetops. But bridges do not let me feel secure; think, perhaps, of Galloping Gertie, a different structure spanning a different strait. In 1940, a suspension bridge over the Tacoma Narrows in Washington failed to weather a gale. The winds were so fierce that it rose, writhed, twisted, and broke apart. The breaking was caught on film. You can watch it on YouTube.
Bridges can be fragile. They remind me how fragile I am.
In my mind, the I-35 twisted and bent, like a melting string, before it broke. The witnesses and the survivors of the collapse, say it just disappeared. My family was out of town that day in August 2007. Maybe, my father got a call, or the friends we were spending a day with received an urgent email. Somehow, we knew to turn the TV to the news channel, where we saw the bridge pancake-collapsed into the Mississippi. The asphalt black in the black river water. Cars and trucks small confetti specks. I remember seeing someone interviewed, a streak of red across her chest where her seat belt had held her safe.
In the days that followed, people crowded onto the cantilever at the Guthrie Theater. The 178-foot structure is named the Endless Bridge, and it resembles exactly that. A suspended blue path edges its way towards the Mississippi before ending abruptly, hovering in the air. It looks out over the river just upstream of the I-35. Imagine it. A gathering on a bridge that never returns to the ground, straining for the sight of a lost bridge, one that violently met the river.
I was twelve that summer, and, for the next few months, I held my breath and gripped my seatbelt whenever my mother drove over any bridge. Eyes fixed on a point ahead, where bridge meets earth again.
Somehow, one of my favorite places in the world includes a modest bridge nestled among a thicket of cattails, purple loose strife, and brambles lining the edge of a lake. This trail crosses over a tiny finger of stream, a mere trickle of water, which connects patches of marshland. In previous years, I’d navigated over the water on two gingerly placed planks, weathered and worn, easily displaced by the spring melt. I’ve ended up with icy water soaking into my shoes more than a few times as the two-by-fours slid out from my feet and I splashed into the stream.
I’ve been visiting that trail for years, taking two energetic Labrador retrievers with me. The dogs do not pay any heed to such human things as a trail and a bridge. They ricochet from bush to shrub, from snarl of thorns to clump of lily pads. They jump into and out of and back into the water, cold and muddy as it may be. They arrive at the bridge nose first, feet second, investigating everything. Everything. I hope I have learned a little something from walking with them.
The trail was recently renovated. A wooden boardwalk replaced the path of trampled grasses and a solid, dock-like bridge replaced the old planks. The first time I crossed the new bridge, I stopped in the middle to jump up and down, and the planks sprang back soundly under my feet. It was sturdy. It seemed ready for the water to rise above it, for the mold and mushrooms to take hold of it, and for the winter to freeze it. It was a bridge I could have built myself; if I was given enough lumber and time to make plenty of mistakes. It could endure, but it did not pretend that it could last forever.
Two signs bookended the path. The first one read, Lake Sylvia Peninsula Trail in red and yellow letters. The second one, infuriatingly, accurately, declared, May cause internal peace. Maybe I could love this bridge because it’s so low to the ground. Or because it is simple to love something so pastoral. Or maybe because it asked me to relearn how to stop and look at the cattails releasing their fluff, the muskrat lodge hidden near the shore, at the dogs scattering mud behind them. Or maybe because I did not zoom across it in a car, thinking only of how much it trembled, looking only before and behind me, because this bridge itself was a place, not an avenue towards somewhere else.
I grew up down the street from the remains of a gristmill perched on the edge of Minnehaha Creek. Today, the ruins sit on a hill, surrounded by stoic turf grass sometimes overtaken by geese and dandelions. There is a waterfall there, too. Its mist rises to bathe the stony bridge above it. The bridge connects 50th Street to my neighborhood, rendering the falls invisible from the road. It is made for cars and barely wide enough for that purpose. It is where my brother had his first car crash. It rested between home and the world, so in some way the Mill Bridge has taken the measure of my life as I crossed it time and time again.
Some days, the Mill Bridge reminds me of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. As the story tells it, they once ran into trouble with a troll that lived under a stony bridge at a waterfall. He wanted to eat the Billy Goats, but one at a time, the goats tricked him. They delayed the troll’s attack until, finally, the biggest, bravest goat fought him and won. I suppose here is where I tell you that I was once the littlest goat, that I have grown up into the biggest goat and found myself finally able to face the troll under the bridge. But I do not think that is true. If I were to go to Deception Pass tomorrow, that sticky terror would still cling to my knees, and I would not believe it possible to survive the crossing until my feet touched earth again.
Once, I would have said that all bridges need warning signs. That they cradle seeds of danger among their cables. And maybe there is some truth to that. But I have done some growing, and I have kept crossing real bridges all the while. And I know of a city that rebuilt a bridge after it broke. And I know two dogs who love nothing more than to seek out every detail of smell that a small bridge has to offer, one that stares down the ice in January. And I know, too, of another story. One where a young woman walks along the Brooklyn Bridge and stops to lie down on its wooden planks and feel the bridge’s hum: how it trembled under all those thousands of footsteps, all those lives rushing and breathing and wondering. And isn’t that the heartbeat of a bridge, isn’t that all it hopes for, to deliver its charges safely back to land.
Copyright 2019 Dempsey