Most bridges are not an issue, but a few cause my heart to beat faster, and not in a pleasant way.
Two of them are on the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay Bridge is nearly 4.5 long miles and runs from just above Annapolis to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Part of it is low to the water, and the highest span is 186 feet above low tide. And it curves (!) at the highest point. Whether riding or driving, it always gives me the heebie jeebies. My husband and I once drove over it a couple of days before a hurricane (a story for another day) in pretty high winds. I didn’t like that bridge journey at all. He told me there was nothing to worry about. The next day there was a picture in the newspaper of a truck that had blown onto its side on the bridge, within an hour after our crossing. I’m just saying.
Also on the Chesapeake is the Bay Bridge-Tunnel (whose idea was that?) Yes, it is part bridge, part tunnel, which means that you are driving along, minding your own business, on a bridge, and all of a sudden the road appears just to fall away into the water. That is because the road just falls away into the water. More accurately, I suppose, it goes under the water. Then it comes back up again. It does this twice. Twice. Once for each channel. The first time I experienced this I was a teenager riding in the back seat of my parents’ car. They either had not told me this was going to happen, or (more likely) had told me and I wasn’t paying attention. At any rate, I thought we were all plunging into a watery abyss. Which we did. Then we re-merged. Did I mention this happened twice? It was unpleasant, to say the least.
I think this fear all started for me, though, at a much younger age, maybe 5 or 6. I grew up in the Appalachian region of East Tennessee, and my family spent many of our spring, summer and fall weekends camping and hiking in the mountains. Countless happy childhood memories spring from these experiences. One of our special places is Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. Its name derives from the shape of the mountain, which appears to some like an old man with a long beard lying on his back. Grandfather Mountain has a pedestrian bridge at the summit. It is called the Mile High Bridge because it is a mile above sea level. Oh, and I left out a word. It is the Mile High Swinging Bridge.
On one camping trip we hiked up to cross the bridge. When I saw it, I cried. A lot, as I remember it. My dad and brother walked across and jumped on it, of course. It swayed up and down and side to side. It is as if it were yesterday.
I didn’t go back up Grandfather Mountain until I was in college. A group of us drove the 90 minutes or so to go hiking, and there it was. I was determined to walk across the bridge. Everyone in the group walked across the bridge. Everyone except me. It was windy. They were college students and they tried to make the bridge move, which it did, up and down and side to side, more than I remembered from my previous visit. I was frozen in my shoes. They teased me. But it was easier to be teased than to succumb to a heart attack on the bridge.
I don’t live as close to the mountain anymore, but I am in that area once or twice a year. Even when I don’t pass right by Grandfather Mountain, even when I can’t see it in the distance, I know it is there. Not a single trip has passed when I haven’t thought, “Maybe I should go see the bridge, maybe even take a few steps on it.” Then I think, “Maybe not.”
This week I am with a few clergy women friends on a mountain retreat, about 90 minutes from The Bridge. I have been thinking about it—the bridge—for a few weeks, knowing the trip was coming up. Last week I started wondering why it was on my mind. If I were doing therapy on myself (which I’d be scared to do for a whole host of reasons), I think I’d suggest it might be about facing my fears. I see people bravely facing their fears (or at least the unknown) all the time. I see students I’ve known for nearly six years who are getting ready to graduate and step out on their own. I see people walking through grief and loss. I see friends and family members overlooking the dangerous precipice of illness.
Maybe that was it. Recently a good friend was diagnosed with cancer and is facing surgery, recovery, decisions. My dad had a recent cancer scare (we’re relieved to learn it wasn’t cancer after all) and my mother had cancer not long ago that was caught early and treated with surgery. When those things happen, I’d give anything if I could do something. You know what that feels like. But I can’t. No matter how much I want to fix what is wrong, it just isn’t possible. I know what my own fear for them is like, but I really have no idea what the cancer patient’s fears are for her/himself. I’m sure they are different for each person, but they are there. All any of us can do is walk with another person so they are not alone in the facing of their fears.
I got to thinking that though I can’t take away another person’s fear, I can face my own, so I decided to walk the bridge. In some insignificant way, I could walk in solidarity with all those who have to face their fears every day without much of a choice.
I made my decision. This trip was going to be it. I approached the thing the same way I approach any challenge: I researched it. I went online and learned that the bridge spans 228 feet and is only 80 feet above the gorge just beneath it, though it drops off quickly just a few feet away. This was a bit of a shock. If I’d been asked to guess, I would have said it was a at least 200 feet off the ground. Memory plays funny tricks on a person. I was determined to do this.
So yesterday a friend and I drove in the April sunshine to Grandfather Mountain. We parked the car and walked the last four tenths of a mile to the summit. As we got out of the car, we heard a loud hum which, we later discovered, was the sound of high winds blowing through the bridge’s cables. The views on the way up were stunning, just as I’d remembered. But my delight in the scenery was tempered by anxiety.
It needn’t have been.
I had seen on the website that the bridge had been rebuilt in 1999 (long after my last visit), using galvanized steel instead of wood for floorboards and rails. And though the bridge had always been tied down, they must have tightened up the cables in such a way that the swinging bridge no longer swings very much.
When we reached the top of the trail, the winds were quite strong (the weather instruments showed steady winds of about 35 mph, with gusts up to 50). We weren’t sure we’d be able to do this at all. But the bridge was barely moving.
As I climbed the last few feet to the bridge entrance, I remembered why I was doing this and I breathed a prayer for my parents and for my friend with cancer. I took the first step, and I did not die from fright.
I took a few more, holding the rails on both sides. The wind was moving me but not the bridge. My friend (unafraid) followed behind, offering encouragement. She needn’t have worried. No, I didn’t enjoy it, and yes, the wind was really something, but I was okay. The bridge was amazingly steady, my hands were mostly steady, my knees knocked only a little. I went all the way over, then all the way back. I was freezing, but relieved. I was scared, but not terrified. Maybe I was also a bit disappointed. It’s not nearly as good a story as the one I could tell if I’d had to cling to a bridge that was about to be blown to bits, and barely made it back with life and limb intact.
May it be so with all of you.
Whether you are stepping into a new school or home, walking through today not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, or treading into the unknown territory of illness or loss, may your anxieties be lessened. May your deepest fears not be realized. May the story you have to tell be less frightful than you’d imagined it might be. May you sense the presence of God and friends and loved ones who support you on your journey. May you walk into the future with ease.
From Psalm 23: Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.
From Revelation 7: The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
From John 10: My sheep hear my voice. .. I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
From Hebrews 12: Since we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses, …let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2010