The Tour of Bridges

Valerie Brundage
On the metal grated causeway of the Golden Gate Bridge, the autumn wind cuts like a knife, as if wanting to resist or drive back the bodies. We walk 786 feet above the hard surface of the water, to the end.

It's cold up here, but not wet. The sky far off, dipping into the choppy teeth of the Pacific, is dark and bloody, roiling with dust and rain that makes trying to sail out into that sea practically suicidal, even with a boat big enough to stay atop the cutting.

The last meeting for the conference, a vendor-supported requirement nowadays in my line of work -- I've sold insurance for the last 12 years -- ended at 11:30. While we had the option to come back after lunch, most of us said we wanted to go home for the weekend, or spend it in San Francisco by ourselves. I imagine anyone returned for the last panel, about the legal ramifications of proxy signatories, or some other goddam topic relating to legal representations of the dearly departed, to be illusory.

So I'd left my workmates -- no one else from my own office made the trip for what was frankly unnecessary, more an excuse to get out of town on my terms and tour scenery I'd seen only in movies. Iíd left the middle-aged salesmen and women in the flats near the Embarcadero, to eat out or negotiate illicit physical interactions before returning home, while Iíd walked the half-mile to the pedestrian causeway and onto the bridge.

The metal is dull orange, painted rather than tooled as such, the heavy industrial supports and struts snapped into a deco arrogance. Time was walking along such a landmark would have seemed a romantic undertaking. Something to do with Jack between my work sessions if he came to town with me, or maybe I'd play hooky and duck out of my meetings all together to go paint the town a different color again.

But Jack is somewhere in Colorado, with Cheyenne and her daughter, not likely to walk on a bridge with no place on the other side he needed to get to now, without persuasion or guaranteed reward from me. It was always to me to decide what sites to see. Or if there was the time, and they werenít ďso familiar.Ē

If there was something local or a kind of unique last-chance occurrence, or if the place allowed me to consider some new angle or life-path I hadn't before, I'd be open to a side trip. Travel, they always said, and he believed it too, is good for the soul.

I never used to invite Jack. He had his own business, downtown at a meeting hall attached to the church near City Hall. Rehab meetings were held in a large conference room there and the parking lot was always half-full of cars. Or half empty. Cheyenneís garage was next to it, where she painted.

Sometimes he'd come with me anyway. That was fine, familiar company and inspiration to wander the sites like a tourist and take pictures we never looked at again, when all I really wanted was to stay in the room and watch TV.

The traffic rattles the bridge. The approach is sharp and tires squeal on the roadbed. On the pillars leading up the concourse, running like a jagged gangplank along the concrete, are an equation of square blue metal crisis counseling signs, dotted like acupuncture needles, each reminding the walker, following the racket of northbound traffic, that there is hope and to make the call.

Up ahead nearer to the apex of the bridge's parabola a teenage couple bundle in each other's jackets. Theyíre protecting themselves from the sharp breeze coming in hard from the sea. Theyíre out of place. Anyone else out on that gray water would be blown back in, palmed near the jut and spun relentlessly back to ground, unless they had impossible fight and power. An officer on a bike has stopped and talks to them, apparently, from my position, instructing them to move on.

Tourist season doesn't forgive young people cuddling lonely in the dark. I see the male talk to his girlfriend while she hides in her fur hood. A strand of red hair swims above her forehead. Then a smile passes between them and she turns from the officer and is walking in my direction.

The officer mounts his bike again and pedals behind the couple, feeding them along. He makes eye contact with me, past her hood.

I turn as well. He now sees I wasn't about to argue, or try to dodge. I'm certainly not going to stick around now that he's seen me and indicating no one should stick around any longer; I'm not that curious and there are no more places to stop.

* * *

I got off at Denver, Denver, the hub to Atlanta but... but I never made my connection. I took a local bus west along the 70 past Grand Junction, through area no one had inhabited since a gold rush long ago had tried to plant hopefuls amid the rock and snow and ultimately, too far from possible success.

Even in winter, the Gorges Natural Ravine in Colorado hangs on to the heat of the midday sun in its rumbling cheeks than are offered to it. The path is vague but predetermined by age, a subtle crease between the barren corpses of rain-starved fields and the unyielding boulders dotting the landscape for decades. Hard, dense, and bleached, it reluctantly gives way to the few tourists who find it on a map.

It had led me to a secret place on the other side of a stubborn rise, through its faint gestures. Grassy weeds poke through thin fingers of dirt, and footfalls could be found for those who were patient, especially those who know what direction they wanted to head.

A touristís curb edged the circle around the bottom of the rocks behind me.

No lights or electricity run this far. So people don't walk through. I round a large rock, which has tumbled in a nest of a hundred others, a granite globe dropped among a giantís set of marbles. The terrainís been untouched by humans otherwise, a low contour of sleeping debris that hides from view the valley through which St. Gorges creek runs lazily, to the headlands.

Most tourists are attracted to the mountains in the distance. Smooth rolling great green breasts of grass, with paths lined in their skins like finger traces leading up to look-outs. Accessible without danger of getting stranded in the dark.

My shoes grip a surface. I manage to make it to the other side of the ravine without a single fall. This area is obscure. Sun would set earlier here, the shadows cast on the walls moments past mid-day. I know my time is short, but don't expect to be here when the sun disappears. Then, following the sound, I see ahead, between a loose collection of broken rocks and an arm of hardscrabble, it.

A bridge. Made of thick rope woven between evenly cut planks, itís hangdog-supported by a wire contraption that doubles back and holds the knots at the other end with an ancient pulley. The gorge is narrow but deep, a long V with slick slate walls leading down to darkness. Far below, I hear the water.

I barely make out ghostly traces of movement and a slight dank smell of chemical, which thickens the air. Ancient watermarks line the boulders half way up the visible slide, a hundred feet above the river and near the shadow line, where the level must have rushed, many years ago, during a stormy spring.

This spring was not so stormy. I get to the closest side of the bridge, a couple feet past the pathís dead end. The rope is warm to the touch. Dry and brittle, and I'm not sure it would hold if I were to cross, towards the rock and igneous on the other side. Not sure if going in too deep prevents me from coming back.

If one were to slip on accident, one would likely fall far enough to break something and not be able to climb back up. Those walls too steep and flat.

I'd likely be washed away and deposited somewhere deep in the foothills, at rest at a small lake or plungepool, never to be found, dead and eventually eaten by fish or other wildlife. Returned to nature, which is a thought at the moment I find comforting.

Unless there were people out exploring. Or the person who fell didn't die or didn't completely lose consciousness. I take one moment to look around and enjoy the fact Iím out of sight of everyone, even those few who might be within a thousand of me, on the green, as I contemplate the isolation and exposure.

The moment wasn't moved forward by any element, and when I look back around the shadows have moved up the ropes, and cover the pulley ends. No bug or sound is around this, only the light of the that failed to warm the bridge earlier now holds these last few minutes.

The edge of it moves so slowly across the dirt and the twine, creeping closer to the tops of the branches.

I stand in the shadow, my back no longer warmed. I don't go across. I didn't want to see anything on the other side, and itís no longer the day to leave anything here behind.

* * *

There is no bridge at Niagara Falls. No long finger that might allow me, or some other traveller at the end of their journey, here at the northern tip past Buffalo, at the border, amidst the mist...the thick salty walk into, right into, the maelstrom.

To walk over it. Into it. Yet the expanse that cuts through the natural rock in front of me, hundreds of feet past the concrete walkway, seems to plead in wordless cacophony asking me with a vision to simply jump in. The water is alive, deep and dark. The mist is seductive and embraces my sudden cold fear in a coffin of forgiveness.

Like pictures in a thousand photo albums, something Iíd only seen in movies, the falls shape themselves in a curtained portal between a wooded forest without shape or clear time. A river that widens to an ocean, a sheet that separates nations, a territorial imperative that encircles in a deep and endless tide what will never be captured.

But I'm not here to see a bridge. It was at another location on my previous travel, a place where people might really cross. Where people might go and say goodbye to their homeland, then to lose themselves. To start over, or else try to make their way back to some perceived past happiness. To place one foot upon a temporary man-made path strung up above the chaos was to attempt to conquer inertia and time. Passing over a precipice that stood between the burden of geography and the oppressive promise of unknown release was, frankly, madness in my view. I could not see far beyond that mist.

And the water's violence scared me. There were people along the walk, all in pairs or groups of 10. Couples who cuddled and might take the noise and vibration of the waters below as somehow romantic and transcendent. Tour groups off local busses pooled in a circular lot, this place like none before and all of them hoping to remember the temperature and the spray as a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity, after they left, had gone home.

While they could have seen me, I don't think anyone cared to notice. No one glanced over as I was not moving or talking. Not even taking any pictures. Nothing unusual if you were to look in my approximate direction.

Iím now content simply to stand at the edge, an international location where people onced jumped in barrels, or walked across on strung cables. The waves below were patient, blind to what happened above them.

People like to walk into dark places without knowing what is quite ahead. They throw caution to the wind, entering into that which one has never entered before, more attractive than going back to where nothing new has happened before.

There are no visible rocks, but I'm sure the water would crush anything that fell into its blue teeth. The boiling gash was as long as the Cartier Expressway, the water raising the pressure in the air until my sinuses ached. If I were to speak now, it would be impossible anyway to hear my confession above the roar.

* * *

The Coronado Bridge, connecting downtown San Diego with the meat of the Coronado peninsula where the base was located, many years before the retirees settled at its remains, reflected white like bones across the water in summer.

The bridge was constructed of steel and long concrete, designed by people with paper and three-dimensional renderings as an organic vein to run high above the bay without abundance of trusses or reminders of jagged industry. It flew like a seagull in stretched motion high above the water, arched to make way for the tallest of naval shipping masts, while making the ascent of the approach gentle across the deepest part of the bay.

The bridge had been placed where it would be most functional, rather than where engineering considerations might have positioned it, from close to a population hub directly into the center of another resort expansion. The bay circled the rounded knob of Coronado peninsula and past the million-dollar homes below Point Loma as well as shabby salt-pocked cabins, and inexorably opened gently out to the glass sea.

Seagulls circled the mouth, past the tip of civilization, waiting for trawlers that dumped the detritus of marine corpses before entering into regulated waters twice each day. The breeze kept the birds afloat, hundreds of feet above the murmuring surf, suspended like vagrant angels.

Reports claimed the bay water held holding steady at 72 degrees surface temperature even in winter. The bridge had a pedestrian walkway on one side that no one used, the span being over 2 miles long from start to final landfall, and simply too far to casually walk with the wind so strong.

It had a low woven restraint wire you couldnít distinguish from a distance, which afforded a better view of the expanse below, and an invitation to stop wherever you might decide. And I see a place along where your foot will fit straight, without a twist, and not lose its first purchase, before you take the next. Iíve worn hiking shoes. Being ever so careful.

Valerie Brundage began writing again after her divorce, finding that airing her previously repressed desires in public was as much fun as finally living them out. Her book "365", based on (loosely, she promises) her promiscuous days after college, is available from eXtasy Press.

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