I’ve always been afraid of bridges. I remember last year Natalie Goldberg took us slow-walking the length of the Rio Grande Gorge bridge outside Taos. I had to walk as close to the road and as far from the railing as possible. Each time a semi-truck passed, I pictured the wind force coming out the side of the truck, like a wake from a boat, and lifting me up and over the edge. Surely the wind couldn’t lift my 120 pounds of flesh and bones, but still, when the semi-trucks passed I hung on to the railing, imagining that at least if my body flipped over the side I might be able to pull myself back up.
Mom gave me this unnatural fear of heights and bridges. I can still picture her lips pouched in concentration as she strained to look over the long hood of the Caprice each time we drove up to the Fedways rooftop parking lot in downtown Albuquerque. “Oo-wee,” she said in a low voice as the car crept toward the roof of the multi-story building. I sat on my ankles so I could see outside, too, and it really did seem like we were driving over a cliff.
Every summer our family took a roadtrip to visit Aunt Helen and Uncle Nemey in Long Beach, California. One time Dad stopped en route so we could all look over the edge of the Grand Canyon. Mom held on to me as we approached the scenic overlook. She didn’t let me get close enough to see the canyon bottom. “Ay, Dios mío,” she said when I tried to pull us both closer to the edge. “Leo, Leo,” she motioned to Dad to grab Larry by the back of his t-shirt when he went running up to the railing.
Years later my sister Janet and I were in San Diego. I’d received an award for work on a project and was invited to a banquet at the Hotel Del Coronado on the Coronado Island. Janet and I headed to the island in our rental car. Our windows were down and the flowers in bloom — purples, pinks, and yellows. It felt like we’d stepped into Old California, the California of I Love Lucy re-runs and roadtrips to see our cousins. We approached the bridge leading to the island; it was narrow and curved in a long, slow slope. I moved the car as close to the center line and oncoming traffic as I could without completely imperiling us, and I slowed down like an old lady driver.
“Look over the edge, how beautiful” Janet exclaimed, and I said, “No, I can’t!” She must have seen the terror in my face because she said, “Don’t look,” and I told her back, “Don’t you look, either.” It was as if our childhood fear of heights suddenly joined us as a third passenger in the car. Janet and I leaned in toward one another and trembled our way to the end of the bridge.
Last night when I saw on TV the Minneapolis Bridge collapsed into the brown waters of the Mississippi River, I immediately imagined QuoinMonkey and Liz trapped on that bridge. QM had been off email all afternoon, unusual for her, and Liz’s mom had been due to arrive for a visit. I didn’t know where the airport was relative to their home, but surely they had to cross the I-35 bridge to get there. As it turned out, QM and Liz were home safe. Safe but shaken. We talked on the phone this morning. QM described how high that bridge was and how much of an impact its collapse would have on everyone who lived in the Twin Cities. She said they were projecting it would take two years to rebuild.
We reminisced about the slow walk on the Rio Grande Gorge bridge, recalled how it vibrated whenever a car passed. I told her Jim and I took the girls to see the bridge last weekend. Jim walked with them across the gorge while I drove the car to the other side. I drove slowly so I wouldn’t scare them with vibrations and imagined wind tunnels. I couldn’t look at them as I passed, though. Em, such a waif — surely a good gust might lift her.
While I was waiting for them to come across, I got out of the car and approached the gorge. I wanted to meet them halfway, at the gorge’s deepest point. I wanted to tell them about my slow walk on the bridge, how for a few moments I managed to overcome my phobia. But as soon as I got onto that bridge, the railing seemed so short and I felt unnaturally tall and prone to toppling over. I turned back, deciding it was probably best that I not subject my girls to this particular side of me.
I’m relieved QM and Liz are safe, and my other friend in Minneapolis, too. I wonder if this collapse is going to make them fearful of bridges. I know it will exacerbate my fear, and I don’t even live there.