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ON BRIDGES | An Essay by David LeGault

NONFICTION
Mackinac Bridge (Photo by John Brueske | Dreamstime.com)
ON BRIDGES
David LeGault
Date of publication: 
April 9, 2014

We spent our summers jumping off bridges. My high school friends and I would run down a narrow strip of highway that didn’t allow for pedestrian traffic and throw ourselves over the safety railing — balancing ourselves for a moment while focusing on the fifteen foot drop into the Escanaba River, its dark waters sifting through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My parents have told me of their own terrible experiences on the bridge: people their age who pulled similar stunts, nearly killing themselves on submerged logs from nearby foresters — invisible from the surface, splintering bone mixing with splinters acquired. They talked of casts, braces, paralysis: expressed concerns and general forbiddance.

The whole thing was a pretty bad idea.

Either way, I never fully risked myself; I never jumped first. Whether jumping from bridges or building snowboard ramps or lighting homemade bombs, there were always others more willing to endanger their bodies for the sake of our entertainment. I'd watch swan dives off the top railing — those extra few feet of exhilaration. I was kicking for the surface before I reached the water. It was terrifying when I first tried to take my hands off the railing and my feet off the pavement, accelerating downward. While falling, it always took a moment longer than expected to impact, a brief moment with my body suspended in air, no longer belonging to either land or water, never expecting it to ever really stop.

~

Six years later and it is 6:30 in the morning and I’m getting on a school bus for the first time in years. It reminds me of my old high school track meets: legs digging into the imitation leather of the seat ahead of me while the excited conversations of the other passengers interrupt my thoughts. I pretend to be asleep, stretched out, hoping that the oncoming runners will have a conscience and find somewhere else to sit. As the bus heads north across the Mackinac Bridge, across the Straits that separate Great Lakes Huron and Michigan, I can’t help but be swept up by this marriage of exercise and industry.

The Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan's eastern Upper Peninsula with the northern most point of the rest of the state. The bridge itself is a five mile-long suspension bridge, the longest of its type in the western hemisphere. And there is so much history here, so many people who have been drawn to Michigan’s Bridge, its focal point. There’s the Air Force Pilot who flew a RB-47E Stratojet underneath the bridge in 1959. He had less than 200 feet of clearance, the flight bordering on suicidal. When asked about it later, after he was court marshaled, his response always pointed toward profound boredom, and the excitement presented by the challenging flight. The duality of water and bridge — the allure of death floating in between them — was too much to handle: his career, his love of flying both tarnished for the rest of his life.

I find myself drawn to bridges, to the dualities they create. Although bridges are a means of connection, just as often they serve as a reference point for division: we have the East side and the West side, we have the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula. Our bridges are guarded by federal marshals. Our bridges cannot be crossed unless we pay a toll. Sometimes, these tolls mean more than money. Other times, our bridges collapse under too much weight, break apart under the compounding rhythm of marching soldiers. For whatever reason bridges always remind me of death, of a certain level of danger associated with man's attempts to transverse natural barriers. I can't stop myself from thinking about the permanent outcomes resulting from such transitional spaces, that every bridge crossed brings us closer to an end.

On the bus, I breathe in diesel fumes and watch the sun rise over Lake Huron. We are heading toward the starting line of the fourth annual Memorial Weekend Mackinac Bridge Race. It is significantly younger and infinitely sexier than the annual Labor Day Bridge Walk — the more celebrated, 49-year tradition. These two days on the calendar mark the only times pedestrian traffic is allowed on the structure, our only chances to let our feet touch this suspension.

The Labor Day Walk hosts over 70,000 walkers each year. It is the main stream — it is a two-hour affair including strollers, countless rules and regulations, and an obscenely slow pace brought on by the high volume of participants. The governor makes the trip to join the festivities. It’s a controlled situation that requires little to no thought outside of following the herd. More or less, it is the touristy thing to do.

The Race tops out at 740 runners this year. The low volume and staggered start times that began a half hour ago make for a powerful sense of solitude. It is good to be alone with such a structure, to hear the thrums and reverberations of metal flexing in the wind. And running is so very much like the bridge: movement toward some far-off destination. Additionally, the early rising, the process of getting up at quarter to five in the morning makes it all seem particularly straining. It feels like work, like it’s my job as a runner to try and conquer this bridge — David and Goliath: man and metal.

Through the bus’s filthy windows, I can practically see the labor in this landmark’s construction. Steel. Concrete. Water. The contrast of green and "Let’s take the greatest freshwater system in the world and convert it to accommodate industry and tourism, work and play. Let’s take the natural and overlay synthesis.” This five hundred foot high, five-mile behemoth, these four lanes of traffic, this resistance to blistering winds, this connector of men and nature.

Furthermore, there’s nothing finer a son of Michigan could do to celebrate the bridge’s 50th anniversary than try and conquer it.

~

Perhaps I'm so fond of the Mackinac Bridge because it so clearly represents the rift between Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas. The Upper Peninsula is considerably more rural, a home for mining and forestry, several hours from any metropolitan area. Compare this with the Lower Peninsula: we think of Detroit, the auto industry. We think big city and collapsing infrastructure, we think 8 Mile and Robocop and photographs of collapsing buildings with trees growing up through the floors. This entire state is a fight between north and south, between nature and industry, between rural and urban, insiders and outsiders. There is a sense of rivalry between them, primarily on the Upper Peninsula side: the "Yoopers" (the slang term for Upper Peninsula natives) often feel disconnected from the rest of the state, ignored by outsiders and — despite being larger than several states and part of the continental US — doesn't always appear on maps. They feel shunned in government and in their culture, often connecting more with the much-closer Wisconsin than their southern comrades. In the Upper Peninsula, Yoopers often refer to their southern counterparts as "Trolls" because they live below the bridge.

I only mention this because I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the Upper Peninsula, only to move to the southern half of the state at my first opportunity. I was (and am) not cut out for the rural life, yet going to college on the other side of the state felt in many ways like a betrayal of those I cared about most: a rejection of my family, most of whom still live within a ten-minute radius of each other; a rejection of friends who stayed at the local community college and still go the same parties every Friday night that we went to in high school, the only difference being that they now drink legally; a rejection of the harsh cold landscape that still hasn't crawled out from under my skin. And though I visit frequently I can feel the differences growing: with every store that closes or inside joke missed, I am becoming more of a stranger to this place. It is only in leaving the Upper Peninsula that I desire to be a part of it. I miss the sense of belonging I have never felt living anywhere else, and I feel its absence weighing heavily on my chest.

~

Despite the rumors, there are no bodies entombed in the concrete supports of the Bridge. But five workers did die during in its construction. Two of them fell roughly 500 feet when a temporary catwalk collapsed at the top of the north tower. Another man drowned. A fourth was welding when he, too, fell from a catwalk, landing on a metal caisson. The fifth man died not from falling, but from the bends — his rapid ascent from underwater construction accumulated nitrogen bubbles within his body, diluted his blood. Since then, only one other worker has died during maintenance. Ten years ago, a painter fell off the bridge and was found a day later at the bottom of the Straits. Coworkers witnessed him surviving the fall, landing feet first. He attempted to swim for shore before the current dragged his broken body under.

With the exception of the race personnel standing near the metal buckles on the road — warning runners to "watch your step” — there’s no sense of death or danger on the course. The structure is here for the sake of transportation, for competition. As commuters, we know that the bridge is here and that it has always been here, a permanent fixture, part of our landscape. It might as well be a natural occurrence: although it also features our one-of-a-kind lakes and peninsulas, the bridge is still the most prominent image on the Michigan license plate. For many of us, it is the man-made construction — a reflection of rust belt sensibilities — that identifies us. I find myself wondering weather the beauty of nature or the fabricated glory of industry is a better representation, whether choosing one means rejecting the other, if we can ever find a way to reconcile these two extremes.

~

Watching my spit fall from the bridge’s highest point, into the water 200 feet below, is quite exhilarating. Despite the competitive urgency to push forward, I slow my pace: watching my saliva drop toward Lake Michigan, eventually encountering enough wind resistance to break apart, to fan out and blow away in the a gust of wind. Outside of jumping, this is the only way a part of me will ever leave this surface — no other part of me will ever feel this powerful gravity, the extended drop between where I stand and where I may rest. I speak of these dangers only because there’s nothing else remotely interesting about running here.

It’s really kind of a letdown.

I don’t quite understand why, but I had expected this experience to carry more meaning, a Homeric sense of consequence. I wanted to feel the grandeur of the bridge, its 100 million-plus crossings; its 42,000 miles of wire in the main cables, held up by two main supports digging through depths of up to 295 feet of water and carving further into the Earth, stabilizing the monument from debilitating winds; its 4,851,700 steel rivets; its 931,000 tons of concrete and insurmountable human suffering in the name of connecting our peninsulas, making Michigan whole.

That’s the reaction I’m left wanting, anyway. Unfortunately, both the runner and Yooper in me are disappointed: racing across the span feels like any five mile run on asphalt — fairly monotonous, painful on the knees, yet familiar, fast. I came here hoping to connect with the bridge by challenging it on foot, the absence of a car allowing me more time, more opportunities to admire the colors and textures and sounds, to look out at both peninsulas and connect with them more intimately, to make my homeless mentality feel more natural. I am halfway through the race and yet the bridge remains cold, unfamiliar, and instead of having any sort of transcendent experience I am starting to believe that bridges are not about connection, but a means of escape. The first two and a half miles of the race have been on an incline, but it’s all downhill from here. Speed comes easier when you’re running away from something.

~

I wonder what became of the ferrymen whose vessels transported cars across the lakes Michigan and Huron before the bridge’s conception. The men behind the wheels of the Ariel, The Vacationland and everything in between — men who inevitably lost their vocations to this bridge, sacrificed for the sake of convenience.

From 1923 to 1957, these boats ruled the Straits. More like managed, merely dealing with an ever-growing queue. At best, it took an hour and a half to cross, significantly longer in summer due to higher volumes of traffic. During hunting season, the cars jammed up more than 17 miles of highway, a wait time of almost a day. Compare that to the Bridge’s ten-minute drive, its 6,000 cars per hour, its mind numbing, practically endless list of impressive statistics and you see how important Mackinac is to Michigan. In the days of the ferry, the voyage to the Upper Peninsula was like the Hajj — a spiritual journey about process, not destination.

Once the two peninsulas were joined, a great deal of the Upper Peninsula’s mysticism disappeared — buried under mountains of tourist traps and pasty shops lining US-2. The bridge has effectively streamlined the region, turning it into the fast food of the natural world: quick, easy, lacking anything of use to the body. And yet as the other industries wane, tourism becomes increasingly important even as the splendors grow increasingly small. It is a place of us and them where them becomes increasingly important. Most interesting is that most of the tourists are people who once lived there, those who have long since moved away for school or jobs or simply to get away from the profound silence. I am confused as to which side of the line I now belong, finding myself caught in the duality between tourist and resident, between permanence and transience. Can I still call myself a local when I visit the souvenir shops? I realize that among the t-shirts and bumper stickers and shot glasses that I am trying to buy back my childhood, a fact I find both amusing and irrevocably sad.

And what am I but the sum of dualities? What are we but a list of contradictions in which we're attempting to balance, in which we're perpetually in search of a satisfying gray among the black and white? I am stuck in the past and the present, a success and failure. I am judgmental yet forgiving, compassionate only when others are watching. I am obsessing about a hometown I have consciously decided to leave, looking for meaning in my environment instead of my actions. These contradictions are raging inside me, this Jekyll and Hyde, the duality of the interior and exterior self: how often they're at war!

What must it have been like driving a boat while the bridge was being built, coasting through the shadows of a structure that meant the end of your livelihood? To see it every day, growing more precarious, coming nearer to completion and the end of a chapter of your life? I like to think these men also worried about the impact of convenience and technology, the realization that the bridge’s creation merely meant the destruction of something else.

~

Only two cars have actually gone over the edge, over the waist high steel railing. The first was the infamous Yugo in 1989, the only vehicle blown off completely by wind (it should be noted, however that some sources theorize that the car’s speed had something to do with it). This being Michigan, most people blame the compact car and its cheap foreign construction. It was as if the bridge shared our respect for the assembly line. The next car in 1997 was — to everyone’s amazement — a Ford-made sport utility vehicle that crashed through the guardrail. With no alcohol, drugs, wind, or speed involved, suicide was a definite (but never confirmed) possibility. The man’s body mysteriously, maybe miraculously, was found lying atop the sheets of thick ice covering the Straits at the time. Somewhere in midair he was separated from his vehicle, which had sunk to the bottom of the lakes.

Somehow, even with clear accessibility and the potential for a quick and easy death, the Mackinac Bridge hasn’t attracted suicides the way that other famous bridges have. The Aurora of Seattle, WA has been claimed over 230 lives and The Golden Gate officials stopped counting after they hit quadruple digits in 1995 (they still average a jumper every 15 days). Lawrence Rubin, former executive secretary of the Bridge Authority, once proposed a theory for why this is the case: that people killing themselves want attention, and nobody’s going to get it in Michigan. Arguably, it is probably more difficult at Mackinac due to the lack of regular pedestrian traffic, but it’s still astonishing to comprehend how few suicide attempts actually occur there, particularly since this roadway is open to pedestrians twice per year. And yet those two days are meant for recreation, for sport and competition. Who would kill themselves in the middle of a race?

~

Running onto the steepest section of the bridge, I see its notorious steel grating, the long green hum felt in the back of the throat while driving across the bridge in the middle lanes in either direction. This peculiar lane, even more than any other portion of the bridge, causes conflict between nearly all drivers crossing the monument. It’s a love/hate thing, a feeling of safety (further away from the edge) or a feeling of instability (the car’s tendency to drift due to insufficient traction, the wind’s grip scraping deeper like a drill). Nearly everyone I’ve asked has a contrasting opinion. However, one can’t help but appreciate the grate’s sensation on some level. It does make the drive unique compared to the monotony of leveled asphalt, the half asleep nods one usually experiences when making the drive to or from Northern Michigan.

Above all else, I came to this race to inspect the steel grating, to see if its vibrations will echo through my feet as it does my tires. Unfortunately, the race coordinators only blocked a single lane of traffic — the outside asphalt lane, the one nearest to Lake Michigan. Fighting the urge to devote complete attention to the steady pounding in my legs — the throbbing arches, my hopes of victory — I chance a look behind me, surveying traffic. Gauging the distance between cars, I have a good fifteen seconds to run where I don’t belong, to violate the rules set forth by the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

This, unlike concrete, refuses to disappoint.

It’s difficult to tell while driving across the grating, but it is literally a wide mesh pattern with nothing beneath in terms of support; I can see through the bridge and down to the water, the waves in sinusoidal curves, the distance between them looking both significant and insignificant. This is something that can be conquered: a new experience earned by breaking the rules, by venturing away from the familiar at the risk of bodily harm and/or race disqualification. The water and steel both become more noticeable in contrast with each other, gaining more value through simple proximity. It is easier to see something in terms of comparison, easier to love and to hate when you understand that which is better or worse. And perhaps I am like the bridge, stuck in the middle of two distinct identities, not belonging to either while still getting to experience, to lay hands on either shore and attempt to call them mine. I too am a duality, a paradox: permanently stuck in a transitional space. Lake Michigan’s hue clashes beautifully with the colors of the bridge. Through the blurred view of a runner, they blend together as one.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David LeGault's recent work appears or is forthcoming in Seneca Review, Barrelhouse Magazine, and The Journal, among others. He lives and writes in Minneapolis.