I was on vacation last week. I took three short trips, one to fish for a few days, one to tour the Abraham Lincoln sites in Springfield, Illinois, and one to visit a relative who is recovering from a recent car crash. Each trip was about a two-hour drive away, so I covered some ground, mostly on highways—I-44, I-55, I-70. Driving along highways is one thing. Most of us do that all the time. Even going to the grocery store or our gym we’re likely to put in a few miles on a highway.
But on each of these trips I crossed at least one bridge. I live in St. Louis, Missouri, so inevitably I am often crossing bridges over the Mississippi River. When you live beside one of the world’s great rivers all your life you tend to lose a sense of its renown, its lore. To me it’s just the big river I see all the time. I also crossed over the Missouri—another major stream—and the Meramec, a local river, mostly known for its disastrous flooding every few years.
I can drive highways all the time without anything more than a sense of time and miles passing. But whenever I cross a bridge I get a rush of feeling, a sudden sense that I am going somewhere. I’m not sure why it is, except perhaps that I am not well-traveled for my age and experience. Most people I know have been many more places: more cities, more states, more countries. My travels have been slight in comparison, and each place I go fills me with a mix of dread and anticipation.
I first felt this way many years ago when I crossed a bridge over some minor river in Tennessee. I was probably headed to a family funeral, I really don’t remember; but I do remember crossing this bridge. At the time I was very smitten with Big Band music, and a tape was playing (yes, a tape) of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, some such quintessentially American musician, and the rush of feeling in that moment, having crossed from Missouri to Tennessee, one state to another, took the form of how huge is America, all these states, all these regions, and the wonderful music flowed into the moment and filled the space with sound.
But the feeling is not usually that well defined. It’s usually just a sense of crossing from one region to another. The people on this side of the river live one way, the people on that side are different. I will see new things on the other side. I will learn about those things and one day I will return, cross this bridge going the other way and tell my native tribe what I have seen.
Or something like that. I really don’t know how to describe the feeling. I mentioned it once to a traveling companion and she offered little response, just an ‘I see,’ or a ‘hmm.’ I considered trying further explanation, but I turned back inward instead, knowing this was likely not a feeling that could be shared. And yet here I am sharing it on a larger scale. Go figure.
A bridge is an easy symbol, and almost always of good things. A bridge into the future. Building a bridge between people. Bridging the gap. But the good things don’t always come without some danger. One of my favorite children’s stories is The Three Billy Goats Gruff, about the perils of crossing a bridge when there are monsters lurking beneath. But oh, that grass over there is so green, so lush, that it is worth the risk. Thank goodness we have Big Billy Goat Gruff to defeat the troll and lead the way.
I hope that my future holds many bridges to cross, both literally and figuratively. And I guess the point I am trying to make is that for me, all bridges are literal and figurative at the same time, and to tell the truth, I kind of like it that way.