Living it Up: A Day of Footbridge Adventures (Here’s One)
Shane and I lived three days in one today—12 hours total on the road exploring the footbridges and interviewing. Got home tired and happy as a puppy. Here are some notes and better yet, check out my website for PHOTOS (main page and sidebar link) from the bridge I’m talking about in this very post.
Head toward Loafer’s Glory and cross Rock Creek toward Toecane. Round the bend past piles of bucked wood, an old brick building, a glass studio, and a single church. Drive over the tracks. Pass Johnson Cemetery Road and turn right over the bridge, then cut left onto Roses’s Branch (unmarked gravel). Keep an eye on the river, lest the road veer you off course and around the next arm of mountains.
And there—right there where you see the river dip away and the road swerve right, bear left onto River Haven Road (also gravel). It will surely look like the wrong way to go. You will feel silly this early in the morning, the sun still trying to burn off the morning’s fog, NPR volleying commentaries about the Presidential debates. Turn the radio off. Make the turn toward the river and drive right through someone’s front yard, all the while keeping your tires in the ruts. Take your time.
Follow the river like this for several miles. Don’t miss the great blue heron and his graceful pose mid-stream, thin beak like chopsticks ready to cut through the glassy surface. Roll your windows down. Vessels vasoconstrict against the chill and your blood moves back like the green retracting from the tips of leaves each fall. It’s all happening at once, just very, very slowly.
Now you know you’re on the right track. You’re looking for 224W, a swinging footbridge designed by George Canipe, hand built by he and his crew in 1950. At the time, bridges like this were vital for small mountain communities. They shaved miles off of trips, making neighbors closer together, errands easier to run, adventures quicker to find.
The river is wide now, maybe 150 feet across and running low. You could cross on foot with your pants rolled knee high, a buddy for balance; come out safe on the other side. The further you drive the more you can tell it wasn’t always like this. Logjams suggest old floods. The train trestle is a good fifty feet above the opposite riverbank. Flat boulders peek above the surface of the water, long bodies lounging in bed, each curve and divet in the granite like the soft spot of a lover in sleep.
When the river starts to take you like this, all your attention threatening to follow the North Toe down into the broader Nolichucky and just let it all pass on by, that’s the time to pay attention. You’ll see the bridge any second now.
Of course, you don’t see it until you’ve driven right up to it. The framed wooden steps are but an arm’s length from your car and the silver metal trestles frame the driver’s side window. Cut the engine. Open the doors.
AT BRIDGE 224W
We’re quiet because everything else is. A few mallard, the constant background chorus of chickadee and junco and, of course, the river. It sounds like silk, no other word for it. The sound has a feeling, like being tucked into bed. Behind us is an abandoned family home in the style of a beach house. The balconies sag sadly against the porch beams, white paint chipped and cracked. Further up the hill, a small mountain home looks completely closed up. We might even have the place to ourselves.
I like crossing first, bounding across the bridges. It’s impossible not to smile as the buoyancy of each step pushes my feet forward. Shane takes his time, frames his shots, judges the color and lighting. He sees brightness where others can’t see it and finds contrast and an irony of colors in the most unsuspecting places. I imagine stories and he sees them.
A handful of rock steps lead to wooden ones, and we’re up. Four steal cables cut into the ground, two on each side. The lower two are tied off on the metal trestle at the entrance to the footbridge. The upper two run the length of the bridge, ten feet at their highest, arcing low and then high again with the sag of the bridge. Wooden planks make the for a walkway, old two by fours nailed perpendicular to the river across horizontal four by six joists. Rusty chicken wire runs from the floorboards up, tied at about knee-height to smaller steel cables coming down from the two main lines. The chicken wire is too low to use for balance, but the smaller steel cables will do. Sometimes I reach for them. Other times I do not.
On the opposite side, I find old campsites and footpaths. Not much litter. Mullein, milkweed, goldenrod, and aster abound. Like the other bridges, there’s some semblance of an old road that runs up to the train tracks and peters out. I follow it down to a small tunnel that cuts under the tracks. Underneath, every sound is magnified, the slightest crunch of gravel beneath my feet resounding tenfold. The tunnel is short enough that the light can still shine on the walls, illuminating neon graffiti and the names of old lovers chipped through the paint.
Later, a train comes and Shane and I bolt from our respective stands to get as close as we can to that epic, unparalleled movement of steel. I lie on my back ten feet from the tracks while the train barrels past, tilting my chin up to the sky to get an underbelly view of the moving cars.
“Try it!” I shout. Shane’s still taking pictures, everything moving by so fast. “Check it out!”
“Oh-hoh-hoho!” I hear him laugh. He flattens to the gravel to get the same view and smiles, then reaches for his camera again to shoot at ground level.
I can feel the sound pressing through my body. I try to hold it there, let it live in me for a while and haunt the graveyard of sounds past. After the caboose, the only thing left is the hot steel rails, so perfect. Shiny and smooth as ever.