Footbridge 297W (the beginning of the story)
He’s supposed to be a memorable guy. “Friendly, no dogs,” the employees at DOT told me. “Outside Burnsville near Price’s Creek, cut off the highway and turn left onto Cane River Road. Follow that for three or four miles and you’ll see the bridge crossing right into this man’s front yard. He’s the one who remembers the ’77 floods and he’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
Three or four miles is actually more like six and it’s not off Cane River Road, but off 19W toward Eriwn instead. By now, we understand how to be patient bridge hunters. We know how to follow the river, above all else—and that means above instinct, above directions, and above maps. We also know once we cross a vehicle bridge on 19W, following the river as we must, it puts us on the right side of the river, therefore we’re getting close. Shane spots it first.
“There it is,” he says, turning off the main road as soon as he can. “I think we can follow this road down instead.” Indeed, it’s an ancient, rutted road not frequently traveled, but traveled enough for Shane’s Honda Passport to navigate us safely there.
In order to get to the man’s house, we have to drive over two hand-built vehicle bridges only about twelve inches wider than the car. The first looks relatively safe, though the far end of it is more or less “glued” to a rocky island in the middle of Cane River with a homemade mix of cement and gravel. We cross without thinking twice, then stop on a small plateau of cement in the middle of the river. Picture us there, two kids, a big ol’ car with South Carolina plates, perched on a cement island with plants and boulders all around, between two small bridges not much wider or longer than the car itself.
Shane nods in the direction of the next bridge and looks at me. “What do you think?”
I look at the other side of the bridge to see how worn the road is. Still two ruts, still fairly low grass, still—maybe—passable. This bridge is even narrower though, and supported by two fat logs with rough, wide planks nailed perpendicular across the top. “Why not?” I say, knocking on the dashboard for good luck.
We inch forward in the car but just as the tires hit the first seam of the bridge, Shane hits the breaks. “I’ve got to check this out first,” he says, popping the car door open.
I get out too and join him in the hopping and stomping. It’s a funny way to test a bridge, really, since if it weren’t stable we’d both fall right on through. But here the stakes aren’t very high. The river is shallow and rushes beneath the bridge just a few inches below.
We hop back in and drive across, winding around to the old man’s house and a FOR SALE sign posted in the yard.
“Maybe he died,” I say. The house looks totally abandoned. He’d been the last on our list of residents for a primary source interview. Truth be told, we have most of what we need for the magazine article—it’s the other stories that come out during such interviews that we’re more interested in.
Shane parks the car and we hop out—he with his tripod and camera, me with my laptop. I pass a dying stand of hemlock trees and make for the old man’s porch. Shane makes for the bridge which is, ironically, guarded on either end by gigantic, defunct satellite dishes . A gauge on the front steps registers 62 degrees. Just a few miles back into town, the bank sign said 80 (a record high for today), and the difference between the two somehow sums it all up. We’re tucked back against steep foothills and the mid-afternoon light is hardly generous. It falls in pockets along the river, but doesn’t touch the old man’s house. I rock a little on the bench and make myself at home on the front porch.
From here, the old man would have had a perfect view of bridge 297W, built in 1957 by George Canipe and his team. It’s a short bridge, spanning maybe 100 feet, and despite its age it’s in excellent shape. End to end the bridge forms a picture perfect arch about fifty feet above Cane River, steel cables running parallel above the walkway, keeping everything taut. The river, low as it is these days, rushes quietly around the rock island where we crossed the two vehicle bridges, and the sound can be heard from the porch.
“It’s a good one,” Shane shouts over his shoulder. He’s walking toward the halfway point of the bridge, squinting into the sunlight. Each step sends a ripple down the wood, one zipping forward in waves to the other side of the bridge, another shooting back like a small tail. From this angle, the bridge’s function comes together perfectly. Step, bounce, step, bounce. Forward, forward, until finally he exits on the other side of the river where the bridge is bordered by rows of apple trees that parallel the river.
Half a century ago, this would have shaved miles off his trip, giving him direct access to the state highway. Turn left, you’ll head toward Tennessee. Right, and you’ll head back to Burnsville. Now, this bridge leads to an old man’s abandoned house on one side, and an electric-fenced miniature garden of Eden on somebody’s private property on the other. I hop up from my perch on the porch and cross too, and I can’t help but smile when I do it. He’s right: It’s a good one.