Footbridges: Digging Deeper

I decide I need to George Canipe’s son, James, who lives in Marion now. James himself is old enough to be retired, but he remembers the years his father worked for the state as Bridge Foreman of our mountain counties. He also remembers the floods of ’77.

“When my father took over the crew, he had three counties: Mitchell, Avery, and Yancey. As people retired or died, the crew dwindled to about 12 and the state gave Avery county to the Boone district. The last 20 years, then, he just had two crew of 2 that covered two counties,” James says. “He was always tired when he came home, I remember that. And he liked to say, ‘I feel more like I do now than I did a while ago.’” He pauses to laugh, taking his time with the memory.

I’m not sure what I thought I’d find by interview him, but I know there are very few records of George Canipe’s accomplishments and the ones that we do have are difficult to verify. George’s wife Corrine was sweet as a button, but not entirely helpful when it came to specifics. I’ve got guys at the DOT in Raleigh helping me out right now, slow and steady—one can only hope, with regard to date verification. But nobody seems to have a photo of George at work, for instance.

“He designed a lot of those footbridges and rebuilt the ones that were there already,” says James. “It took months and months to repair all the bridges after that flood in ’77. You can still see places on Mount Mitchell where there’s no timber for everything be washed out.”

When I ask James whether he remembers crossing any swinging bridges in his time, his answer is anticlimactic. It seems that even by his generation, the significance of the bridges was dying out. “They were important before they ever got the vehicle bridges in,” says James. “It was the only way across the river unless the river froze up and you could cross that way.”

Still, there a story is unfolding. The last bridge Shane and I crossed—the very last one on our list—was picture-perfect but had an empty house on one side and a high-tech private property house on the other. It was marked on either side by sentinel defunct satellite dishes—a rather ominous symbol, especially since many of the people from the time of the swinging footbridges are now gone, too. The whole thing felt like walking on skeletons.

Meanwhile, a few bridges before that, we crossed a bridge and turned back before we even got halfway because we didn’t want to die. The only thing on the other side was barren, bulldozed foothills and a few stray cows. Not a grass blade in site. Prior to that, we spent an hour looking for a bridge that is no longer there (and I’ll be telling DOT, so they can update their maps) and another half hour looking for an additional bridge that was also gone. That same day, we found the same bridge twice from opposite approaches and were totally bummed when we realized what we’d done.

There are bridges in these counties that nobody is crossing. That is how all of this started for me. I believe that has metaphorical and historical significance and I’m writing may way toward whatever meaning I can make of that. It’s a dying way of life, but it’s also come to symbolize a slough of missed opportunities. Likewise, it calls into question our notions of nostalgia, of looking from the outside in, of poverty, of community.

There’s more. There’s got to be more. I just have to keep writing.

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