Ongoing Adventures of Al Onteroa

[This is part of the ongoing saga of Al Onteroa and the swinging footbridges project. To read the most recent post about Al, scroll down to 11/9 and you’ll see it. This post picks up where that one left off.]

I launched into an explanation of the project, referencing spreadsheets and county maps, DOT bridge numbers and construction dates. Al didn’t know George Canipe, but he knew footbridges and it seems as though he’s crossed nearly every single one in Mitchell and Yancey Counties—on his motorcycle.

“Back then that’s the only way we got from one side to the other. That bridge over there at Lunday connected the two counties,” Al said, talking about the old train depot sitting a top a giant pegmatite boulder.

“What’s the main reason the footbridges were built?” I said.

“For lovin’!” he said, then smiled and lifted into that cacophonous laugh once again. “I grew up in Ingalls and we used to play there are Ray White’s barn. We played quarter limits and we played for fellowship,” said Al.

And this is how the conversation went for several hours. Shane or I would mention a footbridge, Al would respond with a few sentences that hit the nail on the head, then launch into a slew of stories about everything under the sun—except for footbridges. He rebuilt his motorcycle engine with parts from a washing machine. He worked every mine up and down every holler between nearly every peak you can see out the window. He’s got an anvil collection tucked away in a barn somewhere that many-a-blacksmith in these hills would kill to get a peek at. His brother died working the lumber. He’s got a [piece of equipment] that can lift a two-ton train engine off the tracks and he’s keeping it for World War III (more laughter). Antioxidants in teas help fight cancer (this, as he poured himself a cup). One year, he harvested more chinquapin nuts than any man in the county.

He hands me some nuts from his desk drawer, unshelled. He gives Shane and I small pockets knives and a mini-whetstone to sharpen them, then teaches us how to sharpen. He’s got seeds for replanting trees and redneck flashlights, soapstone sticks, and Alaska quarters—anything, you name it, and Al Onteroa has it somewhere within arms reach of his desk and he’s going to give you some because where there’s one, there a hundred or more.

“What about bridge 223W,” I ask, pointing to the map. “Do you know if it has a name?”

“That there? That divides Yancy and Mitchell Counties over the North Toe River. That’s Whitson’s Road on the other side, there, and that’s the highway on the opposite bank.”

“Yes, Sir. Do you know what it is called?”

“I’d say probably the Whitson’s Bridge or the No Name Bridge,” he says. “NOR-RAAAH?” Al shouts out the office door.

“Yes?” a voice calls back from deep within the building.

“Nora, get Ms. Bennet on the line, please, tell her I’ve got a question.”

“Ms. Bennet?” I ask.

Al rises quickly out of his chair and reaches for a second phone on a shelf above his desk, shoving my direction. He picks up the other line closest to him, all business and brow. “I know these folks, used to log their land. Lots of their land. Still do business with them to this day, I do. Pick up the phone now, get on the line. We’re gonna get you some answers.”

I swivel on my chair and the two of us are perched over his desk, matching conference call phones from the 1980’s in our hands, chairs squeaking and bobbing with the slightest pressure. Shane snaps a few pictures of the research in action.

“Hello?” says Ms. Bennet.

“Ms. Bennet, what do you folks call that swinging bridge down there at Whitson’s?” says Al, who apparently needs no introduction over the phone.

“Oh, Al, that bridge? Well I don’t think we had a name for it. Just the Whitson’s Bridge, maybe” She laughs. “I just don’t know. But I can tell you something, Nola Garland has lived within sight of that footbridge for her entire life and if anybody can tell you what that bridge is called, it’s her.”

“Well alright Ms. Bennet, thank you.” Al turns to me. “Hang up, now. We’ll call Nola.”

Nola, it turns out, doesn’t know much more than the others about the bridge name, but she does know that bridge well. “I crossed it every week before the wires were on it, just the hangers were there. We crossed for our bible school or some night program. We didn’t have a car at the time. One night, the river was up so high it was just 2 1/2 feet below the bottom of that swinging bridge. Roy had a kid around his neck, just a tiny little thing, and he was walking across that bridge like nothing mattered. I thought, Boy, you better be holding on tight!”

[more soon…I’m learning on the page here, or thinking out loud, rather, trying to figure out how to tell the story of this man. The blog posts are like sketches or incomplete thoughts. They’re the pot before it’s been glazed and fired. I’ll get there…thanks for your patience and the permission to explore…]

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