Bridge 226W

{continued from yesterday…}

It should have been no surprise that everyone at the grocery store seemed to know Al. We weren’t ten steps to the produce section before he had his arms around two women of his generation, all smiles and sweet charm.

“Do you have the latest quarter?” asked Al.

The women shook their heads, then leaned forward as Al pulled a roll of quarters from his pocket. Very gently, he unfolded the paper wrapping and with a practiced gesture, using the tip of his thumb to press a quarter from the roll without actually getting his fingerprints on it.

“It’s Alaska,” he said after he divvied his treasure. “Mint condition.”

The women laughed and as they did they tipped their heads back. Al slipped the roll into his pocket and settled his hands back around their shoulders, then lower. He seemed particularly taken with Mrs. [?], who wore a bright magenta sweatshirt and city sneakers. Too busy to introduce Shane and I, Al simply nodded in the direction of the café seating and said he’d meet us there.

Shane and I were halfway into our lunches by the time Al returned to the café, a bag of groceries in one hand and prescriptions in the other. He set his food on the table, then handed us each a bottle of pomegranate blueberry juice. “For fightin’ the cancer,” he said. “It’s a powerful medicine, a powerful medicine.”

We ate relatively quickly, stealing bites between questions as Al rattled off more stories. I’d never quite seen a man eat meat off the bone before, but there was Al plucking slivers of chicken from every nook and cranny of cartilage on that breastbone. He wasn’t any messier than the job dictated, but he ate with determination.

We agreed that Al would take us to Bridge 226W to have a look at things. On our way out the door, he pocketed a fistful of napkins and placed half a dozen plastic utensils in his breast pocket, winking at folks he knew all the way out the door.


Finding Bridge 226W isn’t a challenge, but leaving it behind will be. From the small post office along the train tracks in Penland proper, head up and away from the river on Penland Road, turning left toward Penland School onto Conley Ridge Road. Follow that for several miles as it turns right onto gravel and dips down past a Christmas tree farm. Take a left where the road T’s with Snow Creek Road and, not long after that, another left onto [NAME OF TESS’ ROAD]. Follow this to its narrow, winding end where you’re likely to be greeted by a jangly golden retriever and a tamer section of the North Toe River.

The tracks run parallel to the river and the bridge is just below that, jutting out from a high bank and dipping down to the opposite side of the river. It spans only [NUMBER OF FEET], yet an afternoon visit captures this bridge in two worlds; the near end steeped entirely in sunlight, the blare from the nearby steel tracks and white rock almost too much to bear, and the far end hidden in deep shade, a grove of hemlocks and hardwoods offering reprieve.

The dog took the cool route, submerged up to his ears in the North Toe as he paddled to the far shore. I helped Al ease down to the bank one slow step at a time. When the ground leveled out, he took the helm.

It is always the sound first: a hollow step followed by the slightest ringing of the chicken wire as the movement reverberates down the sides of the footbridge. Then it is the sensation: small ridges of chipped paint brushing beneath your fingertips, the occasional tilted nail head raised just above the others. Finally, there is the rhythm: Step, bounce, step, bounce, step, bounce, and by then the whole footbridge sings its metal chorus, the ancient wooden planks clapping a percussive beat.

Shane walked behind Al, camera in hand, and I walked behind Shane. When I lifted my gaze to determine why Al was moving so slow, I saw that he was taking the time to clasp his hands around each and every metal rod strung up between the steel cables and the wooden planks. In this way, he set the pace with his hands, guiding us across patiently.

I’d never crossed like this before. I looked up each time our pace slowed and was faced with that image of Al’s fingers wrapping around the metal, flesh and element each showing their age and marking the history of these bridges with uncanny precision.

Who is left to cross these bridges? There was a time when a bridge like this brought entire communities together. “Families went back and forth to the highway to catch the Greyhound,” Al told us. “A lot of folks didn’t have cars and that was the closest way they had to get to 19E. We’d have forded the river with mules if those bridges hadn’t been there.”

Nowadays, it’s hard to come by a map with enough detail to locate each of Yancey and Mitchell County’s 11 remaining footbridges. The DOT archives have no photographic records of George Canipe and his team, not to mention the fact that original construction of many of these footbridges predates DOT records. Many citizens who might have remembered using these bridges in the 20’s and 30’s are no longer living.

While some footbridges are worn beyond repair, most are maintained at a bare minimum to state requirements during an annual safety check. The cost of maintaining them is less than the cost of safely and cleanly removing them, and so this piece of our history dangles between heritage and disarray, begging to be rediscovered.

Showing 2 comments
  • Steelbuilding Steel

    Thank you for the interesting post. Steel Buildings are the newest trend in market. They are easy to set up and long lasting. Furthermore they are a great money saver.

  • alessa

    Have you changed names to protect the not so innocent? ’cause I think i know this man, but his name ain’t “Al”.

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