The Celo Footbridges
It was our adventures in Celo that proved to be the most challenging. Down in the South Toe Valley, the river runs North-South and parallels the Black Mountains—the highest range this side of the Mississippi. Heading south from Micaville down Highway 80, you’ll feel the east wall of the Blacks on your right and Seven Mile Ridge, a towering parallel range that tops out at 4,000 feet, on your left. According to our maps, all we had to so was point our noses south and we’d hit four footbridges all within a few miles of each other.
We knew from our notes that Bridge 300W was closed, and I surmised it must have been the one along Hannah Branch Road that came out in 2005 when a large poplar tree came down and took the footbridge with it. After much wondering, we learned that 302W—not 301W—was the old Celo footbridge off Hannah Branch Road, and we learned this from Gib, a man who was born and raised on that stretch of river.
After a few hours of searching along the river between Celo and Busick, Shane and I had only come up with two of the four bridges, and couldn’t seem to find the remnants of the old Celo bridge despite the fact that I personally remembered crossing it when I lived in Celo a few years back. As the sun sank behind the rim of the Blacks and our stomachs growled with hunger, it wasn’t until around 7pm it finally occurred to us to start knocking on some doors.
We started at Gib and Annie’s, who greeted our tired faces and muddy feet without question.
“Come on in,” Annie said.
“Oh, thank you!” I said, stumbling across the threshold and accidentally stepping on her foot.
“It’s so nice to see you! It’s been so long,” she said, then looked at Shane who stood behind me. “And you, come on in, too. We’ll fix you right up.”
“We’ve been out looking for footbridges,” I said. We kicked off our shoes and followed her down the hallway. “And we can’t seem to find all the ones our maps say we ought to be able to find.”
Annie led us into the kitchen where her daughters were doing dishes and her husband was clearing the table. “Are you hungry?” she asked.
“Oh no—we—“ I stuttered but she wouldn’t have any of it. I looked over at Shane, whose eyes were lit with polite hunger.
“Oh, I can tell by that look. Don’t say another thing. Sit down, we’ve got plenty of food.” She smiled as she shuffled us into the chairs.
An array of home cooked pinto beans, fresh cornbread, greens, and homemade salsa was spread on the table. Gib snatched up the dirty plates and Annie replaced them with clean ones. “Eat!” she said.
Between bites, I explained the project and our predicament. The bridge I knew existed at one time had left no trace, not a single person we’d met along the way could remember yet another bridge the DOT said was closed, and the two bridges we had found weren’t marked clearly enough (to our eyes) on the map for us to decipher which bridges we’d actually found.
I pulled out the maps and our DOT spreadsheets and spread them on the table in discontent.
“Let me get my glasses,” Gib said. In a moment’s time he spotted the section of river where the true Bridge 302W was. “We used that bridge a lot because you could hike across the to the co-op or get to Patton Thicket where my wife’s mom lived,” he told us. “This chart says that bridge is still open, but you know that can’t be right.”
Shane and I had already cleared our dinner plates and leaned in for a closer look. Gib took a moment to cross-reference a few of the maps, then spoke again. “And this bridge here,” he pointed to a red section of the DOT spreadsheets. “That says it’s Bridge 300W off Hall’s Chapel near Blue Rock. Well, that’s right that it’s closed but you’re not going to find it anywhere at all. There’s nothing left of it.”