More Adventures with Al Onteroa

This post is a continuation of my ongoing footbridges project, which began this fall in collaboration with photographer Shane Darwent. So far we have an article, 2 lectures, and an exhibit scheduled for 2009 to feature the final drafts of this project. More is in the works, but I don’t want to jinx anything.

The most recent post on this topic can be found here, and links to previous posts are listed there as well.

I’ll be pushing to get closer to “the end” of these stories over the course of the next week, so get ready! If you’re still reading, I’m honored to have you along for the ride. Meantime, I’m picking up where I left off with the esteemed Al Onteroa and our adventurous interview of a lifetime:

Once things got going with Al, 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 atop the giant pegmatite boulder.

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

“For lovin’!” he said, then smiled as his voice 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. Footbridges trailed from our minds as we followed Al into that barn, a host of other hard-working young men circled around a table, lots of laughter and shoulder slapping and a near tornado of cigarette smoke encircling them.

We were a tiny ship in that office, Al at the helm, cutting through all the stories of his youth like so many crested waves. We talked like this for several hours, footbridges a mere prop in the occasional story. As Shane and I attempted to re-direct conversation toward the task at hand, Al had more important business to share. There was the time he rebuilt his motorcycle engine using parts from a washing machine. He worked every mine up and down every holler between nearly every peak you can see out his mucked up office window. He’s got an anvil collection tucked away in a barn somewhere that many-a-blacksmith in these hills would kill to 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. One year, he harvested more chinquapin nuts than any man in the county.

With each story came a trinket—soapstone marking sticks, miniature pocketknives with whetstones, cancer-fighting herbal teas, a “redneck flashlight,” and house plant seeds. Al handed over some chinquapin nuts from his desk drawer. He just about handed us so many things we might have weighed too much to get back out the door. You name it, and Al Phillips has it somewhere within arms reach of his desk and he’s going to give you some because where there’s one, there’s a hundred or more and a story to go along with it.

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

“That there? That divides Yancey 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 was thinking about Lenny, wondering if Al Phillips knew he called folks like us The Bridge People.

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

“Yes?” A voice from deep within the building.

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

“Ms. Bennet?” I asked.

Al stood quickly and reached for a second phone on a shelf above his desk, then shoved it my direction. He picked up the 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 swiveled on my chair and the two of us perched over his desk, matching conference call phones from the 1980’s in our hands, chairs squeaking and bobbing with the slightest gesture.

“Hello?” said Ms. Bennet.

“Ms. Bennet, what do you folks call that swinging bridge down there at Whitson’s?” said Al, who apparently needed no introduction.

“Oh, Al, that bridge? Well I don’t think we had a name for it. Just the Whitson’s Bridge, maybe” She laughed. “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 turned to me. “Hang up, now. We’ll call Nola.”

Nola, it turns out, didn’t know any more than the others about the bridge name, but she did in fact grow up looking at that bridge from her front porch almost every day of her life. “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. One of my neighbors 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!”

And just like that, Al was suddenly determined. We hung up the phones and he turned to Shane and I, patting his pants pocket to be sure he had his wallet. “Well kids, how about some lunch? Then we’ll go see one of them bridges. Now let’s talk business here, let’s get going…Norah, I’ll be back in a while. We’re taking off.”

Shane and I followed Al out front, exchanging glances and trying to keep from skipping all the way to the car. Piling into Shane’s Honda, Al took shotgun and pointed in the direction of town. “We’ll go to the grocery store, grab a bite.”

{more tomorrow…oh, the pages keep coming!}

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