Four miles from where I sit, on a path leading north into the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, the footbridge over Eureka Creek is washed out. It has been gone for a number of years, taken by the temper of a long-gone springtime flood, and now only the abutments remain. Cracking and crumbling, they face each other across about ten feet of creek, and when I return here after absences and stand on these modern ruins of cement and stone, I wonder at abandonment, how the work of men becomes forgotten. On occasion, I’ve sat on them to take a break, dangling my feet down towards the water below, and in my mind I rebuild the bridge, taking sticks and stones and stacking them outwards from the cement blocks a piece at a time, carefully fitting each together according to its natural contours and grooves until they are poised to interlock at the center. Then I take the center and I play with it. What would it be like, I wonder, to be there, to hold two worlds together, shaped perhaps by each, or shunned perhaps by both, as I imagine the space between awake and sleep to be?
Since I was a little kid, bridges have fascinated me. And I remember the first bridge I ever built. A meter-long and made from Popsicle sticks, it was for a primary school contest to see who could build the strongest bridge with a limited set of materials. In her enthusiasm for the project, my teacher lectured us on the principles of bridge design. She told us about load, and bascules, and castellated girders, and bringing out the picture books we examined famous bridges, tracing fingers over the five-hundred-year-old arch at Mostar, the connected towers crossing the Thames, and the suspension cables of the bridge over the Akashi Strait, which at the time was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Looking at the pictures I remember trying to unravel them, to discover a hint of a technique that would help my bridge win the contest, and after school my classmates and I spoke about the approaches we might use to span the gap between picnic tables in the school yard that would be the testing ground. Of course, we spoke only half-truths, so as to guard our structural secrets.
The bridge I built was beautiful. It was two layers of sticks glued onto overlapping central beams all supported by cord running between its towers. When I brought it to school my competitors admired it. They loved it. The art teacher took a photo of it. And when it came time for the test it cracked under the first brick. Actually, that’s not true. It shattered under the first brick. It shattered and the sticks tumbled to the ground.
I felt shattered too, because as a lover of tree houses and homemade forts, I thought I had an architectural mind, and when I got home from school that day I built a rope bridge between two almond trees in the back garden. It may have been a way of recovery, because I have always liked rope bridges the most. Part of it is that the ropes that form them are called catenaries and whenever I hear this I imagine cats tiptoeing along them, balancing on delicate paws above cavernous ravines below. The other reason they are my favorite is because they can easily be severed, like in the films when a protagonist crosses a rope bridge to get away from an oncoming evil and at the last moment cuts the cords, chopping with an axe or filing with a knife, the final strand breaking, barely, and in panting breaths is able to stand there free, unbound, and watch evil cascade into nothingness.
Evil into nothingness; I wonder if that’s how the captain of the steamboat the Effie Afton felt in the spring of 1856 when he set the first railroad bridge crossing the Mississippi River on fire by crashing his boat into its supporting piers? Built with one million feet of timber, the bridge spanned the Mississippi between Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa, and when it burned it had been only fifteen days since the first locomotive steamed across it, opening the lands west of the Mississippi to industrial powered expansion and setting the railroad up as a main transport competitor to the riverboat monopoly. Claiming the bridge was an illegal obstruction to the free navigation of the river, the riverboat conglomerate took the railroad to court. The judge dismissed the case. The bridge was rebuilt. Abraham Lincoln said that this “current of travel has its rights.” Six years later he signed the Railroad and Homestead Acts. That same year, one thousand and seven hundred Dakota people were forced into a concentration camp on Pike Island in the Mississippi. Two years after that over one hundred and fifty Cheyenne children, women, and elderly men were massacred by US soldiers at Sand Creek. Ten years later white prospectors rushed to the Black Hills with the discovery of gold, violating another treaty and further shrinking the size of the reservation to which the Lakota had been confined. Thirteen years after that the Dawes Act divided remaining Indian land into one hundred and sixty acre parcels, opening more that eighty million acres to white settlement, and at mid-day on April 22, 1889, fifty thousand white settlers raced each other out into the Oklahoma prairie to stake claims to this land that had been stolen. That year, only one thousand bison remained where thirty years earlier there had been thirty million.
At Eureka Creek I consider rebuilding the bridge. It wouldn’t be hard, I tell myself, to bring a saw in here and lay down a few trees, redoing what has been undone. And like a child’s bridge made from Popsicle sticks, it would be an innocent act, even a social service, using my own hands to recreate a lost remnant of the public domain. It would become a small part of the long history of bridges and their builders, occupying the spaces between this world and the next, the known and the unknown, with an almost ethereal quality to it, in the way that the renown Mohawk ironworkers that have worked on bridges around North American are known as “Skywalkers.”
Yet at the same time I am also reminded that all tasks we put our hands to have consequence, and when I step off the ruins of the bridge to cross the creek on river stones, stopping to caress the current of the water with my palm, and look across to the forested ridges and snow dusted peaks beyond, I think that the absence of the bridge might be one small part of keeping this place whole. And maybe, I tell myself, that is why wolves have recently been in this part of the Pasayten where they have not been for many years.