A bridge, according to Webster, is, “a structure carrying a roadway over a depression or an obstruction.” I don’t believe I have ever been so disappointed with Mr. Webster. This definition is so limiting. To begin with, I am certain the first bridge carried people walking a trail on foot across a river or stream. I am also certain the earliest bridges weren’t human-made but created by Mother Nature randomly felling a tree during a storm that happened to come to rest across a watercourse. Humans seeing and using this most certainly started cutting trees, tying them together to allow walkers and later maybe horses with riders to connect two trails or wagon paths that were on opposite sides of the water.
We all know the basic history after this. Planks were used then lumbered wood, stone, steel, and wire. Some were covered. Finally, designs were generated to allow wider and wider expanses to be traversed. Probably the most amazing engineered bridge I have seen is the arched one that crosses the New River Gorge in West Virginia, 876 feet above the river.
I am not here to write about these modern day wonders though. I went for a delightful walk over the weekend in a wonderful park. Its name, however, is of no significance either. It was during my amble that I began to remember all of the deep woods bridges I have crossed on my travels on trails. These are the bridges I find most fascinating and most useful. These are bridges I can feel under my feet. I feel their movement as I step across a fast-moving river or a trickling brook. They are virtually always constructed of wood; somehow, steel cables and cement wouldn’t feel right hiking the AT (Appalachian Trail) as it passes through Macedonia Brook State Park in Kent. It would also prove quite challenging transporting these cables and bags of concrete 10-15 miles along the trail.
Some of the bridges I have traversed are more substantial, requiring power tools and even small machinery to erect. These are always accessible by a nearby road and provide passage on a former lumber road. Others have been simply a few large rocks carefully placed and spaced across a creek. Some are three or four logs lashed together barely covering the distance from bank to bank. Others are planks running in the same direction as the path. They are mostly kept together nailed or lashed to cross pieces underneath. Some are shorter planks running perpendicular to the trail lying crosswise on two or three beams that actually cross over the expanse. I have even built a bridge to traverse the Wolfpit Brook on our property. It has only washed away twice in 45 years. Some bridges are actually for the water, a culvert allowing the river to cross under the trail.
In my years of hiking, if I am using a map I will know when and where to expect a bridge. On occasion I have been astonished by one of these bridges missing when I reach the marked crossing. Then it is up to my ingenuity to fashion a temporary passage. Most exciting are the times when I am truly deep in the woodland many miles from any access. I am following the trail paralleling a raging river. Looking ahead, I know I’ll be obliged to cross, seeing only a steep rock face impeding my remaining on this side. Abruptly, beyond a sizable tree trunk, I notice a beautifully crafted bridge. The timbers are square and tightly joined. Sturdy railings rise from each side protecting me from falling and preventing a cold swim over the falls. I will park myself before the inexplicable structure and speculate how this striking creation ended up here. I envision a couple of trekkers wanting more than just to cross, wanting to leave behind an overpass that will link this trail eternally, an overpass that will bring pause to anyone hiking. They will simply sit back and enjoy its beauty, its strength, and believe that someone invested the time to give a gift, not just a means to traverse the water.
Often when I come upon a bridge I use it as a time to rest. I am in no hurry. Gazing at a bridge I will mull over the array of bridges we use in life, not just physical structures. We use bridges to connect with and help others. There are bridges that we are required to cross over to new adventures and experiences in life. There are bridges that allow us to move on when confronted with emptiness in our lives or a loss that seems to have brought us to a dead end. I think the late folk singer Bill Staines (one of my musical heroes who passed away recently, in December 2021) says this best in a song he wrote many years ago:
There are bridges, bridges in the sky and they are shining in the sun
They are stone and steel and wood and wire and they can change two things to one
They are languages and letters, they are poetry and all
They are love and understanding and they’re better than a war
There are canyons there canyons they are yawning in the night
They are rank and bitter anger and they are all devoid of life
They are fear and blind suspicion they are apathy and pride
They are dark and so foreboding and they’re oh so very wide
Let us build a bridge of music and let us cross it with a song
Let us span another canyon let us right another wrong
Oh and if someone should ask us where we’re off and bound today
We will tell them building bridges and be off and on our way
So, next time you meet up with a bridge on your wanderings, don’t just cross it. Stop and take a look. Realize how it will help you. Think of the others that have previously crossed the same bridge. And if the bridge is missing, it may be time to “get your feet wet” and try a new way of crossing.