The Heart of the Bridge

A few days ago, I drove from my home in Cannon Beach, Oregon, to Cape Disappointment in Washington. Contrary to what the name may suggest, Cape Disappointment is awe-striking. Miles of rolling forests, streams, sand dunes, bright yellow flowers, and of course: the vast ocean itself, greet those who visit. However, on my drive I was particularly struck by a different source of beauty.

To get from Cannon Beach to Cape Disappointment, I cross the Columbia River twice, passing through the city of Astoria, Oregon in the middle of these two crossings. The first bridge lies right over the water so that, driving across it, I could almost imagine I am a bird skimming the river's surface. On that particular day, the water glistened under the light of rare, nearly warm April sunshine.

Summer Field Photo by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay

People drive across these bridges to get from Washington to Oregon, to visit the shops and museums in Astoria, or to venture further down the coast to Cannon Beach or the numerous other towns that sprinkle the Western edge of Highway 101. People don't drive to get to the bridges. And yet, I can think of few places in the Pacific Northwest more (to borrow a widely-treasured line from F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby) "commensurate to [our] capacity for wonder". Bridges are the beauty in-between. They are the slash, the dash, the divider, the pause, the place of no place.

This placelessness is part of what lends bridges such a unique kind of wonder. There's the sense—driving or walking or riding one's bike across a bridge—of breath held, of mounting anticipation, a momentary thrill of leaving one thing and entering something new.

The second bridge on the drive to Cape Disappointment crosses the Columbia River on the other side of Astoria, almost at a right-angle to the first bridge. Called the Astoria-Megler Bridge, it is now the longest continuous truss bridge in North America. This great steel structure somehow manages to be both elegant and dominating, rising hundreds of feet above the river in a smooth, gliding escalation. At the beginning of the bridge, drivers are at the edge of Oregon, and by the end they have entered Washington state.

Driving across the river that day, I thought about the different ways that bridges traverse our lives. There are physical bridges of course. Growing up near Portland, Oregon, sometimes called Bridge City or Bridgetown due to the high prevalence of bridges twisting in and around it, I have long been used to bridges. I remember holding hands with one of my close friends (who harbored a fear of heights) while we walked across the St. John's Bridge on a warm June afternoon. I recall sitting on the wall of the land bridge at Fort Vancouver on an October evening, watching the clouds swirl Mount Hood in the distance. I think back to the first kiss I shared with one boy, leaning against the rail on the Bridge of the Gods, a kiss in a place of in-betweens that would become the beginning of something bigger.

I think, too, of the bridges in songs—the spaces where the music becomes something different. Often, these are the moments of soul, of raw emotion. Maybe there's a new chord progression, a different tempo, or an alternate key. The bridge is a place of newness that can serve to connect the familiar parts of the song. In Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay”, the bridge is the part where I crank the volume, close my eyes, and fall inside the song. “Why wait any longer for the world to begin,” I croon (or sometimes shout) along with Dylan, perhaps sinking to the floor if I’m feeling particularly dramatic. “You can have your cake and eat it too // Why wait any longer for the one you love // When he’s standing in front of you”. You don’t have to be sad to mourn when a bridge comes on. You don’t have to be heartbroken to cry at the emotion of it. The bridge is an excuse to feel all the emotions you’ve ever felt, regardless of whether or not you’re feeling them now.

person holding a black vinyl record Photo by Skylar Sahakian from Unsplash

In the exceedingly popular "drivers license", singer/songwriter Olivia Rodrigo harnesses the emotional power of the bridge with a high, rhythmic, slow section of music, completed with a well placed "I still fuckin' love you, babe" that is just too perfectly belt-able in the privacy of your own car (or in the company of a shameless friend). It's the raw emotion of the in-between. The past verse, the present bridge, the future chorus. The past love, the present sadness, the future overcoming.*

Then there are the bridges between moments. There was the summer after graduation, the bridge between high school and college. Living at my parents' house during the pandemic, I found myself at a bridge between dependence and independence. Feeling sometimes very sad and sometimes very happy, I end up on the bridge of languishing between emotions.* Every day, I am crossing bridges, or trying to. Every day, I fall prey to the comforting illusion that I am somewhere in particular, feeling something in particular, doing something in particular, when most of the time I am in a state of liminality. While I often like to think of my life in terms of what is true, perhaps the truest truth (and the most comforting, too) is that most things are bridges. Rather than seeking satisfaction in the fulfillment of a certain destination, I am wondering if I can learn to enjoy the glittering water beneath me, to drive alongside the birds, and admire the clouds arrayed above.

*For more on bridges in popular music, check out the recent episode of the podcast Still Processing: "Now That's What I Call a Bridge". *For more on “languishing”, read this insightful article from the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/well/mind/covid-mental-health-languishing.html