Crossing Over

Bridges are opportunity frozen in steel, a chance to pass from one side of an obstacle to the other.

The Chain of Rocks Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River north of downtown St. Louis, is a truss bridge finished in 1929. For many years it was part of Route 66 but was closed to traffic in 1970. By 1981 it was so awful-looking that director John Carpenter used it in Escape from New York. It reopened to walkers and cyclists in 1999, connecting 300 miles of paths in Illinois and Missouri, and was put on the National Register in 2006.

The River is big, just south of the confluence with the Missouri, so the bridge is big: a mile long (making it the longest foot- and bike-traffic bridge in the world) and its road surface 60+ feet off the water.

Fear comes, sometimes, when the brain and eyes whisper things to each other we cannot hear. It does not have to make sense. I have rappelled from helicopters in flight, stepped off the sterns of ships in weighted gear, and walked the high battlements of York without a problem. The Chain of Rocks Bridge is as safe as church used to be. But I did not really want to cross it. Sometimes that is reason enough: to have a look at the obstacle.

The Bridge is half an hour north of the Gateway Arch. Parking is on the Illinois side—the Missouri side is said to be rife with crime—and I was alone. I walked out on the bridge, which is 24 feet wide and built for two lanes of traffic. It felt narrow. The concrete was of the old style, full of discolored aggregate, and both lanes tilted toward the north guardrail. I noted when I passed the Illinois shore and the river was beneath me with its skirls and whorls. The wind was high.

Overhead was the geometry of rusting trusses, some still scaling the green paint meant to reduce risk of air attack in WWII. Streetlights were shot full of holes or were gone. Trusses, I saw, were not solid steel; they were made of two narrow I-beams held together with a zigzag of iron popsicle sticks, every one of them riveted at every point of contact—a billion rivets, all dissolving slowly in the elements. Looking up through them into the sky, knowing the brown water below was still carving the continent, felt unright. I stumbled on a crack and looked at my feet, half-expecting a chasm, and had the urge to crawl on the deck like a dog. The bridge might fall in 500 years, after all.

Nothing moved on the landscape except the river, trucks and cars on the new bridge a half-mile north, and jets visible by their lengthening contrails. Further north, a cabal of construction cranes leaned in around a muddy field near the water, and I thought I could see the head of the Chain of Rocks Canal, which bypasses both bridges and the shoals at this point in the river. The Canal, a different sort of bridge, has the southernmost locks on the River and moves “more cargo than any other navigation structure on the Mississippi River,” according to the Army Corps of Engineers. It is placid. The river was not.

Downstream, the two water-intake structures for the city, which look like a Victorian mansion and its carriage house, sat mid-river. The water beat their bows and cavitated violently behind them. The water roiled over rocks and the low-head dam just below the surface. The sun, winter-low in the southern sky, was blinding and made a long, hot trail in the water all the way to Memphis. St. Louis was just visible in the haze.

Halfway across, the bridge made an odd 22-degree dogleg. Its builders did not buy parcels of land directly across from each other and had planned to build slantwise across the stream. The Army Corps said that would reduce the gap between piers for downstream boat traffic, so the folded design was adopted. It must have been harrowing for drivers, especially at night and after a couple of beers at the amusement park near the bridge.

Past the dogleg, a plaque attached to the rail commemorated two sisters murdered in 1991 at that spot. They were raped, forced to crawl through a manhole cover onto the top of a pier, and pushed into the river. One body was never found. A young man they were with was forced at gunpoint to jump, but he survived. The manhole has a light weld to keep it shut, but I stepped around it.

Finally I was close enough to the Missouri side to have a comforting thought: If I end up in the water here—say the next New Madrid quake occurs—I can probably swim to shore, despite the water temperature, and crawl out among the brush and red-tipped saplings.

Then I was over land, then off the bridge. No one was around in the rural outskirts of the city. It was cold. I had to walk a mile back across and saw no one else the whole time.

Near the Illinois side I saw the channel markers. Red Right Returning, we say in navigating a river, in order to keep the red marker to starboard when returning home from the sea, even if it is a thousand miles away. Bridges have no such orientation. Back and forth, over and back, time and again. What did you cross for, and what was the real obstacle?

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