The bridge


AN hour and a half of shoveling the heavy, wet snow clears the driveway and the car.

I set out the garbage and climb into the car. It's been idling, so the engine is warm by now and ready to go. Oh, to be off work and free to build a snowman or even indulge in a friendly snowball battle!

But it's a work day, so foggy highways and the challenge of the Key Bridge lie ahead.

Once I get off the ice-rutted side streets, the roads are clear. The landscape is silently beautiful, almost elusive, as fog moves across it in strange patterns. Beltway traffic moves slower than usual, in most places even below the speed limit.

An electronic sign warns me that road conditions are slippery, that bridges freeze before highways. The fog thickens with every mile. Do they close the Key Bridge for ice and fog?

Miles roll by. The few abandoned cars I see were there before the snowplows passed. Isolated in the dense fog, I sense an aura of mystery. Common things take on uncommon qualities. A pine tree, its Christmas glory long forgotten, has been wedged between the guard rails on my right.

In the fuzzy blandness of the landscape, I almost miss the lane change at the Sparrows Point exit. No traffic behind me, so I swoop across the lanes onto I-695 again. I feel a little queasy. Key Bridge is only minutes away.

Somehow that bridge has taken on a monumental status in my life. In periods of desolation, I find it terrifying. The aged station wagon I formerly drove used to creep up the mountainous incline during the snowy and icy nights of winter while I shook in terror. Only the knowledge that love and comfort were waiting on the other side got me across.

Then one fearful day the wagon threw a rod, but it still carried me through the scorching summer afternoon over the bridge to safety again, like a faithful but dying horse carrying its master home one last time.

Other days I'd swept over the bridge in such a joyous rush that I'd felt hardly a qualm. And there had been glorious days when I'd wondered how humans had advanced from cave-dwellers to bridge-builders to moon-walkers.

But some days the dark complications of my life were so disturbing that I'd taken another route entirely. No Rubicon this, to be crossed one fateful time and then put behind forever. The Key Bridge was a daily challenge.

The toll booths leap out of the whiteness, as though conjured up by a magician, and the suddenness of their appearance momentarily disorients me. At least the bridge is open, I think. I pay my toll, then accelerate into the whiteness. The world devolves into a single pair of dim red tail lights receding steadily before me.

Up, up we climb, that unknown driver and I. Something flashes by -- a dark hint of movement seen from the corner of my eye. It's only a light standard. Then another. Finally, the main girders of the bridge rear up ahead of me. I wait for the familiar rush of adrenalin, the taste of fear.

They do not come.

The fog has removed all sense of the empty distances below me, of the fragility of the steel and concrete that link land's end and land's beginning. I cannot see how high above the water I am, so I do not fear its cold embrace. The car seems enveloped in a soft, protective cocoon, like the cotton batting my grandmother stitched into her quilts.

I sigh deeply and relax. I have been granted a reprieve for today, but the bridge will be there tomorrow and the next, ready to shatter my equanimity, to wake me from preoccupation. So small a task, crossing the bridge. So ordinary. Yet it stirs something in me, reminding me how small a part of the universe a single life is.

There's always a small challenge like crossing a bridge to stir us from complacency, to provide a small thrill, a few moments of fear, a rare moment or two of self-knowledge and humility.

The bridge is passed and past now. Work awaits. It's another day.

Pat McGann writes from Severn.

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