Years ago, when I lived in Terre Haute, I used to sometimes drive up to Bridgeton in Parke County, which is arguably the world’s epicenter of covered bridges. They celebrate their bridges every October with a huge festival across the county. Bridgeton figures prominently in the celebration and is usually cram-packed with people. (I stay the heck out of Parke County in October.)
I was in my early 20s then. I was out of school and not only was I working, but I was working at things I’d dreamed about — making software and talking and playing music on the radio. I loved my work, and I thought it should make feel young and free. Instead, I was lonely and depressed.
In the evenings and on weekends, I distracted myself by going driving. Sometimes I’d visit friends, but just as often I’d wander rural roads, past the groves crowded against the roadside and the acreages planted in corn or soybeans. In the spring, the budding redbuds and the sprouting crops proclaimed a new day; in the fall, the stumped cornstalks and the oaks and maples shed of their leaves reminded that all glory ends. It seemed so fruitless to me. Yet the roads always called out to me that there was more to see, that perhaps today I’d find something new and interesting. So I drove. I don’t remember why I went to Bridgeton the first time, and I’m not sure I even meant to go there. I was driving back roads from northern Vigo County into southern Parke County, and soon began seeing the handmade signs pointing to Bridgeton. From either purpose or curiosity, I followed the signs. The Bridgeton Road wound long, but abruptly entered the town. Before I could even take it in, the road just as abruptly came upon a covered bridge.
I parked. It was still but for the wind and for water rushing beneath the bridge, and nobody was around. Some of the structures looked like they came out of a wild-west movie, especially an old mill and what looked like a general store. I wondered whether the town was abandoned until I noticed some homes that, while in need of attention, had at some time been updated with vinyl siding and double-pane windows.
Perhaps the bridge made the town look bad. Even though it was on the town’s northern edge, it was clearly the centerpiece, better cared for than anything around it. It needed a little attention — maybe a coat of paint — but was otherwise in excellent shape, especially considering “1868” was painted over the entrance arch. It stood there sure, as if it thought it was the reason the town continued to exist. It seemed not to need traffic (the road had been rerouted over a new cement bridge) or even admirers to be self-sufficient.
Yet I walked the bridge and admired it. I was delighted by its design. I could see the fingerprints of designer and builder (J. J. Daniels, also painted over the arch) in the beams that fanned from the foundation to the roof and the regularly spaced trusses that connected its east side to its west. As I walked, the bridge stood solid, without shimmying, shaking, or groaning. The designer meant this bridge to last. And even after it was decommissioned, others clearly valued the designer’s desire and kept it in good repair. I might say they loved it.
The bridge, and thinking of the men who built it and cared for it, soothed, calmed, and encouraged me. It put me in touch with the good people can do when something matters to them. It showed me that some things can last.
I saved Bridgeton for the toughest times, as if it were my ace in the hole. I never remembered the way, so I just drove vaguely north into the country until I found the signs. The trips were like going to the well for a drink of peace, and I always went home comforted.
Soon I moved away from Terre Haute and, as the years passed, never made it back to Bridgeton. In 2005, somebody set fire to the bridge, destroying it. I didn’t realize until the arson that so many other people had a large soft spot in their heart for this place and its bridge. Emotions flowed freely as many, many people mourned the loss of their old friend. Out of this pain, locals decided almost immediately to rebuild. A new bridge was finished just in time for the 2006 Covered Bridge Festival.
When I heard that a new bridge was built, I decided to visit Bridgeton for the first time in 15 years as a detour along an autumn road trip. I was anxious. I was going to see that my old friend was gone, replaced by something new. But I was eager, too. When I reached Rockville, I detoured south on US 41 to a road that looked like a familiar turn, and as usual drove around until I found the signs pointing to Bridgeton. I was excited to see her. I was a little disappointed at first to see that it isn’t an exact replica of the old bridge, though.
The mill next to the bridge, which was dilapidated the last time I saw it, looked all spiffy. Its gift shop was open. I was surprised to see that they sold flour; the mill is operating.
Next, I steped inside the bridge, and when I did I felt like my old friend had never left. The designers and builders put great effort and care into rebuilding this bridge. Their fingerprints are in the two arches that span each side, and in the beams and trusses that keep her square. She is absolutely gorgeous inside.
The postcard shot was always from the north to include the little waterfall, and now is no exception.
Clearly, this bridge isn’t a carbon copy of her ancestor. But it doesn’t seem to matter. What made the old bridge special was the spirit of the people who made it, the very humanity their efforts gave it. Such spirit was captured when she was rebuilt. She may be brand new, but it’s like she’s never been gone. And I left feeling comforted, just like always.