My junior year in college I used to bum rides to Bloomington to see my girlfriend. I made a lot of trips down State Road 46 and came to know the road well. The halfway point was the Eel River near Bowling Green, marked by a pale green steel bridge, the kind with all the beams over your head as you drive through. I had never much paid attention to bridges before, but when this one became a milestone I started to look forward to it. Eventually, I came to appreciate it.
I was in engineering school at the time, studying mathematics. My friends in the engineering disciplines were all busy designing things, and because I could see the work that went into their projects I came to appreciate the engineering work that went into this steel truss bridge. I even learned a little bit about how the steel structure supported the weight of the cars that passed over, distributing the load throughout.
So those beams were not decoration; every one was deliberately placed to do a job. Yet I enjoyed looking at them, studying them even, as much as I enjoyed experiencing the art the summer I worked in a museum.
Every trip brought a new bridge experience. As the sun’s angle and intensity varied trip to trip, so varied the shadows the bridge cast, revealing new detail every time, often calling attention to the river or its banks.
Overcast days removed the warm shadows and brought focus to the structure itself, stoically doing its job.
After that girlfriend and I broke up I still had reasons to go to Bloomington and cross the bridge. Over the years, the bridge itself changed as rust slowly took it over. And then on one trip it sported a fresh coat of pale green paint, ready to rust anew.
I once met an artist named Christo. He and his wife Jeanne-Claude are famous for wrapping a million square feet of Australian coastline in synthetic fabric; hanging saffron-colored strips of cloth from saffron-colored vinyl poles in New York’s Central Park; and filling two valleys on separate continents with 26-foot-wide umbrellas, blue ones in Japan and yellow ones in California. Their individual works each mean to say things about specific subjects, but for me the thread that holds them together is how they draw attention to their environments, helping us see them with new eyes.
I haven’t been down that stretch of SR 46 in at least 15 years. These photos are of other steel truss bridges in Indiana. The first crosses the Wabash River in Peru on old US 31, the second and third carry SR 42 over the Eel River near Poland, the fourth is US 36 over the Wabash River in Montezuma, and the fifth carries SR 42 over Mill Creek west of Eminence. But thanks to Google Maps I know the SR 46 steel bridge is still there. Maybe next spring I’ll go back, and if I do I’ll be sure to take my camera and share photos with you here. But much like Christo’s work, photographs seldom do public art justice. Most Hoosiers will never experience Christo’s work in person, but almost all Hoosiers live within an easy drive of a steel truss bridge.