Bridges tell me their life stories. They groan and bitch like aging weightlifters with bad backs and sore knees, then press thousands of tons into the air anyway. Earthquakes make them nervous, tense. Authors write bad books about them. Transients camp underneath, blackening their concrete bellies. Rivers bite some bridges’ ankles, and rust creeps into their joints.
Just when I think they’re the crankiest, goddamnedest things — and vow it’s the last time I’ll stop to look at their ugly beat-up bodies again—a beauty comes along and I fall in love.
I drive the roads of San Diego County with an agenda: You don’t know when you might spot another canyon dancer, a concrete Nureyev. I hike gorges and find them in places called Goat Canyon and Pine Valley Creek, their sweet lines out of sight from all but the worshipful. We bridge-lovers are lascivious Victorians, craving a glimpse of a well-turned, well-engineered ankle of concrete or steel. Don’t show us too much. We like mystery. We want to wonder how it was built, how it balances the forces of compression and tension deep inside its bones.
As a child, I interpreted the nursery rhyme “London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady” literally. Forget that little game in the school yard, I thought, what does London Bridge look like, and why is it falling down? Did someone build it wrong? Is the lady going to get hurt? Later I would find out that the original London Bridge, completed in 1209, took 33 years to build and killed more than 200 construction workers. Most drowned in the fast-flowing Thames.
A little too prone to adventure in my teens, I created my own version of the bridge scene in the film Stand By Me. Those boys — caught mid-trestle — ran for their lives in front of an angry train. I was out there with friends on purpose. In Stockton, California, where I attended college, the delta is as complex as capillaries. Train bridges crisscrossed water north of town, saying, “Walk on me if you dare. Feel how light you are. I carry much more than you.” On Calaveras Slough one night in the early ’70s, friends and I wedged ourselves into the small railing bump-outs located mid-span in the event that workers were caught on the tracks. A long freight train passed within an arm’s length at 60 miles per hour. Soggy, diesel-smelling winds tore at our clothes. Creosote-soaked timbers screamed with what sounded like pleasure and pain. It was unimaginable ferocity, and we craved it.
We didn’t think of dying. That would steal the pleasure of reaching the other side. Bridges are to cross, the strongest everyday allegory most of us know for vaulting something impassable, flying above it, linking a place with another. We also pass under bridges, and in California some of that enjoyment has been stolen forever. Moving slowly in stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 405 near Santa Monica after the Northridge earthquake, I was about to cross under a massive slab supporting a six-lane surface street. The urge to stop and wait in my lane until traffic cleared ahead of me was overpowering. I ignored the questioning horn of the driver behind me, then drove quickly through the bridge’s shadow.
Each year the more obscure bridges of San Diego County pass their completion anniversaries with no fanfare, no bleary-eyed looks from returning sailors on a carrier’s flight deck, no motorcade. Unlike “Big Blue” now celebrating its 25th, these bridges do silent duty, anonymous in an over-55 mile per hour world (except for Lilac Road’s graceful span over Interstate 15 near Fallbrook and Old Miramar Road’s similar jump over Interstate 805). Most of them are highway bridges, as flashy as blocking linemen guarding against the pass rush, unnoticed until they fail. But to a bridge engineer, they are all different, even lovable if you were the one who designed some of them.
Bert Bezzone stands on the shadowed sidewalk outside Lindbergh Field’s East Terminal, briefcase in hand, wearing casual blue pants and a blue windbreaker. He is thin but not gaunt, in his mid-60s, and carries himself like most tall men, head bent forward as if in deference to someone shorter. His eyes sweep traffic and meet mine through the windshield. Dodging a few idling cars, he slides into the passenger seat.
We have not met before, but I’ve heard plenty about Bezzone from other bridge engineers and acquaintances who admit they stop to look at bridges, even if they live in an area that doesn’t have a single nostalgic chestnut like the classic covered bridges of Oregon. Retired this year from California’s Department of Transportation, Bezzone lives in Sacramento. He headed a bridge design section at a time when the state built a bridge a day. One of them — Pine Valley Creek Bridge on Interstate 8 near Descanso— was his favorite. His name is on the plans.
Pine Valley is famous among bridge engineers. The first prestressed concrete bridge in the U.S., built using a particular kind of cantilever technology, it appeared to defy gravity during construction. Located near two earthquake faults, it also is the first bridge in the world designed with the aid of a modern mainframe computer simulating the effects of a major quake.
I stopped there once, long before I knew of any notoriety, while towing a trailer full of canoes to the Colorado River. The high winds that often close this stretch of interstate were wagging the trailer’s tongue, threatening to pull my ball hitch like a rotten tooth. I waited a few minutes on the west end and checked all tie-down ropes. What the hell, I thought, and edged across the bridge at 25 miles per hour, hoping not to watch ten canoes spill over a railing like airborne aluminum salmon. The canoes held. I knew then that the bridge was high — you could look up and down the canyon to figure that out — but from the road it looked plain, conventional, two generic Caltrans spans separated by a slot of open space.