Bridges (Excerpt from my book, Chiseled, A Memoir of Identity, Duplicity and Divine Wine)
by Danuta Pfeiffer
(Junction City, ORegon)
WE LOST THE ROAD AT THE HIGHEST POINT ON the Alaska Highway. Fluffy, white snow camouflaged a varnish of ice up Steamboat Mountain as the Ford snorted against the incline. The temperature gauge inched into the red zone. Steam belched from the hood. My mother pounded the steering wheel. “Come on. Come on!” Coughing and choking, the car had finally reached the summit at Milepost 392, an elevation of 4,250 feet.
The landscape before us would have made a beautiful postcard if it weren’t so diabolically real. Snowcapped peaks circled us like tepees. The snow had become a silent menace lying deep about us, concealing the road. The anemic sun cast half-hearted shadows across the landscape of ridges, boulders, and embankments. The bony branches of buried trees sprouted from gnarly mounds of snow like tangles of wire. Summit Lake spread before us enshrouded by a dusty cerulean fog that made the lake look like it was floating in midair.
The instant Mom and I stepped out of the car the atmosphere seemed to crackle with cold, the icy air biting into my flesh like fire. We dashed ahead to survey the road, if you could call it that. The passage forward was more like a suggestion—a narrow depression—and in some spots, the icy blanket flattened out to no suggestion whatsoever.
“Could use some tire chains about now,” Mom said under her breath as we hightailed it back to the car. “We’ll have to pussyfoot through here.” We crept around curves, zigzagged up switchbacks, and twisted into shallow valleys, occasionally stopping to make sure the road was beneath us. It was hard to tell; the road was gravel and dirt and ice below the snow, just like everything else in the Yukon. The route was pretty obvious in another way: either plow into a glacier bulging over the road or fall off a cliff, chances were pretty good that the road was somewhere in between. There were no guard rails, no motels, no signs of humanity at all. We pussyfooted for 202 miles without seeing another soul on the road. This wasn’t anything new, really. We were used to being lost.
I nodded off and on in a fitful space between wakefulness and nightmares, never sure which was the dream. At times I’d be cowering in my room as my father blasted through the door in all his fury and thunder, and other times I’d be insulated back in our 1965 Ford sedan traveling four thousand miles through burning ice. I found my bearings in my mother’s riveting focus on the road ahead and in the holy cargo tucked in the back seat: my four-year-old brother, Michael, my tabby cat, Bruce, curled up in his lap, and my baby, Paul, sleeping in the wicker basket.
Mom hadn’t slept for two days. And she never turned the car engine off. Never. It was the unwritten code of harsh winters even back home in Michigan. Cold kills. Engines freeze. If she had shut the engine down, we probably would have frozen to death in that icy tin can. As it was, we could have ended up at the bottom of a gorge had my mother not answered a call to courage.
I woke up when I heard Mom say, “Oh, oh.” It was early and ice fog filtered the light through a gauzy, frozen lens. The linen sky cast no shadows on the Yukon landscape. Thick, scruffy trees and still pines sprouted from the snow and hedged the road. A snowcapped mountain mocked us in the distance as if to bar our way. Ahead of us appeared a narrow passage in the brush.
Mom stopped the car and hollered, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
We saw what could only jokingly be called a bridge. The structure was about a hundred feet long and thirty feet wide. It was made of logs rolled together perpendicular to the road and spanned a steep gully of boulders leading to a frozen chasm of ice fifty feet below. A rickety railing of tree limbs leaned out of reach from the sides, warning of imminent collapse if touched. Crossing the logs were two tracks of four-by-six planks nailed to the logs, wide enough for a single tire. Nothing seemed to hold the bridge up in the middle, no crisscross boards, no slats, no pilings. Only a stack of more logs under each end held the span to the opposing bank.
“It’s a simple bridge,” my mother said. She loved bridges and was always fascinated by their supports and suspensions, bridges that spanned the gaps from one impossible bank to another. She often said were she not a nurse, she’d be a designer of bridges. The snow crunched under her knee as she knelt to examine the structure. “There may be a girding, or something underneath, but I can’t see it. If it can’t hold the car. . . .”
Her sentence drifted off as she glanced back down the road, perhaps wondering if the bridges we left behind were better than the bridges ahead. Maybe she hoped a repair truck might come barreling up with extra pilings or a serviceable railing or maybe another way around the chasm, but the Alcan was a desolation of wilderness filled with bears and awful cold. No one would save us but ourselves.
“Okay, we’ve got to get across this thing. There’s no going around it.” She pulled off her gloves and stuffed them in her pocket. “But just in case, we’re going to walk across it first. You and Michael go ahead of me. I’ll carry the baby. Then I’ll go back and drive the car across.”
“What do you mean, just in case?” I asked.
“If the car doesn’t make it, at least you children won’t be at the bottom of the gorge.” She said it with flint in her eyes.
“But, what happens if . . . ”
“No ifs. Just do as I say.” That no-nonsense tone of a British nurse made her sound perfectly reasonable. She took Michael and Paul out of the car and zipped Mike’s jacket tight, putting him in front of me. “Hold his collar and don’t let go,” she commanded. She clutched the baby and we faced the bridge.
“Wow,” Michael said, pointing to the abyss below, “Look at that.”
“Never mind. Don’t look down.” Mom nudged me towards the bridge. “I want you to walk slowly. Keep your eyes on the other side. Michael, you go first. Danny, you next, hold onto the collar of his coat and for God’s sake don’t let go of him.”
We walked in a tight single file, without side rails, or posts, or anything to hold on to. Air above and air below, we walked the plank, one foot in front of the other. The distant bank wobbled in my sights. I felt seasick on the sweeping space about me. I looked down at the narrow board suspending me at a breathless height. The logs beneath the four-by-six planks were not tightly set and in some spots the snow fell between them, revealing spaces wide enough for someone my size to slip through.
“Keep your eyes on the other end.” My mother’s cool voice came from behind. “And don’t look down.”
The bank grew closer and leveled out to a firm promise. When we planted our feet on the opposite side, Michael stomped his boots into the snow, confirming solid ground. We stood quietly staring back across the bridge at the car we left behind. The Ford looked small and abandoned. Our breath hung suspended in icy clouds above our heads. The sweat on my face burned as it froze on my nose and cheeks.
I took Paul from my mother’s arms and held Michael’s hand, and she walked back across the plank to the car. The three of us clung to one another, watching her. She sat in the car, staring at the bridge, bargaining with the gods, and finally gave a little wave. We waved back. Mom started the car forward and sighted it with the bridge. She got out and came around the front to make sure the tires aligned with the planks. Her stomach must have been doing flips.
What if she fell through the bridge? What were we kids supposed to do, standing in the middle of the Alcan? I guess my mother believed we’d have a chance on the road; maybe a car might come along before it was too late. There would be no chance at the bottom of a crevasse. I figured we’d be goners, either way.
Michael called out to her, “Mommy, are you coming?”
“It’ll be okay.” She sounded far away.
“Shush, Michael. Let Mommy drive the car.” I squeezed his little hand.
The front tires inched up onto the planks. The bridge groaned. The car stopped. Mom leaned her head out. She let up on the brake. The front wheels rolled on and the back tires ran up each plank. The car crept onto the bridge. The crevasse below and the bridge above held our lives suspended as we bargained on my mother’s dead reckoning. The bridge creaked and the planks moved slightly under the weight. Eternal seconds later, the front wheels crunched into snow and the back tires followed onto terra firma. Our lives were back.
“Yay!” Michael clapped his hands. Mom jumped out of the car and hugged all of us.
“You did it!” I bounced Paul in my arms.
“Had to.” She gave her British no-nonsense nod.
As we sped away, I wondered if we would ever have to cross a bridge like that again.
Check out this Alaska Highway story by the same author