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 godawful 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 bloody 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.
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