Bridges– we’ve got to love them, living on the Mississippi. We have so many fine examples of them. Ancient symbols of communication and friendship, of crossing divides and building relationships, they inspire us. And the most intriguing bridge of all has to be the one between Fort Madison, Iowa, and Niota, Illinois. Few bridges reveal the complexity of life more than that one.
Double-deckered, toll boothed, combined railroad and wheeled vehicle, swing-spanned to allow tugs and barges to pass, with curves to block the view of oncoming traffic, lights and gates and stop signs in the middle of it, the Fort Madison bridge is a wonder! It crosses a long span of deep and shallow waters where the Mississippi widens to one of its large pools. Crossing it is an adventure, even as eagles, geese, seagulls and storks draw our attention away from the narrow lanes we must concentrate on. What will we meet at the blind curves– a sixteen wheeler or something bigger? Will the gate bar the way, and allow us to stop, get out of the car and take a stretch near the sign that says not to leave your vehicle, and watch the barge traffic pass by, and the amazing swing span swing back into place?
Leaving Iowa we now pay the dollar toll. Inflation has increased that toll charge 400 % in the last twenty-five years. But entering Iowa is free! Heaven itself. We usually drive both ways, leaving and returning, but sometimes we have the advantage of driving farther, heading from Iowa into Missouri, into Arkansas, and back to Illinois, and then the whole trip seems free. But why must we stop at the toll booth if we do not have to pay a toll? Is it to smile and nod at the person who is not looking in our direction anyway? Is it a formality of paying respects to the Iowan who lets us pass free into the fields of opportunity?
Traveling alongside a train that then disappears underneath your vehicle as you ascend to the second deck also provokes some thought. How can this seemingly fragile construction of old and rusty steel girders bear so much weight and vibration at the same time? We always have a lot of company making this crossing, coming and going and stopped in the middle. We shake, rattle, but so far have not rolled.
The symbolic possibilities of this bridge are endless. Nevertheless I am hung up on the physical and literal impression it makes. How can we call it a symbol when it is itself a wonder? Yet communication, friendship, crossing divides, building relationships, taking our journeys beckon our imagination not to stop meditating about the possibilities and similarities with parts of our two way, many-decked, toll-filled, stop and start, curving, vibrating, cumulative experience.
It’s worth a dollar, or even taking a swing through Lomax and Dallas City (which arguably might not be worth a dollar themselves) to cross it. May it stand as long as we all need it, and we do need it!