In the woods, a bridge is born
My sudden sidling up to Bruce Wisely was fueled by romance. Not for Bruce, a fine fellow, but for what he represented: A chance to build bridges.
I’ve long been taken by bridges— from the audacious Golden Gate to the doomed Tacoma Narrows — and much like George Castanza always wanted to pretend he was an architect, I’ve fancied myself a structural engineer. So when John Lanman, our workday crew chief, asked who wanted to help Bruce build a pair of 16-foot bridges, I was the first at Bruce’s side. I was in a reverie, picturing a budding career as a volunteer bridge builder when Lanman threw a little water on my dream
“You’ll need to haul in the lumber so far,” he said.
“How far is ‘so far’?” I asked.
“Maybe a tenth of a mile,” John answered. He neglected to mention that railroad ties were involved.
Sixty of us were assembled — huddled, really — at the Thunder Hill Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway last Saturday morning, eager to get to work. Eager and huddled because despite the fact it was mid-July, we were standing in a cold drizzle, a drizzle that would elevate to a cold rain as the day progressed. Our goal: to complete a handful of projects over a five-mile stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, projects that would complete this stretch and create a 300-mile unbroken run of trail, the longest continuous stretch on this work-in-progress that will one day span North Carolina, running 1,000 miles from Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee border to Jockey’s Ridge on the coast. Other options — basic trail clearing, standing in a cold mountain stream and hauling up sand and stone to build a bank upon which the trail would pass — were available, but I wanted to build a bridge.
I’ve long been an aficionado of trail bridges. For instance, nothing brings a sense of relief when hiking the Smokies in winter than coming upon a roaring creek over which a log cut lengthwise with a single branch-hewn handrail assists passage (twice I’ve had backpacking trips radically rearranged as a result of a missing bridge). For awhile I was enamored with the experimental chicken-wire-encased rock-step bridges that popped up one season in the Wilson Creek area. They were unobtrusive, enhancing the area’s untamed feel while offering stable creek crossings to the unstable. A rustic bridge of unmilled lumber once crossed a seasonal creek on a stretch of Company Mill Trail at Umstead, but it quickly succumbed to the scrutiny of State Park regulations. Those same regulations have, for the past several years, demanded that eyesore handrails be placed on even the most modest of bridges. Longtime backpacker Chris David, also a fan of a good bridge, tells of Tim Warren, a bridgemaker in Brevard who has graced the Bartram Trail with “works of art.”
I didn’t necessarily want to help build the Sistine Chapel of bridges. I just wanted to see how the things came to be.
With a lot more planning and forethought than I would have invested, it turns out.
A trailer attached to Bruce’s Ford SUV was stacked two feet deep with treated lumber, ranging from four 16-foot-long 2x12s, eight six-foot 4x4s and 12 8-foot 2x4s, to a passel of 3/4-inch 3-foot-by-6-inch deck planks. (A pile of four-foot long railroad ties lurked at the trailhead, which I chose not to acknowledge.) As we started to haul the lumber the tenth of a mile to the construction site, I couldn’t help but wonder whether half this lumber would go unused and we’d end up hauling it back to the trailer.
No chance, it turned out.
Earlier, Bruce had surveyed the two sites — one a small creek, the other a low-lying march — figured out how long the bridges needed to be, returned home to the Triangle, got the lumber he needed, then cut and preassembled it at his home. Crucial bridge parts were ID’d — one bridge with numbers the other letters — key support locations were marked with Sharpies. If you’d put together a model car as a kid, you could put together one of Bruce’s bridges. Ingenious.
We started by building the support structure — the “box,” Bruce called it — for both bridges: the 16-foot-long 2x12s joined every couple of feet by 2x12 cross supports. The only trick here: finding a flat spot for assembly. With every part precut and labeled, the two boxes went together lickity-split. Before placing the support structures in place we had to place and level the 6x6 bridge supports, then anchor them into the mostly soft (save for the ill-placed tree-root or submerged rock) ground with rebar. Once the supports were in place we set the box on top, anchored the box with posts that doubled as handrail supports, hammered down the pre-cut deck planks, then threw up the hand rails. It took the eight of us two-and-a-half hours tops to actually build both bridges. In an astonishingly short amount of time, two boot-soaking, 16-foot stretches of the MST had been eliminated.
I stood marveling at these simple bridges that might well outlive me. Marveling not so much at the structures themselves, but at the thought and planning that made them so simple as well as the eight pairs of volunteer hands that brought them to life. I wondered how many times I would cross these bridges in my hiking lifetime, and concluded “lots.”
But not today. They had that new-bridge sheen, and I wasn’t about to spoil that with my muddy boots.