In going through my photos I realized I had cycled across hundreds of bridges along the Panamerican Highway. Some small and seemingly insignificant, some majestic and famous. All of them helping to make the journey easier and often offering great vistas. I published a commented selection of 20 bridges on Picasa. These range from bridges across mighty rivers like the Yukon or Columbia River to the Golden Gate bridge over the bay of San Francisco to the Puente de las Americas across the Panama Canal. It also includes a few smaller but scenic bridges in South-America, such as on the Carreterra Austral in Chile.
Bridges have always been a symbol of connecting two opposite shores, of enabling the seamless continuation of a journey. Some of these bridges are icons of engineering feats, of daring solutions to a natural challenge or gap. Many invited to stop and pause, take in the view from up there and reflect about the ingenious design and hard mechanical labor that went into building them.
Most of these bridges like the Nitsulin-Bay-Bridge on the Alaska Highway didn’t exist in the early 20th Century; back then one would have had to take a boat to get across the water. Of course I still had to make some such crossings, such as the ferry from the Baja California to mainland Mexico, the mini-boats across Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, or the ferry across the windy Magellan Straight separating Tierra del Fuego from the Northern part of Patagonia. (And I got stuck once for two days when a scheduled ferry ride was cancelled near Villa O’Higgins in South Chile.) I always enjoyed riding across bridges. Often it reminded me of the many things we take for granted in this day and age.
Reaching the Golden Gate Bridge on sunny Labor Day in September 2009 was certainly a highlight of my trip. I had seen a photo of this same bike on the website of Stefan Dudli who rode the Panamerican Highway on this recumbent the previous year. Picturing this moment was one powerful visual motivator for me during the initial part of my journey.
Reaching and crossing the Bridge of the Americas over the Panama Canal in December 2009 was a very emotional moment for me. Long days of intense heat and many miles had finally come to an end with reaching this bridge with the elegant arch on the outskirts of Panama City. I realized I had finished the North- and Central-America part of my journey and would soon be reunited with my family for a well-deserved break over Christmas and New Year. Riding up the bridge span was exhausting and with the narrow lanes and lots of traffic a bit dangerous. But rolling down the other side brought elation and relief from all the tension. Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks – I will always remember that great feeling of accomplishment.
“Let’s cross that bridge when we get there!” This saying also embodies the sentiment that many things along a trip like this can’t be planned in detail and have to be dealt with in a somewhat ad-hoc fashion. You never quite know what the next day is going to bring, what little challenges are thrown your way, what actual or metaphorical rivers need to be crossed. Accepting that fact, improvising at times and going with the flow of things made the trip less stressful and more fun.
I noticed sponsorship signs of Japanese companies on newly built bridges in Nicaragua, wondering about the intricate network of global interests and dependencies. I also read about individuals who are building bridges as aid to develop poor countries. Says Harmon Parker in this recent article on bridge projects in rural Kenya:
“I have built many bridges in very remote areas for the ‘few and the needy’ that a larger organization may not consider,” he said. “Knowing this bridge will probably save at least one life is what makes me tick. … I build bridges because I want to save lives, lives that I will never know about.”
Whatever the motivation, we owe tribute to those who came before and built the bridges. They serve as a classic and enduring testament to the ingenuity and willpower of mankind. By streamlining the journey to discover a land such as the Americas they also empower our inner journey to discover ourselves.