18 February 2011


I've always had a thing for bridges, and tunnels, and any non-ordinary structure that enhances a highway or railroad track. In August 1989 my SO and I moved from Tucson, AZ, to Charleston, SC, a city trisected by the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. The Grace Memorial Bridge (see image above, click on any image to enlarge) was especially impressive. Like San Francisco's Bay Bridge, the Grace Bridge is supported partway along its length by an island. Unlike the Bay Bridge, which retains an essentially flat trajectory, the Grace Bridge arched high above the river to allow merchant and military ships to pass beneath. The effect was much like a monumental roller coaster. There were only two lanes in each direction, and the view from the top was spectacular, and a little vertiginous. I tried riding my motorcycle over it a few times, but found that the winds up there were too scary for a vulnerable rider on two wheels, with traffic roaring past inches away.

We settled in the Charleston suburb of Mt. Pleasant, on the east side of the Cooper River. This meant crossing the Cooper River bridge whenever we needed to reach Charleston, which was often. No matter the weather, it was always an exhilarating ride. But weather took on an entirely new meaning when, one month after our arrival, Hurricane Hugo tracked westward across the Atlantic, then turned and aimed directly at the South Carolina coast. (See the track of the storm below -- the center of the hurricane's eye made landfall precisely at Mt. Pleasant.) The governor ordered the entire city of Charleston to evacuate inland, and we did. After hurriedly packing our two vehicles with necessaries and valuables, and taping the windows to prevent shattered glass from littering the house, we set out across the bridge and then onto the freeway north to the state capitol, Columbia -- along with hundreds of thousands of other vehicles. Traffic was crawling bumper to bumper for hours before it finally loosened up.

We stayed in Columbia for three days, hanging on the news, until the governor gave the all clear for Charleston residents to return. Those 120 miles seemed to take forever, for we knew that if the hurricane had destroyed the bridge over the Cooper River, we would not be able to reach home. Our breathless approach ended with a whoop of relief when we saw that magnificent pair of arches still spanning the river. Once onto our own street, there were fallen trees and litter everywhere, with neighbors and contractors already clearing the debris. At home, another relief -- the only damage to our house was a tree which had fallen across one corner of the roof. All else was intact (if you don't count living with no power or hot water for three weeks until repairs were made).

Ironically, Hugo provided me with work. Northeast of the city, the Francis Marion National Forest had been decimated, with millions of trees snapped over like matchsticks, all pointing in the direction of the prevailing winds (which were aimed inland to the right of the storm's eye, and aimed out to sea to the left of the storm's eye, since in the northern hemisphere tropical storms and hurricanes rotate counter-clockwise). That same forest was home to a population of the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker (RCW), and the US Forest Service put out the emergency call for eight wildlife technicians to perform habitat recovery for the RCW, installing artificial nesting cavities at their established colony sites scattered throughout the forest. I was one of the fortunate eight hired for the work, which turned out to be grueling. Restoration involved lugging 80-100 lb. of special ladders, safety gear, tools and supplies through swamps and mazes of downed trees to the colony sites, then (at heights of 20-50 feet) using either chainsaws or drills to create the cavities for the homeless birds. Throw in census checks at dawn and dusk, extremes of heat and humidity, swarms of mosquitoes, an array of venomous snakes, and the occasional personality conflict, and you had a long, long day. But also one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Our stay in South Carolina only lasted for one year, then it was on to Philadelphia, PA; Vancouver, WA; Johnson City, TN. After my ex and I parted ways, I returned to Missoula, in my home state of Montana. Recently a memory prompted me to do a Google image search for the Cooper River Bridge. I was surprised to learn that the old bridge had been replaced by a more modern design, the Ravenal Bridge (see image above), which dwarfs the Grace Bridge in size (see comparison image below), but to my mind could not possibly replicate the thrill of that long, steep climb up and down the arches of the old bridge. I'm certain the Ravenal is safer, and accomodates more traffic, and Charleston residents can certainly be proud of it. Still, I'll always have fond memories of what in my mind will always remain the Cooper River Bridge -- that brontosaurian span which withstood a hurricane.

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