Thousands of people suffer from the fear of crossing bridges. The clinical name for this anxiety disorder is gephyrophobia. I should know because I have it.
Yet, on a recent trip to Waldport, I spent time at the Alsea Bay Bridge Interpretive Center, enjoying the historical photographs and engaging exhibits that tell the story of Oregon's coastal bridges. I can appreciate bridges for the marvels of engineering that they are. I just dread having to drive over one.
But more about my phobia later. First, a very brief history of coastal bridge building in Oregon, as gleaned from my visit to the center.
Before 1940, it could take days to drive up the coast from Brookings to Astoria. In Waldport, travelers often encountered long delays waiting for a ferry to carry them across Alsea Bay. The situation was equally frustrating at four other channel crossings — Coos Bay, the Umpqua River, the Siuslaw River and Yaquina Bay.
In 1932, during the Great Depression, the state of Oregon applied to the federal Public Works Administration and received funding for bridges that would close these five gaps along the coastal highway.
Under the leadership of civil engineer Conde McCullough, the state's head of the bridge division of the State Highway Department, work on these projects progressed efficiently and economically.
The Alsea Bay Bridge, with its three graceful arches, opened in 1936, bearing all the hallmarks of the McCullough style. In addition to the soaring arches, it featured a reinforced-concrete design and such ornamental touches as Art Deco entrance columns.
Gradually, over the next 50 years, the bridge's steel reinforcements corroded and its concrete began to crumble. The current structure that spans the bay — featuring just one arch instead of three — opened in 1991. The architects retained the ornate entrance columns.
The state erected the interpretive center on the south bank of the bay to memorialize the old bridge, which had to be demolished. A scale model of the old span is on display at the center. Another highlight of the exhibit room is the recreation of McCullough's office, complete with draftsman's board.
Making beautiful bridges on a tight budget — that was McCullough's claim to fame.
After you have visited the interpretive center, it's time to get better acquainted with the Alsea Bay Bridge by walking across it. I can say that so casually now because I've done it. But it wasn't easy.
After all, I've been known to alter travel routes just to avoid driving over certain bridges. Particularly very long and/or very high ones. The Fremont Bridge in Portland comes frightfully to mind.
The one time I foolishly attempted to cross that bad boy, I became overwhelmed by anxiety, slowed my car to a snail's pace, and began shaking. As traffic whizzed by me, I feared that I would lose control and start screaming.
I'm actually able to drive across the Alsea Bay Bridge just fine, thank you. Compared to the Fremont Bridge, it's not very high. And its length is just six-tenths of a mile.
But walking across it — well, I tried that once, about a year before my most recent attempt. I thought the experience would do me good. I thought it would help me face my demons and get this debilitating phobia behind me.
But a stiff wind was blowing that day, and I was afraid I'd be knocked over the railing. I made it maybe 50 yards beyond the interpretive center before turning back.
This time would be different, I decided. For one thing, it was a perfectly calm day. Plus, I had my family with me for support.
"Relax," said my wife, sensing my tension as we began our climb toward the arch. "It's just like walking to the post office."
Wrong. The sidewalk in my hometown is not suspended in the air.
I did, though, appreciate her encouraging words.
Our daughter, walking ahead of us, veered to the railing to look out over the bay.
"What are those ducks with the orange beaks?" she called to me.
"Black necks with a white patch?" I inquired, without daring to look where she was pointing. "They're surf scoters."
Keeping my eyes focused straight ahead, while reminding myself to take big breaths of the fresh sea air, I managed to make it to the other side.
On the return trip, I was feeling so comfortable that I stopped to take pictures of the beautiful blue sky through the arch. I even braved some peeks over the railing and saw a party of harbor seals swimming below me.
Jazzed by my triumph over irrational fear, I awoke the next morning ready to cross the bridge once again. But, alas, the old feelings of nervousness and dread overtook me less than five minutes into my walk. The bridge seemed twice as high and twice as long as it did the day before, and I couldn't go on. Although I have made strides, kicking my gephyrophobia is still a work in progress.
Admission to the Alsea Bay Bridge Interpretive Center, which doubles as a Highway 101 visitor center, is free. Using the bridge for therapy is, of course, optional.
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.