8/4/10

Hawthorn Bridge Adrift in Time

The Hawthorn Bridge turns 100 this year and, as a part of the Portland Bridge Festival, I thought I'd share my experience of the bridge.
The span lifts!
(photo copyright 2010 Aaron Schultz)

Part 2 (Part 1 is on my photography blog and is more photo, less lyrical essay)

Stepping onto the Hawthorn Bridge a subtle new reality slowly takes over my awareness. I smell a sentient mix of metal and river. The roadway sings as each car passes. The elegant superstructure latticesses light and oncoming traffic. A soft breeze carrying sun or rain, but always tinted with moisture, caresses my exposed skin. Whizzing bikers pass on my left while tourists lean against the railing and gaze at the river. I feel my identity drift away and a new definition of time and place take over.

My favorite part is when the span lifts as it has been doing for 100 years. First, off in the distance, there is an air horn blast from an approaching boat, usually a tugboat pushing a barge. Then spinning warning lights blink red and a barely tolerable, high-pitched sound repeats. A voice, magnified by loud speakers, says “all pedestrians clear the span and stand behind the white line.” Preceded by a loud bang the span unhitches from the deck and rises. Finally, the barge goes under the bridge and then I see the pilothouse of the tugboat float across the deck, pilots diligently staring forward, shadowed by the span.

Tugboat pilothouse moves under the span
(photo copyright 2010 Aaron Schultz)
But that’s not all. As the powerful engine-wash from the back of the tugboat comes into view and the warning sound continues to chirp, the voice now repeats, “stand clear of the rising gates and behind the white line!” It is always calm and insistent, almost comforting but in total command. Even though I haven’t moved during this production I always double-check my distance to the white line. The bridge shutters softly and the span begins to lower, stopping two feet above the deck so the operator can make sure everything is lined up correctly. Then with a shutter and a bang the bridge reunites. The chirping stops, the gate raise and everybody breaks forward, their business no longer on hold.

At first I thought the voice was a recording, but one day a man ignored the voice and the warning sound and continued to stand in the middle of the span. The voice changed from polite but insistent to annoyed and urgent. As the barge bellowed it’s air horn again and bored towards the Hawthorn Bridge I realized a computer couldn’t change tone like that and somebody actually inhabited the old operators cabin above the bridge. Finally, a lady ran to the middle of the span and tapped the man on the shoulder. Maybe he forgot his hearing aide when he packed for vacation.

The Hawthorn Bridge exists in a reality all it’s own. As I travel across it I feel I am transitioning between worlds and suspended in time. The murky water of the Willamette flows below me, the sky arches above me and Mt Hood gazes from far away while the neighborhoods murmur at my back and the downtown beckons. Surrounding me with its song, smell and gentle swaying, the Hawthorn Bridge makes me want to forget my hearing aide and stare forever at the stream of time.

(Please check out part 1.)

Sunset over the Hawthorn Bridge and downtown Portland
(photo copyright 2010 Aaron Schultz)

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