From the Burlington-Bristol bridge you can see forever

Life is a dream

The two lanes merged as I slipped past the slower car to my right. Two other cars ducked in behind me. We were approaching a one-lane bridge, narrow and high. The roadbed was bright white, clean and new but almost too bright, like the Girard Point Bridge, south on I-95 toward the airport.

(Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for BSR.)

That bridge curves to the right while you’re still high up over a no-man’s land after crossing the Schuylkill at the Delaware. It curves to avoid running into the airport, but in the left lane, high up, curving right, you feel, uneasily, that you could fly out onto the runway.

On this one-lane bridge, though, the roadway soon turned into a steel grid, slippery under the tires. I slid to the left. The cars closed in behind me but I tapped the brakes because of the sliding. Nothing happened.

The left guardrail disappeared. The edge of the road curled up into a chute. My left tires started to ride up it. I stepped on the brake pedal harder. My calf and thigh tightened; the tires felt like ball bearings. The top of the narrow bridge rose up and up and all I saw was sky.

An old acquaintance

It was that dream again. I opened my eyes, levered myself up on an elbow, and made a wry face in the dark. That Burlington-Bristol dream again. It is not a nightmare anymore, as it was when I was a child, but a dream about the Burlington-Bristol Bridge has come to me, in one form or another, all my life.

It will be months or years between visitations of reckless runs over this particular bridge, but they always return. It may mix with other roads, bridges, or water, but it will begin or end with that bridge, my lifelong companion.

I was driven over the Burlington-Bristol only once as a child. Why that bridge, from Pennsauken? I don’t know. Where were we going? Was the Tacony up? Vividly, I remember it being very high and narrow.

I remember being close to its edge and seeing the water way down. The possibility of falling off scared me enough, but being in a car in water frightened me even more. I sat very still. I did not want my little sister to know I was scared.

I had been over the Tacony-Palmyra a few times. The steel grid roadbed in the middle always made the tires shift as they sang. But the Burlington-Bristol, that was precarious. It looked like a strong wind could push it over.

Carefree highway

Both bridges, it turns out, are exactly the same height: 61 feet above the Delaware. The Tacony, though, is almost twice as wide, 38 feet to Burlington’s 20. That’s the difference, the thinness. There is no margin, nothing to hold onto.

While driving, crossing a river, going from one state to another, creating music, or creating a life, I want to hold onto something. Just to make sure. There is so much to control, and so much out of control.

That dream belies my love for driving long distances, through and around cities, over turnpikes and mountains. I don’t mind trucks, tunnels, entrance ramps, or bridges. Cars in the left lane are a persistent odium, but pretty much nothing else bothers me.

Up, up, and away on the real-life Burlington-Bristol bridge. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia.)
Up, up, and away on the real-life Burlington-Bristol bridge. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia.)

A few years ago, I drove over the Burlington-Bristol just to do it. Perhaps I supposed the trip would exorcise my dreams. There was no reason to go from PA-413 to NJ-413. I took my family, we worked back to the Delaware, and walked along the bank.

The bridge is handsome. Under the New Jersey approach, you see its roller-coaster overbuilt ruggedness, warm and proud.

Lucid dreaming

The white roadbed was glowing now. The sky had been overcast for some time, but it was a thin and shifting overcast, with filtered light. The sun was covered but visible. It looked like a yellow moon; you could look right at it through the white and blue-gray.

There was little traffic on the three wide lanes, just a few cars ahead. No one was behind me. Off both sides of the highway, farms rested under a blanket of an old snowfall. It had melted and refrozen into the shine of textured ceramic tile.

This was not a dream. I had been driving all day, from Philadelphia to Ohio for a week of concert rehearsals and recording sessions where the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati was working on my piece, Canticle. I was on the last leg, hadn’t stopped since well inside Pennsylvania four hours ago and pushed the last 90 miles. I remember a sign for Xenia.

How did this happen, that I was driving to hear my music? Why did a person I'd never met ask for it? Why did people tell him about me? How did the piece happen for them? How, every other piece? I went down the list. Why did music come this way, without my control? When I try to make it happen, it doesn’t. When I don’t, it comes.

The white-cream farms rolled off both sides of the highway and behind. Sunlight fell onto the few cars in front of me, bathing them. I followed them in the glow, smiling. It was light through a scrim, bright and soft, broad and white, gentle, still, and warm. Through mist and over snow, a gift descending, flowing like water.

It was like I was swimming in grace, like I was driving in water. 

Our readers respond

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on January 24, 2018

You say, "When I try to make it happen, it doesn’t. When I don’t, it comes." This is the essence of creativity: Ideas come to you when your mind is open and relaxed.
As a writer,  I find I get my best ideas when I'm walking, sleeping, or standing at a urinal in a men's room. That's why I carry a pocket notebook and a pen wherever I go. I want to jot those ideas down before they vanish amid the pressures of daily life.   

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.