This is a guest post from Bill Milligan who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is the iconic Mackinac Bridge in Michigan. “Mighty Misgivings” first appeared in Traverse Magazine.
Whenever our family piled into our Buick and headed for the Upper Peninsula back in the 70s, I spent a considerable amount of time examining the plastic floor mats of the car— at least during the five or so minutes it took to scoot across the Mackinac Bridge. Not because I was afraid, but because that was the time I always chose to look for lost coins and gum wrappers under the seat.
Crossing the Straits was a rather intense experience for me no matter how much fudge I gulped for courage. It still is.
Our Michigan-Michigan border defines stark beauty: An expanse of cold, fresh water decisively breached by tons of concrete, steel, cable. On the southern shore you’re in the Lower Peninsula. On the northern shore you’re in the Upper Peninsula. There is no casual crossing of an imaginary line dissecting bean fields or a wooded hill sloping gently down into a town “just across the border.” The act is deliberate: no one accidentally stumbles into the Upper Peninsula or casually retreats back into the lower half.
Nowadays I can’t look at the floorboards because I’m usually driving when I cross the Bridge with my own family. My wife Kim, the passenger side passenger, wouldn’t be happy if I suddenly curled into a fetal position while pushing the gas pedal of our car. She believes that good driving involves watching the road, not rooting under the seat for coins and candy.
So I watch. Straight ahead. Hands at 10 and 2, knuckles white, back straight, the looming towers of the Mighty Mac centered in my steering wheel like giant bucks in the gun site of a scrawny kid in the advanced throes of buck fever.
I admit that ominous image can be a bit hard for a rational person to conjure up, especially on placid days splashed in blues, the ferries cutting white lines through the water and kids riding shotgun in RVs pointing excitedly at the boats “way down there.”
And it seems downright silly for me to braid my innards over this irrational trepidation, given that moms and children and grandmothers walk across the bridge every Labor Day. On purpose. But if you’re like me, and you know who you are, feeling a slight sense of tummy-tingling dread when crossing the Mighty Mac is normal.
That feeling has always lingered in me, a resilient bug not squashed by repetition or maturity. The quaint fudge shops, pastie outlets, and ferry docks that pin-prick the natural beauty of the Straits have a soothing effect of reassuring me that we are supposed to be there. And occasionally, if needed, engage in a bridge crossing.
Makes perfect sense. Humans made the fudge; humans made the bridge. It’s funny how fear gets my mind working in binary simplicities like that when faced with the reality that in order to get from here to there I have to hurl myself over the turbulent waters of the Mackinac Straits for several miles.
There have been moments on the Bridge when I wished to be on a ship flying a French flag over 250 years ago, even if that meant British cannons firing live rounds in my direction and having to wear chap-inducing pants. Of course, that wish only ever lasts a few minutes. It evaporates right about the time the toll booth attendant smiles and says “$2.50, please.”
At that point, through relief and self-chastisement, I’ll have a quick inner conversation with myself that pooh-poohs my thirty years of bridge-crossing uneasiness: silly me. What was I thinking? It is an inner conversation born of sincerity, an epiphany as well as a ritualistic revelation.
If I’m lucky, I might even possess, along with my new-found-but-never-staying courage, the exact token fare—no doubt the result of rooting under the seat for quarters on the trip over.
Bill Milligan teaches writing, literature, and communications at Bay College in Escanaba. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.