The Broken Bridge
400 miles and hours of driving, days of packing and months of planning, all were being undone by an ugly, pastel colored bridge. It looked like something out of the 1950’s, and it was. The modern buildings on the river banks made it look out of place, the two-tone blue and white didn’t help. This bridge was the only way across the waterway, and it was broken.
This bridge, I quickly learned, was the only way to get from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Keweenaw County. While the U.P. juts into Lake Superior and then curls south to touch the Lower Peninsula, Keweenaw sticks out straight into the lake without ever looking back. This is the destination for my family’s standard vacation, the Copper Country.
Keweenaw is quite small but there is one special town, Copper Harbor, which we all wanted to see. My grandfather grew up there, and was excited to show us around. In 2001, I took my first and until now last trip there and I was finally going back to it, the last town before the land is engulfed by the largest lake in the world. I was six and I barely remembered it, but this time I would.
We were reaching the end of our journey. Houghton, the last city before the Keweenaw Waterway and the largest city in Copper Country, was nearing. The valley we were entering had Houghton on one side and Hancock on the other. They are sister cities, together holding less than 20,000 people. For years they faced each other, so close but separated by a small strip of water that only permitted access when it froze in the winter. Ferries and a wooden bridge were replaced by the bridge that sits today. The sister cities yearly celebrate the Portage Lift Bridge for connecting them together. On the trip I learned that the state had bought it cheap and never meant for it to last this long. The breakdowns were starting to become more frequent.
The line of stopped cars told my grandfather that the bridge was up, a good time to stop, and we went to a small park below the bridge. After much staring, we noticed that the movable truss appeared to be wedged in. In a scene that looked like it was out of a disaster movie, people left their cars in the street and stared up not at a UFO or meteorite, but the broken bridge that had stopped their commute. We were stuck so close to our objective it seemed to be mocking us, a drive up the other valley wall and we would have been at our motel. Houghton and Hancock had reverted to their pre-bridge forms, so close that they could have almost played catch. As the crowd grew and the cars piled up, people started offering rides in their boats to people a quarter-mile from home. Sitting on our benches and snapping photos of what we feared would be the extent of our trip, the crowd had started clamoring. The truss had moved. We were just coming to terms with our trip being cut off, but that idea was quickly thrown out. It moved! Two hours of waiting had paid off! (It seemed longer I swear).
The trip continued, and this time I remembered most of it. We made it to our little motel on the other side of the valley and my grandfather showed us around his childhood home. If you ever go to the Upper Peninsula, I recommend him as a tour guide.
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