I was nine when my dad took me to see the last Sutter bridge. It was eight miles out on the back end of somebody’s ranch, somebody who, my dad said, didn’t even know it was there. I didn’t want to go. I was mad at him, and I knew he was still mad at me.
Jay and Mike were over, and we were digging in the backyard, just making holes for the sake of making holes. When you’re nine, you can do stuff like that. My dad pushed open the screen door and came outside with the keys to the truck, and he looked at me and said, “Let’s go.”
I didn’t want to see the bridge. I almost told him so. But he was my dad, and it was no good arguing. We went around front and got in the truck. Jay and Mike were okay without me. They were better friends, anyway—they went to school together five days a week.
Dad didn’t let me go to school. I was homeschooled.
I didn’t say anything on the drive. The truck bumped over ruts and watertracks in the road, and I mostly looked out the window. Dad didn’t say much either. Just one thing. As we turned off the main road, he said, “This isn’t about bridges.” I didn’t know what he meant.
The afternoon was yellow and hot when we got there. Dad pulled the truck to a stop, and I looked up. Ahead of us, the road crossed a dry ravine. There were lots of sand canyons around the ranches, and most of them had bridges somewhere or other.
But this one was different.
I’d never seen a bridge like this before, though it looked the way I figured a bridge should look—thick wooden beams, planks, rivets. There was nothing special about it. The wood was dusty and worn from years of weather. From where we sat in the truck, it was just another old bridge. Different, sure, but old. It didn’t look safe.
Dad shut off the engine and we sat for awhile looking out at the bridge. I had no idea why we were there. I was bored. I wondered what Jay and Mike were doing.
Dad broke the silence. “That bridge has been there for almost sixty years. It’s older than the ranches, older than me and your mother.”
I wasn’t interested. “It doesn’t look safe.”
Dad turned to face me. “You’re right. It doesn’t.”
“So why are we here?” I sighed. “This isn’t about bridges, you said. Okay. What’s the point?”
Dad looked out at the bridge again. I watched him. He seemed sad, like he was remembering things. “It was one man who built most of the bridges in this county, before I was born,” he said. “He built them on his own, back when you didn’t need government engineers and environmental advocates and community planners looking over your shoulder. Back then, if you dug deep enough and your supports were strong, a bridge would last forever.”
Dad stopped, like he wasn’t sure how to continue. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. I watched him, quiet. “You hear on the news about bridges collapsing all the time,” he said. He shook his head, a smile at the corner of his mouth. “This one’s still standing. Sutter built a lot of bridges, and he built them right. For him, there was something like love in it.”
He turned to look at me, and there was a passion in his eyes that I’d never seen before. He seemed alive to me, for the first time, like a kid—like Jay and Mike. But I knew he was a grown-up. He was my dad. He was so much more than they were.
He went on, “Last night, when you asked if you could go to public school with your friends next year, I said no. Then I realized I’d never told you why.” He nodded toward the bridge, the one Sutter had built all those years ago that had never fallen under sixty years of weight and weather. “This is why.” He turned to me again. “Do you understand?”
I did understand. I nodded.
Jay and Mike were okay without me. That was alright.
The bridge waited ahead of us, silent and sturdy. “Dad,” I said, “let’s cross it.”
He smiled and put the truck in gear. Cylinders turned. The motor thrummed. Tires bit dirt.
We drove forward together into the dusk.
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