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February 2012

Life Span

The pleasures—and pain—of loving a landmark

My son and I race across the covered bridge. He’s waddling, snowpants swishing, arms thrust out from his puffy coat like airplane wings. I’m jogging backward with my baby girl on my hip, squeezing hard as her snowsuit’s fabric slips against my parka. The bridge, which spans the Ausable River, is practically in our front yard, so these laps add just a few minutes to our walk to day care. It’s a snow-globe scene in the Adirondacks this morning—fat flakes falling, the surrounding Jay Range capped white, the noisy river below muffled by a layer of ice. The covered bridge makes it all seem ridiculously quaint.

Since 1846 a structure—in a handful of incarnations thanks to floods, ice jams, logging rigs and a runaway soda delivery truck—has connected the banks of the Au­sable in Jay. Today’s pedestrian-only 175-foot-long stretch still has timbers from one of its 19th-century predecessors, but that doesn’t matter to me. What’s there now is part of my daily landscape, as sure as my crooked little cottage and Adirondack Life’s village green headquarters just up the way.

How many revelers have leaned through this wooden tunnel’s windows and contemplated something heavy as they stared down at the cold rush that begins in the High Peaks, careens through Jay, then collides with its west branch at Au Sable Forks? The river continues on to Ausable Chasm and, ultimately, Lake Champlain. From my house it’s always there, a steady, calming whoosh. Except in early spring, when jagged sheets of ice push down the riverbed, rumbling past like the Polar Express. And last summer, during Irene, when it was a deafening, dirty, dead-smelling force that scared me to higher ground.

In a more tranquil time, a handful of arctic Januarys ago after my son was born, I was weepy and anxious, holed up at home. My husband bundled us and coaxed me out for a walk to the frozen river. In photographs from that day I look like myself again: satisfied, admiring our baby, the shots framed by the bridge and the bluest sky.

Jay’s span quickly established itself in our child-rearing routine. At nap time the rhythm of its uneven planks lulled my son—and later, my daughter—to sleep in the stroller. When the kids learned to walk, excursions to the bridge were, and still are, a way to expend energy, particularly when rain and snow impede crucial toddler exercise. It’s part of the introductory itinerary for my houseguests too: Here’s where you’ll sleep, this is where we keep the towels, and right this way is our covered bridge.

There’s a price for loving something that’s no more mine than the river and mountains. The fresh initials gouged into the bridge’s trusses, and litter left by picnickers or wedding parties, seem like a personal assault. On hot days, as my family and I splash below the bridge and our Lab mutt jumps dolphin-style after sticks, I’m a distracted, uptight steward, worrying over irreverent behavior by those loitering in the bridge on their way to the rapids—Jay’s version of a community pool.

More troubling was the death last August of Kevin, a great blue heron who built his nest near the span. Each day he would stand below it like a proud, goofy wildlife ambassador. Two local men al­legedly stoned Kevin, mangling his wings. They used him as target practice while sightseers and swimmers watched in horror. At day care my son learned the fate of the bird he’d named, the creature to whom he’d wave each night during our family strolls across the bridge. I’m ashamed and guilty: that I share this pretty space with such cruel humans; that I wasn’t there to save Kevin.

After the incident my son, thoughtful and optimistic the way young children are, assured me another bird would come take Kevin’s place. Sure enough, John soon arrived. He flapped his pterodactyl wings overhead and, wisely, roosted farther up­stream than Kevin had. From the bridge our new neighbor’s silhouette against the Adirondack dusk belonged on a logo—an image that conveyed hopefulness and renewal.

Whether it’s this land and its creatures, our loved ones or our livelihoods, change comes from every direction at im­possible speed. That’s another reason why the bridge appeals to me. It anchors my days and disguises the chaos with a sleepy small-town symbol.

Someday my children will walk to the bridge without me, maybe to think or fish or hang with friends, to smooch or smoke or do what kids do. For now, on this wintry morning, we go for one more lap. I let my son run ahead and watch him cross to the other side.

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