Finding Religion on the Road

Hood River Bridge over Columbia River

Crossing the Columbia River on Hood River Bridge

“Bridges are tricky for a motorcycle,” my husband’s disembodied voice informed me over the intercom in our helmets. We were approaching the awesome bridge that connects Virginia to Maryland on Route 301 and rises thousands of feet above the Potomac River. The closer we got, the more it looked like St. Louis’s Gateway Arch.

“Why?” I asked with the naivety of a first-time rider, but I already had a sixth sense I might not want to know the answer.

“Wind can blow you over. And if there’s metal grating, it makes the wheels want to slip.”

I was already anxious about a capricious blast of wind, as the length and height of the bridge unfolded in front of us. Now I knew it wasn’t the only thing trying to throw us down on the ground, that the road trying to pull itself out from under our wheels. So I did what came naturally—I closed my eyes and held on tight. M husband was a veteran of the open road, so I had little reason to worry. He’d traveled cross-country on his bike several times before we met and chalked up tens of thousands of miles and many bridges. We made it across with both wheels on the pavement, our bodies still upright, and my skirmish with impending death by motorcycle just a figment of my imagination.

My confidence in my husband’s ability continued to grow with each bridge and each trip we took. Even though my heart would always clutch for a brief moment when I spotted a spectacular span looming on our horizon, the comfort of knowing I’d conquered this kind of challenge before always quelled my insecurity.

That ended the day I saw the Hood River Bridge spanning the Columbia River Gorge.

It was a brilliant Sunday morning in August, and we were heading north to Seattle on Route 141, looking forward to a stop at Mt. St. Helen’s along the way. We’d camped out along the Columbia River the night before at The Dalles and had just breakfasted at a motorcyclist’s diner in Hood River. The strong breeze we’d felt wandering up and down State Street in Hood River  looking for a restaurant should have given me some inkling of what we were about to face, as well as the myriad number of wind-surfing shops. But I was naively comfortable with the many bridges I’d conquered in my short motorcycling career and no longer feared anything.

“You know, gusts can reach up to 30 mph in the Gorge,” my husband mentioned casually as we donned our helmets in the diner parking lot.

“Really?”  Just like I’d learned how to lean into the curve, I’d learned to keep my body straight with his, so I figured I’d have any challenges to our upright position nailed if I just stayed in line with him.

“Not so bad by itself,” he continued, “but it’s a narrow, old bridge and the road is an open metal grate. It’s a challenge because the grooves of the grating and the treads of the tires never seem to get in line together, and I’ve got to fight to keep the bike going straight. We’ll have to take it slow, but we can’t go too slow either, or it’s even harder to control. Just sit as still as you can,” he instructed. That was easy; by then I was frozen, my hard-won courage having deserted me.

The bridge itself looked innocuous. It was flat and relatively short compared to some of the monster structures we’d already tackled together. Parked at the traffic light before we began our crossing, the sound of the churning river ahead and the blustery wind were like an awesome, dissonant symphony. As we took off, a stunning scene unfolded before us as we entered the panorama of the Columbia River Gorge. I forgot all my intentions to keep my eyes shut at the spectacular sight of the Columbia River on a Sunday morning filled with hundreds of multi-colored windsurfers collected there to grab the best wind of the day. Brilliant-hued sails peppered the water, all heading swiftly in the same direction like a flock of low-flying, migrating geese.  It was a spectacular regatta of every color in the rainbow, as if the river had come alive with jumping tropical fish. For a few seconds I forgot any angst over our unstable road beneath.

Then I heard a loud hiss through the intercom, and I knew it was my husband sucking in his breath, never a good sign. I sensed the wheels’ attempts to fishtail on the grating as their treads sought an elusive, comfortable groove, and I felt his muscles tighten as he controlled the hundreds of pounds of metal between our legs. By this time I was holding onto him like a bloodsucker.

“It’s better if you don’t look through the grates,” had been his last words of advice while we sat at the light, and of course the moment I remembered that, my eyes flew downward. Through the holes in the grating, the sails of the windsurfers looked like colorful specs on the roiling water below. Reality sank in. We were less than a hundred feet above a raging river that could carry us out to sea in minutes or, at its whimsy, dash us into the huge rocks on the shore, and all we had to keep us from tumbling into it was a relatively thin sheet of metal mesh that was doing its best to confuse the tires beneath us.

This called for reinforcements. It was Sunday morning after all, so I began to pray, reciting every prayer I’d ever learned as a child, some several times over before we reached the other side. It gave me an unusual sense of comfort, and I wondered why I hadn’t tried this before. With my newfound source of courage, I even grabbed another glance through the grating.

Sometimes life seems to smack you in the face with a brick saying this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience—relish it! I did. And as we wandered up the north side of the Columbia River after our treacherous crossing, passing the hundreds of cars parked along the edge of the road carrying the gear of all the windsurfers, I realized that I’d experienced something that, for me at least, was nearly as reckless as the brave wind-borne souls taking their chances in the river below. And survived. Life doesn’t get better than that.

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