“When I was on top of a tower on a clear night, it was almost as if you could touch the stars. The sky was so beautiful.” Ron Zielke, Mackinac Bridge ironworker
When I was growing up in northern Michigan, my parents often drove us north on I-75 to Mackinaw City where our favorite aunt, uncle and cousins lived. The best memory I have of that hour-long drive was the exact moment when the Mackinac Bridge towers came into site. I can even remember my thoughts when I first saw the towers. My young brain did not comprehend a bridge because all I could think of was our car on the tower itself. “Are we driving on THAT bridge?” I would nervously ask my parents. The towers represented the bridge and that’s all I could see from a distance.
Driving across the bridge was even more of a thrill for several reasons. The most obvious one is the bridge itself. The design of Mackinac Bridge was inspired from mistakes learned when the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed under high winds. The bridge that would cross the icy Straits of Mackinac would avoid that mishap by employing open-grids on the roadway to reduce wind resistance. Although the grids increase stability in winds up to 150 mph, it’s a little unnerving to drive over them.
It’s even more unnerving when you are walking the bridge. Each year since the opening dedication in 1958, the bridge is closed to vehicle traffic so that thousands of people can walk it, a tradition held on Labor Day since 1959. While walking, you can’t avoid stepping on the open grids. If you dare and if the bridge sway doesn’t overcome you, the grid openings give you a bird’s eye view of the frigid straits water. This is the same water that is designated as a shipwreck preserve, dedicated to those who were lost on ships sunk in the dangerous shipping lanes.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of cars cross the bridge. For example, during the two busiest months of the year, over 600,000 vehicles cross the bridge in July and again in August. As I researched the bridge, I learned a new word, gephyrophobia, the fear of crossing bridges. A phobia condition has been identified for just about everything; like for instance, fear of ducks watching you or anatidaephobia. But gephyrophobia seems quite justifiable and even more likely to be common among people living in Michigan. Indeed, it is a very serious problem, so much so that the Mackinac Bridge Authority has a driver’s assistance program for individuals suffering from gephyrophobia. Over a thousand people each year employ this service.
The fearful Mighty Mac has acquired several claims to fame over the years and perhaps the most notorious one came from a single event that happened in September 1989 when a 1987 Yugo driven by Leslie Ann Pluhar was blown off the bridge. The fact that it was a Yugo made it difficult for some folks to avoid a hint of humor when discussing the tragic event. But surprisingly, Pluhar’s tragic death is one of only two related to a vehicle falling off the bridge, the second of which was determined to be a suicide committed by Richard Alan Daraban in his 1996 Ford Bronco in March 1997. But these are not the only deaths associated with the bridge. I can remember talk about a man’s body forever sealed inside the concrete used to build the bridge during its construction. But this was an urban myth that just made the bridge appear sinister. In reality, five men did perish during the bridge construction and they are memorialized on a plaque in Bridge View Park, north side.
Aside from the tragedies blamed on the bridge, it is an inspiring piece of architecture. At night, it lights up with a stream of head and tail lights twinkling through the multi-color bridge lights arranged neatly along the trusses, catwalks and towers that are constantly being painted, repaired or maintained. The fact that the bridge connects mostly rural areas of the lower and upper peninsulas makes it look monumental with no interference from city lights. The towers stand boldly but also appear modest against the backdrop of the great lakes, especially in the winter when the straits become an icy plain. Those northern waters command respect and the bridge is a tribute to that fact.
Vivian and I parked the RV in a campground about 30 miles south of the bridge in the month of September. During that time, a new moon offered the opportunity for me to capture the Milky Way scheduled to appear in much of its entirety in the southern skies. I had a vision; I wanted to capture it above the Mackinac Bridge, which meant I needed to be in the upper peninsula. So, Vivian and I decided to load our tent & camping gear into the truck and head north on I-75 toward the Mackinac Bridge, leaving our comfortable RV for the night.
At about 10 pm, a few hours after setting up our camp, we walked to the shoreline of Lake Huron, a hundred feet away from our campsite. We took in the uninterrupted view of the Mighty Mac while enjoying the cool, yet comfortable evening air. The bridge was rumbling with traffic that could be seen and heard. The colorful lights reflected playfully on the relatively calm waters. Below the bridge, freighters about the length of three football fields passed under and eventually disappeared into the abyss of the great lakes. The water seemed so peaceful lapping gently on the shoreline, while the bridge stood out in the distance all lit up with lights and activity. The entire scene was an interesting blend of wilderness and commerce. As the temperature dropped, I stood over my camera continuing to capture the bridge’s glory as best I could. Our cozy tent was nearby, but we stayed at the water’s edge for a couple hours, enjoying the Michigan night. “The towers touched the sky and it was so beautiful.”