The Penobscot Narrows Bridge in Bucksport, Maine is the first place I've visited that does not offer a coherent, understandable experience. You arrive expecting not-quite-sure-what, you experience a jumble of things that do not make much sense, and you leave uncertain what you were supposed to have felt or learned. And they charge out-of-staters $8 for it.
I've wanted to take up the Bridge's clear lack of emotional focus with the Maine Tourism Board, but then I'd have to fight my way through the non-rhotic accent to understand anything.
"Mayne Tou-ism Bawd. Yawr ques-chun?"
"Eye ass, whut whus yawr ques-chun?"
"Suh, if yoo dawnt have uh ques-chun, cahwl back laaa-tuh."
So I didn't bother.
My visit to the bridge, or I should say bridges, has been a personal Waterloo. It's the first time I have not been able to write a coherent blog about a location, and I squarely place the blame on the location not me. Consider that I can find pretentious delight in the little things on a lake in Bridgewater without breaking a sweat. On a beach in Maine, over-wrought soul searching comes to mind without any effort. Even my desk offers itself up to a geeky fascination with odd words with a flick of the keyboard. What could be so hard about a bridge?
I've thought the problem might be an inherent mixed metaphor, that the bridge is a synthesis of two conflicting emotional foci. This can lead to problems, though often humorous ones. If I were to discuss the word "spiffy" (an odd word) while on a beach in Maine (the proper place for over-wrought soul-searching), the results would be ridiculous. I'm not sure I could even think of the word while skipping a stone in stony (haha) silence. Even attempting it would probably induce a mild stroke.
However, you might parry, I am always capable of overwrought soul-searching, whether on a beach or at a desk. And I concede your point. There is a certain universality to overwrought soul-searching. It can even be done at the mall, in the Abercrombie and Fitch for example, in spite of the raw buff lust coursing through the place. There are fundamental differences between overwrought Maine-beach soul-searching and overwrought-desktop or mall-Abercrombie-and-Fitch soul-searching, but I won't offer a digression into them as I'm not currently seeking tenure.
You nay-sayers are insisting that I've just missed the true mood of the bridge. It's there--just too subtle for my coarse understanding. But let's see if you can figure out the proper locale-focus, the inherent mood of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. I dare you to name it.
Let's begin at the beginning of the experience.
From a distance you see two bridges over the Penobscot River (I apologize that I have no such image, but look here for one, and some less biased history of the two bridges). They're right along side each other, not more than a hundred yards apart. The first was completed in 1931 and the other in 2006. While you can only drive on the new one, the other one is still there. They cheat each other of attention and beg to be compared and contrasted. So you stop the car, get out and look and try to understand.
The old bridge is a big, all-metal suspension bridge. From a distance, it looks frail, even cobweb sparse. Up close, it still does. Only two lanes wide, there isn't much of a guard rail on either side. There's a distinct sense that you want more bridge than offered both under and around you to get to the other side. Driving over it is a close as most of us will get to an Evel Knievel stunt, soaring across nothingness to reach the other size of a canyon. And it looks uncharacteristically beefy in my photos since they added extra cables and a walkway in 2003.
The new one is not just big, but huge. I mean really huge. It's twice the height of the old one (though about the same length). Instead of lacework arches holding gossamer cables, gargantuan stone obelisks hold sewer-pipe-width cables. As if to exaggerate the proportions, the new bridge is still only two lanes wide. At a distance, it looks close. It's a jaw-dropper by scale.
One is Modernist Egypt and the other a Bandaged Erector Set. Who could write anything coherent about such an ill-matched pair? You might as well build a Louvre in the Middle East or put a pyramid in the center of Paris.
Now add to your growing impression of the bridges that the new one has "the tallest public bridge observatory" in the whole wide world. Stunned? I was.
You might think that honor would belong to one of those upstart Asian countries such as Indonesia, Dubai or France where they're always in a frenzy of one-upmanship with America. Even the Chinese can't compete with the plucky Bucksportians, and only hold the title to the "next-tallest public bridge observatory in the world." We may have lost first place in manufacturing and humans rights abuses to the Chinese, but we stand strong in the construction of super-tall public bridge observatories. Some patriotic applause is appropriate here.
So of course I had to go to the top of the tallest public bridge observatory and observe. One more thing off my bucket list. Once set with this goal, however, further confusion ensues.
As you drive over the bridge from the North, you note the clean bases of both obelisk pillars. There are no doors, no signs, nothing. You drive completely over the bridge and wonder if you missed anything, though you haven't. How does one gain access to this world-famous observatory, you might wonder, as you drive by a big sign indicating the direction of Fort Knox (isn't that in Kentucky?), a mile or so North of the bridge. If you're really perceptive, you'll note a small indication on the Fort Knox sign that the observatory is also located in the direction of Fort Knox. To get to the observatory, it seems you have to go to Fort Knox first.
At the entrance to the Fort Knox parking lot, you have the option of visiting Fort Knox for $3, or visiting both Fort Knox and the observatory for $8 for out-of-state residents. Slick flatlander that I am, I did some simple mental math.
"How about $5 for the observatory only?"
"Naaaaawwwwwwh" said with a big smile. The drawled response was friendly but betrayed full penetration of the ruse I was attempting. I paid my $8.
"Go awn down he-ah, and then ovuh th-ea," the lot attendant told me, indicating a road that headed back towards the bridges but down by the shoreline.
There we found another parking lot and a doorway in the very base of the Southern obelisk of the new bridge. Eureka! Access from below, where nobody can see it.
Walking under the two bridges makes you look up. Bright sunshine makes you squint. It's hard to see much of anything on a sunny day, but what you do come away with the sense that 420 vertical feet is a long way up. You also realize that these bridges have nothing to do with one another and look really awkward set so close.
The elevator is smooth and efficient, a marvel of modern engineering. The door opens at the top and looking out you see nothing but blue sky and horizon. I takes a moment to realize the windows are floor-to ceiling and only about 4 ft. from the elevator door.
"Oh lordy" an older woman in the elevator exclaimed. We ventured out of the elevator and up a small stairwell right up against the glass to get to the top level of the observatory. The glass panes don't give you much reassurance and the railing is thankfully on the concrete interior of the stairwell.
Once in the observatory, you have an unbroken, 360 degree view of the land all around. This is surprisingly boring. It's an unbroken and mildly hilly forest of green in every direction all the way to the knobby horizon. The river is not much more interesting, a muddy calm thing that gets thinner to the north North and wider to the South. Bucksport is a tiny town with not much to look at, though there is a factory of some kind on the riverfront. After a minute or two, you realize it's a really boring view on a clear day and the 1931 bridge below is the most interesting thing to look at, though for about 45 seconds before you realize you could see it better from below. One last thrill--press your nose up against the glass and look down for a frisson of vertigo. Then it's time to go.
The tallest public bridge observatory in the world, fully 420 feet off the shore of the Penobscot river gives you the most spectacular view of nearly nothing: an unrelenting uniformly green canopy of leaves too small to distinguish 420 ft. up. They built a super-tall public bridge observatory to observe exactly what? Why bother? Then I recalled my $8 and wondered if I'd fallen for a 420 ft. tall tourist trap. My daughter, who is usually unimpressed by these things, was unimpressed.
Perhaps they really did built it thinking there was a great view. Perhaps I'm insensitive to the loveliness of unbroken green canopy and a riverside factory. Perhaps there's delight in being able to look down on one bridge from the top of another bridge. Perhaps there's charm in not being able to get to the bridge without going to Fort Knox first. But all I come away with is a huh.