Have you ever done something completely out of character? Pushed yourself to the limits and faced your fears head on, or at 5,230 feet from sea level? I crossed the mile-high swinging bridge at Grandfather Mountain. Even now, weeks later, I can’t believe I did it. It all seems like a blur. A very, very cold blur. Have I mentioned I’m deathly afraid of heights and swinging bridges. It was energizing, empowering, and probably a hundred more “e” words I can’t seem to pull from the recesses of my noodle.
And I did it. Even now, I still don’t believe I crossed that bridge. But I did. I was terrified, afraid to cry because my eyes would have frozen shut. It was my moment to “Go Bold.” This is about how I was bold.
Not too many weeks before I crossed the bridge, Southeast Toyota reached out to ask me to check something off my bucket list. In return, they’d loan me a new Camry and cover my expenses to take a weekend and do something bold. Working within a five state region, I brainstormed a list of things I’d love to do and when the time came, they helped me pick something on my list — as a great deal of it was pretty lame. (I’ve done most of what I’ve wanted to do in the other four states, except cook with Alton Brown. If you can arrange that, I’ll swear fealty to you.)
On my list was “crossing the mile-high swinging bridge at Grandfather Mountain.” As a native North Carolinian, I’m pretty sure it’s written somewhere in our DNA that we must cross this bridge, or any bridge that bounces to and fro across a gorge. Same goes with train trestles (which is illegal, by the way). Mary Katherine, who I was vetting my list with, said “that’s it!” And by royal decree only certain public relations officials are granted, she declared I would cross this bridge.
I knew my husband and son would not make me cross the bridge. I’d get to the top of the road, park the car, get out of it and get right back in, crying. So I called out the big guns — my best friend, Dee. I knew that no matter what, Dee wouldn’t let me turn around. We’re best friends and she’s one of my biggest cheerleaders, so she was the right choice.
We set out on Friday morning and made our way across the state to my old stomping grounds and finally arrived at the winding curves of Highway 221 and I felt my anxiety climb higher with each turn in the road. I talked until my throat was dry and I was coughing, trying to ignore the rising bile.
We stopped a few miles short of Grandfather Mountain to take a photo. It was a marker of what I had to do. And I HAD to do it. There was no choice. For me, this was a personal challenge. One that not only terrified me, but annihilated all of my preconceived notions of what I would and wouldn’t do during this lifetime.
You see, when I was a little girl, I remember clinging to a swinging bridge, in the middle of it, while it bounced up and down in the wind. I can still see me, paralyzed, not able to move. That’s why I had to do this. I had to cross this bridge and face one of my biggest fears.
When we got to the base of Grandfather, the young lady working the front gates granted me a reprieve. The bridge was closed due to ice, and she informed us it was 7 degrees and the wind was gusting at 26mph on top of the mountain, but we could pay half price to go halfway up to the visitor center to see where Mildred the Bear used to live and enjoys the views from there. Her words were, as far as I was concerned, the angels singing and I swear, for a moment, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir broke into the Hallelujah Chorus, just for me.
Dee and I had filled up on coffee, so we decided to go to the center, take a potty break and we’d come back early Saturday morning before taking a Top Gear-esque drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville. I was glowing, because my death sentence had been commuted and for my fear, this was a sentence unlike any other I’d ever been given.
While we were in the center, one of the staff came out to let us know the bridge was now passable and we could go to the top. That sound you hear? My stomach dropping. I remember my throat closing up and my breathing suddenly labored. I’m pretty sure the sound I made was the one Ralphie makes in a Christmas story. Like Ralphie, I didn’t say “fudge.” “It was all over. I was dead.”
Dee, of course, looked like a kid at Christmas who’s wearing their new cheerleading costume, except this one consisted of a North Face jacket and multiple layers. She prodded me out to the car and I drove my way to the top. Now, we’d made a few stops along the way to the top to take photos, and this is what it looked like that day.
That’s not snow, it’s ICE. The trees aren’t blowing, they’re frozen in that direction due to the wind. Did I mention that was ice?
Once we were at the top, I got out of the car and just stood there. In awe of this great bridge, knowing it was 5,280 feet above sea level and soon I’d be crossing it’s massive length. I also knew that once I got up there, it was me, looking down on the tops of the trees, on a bridge moving back and forth, up and down, and I was the only person I could depend on to get across.
We made our way inside to check the winds and temps and climbed on the elevator to go upstairs where the entrance to the bridge was. There are steps you can climb, but they were partially iced over and I needed that reprieve in the building.
Once we stepped out again, the wind hit like a knife. It cut through every layer I had on and I stood there, staring at the marker of what was the milestone of this moment. The Bridge. Dee grabbed my arm and let me know it was time — it felt like it was my wedding day and my coordinator had touched my arm to let me know it was time to make my walk down the aisle to meet my husband. Except this was a cruel, unbending mistress I had been running from since I was 10 years old.
As we made our way to the bridge, I was numb. I don’t know if it was from the cold, or from my body shutting down my feelings in a form of emotional compartmentalization, something I had been working on with my shrink in preparation for this crossing.
I remember getting to the bridge and taking the first tentative step, Dee having already taken two steps backwards across this bridge, ready to cheer me on. She would walk backwards across the entire length of the bridge, holding my hand, looking me in the eyes, cheering me on. It was like being in labor, except the miracle being born this time was courage I didn’t know I had in me.
Cheering me along, walking backwards, Dee started moving, and I followed. At about one-quarter of the way out, at most, the wind gusted heavily and the bridge, which is a suspension bridge that moves with the wind, started moving more than I had expected and I looked at her, and said “I can’t do this” and turned around to go back.
Now, that could be the end of this story, but it’s just the beginning. You see, behind me was a couple who had heard Dee cheering me on, encouraging me, rooting for me. They knew I was terrified and when I turned around I saw them. They stood side by side, locked arms, and said “Well, we’re crossing the bridge and in order to get back, you have to cross this bridge, because we can’t let you around us.”
Let that sink in. I was on a bridge I wasn’t going to cross and I couldn’t get off of it. But they then said “we’re going to help you get across this bridge.” And so, that’s where I met Paul and Susanne. Who walked behind me, reassuring hands on my shoulders, talking me across, helping me face my fears, while Dee continued holding my hands, walking backwards, and cheering me on with them. They always say you meet your angels when you least expect it, and that day, I met two of mine. Even now, a month later, I’m weeping as I write this, knowing these angels were there looking over my shoulder, coaxing and prodding me to achieve something I never thought possible.
Before I knew it, I was across the bridge. Paul was shaking my hand, when in reality, I just wanted to hug all of them. People who’d left before us knew what it was taking to get me across the bridge and were cheering for me, for my success. They knew I had faced this formidable task.
On the other side, I just stood there — on this mountainous rock — looking across what I had just conquered. I’d made it. There wasn’t tears. There wasn’t a feeling of victory. There was just peace. Even walking back across, with Dee walking in front of me, facing forward, Paul and Susanne behind me, gingerly stepping from board to board, catching my breath with each little shift, I was in awe, for the first time in my life, of me.
Even now, when I think I can’t do something, I think of that moment on the bridge when I turned to go back. While there are no celebratory photos of me in the middle of the bridge, I learned something. I just have to keep going, step by step, no stopping, facing my fears. Once we stop, we get stuck and I’m not going to be stuck in the middle of a bridge ever again.
Many thanks to Southeast Toyota, Toyota of Gastonia, Mary Katherine Roardam, Dee Lease, Paul and Susanne. Without you, I’d never know what I’m truly capable of.