by P. James Trobaugh
Approaching from St. Ignace, the landscape quickly disappears on both sides of the car, once you’ve passed the toll booth. You’ve been telling yourself since Manistique that you can drive over the Bridge, it’s not so bad. You were thinking about it earlier in the day, in the spa pool in the Escanaba motel, helping to dry off the kids.
But now, you are going up into the sky, there is no horizon, and it’s five miles to the other side. It feels like the long slow climb of the roller coaster at Great America; you remember when it was called that, back in the ’70s. The Straits of Mackinac are on either side and below you.
Photos don’t do it justice. From a distance, the Mighty Mac is serene and flat with just the merest bulge at its middle. A Big Friendly Giant. But at the center of the span, it is 200 feet to the surface.
You picked the inside lane, hugging the cables as closely as you can. But that inside lane is one long, open grate. They did this so that the winds could pass through the Bridge. They learned to do this after the Tacoma Narrows Bridge shook itself to pieces on November 7, 1940. The grate causes the car to shimmy as you drive over, giving the sensation of veering sharply to the left or the right. In the winter months, ice collects on the grate.
You could take the outside lane, but then, you’d be closer to the edge. Closer to the pull of the water. The vista of hundreds of square miles of Michigan blue and green stretches out, Siren like.
Richard Alan Daraban drove his Ford Bronco off the Bridge. That was on March 2, 1997. He was purposeful. He paid his toll, crossed the Bridge, circled, paid the toll again, and then raced at 65 miles per hour (20 is the posted maximum) and sharply swerved.
But Leslie Ann Pluhar is more of a mystery. She joined the Straits on September 22, 1989. She was driving a Yugo. One account is that she drove it off the Bridge herself. But another has it that the high winds caused her to be cautious and slow down and stop. She was driving the inside lane, the grate lane. And a big puff of air from the Upper Peninsula picked her up. You know it’s bad when your middle name appears in the papers.
The climb at 20 m.p.h. is agonizing, and you pray the Bridge won’t mist over this time. You’ve heard about people passing out from fright and you wonder, “could that be now?” Once you get to the crest, once you can see the far shore, your fingers start to unclench. Your heart starts to go back inside your chest, and you can lick your lips.
The lessons learned: make sure someone keeps talking to you. Make sure you don’t slow down. It’s the grate causing the car to veer, not the wind. Don’t drive a Yugo over one of the longest suspension bridges in the world in high winds. And don’t turn back around and pay the toll a second time.