When we first moved here, a bridge across the creek was a fantasy, something that might happen someday if I somehow came into a lot of money. But this year, something changed. Actually, probably a lot of things changed, things inside of me as well as external things. But the proximate cause was my desire to clean up a pile of scrap lumber left over from my son Owen building his “fort” at the new house.The reason there was so much scrap left over is that Owen’s old fort, from the old house, had been dismantled and brought over here, so he could build a new fort. Here’s a picture of the old fort:Do you see all those boards that are the same length on his old fort? Those same boards were in the pile of scrap lumber I wanted to clean up at our current house. Fallen leaves had half-buried the lumber, and as pieces were unearthed and stacked in a pile, my son Caleb said, “Hey, you could almost build a bridge with all these boards.”
That was the spark that ignited the bridge dream inside of me.
I’ve always had a fascination with bridges. Not big bridges, but human-scaled bridges, bridges in gardens, bridges on farms. It’s part of my general fascination with paths. A bridge connects two paths, joins two separate sections of land. But a bridge also enables you to view moving water from above, to look it in the eye as it comes tumbling over the rocks, or to watch it slither away below your feet as it seeks the lowest point in the land. Of course, this is best done sitting on the bridge, your legs dangling over the edge and your head resting on some convenient part of the railing. (For someone like me, with a strong aversion to heights, there must be a railing for me to feel safe.)
The ten acres we live on are divided by the little brook in back that tumbles toward Glen Road Brook at the northern edge of the property (click to view map). The back brook is insignificant enough that it doesn’t have a name. It is small enough that you can jump over it in one certain place during the summer. Where my children like to cross, it’s too wide for that, and they use a series of stepping stones to cross.The first time I tried that, I was wearing my garden shoes, which I thought would give good traction. But I hadn’t taken more than two steps across when my feet went out from under me and I landed half in the water, half on the rocks. I had bruises and pulled muscles for days. I won’t say I’ve never gone across since, but I avoid it as much as possible, which makes me a stranger to roughly two-thirds of our land. A bridge would make me feel safer, more willing to explore. Depending on how wide and strong it was, a bridge could enable us to get equipment to the other side, a brush mower or even something that could transport firewood back to the house. It could be useful.
And a bridge just seems necessary in terms of the garden’s design as a whole. Moving water cries out for a bridge, don’t you think? The location of the bridge would determine where paths would go, and perhaps where other structures would go. Before the design of the garden can move forward, the bridge must be in place. The garden will organize itself around it. It’s the tail that wags the dog.
I won’t say I’m over the hill. I feel more like I’m at the top of the hill. I can look back and see the climb I’ve made to get to this point in my life, and I can look ahead and see it’s down hill from here. It’s easy to defer dreams when you’re young, and you have the rest of your life ahead of you. But at this point in my life, saying I’ll do it “someday” is just putting off a decision that needs to be made: do I want to do it, or don’t I? If it’s gonna get done, I’d better get started on it. Who knows how many “somedays” I have left?
When Caleb suggested that a bridge could be built with scrap lumber, I realized it was time to stop saying “someday” about the bridge. It was time to get serious. But I know this about myself, that I always want to do it “right.” I want to do my research, find the best way of doing something, and do it right and do it good. And that can sometimes get in the way of getting anything done. Because I’ve also learned–and gardening has gone a long way in teaching me this–that sometimes perfection isn’t possible. Not only that–I’ve often found that “good enough” is good enough. In other words, just getting it in the ball park is enough to give me pleasure. Or at least a measure of satisfaction.
So when Caleb said we had enough boards to make a bridge, I started to think about how much bridge would be a “good enough” bridge. Meanwhile, Caleb started methodically taking the nails out of all those boards.
Somewhere between “half-assed” and wonderful
I didn’t have a good sense of what a “good enough” bridge would look like, so I started thinking about the two extremes, to see if I could figure out the middle. What would a “half-assed” bridge look like? That was easy. That spot I mentioned before, where the banks are quite low and the creek is so narrow that my more nimble-footed children can leap to the other side, stepping stones not needed? You could throw a couple of 2×4’s across there and you wouldn’t even need to use all the boards Caleb was diligently pulling nails out of.
However, it was in a location that isn’t visible from the house, and it wouldn’t connect to any of the paths my kids had already formed by repeatedly getting to where they wanted to go. Of course a new path could be pruned and hacked out of the undergrowth to join the trails already there, but the bigger drawback was the shallow banks that made putting a bridge there so easy. The first high water of spring would wash that bridge right out.So that’s the bad extreme. How about the other extreme? What would the ideal bridge look like? Garden design articles often advise you to design the features of the landscape by taking cues from the design of the house. The back kitchen door opens onto the deck. The stairs leading down from the deck to the lawn line up perfectly with the kitchen door. So my ideal bridge would line up with the door and the stairs. Unfortunately there is currently a vegetable garden that would be crossed if you walked directly from the deck stairs to the imaginary bridge. (You can see a piece of that garden in the topmost image.) Maybe we could build a path through the garden? This ideal bridge would be built at the top of the banks, where hopefully it would be above the highest waters a typical spring flood would yield. My ideal bridge would have hand rails designed so that you could sit on the bridge and rest your head or arms on the cross piece and watch the water go by.
It would be sturdy enough to support–here’s where I start to waffle. In my dream world it would be strong enough to support a tractor or perhaps even a pickup truck, but we don’t have a tractor, so that’s kind of a stretch. We do have a walk-behind brush mower, so let’s say I’d like my perfect bridge to be wide enough and strong enough to support the brush mower and its operator. And it should last as long as I was capable of walking in the woods. Hmm. Let’s be optimistic and say thirty years.
Towards the end of July, Caleb and I took some measurements.We measured with a flexible 100ft tape and merely eyeballed how level we kept the tape opposite each other. So, not extremely accurate measurements, but enough to give some perspective. I know that the longer the span, the thicker the timber needs to be, and consequently the heavier the timber needs to be. I know we don’t own a vehicle big enough to transport 26-foot-long timbers. And even if we did, I am not sure my husky grown sons are strong enough to carry and maneuver said timbers into position. And we haven’t even touched on the foundation that would be needed to keep them from heaving from frost.
It became clear to me that a “good enough” bridge would be one whose components could be obtained from the local big box store. The longest pressure-treated 2x10s that Lowes sells are 16 feet long. That would mean a mid-bank bridge.
I don’t know if information about the flood levels of my little un-named creek even exists, and don’t know where I might find it if it does exist, but I know if it isn’t built at the highest part of the bank, sooner or later it will be destroyed by moving water. It’s anyone’s guess as to when that would be. In our area, we had two “hundred-year floods” five years apart. Is the bridge still “good enough” if it only lasts a year?
I was ambivalent about that question, but started pricing components for a good-enough bridge. The man at Lowes suggested 8″ quikcrete tubes but neglected to tell me how much concrete I would need to fill them. I wondered how to attach the 2x10s to the concrete footers and he picked out a metal contraption called a post base that was meant for 4x dimensional lumber, which means you would need to stick an additional scrap piece to take up the extra space–or glue two timbers together (but what size should the timbers be if you’re doubling them up like that?)The post base part of it would be inserted in the concrete as it was setting. Caleb had pulled nails out of 25 boards that were each 34 1/2″ wide. That was wide enough for the brush mower–but only if we didn’t install a hand rail. All of those boards pushed tight against each other were just under 12 feet total in length; more boards would have to be purchased to make up the difference.
Just doing this much research was giving me cold feet. Four deep, narrow holes would have to be dug in the sides of the rock-ridden creek banks to make the footers. The holes would have to be precisely located apart from each other and across the creek from each other. Then after concrete was mixed and shoveled into the tubes, four metal post bases would have to be inserted in the concrete so that they perfectly lined up to hold the 2x10s. And I have trouble drawing a straight line without the ruler wiggling!
I combed the internet for information, looking for The Answer. Most websites I found showed how to build a decorative bridge of a very short span. One article on the Mother Earth News site seemed quite knowledgeable, but discussed building it with logs–not structural lumber–on a much larger scale than I was envisioning.
The videos weren’t much better. They seemed to cover my two extremes–how to build a half-assed bridge or how to build a bridge you can drive your ATV over. The most helpful video was one by Ron Hazelton but he built it in California where they don’t even know what a frostline is, and used pre-made concrete piers that sat on the ground–no footers. (You can’t build without footers in our cold climate and expect any structure to last. The frost will heave it out of the ground.) And the bridge he built was only 12 feet long. But still, it almost made me feel like it was doable.
Building this bridge was definitely out of my comfort zone. I didn’t even know enough to price it all out by myself. I didn’t know enough to know if there was a better way than what I was imagining. I certainly didn’t have the capability to build it by myself, and everyone I could imagine asking for help was preoccupied with more important projects anyway. I realize that every DIYer faces these kinds of anxieties. I guess the ones who become proficient in DIY projects don’t have quite as much anxiety, or complete several easier projects before facing a bridge construction. It gave me a deeper respect for the knowledge engineers, landscape architects, and general contractors have.
But it didn’t get me any closer to building a bridge.
I didn’t want to commit to the project without more hand-holding and I wasn’t sure “good enough” was really good enough. I came across a webpage that made me wonder if my creek would be considered a wetland, and I might need a permit to build a bridge. Could I get in trouble if my bridge obstructed the creek, either where it stood or after it got smashed by a flood and pieces of it blocked a culvert further downstream? What if it broke when someone walked across it?
How much more expensive would my ideal bridge be? Maybe I should work out exactly what would be needed for the ideal bridge and save up for it? How much would it cost to hire it done? I asked myself these questions but didn’t get them answered; I stalled and hemmed and hawed until it was clear there was not enough good weather left to build anything this year.
In the meantime, Owen discovered that the roof supports of his “new” fort had rotted. It wasn’t safe for visiting children to climb up on the flat roof anymore. It wasn’t safe, period, and he dismantled it, leaving an even bigger pile of scrap lumber, including two makeshift ladders.The first week of November, the weather was unseasonably warm, and Caleb remarked that he wanted to do something outside, but he couldn’t think of what. “Well,” I said, “there’s a piece of Owen’s fort that I think can go across that narrow part of the creek. Maybe it’s light enough that you can move it there?” Caleb picked it up and we walked over. There were already four pieces of concrete block in the vicinity from a previous attempt to imagine a bridge there.
And just like that, I had my half-assed bridge.
The little girl inside of me was excited to have a bridge and could hardly wait to start clearing a path and go exploring.
The grown-up me was a little bit sad, because now that there was a half-assed bridge, the impetus to build an ideal bridge or even a “good enough” bridge was a lot weaker. The better bridge might never get built.
But still, I had a bridge.
Are you fascinated by bridges, too. Check out my Bridges board on Pinterest.