I am a brave, burly man, and do not like to admit that on my recent trip to San Francisco, I faced three attacks of gephyrophobia. I know the fear is irrational. I know I am in God’s hands. I know I will not be hurt. Yet I had to fight with all my might to subdue the panic attacks that come with gephyrophobia. By God’s grace, I was okay, but my whole body hurt after the ordeal. I am not proud of this phobia, but hey, why not just be honest about it?
What is gephyrophobia, and why does it afflict such a manly man as Bill? you ask…
Gephyrophobia is the irrational fear of bridges. And San Francisco has waaay too many of them. It started on an innocent trip with the kids to Dave and Busters. The hotel concierge sent us via Rt 92. Rt 92 includes a 7 mile long bridge–that’s right, 7 whole miles of bridge–in an earthquake zone, in a van with bald tires, with my wife and kids, at dusk, at high speed, in GALE-FORCE WINDS… This sorry excuse for a bridge, called the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge, boasts a 1.9 mile section that rises 135 feet above the black, choppy waters. 135 feet UP. And there are no SIDE RAILS to speak of.
There is a force in the universe that sucks you over the edge of a bridge if you get too close and if the side rails are to low/spindly.
My fear intensified when I saw the high portion ahead. I broke into a cold sweat. I asked my amused wife–who DEFINITELY does NOT have the gift of mercy–to turn down the radio, to remove the sunglasses from the top of my head (my hands were vice-gripped at 10 & 2), and to mop the sweat off my brow. I asked her to keep up the small talk. I got into the center lane and implored God Almighty that a gust of wind wouldn’t sweep us over the edge. I went about 5-7 miles UNDER the speed limit, while foolhardy Franciscans passed my on either side. They must have understood my plight, waving messages of consolation as they whizzed by.
“Stay between the lines,” I reminded myself. “Just stay between the lines.” I found it worked best to concentrate on the 15 feet in front of my car, and not to look off into the distance. Ahead of me, as far as the eye could see, stretched nothing but an ancient bridge (the thing was built in 1929, for cry-aye) and menacing waters. I prayed. I sang hymns… but all I could get out were portions.
As I said, Margi was amused.
Worst of all, I knew that I would face the same bridge in the dead of night coming back. The thought haunted me the rest of the evening.
You who scoff… you who are tempted to ridicule me, please remember this: I speak to a large audience 4 times per week. Hah!
Needless to say, my terror began the moment we started our return trip. My imagination pictured a gust of wind lifting the front of the van. I pictured a blow-out with us spinning into the spindly side rails, and plunging overboard. I pictured myself crying out to Margi to get the boy, and I’d get the girl, and we’d meet at the pylon. I imagined kicking off my shoes… Yes… all of it.
Scripture helped, but it was a total wrestling match.
For this pleasure, I had to pay a $4 [insert sanctified expletive here] toll.
The next day, we headed home, this time over the infamous Bay Bridge. I thought this would be a little, easy bridge, but it was not to be. The Bay Bridge turns out to be a double decker. I saw it coming about 10 minutes before I actually was on it. This didn’t help.
This antique, circa 1936, handles 280,000 cars a day. But good luck telling that to the gephyrophobiac in me. I prayed, Dear God, don’t make me go on the upper deck. Don’t make me go on the upper deck.
I am here to tell you God answers prayer. Hallelujah.
Whatever signs I followed took us to the LOWER deck. This bridge was better, in that it had a thick side rail, a low deck above us, and angular girders on each side. I felt encased. I also remember reading how the upper deck collapsed during a 1984ish earthquake, resulting in one fatality on the lower deck. I kept my eyes peeled both above and below for any popping rivets or sudden gaps.
I used the same wise strategy as on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge: stay in the center lane, hands clenched at 10 & 2, small talk from non-compassionate wife, prayers, Scriptures, and hymn fragments interspersed… oh, and 5-7 miles beneath the speed limit. San Franciscans are VERY understanding of gephyrophobia. They again gestured encouragingly as they blew past me on either side.
The Bay Bridge is particularly deceptive. This 8 MILE torture chamber soars 200 [insert sanctified expletive here] feet ABOVE the frigid, shark infested SF Bay. It ends in a tunnel… after about 8 minutes of horrifying driving. Thank God! Trees. Terra firma. Solid ground under my tires. And above my head. I love tunnels. I’d made it across the Bay Bridge. I’m alive! My pulse slowed. My blood pressure returned to its normal/elevated state. My hands unclenched.
We emerged from the tunnel to see…
The second half of the [insert sanctified expletive here] bridge. Years of jogging and working out paid off, as I am alive to tell you that my vital signs rocketed upwards faster than a Hollywood divorce.
Margi laughed. She saw it coming and didn’t tell me. I still haven’t decided if that was good or bad… she’s still on probation.
Am I proud of my gephyrophobia? No. I faced it at the Royal Gorge. I faced it on an icy footbridge above Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway (by Jefferson Park). I faced it on the steel-mesh bridge over the Mississippi River. I faced it on the endless Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida, when I rode a Greyhound bus one month after a Greyhound bus plunged into the water when a span of the bridge was struck by an oil tanker. The way I see it, it’s a numbers thing, and I’m running out of safe bridge crossings. It’s only a matter of time. Pray for me.