On the Way Back Home—Covered Bridges
Brian J. Sullivan
I was returning home from an art fair in Ohio when I decided it was time to take the road less traveled. Destination unknown. I turned the radio and cell phone off and let my mind wander. Half way through the State of Indiana I exited off Interstate I-74 at Smartsburg (US 32)—I really just like the name—and headed west. I meandered around the country until I reached US 231 and headed south. A crooked faded sign hanging by one nail to a telephone pole read "Entering Parke County, Indiana, the covered bridge capital of the world." I continued along until I reached US 236 and headed west, then took US 41 south down into Rockville.
Rockville is a small town of 2,765 people (according to the 2000 Census) and is located in the center of Parke County (population: 17,241). Its main industry is tourism. An old converted railroad station from the 1880s is the visitors' and convention center headquarters located along US 36. This is the starting point for five different self guided tours out into the country to the near 40 covered bridges scattered throughout Parke County. As you leave the tourist bureau (make sure you have a bridge map) you will notice the different routes are marked on the telephone poles and fence posts with colored arrows indicating each of the five routes. However, most roads are all gravel with no street signs, and many of the colored arrows are missing, making it a true explorer's delight. I chose the red route and followed the fork in the road to the left.
A cloud of fine white dust rose from the back of my truck to a height of approximately 15 feet, thinning out as it got farther from the source. The gravel road twisted and turned through the quiet fields of tall golden brown corn. Soon it would be harvest time. The days were getting shorter, the nights cooler. The sky was a deep cerulean blue, punctuated with wispy white clouds suspended in random order. A gentle breeze blew across the tops of the corn, causing a slight rustling sound.
After several miles of winding roads and hairpin turns, I spied my first covered bridge off in the distance, partially obscured by the dense foliage growing along the river bank. It had a majestic like presence, a timeless quality. There were neither gaudy billboards nor souvenir stands. No flash, no pomp. Just an unadulterated covered bridge.
Its barn-red exterior looked stately and in perfect harmony among the fields and trees. There were no other houses or man-made objects for as far as one could see. Hand painted in black lettering above the opening of the bridge portal read "Sim-Smith Bridge" on a small plaque at eye level; its maximum load capacity was listed: 8 tons.
It spanned 247 feet and was high above the river. A light green moss covered the cedar shake roof where the sunlight never shone because of overgrown trees. The exterior siding was in fair condition except for the bottom edge which was rotting away. Several large limestone foundation blocks were missing near the river bank causing the bridge to lean to one side. I entered the bridge at an idling speed and noticed the beautiful craftsmanship of the large curved arches which formed the backbone for all the connecting beams. And thanks to the outer covering, the 120-year-old trusses looked in remarkable shape, except for the minor vandalism of spray paint and carved initials of loved ones.
In the middle of the tunnel-like structure, a strong beam of diagonal light entered along one wall and ended on the wooden planks of the road. I exited my truck and walked over to this small window cut into the side of the covered bridge. Looking out over the crystal clear river, I noticed a lone fisherman casting among the many jagged boulders protruding from the water. He did not notice me. Each cast in a new direction held promise of a small mouth bass strike. Nothing. The angler wound his line in and cast again. Nothing. But still he persisted.
How strange, I thought—this lone man, fishing but catching nothing. How very similar to us artists, casting out our lots among the various fairs, weather, and economies, hoping to make an occasional "catch." But then again, I could have it all wrong. This man was not fishing but simply enjoying the moment, the quiet, and solitude. It mattered not if he caught anything.
Maybe, I have had it wrong all these years, rushing to and from this fair and that fair, so that I missed all the in-betweens.
I climbed back into my truck and headed towards the light at the other end of the covered bridge. A brilliant orange sun was fading into the horizon.
If you are interested in visiting some of the 35 plus cover bridges in this area, I suggest going to the town of Rockville, Indiana. There you will find a visitors' center located in an old 1880s train station located on US 36. Do yourself a favor and get a map and info. There are five different routes marked by colored arrows that lead you through the country. Each route is approximately 30 miles long. Most of the covered bridges are in the middle of Timbuktu and even with a map are still hard to find. Last year, two spectacular bridges were lost to arson (Bridgeton Bridge, 1868 and Jeffries Ford Bridge, 1915), so it pays to ask before venturing out. Most bridges are drive thru and will support the weight of your van; however large trucks and RVs will not fit through them. I visited 13 bridges in four hours. Each one is unique and in a different setting which makes it interesting to journey on to the next one. The second weekend in October and running for ten days, the area holds a covered bridge festival. Its epic center is around Mansfield, but all the surrounding areas participate with art/craft fairs along with thousands of flea market vendors. It is held at the height of the fall color leaf change and attracts literally hundreds of thousands of people. Way too crowded for me. Besides, I don't want to share my covered bridge experience with tour groups all trying to photograph the bridge at the same time. Bridge tours are self guided and are free. For more information contact the Parke County Guide at 765-653-4026 or www.parkecountyguide.com or the Parke County Tourist Center at 765-569-5226 or www.coveredbridges.com.
Enjoy the journey.