We discovered the missing link

By Carol Walker

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The Mackinac Bridge was called, “the bridge that couldn’t be built,” because though the idea for a bridge was first conceived in 1884, technology was not available until 1954 when work began on the five-mile suspension bridge. It cost $99,800,000 for the construction, and five of the 3,500 workers died. On Nov. 1, 1957 the first car drove across the bridge that linked the Upper Peninsula (UP) with the rest of Michigan.

Last week we discovered just how important that link was. Perhaps residents of the state know that occasionally the bridge authority closes the suspension bridge, the only link to the south. We did not.

Leaving South Dakota on Thursday, we had decent roads on our way to the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, where my mother-in-law lives, arriving just before a snowstorm that came through Thursday night. On Friday morning, we intended to leave for Michigan, making our way across the UP and down to see our son and family in North Muskegon. We delayed our start until 8 a.m. to wait for the snowplows to begin clearing the roads. Going across northern Michigan seemed to us to be the most logical route, since we were already north, and we could avoid the drive through Chicago.

The further east we traveled, the less snow there was on the roads, and we heard the weather for the next week would be in the 30s and 40s, pretty delightful winter weather. Smooth sailing. We were about 30 miles from St. Ignace, the point at which we could cross the Mackinac Bridge, when out of nowhere we saw a digital sign informing motorists that the bridge was closed. We were kind of puzzled because we were pretty sure that was the only link to the south. What happens when the bridge closes?

The man at the convenience store said it was too warm, and ice melting off the cables could fall on cars and trucks as they pass. If it gets colder again, and the ice stays frozen, he said they would open the bridge. He told us there were two more “mom and pop” motels before St. Ignace, where there were a variety of motels and hotels, but they usually jack up the price when something like this happens. We got the second to the last room at the next little village. Another lady said the bridge wouldn’t open in the night, but perhaps at daybreak.

The next morning we decided to leave early, in case the bridge opened when it was cold. When we got there, the cars were lined up, the convenience store was hopping, McDonalds had a full house and the bridge was still closed. We were told to sign up for texts that offer updates on the status of the bridge.

We waited with the throngs at McDonalds, hearing a variety of stories from the night before. One guy said when the ice melts on the tubes surrounding the cables on the bridge, it can come down in eight-foot sheets, which could cause substantial damage to a vehicle or person. A couple came for a funeral and missed the closing of the bridge by a few minutes. They had to sleep in their car that night, as did a high school senior and her mom who had traveled to Marquette for a college visit. No motel rooms were available at any price. A few college guys had planned to go down to Lansing for the weekend, but ended up sleeping on pews at a church that opened its doors to travelers.

When a text came in at 9:01 a.m., nearly everyone in McDonalds rose up as one, gathered their belongings and headed for the door. The bridge was now open. We joined the line of cars, waiting our turn for about an hour and a half to cross the five-mile bridge.

I am still getting updates for the bridge. They closed it again the next day. I plan to cancel the texts real soon because we are traveling home via Chicago, where we may encounter lines of cars for a different reason, but if we ever travel the UP in the winter, I plan to sign up for the texts again.

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