"What river have you crossed most often in your life thus far?" A blogger I follow posed this question the other day, and it generated many comments and some interesting discussion.
I'm drawn to rivers. They connote time, dissolution, and renewal in resonant ways; there are several rivers that occupy a large space in my memory. I have family connections to the New River, where some of my ancestors operated a ferry service near Radford, Virginia. The biggest chunk of my childhood was spent in northern Virginia near the Potomac. I did two years of graduate school in Baton Rouge, and for the first year lived a block from the Mississippi River. I used to go for walks or runs on the levee, dodging the cows (property of LSU Vet School) that grazed on the grassy manmade bank, and taking in the awesome sight of the rolling water.
I have to admit, though, I rarely had occasion to take a bridge across the Mississippi. Baton Rouge is huddled on the east side of the river, and there wasn't much of interest on the west side. I've never had a commute, in my adult working life, that involved a river. I've crossed the Potomac, the Hudson, the Delaware, the James, many of the rivers in North Carolina on many trips, but never on anything like a daily or even weekly basis.
Pondering the question at the top of this post, making my calculations, I came to a surprising answer.
When I was in the middle of 10th grade my parents, my brother, and I moved to Long Valley, New Jersey. Actually, although Long Valley was our mailing address, our house was on top of Schooley's Mountain, surrounded by small farms, woods, and burgeoning suburbia. It was a pretty area in which to make one's home, but it lacked amenities, or at least it did in the early 1980s. Most of the trips we needed to make (to schools, jobs, stores) involved a drive down the mountain, into the town of Long Valley, and then usually through, continuing on to the larger town of Chester, or deeper into the interior of Morris County, into the gravitational field of New York City.
Every trip through Long Valley meant crossing a short bridge, about as wide as a school bus is long. Twice a day every school day for 2 1/2 years, I crossed that bridge. Add the times I rode to or from a summer job in high school, or during summers off from college, and times visiting friends in Chester then returning home, I'd estimate I crossed that bridge 1,800 times, give or take.
I moved away from New Jersey after college, then my parents moved away, back to Virginia, a couple of years after that, and it's been over 30 years since I set foot in Long Valley. I never gave the bridge or the river much thought even when I lived there, and I had to check Google Maps to remind myself the name: the South Branch Raritan River. (Call it a mere half-river if you want, but in my book, it counts.)
Rivers are boundaries. Rivers are pathways. The Raritan was an everyday part of this difficult phase of becoming an adult, despite not fully understanding or consenting to anything I was doing. There I was, young and living in isolation, in retreat, on top of a mountain. Going down the mountain was my daily half-asleep morning commute, but maybe there was instinct behind it: to come down to the river valley to seek friendship, to make connections, to grow up.
Thoughts of Long Valley and Schooley's Mountain pop into my mind more and more often in recent years. My brother took a trip back to NJ last year, maybe I can manage one sometime in the post-pandemic future. I regret that I couldn't find an un-copyrighted photo of the "German Valley bridge." Here is a semi-random bridge shot I took on a day trip with my daughter a couple of years ago,
Nolichucky River, Erwin, TN. Photo by JBJ.