Bridges, past and present

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By Michael Collier

I came to the end of the paved bike path, where a sign on a metal gate warns of the dangers of going farther. I got off my bike and looked back at a glistening white tower that is the most striking feature of the new span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which replaces the double-deck span where part of the upper deck collapsed in the 1989 earthquake.

The tower is a pillar of strength in the middle of San Francisco Bay. It is not far from where an elevated, mile-long stretch of Interstate 880 collapsed in Oakland during the quake, killing 42 people. That was another October, when the big show was the World Series “Battle of the Bay” between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s — until the tremor reminded us of something bigger.

Standing on the new span a few days ago, and feeling the warmth of the sun and the cooling breeze, I felt the power of the place and I reflected on the importance of bridges in our lives. They not only get us across a body of water but also mark a completion — getting to the other side.

This year, my bicycling adventures led me to such inspiring places as Death Valley and Napa Valley. In an inner sense, I have crossed bridges to greater athletic feats for myself.  I have helped friends ride farther and stronger.

But other bridges have proved more daunting. In August, my father died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He seemed to know, in his final moments, that he was ready to ford one more river. When that was done, he left us.

I took some of his ashes back to California with me, planning to scatter them in inspirational places during my epic bike rides. But when I began those rides, the ashes were still in a pot on my dresser. I had packed everything — clothes, lights, tools, water bottles — except Dad. Crossing the bridge to letting him go was too much for me to handle.

In September, I left my 32-year career in newsrooms to seek new work opportunities in mid-life. One of my breakout goals is to begin a career as a bike tour leader, a job that reflects my passion for cycling and for meaningful human relationships. While I have yet to make that crossing, I know that I am on my way to the other side — even if that path seems at times to be shrouded in fog.

The old eastern span of the bridge stands bare, a relic of the past that will be disassembled in the coming months.

Since the new span opened in September, scores of cyclists have made the four-mile excursion from the East Bay shoreline almost to Treasure Island in the center of San Francisco Bay. (The bike path eventually will lead to the island.) Many of them had thought they would not get a shot at such an experience in their lifetime, particularly after years of political gridlock, and later, snafus including bad bolts.

After I reached the temporary end of the bike path and relished the shining newness of the bridge tower, I rode back to the East Bay, realizing that I was not going to complete the crossing to San Francisco, my work destination for the past 15-and-a-half years.

But the ride home was reassuring. It was home, after all.