The View from a Drawbridge

The random musings of a bridgetender with entirely too much time on her hands.

If you are afraid of heights, the last thing you should do is become a bridgetender. Many people are afraid to even walk or drive across bridges, let alone work on them. I see it every day. Others are fine until they feel the bridge shaking and swaying. But trust me, the last thing you want is a rigid bridge. Those are the ones that buckle and break.

Bridgetenders often find themselves climbing rickety stairs way above the water. They cross open-grated catwalks every day. And when you are standing on a bridge’s street-level grating, it feels like it’s a long way down.

Here’s my dirty little secret. (Promise not to tell.) I’m afraid of heights. I think anyone with a healthy sense of self-preservation ought to be.

The first bridge I worked on, the tenderhouse was suspended 25 feet above the road, and 35 feet above the river. To get to it, you had to climb a set of open-grated stairs from sidewalk level, right on the water’s edge, and then take another flight that extended above the traffic. And that bridge swayed more than any other I’ve been on.

I used to have to fight panic attacks every single time I came to work. And I couldn’t reveal that to any of my coworkers, because I’d have lost their respect. Some people would get hired, walk up the bridge, take one look at the stairs, and quit right on the spot.

I have gotten used to things to a certain extent, but I still feel a spike of anxiety on catwalks. And when I’m on the bridge grating, I just remind myself, over and over again, that if it can support the weight of a truck, it can support me. And I don’t look down.

So why do I do it? I love so many things about this job that those little stress bubbles seem worth it to me. In addition, I’ve given it a lot of thought. I’m not one of those unfortunate people who are afraid of heights even inside a multi-story building.

No. I’ve examined my fear closely, and it only seems to come about when I could possibly die due to my own clumsiness. If there are stairs for me to fall down, or railings low enough for me to plunge over to my death, then I’m scared. But if I’m harnessed in, or there’s a chest-high railing or something of that nature that would prevent my own klutziness, or if I’m taking in the view from inside a nice solid building, I’m fine.

It’s always been a bad habit of mine to have more faith in others, and even in inanimate objects, than I do in myself. Because of this, I think I could go zip lining. Jumping out of an airplane might pose a greater challenge. I might even be able to do that, if harnessed in tandem with a professional. But don’t ask me to shimmy along a narrow ledge. I want to live.


I took this picture of my coworkers, who were standing on sidewalk level. I was only halfway up to the tenderhouse.

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4 thoughts on “Fear of Heights

  1. Elaine says:

    Nope, I couldn’t do your job. Climb up a two step ladder to paint a wall and I feel as if I am at nose bleed height. I do fly (in an airplane) but very rarely. I would be one of the persons hiring a driver to get across the Mackinac bridge, and not so I could look at the scenery. Thank heavens there are people like you!

    1. Awwww, thanks Elaine! If my fear were that strong, I wouldn’t be able to do it, either!

  2. Firewalker says:

    Sounds perfectly normal to me. 🙂 You trust your instincts and know your equipment. When I get close to the edge of a high place with no safety equipment (handrails, harness ect) and look down I get an uneasy slight falling forward feeling. Bridge gratings just give me a cool view of the water. However as part of my job i was certified in rope rescue and rappelled for years off of rooftops and out windows many stories off the ground. Self-preservation is a powerful motivator.

    1. Indeed it is. And when I was younger, I went rock climbing a few times. I Love rappelling! (After a through check of the equipment.)

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