I sometimes say that I grew up in the middle of nowhere, but that’s not quite true. If I really think it over, it’s more accurate to say that my little town perched on the edge of nowhere. My house was one of five on a long, winding road, surrounded by a rolling sea of trees and cell towers. You could cruise those country roads for miles and see only a handful of cars. Maybe none, if you went at night. Just miles of trees, with the occasional country cottage nestled in between.
If you followed the highways, you could find a little truck stop town within a dozen miles. If you kept going, you’d find serviceable civilization within an hour. My little town (more correctly called an ‘unincorporated township’) was a perfect place for getting lost, but it wasn’t the furthest reaches. If you knew where to go, there were places beyond.
For me, the iron bridge stood as a marker between the familiar and the bizarre. You took a hard left before entering the before-mentioned truck stop town, and you left it in your rear-view as you took off into the foothills.
I was at the tail-end of the Appalachian Mountains. Keep that in mind when I call this mountain a ‘mountain’. It certainly was, but I don’t want you imagining something tall and stern. This was the low, sloping type that you sort of just end up on, not something you really climb. That one and a dozen like it rose lazily above, and a turn down any of the narrow roads creeping up their sides would take you into a gentle but steady ascent. You’d give your car a little extra gas and keep an eye on the curves, since you didn’t want to end up in a ditch, and that was that.
The tallest one certainly had a name, but I don’t know it. I knew people who lived up there, and I knew the name of a couple streets heading up, but people usually just directed travelers to the iron bridges.
The iron bridges were a pair of rickety old structures, crossing a chasm and which offered the longest drop on the mountain. Was it fifty feet? Maybe sixty? It was enough that we’d have liked a better bridge, but rural Alabama takes what it can get. The swift water below was intimidating, too. I swam in it a few times, and I was swept away in it once. That’s another story. For now, I want to focus on the bridge.
I say “the bridge,’ despite their being two. The second was further up the mountain, in the reaches where it finally started to feel like a mountain. My entire life, it’s been covered with a packing of red dirt, with a sign that says “residential traffic only”. Like many signs in the rural reaches, it was filled with bullet holes.
Not many people went far enough up there to cross that second bridge. The first one, however, was necessary to proceed much further than five miles. It was a dreary-looking green structure, industrial looking, and riddled with graffiti. It creaked when you drove over it. The thing seemed ominous, especially when your headlights landed on it at night.
The whole region felt haunted. Maybe it’s just because it was so empty. A few houses dotted the mountain, mostly nestled back in the trees with long driveways. I never saw another car, not even once. At times, the wind would howl down that chasm, chasing the water all the way down to the valley below.
Now, there was absolutely no reason for me to be up there. I just liked to drive around at night, while daydreaming of UFOs and werewolves. I didn’t really expect to see anything, but I liked the mystery. So when I wanted to visit somewhere even more remote than my own home, I’d head up on up the iron bridges and enjoy some of the most complete darkness that I knew.
One night, I made the trip with my future-spouse. It wasn’t the first time. He’d come to enjoy the same late night drives that I’d loved since my first car. We drove around and talked about anything that came to mind, and we listened to loud music with the windows down. This particular night, I wanted to venture up the mountain with him to perhaps look at the stars, or just soak up a good bit of nothing.
We rounded a familiar corner. I recall laughing. One of us must have cracked a joke or said something silly. I don’t remember what we were laughing about, only that he suddenly stopped. My headlights hit the bridge. There, amidst the familiar graffiti, my name appeared in stark white spray paint. My full name.
“Did you do that?” he asked me.
I swallowed hard. “No,” I said. While I knew some people on that mountain, I still don’t know who did it, or why. It scared me. We turned around.
People don’t usually believe this story, but I swear upon my own grave that it happened. Occasionally in the years since, I have visited again. It remains.