By Christian Chensvold
As we came out of the tunnel and the bridge came into view, the busload of kids let out a roar, but not my friend Craig seated next to me. He started to squirm, clutching the empty box of Milk Duds, which he’d announced, when we were passing through Novato, that he was going to use to throw up in when we passed over the Golden Gate Bridge.
It was 1982 and we were on a field trip to the aquarium. I’m guessing the only reason I remember the moment was because I’d never seen anyone have a panic attack before, certainly not for riding over the Golden Gate Bridge, which for me was always a source of excitement.
But now here I was, 40 years later, coming out of the tunnel to the sight of the crimson towers, and my own anxiety alarm going off. I’d returned to my hometown in the North Bay after a dozen years on the East Coast, and this was my first trip to the city, and suddenly the expectation of imminently crossing the bridge triggered a fight-or-flight response.
An earlier version of me would have tried to brush it off, which only would have made it worse, and left me writhing in agony just like my schoolmate, with the difference that I was in charge of operating a vehicle. Older and wiser now, I respected the inner siren bells and pulled off at Vista Point to figure out what was going on.
After a confused stroll over to the observation spot, I looked across the sun-dappled waters at the magnificent City By The Bay, and all my agitation evaporated. I was feeling emotions, just like back in the pre-digital days, and they weren’t even negative.
I was back home in the Bay Area, and was realizing just how vital crossing the Golden Gate Bridge has been through all the divergent chapters of my life.
While tourists took photos of themselves with the bridge in the background, I reminisced about how the bridge was always the passageway to some obscure object of desire on the other side. It was grandma’s house for Christmas, then comic book shops, then record stores and rock concerts, then skateboarding, fashion and training at the Letterman Fencing Club in the Presidio. After college there was opera, museums, swing dancing and seeking out rare tomes at City Lights Bookstore in the days before Amazon.
But after that it was 20 years in Los Angeles and New York. And now here I was, again in search of some obscure sought-after thing, except that this time that thing was myself. I needed a time-out to pull over and take it all in.
For five years I’ve been working tirelessly to get my life story straight, and how I went from being a happy 12-year-old on a field trip that day to a hardened man of middle age who’d been forced, with the greatest reluctance, to face his demons and re-orient himself after having been hopelessly lost in the forest of life.
Standing there at Vista Point, looking at the bridge and the amazing city on the other side, my mind began writing the transitions between all the disparate chapters, and gained new insight on the bizarre, higher logic that had been working itself out all along, despite my ignorance.
I’ve heard that today people in the North Bay are reluctant to cross the bridge, and perhaps their reasons are not so different from my nerve-wracked schoolmate. The demon behind it is always the same—the ego’s fear of its imminent destruction—even as it adopts a thousand guises, depending on where your soft spot is.
But the fear of getting your car broken into, being robbed or stepping in excrement is likely exacerbated by your own catastrophic imagination, as that of my friend, who thought the bridge would collapse and he would be swallowed into the sea. He did not actually have to face this danger that day when crossing the bridge; what he did have to face was fear itself, and there’s a reason the wise man said that there’s really nothing to fear but fear itself, because it acts so irrationally upon the imagination on which it feeds.
After stopping to figure out what I was feeling—and, more important, to let myself feel it—I ended up having a wonderful day in the city, walking around with nothing else to do except simply feel once again what it’s like to just be in San Francisco, the big-city home-away-from-home.
No, the city isn’t what it once was, but neither are you—you’re better than before, or at least you ought to be. You don’t have to cross the Golden Gate if you don’t want to, but don’t let your imagination stop you.
Maybe just tell yourself you’re going to take a drive to Vista Point, have a look and see how you feel. You might find that a lifelong love for crossing the bridge, and the thought of what obscure object of desire you may find on the other side, is its own kind of irrational delight.