The Fear Divide

Where the tracks met the old wagon road stood a barrier no one but me could see

If my fight or flight anxiety were made manifest, it would be a certain footbridge crossing a narrow rock gorge in the Fraser Valley

Photograph: cmh23151fl/Flickr

ON FATHER’S DAY WEEKEND, 1989, MY FAMILY decided to forgo gifts of handmade ties and clay ashtrays for a Sunday drive hugging the misty curves of the Fraser Canyon Highway, north of Hope, British Columbia. At a roadside diner for lunch, my mother’s face lit up as she described a “bridge to nowhere” hidden in the woods nearby, suggesting a visit. My father looked less enthusiastic, as his prospects for an afternoon tinkering in his garage dwindled. My brother didn’t care as long as he got a milkshake first. Me? I was sure – and not for the first time in my short life – I was going to die.

It was a benign trip you’d remember only vaguely, but for me, it was a defining battle in my lifelong war against anxiety. We parked at the side of the highway and meandered down a steep wood to the old Alexandra Bridge, named for the similarly forgotten Princess Alexandra of Wales. It’s a vestige of the Cariboo Wagon Road, built in the 1860s to service the province’s goldfields, and rebuilt in 1926.

My family was ahead, already out of sight when the toes of my label-less, knock-off Keds struck the darkly oiled railroad ties of the CN tracks, which I’d have to cross to access the bridge. Panic rose at the thought of stepping onto the still-in-use tracks, and I found myself unable to move. Rail safety PSAs flashed through my mind – was I supposed to touch the rail, or place an ear on the metal to detect oncoming trains? Sweat dripped down my bangs, and I fought the urge to retreat to the safety of the canopied forest behind me.

In the end I knelt, opting for a rail grip. The giggles of some other children coming the opposite way caught my attention as they hopped from rail to rail. One was a girl about my age, her footsteps were light, and her eyes were the same blue as the label on the back of her genuine Keds. She seemed everything I wasn’t, and in that moment I knew I was different. I snatched my hand from the rail and lowered my gaze, pretending to tie my shoe, until the crunch of their footsteps was muffled by the forest floor behind me.

“Come on!” My brother had reappeared further down the path, visibly irritated. “There are no trains!” “There are no trains,” I repeated, as I placed a wobbly foot over the rail to follow him. “There are no trains,” I whispered repeatedly, as I darted across the tracks into the looming shadow of the crumbling Alexandra. By then, my family was ready to turn back, but I begged for a moment more, able now to traverse the rusted gridiron.

The addition of that one sentence to my toolkit rendered me mobile, and the power of it felt like being handed a gun in a knife fight. I returned to the Alexandra in 2011, curious to see how the span of 22 summers would affect my perception. Anxiety was something I had mostly in hand, able to wrangle its sometimes daily sieges, but I was beginning to see similar traits in my daughter. At 5, she was preoccupied with tornadoes and overly worried that if she fell asleep she wouldn’t wake. I was terrified I’d failed her, somehow passed my fears on, and I wanted to return to that bridge to provide plausible truth or deniability to my theory.

My daughter swung between my parents’ hands as we advanced down the skeletal remains of the old highway. I held my breath as we approached the tracks. My daughter’s giggle rose over the deafening thud of my heart as she hopped from rail to rail, waiting for me to catch up.

“It’s OK!” she said, as she looked at me, eyes as blue as the label on a pair of Keds. “There are no trains, Mummy!”

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One Response to “The Fear Divide”

  1. Bob Hulley
    Thursday, March 21st, 2019 at 3:52 PM #

    Enjoyed the read.

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