Dr Gopee

A Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

DR R NEERUNJUN GOPEE

As we got up on Sunday June 3, the weather in this more inland of part of the city, situated on higher ground too, was quasi- Curepipian: rather wet, with a grey sky and fog. Gone, we thought, that’s what awaits us on the bridge: the Golden Gate Bridge, that is, which we had planned to walk across that day. It was about three years ago that we had first made the attempt, but the bridge had been shrouded in a mass of thick, darkish clouds. It was cold and wet too, and after a courageous beginning – starting from Vista Point where we had parked our car, we went only so far, preferring to turn back. Fortunately, this time round our hopes were met for, as we set out at about 11 am, the day had cleared quite a bit, and when we began the drive on the bridge, we were bathed in warm sunshine. Later, as we walked down towards the roadway by foot, again leaving from Vista Point, we joined the steady stream of visitors who had come with the same objective. There was a smile on everyone’s face: babies in prams, their parents, couples holding hands, faces of all ages and of practically all hues of humankind were here mingled in a common purpose, feeling the lightness of being that the atmosphere in such settings induces. Like what we witnessed at the Grand Canyon viewpoint, ten years before, as dusk was settling and the orange globe of the sun had begun its descent towards yonder horizon, so unimaginably far away across the humongous gulf that plunged in between to a depth of 5000 feet.

The thrill of the walk was enhanced by a light cool breeze that blew in the direction of the city, and it was felt like a caress on our cheeks shortly after we started towards the first tower, reaching which we did what practically everyone does: stand near the base and look upwards towards the top, which means craning one’s neck and bending backwards to really get the view. No choice here, as the tower, one of two at either end, rises 746 feet: 191 feet higher than the Washington Monument, which itself appears too tall! Before the neck developed an ache – previous experience a sure help here! – we resumed our trek, and at some point we did the other inevitable: take some pictures.

And then, what with digital cameras that allow you to look immediately at your handiwork, we scrolled back and forth – and confirmed that we, I mean the camera, had recorded the exact true colour of the towers, cables, and handrails. It is a special shade of vermillion known as International Orange, which was preferred by the architect Irving Morrow, responding to the call of locals, instead of grey and yellow as requested by the shipping companies and navy, because it matches with the natural surroundings and enhances the visibility. 38 painters are employed on continuous maintenance work for the bridge, along with 17 ironworkers to replace corroding steel and rivets. Of the latter, there are nearly 1.2 million, a statistic as stupendous as the other ones detailed at goldengate.org.

A joy to behold

Among some of them, the two cables which uphold the weight of the roadway, one on either side of the bridge, are made up of 27572 strands of steel wire which add up to 82 000 miles. They were made by the same contractor that made the wires for the Brooklyn Bridge (which was opened 54 years earlier, in May 1883) in New York City, John Roebling Sons Co. Trenton and Roebling, New Jersey. Interestingly, both bridges were built to replace existing ferry services that on the one hand, could no longer cope with the increasing numbers of passengers and, on the other, were felt to be impeding the development of the cities, particularly in the case of San Francisco. And both bridges are iconic to their respective cities, never mind that the 4200 long main span of the Golden Gate Bridge places it 2nd longest in the US after the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York, which is no less impressive when seen while crossing NY harbour in ferry. Equally majestic is the Bear Mountain Bridge in New York which spans the Hudson River. It is comparatively shorter – no more than about 15 minutes to walk across – but viewed from a high point when the weather is fair with the afternoon sun shining, it gleams a steely white that cannot leave one untouched. With the Golden Gate Bridge, another thing of beauty that is a joy to behold…

Long before I had ever imagined that some day I would visit the Golden Gate Bridge – having made a choice to head straight back home after completing specialist studies in the UK, I had first heard about it when I came upon the book The Golden Gate around the time of its publication in 1986. Penned by the Indian writer Vikram Seth, it is a novel in verse form that was inspired by a similar style in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and purports to depict aspects of the lives of huppies which the author got exposed to when he was studying near San Francisco, at Stanford, at the time. After completing the book, I remember thinking to myself that someday, perhaps, if I get the opportunity, I would like to see that bridge. That Bridge – with a capital B.

The experience is indeed worth it, rated as it is as one of the wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the most photographed bridge in the world. At the very first look at it one understands why that cannot but be so. Viewed from any angle, it is a marvel, and one cannot but salute those who actually designed and constructed it, as must be the case for all the other builders of similar bridges too. Forming part of US route 101 and California State route 1, it spans Golden Gate, which is the opening of San Francisco Bay into the Pacific Ocean, and links Marin Country with San Francisco city. With parking and viewing areas at either end, it took 4 years to construct. It cost then USD 35 million – and it is noteworthy that it was completed ahead of schedule and under budget by USD 1.3 million. It opened to pedestrian traffic on 27 May 1937. On that day, 200 000 people crossed the bridge by foot and roller skates, and on the next day, 28 May 1937, President Roosevelt pressed a button in Washington DC signalling the official start of vehicular traffic at noon.

The Mighty Task Is Done

When, several years before works began in 1833, a proposal was made for the construction of the bridge by an engineering student, it was felt that there were insurmountable difficulties that would make the project impossible: the strong winds, the deep waters (372 feet) and the swirling currents. But an ‘ambitious but dreamy engineer and poet’ by the name of Joseph Strauss submitted his plan. The course of subsequent events should ring a local bell: opposition from diverse quarters and groups, as is perhaps usual in human affairs. The Department of War felt that the bridge would obstruct the passage of ships, while the Navy feared that such a situation could result from collision or sabotage. The South Pacific Railway Company feared losses in its ferry service. Unions insisted that local workers be given preference during recruitment. But the fledgling automobile industry was an ally, as it saw business prospects, and finally the authorities granted the land rights for construction.

When it was finished, Strauss wrote a poem, ‘The Mighty Task Is Done’, which is now on the bridge. With 6 lanes and 2 walkways for pedestrians and cycles, to date probably over 2 billion vehicles must have crossed it, at a rate of 41 million per year. Millions of human beings have done so too, by foot, on bicycles and in vehicles. One week before our own walk, on Sunday 27 May, great celebrations were held for the 75th anniversary of the bridge. It has been closed only three times since it was opened because of strong winds: in 1951, 1982 and 1983.

When we were nearing the middle of the bridge, a thin cloud mass was floating across it towards the city, and we got caught in its tail end as we approached the other tower. That didn’t detract from the excitement we were feeling at reaching the end of the walkway, and were about to turn back for the return crossing. Probably with endorphins circulating in our bloodstream, we were in great mood as we contemplated the whole length of the bridge looking towards Marin County and the adjoining sunnier half of the bridge, which we were about to step on once more. As we walked, we stopped to look at some surfers and boats down below, all of 245 feet, and admired the gliding white birds that reminded us of paille-en-queue. There were ducks or swans visible in a marina that we could see far down below on the County side of the Golden Gate, and remembered our boat trip another time that had taken us around Alcatraz, which we could see too, as well as the long – about ten miles – Bay Bridge in the distance that we had once driven on at night when its lights give it a surreal look.

A true engineering feat, the Golden Gate Bridge, very deserving of its iconic stature, it being the subject of so many movies, it being photographed by the millions who find genuine pleasure in being part of the aura that surrounds it on the beautiful days when it literally invites one to enjoy its sight and pay homage to all those whose farsightedness and efforts triumphed over unreasonable opposition to make it become a reality for posterity. An emanation of the good side of the human mind: it almost deserves respect!

RN GOPEE

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