Route 66: Bent Bridge

The Illinois road ends on an island in the stream—a sandy, almond-shaped isle covered with tall and unbending trees. The first bridge is just one lane, so I wait for the light to change green, then rumble up and over the water onto the island. The second bridge is now closed to auto traffic, so I park in the empty lot and travel the next length of Route 66 on foot.

The old Chain of Rocks Bridge was built across the Mississippi River in 1929, but only joined Route 66 in 1936. The art of old engineering stands triumphant in a web of naked steel girders, angled up against the fading spring twilight. Step by step, I venture out onto the narrow plank of road that soars above the treetops and then out over the lavender shine of the fast water below.

For over thirty years, motorists crossed the great Mississippi here, and I imagine the drive felt a little unnerving. Walking the bridge now feels a little unnerving—suddenly the world has expanded in waves. The river is unfathomably long and so wide, while this bridge is nothing but a high wire across the void—with me, a lone acrobat with poor balance, inching my way to Missouri without a net.

Midway across, the bridge takes a 22˚ angle turn to the north, an engineering anomaly that likely caused excitement to drivers back in the day (“Drive halfway across the Mississippi, then hang a right.”). The old bridge fell into misuse after 1966 when the New Chain of Rocks Bridge was erected just north of it and Route 66 re-routed.

Today, the Chain of Rocks Bridge is part of a vast network of trails for cyclists and pedestrians. At exactly one mile (5,353 ft.) across the open river, the walk offers an intimate and prolonged moment with America’s greatest river—anyone traveling Route 66 should stop and take the time to stroll the bridge.

At dusk, the air was silent except for the rush of the rapids and the hum of traffic on other bridges. I watched the sky change from pink and blue to lavender and night, while just downriver, the city of St. Louis turned on its lights, one by one, etching an outline of the skyline while red taillights painted the pulsing highways in and out.

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The Mississippi River is nearly the exact same length as Route 66 (just shy of 2,400 miles), but only here do the two paths meet—one river, one road, crossing at a bend in the Show-Me State.

Like much of Route 66, the old Chain of Rocks Bridge has been bypassed for ease and convenience, but it’s still there for us to acknowledge and appreciate and use. Once upon a time, it carried millions of travelers into the western half of America, and tonight, it carries me to Missouri.

Except—my car is parked back in Illinois, so I must walk back across the bridge—another mile—and then drive my car across the McKinley Bridge and into the hopping Midwestern metropolis of St. Louis.

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