“Hi. I’d like someone to drive me across.” The tollbooth operator doesn’t flinch. This sort of thing happens pretty often here. “Here” is the Mackinac Bridge, which turns fifty this year, and spans the divide between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. “This sort of thing” is drivers needing someone to drive them from shore to shore, a free service that the Mackinac Bridge Authority has offered for as long as anyone there can remember.
I pull over just past the tollbooth and wait for the Drivers’ Assistance Program to kick in. It’s a routine event for the staff, all of whom are on call to help. They have commercial vehicle licenses, so they can drive semis, and some have motorcycle endorsements to assist bikers.
A maintenance truck pulls up behind me, a husky man with a spectacular walrus moustache at the wheel. His passenger, Paul, becomes my driver, and the truck follows us to take Paul back afterward.
Paul has worked at the bridge for thirty years, and he’s seen all types make use of the program. “Oh, any Joe Lunchbox. There’s no profile—you get just as many men as you get women.” Mostly solo drivers? “No, lots of times, they have people in the vehicle, but they just feel like—they’d feel more secure if one of us drives ’em across.” When I ask for his best stories, he demurs. “A lot of nice people, honestly. Some of them are just terrified. You know, lay down in the backseat, say, ‘Let me know when we’re on the other side.’”
The other side is five miles away, making the Mackinac Bridge the third-longest suspension bridge between anchorages in the world. To the Bridge Authority, the Drivers’ Assistance Program is preferable to having people attempt to drive who are unsure of their bridge-crossing abilities. “They just get so wound up and worried about it, they come to a dead stop and can’t drive anymore,” Paul says. The fear has a name—gephyrophobia. What do these people do at other bridges? No one at the Mackinac Bridge seems to know. “I’ve driven people across,” says Paul, “and they’ll say they’ve come across the Golden Gate Bridge, and that’s a huge bridge, but they don’t offer this service, so people must just have to do it.”
The Mackinac Bridge is quite handsome— its twin spans gleam white, the trim is a Michigan State green. There are two lanes of traffic going each way, separated by a speed bump–size median, and metal grating lies on the inner lanes for about half of the distance. Paul says, “A lot of people ask me not to drive on the grating because of the humming of your tires. But some prefer to stay away from the edge—they don’t like to look over. The speed limit’s 45, and some want you to go 25. They’re just that uncomfortable with it.”
The straits below have been frozen solid for about a week, allowing the year-round residents of nearby Mackinac Island the freedom to travel by snowmobile to the mainland; they stick old Christmas trees in the ice to mark the way. Beneath the middle of the span, two hundred feet down, the ice is visibly thinner where a navy cutter has recently churned its way through to allow freighters to pass.
As part of the maintenance work, Paul walks up and down the suspension cables of the bridge, which seems like a pretty harrowing prospect to me, so is it hard for him to comprehend the abject terror of those he escorts across? “I don’t think so,” Paul says .“I don’t care to drive in bigger towns with heavy traffic. I’d just as soon have my son or my daughter drive me around, ’cause they know the area.”
While the staff doesn’t go through any sort of training for the program, they’re still able to help some people overcome their fear. “We used to have a girl that worked at a casino, and we’d take her to work in the morning, take her back at night when her shift was done. She kept saying, ‘I think I can do it, I think I can do it.’ For two or three years, she didn’t, and she finally started doing it by herself and now we see her go by and she’s proud as can be that she can do it.”