View From the Gay Street Bridge on a Foggy Morning, Knoxville, February 2024 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
(Today’s article is by recurring guest writer Luke Frazier, a relatively new Knoxville resident who continues to explore the city.)
I really like to cross that bridge when I come to it. In this case it’s the 1,512 foot long, 42 foot wide steel & concrete span over the Tennessee River called the Gay Street Bridge. I mean bridges are pretty cool to begin with, inherently purposeful and tee’d up for achievement. The decision to embark is embedded with the promise of the other side, and this 3/10 of a mile journey is filled with vistas and visual interest (though unfortunately the JFG sign is now gone). Built by the Youngstown Bridge Company and completed in 1898, it’s the oldest of the four vehicle bridges connecting downtown with South Knoxville.
Certainly I’ve been on more dramatic bridges, the Chesapeake Bay and the Cape Cod Canal bridges come to mind, and I’ll never forget my 20 mile long dead of night ride over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, but the Gay Street Bridge is charming in its own way.
You’ve got pedestrian protection from errant traffic, the lights are attractive, it never seems to get too backed up, and the overall look and feel of its five arched trusses is quite pleasant. I’ve probably walked over and back 100 times since moving here almost a year and half ago, it’s an easy two mile round trip from my apartment.
But it wasn’t until recently that I stepped into a dreamy looking scene and took these pictures. The kick was that I knew exactly what to call what I was seeing.
I had just signed up for a daily weather e-newsletter and the second day I got it they featured the word “roke.” It’s a Middle English word that means vapor, and was used in the context of some sea fog coming strong for the coast. Two days later I’m walking down Gay Street toward the river and arrive at the bridge. And there it was, right before my eyes: genuine river roke.
It struck me strangely in that moment, somehow signifying a greater issue than a meteorological condition. Part of what I usually enjoy about traversing the Gay Street Bridge are the views up and down the river, the sense of being out in space and the possibilities of a free minds-eye flight over water. Sometimes boats buzz about, occasionally I’ll observe the UT crew team in training. Often you can smell the ribs cooking at Calhoun’s, and hear the rhythmic industrial noises from the Holston Gases yard.
Returning north the whole downtown opens before you, and the Sunsphere takes its rightful place as a beckoning beacon. Church spires and office towers add a sense of vitality. I do avoid looking straight down at the river, it gives me tremble belly and reminds me of my later in life development of height anxiety. Instead, I enjoy the vistas and keep the pace.
But on this roke-ridden day the feeling was of uncertainty, of not quite getting the picture. It got me thinking about bridges, mists, and moods. It didn’t feel dangerous, exactly, but loaded with meaning nonetheless.
It probably didn’t help that I had a lot on my mind and some decisions to make. So when I couldn’t just cast my gaze clearly in all directions, I felt a little edgy. Suddenly the height of the bridge increased and the calm water became ominous. Clouds became more threatening and lowered, and the length of the span grew. I wanted to be off the bridge and on solid ground. Soon I was and all was well.
It reminded me that our thoughts can sometimes take on a life of their own, and we can create mystifying circumstances wherever we go. Being on a bridge puts us in a liminal state by definition, and we’ve all seen movie bridges collapsing as characters race across. No such drama on this day, but for a moment the Gay Street Bridge had me in a state of flux. Fortunately, I never lost sight of where I was going: back into the safe and gentle confines of Knoxville, the city I’ve grown to love.