Tollbooths are a rare bird in Iowa. We don’t pay a toll to travel down Grand Avenue to East Village, for example. We don’t toss money into metal baskets and wait for the arm to lift so that we can drive past the shops in Beaverdale. And, frankly, I have yet to get a ticket-stub to cross Scott Avenue Bridge. Tollbooths just don’t exist in our neck of the woods.
And, listen, I’m not complaining.
But this isn’t true out East. You can ride the Indiana, Ohio, or Pennsylvania Turnpikes and see your kids’ college education fund vanish as you travel from turnpike to turnpike. And the tollbooths themselves are wild circuses. Red and green lights flash above the booths, the throaty sounds of trucks downshifting vibrate across the lanes, and the smell of diesel and gas and hot concrete is everywhere. All that’s missing are elephants. And don’t let yourself get distracted too long because you have to find your lane based on the overhead signs: EZ PASS — CASH — EXACT AMOUNT — TRUCKS ONLY — CREDIT CARDS — MANNED BOOTH — AUTOMATIC BOOTH. I always look for that far lane — SLIGHTLY BEFUDDLED. That seems to fit.
And now you’re fourth in line to pay the fare. Unfortunately, a brief delay usually occurs because some poor fellow in front of you is squeezing out the driver-side door to retrieve the toll he dropped just a bit short of the basket. Although we in the line have all done the same thing at one time or another, and, believe me, we all profess to be people of kindness and understanding, don’t be fooled. Everyone fights the urge to honk their horn and yell unkind remarks. Some more successfully than others.
After you pay your money, you are in for another special treat — the horse-race start out of the gate. Look at that Porsche, idling lazily to your left. Look at that souped-up Mustang, gunning its engine on your right. Okay . . . are you ready? . . . Go! Unfortunately, in your eagerness to show what a minivan from Iowa can do, you choose a lane that promptly shunts you off the turnpike into another tollbooth lane to get back on the turnpike. Yes, a vicious circle of tollbooth purgatory. So it goes on the road.
But yesterday, on the way home to Des Moines, my wife and I saw a tollbooth to love. It was just outside of Cumberland, Maryland, where the North Branch of the Potomac River runs deep in the Appalachian Mountains. The tiny tollbooth sits on the east side of that famous river. The sign announces that we need $1.50 to cross. As I held out the money, a smiling woman in a flag t-shirt appears. She dangles from the window a metal cup attached to a long wooden handle. Our quarters clang into the cup, and the barrier lifts to allow our passage.
The Oldtown Toll Bridge is a low-water bridge with Maryland on one bank and West Virginia on the other. Periodically, the water tops the bridge forcing it to close. That’s apparently why it’s not called a high-water bridge. So around eight times a year the rain comes and the bridge closes.
“Generally, not for very long,” says Grace.
A year ago, part of the bridge washed out for 71 days.
“I growed up around here. I’ve always been in this part of the country. And I’ve never seen that before.” Grace shakes her head in amazement.
Are people friendly who drive across the bridge?
“Sometimes we have a few nasty people. Most folks are pretty nice. It’s better than 30 miles to take another route to get across the river, so most folks appreciate it.”
Grace says all this with a mountain twang, a large smile, and a loving-mom demeanor. But there is no denying, she sits alone for hours in her tollbooth.
“I don’t get bored or lonely,” she says emphatically. “I work puzzles.” And she holds up a box full of hundreds of tiny puzzle pieces. She explains that at the end of her eight-hour shift, the completed puzzle is dismantled and carted away for the next day.
Grace stops talking to take care of a pick-up truck coming across from the Maryland side.
The loose planks in the middle of the bridge bounce up and down with the weight of the truck. Spring rains have jammed river debris against the center concrete pylons. No signs of civilization are visible on either bank. It is not a difficult to imagine it all swept away in a hard downpour. A return to the land as it was in the beginning.
Grace turns back from collecting the toll and patiently smiles. She has all the time in the world as we both listen to the birds singing in the trees.
How does this all end for you, I ask?
“I’ll be here until my dying day, or I’m unable to do it. Whatever comes first.” And Grace laughs, gives me her final smile, and returns to her work.
So I get back in the car, cross the bridge, and my wife drives us home — and Grace places another puzzle piece down.