PANAMA CITY — She stretched out her arms like an osprey riding an updraft, and I wished I could have taken her photo.
I was topping the rise of the Hathaway Bridge earlier this week when it happened. Driving in the center lane, on my way in to the office on a cold morning. Listening to jazz on WKGC. Thinking about all of the things that needed to be done that day and in the days and weeks to come.
The water of St. Andrew Bay was dark, a bit choppy, but sunlight sparkled on the ripples. On warmer days, my morning crossing coincides with a handful of joggers, walkers and bikers using the bridge’s pedestrian lane. This morning, there was only one.
She was bundled up, with a black jacket and gloves, bicycling up the curve of the bridge. Dark hair whipped in the offshore wind. I spotted her just as she topped the rise — morning sun lighting the water beyond her, she became a silhouette. She sat up straight and raised her arms out to her side slowly, with the grace of a dancer prolonging the movement.
I couldn’t see her face, but I imagined her smiling at the sense of accomplishment, of freedom, of flight. The moment lasted only seconds, but the image remains.
The old Hathaway Bridge couldn’t have supplied that moment. It seemed more often like a barrier than a connector. Its narrow lanes and bottleneck approaches slowed traffic to such an extent that many people avoided crossing it unless absolutely necessary. There really was a “beach” and “town” separation then, based on accessibility, that doesn’t exist any more.
(Today’s “us” and “them” attitudes are based on other things, I think. Although, with construction on the east side flyover looming, that bottleneck is no doubt going to return until the work is done.)
We moved from the town side to the beach side in 2012, and the Hathaway has become part of the day. Depending on assignments, I may cross it multiple times in a day, and it seldom fails to give me an image to ponder.
Steam rising from the power plant to the north, or smoke from a controlled burn. Fishermen approaching as close as they dare to the Navy base. A paddlewheel cruise, or a line of personal watercraft to the south. Para-surfers and water-jet riders off Carl Gray Park.
My favorite memory of the old bridge dates from when my daughter was a toddler. Any time we crossed the Hathaway, she would try to hum along with the sound of our tires on the metal grating at the center of the strand. It never failed to make me smile, hearing that sound issue from the back seat.
My favorite memory (so far) of the new bridge is sighting a bald eagle perched on the southern rail, regarding the passing traffic with a wary eye. I also enjoy seeing the crowds line the span with U.S. flags to welcome the Wounded Warriors motorcade when they visit.
In 2011, I shot video of local musician JoshBrowning singing his original song, “The Hathaway,” at Beck’s Underground, a music venue in town that closed later that same year. Josh sang about leaving his troubles behind on one side of the bridge, and finding everything he loved on the other.
Like topping the rise on a cold morning and drifting into the updraft of a brand new day.