Pity poor Jimmy Stewart, the retired police detective in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" whose fear of heights causes him to lose the woman of his dreams not once but twice in the same movie. The bell tower of San Juan Bautista mission church outside San Francisco was the culprit in those memorable scenes, but now a popular travel magazine says our unlucky hero would have been just as terrified by an encounter with Maryland's Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Travel + Leisure magazine has listed the Bay Bridge as one of the 27 scariest spans in the world, right up there with Japan's tremulous Musou Tsuribashi Bridge, the Mackinac Bridge connecting Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas and the rickety bamboo crossings through Colombia's National Archeological Park. Apparently what for some is an engineering marvel with unmatched views of its watery surround is for others a cause of paralyzing dread.
Maybe the magazine's problem with the bridge stems from its 4.3-mile length and its relatively narrow lanes for cars and trucks, which makes vehicles seem more tightly squeezed together than on the highway. When the bridge first opened in 1952, it was the longest continuous overwater steel structure in the world, and it took drivers some getting used to.
At the same time, the suspension bridge design lets drivers and passengers peer almost straight down at the water more than 200 feet below the roadway, where they can occasionally glimpse the massive ocean-going freighters that ply the bay passing underneath.
The generalized fear of heights goes by many names, with acrophobia (from two Greek roots meaning "peak" and "fear") being among the most common. But the specific fear of bridges is so distressing for those who suffer from it that it has own name, gephyrophobia, which is also a medical diagnosis. Like acrophobics, people who are unnerved by bridges can become so agitated by high places that they are unable to complete a crossing safely.
Motorists once could seek relief from the Maryland Transit authority, which provided drivers to negotiate the span for people too terrified to attempt it themselves. But the state got out of that business in 2006, after the number of requests for the service ballooned from 300 to 4,000 annually. But not to worry: Drivers for a commercial company will still steer your vehicle over for $25 a pop.
None of this is to say there's anything inherently unsafe about our jewel of a bridge, whose elegant spans and magnificent vistas of the bay make it one of the scenic wonders of the modern world. If one really wanted to worry about the unthinkable, there are plenty of other more worthy candidates among the hundreds of bridges around the country that government's long-term lack of investment in basic infrastructure has left in need of repair or replacement. Improving that network of bridges, roads and tunnels will be one of the biggest challenges moving forward into the 21st century.
But there's something exhilarating about crossing the Bay Bridge, a journey that always seems invigorating no matter the vagaries of wind or weather. (The weather, it seems, was Travel + Leisure's bugaboo; the magazine says it's the "frequent — and often violent — storms" that make the Bay Bridge so terrifying.) Crossing is an adventure and a blessing of life in our beautiful state that is enjoyed by millions of people every year, be they headed for points east on a long summer vacation or returning from a weekend retreat. Should drivers exercise caution whenever they're on the road? Certainly. Should they stay particularly alert when navigating the Bay Bridge's gentle curves? Of course. But one of the scariest bridges in the world? Not even close.