The Bridges of Madison County (Chapter 1)
The Bridges of Madison County
Robert James Waller
On the morning of August 8, 1965, Robert Kincaid locked the door to his small two-room apartment on the third door of a rambling house in Bellingham, Washington. He carried a knapsack full of photography equipment and a suitcase down wooden stairs and through a hallway to the back, where his old Chevrolet pickup truck was parked in a space reserved for residents of the building.
Another knapsack, a medium-size ice chest, two tripods, cartons of Camel cigarettes, a Thermos, and a bag of fruit were already inside. In the truck box was a guitar case. Kincaid arranged the knapsacks on the seat and put the cooler and tripods on the floor. He climbed into the truck box and wedged the guitar case and suitcase into a corner of the box, bracing them with a spare tire lying on its side and securing both cases to the tire with a length of clothesline rope. Under the worn spare he shoved a black tarpaulin.
He stepped in behind the wheel, lit a Camel, and went through his mental checklist: two hundred rolls of assorted film, mostly slow-speed Kodachrome; tripods; cooler; three cameras and five lenses; jeans and khaki slacks; shirts; wearing photo vest. Okay . Anything else he could buy on the road if he had forgotten it.
Kincaid wore faded Levi’s, well-used Red Wing field boots, a khaki shirt, and orange suspenders. On his wide leather belt was fastened a Swiss Army knife in its own case.
He looked at his watch: eight-seventeen. The truck started on the second try, and he backed out, shifted gears, and moved slowly down the alley under hazy sun. Through the streets of Bellingham he went, heading south on Washington 11, running along the coast of Puget Sound for a few miles, then following the highway as it swung east a little before meeting U.S. Route 20.
Turning into the sun, he began the long, winding drive through the Cascades. He liked this country and felt unpressed, stopping now and then to make notes about interesting possibilities for future expeditions or to shoot what he called “memory snapshots.” The purpose of these cursory photographs was to remind him of places he might want to visit again and approach more seriously. In late afternoon he turned north at Spokane, picking up U.S. Route 2, which would take him halfway across the northern United States to Duluth, Minnesota.
He wished for the thousandth time in his life that he had a dog, a golden retriever, maybe, for travels like this and to keep him company at home. But he was frequently away, overseas much of the time, and it would not be fair to the animal. Still, he thought about it anyway.In a few years he would be getting too old for the hard fieldwork. “I might get a dog then,” he said to the coniferous green rolling by his truck window.
Drives like this always put him into a taking-stock mood. The dog was part of it. Robert Kincaid was as alone as it’s possible to be— an only child, parents both dead, distant relatives who had lost track of him and he of them, no close friends.
He knew the names of the man who owned the corner market in Bellingham and the proprietor of the photographic store where he bought his supplies. He also had formal, professional relationships with several magazine editors. Other than that, he knew scarcely anyone well, nor they him. Gypsies make difficult friends for ordinary people, and he was something of a gypsy.
He thought about Marian. She had left him nine years ago after five years of marriage. He was fifty-two now; that would make her just under forty. Marian had dreams of becoming a musician, a folksinger. She knew all of the Weavers’ songs and sang them pretty well in the coffeehouses of Seattle. When he was home in the old days, he drove her to gigs and sat in the audience while she sang.
His long absences— two or three months sometimes— were hard on the marriage. He knew that. She was aware of what he did when they decided to get married, and each of them had a vague sense that it could all be handled somehow. It couldn’t. When he came home from photographing a story in Iceland, she was gone. The note read: “Robert, it didn’t work out. I left you the Harmony guitar. Stay in touch.”
He didn’t stay in touch. Neither did she. He signed the divorce papers when they arrived a year later and caught a plane for Australia the next day.She had asked for nothing except her freedom.
At Kalispell, Montana, he stopped for the night, late. The Cozy Inn looked inexpensive, and was. He carried his gear into a room containing two table lamps, one of which had a burned-out bulb. Lying in bed, reading The Green Hills of Africa and drinking a beer, he could smell the paper mills of Kalispell. In the morning he jogged for forty minutes, did fifty push-ups, and used his cameras as small hand weights to complete the routine.
Across the top of Montana he drove, into North Dakota and the spare, flat country he found as fascinating as the mountains or the sea. There was a kind of austere beauty to this place, and he stopped several times, set up a tripod, and shot some black-and-whites of old farm buildings. This landscape appealed to his minimalist leanings. The Indian reservations were depressing, for all of the reasons everybody knows and ignores. Those kinds of settlements were no better in northwestern Washington, though, or anywhere else he had seen them.
On the morning of August 14, two hours out of Duluth, he sliced northeast and took a back road up to Hibbing and the iron mines. Red dust floated in the air, and there were big machines and trains specially designed to haul the ore to freighters at Two Harbors on Lake Superior.He spent an afternoon looking around Hibbing and found it not to his liking, even if Bob Zimmerman-Dylan was from there originally .
The only song of Dylan’s he had ever really cared for was “Girl from the North Country.”He could play and sing that one, and he hummed the words to himself as he left behind the place with giant red holes in the earth. Marian had shown him some chords and how to handle basic arpeggios to accompany himself. “She left me with more than I left her,” he said once to a boozy riverboat pilot in a place called McElroy’s Bar, somewhere in the Amazon basin. And it was true.
The Superior National Forest was nice, real nice. Voyageur country. When he was young, he’d wished the old voyageur days were not over so he could become one. He drove by meadows, saw three moose, a red fox, and lots of deer. At a pond he stopped and shot some reflections on the water made by an odd-shaped tree branch. When he finished he sat on the running board of his truck, drinking coffee, smoking a Camel, and listening to the wind in the birch trees.
“It would be good to have someone, a woman,” he thought, watching the smoke from his cigarette blow out over the pond. “Getting older puts you in that frame of mind.” But with him gone so much, it would be tough on the one left at home. He’d already learned that.
When he was home in Bellingham, he occasionally dated the creative director for a Seattle advertising agency. He had met her while doing a corporate job. She was forty-two, bright, and a nice person, but he didn’t love her, would never love her.
Sometimes they both got a little lonely, though, and would spend an evening together, going to a movie, having a few beers, and making pretty decent love later on. She’d been around— two marriages, worked as a waitress in several bars while attending college. Invariably , after they’d completed their lovemaking and were lying together,she’d tell him, “You’re the best, Robert, no competition, nobody even close.”
He supposed that was a good thing for a man to hear , but he was not all that experienced and had no way of knowing whether or not she was telling the truth anyway. But she did say something one time that haunted him: “Robert, there’s a creature inside of you that I’m not good enough to bring out, not strong enough to reach. I sometimes have the feeling you’ve been here a long time, more than one lifetime, and that you’ve dwelt in private places none of the rest of us has even dreamed about. You frighten me, even though you’re gentle with me. If I didn’t fight to control myself with you, I feel like I might lose my center and never get back.”
He knew in an obscure way what she was talking about. But he couldn’t get his hands on it himself. He’d had these drifting kinds of thoughts, a wistful sense of the tragic combined with intense physical and intellectual power,even as a young boy growing up in a small Ohio town. When other kids were singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” he was learning the melody and English words to a French cabaret song.
He liked words and images. “Blue” was one of his favorite words. He liked the feeling it made on his lips and tongue when he said it. Words have physical feeling, not just meaning, he remembered thinking when he was young. He liked other words, such as “distant,” “woodsmoke,” “highway,””ancient,” “passage,” “voyageur,”and “India” for how they sounded, how they tasted, and what they conjured up in his mind. He kept lists of words he liked posted in his room.
Then he joined the words into phrases and posted those as well:
Too close to the fire.
I came from the East with a small band of travelers.
The constant chirping of those who would save me and those who would sell me.
Talisman,Talisman,show me your secrets. Helmsman, Helmsman, turn me for home.
Lying naked where blue whales swim.
She wished him steaming trains that left from winter stations.
Before I became a man, I was an arrow— long time ago.
Then there were the places whose names he liked: the Somali Current, the Big Hatchet Mountains, the Malacca Strait, and a long list of others. The sheets of paper with words and phrases and places eventually covered the walls of his room.
Even his mother noticed something different about him. He never spoke a word until he was three, then began talking in complete sentences, and he could read extremely well by five. In school he was an indifferent student, frustrating the teachers.
They looked at his IQ scores and talked to him about achievement, about doing what he was capable of doing, that he could become anything he wanted to become. One of his high school teachers wrote the following in an evaluation of him: “He believes that ‘IQ tests are a poor way to judge people’s abilities, failing as they do to account for magic, which has its own importance, both by itself and as a complement to logic.’ I suggest a conference with his parents.”
His mother met with several teachers. When the teachers talked about Robert’s quietly recalcitrant behavior in light of his abilities, she said, “Robert lives in a world of his own making. I know he’s my son, but I sometimes have the feeling that he came not from my husband and me, but from another place to which he’s trying to return. I appreciate your interest in him, and I’ll try once more to encourage him to do better in school.”
But he had been content to read all the adventure and travel books in the local library and kept to himself otherwise, spending days along the river that ran through the edge of town, ignoring proms and football games and other things that bored him. He fished and swam and walked and lay in long grass listening to distant voices he fancied only he could hear. “There are wizards out there,” he used to say to himself. “If you’re quiet and open enough to hear them, they’re out there.” And he wished he had a dog to share these moments.
There was no money for college. And no desire for it, either.His father worked hard and was good to his mother and him, but the job in a valve factory didn’t leave much for other things, including the care of a dog. He was eighteen when his father died, so with the Great Depression bearing down hard, he enlisted in the army as a way of supporting his mother and himself. He stayed there four years, but those four years changed his life.
In the mysterious way that military minds work, he was assigned to a job as photographer’s assistant, though he had no idea of even how to load a camera. But in that work, he discovered his profession. The technical details were easy for him. Within a month he was not only doing the darkroom work for two of the staff photographers, but also was allowed to shoot simple projects himself.
One of the photographers, Jim Peterson, liked him and spent extra time showing him the subtleties of photography. Robert Kincaid checked out photo books and art books from the Fort Monmouth town library and studied them. Early on, he particularly liked the French impressionists and Rembrandt’s use of light.
Eventually he began to see that light was what he photographed, not objects. The objects merely were the vehicles for reflecting the light. If the light was good, you could always find something to photograph. The 35- millimeter camera was beginning to emerge then, and he purchased a used Leica at a local camera store. He took it down to Cape May, New Jersey, and spent a week of his leave there photographing life along the shore.
Another time he rode a bus to Maine and hitchhiked up the coast, caught the dawn mail boat out of Isle au Haut from Stonington, and camped, then took a ferry across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia. He began keeping notes of his camera settings and places he wanted to visit again. When he came out of the army at twenty-two, he was a pretty decent shooter and found work in New York assisting a well- known fashion photographer.
The female models were beautiful; he dated a few and fell partially in love with one before she moved to Paris and they drifted apart. She had said to him: “Robert, I don’t know who or what you are for sure, but please come visit me in Paris.” He told her he would, meant it when he said it, but never got there. Years later when he was doing a story on the beaches of Normandy, he found her name in the Paris book, called, and they had coffee at an outdoor cafe. She was married to a cinema director and had three children.
He couldn’t get very keen on the idea of fashion. People threw away perfectly good clothes or hastily had them made over according to the instructions of European fashion dictators. It seemed dumb to him, and he felt lessened doing the photography. “You are what you produce,” he said as he left this work.
His mother died during his second year in New York. He went back to Ohio, buried her, and sat before a lawyer, listening to the reading of the will. There wasn’t much. He didn’t expect there would be anything. But he was surprised to find his parents had accumulated a little equity in the tiny house on Franklin Street where they had lived all their married lives. He sold the house and bought first-class equipment with the money. As he paid the camera salesman, he thought of the years his father had worked for those dollars and the plain life his parents had led.
Some of his work began to appear in small magazines. Then National Geographic called. They had seen a calendar shot he had taken out on Cape May. He talked with them, got a minor assignment, executed it professionally, and was on his way.
The military asked him back in 1943. He went with the marines and slogged his way up South Pacific beaches, cameras swinging from his shoulders, lying on his back, photographing the men coming off amphibious landing craft. He saw the terror on their faces, felt it himself. Saw them cut in two by machine-gun fire, saw them plead to God and their mothers for help. He got it all, survived, and never became hooked on the so-called glory and romance of war photography.
Coming out of the service in 1945, he called National Geographic. They were ready for him, anytime. He bought a motorcycle in San Francisco, ran it south to Big Sur, made love on a beach with a cellist from Carmel, and turned north to explore Washington. He liked it there and decided to make it his base.
Now, at fifty-two, he was still watching the light. He had been to most of the places posted on his boyhood walls and marveled he actually was there when he visited them, sitting in the R a f f l e s Bar , r i d i n g u p t h e A m a z o n o n a chugging riverboat, and rocking on a camel through the Rajasthani desert.
The Lake Superior shore was as nice as he’d heard it was. He marked down several locations for future reference, took some shots to jog his memory later on, and headed south along the Mississippi River toward Iowa. He’d never been to Iowa but was taken with the hills of the northeast part along the big river . Stopping in the little town of Clayton, he stayed at a fisherman’s motel and spent two mornings shooting the towboats and an afternoon on a tug at the invitation of a pilot he met in a local bar.
Cutting over to U.S. Route 65, he went through Des Moines early on a Monday morning, August 16, 1965, swung west at Iowa 92, and headed for Madison County and the covered bridges that were supposed to be there, according to National Geographic. They were there all right, the man in the Texaco station said so and gave him directions, just fairish directions, to all seven.
The first six were easy to find as he mapped out his strategy for photographing them. The seventh, a place called Roseman Bridge, eluded him. It was hot, he was hot, Harry— his truck— was hot, and he was wandering around on gravel roads that seemed to lead nowhere except to the next gravel road.
In foreign countries, his rule of thumb was, “Ask three times.” He had discovered that three responses, even if they all were wrong, gradually vectored you in to where you wanted to go. Maybe twice would be enough here.
A mailbox was coming up, sitting at the end of a lane about one hundred yards long. The name on the box read “Richard Johnson, RR 2.” He slowed down and turned up the lane, looking for guidance.
When he pulled into the yard, a woman was sitting on the front porch. It looked cool there, and she was drinking something that looked even cooler. She came off the porch toward him. He stepped from the truck and looked at her, looked closer, and then closer still. She was lovely, or had been at one time, or could be again. And immediately he began to feel the old clumsiness he always suffered around women to whom he was even faintly