ON THIS CROSSING, EVERY STEP RESONATES. In the big bubble-shaped cars of the 1940’s, the space – the shelf, if you will – between the back seat and the rear window was roughly the size of Overton Park, a place for picnic baskets, hatboxes, shopping bags and babies. For me. No baby seats. No seat belts. The only things that would keep me from flying into the front seat and beyond would be the sure hands of my brothers in the back seat, and I’m pretty sure they’d be watching out for themselves.
That’s how I made my first crossing of the Mississippi, and one of the very last crossings of that span, bumping along the wooden roadbed toward family friends in West Memphis to showoff my chubby brand-new self in 1949, the year I was born and the year the Harahan Bridge was closed to automobile traffic. And I knew and appreciated about as much about that as most Memphians do today.
That roadbed is 14 feet and a nation wide.
Through historic New Bern and on through downtown Raleigh, Durham and into the mountains through the Beaucatcher Tunnel into Asheville. On through Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, across the Mississippi and the Arkansas into Little Rock and out through Broken Bow in the old Indian Territories of Oklahoma and the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico. On to out-of-this-world Roswell and Area 51, and on to way-out-there California and downtown Los Angeles.
It’s Kingston Pike in Knoxville, Grand Avenue in Hot Springs, Broadway in West Memphis, and Crump, Danny Thomas, Union, East Parkway and Summer in Memphis. And it’s the Trail of Tears for the Cherokee and our own Chickasaw, simultaneously staining and marking our history.
It’s the storied route Robert Mitchum wrote and sung these words about from the 1958 moonshiner of a movie he starred in, and the title road in Bruce Springsteen’s hit in 1975.
“Sometimes into Asheville, sometimes Memphis town
The revenoors chased him but they couldn’t run him down
Each time they thought they had him, his engine would explode
He’d go by like they were standin’ still on Thunder Road.”
It’s Thunder Road. It’s the Lee Highway of the 1920s, the southern coast-to-coast route to complement the northern route, the Lincoln Highway. It’s U.S. Route 70, originally dubbed “The Broadway of America” because of the swath it cut across the country long before interstates.
Maybe that history landed the federal grant to resurrect the roadbed as a biking and hiking trail across our country’s shared path and most significant river, connecting us, and bringing it all gloriously down to our level.
Maybe it has to do with the Harahan itself and its next-door downriver neighbor, the Frisco Bridge, the first steel span across the lower Mississippi and the longest of those in America when it opened in 1892.
Maybe the money came our way, quite simply, because this is one of the country’s great ideas.
I’m a Memphian, and we should all know exactly where we stand on the Harahan Bridge.
Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.