“For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we’re still just able to bear.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
“The bridge gathers the earth as landscape around the stream. It does not just connect banks that are already there. The banks emerge as banks only as the bridge crosses the stream.” – Martin Heidegger
Linda and I have pointed the rental car west on the thin ribbon of possibility called the Trans-Canada Highway. It is a clear spring morning, the sky an exhilarated blue. East of Portage la Prairie, suddenly arising into the pristine day, we see a curling twist of black smoke, ominous but beautiful. It rises quickly into the air a few miles ahead of us. We watch it thicken and grow, wondering what its source could be.
Two bridges span the Assiniboine River here, one for each traffic direction, separated by several hundred feet. On the eastbound bridge is the source of the dark plume. As we arrive we see a semi trailer truck, just the cab, ablaze on the bridge.
Flaming fuel drips off the bridge sending small barges of fire floating downstream on the surface of the river. Some of the liquid fire falls onto the riverbank, setting the grass to smoldering. The truck cab is completely engulfed in flame by the time we pull over and park. It seems to be the only vehicle involved in the fire.
Several other vehicles have stopped on the westbound bridge. We all get out of our cars to stand in helpless awe and watch the fire. Though there is no sign of the driver, we all know there is a human being inside the flames. A walk through hell in a gasoline suit! Someone calls 911 on their cellphone.
Tires explode sending flames shooting out over the surface of the river like unwholesome fireworks. The flames die in the water, leaving greasy slicks. More cars pull over to join our grim witnessing. The black smoke is so thick it casts a shadow over us. The air grows rancid with the smell of burning fuel, rubber and metal.
A loud crack comes from inside the column of orange and red flames tinged with petrol blue. In the air is the hiss of fire greeting water and the chatter of fire in dry grass. Someone begins to sob quietly.
Strangers standing together on a bridge, we will take with us this disturbing vision, the smoky remembrance and the emotional baggage of our chance encounter with the fiery fate of another stranger.
A few helpless minutes later, we are on the road again. Ambulances, fire trucks and police cars from Portage head past us to the accident scene. The following day we check the newspapers to see what happened on that two-lane concrete span over a prairie river.
The driver of the truck cab, having left his haul at its destination, was heading home to his young wife for the weekend. As he pulled over to pass a slower moving hough at the entry to the bridge, one of his low side fuel tanks caught the hough and sent the truck spinning around, bursting into flames when it hit the sturdy cement railing along the bridge. The truck driver had no chance of escape and died in the inferno. The driver of the hough, due to his placement on the bridge, was obliged to drive through the wall of flames, escaping shaken but uninjured.
The black smoke churning into the blue dome, fire falling from the concrete bridge flaring red in green grass, desperate flames spinning in the eddyfied murk of the Assiniboine, the sound of robins and blackbirds from the bushes in the ditch – it is only because we are so close to Grace that this Beauty is bearable.