Willoughby: Mental gymnastics during detour under Castle Creek Bridge | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Mental gymnastics during detour under Castle Creek Bridge

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Fred Willoughby performs a handstand while on a ski club trip during the 1930s

Driving the detour due to closure of the Castle Creek Bridge may feel like a waste of time, but the journey gives a new perspective. Looking up from creek level, the bridge appears much higher.

The bridge, built in 1892, stood as one of Aspen's proudest projects. Its length and height surpassed other state bridges. Its width accommodated 4-foot pedestrian sections on each side. More spectacular railroad trestles had been built, certainly, but to span a creek as an unnecessary shortcut seemed extravagant.

Soon after the bridge opened, complaints arose, "150 feet of straight roadway being too much temptation for the average driver." The county promised, "The road overseer will make it a costly one for those whom he catches driving faster than the regulation gate." When the overseer did not suffice as a threat, the county nailed 2-by-6-inch planks across the roadbed, the 1890s version of speed bumps, "to slow a vehicle to a walk." The impediment worked, but caused "jolts to loaded wagons."

I admit that as a teenager, the temptation called to me. For a short period a number of us tested our cars' power by slowing to a stop where the bridge began and then accelerating to the end to check the final speed.

As a thoughtless predriving teen I tested the laws of physics on the bridge. I carried a few rocks to the middle, the highest point, and let them fly — drop, that is. I had pursued the same study by dropping rocks down mine shafts. But I couldn't see them fall there, so I had counted seconds until I heard them hit something.

The bridge drop, 75 feet, proved to me beyond a doubt that a body accelerates as it drops and that a more massive rock did not drop faster than a light one. As I watched them fall, I remembered a story about my father.

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My father survived his teens during the early 1920s as an active, fearless male. He spent weekends and summers working at the Midnight Mine. There he carried out a range of chores that included milking the camp cow and drilling holes for blasting at the end of the advancing tunnel. His extreme fitness meant he thought nothing of hiking to town on a summer evening to watch a silent film, and then hiking back to the camp afterward. After school, he emptied railroad cars of coal.

In addition to developing muscles through work he enjoyed, my father worked out at the Armory Hall gym on gymnastics equipment. He favored the parallel bars and the rings. Through practice and pointers from elders, he learned how to do handstands and to walk on his hands. Showing off one day, he "walked" on his hands to the school building and up the school steps.

As a driver, father showed no fear. I heard many stories about basketball trips in the winter, when he would cross a river where the bridge had washed out by driving across a wide culvert. Faced with an unplowed road but plowed railroad tracks, he would deflate his tires and drive the tracks.

I do not remember stories about a daring race across Castle Creek Bridge. But when you are at creek level on the detour, think about this: On a bet, father did a handstand on the bridge's pedestrian railing, center span.

Clearly, father felt as safe and comfortable in a handstand position as he did when standing on his feet. Nevertheless, I don't think many of us would attempt to set our shoes on a high-span bridge railing, even as crazy teenagers.

Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.