Every woman reaches the moment when she realizes she’s becoming her mother. For me, that moment arrives halfway across the westbound span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The towers of steel overhead look like they’ll crush me. What if, I wonder, a truck crashes into me and sends me flying, or I am suddenly overtaken by an insane urge to drive my car through the railings?

Among the women in my family, hating the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is something of a tradition. It strikes later in life, along with trouble sleeping and interest in shopping at Lands’ End. My mother hated the bridge before me, and her mother before that. Nana, my late grandmother, was so scared of the thing she’d close her eyes and cower while my grandfather made the trip across on their way to Rehoboth Beach. It seems fitting that my bridge anxiety has ramped up now that I, too, am about to become a mom.

I find it comforting to know that the women of my family are not alone. Last year, Travel + Leisure included the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge (its government name) in a list of the “world’s scariest bridges,” right up there with a rickety rope and plank bridge in northern Pakistan.

After I posted a video of the crossing on Twitter, a.k.a. X, I heard from many like-minded individuals. “I usually have a panic attack halfway across,” said one. “If you’re not leaving fingernail marks in your steering wheel you’re not doing it right,” wrote another. A few said they experienced “adult onset” Bay Bridge phobia. “[A]s a teenager I could drive over it” without a problem, said D.C. photographer Darrow Montgomery.

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My people.

When I was a kid, police working for the Maryland Toll Facilities would escort the skittish across the span for free. Nowadays, nervous drivers like me must pay $40 in cash to the Kent Island Express, based out of Stevensville, to do the job.

Today, the company is owned by Steven Eskew, who answers the phone when I call about an hour before a recent trip across. His day is busy; it’s the Friday before Labor Day, and he and his daughter, Maddie, expect to make up to 30 journeys from one side to the other.

Steven tells us to meet him in the parking lot of a school near the last exit before the bridge. Maddie, a confident 17-year-old, steps out of her dad’s car and gets in the driver seat of my Toyota. I’ll ride shotgun while Steven drives behind us. My mom, who is traveling with me, sits in the back seat, eyes shut, saying quiet mantras to herself.

Cloaked in the conviction of youth, Maddie is unfazed by the bridge herself, but can rattle off the reasons others are scared. Of course people hate how high it is, and its length (4.3 miles). But there are nuances to their dislikes. They hate that there’s no shoulder. They hate that “tha-thunk” sound as their cars go over the joints of the bridge. They think the bridge is going to pull apart.

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The bridge is really two parallel spans, one built in the 1950s and another in the 1970s. Most people, Maddie has noticed, seem to have a particular hatred for one or the other, a sentiment my mother and I share. If necessary, we can muscle our way eastward across the Bay under sheer willpower. En route to Easton for our two-day trip, I get through it, knuckles white, eyes trained on the car in front of me, blasting M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls.” (Sample lyrics: “Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”) I am no longer a nervous pregnant lady, I am Xena: Warrior Princess.

But it’s the newer, three-lane bridge that brings us to our knees. It’s the open railings, the cars coming at you. (Unlike the older bridge, this span hosts two-way traffic.) Is it taller? The very thought of it gives me a lump in my throat. I empathize with the recent driver, who, Maggie tells me, reached the beginning, then had to drive in reverse along the shoulder before finally calling on the Eskews’ services.

“It’s a very beautiful bridge,” Maddie said. “Just some people prefer it from a distance.”

Plus, Maddie thinks many people have increased anxiety in the wake of the pandemic. “A lot of people’s mental health got worse after COVID,” she says. Something about a deadly global pandemic just puts people on edge.

My own anxiety has increased since I found out that I would become a mother. I see dangers in elevators, the neighborhood park and various brands of herbal teas.

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There are tentative plans to add a third crossing. People are talking about a bridge and tunnel hybrid. One time, without realizing what I was in for, I traveled the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel from Virginia’s Eastern Shore to Norfolk. It was like driving on a roller coaster that goes straight into the water. The stuff of nightmares.

I don’t anticipate Kent Island Express going out of business anytime soon. At least they can count on me and my mom as customers.

As we near the end of the bridge and the safety of dry land, my mother finally opens her eyes and joins the conversation. There were, she says, entire years of her life when she went over the bridge without a problem. “I always kind of made fun of my mother for being afraid of it,” she said.

Until one day. She had been driving en route to the beach, chatting to my older siblings in the backseat of the car. Was she having a heart attack? Her hands began sweating, her mouth went dry.

It was, for her, the moment she turned into her mom.


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