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Concord family scours the state in search of covered bridges

Alexis and Sebastian Christie check out the water near the Corbin Bridge in Newport. The Christie family, including their parents Bridget and Gary, are touring the state for its covered bridges.

(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

Alexis and Sebastian Christie check out the water near the Corbin Bridge in Newport. The Christie family, including their parents Bridget and Gary, are touring the state for its covered bridges. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff) (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

After 13 months of combing this state for covered bridges, the Christie family of Concord has developed something of a routine. Bridget, a fourth-grade teacher in Hopkinton, will open the book Covered Bridges of New England and splay it open on the trunk of the family’s dark sedan, instructing her two children, Alexis, 8, and Sebastian, 4, to come close, listen. Her husband, Gary, stands by their side as Bridget begins to read.

“It was built in 1845,” Bridget said last weekend, in front of the Corbin covered bridge in Newport. “Rebuilt in 1994, on the Corbin property. . . . In 1993 it was destroyed by fire, one of three burned by arsonists in the state in a three-month period.”

Then, traffic permitting, the family sets out on foot.

“This is the dangerous part,” Bridget said. “We’ll walk through and look at the trusses and stuff and hope that we don’t get killed.”

One day each month since April 2012, this has been the Christies’ life: boarding the family car and setting off in search of every covered bridge in New Hampshire. The hunt, really, is just a front for other things, Bridget said: spending

time together, instilling in the kids a sense of adventure and a deep appreciation for history, escaping the humdrum demands of home.

“The joke is that perhaps this is my attempt to subliminally get my kids to fall in love with New Hampshire and never leave,” she said. “But really, it’s some family time – something that shows you don’t have to go and do big elaborate things. Sometimes you can just take a drive.”

Depending on the size and attractiveness of the structure, the family’s routine can take either quite a while or not long at all once they reach a bridge. Either way, Alexis is likely to point out interesting details such as the shape of bolts or style of truss, and Sebastian will comment about the prevalence of spider webs. Eventually both children will snuggle up to a crack in the floorboards, assessing what mysteries lie beneath.

“Like sometimes we see mud in the water,” Sebastian said.

“One time I thought I saw an alligator,” his sister noted. “But it ended up being a stone with a stick sticking out of the water.”

Then come pictures. Greg, the family photographer, will unveil a fancy digital camera and begin snapping shots of the kids in front of the bridge – material for Bridget’s Facebook page and a future family scrapbook, which is in an early stage of production, Alexis said.

“Okay, Sebastian’s turn,” Bridget said. “One serious, one silly. Come on now.”

Her son seemed to have just one pose available that day.

“Where’s your silly?” she asked.

“I’m not doing silly today!” Sebastian replied, giggling.

By the Christies’ estimate, they have visited some 60 bridges thus far – including one in Grafton that they never found but count nonetheless because of the sheer time and effort they spent looking – and have about five to go.

The Christies are the first to admit they’re probably not the first to visit, or at least attempt to visit, all 65 of the state’s historic covered bridges. But they may be one of the few to do it as an entire family, especially one with young children.

The idea was Bridget’s, and, no, it had nothing to do with her name (she’s become well acquainted with that pun). When Alexis was 3, Bridget and Gary had spent one day each month with her at the ocean, and they wanted to do something similar now that Sebastian was about that age. They tossed around the idea of state parks but settled on covered bridges because of their pervasiveness – the state is practically splattered with them.

Gary was supportive but dubious at first.

“I didn’t know how well entertained they would be doing it,” he said of the kids. “But they have actually started to enjoy it.”

The quest began with County Bridge, a short wooden number just west of Greenfield, built in 1937. From there, they ventured out.

The Christies have visited simple bridges, elaborate bridges, painted bridges, bridges with windows. They’ve been to the second-longest covered bridge in the country (Cornish-Windsor). They’ve seen the oldest covered bridge in the country (Contoocook Railroad). They’ve seen a miniature covered bridge (Jack O’Lantern) and one adorned with graffiti and sitting in a parking lot in Dover (Cocheco).

The strategy has been to hit as many bridges in one region at a time as possible, to avoid redundancy. But sometimes time – and mood – are limiting factors.

“We have found six is about the limit,” Gary said.

“Yeah, and that’s kind of one too many,” Bridget said. “There was one time we had gone up and done the Lost River in the morning, then over to Swiftwater and Bath, and then we were coming back and we were in Plymouth and you could see the roof of the covered bridge there and Gary was like, ‘No, we gotta go. We’re done. Done.’ So we didn’t stop and now that one is still on our list.”

“In retrospect,” Gary noted, “that was probably more because of the Patriots game.”

They also tried to hit the farthest bridges last summer, saving the closer ones for the winter months.

Some days the Christies run into other tourists or bridge aficionados – “bridgers,” they’re called – but most of the time they are by themselves. And that’s fine, Bridget said. When the weather is good, the family will pack a picnic, find a comfortable spot nearby and just take in the scenery. Sebastian will explore. Alexis will sketch or write.

Sometimes they’ll use the bridge as a jumping off point for other activities. During bridge trips last fall they visited an apple farm, took a hay ride, found a corn maze, picked raspberries.

“I do a lot of research,” Bridget said. “I’m a teacher, so for me it’s fun kind of lesson planning for the kids.”

Other times they’ll find a local eatery. “Something for our kids, like going to a restaurant at the end of a day, that was enough for them,” Bridget said. “Going to a bridge and going out to lunch.”

Some bridges have proven easier to find than others. The elusive Grafton bridge may stand alone in the consternation it caused, but others have presented their own obstacles. Some are on private lands and required permission to visit. Others were reachable only by muddy, hazard-strewn roads.

“One bridge, I forget which one, the person made me sign a statement waiving them of legal responsibility,” Bridget said. “I was thinking, ‘We just want to see the bridge. I’m not looking for a lawsuit.’ ”

Their monthly pilgrimage underscores the importance Gary and Bridget have always placed on travel. Bridget, originally from Connecticut, served in the Peace Corps in Moldova and traveled extensively through Europe before moving to New Hampshire and becoming a teacher. Gary, a Concord native, ventured through much of the Eastern Seaboard, Canada and the West Coast after college.

But the trips have also allowed for a different sort of sightseeing, namely, delving deeper into one’s immediate surroundings.

“I grew up in Concord and I drove by the two bridges in Hopkinton I can’t tell you how many times,” Gary said. “But I’d never actually stopped at any of them or had any idea how they came to be there or why they got to their present state.”

The family hopes to eventually embark on larger trips, perhaps some international travel, but for now they say this is a simple, affordable option.

“This is way cheaper,” Bridget said. “Seriously, except for gas prices, we pack picnic lunches, a cooler in the car. They have their bag of toys. It really is a cheap way to get out.”

Still, Bridget said they plan to take a break from goal-driven travel for a while after this. They plan to visit some swimming holes up north this summer, and perhaps some state parks.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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