She clocks in for the morning shift before 7 a.m. By 10, she's already seen dozens of joggers zip past and watched peregrine falcons take off for their morning hunt. When rush hour ends, she raises and lowers Seattle's University Bridge to accommodate vessels in the bay below. Barb Abelhauser, who's been one of the bridge's caretakers for almost two years, says some days are busier than others: "Boat traffic is seasonal here. In the winter, I might have two or three openings per shift. In the warmer months, when everyone's out in their sailboats, I might have 20." During the evening, she quietly watches Seattle turn in for the night: people trudging home from work, dogs and their owners finishing up a stroll. "By the time it's dark," says Abelhauser, "it can feel as though I'm the only person in the whole city."

Sum It Up by Pat Summitt
The bridge lowered and raised.

Abelhauser, 51, didn't always spend her workday bird-watching and making way for gravel barges. A longtime resident of Jacksonville, Florida, she was employed by that state for 14 years in various roles, from health department analyst to maintenance systems engineer. But in 2001, she vowed to leave "pantyhose jobs" behind. "I'm not someone who likes to be in an office surrounded by gossip," says Abelhauser. "My best days were when I was out in the field." Indeed, that's where she stumbled upon her ideal occupation. While working for the department of transportation, Abelhauser would wave to the people operating the city's bridges. "I always thought, 'Man, that would be cool,'" she says.

Sum It Up by Pat Summitt
Abelhauser manning the console at Seattle's University Bridge, on Portage Bay.

Then it clicked: Their placid existence could be hers. So she tracked down the person in charge of hiring bridgetenders and pestered him for three months until an opening on Jacksonville's Main Street Bridge came up. "The 'works independently' aspect of the job suited me perfectly," says Abelhauser. "It came with a 40 percent pay cut and zero benefits, but I didn't care. Spending eight hours a day doing something you don't like—that's a lot of life wasted."

In 2014, Abelhauser relocated to Seattle, trading views of alligators and manatees for those of falcons and the occasional harbor seal. "I wanted a job where I could think and be creative," she says. "Now I get to observe this tiny patch of the world in minute detail. That might drive some people crazy, but not me."

A few of the more memorable sights Abelhauser has seen from her unique perch.

Sum It Up by Pat Summitt
"I opened the bridge for a brick house (above) recently. It was built in Seattle and was going to be placed on one of Washington's outer islands. When I saw it floating toward me, I thought I was hallucinating."

"The largest vessel I ever opened for weighed almost 24,000 gross tons. I was definitely sweating during that one. If you don't time it just right, a barge like that could destroy your bridge. With a ship that size, the captain can't exactly slam on the brakes."

"In Florida, I saw more naked people than I care to count. There was one well-known vessel in particular that was always full of nude senior citizens."


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