On Aug. 23, 2022, Heidi Mertz snapped her last photograph of a Pennsylvania covered bridge.
For two years, the Bethel Park woman spent her vacations traveling to and taking photos of every covered bridge in the commonwealth.
All but one.
“One I went to – it was Chester County, actually last year, right around the hot air balloon festival. Hurricane Ida came and wiped out one of the covered bridges a week before I got there,” Mertz said. “They had a ‘road closed ahead’ sign. Of course, I drove down to see it and took a picture of where the bridge used to be.”
That tenacity, coupled with curiosity and an adventurous spirit, helped Mertz do something many have not. The banker by day, photographer by night, has traversed the state and captured on film (er, smartphone) 213 covered bridges – more than the number of bridges listed at pacoveredbridges.com, which Mertz used to plan her project.
The covered bridge photography project began on Mother’s Day 2020. Pennsylvania was two months into lockdown, and though Mertz still went to work each day, she had hit her quota of binge-watching and felt restless.
“I’m not a homebody,” said Mertz. “I like to go out and do things. You have to be creative and inventive during this whole thing. You can either let the pandemic make you crazy, depressed, or figure creative ways to work around it.”
One of Mertz’s good friends knew the bubbly blonde needed adventure and, thanks to a Facebook recommendation, suggested the duo day trip to Washington County.
“You always hear about Washington County and Greene County, because they have that covered bridge festival. I’ve always wanted to go, just never did. One of my friends ... she’s like, why don’t we go check out covered bridges? Start with Washington County, because they’re local,” Mertz said. “During the pandemic they’re telling you to stay home, stay home. It’s not safe outside. Well, if everyone’s inside, no one’s outside.”
So on May 10, 2020, Mertz and her friend stepped outside. They visited 14 of Washington County’s 23 covered bridges. Mertz never planned on a daylong excursion becoming a two-year photography project. She just did what she always does: document the moment on her iPhone.
“I love taking pictures,” Mertz shrugged. “It’s kind of habit for me.”
After photographing all the bridges in Washington and Greene counties, Mertz began planning her real-life scavenger hunt to the rest of the state’s historic trestles.
The project took Mertz to all sorts of quirky places, including Punxsutawney, where she successfully tracked down all the fiberglass Phils, and a secret Liberty Bell.
“I explored and learned more about Pennsylvania. I got to see two Liberty Bells,” she said. “There’s one that’s hidden underneath a church. It’s a replica. Apparently they had to hide the Liberty Bell for a period of time, and they hid it under this church, Zion Lutheran Church.”
Mertz’s covered bridge project wasn’t without challenges.
“There are a couple that are privately owned, that you have to get permission. I reached out for permission, knocked on front doors or emailed them,” Mertz said.
During a trip to Lancaster County for the annual hot air balloon festival, Mertz decided to visit as many nearby covered bridges as she could.
“Chester County’s not too far away, so I’m like, let’s see how many in Chester County I can hit while I’m here,” Mertz said. “Two of them, I couldn’t find them anywhere. Then I read on that website they’re owned by the Laurel Preserves, and that it’s a membership-only access. You have to get either a membership or permission to access their property. I’m sitting there doing searches on the internet trying to find a contact. They ended up giving me a complimentary day pass.”
And so Mertz documented those membership-only bridges.
Mertz photographed the last covered bridge on her list during a 10-day trip this August, where she stopped at 24 bridges in five counties.
“I’m like, the last one better be pretty nice. I didn’t want to be disappointed, it falling apart,” she said with a smile.
“I thought I’d feel like, oh. Accomplishment, you know? I’m done,” she sighed. “I’m like, OK, that’s it. Now what’s to do next?”
Mertz plans to visit all the waterfalls in Pennsylvania and also started snapping murals and red barns during covered bridge trips, and since she’s seen so much of the commonwealth, she plans to take pictures outside of Pennsylvania. Already, she’s begun visiting America’s ballparks (when the Pirates play in that city, of course), and is smitten with the idea of capturing Maine’s lighthouses on her camera.