On Driving Through the Robin Williams Tunnel

‘To have felt loss, one must have experienced joy.’

In 2015, the rainbow-arched tunnel between San Francisco and Sausalito, which was previously simply called either the Waldo Tunnel or Rainbow Tunnel (for very obvious reasons), was officially renamed after the late actor Robin Williams. The California state legislature approved the change in the first week of June, the tunnel connecting Marin County and the Golden Gate Bridge now doubling as an homage to his life.

Williams — who was a longtime resident of Tiburon, California, in Marin County — had taken his own life earlier in the year after a long battle with depression and suicidal ideations, leaving a void felt around the world. In an attempt to somewhat fill that empty space, Julie Wainwright from Marin County started a Change.org petition to rename the tunnel in his honor last year; it was deemed a resounding success after garnering 61,403 signatures.

(Fun fact: The rainbows were added in 1969 by a retiring Caltrans executive on his own initiative. They were actually slated to be destroyed by his superiors — but the community expressed a fondness for the rainbows, which led local politicians to help preserve them. And since then, they’ve been upkeep and repainted numerous times to keep their colors vibrant.)

I recently realized that I’ve driven through the Robin Williams tunnel quite often. Now two hybrid vehicles I’ve owned have shed their headlights onto those very same painted rainbows; down that very same tunnel; into the dense fog that sat on either side of it.

I, too, can’t help but revisit loss in my life when I find myself staring down this concrete barrel.

When I broke up with my first boyfriend in San Francisco — a six-foot-tall man of gobsmacking beauty, whose dirty blond hair felt like silk when I ran my hands through it — I drove into Sausalito, emerging from the other side of the tunnel still hollow. I craved a more scenic setting in which to cry; to release the sinking feeling of a failed love.

After a startup I began working for failed in 2017, leaving my financial future balancing on a palm frond, I found myself again driving through this storied half-circle. The cool Bay Area night sky clung to my cigarette smoke with a particularly gentle embrace, or so it seemed.

2019 saw one of the worst relapses in my mental health this past decade. I could feel my sanity crumble in the driver’s seat that early evening — the night I drove across three Bay Area bridges on a loop into the wee hours of the morning. Going nowhere, but hoping toward somewhere. Anywhere else but there, wherever that was. Each time I passed Robin Williams Tunnel, underneath that corona of pastel colors, I heard Kacey Musgraves muse: Well, darlin’, I’m just tryin’ to tell ya that there’s always been a rainbow hangin’ over your head.

To have felt loss, one must’ve experienced joy at some point. It’s a simple concept, albeit one that evokes a powerful antithesis to permanence — that pain and disappointment and sadness, no matter how severe, will all ease. In time. With rainbows over your head.

In Wainwright’s Change.org petition to rename the tunnel in Robin William’s name, she wrote “I hope [renaming the tunnel] will provide us with a happy memory of [Robin Williams] and will bring more awareness to the disease that sadly took his life.” I’d venture to say it’s done both exceptionally well.

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