Sunday, September 29, 2013

Bridge Day!

Back in the ‘70s, during one of our in-state family vacations, Dad took a detour off of Route 60 onto the unfinished new four-lane Route 19. Soon the new roadway ended, so we had to park the car along the road and hike the last portion to get to the overlook. He wanted us to see the construction of the New River Gorge Bridge, because it was truly an engineering marvel.

The partially finished bridge was incredible! I’m glad I got to see it as a youngster, because it has become such a symbol of West Virginia that it was chosen for the back of our state quarter. I’ve enjoyed driving over it many times since, as well as rafting under it. The bridge figures prominently in many activities in the region—and perhaps the biggest event is the annual Bridge Day extravaganza on the third Saturday each October.

I’ll never forget my first Bridge Day. It was a long walk from where the shuttle bus dropped us off, passing by many interesting vendors and information booths, just to get to the bridge itself. There are thousands of people who come from all across the state, as well as out of state, for this special day—and there is a good chance you might see someone you know. I wasn’t nervous upon starting across the bridge, because it feels quite sturdy and stable. As we progressed further across the bridge, we would stop periodically to look over the edge and see how high up we were. The view is amazing as you gaze down on the rapids in the river below. You might even see a long coal train go by.

Although driving across the bridge had never bothered me, I knew that I possessed what I considered to be a healthy fear of heights. While touring a few big city skyscrapers, I had felt a bit uneasy, and had to convince myself that it was really safe up there. As it turned out, I didn’t have much of a problem walking on the bridge because the wall is very sturdy and I felt very secure. Conquering the fear of heights really involves convincing your brain that you are truly safe. However, I did hold tightly onto my hat, and when taking pictures over the edge, I had a death grip on my camera—you never know what might happen.

Looking nearly straight down as a parachutist soars over the trees (note the rapids on the river).

As you reach the middle, the crazy BASE jumpers are hurling themselves off the edge, with their multi-colored parachutes allowing them to glide in for a (hopefully) safe landing. A bulls-eye target is provided on the cleared off beach area next to the river. It allows a competition to see who can best maneuver and control their flight, but some purposely choose just to land in the river with a big splash. [The important thing is to not land with a big splat!]

Eventually, we reached the northern side of the bridge, and walked through the smaller line of vendors on that end. On our way back, we ventured over to the overlook area (which is similar to the vantage point I had enjoyed as a youngster before the bridge was completed). This provided a good view of the ziplines running down from the bridge on this end, as well as those rappelling straight down from underneath the bridge, who look a bit like spiders dangling from a web.

Our return trip across the bridge provided more beautiful views, as well as the chance to mingle with thousands of folks who come from near and far for Bridge Day. However, there were two minor incidents that stuck in my mind from that day.

First, some lanky teenager, leaning with his backside against the concrete wall, thought it would be cool to place his hands on the top of the wall and hop up to sit on the wall. Oh my gosh! Even though the wall is pretty thick plus there is a safety rail on top, I still thought that was very poor judgment, because I wouldn’t want to accidently tip over backwards! There have been lots of tragedies happen because of simple moves such as that which seemed harmless at the time (if you don’t believe me, do a web search on “Darwin Awards”). I haven’t seen much “wall sitting” in recent years, because I think the authorities (who are now present in greater numbers) discourage such actions.

I witnessed another scary episode that day when a child wanted to get a better view of the landing zone for the parachutists. His father stood behind him, grabbed him under the armpits, and lifted him up for a better view. Granted, the lower half of his body was still behind the wall, and he was only slightly tilted towards the river, but it still made my spine shiver! What if a bee had chosen that moment to sting the father on the arm, causing him to involuntarily react and drop the child? [Well, it probably wasn’t all that dangerous, but sometimes my mind wanders off like that.]

Aside from these two brief scary moments, both caused by others who were apparently not the least bit impacted by any fear of heights, I felt perfectly safe on the bridge. The view is awe inspiring, especially when you consider that we would never have that unique vantage point, high in the air above the gorge, were it not for the engineers and brave construction workers who pieced the steel together to build this bridge.

I’ve since been back numerous times for Bridge Day, and have always enjoyed it. I need to get down there again, because I want to see the catapult in action. Apparently, jumping off a diving board 876 feet above the river wasn’t enough for these crazy jumpers, so last year a new contraption, inspired by castle sieges in the middle ages, was unveiled. Now a parachutist has the option of sitting at the end of the long arm of the catapult, and waiting until the operator pushes a button. At that moment, the parachutist is hurled up and away from the bridge.

I’m not ever going to become a BASE jumper, but seeing a catapult in action has a certain appeal to me. If I were to parachute off the bridge, I’d prefer to use the catapult. I don’t think I could ever convince myself to take that literal “leap of faith” and jump off a perfectly good bridge. However, I might be able to sit back in a comfortable “chair” away from the edge of the abyss. If all of the sudden, it quickly hurled me off the bridge, then at least I didn’t have to make the decision myself to jump—I’d have to parachute to save myself. Somehow that makes it easier for me to think about BASE jumping. Pretty crazy, huh?

It is just part of all the amazement that happens during the biggest one-day event in wild, wonderful West Virginia. Everyone should check it out at least once!

Pedestrians walking the bridge--taken from the overlook where I first viewed the bridge while it was under construction.

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