At 850 feet up, don't look down
FAYETTEVILLE - You can drive across the engineering marvel known as the New River Gorge Bridge any day you want.
Once a year, during Bridge Day, you can walk across the longest single arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere, or if you are so bold, leap from it with a parachute or rappel down on a high line.
Now add another way to experience the second highest bridge in the United States - walking under it, along the 24-inch-wide catwalk that spans the bridge 25 feet below its deck.
Bridge Walk is the newest tourist attraction in Fayette County and as soon as the weather cooperates and the walkway from the Canyon Rim Visitor's Center here to the catwalk is complete, anyone who has the nerve and the ability to walk about a mile and half can take in a breathtaking and panoramic view of the New River Gorge from this vantage point.
"I think this will be on a lot of people's bucket list," said Benjy Simpson, a longtime Fayetteville adventurer and businessman who is one of the partners in Bridge Walk LLC, which is composed of six partners who are operating the tour business in cooperation with the U.S. Parks Service and the state Department of Transportation.
"If you can walk 1 1/2 to 2 miles, you can do this," said Simpson, who is a good advertisement for what he preaches. He is recovering from a broken hip suffered in a mountain bicycling accident and he has hobbled along the 3,030-foot catwalk using crutches.
"A third of our guests are going to be my age or older," Simpson, 62, predicted. Children as young as 10 who are at least 4 feet tall will be able to cross the catwalk.
The catwalk will be open for tours year round and Simpson envisions special events during full moons, for Halloween and even Easter Sunday morning at sunrise.
He loves to talk about the juxtaposition of what the bridge offers - a view of one of the world's most amazing manmade structures, which crosses one of nature's most amazing structures.
"This is not going to be an amusement ride," Simpson said of the tours that will begin with an educational presentation at the visitor's center. Along the catwalk, tour guides will point out coal mine entrances and lookout points along the gorge and point to the whitewater riffs below.
Bridge Walk has been three years and a half-million dollars in the making, said Simpson - though the 1978 management plan by the U.S. Parks Service for the area proposed catwalk tours.
Simpson and his partners had to draw up a proposal for a proper walkway to the catwalk and a safety harness system.
"It was a long process," he said. "We had to jump through a lot of hoops."
Once plans were approved, construction began - including grading the hillside beside the bridge and hoisting into place more than 60 steel supports that are bolted to the underside of the bridge so that the safety cable system could be installed.
Visitors step into a harness that wraps around their legs and is latched into straps that attach to the safety cables via transfasteners that allow you to walk across the catwalk securely attached to the safety cable.
"It's there for your protection. If you were to fall, you're not going anywhere," Simpson said.
He has led enough tours of the catwalk - which right now can be accessed only by a ladder - that he has developed a soothing way of talking skittish visitors across the span. He says he can tell by looking someone in the eye if he or she will make it.
"I've had some people go 200 feet and turn back," he said.
Stick with him, though, and you'll get the view of a lifetime - and some pretty good bragging rights.
Even if you are OK with heights, as I am, stepping onto the catwalk is immediately disconcerting. I hadn't accounted for the fact that the catwalk vibrates because of the traffic overhead. The vibrations are stronger in some places than others.
Heights also take on different, well, height, when you are in the open air.
The catwalk starts about 250 feet from the ground, reasonable enough. At the center of the bridge, you are standing 850 feet above the New River.
If I was unsettled, my 22-year-old daughter, Mary Margaret, was downright terrified. She intended only to watch, but Simpson persuaded her to give the catwalk a try. She made it clear she is afraid of heights, but once she told Simpson she recently parasailed, he told her he could help her along.
"Look at me," Simpson said, walking backward. "Nothing is going to happen to you. Don't look down between your feet - that really messes with your head. Look out."
Talking the whole time about the gorge and the river and the bridge, Simpson got us out to the center of the bridge. We had gone three-tenths of a mile. It seemed longer.
Once paths are completed at both ends, visitors will cross from east to west and be picked up by a shuttle. The tour is expected to take as long as two hours from beginning to end and will cost $69 a person - including a nifty certificate for completing the walk.
Simpson and his partners expected to open in the spring, but rainy weather has slowed construction. He's now hopeful the Bridge Walk will be up and running by the end of the month. Already, he has received calls from as far as Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Peru.
"That amazes me," Simpson said. "We really appreciate everybody's patience and cooperation."
The bridge can accommodate 100 visitors at a time, though Simpson said groups as small as four can book walks.
His business partners include Bruce Vest, a coal operator from Kanawha County, Simpson's son, Benjy Simpson III, two principals in Ace Adventures who separately are partnering in Bridge Walk and Adventures on the Gorge, an outdoors outfitter. Simpson will help coordinate tours.
A native of North Carolina, Simpson has an undergraduate degree in recreation and parks administration and a master's degree in physical education. He was teaching at a community college when he got an option to buy a whitewater rafting company in West Virginia in 1970.
"I've been playing all my life," he said.
For more information, visit www.bridgewalk.com or call 304-574-1037.
Contact writer Monica Orosz at email@example.com or 304-348-4830.