One Month At A Time

This one goes back to year one and the thing I did that still haunts my dreams.

On the other hand, I also got a nice pair of boots that same day for less than $20.

 

Everyone seemed baffled that I’d never been to Bridge Day.

Each year, tens of thousands of people come to Fayette County to watch people defy death, leap off the edge of a perfectly good bridge and parachute to the ground.

There are also people selling corn dogs and nachos to eat while you watch, if you’re interested, but I’ve never really wanted to go.

It was a general lack of interest. I didn’t care so much about watching people jump off a bridge, and I absolutely had no intention of doing something like that myself.

 

I’m not afraid of heights, but I’m not fond of them. I can climb a ladder without any trouble, take a seat on a roller coaster or get on a plane, but I’m perfectly happy to stay on the ground.

While exploring thrills and chills this month, going to Bridge Day and somehow participating seemed inevitable.

The bridge is so ingrained in the popular culture of the state, it’s even on the state’s quarter.

So I contacted the folks at the New River Gorge Bridge Walk. They invited me to try the 800-foot High Line zip line.

Saturday morning, when, usually, I’d still be wondering which chores around the house I’d be ignoring, I drove to the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayette County.

After checking in at the Bridge Walk tent (followed by some healthy procrastination), I crossed over the guardrail and was fitted for a harness, really just a slightly more-complicated-than-normal belt that would keep me from dropping like a stone to the bottom of the gorge.

After the straps were tightened, I was told to get in line. A group of us would be led down shortly.

“You might want to kind of stretch a little back and forth,” one of the attendants said, adding delicately, “You want to make sure the furniture is all in the same room. Otherwise, it’s going to hurt — a lot.”

I took her meaning, and did a little dance to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be.

I grabbed a helmet, attached my GoPro camera with hopes to make a video, and waited at the head of the line.

Others soon joined me.

A foam insulation contractor from Allentown, Pennsylvania, named Matt was celebrating his birthday.

“My boys are rappelling today and got me this as a birthday gift,” he said.

There was also Sonya Wood and her 10-year-old grandson Ethan Sisk.

Sonya grew up in Fayetteville and watched the building of the bridge.

She told me, “At night, we used to sneak out along a beam. We’d climb out as far as we could and then find a place to just sit.”

This is what they did for fun, she said.

When I was a kid I went to movies.

I explained this was my first time — first time at Bridge Day and the first time I’d tried a zip line.

She said skydiving was easier.

“When you’re up in the air, you have no depth perception,” she said. “The distance to the ground is just too abstract. It’s no problem to just jump.”

That seemed beyond my ability to even remotely comprehend.

Before we started down the path to go under the bridge, Kristie Kelley with Bridge Walk came over and checked our harnesses again.

My harness was fine, she said, “But you have your helmet on backwards.”

She unsnapped the strap from my chin and turned it over in her hands.

“You see that knob?” She asked. “That’s supposed to go in back.”

Sheepishly, I removed the camera and slid it back on the right direction.

“You’ll do fine,” she said.

It was time to go.

A guide led us down the hill to a narrow catwalk beneath the bridge. It didn’t look so scary from the top of the hill, but once we went under the edge of the bridge and turned the corner, everything suddenly looked a lot different.

The yawning distance to the bottom of the gorge was horrifying, and to get to the zip line station was a brisk walk along a 2-foot-wide metal plank, framed on either side by hand rails and not much else.

A gentle breeze could be threatening. A gust of wind might be murder, and the walk somehow seemed flimsy, like at any second the whole thing could give and send us all tumbling down, down, down.

I was just short of petrified and moved much slower than our guide, who got 10 or 15 steps ahead of me before noticing the lag.

“Are you OK?” he asked me.

“I don’t like heights,” I told him. “This is harder than I thought it would be.”

“So, you’re up here facing a fear? Awesome,” he said, enthusiastically. “This is the way to do it.”

Halfway across, I stopped. I was going to turn around, but leaving the bridge meant crawling over the line and putting a couple of grandparents and a fifth-grader at risk.

It was too late to turn back.

So we kept going and reached a small crew, tethered to the bridge by safety lines. They were just then sending the last of the previous group down.

I watched a college kid go over the rail and push off. Before he’d slid 10 feet down the line, he’d pulled out his cell phone to take a selfie on the way down.

I was next.

“Afraid of heights, huh?” one of the crew members said. “A couple of drinks will help with that. I mean that’s what we’ve been doing.”

We all laughed.

After a couple more quick jokes, it was time to go. A couple carabiners were hooked into my harness, and I got my leg over the rail.

“You have to grab ahold of the blue line,” the crewman said. “That brown girder you’re holding onto isn’t going anywhere. You can’t take it with you.”

Slowly, I navigated my feet to where they needed to be. He lined me up to start my descent.

“You just need to hold onto the line until you get started,” the crewman explained. “Once you’re out, you can grab your camera.”

“I don’t see that happening,” I said.

He smiled, clapped me on the shoulder and said, “You got this.”

Then I fell backward.

The bridge slipped away from me, and I slid gently down the line, feeling what a lure might feel like cast by a fisherman just before it hits the water.

The people under the bridge cheered for me.

I clutched the line like a kitten hugging a tree branch, but drifted gently and steadily to the ground.

I had never been so glad to be on the ground again.

There was no repeat trip, but I stuck around with Sonya and her grandson to watch the BASE jumpers dive off the platform.

Some of them made it look easy. Others made it look like some kind of death wish, waiting until it was almost too late to open their parachutes.

It was hard to turn away once you started watching. Any second, something could go terribly wrong, but nothing did. A few landed in the water or came into the staging area a little rough, but nobody died.

I took the bus to the bottom of the ravine and spoke with a colorful-looking BASE jumper named Harold Herzig.

While most of the other BASE jumpers had cameras strapped to the top of their helmets, Harold’s helmet looked like something worn by a Roman legionnaire.

Harold was a retired skydiving instructor from New Jersey.

He said, “I’ve been coming to Bridge Day since 1987. It’s like Christmas, New Year’s Eve, the Fourth of July and your birthday all rolled into one.”

I told him I didn’t understand. Why do this?

“Oh, it’s fun,” he said. “It’s just an amazing feeling.”

I was willing to go along with that, but I couldn’t fathom what was fun about dangling from a rope and rappelling down from the bridge.

From where I stood, they looked like gnats agonizingly working their way down a strand of hair.

“Nope,” I said. “Not ever doing that one.”

On the bus ride back to the bridge, I shared a seat with Mark Lichtle, a photographer, videographer and the owner of Aerial Extreme, a marketing and promotions company that uses extreme sports” like skydiving and BASE jumping, to generate attention for services or products.

Mark had landed in the river and was soaked, but otherwise, his jump had gone pretty well.

It was his first BASE jump in 10 years, and, as far as anyone could tell him, he was the only one-legged jumper on the bridge today.

Through the 1980s, Mark said he’d been a real estate agent and mortgage broker, but he had gotten into BASE jumping on a dare. What he’d meant to do once became a passion until he found a way to turn it into a business.

His footage and films have been used all over the place.

About 10 years ago, he cut back on the day-to-day operations to spend more time with his kids.

“Life sort of dictated that I settle down some,” he said.

Then in 2011, Mark lost his leg.

Mark injured his ankle during one of his many BASE jumps. The ankle developed arthritis, and after repeated attempts to repair or replace the ankle, Mark opted to amputate.

About a year ago, Mark decided to make a film called “Inspire,” telling his story about overcoming obstacles.

In the last 12 months, Mark has gone hydrofoiling, snowboarding, skydiving and chose the New River Gorge Bridge and Bridge Day for his last scene.

He would have shot the scene in California, “But it just cost too much.”

He explained, “The insurance, the permits, the ground crew. It was cheaper to come here, and look how great this is.”

Mark was right. It was a pretty remarkable day. The weather was perfect, and I felt glad to be alive.

For more information about Mark and his film project, visit mymovieinspire.com.

For more information about Bridge Day, including the New River Gorge Bridge walk, visit bridgewalk.com.