The dream of flight is a primal urge. And even though our species has evolved a respectful fear of falling it’s likely that most everyone has imagined what it must be like to soar through the air like a bird, to see the world from a great height and land safely to ground. On a beautiful October afternoon I had the opportunity to experience that sensation along with a few hundred others during the annual celebration of Bridge Day.
For less than 7 hours once each year the town of Fayetteville, West Virginia shuts down Highway 19 where it crosses the New River Gorge. At over 870 feet above the water below the New River Gorge Bridge is one of the highest arched spans in the United States. Here thrill seekers come from around the world to this tiny mountain village to leap over the railing of a four lane highway with a parachute into an ecstatic oblivion of joyful delight.
I made my way to West Virginia with the support of the car maker Subaru. As a lifestyle ambassador of sorts with a modest following online they enlisted my services to drive a late model Subaru Forester almost 400 miles from Baltimore, Maryland through parts of the old South. Don’t think for a moment that I’m independently wealthy or some kind of super athlete. Sponsors help make this and other Joy Trips possible so that I can tell the stories of great events like Bridge Day and hopefully inspire a few readers to go out have adventures of their own.
I got the gig on the recommendation of my friends Maura Kistler and Kenny Parker who own the local adventure gear shop Waterstone Outdoors. Just seven months almost to the day after a double MAKOPlasty procedure to replace both my left and right hips I was back on the scene with a vengeance and ready to take on a new challenge. Along winding backcountry roads lined with deciduous trees I drove past as they dropped their Autumn leaves in colorful showers of yellow, red, orange and golden brown. Also with the help of Sony I was able to document portions of this trip outfitted with their new Action Cam. And as I pushed the SUV late into the night my third sponsor Red Bull provided the liquid fuel energy drinks to get me through the final leg into Fayetteville.
One of those eclectic small towns with wonderful restaurants and a vibrant arts community Fayetteville once thrived on the extraction of coal. But now with the mines long dug dry of black gold this enclave of creative souls in the Appalachian Mountains is slowly building an economy based on adventure. With some of the best rock climbing, mountain bike trails and whitewater rafting in the world, all in a relatively small region, Fayetteville is a destination for those who crave excitement. And on Bridge Day they gather for one the most excellent BASE jumping sites on the globe. When it comes hurling yourself off a building, antenna, span (a bridge) or the earth (a cliff) on this incredible day the New River Gorge offers the infrastructure and facilities to all but assure a happy landing.
On October 19th more than 400 BASE jumpers took turns from 9AM until 3PM plummeting into the gorge. Rescue boats were on hand to fish those out of the water who had poor aim or simply opted not to risk an approach on the tiny target on the river bank. Jumpers from the bridge tried to ride the wind currents down with precision to land on a spot about the size of a large round dinning room table. Very few made the mark, but most landed gracefully on two feet. Some tripped and stumbled onto hands knees. At least three wound up tangled in the nearby trees. With injuries limited to scraps and bruises, maybe a couple of sprained ankles there were virtually no significant causalities.
As tens of thousands of spectators lined the bridge to watch there was a jubilant atmosphere that was infectious. Taking off from a wide platform, a diving board or a pneumatic catapult the jumpers were encouraged enthusiastically by the enormous crowd. Stand out performers were members of the professional Red Bull Flight Team who did elaborate stunts in demonstration of their great skills. At least two of the jumpers, including Lonnie Bissonnette, were paraplegics who had lost the use of their legs in previous bad landings. But each, making an inspiring comeback, executed their jumps with passion and excitement. One man even made a perfect landing on the river bank while in his specially adapted wheel chair.
The risk of serious injury or even death is quite real. My friend Mario Richard died earlier this year while wing suit flying through the Dolomites in Italy. Well known as a stickler for safety Mario, who in past years had run the tandem BASE jumping concession on Bridge Day, was imminently meticulous when it came to all aspects of the sport. With infinite patience and kind regard for the apprehension of his clients Mario guided many first-time BASE jumpers through the difficult process of overcoming their fear. Last summer I had the great pleasure of watching him and a plucky young lady leap from a cliff near Moab Utah after an exhaustive check weather and wind conditions and especially his BASE rig. The tragic circumstances of Mario’s death are a stark reminder of the fact that BASE jumping is inherently dangerous and not even experts can ultimately assure their survival.
It’s probably that sense of utter uncertainty that makes BASE jumping so appealing to many, myself included. The day before the Bridge Day events I went out to SkyDiving NRG, a tiny airstrip and landing field on the edge of Fayetteville, to take my first tandem jump from an airplane. Strapped to the chest of instructor Larry Lemaster I committed myself to a 12,000-foot fall. Resigned to accept the consequences of anything that might go wrong, I literally took a leap of faith and trusted that the skills and expertise of an experienced professional skydiver would get me down to the ground safely. It was the ride of my life!
Now that I’ve taken my first skydive I’m eager to try it again and one day acquire the training necessary to jump from a plane solo. If I can manage at least 100 jumps over the next year I could be qualified to participate in Bridge Day not just as a journalist, but as a BASE jumper. I want to practice the kind of discipline and self-awareness it takes to safely defy gravity for a controlled descent from a great height. I’m personally not interested in a rush of adrenaline. In fact I aspire to the exact opposite. I want instead to learn how to face danger with a calm and fully present mind that can enjoy the scenery on the way down. Maybe I’ll be there ready to jump for next Bridge Day. Will you?
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