The young woman steps up to the platform, tosses you a smile, and leaps nonchalantly into almost a thousand feet of nothingness. In imitation, your heart jumps with her; up into the place you normally make sounds. You make some, using your tongue and lips to form them into words, which in this case you wouldn’t repeat in front of children.
At least, you think the smile was meant for you. It’s hard to tell, because she’s wearing goggles and a parachute and there are thousands all around you, and just then every one of them goes, “Ahhhh.”
This is Bridge Day. The lure is obvious: Every couple minutes, another brave soul will step or jump or swan dive off the edge, and each time, a part of you will go along.
To get that feeling like a local: Just pretend the list below is a sandwich menu in a trendy little shop, but instead of meals, it’s different options for enjoying Bridge Day.
1. The Upper Deck
Who doesn’t love a carnival? Hundreds of vendors selling bracelets, tee-shirts, fried dough, cotton candy, locally grown fruits, baked goods and smoothies, and a thousand other delicacies and souvenirs line the bridge approach. Further out, excitement’s in the air, and so are people, and they’re falling.
And they’re loving it.
The smiles are so contagious everybody’s got one. There’s camera crews and kids, adults, buskers, jugglers, and of course, the jumpers getting ready for their turn at momentary weightlessness. This is a human fireworks display that lasts all day. The jump, the gasp, the drop, the expectation, then the colorful chute snaps open with a bang and everyone relaxes — until, that is, the next one goes a couple minutes later. Being on the bridge itself is literally a bird’s eye view to nonstop thrills.
2. The Sneak-Down
Take the park trails down to Fayette Station. Do not attempt to drive. The roads are closed, and anyway the hike, though strenuous, is also beautiful and fun. Pack a lunch, a camera, something to sit on, and a smile. You’ll use it frequently. Your camera (or binoculars, if you prefer) will let you watch each jumper leave the bridge, high above your head. Then you’ll get the real spectacle, and without the massive crowd: The landings.
With your heart again occupying a place usually reserved for swallowing, you’ll see jumpers come in too close to the trees, hit the water, just miss boats, pancake off the parking lot, and even touch down gently as a feather, picture-perfect, right in front of you.
3. The Rafter
Here’s the real deal: Never mind the crowds and hiking. Hop on a raft (ACE Whitewater). Have a nice breakfast at the base camp, take in the gorge in all her many-colored foliage, and spend a fun day on the water. (It’s usually deep-green and low this time of year, but this is West Virginia, so you never know.) Then, park for lunch beneath the bridge and stretch out with a piece of shore that nobody but you can reach. Surrounded by your family and friends, you’ll watch successive leaps of faith, and gasp-creating landings. It’s convenient, fun, unique, and the bumps all over you will be the goose variety.
4. The Gauley
This one’s reserved for old hands who’ve seen a million bridge days. They like the way the jumpers draw a crowd, because that leaves the Gauley open and un-thronged, like a garden-beetle trap for tourists. You won’t see any jumpers here, but, to these solitude-enjoying souls, the Gauley on Bridge Day in a raft or kayak is the perfect antidote to State Fair overload.
There you have it. Pick one. Or create your own. Substitutions are allowed. If you’ve got the guts and training, you can even try it from midair. Either way, that part of you that makes your breath catch in your chest will not go hungry. Guaranteed.