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The catwalk that traverses the truss work of the New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville, W.V, is now open for adventureous travelers.
FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- It is an engineering masterpiece.
When this magnificent, 3,030-foot-long, four-lane, arch-supported span over the great gorge of the New River National River opened to traffic on Oct. 22, 1977, it was at 876 feet the highest vehicular bridge in the world, a record it held for more than 25 years. Already iconic, the bridge has become a state landmark, embossed on the West Virginia quarter.
Completing the U.S. Route 19 highway corridor through the Appalachian Mountains of south-central West Virginia, the graceful, spidery structure slashed the drive time across the deep gorge from 45 minutes to 45 seconds. Since the bridge was designed with no super structure and a low highway profile, many passengers in the 16,000 vehicles that now roll across it on an average day may not even be aware of the colorful chasm beneath them.
When it opened in 1977, the New River Gorge Bridge was the highest vehicular bridge in the world.
More than any other factor, the bridge provided the access that let this area's abundant adventure-oriented activities blossom. These days several hundred thousand people come each year to hike, bike, raft, kayak, rock climb, and do dozens of other outdoor pastimes around the gorge.
On Bridge Day, October's third Saturday when the span is closed to vehicular traffic, the bridge deck becomes a spectacular setting for some exceptional amusements set against a backdrop of fall's full foliage finery. Among the people who gather on the bridge are BASE jumpers, rapellers and thrill seekers who ride the High Lines, a kind of controlled zipline.
But as my wife Sari and I discovered recently and to our pleasure, the New River Gorge Bridge is now open for casual strolling 12 months a year.
The 24-inch-wide, sturdy steel maintenance catwalk that traverses the bridge's truss structure 20 feet beneath the center of the highway has long been a rite of passage for local daredevils willing to sneak over in the dark of night.
This is the route the new Bridge Walk follows, although changes have been made.
Where once a 20-foot ladder was necessary to reach either end of the catwalk, steel gangways now safely bridge the gaps. With a continuous pair of steel railings on either side, pedestrians also are tethered to one of the two new steel cables anchored overhead for the catwalk's entire length, providing extra protection against any mishap.
In fact, the Bridge Walk is physically easy. Once past any trepidation about heights, the most challenging part is negotiating the harness rollers through the connectors from which the safety cables hang.
The Bridge Walk is a sensational experience from one end to the other. There is the continuous incomparable vista, of course, of the majestic gorge and the ancient river that runs through it, with a ribbon of railroad along either bank. A pair of kayakers negotiate the rapids far beneath our feet, while hawks and turkey vultures soared on the same mild November breezes that swirl around us. There's plenty of time for conversation and questions.
One certainly gets a sense of the bridge as a living structure. The rust-colored steel trusses vibrate as highway traffic rumbles by 20 feet overhead. Interestingly, those vibrations are more pronounced over the trusses that reach the ground and nearly vanish over trusses anchored to the elegant 1,700-foot arch than spans the river basin itself. Then all becomes almost silent.
The intricate geometrics of the under bridge provide insightful perspectives to the human accomplishments required to design and erect this amazing structure. Our walk guide explains how steel plate was cut, shaped and welded into huge, hollow box beams that were assembled on site and then hoisted into place and bolted together. We hear how maintenance crews inspect the entire structure every other year, and how preparations are being made to replace the hundreds of thousands of bolts, which hold it together.
All in all, although perhaps a bit costly, taking the Bridge Walk over the New River Gorge is a unique and memorable experience.
The New River Gorge Bridge is an easy four-hour drive south of the Pittsburgh area via Interstate 79 and U.S. 19. The Bridge Walk office is next to the New River Gorge Visitors Center, the last exit before crossing the bridge from the north.
Bridge Walk tours cost $69 per person, plus tax ($73.44). They can be done by those willing and able to perambulate a mile and a half on a largely level route that has no steps. Participants must be at least 10 years old, 48-inches tall and have a waist less than 52 inches. All walks are guided in groups of five to 10 participants.
With frequent pauses to contemplate the incredible views and vistas, snap off pictures and hear about the bridge and its amazing construction, it takes about an hour for the leisurely stroll from the north rim of the gorge to the south rim, where a bus shuttles folks back to the office.
Although the route is well sheltered from the elements, Bridge Walks are dependent on weather conditions. Monday through Friday tours depart at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. On weekends tours can be scheduled from 9 a.m. through 3:30 p.m. For reservations or more information -- Bridge Walk, 1-304-574-1300 orwww.bridgewalk.com.
Other views of the New River Gorge Bridge:
• There's an excellent, flyover video at:www.youtube.com/watch?v=yK3BNHHH0t8
• You can get a Gigapan perspective at:http://gigapan.org/gigapans/15545/
The New River Gorge Bridge has deep Pittsburgh connections. Designed by the Michael Baker Co., it was erected and bolted together by U.S. Steel's American Bridge Division with hollow box girders fabricated from the same COR-TEN steel that characterizes the company's signature building in Downtown Pittsburgh.
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