Again and Again and Again

I’m just back from paddling and hiking in one of my favorite places, West Virginia’s New River Gorge. The New has been an outdoor destination of mine for most of my adult life. My first visit was back in the 1980s on a climbing and rafting trip with my brother during college. The climbing got my attention, but the rafting was actually a little scary. I was a non-swimmer at the time, and had never been on whitewater. But it did offer a glimpse of where rivers could lead me. Looking back, I had big hair and big dreams. I still have big dreams.

The Gorge offers a lot of natural beauty, but its best known attraction is probably man-made. The New River Gorge Bridge opened in 1977, and was the longest arch bridge in the world at the time (it’s still in the top five). The bridge forever changed the way of life in the area. It’s a major transportation route for that part of the state, and communities that were separated by an hour of driving are now just a few minutes apart.

The bridge is nearly 900 feet above the river, so it didn’t take long for BASE jumpers to discover it. “Bridge Day” started in 1980. It’s the one day of the year that it’s legal to BASE jump (and rappel) from the bridge.

It’s not a leap to imagine BASE jumping, but the bridge has attracted some unexpected visitors, too–namely ad agencies and rappers on Jetskis (no kidding). In 1993, the bridge was featured in a TV commercial with a bungee attached to a Jeep (is that really a selling point?). The next year, a TV special was filmed with Vanilla Ice riding a Jetski through the rapids below. I was paddling that day, and the whole scene was completely bizarre.

Aside from my brush with Vanilla Ice, my own history with the gorge has been somewhat predictable. I’ve regularly made the five hour drive for various adventures, including paddling, mountain biking, and climbing. Most of my visits have been for paddling on the New and the nearby Gauley rivers. Souzz and I have run the Gorge tandem several times, and it’s her favorite river anywhere.

These days a trip to the New is big fun, a far cry from my fear on that first visit. And the gorge area is 70,000 acres, so there’s a lot of room for adventure. I’m sure that’s a major reason why it became the country’s “Newest” National Park in 2020. That designation brings more funding, and likely more visitation. It may mean better hiking, too, as trail maintenance is often a focus of the Park Service. But no more bungee jumping Jeeps and no more Jetskis (thankfully).

I closed out my trip with a visit to Thurmond, an old (1880s) ghost town that was once a busy railroad hub. Thurmond was reachable only by train until 1931. Much of its main street is intact, and several of the buildings have been restored by the Park Service (including the original 1888 Depot, now an NPS visitor center). The Park Service’s mission includes preservation of cultural resources, and Thurmond is a huge part of the area’s human history.

At its peak, the railroad served the valley much like the bridge serves the rim, connecting communities and moving commerce (mostly coal). Thurmond’s run was ended in part by the development of the interstate highway system. In a sense, the bridge ended the town, and tourism is bringing it back. And now they are both central to a new National Park. There’s a bridge, and a bridge to the past.

At the take-out on my recent paddling trip, I pulled in next to a raft full of college kids, all with broad smiles. They looked like they had a big time, and maybe big dreams, too.

I looked on as I loaded my boat, and I imagined myself back in the day. I hope those kids have the same chance to come back, again and again and again. Maybe I’ll see them on my next trip.

3 thoughts on “Again and Again and Again

  1. Nice story Court! We’ve been there so many times although not since the National Park designation. I’ve never visited Thurmond, the ghost town, so that will have to go on the list.
    Thanks for being so adventurous!

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