Roadtrip Mountaineer Expressway — New River Gorge Bridge

West Virginia/Virginia

July 2011 & July 2014


When on U S Route 19 in the old days, if you wanted to get to over there from over here, you would need to drive a hairpin two-lane road down the side of the mountain, cross the New River on the Tunney Hunsaker Bridge — Tunney Hunsaker was a professional boxer and Fayetteville police chief — and climb up the mountain on the other side on another hairpin two-lane road.  It would take forty-five minutes to get there, half a mile away.

In 1977, the New River Gorge Bridge was completed over this chasm, taking the drive down to about 25 seconds.  Prepare for a bunch of superlatives.

The New River — and how they know this is beyond me — is the second oldest river in the world.  There’s a good chance that the Appalachian Mountains are the oldest mountains in the world.  The New, as it wiggles its way through the mountains, changing their shape, has exposed rocks that are more than 500 000 002 years old, possibly twice that age.

There is an argument that the New isn’t that old.  Major rivers erode the land at a rate of about one foot every 6000 years.  Wouldn’t it be great if our teeth were that durable!  This dates the Grand Canyon at about five to ten million years old.  By comparison, the New River Gorge is only 1/3 the depth of the Grand Canyon.  By the same calculations, the Gorge would be 1/3 the age of the Grand Canyon.

But that argument is countered by the possibility that the New River was there all along and it simply rose up with the mountains during the shifting of the Earth.

But if this waterway is so old, why is it called what it is called?  Apparently a duo of explorers came to this area and saw this river for the first time.  They drew a map indicating this new river, new in the sense that they had not heard of it before.  They didn’t actually name it anything, they were just keeping track.  When they handed over their map to the official map maker, he mistakenly thought that their notation was meant to be the name.  Whoops.

This dumb idea has also been advanced:  It’s called the New River because every time you look at it, it’s like looking at a new river.  Y’know, you can’t step into the same river twice, and all that.  But by that reasoning, you can’t put on the same pair of socks twice, or you can’t kiss the same girl twice.  And you certainly can’t kiss the girl’s socks twice.

As we drive south on Corridor L, we encounter the 1000-foot deep New River Gorge.  If this were 1976, we would be driving some 45 minutes to get from this mountain to that one, over there.  Instead, we just drive across the link that was erected to, as they say, bridge the gap.

This structure, the New River Gorge Bridge, has a lot going for it.  It provided the link that allowed Corridor L to grow to its current level of popularity and prosperity.  Almost nothing else in West Virginia is photographed as much as this bridge.  Bridge Day is held on the third Saturday every October and draws more people than any other one-day festival in the state.  Folks BASE jump from the bridge.  There is music, food and crafts and all kinds of carryings on.  The views are remarkable.  You may have seen this bridge before;  it’s on the West Virginia version of the quarter.

You can actually walk across the bridge if you choose, 851 feet above the ground.  No, not on top of the bridge where everyone drives.  That would be dangerous and illegal.  Also dumb.

When the bridge was built, a 24-inch wide catwalk was installed as part of the structure.  In 2009, the walkway, which is <under> the road surface, was opened up for regular pedestrians, tourists and thrill-seekers.  You pay sixty-nine bucks to strap yourself in and stroll from one end of the bridge to the other.  Beneath the road surface!  This is a distance of 3030 feet, more than half a mile, on a 24” wide metal grid, 851 feet above Earth.  Yowie, zowie!

Fascinating.  You’re strapped in on a cable, kinda like on belay, “making it impossible for tour guests to fall off the bridge.”  The walk across, the stopping for explanations from your tour guide, the bus shuttle from one end to the other, all takes about three hours.  Somehow on this trip, Lisa and I just don’t have time to do the Bridge Walk.  “Next time,” Lisa says.

The New River Gorge Bridge is the longest arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere and the third highest bridge in the U S.  Not too long ago, the National Park Service listed the New River Gorge Bridge in the National Register of Historic Places as a significant historic resource.  It took completion of a 63-page document to be nominated for this honor.  I read some of this document.  Lot of words.  Not as impressive as the bridge.


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