FAYETTEVILLE — For a 40th year, thousands gathered on the New River Gorge Bridge Saturday to watch hundreds of brave BASE jumpers and rappelers descend nearly 900 feet from the top of the bridge to the river below.
While families gathered on one side of the bridge to survey the jumpers, Bob Timberlake sat in the median between the northbound and southbound lanes of Route 19 where, on any other day, thousands of cars would be passing by.
The 71-year-old came to Fayetteville from Crewe, Virginia, just outside of Richmond. For him, the best thing about Bridge Day is taking in the massive structure of the bridge, itself.
“It’s unreal, a real model of genius,” Timberlake said. “It’s my favorite part of coming down here. Rarely do you get to see something this big, this impressive, in person.”
A civil engineer, Timberlake was a student at Virginia Tech when the bridge opened in 1977. He remembers driving to Fayette County with some classmates before construction was complete and taking in the engineering feat.
“From a civil engineering standpoint, I don’t think anything compares,” Timberlake said. “How many man hours did this take, thousands and thousands? And the amount of work they had to put in to even get to that point. It’s a wonder.”
He remembers being amazed at how the heavy-duty cables used to suspend the steel across the bridge came out of the mountains, and how much planning had to go into designing, then building, the world famous structure. To this day, he said, he’s never seen anything like it.
“I like to watch the people jump, too,” Timberlake said, laughing a bit. “The most impressive thing, though, is tomorrow, when we go and drive down the mountain to the landing next to the water. That perspective, looking up at this structure and taking in what it took to build it, well, that’s the rush for me.”
Timberlake and his wife drove to Fayetteville to meet his daughter, son-in-law and grandson for the event. Like many, they made a weekend out of the trip, staying at a nearby campground.
While it was Timberlake’s fourth year attending Bridge Day, others, like Karen Sholler and Kenny Oloughlin, came this year for the first time.
The pair traveled from Washington, D.C. While neither were jumping or rappelling, they said the excitement of watching others was enough.
“We’ve never been to this part of West Virginia before, and BASE jumping — well that’s not something you see every day,” Sholler said. “I think we’ll definitely be coming back.”
Sholler has experience bungee jumping, and said in the future it might be something she’d consider if she could.
While tourists took in the annual festival on Saturday, local entities enjoyed the opportunity to connect with visitors.
The New River Humane Society was one of those. In the middle of all the vendors leading up to the jumping point, Nicole Harris, executive director of the New River Humane Society, bent behind a table organizing T-shirts. On top of the table sat a jar for donations next to myriad pet-themed goods and treats.
Harris said the Humane Society, like much of Fayette County, suffered budget cuts earlier in the year.
“Right now, it’s everything — anything — we can do to sustain funding,” Harris said. “We’ve cut our work hours, and our services are affected by having less funds. Here, we’re looking for donations, but also want to explain to people how the [New River Humane Society] is a crucial part of the community.”
On Saturday, she met locals, but also those from out-of-state who donated money or bought shirts after sharing stories about how their own branch of the Humane Society affected them.
“A Humane Society is an important part of society, for everything from public safety to [animal] population control,” Harris said. “A community suffers if they don’t have these services.”
Harris said the day was a good opportunity to hear concerns neighbors had about stray cats or dogs in the area, to share information about the organization’s spay and neuter program, and — hopefully — recruit some new volunteers.
“We’re open, right in Beckley, and we’re looking for people to help foster some of our amazing animals, or give their time to help us out,” Harris said. “We’re just a shelter, but a community, that’s a home. We can’t do this without the community support.”