Tuesday, October 22, 2013

bridging the gap

In Fayette County, a symbolic structure spans a great chasm. The New River Gorge Bridge is proudly boasted in magazines, postcards and tourism pamphlets across West Virginia. This marvel of human ingenuity does more than connect the two rims of an impassable gorge – it connects two very different cultures in a polarized part of rural West Virginia. The New River is one of superlatives: the third-oldest river on the planet; one that dissects the oldest continuous mountain range on the continent; the only non-tidal river to cut through those mountains. The bridge is no different: the longest single-span bridge in the Western Hemisphere; the fifth-highest vehicular bridge in the world. The iconic connector is even immortalized on the West Virginia state quarter. Accolades aside, the bridge is an awe-inspiring structure. With its looming scale superseded only by the gorge it crosses, it is the man-made sight to be seen in West Virginia. Gold domes be damned, the gilded capitol in Charleston can only dream of overtaking the bridge as our state symbol. The bridge can be seen in a variety of ways – driving across 19, from the visitor center overlook, from Longpoint Trail, or from a raft on the New’s world-class whitewater. You can even hang your head over the edge of its 980-foot deck when the state honors the span every autumn on Bridge Day. However you choose to view it, it has the power to quell words and captivate minds more so than anything else in the region. Throughout my many climbing pilgrimages to the New, the bridge has inspired reflection. The size of the structure doubles as a mental arch to span cognitive distances and ponder the big issues we all face. I've driven across it a hundred times, and when the trees break and the gorge opens up, conversation ceases as my eyes drop to the ancient river below.

Mountain mist rolls under the NRG Bridge at dusk
Fayette County is the adventure hub of West Virginia. Sure, you can tackle the multi-pitch difficult routes at Seneca or trod unnoticed for days in Dolly Sods, but the sheer amount of adrenaline delivered by neurotransmitters daily at the New rivals that of the X Games. One of my favorite early climbing memories was being high on an exposed route above the tree line on Bridge Day. As I was at the anchors, I could see other climbers pushing their limits, BASE jumpers pushing their mortality, and river rats pushing their lung capacity. The energy was palpable – I knew I was in a special place that I would forever hold dear to my heart.

NRG Bridge from the Longpoint Trail
Fast forward three years and I was stationed in Fayette County, dealing with socio-economic issues and observing first-hand the poverty epidemic so steadily consuming our beloved Mountain State. Being stationed here was an eye-opening experience. I know we all have experienced the unexpected, but Fayette County has been familiar to me for years. The Fayette County I knew in the past, however, was an insular one. I saw only the gorge – its pristine Nuttall Sandstone crags, its beautiful rainforest, its thrashing chocolate-brown rapids. I saw only its adventurers – climbers old and new, often well-situated in life and emitting positive energy through their lack of daily struggle. I frequented its establishments that cater to my crowd – Cathedral CafĂ©, Pies and Pints, Waterstone Outdoors – the places that portray Fayetteville as a wonderful nook for adrenaline junkies to call a comfortable home. The Fayette County I know now is drastically different. I lived in Mount Hope – a cast-off mining town with little remaining. Working for Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS), a community building non-profit, took me to corners of the county I never would have even considered exploring for their lack of cage-free eggs and fair trade coffee.

It’s taught me to reflect on who I am and how I view the crowds I associate with. It’s shown me that there are, in fact, two very different Fayette Counties. Which one you choose to see is only limited to the opaqueness of the veil you pull over your eyes. If one desires to avoid poverty and see only the happening areas, it is easy to do so. Route 19 has guaranteed that one need not lay eyes upon West Virginia’s disenfranchised folk.

My tribute to the span - sketched from Longpoint
This schism of cultures has been difficult to connect. The folks at SALS are aware of my crowd – the granola chomping, knit cap-wearing bearded folks with Subarus. But my crowd, even those who call Fayetteville home, are completely unaware of SALS. They know nothing of its mission to keep Fayette County from sinking further into the shadows. This has been a mission of mine – to inform folks of what’s happening outside of the New’s bolted cliffs and hip eateries. Climbers are quick to ask each other what we do for a living – the base of a crag is a social whirlwind. When asked, I am quick to posit my passions and raise awareness of the underlying issues so many miss in Fayette County.

It is this disconnect that the New River Gorge Bridge represents in my experience. We each assign our own meaning to the span – some say it proves the power of man’s dominion over the land, some see it as a work of industrial art. I view the bridge as a tool to connect two sides that are very distanced. Enough sometimes to seem as though they could never be connected. But I believe the outdoor adventurers and the community builders can coexist if we can find a way to bridge the gap. I feel the frame is currently under construction – the proverbial girders have been hoisted and are ready to accept the superstructure that could improve Fayette County for years to come.