FAYETTEVILLE, W.Va. -- The New River Gorge Bridge is a monster.
I know because I played a very minor, very dubious and very unofficial role in the construction of the steel-arch bridge that stands 876 feet above the river in south-central West Virginia.
The bridge was constructed from 1974 to 1977. For a time, I worked days as a raft guide on the New River and floated under the bridge in progress. My co-workers and I made a few visits late at night.
We ignored the no-trespassing signs and barricades, clambering out onto the steel beams. Some went farther than others. A chain-link fence 40 feet below was the only safety net; that possibility sounded very painful. Other scenarios were even more frightening.
We survived our youth. The statute of limitations on that has expired, I've been told.
Now there's a new way to explore the New River Gorge Bridge safely and 100 percent legally: Bridge Walk LLC.
It offers a 3,030-foot walk from one end of the bridge to the other, on a catwalk 25 feet below the roadway, traversing the truss structure.
That's right: You are beneath the top of the bridge. It offers out-of-this-world aerial views from the bottom of the bridge.
It is not dangerous. It's not high adventure. But it is different and interesting. All you need to do is walk and not be nervous about heights.
Bridge Walk has created a partnership with the National Park Service and the West Virginia Department of Transportation's Division of Highways. It offered the first walks in late September 2010.
But it's less a walk than a shuffle along a catwalk that is 24 inches wide with two railings. The floor is solid metal. You can't see through it. It is normally used by workers to inspect the bridge and make repairs.
It puts participants as far as 851 feet above the swirling waters of the New River at Fayette Station Rapid. You are about 250 feet above the ground at the two ends of the bridge.
On a recent summer visit, we walked through a cloud, looked down on peregrine falcons and turkey vultures and, like most participants, simply gawked at the scenery.
The gorge itself is stunning: a wooded canyon nearly 900 feet deep, part of New River Gorge National River that stretches 53 miles and covers 73,000 acres.
We watched rafts and kayaks floating through rapids so far down they looked almost miniature.
But the surprising thing is that the underside of the bridge features a sort of mechanical engineering beauty, as beams come together with a magical and impressive symmetry. It is a world of bolts and beams that create the seldom-seen infrastructure with striking geometry.
The dominant color is red-brown. That's because the bridge was built to quickly develop a layer of rust that protects it from more severe rust problems.
Safety is big. Walkers wear a harness connected to a lanyard or leash. That goes up to a carabiner hooked to a transfastener, which runs along one of two parallel steel cables that stretch above the catwalk and are anchored overhead.
In other words, falling off is impossible.
We got radios with an earphone to hear our guide, Joel, 17, a veteran bridge guide in his third year.
At the north end of the bridge, we exited our bus in the rain on a Sunday afternoon and made our way to the underside of the bridge, near the Canyon Rim Visitor Center off U.S. 19.