Benjy Simpson always celebrated Easter by looking for the light.
He loved being on a hill before sunrise, ready to greet the morning and reflect on the day’s meaning.
Now more than 30 years later, he gives new meaning to the traditional Easter sunrise service by spending it with others on the New River Gorge Bridge catwalk for a spectacular view only accessible by walking a beam that’s 851 feet above the river valley below.
It’s one of several tours provided by his company, Bridge Walk LLC, which also works with the West Virginia Division of Highways and U.S. National Park Service on this cooperative venture.
Simpson, who got his start working at the annual Bridge Day event, is now so well known locally that folks now jokingly call him “the troll underneath the bridge” after his having spent the better part of 26 years associated with it.
He’s not alone, because thousands of people also want to know the bridge better through this catwalk experience.
Tours are held throughout the year, including during the winter, and full-moon walks are popular. Guests have celebrated numerous anniversaries and birthdays while underneath the span. There have even been two weddings there.
“No matter when they go, people love to take photographs and they usually average 100 pictures when they are out there,” he said.
Timing is everything when it comes to a sunrise.
That’s why the group heads out about 5:30 a.m., but only after each person is harness-secured to steel cables that provide safety on the round-trip walk which is nearly a mile long.
“We kind of hustle to get out in the middle so that people can see as much as possible,” he said.
There’s no minister for the Easter walk, which last year’s inaugural event drew 18 people from a dozen states. It’s meant to be a reflective, personal experience.
“We got out there and saw the sunrise. It is an amazing experience because with our safety system people can get out there, sit down and literally hang their legs from the catwalk. People kind of scattered out so we weren’t in one big group. This was their time, and we each took it as a time to reflect,” he said.
“When the sun first popped out it is so colorful and pretty that it’s hard to put into words.”
Clouds, even a chance of rain, doesn’t seem to be discouraging folks who’ve already signed up to attend Sunday’s event.
“We’ve already heard from said they just want to be out there on the catwalk to usher in Easter,” he said.
“I know from experience that even it is cloudy you can get a lot of neat colors. There is a limited time to catch the sun and last year we hit it just right. It was also a little cloudy but it sure was beautiful.”
Everyone is welcome, and there have been visits from people in wheelchairs as well as individuals who are deaf or blind. Guides help folks navigate a 24-inch steel beam located 25 feet below U.S. Route 19 and the more than 16,000 vehicles that cross the iconic bridge each day.
Things have come a long way since people used to illegally sneak out onto the catwalk after the bridge’s construction was completed in 1977. It is the longest single arch bridge in the Western Hemisphere, and the second highest vehicle-carrying bridge in the United States.
Since officially opening eight years ago, the company has served more than 33,000 people who’ve come from all 50 states as well as 62 foreign countries. Space is still available for the sunrise walk and additional information can be found at www.bridgewalk.com.