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Walking on Water

August 15, 2014

I didn't take this photo, as the bridge is far oto big and I would have had to drive a long, long way to get a vantage point like this.

The grand finale of a fireworks show is always my favorite part. I think it’s most people’s favorite part. How can it not be? Everything’s shooting off together, and you’re barraged with a multitude of shapes, colors, sounds with no lull between them. And just when your eyes and your ears and your heart can’t handle any more excitement, it all stops, and right before the applause there’s that wonderful momentary silence while everyone in the audience realizes that the show is over.

Vacation never works like that. Because after all the fun an excitement comes the anticlimactic drive/flight home. The end of vacation sucks. I was determined to avoid that letdown at the end of this road trip. So even though our last few days are packed with driving, they’re also packed with some of the most interesting stops of the whole trip. On Friday we make one final fun stop and then we go home, which means Thursday was our last full day on the road. And boy did we go out with a bang.

After another terrible night’s sleep for both of us, we woke up much earlier than we wanted so that we could do something truly unique.

The New River cuts central West Virginia in two. Surrounding the river is a massive gorge so deep that travel across the river was practically nonexistent until 1977, when the state built a colossal steel arch bridge across the gorge. In fact, its the longest arch bridge in the world.

New River Bridge

New River Bridge

[I took these two photos but not the one at the very top, as the bridge is far too big and I would have had to drive a long, long way to get a vantage point like that.]

The surrounding towns were so thrilled with the bridge that one day every year they celebrate Bridge Day, during which they close the bridge to vehicular traffic and use it instead for rappelling, base jumping, zip lining, and general merriment.

Today was not Bridge Day. However, that’s actually a good thing, as it gave us an opportunity to experience the bridge in a much more intimate way. Base jumping etc. can be done only on Bridge Day, but every other day of the year a local tour company takes people like the Hamster and me for a walk across the bridge under the traffic.

On top is a four-lane highway, which we drove over to get to the tour company headquarters. But directly beneath the median is a thin catwalk that spans the length of the bridge. That’s how we saw the bridge.

The bridge is so long that you can't see the other end of the catwalk.

The bridge is so long that you can’t see the other end of the catwalk.

Bridge Walk, as it’s called, was pretty harrowing for the first couple of minutes as we got used to the rapidly dropping ground beneath us, the constant rumble of traffic directly overhead, and the resulting constant shaking of the catwalk and its railings. This is not a mere vibration–this is clearly visible wobbling of sturdy steel beams as if we were experiencing a two-hour-long earthquake. And I’m saying this as someone who was just in an earthquake simulator in Dallas a few days ago.

I knew that Sam would either absolutely love it or freak out. He loved it. I did, too. I loved the secret aspect of it: there were only seven of us including the guide, and it felt almost like we were sneaking across, visible only to each other as the rest of the world passed by unknowingly overhead. We also enjoyed the three falcons we saw perched on various parts of the structure.


Our guide told us that pigeons and their droppings were a real problem for a few years when the bridge first opened, but then a couple of falcons made the bridge their home and soon there were no pigeons to be seen.

Of course the best part was the view, as we were hovering 850 feet above the river and could see for miles in all directions despite the heavy cloud cover.

New River Gorge

Well that certainly woke us up.

From there we had a pretty long drive up into Pennsylvania, which was largely uneventful except for Sam almost losing a few fingers. He blames me, which is partly fair. We stopped at a rest stop briefly for lunch and when we got out of the car I left the windows open a crack as I often do to minimize the car’s transformation into an oven. When we got back to the car I rolled up the windows that last little bit, not realizing that Sam was resting his fingers over the top of the glass on his side. He immediately started screaming. Once I realized what was happening I opened the window and released his hand, and within a few minutes he was feeling fine. But he gleefully played victim for the rest of the day and will no doubt be reminding me repeatedly in the future about the time I tried to cut off his fingers.

Anyway, the first day of this trip we drove straight through Pennsylvania without stopping for anything besides gas and bathroom breaks. Heading back east we have two stops scheduled in Pennsylvania, one Thursday and one Friday morning. Thursday’s stop was Fallingwater, the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright house.


Fallingwater was designed and built in the 1930s as a vacation home for the Kaufman family, who made their money running the Kaufman’s chain of department stores, though you probably know it better by its current name, Macy’s. They bought a gazillion acres of land and then hired Wright to design them a house. He chose this spot and decided to incorporate all the elements of the surrounding environment, including massive boulders and of course the waterfall that runs right underneath some of the cantilevered parts of the house. The Kaufmans’ son donated the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in the ’60s with the stipulation that they maintain it and open it to the public.

For $8 per person you can tour the grounds and walk around the outside of the house. For $27 per person you can also take a guided tour of the interior. I chose the guided tour. Sam does sometimes get bored during house tours, so I was a little nervous that I had made the wrong choice. But Sam ended up loving Fallingwater even more than I did.


Sam had never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright before today but we were both blown away by all his ingenious design touches and just his brilliance in general. Or as Sam put it, “This guy–Floyd Whateverhisnameis? He’s really inspired me!”

Sam got more enthusiastic with each room we saw. He first decided that we need to buy the house and move in. When he was told it’s not for sale he decided instead upon building a replica of it somewhere else. “I’m going to start saving up my money now,” he said a few times. he even talked about maybe becoming an architect so that he can design incredible buildings like Fallingwater. And for the first time ever, the souvenir he chose was a book. Specifically, it’s a booklet containing photos and explanations of the interior rooms as well as the exterior. (Photography is allowed only outside the house.)

I could go on and on about various features of the house and how brilliant they all are but you really should go and see it for yourself. We had a great time, and certainly a much better time than I would ever expect a 12-year-old to have touring a historic house.

Today definitely felt like a grand finale. At Sam’s request, we grilled hot dogs for our final roadside cookout. Dinner was delicious, but there was something extra enjoyable about it all, and halfway through dinner I figured it out: Sam is awesome. Seriously. There have been so many times on this trip that he’s impressed other people with his behavior, his manners, his curiosity, or his enthusiasm. And there have been several times he’s impressed me, too. There’s nobody else on earth I could take one a trip like this and have this good a time. I just really freaking love that kid.

There’s an overused saying that life’s a journey, not a destination. That’s a load of bull. Life is both. Why bother with a journey that doesn’t go anywhere interesting? These road trips we’ve taken are exactly the same. In a way they’re all about the destinations. We go to places famous and obscure, to vast National Parks and to tiny towns and to soaring skyscrapers, to the biggest and the longest and the tallest and the oldest and the weirdest. We go places we’ve always wanted to go and we do things we’ve always wanted to do. But these trips are also about the journey. Not the journey from one place to another, although we certainly make the best of the many hours we spend in the car together. They’re about the bigger, longer journey we embarked on together the day Sam was born. On these trips we get better at interacting with each other. We develop a routine and we develop a rhythm, not just in terms of packing and unpacking but in terms of how we play off each other’s moods and how we decide things and how we just be, together. And we have shared experiences that are great in their own right but they’re also great because we did them together.

A couple of days ago we were chatting about our trip with Julia, our tour guide at the Lost Sea, during a lull in the tour. She remarked that Sam and I must get along really well to be able to take a trip like this. We smiled and nodded. What I didn’t say at the time was that the inverse is true as well: we get along really well in large part because we takes trips like this.

When I started conceiving the first road trip four years ago, I wanted two things: to see America and to have a good time with my son. I’ve done both more thoroughly than I ever expected.

So as we sat down to our final roadside dinner of the year, we raised our drinks and toasted to another successful trip, another fantastic summer, and to the relationship we have that makes it all possible.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2014 7:30 am

    Your “takes people like the Hamster and I for a walk” should read “and me”.

  2. August 15, 2014 7:34 am

    Now you can take Sam to Fifth Avenue and show him both the Guggenheim and the room designed by Wright that has been installed at the American Wing in the Met. I guess you missed Taliesin West in Scottsdale.

  3. ABH permalink*
    August 15, 2014 8:44 am

    Fixed it, thanks.

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