For one day every October, the National Park Service grants BASE jumpers permission to huck themselves off the New River Gorge Bridge near Fayetteville, West Virginia. For the uninitiated, BASE is an acronym referring to parachute jumps from Buildings, Antennas, Spans (bridges), and Earth (cliffs). And Bridge Day, as the event is known, has been a BASE jumping tradition since 1980, when five pioneers of the sport took the state-sanctioned plunge.

These days, extreme sports are a staple of popular culture. Any moment now skateboarders will be in a TV ad for an investment portfolio. And yet BASE has remained on the fringes—the hobby that won’t get you into the Olympics, but might get you arrested or killed. The sport has no governing body regulating safety or making nice with the public. Athletes face fines and jail time for their jumps, whether on private property or within National Parks.

But on Bridge Day, jumpers reach a truce with The Man for a family-friendly event complete with a 5K race and a chili cook-off. This year, 304 jumpers and an estimated 100,000 spectators attended, making Bridge Day one of the largest events in mainstream culture’s twisted love affair with the edge.

Would I witness something horrible? If I did, was it partly my fault just for attending the carnival? Speaking of guilt, would I eat funnel cake for lunch?

I arrive early at the Wal-Mart parking lot in Fayetteville, one of the designated points for spectators to catch a shuttle to the bridge. Judging by all the West Virginia University and Ohio State sweatshirts, most of those joining me on the shuttle are from the region—and most likely spend other Saturdays watching the extreme sport known as college football. They’re middle-aged or older, here with children and grandchildren. It’s a State Fair kind of crowd.

I feel a mix of fear and excitement leading up to my first time witnessing a sport I’ve been fascinated by since childhood. Professional skier Shane McConkey, a hero among my mountain kid friend set, died BASE jumping in 2009. Dean Potter, best known as a rock climber, died flying a wingsuit in 2015. Three jumpers have died at Bridge Day over the years, most recently in 2006, when an experienced 66-year-old jumper’s pilot chute became trapped against his chest. Would I witness something horrible? If I did, was it partly my fault just for attending the carnival? Speaking of guilt, would I eat funnel cake for lunch?

As we turn out of the parking lot, ominously specific signs announce our progress towards the bridge. Between mile marker 2.14 and 1.34, I see a few scattered families walking. And then it happens. I see my first jumpers. They’re wearing helmets mounted with GoPros and have a walk that suggests their minds are 1.16 miles ahead of where their legs are right this moment. When we arrive, the West Virginia State Police are massed at the entrance, scowling like something has already pissed them off today. An endless line of booths offer free blood sugar checks, sell fudge and recruit for the Army. The crowd blows past them, heading straight for the center of the bridge.

I catch my first glimpse of a jump just after passing the children’s bouncy castle. Still on the far end of the span, I peer over the edge and see a figure with a black parachute floating gracefully toward the river below. I walk another hundred yards forward and can see the center platform where the jumpers take flight. A jumper steps to the edge and launches into a gainer—a forward jump into a backflip, for those who have lost their X Games vocabulary. Even knowing that he must be wearing a parachute, I’m still shocked by the sight of him in free fall. Four seconds tick by. When he finally pulls the chute, it’s like watching a near-miss accident on the interstate.

At 9:38 a jumper walks to the edge of the platform, turns his back to the river below, and does a little hop backwards into free fall, the underside of the bridge whipping past his face. From the beginning he’s fighting to flatten out, pulling his shoulder towards the water. His whole body flails as he tries to jerk himself around again and again. I can’t be sure but it seems like he’s only a couple hundred feet above the water when he finally pulls his chute and disappears out of sight underneath the bridge. Immediately all but one of the rescue boats stationed in the water race toward him.

Before I can process what happened I see two more people jump simultaneously off the platform. A few minutes later a jumper coming in for a landing on the riverbank tumbles side over side like he just bailed off a motorcycle. An ambulance pulls up minutes later but I can’t tell whom it’s for.

About a quarter of the participants at Bridge Day are making their first-ever BASE jump. They’ve all applied for a spot after honing their skills on at least 100 skydives. Any idiot can jump off a bridge. The skill comes in getting your body into proper position to pull the chute and navigating out of danger once the canopy is deployed.

In BASE, obstacles (including the ground) come at you much, much faster than they do in a skydive. The New River Gorge Bridge is the second highest span in the country, allowing a bit more time to recover from a bad exit than jumps from lower heights. Jumpers who fail to navigate to the riverbank can land in the water and be fished out by rescue boats before the current grabs their chute and traps them underwater. It’s the ideal environment for getting started in the sport.

There’s no one keeping track of how many people BASE jump, but an informal system of issuing a BASE number to those who have successfully completed a jump from all four objects in the BASE acronym currently puts the number between 2,000 and 2,500 globally. A sizable chunk of BASE jumpers worldwide are right here on this bridge.

I walk farther out along the bridge and join the knot of spectators at the center platform. Watching from this vantage, just a few feet from the jumpers, I can see the kid-on-a-hotel-bed freedom of the takeoff—and none of the moments of reckoning. An event organizer tells me the platform is designed to get the spectators as close to the action as possible, so that we can see the jumpers’ faces, witness the safety checks and hopefully decide that the people we’re watching jump off the bridge today aren’t total freaks. A new jumper takes off roughly every thirty seconds. I lose all sense of time and normalcy, watching jump after jump after jump.

Then I catch my first glimpse of the human catapult, a pneumatic-powered arm designed to launch jumpers over the railing with 10,000 pounds of force. The game is to reorient from this exit in time to pull your chute. There’s a bearded jumper sitting in the far end of the launching arm, his back to the bridge. He looks giddy, kicking back with a grin on his face like he’s about to get one over on existence. The emcee starts a countdown and the crowd joins in: “3… 2… 1.” The arm releases so hard the entire bridge shakes underneath our feet. The man flies through the air in a tucked backflip, arcing out a good 40 feet before starting down past the surface of the bridge. The crowd goes nuts with whoops and cheers and laughter. Witnessing the action, it felt like I had gotten one over on existence, too.

It’s kind of strange seeing a guy in his 40s letting little girls in the crowd try on his helmet, talking sweetly with them while posing for pictures, and then moments later watching that same guy launch out of a catapult. The kids in the crowd all seem to have total faith that the jumpers know what they’re doing, a belief the adults come around to more slowly. Every time I’m along the bridge railing I’m flanked by spectators whispering, “pull it, pull it” as they watch a jumper accelerate into the void.

A couple hundred yards down from the platform is a stage where politicians are scheduled to speak later in the day, including West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, although none of the spectators seem to care. Senator Shelley Moore Capito has a politician’s knack for glomming on to more popular causes, and she actually takes a ride up in Bridge Day’s latest addition: a scissor lift that elevates jumpers an extra 45 feet above the platform. This gives the close-in spectators a view of the initial free fall, making for some of the most spectacular jumps of the day. One jumper does an Olympic diver-worthy twist off the scissor lift and is still in tight rotation as he passes the bridge railing. Later, the lift is at full height with three jumpers waiting when it is swarmed by hornets, an escalation of peril worthy of Itchy & Scratchy. The guy in front swats at the insects buzzing him as he makes his way to the front of the platform, before managing a clean exit toward safer ground.

When I talk to jumpers, I realize that I’m asking all the annoying questions that people ask me about why I enjoy rock climbing, questions that basically come down to, “You know that gravity exists, right?” I spoke with a jumper named Jason, who didn’t want to give me his last name. He’s been BASE jumping for more than 20 years. “It used to be that people who did stuff like this were revered as pushing the limits of what humans can do,” he told me. “Now we’re looked at as crazy people who should be arrested.”

Marcus Ellison, a jumper who holds the title of BASE Adviser to the Bridge Day Commission, tells me that the media generally cover every single BASE jump like there’s a 50-50 chance you’re going to live or die, which is far from the truth. The final stats for Bridge Day are 714 total jumps, including 33 launches from the catapult. There were four injuries requiring ambulance transport, three of which were broken legs on landings—figures that look like the accident log at a ski resort.  The jumper I worried pulled too late at the beginning of the day turned out to be fine.

It’s 2:51, and the emcee calls out, “9 minutes till the end of legal BASE jumping.” Two buses hauling jumpers up from the landing zone unload. Everyone’s hustling to get in one last jump. A launch from the catapult seems to be the only thing capable of getting a reaction from the crowd anymore. We’re all worn out, incapable of stimulation after hours of this madness, or maybe it’s just all the sun and nacho cheese. With just a few minutes left the emcee announces that 13 jumpers will go at once. One climbs over the railing right next to me. His friend says, “you’ve got to go farther out!” He tightropes along the railing until he’s about 20 feet farther on. The music cuts out so the jumpers can time their countdown. I see them leave the bridge in quick succession, and then hear the thunder of 13 chutes opening.

The clock hits 3 and the emcee is hustling to get the last jumpers off the platform. The cops are screaming, “Shut it down! Shut it down!” As it turns out, I had known a BASE jumper all along, my rock climber friend Eduardo Moser. He’s first in line at the platform when the clock makes BASE illegal once again. He’s made 23 jumps in the last month, including two so far at Bridge Day, and approached every one of them willing to back away if the moment wasn’t right. The jumper in front of him takes flight. Eduardo steps forward, but one of the cops rushes over to stop him.

Later, he tells me it was the universe saying: “You had your jumps. Everything went perfect. Go have a beer.”

Learn more about writer Michael Canyon Meyer here.

Photos courtesy of Marcus Ellison