I-81 is a long damn road, and it runs all the way from way the hell up there to way the hell down there. Right now we are somewhere in the middle, on a bright Saturday afternoon three-quarters of the way done with June, getting sucked along by an endless stream of tractor-trailers. We are heading out from the Washington suburbs for a sunny lunch break somewhere in the middle of the great valley of Virginia—the Shenandoah Valley.
We have gone past the south end of Massanutten Mountain; from this vantage point, it looks like a volcano rising abruptly through the haze from the valley floor between two other rows of mountains. But we have just spent the last hour-and-a-half driving down its long western flank, so the illusion of volcano-ness fails.
We lunch at the McCormick museum, admiring the restored mill and getting our first up-close-and-personal taste of Virginia’s geology and geography. The grey valley limestone erupts from the lawn here like ridges of dirty snow melting in the sun—scalloped and worn in a vertical pattern. There is wild mint growing in the millstream; it is pungent but also suspect, since the stream is fed with tea-colored water from the nearby pasture. Ick.
We pile back into the van and head for Natural Bridge, our first eagerly anticipated stop. This is a target-rich environment; we pass a sad little dog-eared zoo and “Foamhenge”
on the road in. There is a worn fiberglass tyrannosaur stuck out front of the gift shop, with a deranged-looking cowboy riding him. The cowboy’s expression suggests he is worried about what may have happened to his horse, and his understandable concern about riding a dinosaur. There is no explanation provided, and I do not think either of them is native to this part of Virginia.
Travertine, sweet travertine. We walk down a long concrete stairway to the ravine that underlooks the bridge. Cedar creek, the stream that passes beneath Natural Bridge, appears at the upper end of the ravine across a very pretty waterfall. It flows down a cascade, then begins a long and gentle descent over a complex series of limestone ledges arranged like the scales of a fish—specifically, the scales of a glow-in-the-dark international orange mutant trout. The angle of the bedding plane is clear and the plates break perpendicular to the flow of the stream. I see chert inclusions around which the softer stone has eroded. They look like asphalt dripped and spattered across the rock surface.
We watch a knapping demonstrator in the recreated Monacan village as he chips pieces of flint and chert with a tool made of copper and antler. He makes various types of sharp-edged points this way, and I cannot help but notice how scarred his fingers are. Rough way to make a living, but he seems to enjoy it. Also, he looks a heck of a lot more like a Viking than a Native American, but what do I know?
Back on the road, we actually cross over Natural Bridge on Lee Highway, U.S. 11 (the same Lee Highway that starts at the foot of Key Bridge in Rosslyn, sorta). Cleverly, the owners have obscured any possible view to thwart cheapskates. You would never know it was there if they didn’t scream it in your face from every billboard for 75 miles around.
Continuing towards Radford, the sky gets darker and darker to our east over the Blue Ridge. The thunder draws its breath from lungs of pine and oak, and prepares to pound the mountains and hills in short order. In my memory, there are always thunderstorms over the mountains.
BTW: Selu’s website doesn’t do it justice.
At twilight, we crash spastically en mass through the woods adjacent to the lodge and gather at a real live sinkhole barely a hundred yards away. It is a bowl-shaped depression in the woods, maybe a hundred feet across and twelve feet deep, with a funnel-shaped hole in the middle just like well, the drain of a sink. How bout that. The hole is about three feet across at the top, narrowing to maybe 18” at its neck. Wouldn’t want to try going down inside.Everyone looks around the circle, secretly thinking the same thought:
“Who will I want to stuff headfirst into that sinkhole before the week is over?”