It was spider season. The orb weavers were all over as I ducked and edged through the limbs. I wore a hairnet of webs. I wore armnets. The sticky stuff covered my clothes. Every step demolished hours of work, who knows how many meals. But it was a kind of light, too, the way of any embrace, a kind of motivation.
The woods felt the way woods feel in Virginia in August—crowded and unattainable yet welcoming, maybe too welcoming. At a fork, I chose the central game trail, the path that traversed the middle of the slope. The high one might deposit me on a cliff, the low in overhead stickweed, chiggers.
Across the road from where I’d parked, the deer had crossed from the field to the woods enough to make a quick entry. If anybody had noticed, they couldn’t see me now. The truck was another matter. It sat on the grassy shoulder a hundred yards from the bridge and Bed and Breakfast; being a quarter century old, people would likely assume the old Dodge was broken down.
The day had started the usual summer way. After book work and animal chores and breakfast, we chose, from several ongoing projects, a session with tape measure, pencil, Skilsaw, etc., as we fitted and hung rafters for a shed roof, a dry place for firewood. It was a cool morning for August, but we needed rain, needed it bad. I was antsy. The drought and the fact that classes started soon weren’t the only thing.
There was this trip I’d been meaning to take. On the map, it looked to be a mile or so from the bridge on Red Mill Road down Cedar Creek to the famed rock, or water formation—Natural Bridge. We’d driven over the chasm hundred times on Route 11 (built on the bridge’s spine), each time wondering and talking about what was beneath. We’d passed the billboards and attractions—the gift shop with its massive parking lot, the wax museum, the caverns, the haunted mansion, the zoo.
And, too, we’d seen the paintings by Frederic Church, Jervis McEntee, and others, and we’d read histories of the place, sensing how the importance of Natural Bridge in the past compared to its status now said something about all of us, and about time and time’s more physical side—erosion. I’d even compiled a list of quotes about the Bridge from an exhibit at UVA’s Alderman Library. I liked how the voices and takes on the spectacle served as a kind of topographic map, evoking nature and culture’s shifty terrain. Among the list was the following from The New York Times, May 14, 1899:
After entering the grounds of the Natural Bridge property, the descent by a path is very steep and jagged, to the level of the stream which flows beneath the arch. President McKinley took the lead and progressed so briskly over the stones and slippery places that he soon was far in advance of the remainder of the party. Directly beneath the road of rock were assembled about fifty girls, pupils at the Hollins Seminary, near Roanoke, VA, who were there on an excursion. The President stopped for a few moments as he reached them, and each was introduced and shook his hand.
A curious freak of nature directly in the centre of the dome was called to the President’s attention. This was a distinct impression of an eagle with outstretched wings, such as is on silver dollars, made by moss and rock stained by the action of water. Mr. McKinley was greatly impressed by the scenery, and so expressed himself several times. The ascent to the level of the roadway was hard work, but it did not appear to affect the President, except that he became somewhat heated.”
And this from Moby-Dick:
But soon the fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia's Natural Bridge, and warningly waving his bannered flukes in the air, the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight.
And this, one of my favorites, from a postcard with a fuzzy, color image of Natural Bridge, postmarked 7 PM, 18 July 1910, Buena Vista, Va.
I am having a delightful time. Miss you all so much. What have you been doing? Have you seen Katie lately? Guess I will come home Friday.
But, you see, we hadn’t visited. We’d been living less than ten miles from Natural Bridge for nearly a year. It seemed a deficiency. To be physically ignorant of the local watershed feels as dangerous to me as not knowing the creosote level in the stovepipe—things can catch fire.
After lunch—Kirsten’s pesto goat cheese and roasted red pepper on Sophie’s cornbread—I tried to enlist some accomplices. I wanted to hike in from upstream.
“You go first,” Sophie said after a pause.
They were headed out for chicken and goat feed, always a decent, ceremonial affair even if we’d been emptying the feed sacks as quickly as they were raising the prices on grain.
“Come on, y’all,” I said. “I’ll pack some snacks, water. We’ll go when you get back.” Our animals erupted in one of those cacophonous medleys right then. Nellie, her Nubian ears flopping as she trotted down the hill on the far side of the pasture, wailed so mournfully it seemed she’d disrupted a hornet nest. The pigs grunted. A rooster called. The dogs, guarding the livestock, barked at airplane. “Join me on this one,” I added.
Kirsten flashed her big brown ones at me from the driver’s seat, right eyebrow raised. “Don’t get shot,” she said.
The creek felt close when I happened upon an old limestone foundation. There were no piles of junk, just a sheet of tin, rusty and nearly covered with growth. The stonework was careful, the joints tight, dry, mortarless. At the edge of the home site, thirty feet from the hearth, the ground dropped. There was a cliff. Cedar Creek slimbered below, a mosaic of shadow and shine. Limbs and leaves made the view a kind of basketry. There were many places here.
I sat at the edge. A damselfly landed on a boxelder leaf. The bugnoise swelled and receded. A blue heron stood in the creek; it was the same color as the rocks where they were wet from higher flows. The creek had dropped a couple of inches; the air, sticky and ripe, seemed to hold that excess water on its breath. Descending a small gulch to the bank, I wondered if there’d been a storm in the drainage overnight. There hadn’t been rain at our place.
Cedar Creek ran a chalky green, just like Cedar Bluff and Purgatory Creek, the two west slope tributaries of the James near us. There was something medicinal looking about it. Horsetail grew on the banks, tubular and segmented, and I remembered a phase when we were drinking a delicious, nutty tea made from horsetail we’d harvested along North Creek.
While the cliffs were limestone, the rock underfoot felt metamorphic, the creek bed blocky with bank to bank ledges—a strange, winding staircase. A lot of the stone was gently blue even with the thin layer of silt. The gradient was steady with shallow pools between the drops, the footing not nearly as slippery as it is in the streams we usually haunt. Here and there was evidence of prior industry—a steel rod, stonework. The evidence suggested the former presence of a mill. Purple lobelia, a spiky, gaudy flower, was in bloom, its square stem and thick, orchidy blossoms making the kind of sense that blurs other kinds of sense.
Meanwhile, the cliffs remained consistent on the right bank. It was comforting to have so much rock not just underfoot but overhead. Something about the stone, its form and bulk, suggested a great deal of weight, compression, a prior ocean. I was reminded of a layer cake.
So I walked down the creek in old running shoes and socks and some light nylon pants. There was little graceful about the affair. If I felt like an intruder, I felt as much like a piece of driftwood. It was thrilling, calming, silly. I’d worn a button down shirt in case I ran into anyone who cared that I was trespassing. Somewhere along the way, I realized that my pants, these geeky nylon numbers, still smelled like the Lexington Goodwill.
It was strange to hear the sound of running water with the gurgles and splashes of my own wading among it. Truthfully, I’m not sure what I heard. My head was still hazy, but I was excited, too, and smiling. Even in the shady places, the water felt steely and astringent, like a faceful of spiderweb.
Downstream, the creek bent to the south. The cliffs stood on the left bank there—softer looking outcrops, doughy and loafish, less outcrops than rock exposed by water digging in. Cavities and caves in the stone gave the place an anatomical look. You could see faces in that stone, bodies. The walls of the gorge were steeper now, taller. Leaves fell—redbud, basswood. The Joe Pye weed stood six feet in height, top clusters leaning over as if tired of so much blooming. It all seemed too private. Because it was. Things were just right.
I had been walking an hour. I had been stopping as much as walking. There was so much to see. But there were fewer pools now. The rocks in the bed were wormier, striated. They were softer. They were more broken than upstream. The walking wasn’t as simple with the congestion. I must have dropped a hundred feet of elevation. Very few trees lay fallen in the creek, though there were many hemlocks standing dead along the banks—they would come down soon.
There seemed to be voices. I stayed by the edges, trying to blend in with the limbs and leaves and rocks on the banks. If I had come a couple of miles, more or less, I had come further than that in wonder and paranoia. The highway across the field from where I’d left the truck was no longer audible. The moss and lichen might as well have been screaming. There was another horizon line downstream; I couldn’t see the creek below it, not even in the distance.
Soon, too soon, from the brink, I watched the water pour a long way into a small pool. It is hard for me in such situations not to imagine falling or just stepping off the drop. The pool at the bottom was the deepest water I’d seen on Cedar Creek; below it, another slide dropped fifty more feet into a larger and wider pool. I couldn’t see over the cliff that jutted off the left bank, but I had a hunch that something was there.
I was getting close to my destination, that being a decision as much as a place. I went with care down the left side, putting hands and feet on only the driest rocks. It wasn’t a dangerous descent, but it felt that way.
Near the base of the first slide, I could peer around the cliff and see downstream. Full sun glared off the water. The gorge was less constricted. There were smaller horizon lines in the distance, wrinkles in the shine.
A rock wall stood on the left bank. It ended in a round, turret-like overlook. Inside the boundaries of the wall was the paved path the paying folks use—it had to be.
The water fell. The water pooled. There were so many crazy ferns. After sitting a while, I scrambled back up to the lip of the first drop and then up from there, up a crevice on the steep bank, arborvitae and cedar and oaks and shrubs. It was a high way. The rocks were slick, crumbly. I’ve always liked it when going downstream requires going uphill.
There was a path, larger than a game path, and I followed it over the nose of the ridge. The cliff was to my right and over it a very long drop to the creek. I was descending slowly along the contour of the cliff’s top lip. The edge was closer the further I went; a slip would mean the kind of drama nobody needs.
And then there was a roof, oak shingle—a tired, lovely roof—on a little gazebo near the edge of the cliff. It was vacant, but you could taste the ghosts, the place empty with the fullness of the past. I entered softly, tested what remained of the floor. The shingles, it was clear from underneath, were cut nailed to old tongue and groove oak. There were initials carved all over the plank benches and cedar posts. Many of the initials had dates—‘54, ‘37, ‘76, and so on, each decade from the last century.
The bench was comfortable, the air cool, the birds and clouds more everywhere for not being visible. Eventually, I decided against turning back. The path went on. Natural Bridge couldn’t be far.
A man snapped pictures from the stone wall-enclosed path. He wore a knit shirt, shorts, eye jewelry of a digital camera. I told my eager, anxious self, this man has paid his admission fee—thirteen dollars. He can take as many pictures as he wants.
There was nobody coming up the path beyond him, a long straightaway of pavement and stone wall. You could see a couple of hundred yards before sycamores obscured the way.
The man turned and headed downstream. Once he seemed beyond hearing me, I scrambled to the paved path, leaving the gazebo behind. A steep and root-tangled descent, I slid down the last pitch.
A sign said you were looking at Lace Falls. It said other things about the place, things you’d expect a sign like that to say. But the quote at the bottom of the sign seemed to apply more to Natural Bridge than to Lace Falls. The words were Reverend Andrew Reed’s from 1835: “Really, it is so sublime—so strong and yet so elegant—springing from earth and bathing its head in heaven!”
I felt the lean exuberance of a thief now. A kind of patriotic despair coursed through all of it; I was elated, though it was a muted, pathetic elation. Nobody was coming up the paved path. I couldn’t see any cameras in the trees. No surveillance equipment appeared rigged to the stone wall. One can never be sure.
My pants had zippers above the knees. I sat on the stone wall and messed with the zippers. Very soon the pants were shorts. Unless you looked at my black shoes and black socks and saw they were wet, you couldn’t tell I’d been wading through the creek.
Everything was swell, the paved path easy going. Even the creek seemed to have surrendered. There were more sycamores, big trees. People passed, headed to Lace Falls. We exchanged greetings, nods.
At the recreated Monacan Indian village less than a mile from Lace Falls, a large bearded redhead in skin clothing was talking about brain tanning deer hides. In the adjacent roundhouse, also shingled with dried cattail bundles, a black haired lady spoke of native culinary arts. A woman among the tourists resembled a feature in a cliff I’d passed upstream—she was beautiful and chasing a kid who was doing some overtired pow pow routine. I lingered a while, quieted by everything, especially the cattails.
Later, past Saltpetre Cave, where—according to the sign—they’d fetched bat guano to make gunpowder during the Civil War and the War of 1812, a man and woman stood off the paved path, staring at the ground. They wore matching purple t-shirts with the words Natural Bridge on them, no other graphics.
I approached and saw the water snake as well; I mean, it looked like a copperhead, so I figured it was a water snake. Copperheads don’t even look real they are so beautiful and spooky. It has something to do with their eyes, the source of the copper and that sinister, stunning shine. And it has something to do with oak limbs, which copperheads resemble the way a good myth resembles the first time you fell in love.
“Pygmy rattler,” the man said.
I looked at the snake again. I wanted to believe the man, but this still looked like a water snake. “I don’t see a rattle,” I said. The man looked at the woman as if I was an idiot. There are worse ways to look.
“Pygmies don’t have rattles,” the guy said.
I moved closer to the snake. This was a beautiful snake, the same kind we swim with at North Creek, or who swims with us. I was surprised I hadn’t seen one upstream.
“They can strike the length of their bodies,” he said, voice steady. You could tell he wanted me to get bit. I squatted. The animal wasn’t coiled. It was small, head like a fingertip.
“I didn’t know pygmy rattlers lived in the mountains,” I said.
“Sure,” said him. I wondered what the woman thought. Her face was as hard to read as the snake’s.
“A pretty snake,” I said.
“Sure,” he said. Clearly, he knew I was a trespasser.
It was around the bend, Natural Bridge, tremendous and silent. The sun beaming through, the long shadows. What can be said. I sat on a bench—there were lots of wooden park benches at the edge of the paved path—and looked at all that rock and at all that air and light where once there had been rock. It reminded me of going to feed the chickens and finding two of them dead, victim of possums.
I don’t know what it was. It was wild. It was numbing. It was like trying to read a book where the pages are a kind of food and only by eating them with the proper care are the words revealed. The landform felt so significant as to feel insignificant—maybe it was the other way around. Maybe I wasn’t hungry enough. Eventually, I fell asleep.
Later, I had a run in. If I’d awakened from an historically accurate dream, vintage 1834, in which I was being lowered in a hexagonal iron cage by windlass and steel cable from the top of the Bridge while an attendant stroked something eerie and elegant on the violin, I don’t remember it. I remember a man in uniform—forest green pants, beige shirt—asking me for a ticket.
I had come to the end of the paved path where there was a paved road and a café, Natural Bridge behind me, upstream. I said I didn’t have a ticket. The man looked at me. He looked like a guy I’d seen fishing on the James the prior week. I looked at the menu above the order window—the beer and sandwiches were way overpriced. The man didn’t seem to notice my wet shoes. I wiped at some squibs of soiled spiderweb still gummed on my arm hair and looked dumb. He didn’t look smart, but he looked like he knew. I didn’t know where to go. A bus arrived and when he turned and helped people board it, I followed some other people past the bus.
It took five minutes to ascend the steps, which were concrete and rose at an easy grade along a tufa stream postcardy with small falls and pools, mosses and grasses, shade and light and big, old arborvitae trees. You had to enter the gift shop then. It was quite a gift shop. There were books and magnets and toys and clothes and snacks and things. It seemed there were as many square feet of floor space in the gift shop as on the rock face that framed the great absence where water had done its work. Three miles of hot blacktop lay between this place and my truck at Red Mill Road, but I wasn’t thinking about that. I was walking around the gift shop, wet socks making wet sounds in my wet running shoes. The air conditioner felt sublime.