“I haven’t been there in years; it’s been a really long time,” is my feeble summation of when I last visited Natural Bridge. Marybeth and I had seized a free afternoon, and this first day of Spring – the vernal equinox – became the day to again experience the crown jewel of Rockbridge County. You did know the county was named after Thomas Jefferson’s Natural Bridge, right?
First we reacquainted ourselves with Buchanan, having traveled to the historic town via the old Valley Road, Rt. 11, through Troutville. Except for brief glimpses of I-81 across fields and beneath us as we crossed over it now and then, and the rundown 1960’s-era motels which sit back from the road in weedy neglect, the scene was remarkably pastoral.
The sign by the River tells the tale: Confederate General McCausland and his troops were compelled to flee Buchanan as Union General Hunter and his men bore down on them. McCausland – ever daring, if not reckless – himself set fire to the town’s covered bridge which crossed the James River, and wind-borne sparks from the blaze set fire to 11 homes. It is said that the Union soldiers politely attempted to put out the fires.
Buchanan, though a fine town today, must have reached its zenith in the mid-nineteenth century when it was the terminus of the James and Kanawa Canal System. Grain and produce from Great Valley farms could reach Richmond in just a few days; sought-after goods from east coast ports flowed into Buchanan, making for no doubt a richly appointed village.
With the railroad and the subsequent end of the canal trade coming shortly after the damage sustained during the Civil War, the town languished. We enjoyed our walk along the wind-blown streets and across the swinging pedestrian bridge over the river, before the road – and Natural Bridge – called us onward.
Walking along the path 215 feet below the great rock bridge, along Cedar Creek, the question came up again: “just when were you here last, anyway?” Marybeth inquired, “’Cause I don’t know if I’ve ever been here,”
The answer, as best as I could tell, was not just “quite a while”, but during an elementary school field trip which would put it at close to forty-five years ago. Good grief. And it’s right up the road, virtually in our own back yard – and it’s a natural and historic landmark to boot. I mean, it was formerly owned by Thomas Jefferson, and surveyed by none other than ol’ George Washington himself.
Some staff and volunteers were working on rebuilding for the new season the structures in the model Monacan Indian village, and were grateful for the warm sun and promise of spring. Otherwise we had the Cedar Creek trail mainly to ourselves. We investigated the entrance to the cave mined for saltpeter. This ingredient essential for making gun powder was derived from century’s worth of deposits of bat guano. Farther up the trail we marveled at the mysterious “Lost River” gushing from the mountainside, and Lace Waterfall at the end of the trail was delicate and cheerful in the afternoon light.
Later we poked around the hotel – very nice in its renovated finery- and explored the newly-blazed trail leading from the hotel to “Foam-henge” -you do know about that, don’t you? Afterwards we took a spin over to Natural Bridge Station and across the bridge above the majestic James. We investigated the trailhead for various paths which pierce the interior of James River Face Wilderness.
Shadows were deepening and stretching long through the inviting forest of the Balcony Falls Trail; hiking here would have to wait for another day. It was time to find dinner and we decided to head over to Lexington -“we haven’t been there in some time”- and eat at Michel’s Cafe, long on our list of things to do.
With bellies full of sumptuous fare no doubt prepared with love and Lexington in our rear view mirror as we headed for home, we mused over our impromptu vernal equinox celebration. We agreed to beware of that tendency -that ogre – that makes us overlook all the wonderful stuff there is to see and experience so very close to home.
Elementary school field trip? Sheesh, it really has been a while!
– Johnny Robinson