(Bowie, Maryland; Nov. 28, 2021) – I’ve been struck dumb with breathlessly overwhelming awe at my first sight of natural formations four times in my life now.
The first time was the sight of Uluru (formerly Ayres Rock) when I visited Australia in 2004. The great, red sandstone giant rising from the flat Australian Outback like some great, red whale of the gods simply defied comprehension, freezing me in my tracks.
I reacted the same way again twice in 2018. The first time was seeing Devil’s Tower striking for the Wyoming sky, the second being my first sight of the Grand Canyon later that year. The Grand Canyon still holds the record for the most breathtaking, awe-inspiring natural site I’ve ever visited, and is the only natural formation I’ve seen twice that struck me dumb both times.
Yesterday I experienced the fourth such moment of overwhelming awe at the sight of a natural formation when I finally visited Natural Bridge in western Virginia. I spent over 17 years of my life in Maryland and Virginia, both as a child and as a sailor in the United States Navy. I explored these states thoroughly, but Natural Bridge always slipped through the cracks of my agendas. I remedied that yesterday as I headed out on my 50th-birthday-present to myself: my first official road trip since settling in Pensacola.
The humor of the situation is not that it took me so long to visit this place. Nope; the humor is in exactly how I reacted to this magnificent place. Not expecting the formation to be both so big and so close to the trailhead, I blithely showed my admission ticket to the park ranger, strolled past the ranger’s building onto the trail, rounded a corner, and stopped dead, executing a beautiful double-take while uttering the most immortal of all my exclamations at a natural wonder:
“Oh, crap! There it is!”
I’m not kidding you. I was so startled I blurted out that anti-poetical phrase in a rather clear, ringing baritone voice. Numerous fellow visitors turned in surprise. General laughter ensued.
You see, you can read the data on the bridge: the formation is 215 feet high (66 metres), spanning a chasm 90 feet (27 metres) wide. You can read that it was surveyed by a young George Washington in 1750, carving his initials 23 feet up the side of the formation to mark his surveying line. You can know a modern highway runs atop it. You can look at photos of Natural Bridge on the state park website and know it’s big, but the scenic photos usually lack any human beings in the image, thereby denying your mind a true sense of scale.
Basically, it’s huge.
The bridge is a limestone arch carved out by Cedar Creek over, well, a gazillion eons. Scientists still speculate whether the ancient Cedar Creek was a full-on underground river until its tunnel collapsed (except for the Natural Bridge), or whether Natural Bridge represents a short cave Cedar Creek drilled through during the millions of years the creek took to carve down the 200+ foot deep gorge.
The Monacan tribe called it the Bridge of God, believing it to be a sacred site where their people defeated an attack by the Powhatan tribe centuries before Europeans set foot on North America. The first Europeans to see it—frontiersman John Howard and his party—recorded the bridge in March 1742 while on an early exploration mission of western Virginia. Washington conducted his formal survey in 1750, and Thomas Jefferson purchased the land from the British crown in 1774 (only a year before the American Revolution kicked off at Lexington and Concord). Jefferson’s simple description of Natural Bridge might have been written by the Monacan people themselves out of their reverence for the site: “the most sublime of Nature’s works.”
The evolution of our cultural maturity in conservation can be seen in the numerous examples of historical graffiti from visitors spanning the 18th and 19th centuries. In a day and age when precious few people could venture out on such tourist adventures, leaving one’s name wasn’t seen as a destruction of the site, but merely the marking of one’s passing. From those humble, fumbling beginnings would grow our current recognition of how swiftly the vast numbers of people visiting a site in our modern world can destroy that site if everyone left ‘just a small’ mark. Ironically, the people leaving those early carvings were often the first peopleto advocate for the protection of such lands.
Another factoid showing both the strength of nature’s work and how we probably wouldn’t utilize such a rare feature today is the fact that Lee Highway (U.S Route 11) runs across the gorge right atop Natural Bridge. Built in 1926, Lee Highway is still a busy road, and Natural Bridge shows no signs of needing to be reinforced to carry the load of modern traffic. Conservation efforts in 1926 allowed for the utility use of such sites as long as they didn’t outright destroy them. Again, the evolution of our conservation understanding and efforts would likely lead to the road’s path being planned differently today.
The site is still sacred to the Monacan people. Be respectful, not only of the formation and other visitors, but also of the Monacan people’s beliefs. I liken such an attitude to that I have as a Roman Catholic: I want people to visit St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome whether they’re Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, etc. The basilica is both a human wonder of art and architecture, as well as the seat of my particular branch of Christianity…but I want non-Christian visitors to be aware and respectful since they are in the seat of my faith. Show the Monacan people the same courtesy.
Natural Bridge State Park is open year-round. Admission is currently $6.00 for ages 6-12, and $8.00 for those 13 and older. The bridge, as I discovered with my amusingly poetic “Oh, crap! There it is!” is located down a short, but steep, walk of stairs and trails below the main visitors center. You head down the trail, show your ticket to the rangers at the trailhead station, and spend a whopping few seconds walking around a corner straight into the bridge. The park offers interpretive trails, seasonal educational and discovery programs for all ages, and the Monacan people maintain a seasonal replica historic village near the bridge to educate visitors about their nation.
Four times now in my life I’ve been struck dead dumb at the sight of a natural wonder. However, even the Grand Canyon didn’t elicit such a stark level of surprise that I burst out with an inane comment like, “Oh crap! There it is!” I think Natural Bridge will hold that distinction for the rest of my life!
Check out my video on this subject at: https://youtu.be/TkfOtIJdAAw
-Natural Bridge State Park website: https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/natural-bridge#general_information
-Natural Bridge Hotel, Conference Center, and village website: https://naturalbridgeva.com/
-Monacan Indian Nation website: https://www.monacannation.com/
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