Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Bridge of Words

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Bridge of Words

Article excerpt

Encounters with Virginia's Natural Bridge

Ever since Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the Natural Bridge to be "the most sublime of Nature's works," visitors have been flocking to this limestone arch, located between what are now the cities of Staunton and Roanoke in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.(1) Along with the Peaks of Otter, the Luray Caverns, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Shenandoah National Park, the Natural Bridge remains one of the region's most frequented destinations and continues to be recognized as one of "the seven natural wonders of the world." Although I once lived not too far from the bridge, I had resisted visiting it until recently for precisely these reasons, concerned that its status as an American icon would not only collapse under the weight of its current commercialization, but also prevent me from experiencing it afresh. Caught in this contradiction, I finally decided to visit the bridge one cold, recent afternoon and test its strength for myself.

To get to the bridge, I took the road only slightly less traveled, driving south on Route 29 toward Lynchburg from Charlottesville, then turning west on Route 130, which follows the James River through the Blue Ridge at Balcony Falls. I stopped briefly at Buteo Books in Shipman, where I browsed through Allen Hale's vast collection of ornithological titles, but aside from this short side trip, I was wholly bridge-bound.

Today, surrounded by the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and Factory, the Natural Bridge Caverns, and the Natural Bridge Inn and Conference Center, the bridge itself maintains a dual aura of secrecy and exhibitionism. Privately owned, it is inaccessible except by admission fee. At the same time, the image of the bridge is everywhere: on coffee mugs, T-shirts, postcards, lapel pins, ashtrays ... you name it, the Natural Bridge is on it. Indeed, the gift shop resembles a small department store, complete with men's and women's apparel, housewares, children's toys, Christmas decorations, a candy counter, and an eat-in cafe. The real bridge seems to exist as a sort of veiled mystery, one whose outlines you can see for free, but whose substance is going to cost you. Here's my eight bucks, I thought, as I paid the cashier; now show me the goods.

But more distractions lay beyond, with a game room, post office, and miniature golf course occupying the cavernous space beneath the gift shop. After making my way outside, I walked down a small embankment alongside Cascade Creek and past a stand of arbor vitae trees more than a thousand years old. Impressive, certainly, but I was looking for the bridge. At the bottom of the hill I found instead the Summer House Cafe, closed for the season, where the ticket-taker pointed to a trained squirrel eating peanuts off a string. Cute, really, but where's the bridge? Then, just as I was beginning to envision the endless deferral of my desire, I rounded the corner and there it was, the Natural Bridge, exactly as I had pictured it.

Well, not exactly.

I should point out, first of all, that the bridge really is a bridge. Route II, otherwise known as the Valley Pike or Lee Highway, runs across it, carrying cars and trucks over what used to be known as the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries carried settlers from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, Kentucky, and other southwestern destinations. Almost as striking as the bridge itself, though, are the layers of language by which Americans have come to appreciate this "curiosity of nature." While the physical bridge may have been formed by the erosion of its limestone base by Cedar Creek--still at work beneath the arch--its cultural meaning has been formed by the opposite process--the gradual accretion of myths, facts, and fictions about the bridge over the centuries. This second bridge, the "bridge of words," deserves our equal attention.

The earliest story about the Natural Bridge exists in several versions. …

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