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ESSAY The Bridge ofWords Encounters with Virginia's Natural Bridge by Daniel J. Philippon ver 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 ofthe region's most frequented destinations and continues to be recognized as one of"the seven natural wonders ofthe world." Although I once lived not too far from the bridge, I had resisted visiting it until recendy for precisely these reasons , concerned thatits status as an American iconwould not only collapse under the weight ofits 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 slighdyless traveled, driving south on Route 29 toward Lynchburg from Charlottesville, then turning west on Route 1 30, 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 ofornithological tides, 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 itselfmaintains 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 café. The real bridge seems to exist as a sort ofveiled 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. 36 "The Bridge ofGod. " Virginia's NaturalBridge, photographed by DanielJ Philippon. But more distractions lay beyond, with a game room, post office, and miniature golfcourse 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 Café, 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, exacdy as I had pictured it. Well, not exacdy. I should point out, first ofall, that the bridge really isa bridge. Route 1 1, 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 setders from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, Kentucky, and other southwestern destinations. Almost as striking as the bridge itself, though, are the layers oflanguage by which Americans have come to appreciate this "curiosity ofnature." While the physical bridge may have been formed by the erosion ofits 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 cenBridge of Words 37 turies. This second bridge, the "bridge ofwords," deserves our equal attention. The earliest story about the Natural Bridge exists in several versions. One version , printed in promotional publications about the bridge, tells of a peaceful party of Monacan Indians who found themselves trapped at...


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