road tripping & the Natural Bridge of Virginia…

On Thursday, I left Clemson at 8:30 in the morning, headed to Maryland, and figuring it would take me about 12 hrs (I hoped) to get there. Of course, depending on traffic, this could vary. My departure time was likely to put me in the middle of either D.C. or Baltimore traffic. But you accept these bumps in the road, even when you don’t like ’em. I had a cinnamon dolce latte and a cinnamon chip scone from Starbucks, to start my day, and what could possibly be better? Of course, that was right after the ATM refused to give me any money, so I had to go get some cash, after buying some gum at Walmart.

Considering I haven’t done a long road trip like this, by myself, in over a year, I think I did pretty well. But I didn’t have any sleepy spells that required pulling over fast. I try and time my stops so I can fill up the gas tank, eat, and use the restroom, all in one stop, and keep the trip moving quickly. But I’ll still stop at a nice rest stop, like this, stretch my legs and enjoy the sunshine. I enjoyed the flowers, and the white ones smelled wonderful, though I have no idea what they are. Several other travelers were walking their dogs, and of course, for all your drinking and snacking needs, there are all the vending machines you could possibly want.

After about 4 hours, I stopped at a Love’s gas station, in North Carolina, and took notice of the station across the way. Yes, of course I’m familiar with Kangaroo gas stations, but it occurred to me that my Aussie friends would find it odd. I don’t know if they have them in Australia. On the way to this stop, I kept wishing I could find a good place to pull off along the highway, or that I had the nerve to do it, in order to get a good picture of some of the views. This stretch of I-77 and I-81 go through the Appalachians, giving you a glorious view of the “ground level” below. I may be a chicken, but I don’t want to be the person remembered for stopping to take a picture of the view, and then getting run over by an 18-wheeler. They really ought to make a Scenic Overlook for a spot or two, on that stretch, though.

When I was well into Virginia, and had probably been driving for about 7 hours, I started to see signs for the Natural Bridge of Virginia. Now, I’ve been seeing signs for this place since I was about twenty years old, but have never stopped there. I read about it, a few years ago, and found out that not only had Thomas Jefferson owned it (bought it for 20 shillings), but it’s still privately owned. The point being, the whole area is well-kept up, there’s no graffiti, and there’s no litter on the ground. A publicly owned property would generally be strapped for cash, and unable to keep people working there and caring for the area. So, please, if you go to visit, do not be upset by the $19 entrance fee (general entrance fee for one person, with no extras).

I followed the Lee-Jackson Hwy back into the hills, and then came around a corner to find a small hotel or two that take care of the tourists, and the gift shop which guards the entrance to the Natural Bridge. There are some caverns, Safari-type place, and something called Foamhenge, just down the road, so if you want a fun place to take the family for the weekend, this would be a good choice.

In the evenings, there’s a light and sound show at the Natural Bridge (at 9pm, every night), which is why there are benches all down below the Bridge. I think I read that Calvin Coolidge had something to do with starting that program, back in the 1920’s, but I still need to read my souvenir book, to find out some more details. It details the Biblical Creation story, as the signs will tell you, and I asked a couple, when I was down there. They told me that it’s amazing, so I think I’ll definitely have to come back, some time.

When I had my ticket, I could’ve taken a shuttle bus, but that would be wussing out, especially when I’d been stuck in the car for hours. I walked down the 137 steps, looking at some of the beautiful, dead trees that are still along the path, one of which was 1600 years old, before it died in 1980. At the bottom of the stairs, some older gentleman hole-punched my ticket, and wished me a good day. Such nice men. The building they were standing by is a restaurant on the creek, where you sit, eat, and enjoy the sunshine, before or after viewing the Bridge. But since I had a time limit for my stop, I kept moving.

I’ve never seen anything like the Natural Bridge. I read that it’s taller than Niagara Falls, which I’ve seen, and I’ve never seen the Rockies, which are obviously taller. But when you’re at the foot of a mountain, you can’t always take in the height of it, because you can only see the part that’s closest to you. And when you’re at a distance, you don’t often get the scale of it. If I’d been in some huge caverns, I think the height would’ve been disguised by continuing stretch of the ceiling. But here, I felt like an ant looking at a giant. You can see the top of the Bridge, but it’s backed by the surrounding blue sky. I have never felt so small.

Whether the pictures will even give you the gist of how little I felt, I can’t be sure. My video, which I may eventually post on FB might give you an idea. But it was only a little cool down there, but I was feeling shaky. In fact, the trembly feeling that it gave me, the feeling didn’t go away, the whole time I was down there. I felt more comfortable when I wasn’t looking at it, but you couldn’t really look away, though you couldn’t take it all in. If no one was watching, I think the feeling I got was of wanting to sit down on the ground, back up against a wall, preferably in a crevice where I couldn’t be seen, and try and take it in. I wasn’t in the presence of the Creator, but I certainly felt that I was in the presence of something He created, and it was unnerving.

I couldn’t stay long, like I said, so I walked under the Bridge, and went over to the benches on the other side. Someone working there was waiting for 3:30 to roll around, to give another spiel to anyone, on the history of the Bridge. I could have stayed, but I felt like if I sat down to listen, and got caught up in the history, I might never leave. And I had another 5-6 hrs to drive, still.

So, I didn’t dawdle, but strolled back the way I’d come, always feeling more comfortable when I wasn’t looking at the Bridge, but wanting to look, just the same. It’s beautiful, magnificent, mesmerizing. Remember how I told you to not be upset over the entrance fee? Well, it’s worth every cent, and I was only there for about 45 minutes, from start to finish. Though I was tired and having mono makes you get winded much more easily, I still climbed those 137 steps, instead of taking the shuttle up the hill. I needed my exercise for the day, you know.

Back at the gift shop, I purchased their souvenir book about the Natural Bridge’s history, and took a quick wander through the shop. It’s quite large, and has a lot of interesting stuff in it. If your kids can be trusted to not touch or break anything, you could easily spend an hour looking at everything in detail (unless your kids have a short attention span). I especially liked the stuffed animal section, full of stuffed toys that looked like American animals… squirrels, opossums, otters, and many others. I need to remember to look up Fiesta brand stuffed animals, because my Aussie girls would probably get a kick out of them.

Once I was back in the car, I followed the Jackson-Lee Hwy back to I-81, but on the way, I decided that I would really like to live on Off The Beaten Path. I kid you not, I saw a street sign with that on it, and “Path” was in smaller letters, just like “Road” is on my street sign. Wouldn’t you like to write on an envelope that you live at 15 Off The Beaten Path?

I caught the tail end of DC traffic, and some of that was from a car accident. But I knew that if I hadn’t stopped at Natural Bridge, I’d have spent all that time in traffic, so that made it even more worth it. When I was approaching Baltimore, I began to look for signs to the Harbor Tunnel, because that’s the fastest route (if there’s no traffic) to get to the other side of Baltimore. Following a deserted highway, I found myself second in line to pay the toll and go through the tunnel, but instead, we had to sit and wait for 10-15 minutes. My conclusion is that there was a fender-bender (or a flat tire) in the tunnel, because I saw blue lights coming and going, and then finally, the cops led each line of traffic into the tunnel. I didn’t think they’d let us in, if there’d been a leak, you know.

Finally on my way again, when I was close to my destination, I needed to put gas in the tank, so I stopped for that and ran in to get a bagel and white chocolate mocha from Starbucks. Just what I needed to get the rest of the way. The only thing left was to get off at the Havre de Grace exit (if you’re not paying attention, and miss it, you have to pay a toll at the next exit), and then pay the toll to cross the Thomas J. Hatem Bridge. I’ve always wondered what it was like for Mr. Hatem, growing up. Did he get teased about his name?

Off that bridge, and a few minutes later, I was hugging my cousin. 9:45pm, about 13 hrs after departure. Not too bad for a first road trip, after getting home, wouldn’t you say? My return trip will be shorter, in two weeks, because I’ll be returning from Pennsylvania, which only takes 10 hrs. I hope you enjoyed my trip, and please join me again soon, as I’ll have baby cousins and friends to show off.   : )

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