I don’t remember how old I was or the context or who was with me or why we drove two hours west into the inverted sky, but the first time I saw Luray Caverns I knew there were things I’d never understand.
There’s a psalm for how I felt and a diagnosis too. It wasn’t the cave itself that got me as much as the water. Looking down at what seemed to be liquid glass, just a sheet, as if decorative, and then having someone tell you that it obscures a chasm several hundred feet deep because its reflection is so clear, is a lot like looking into a camera. But less black.
My dad took my sister and me to the top of the Washington Monument back before it was caged in scaffolding. It was about one in the afternoon and the sun was aligned exactly with the Reflecting Pool. I saw blue for days. The pool in Luray is the opposite of that. It seems so calm. And yet they’ve found 500-year-old Native American women’s skeletons at the bottom of it.
It’s beautiful and that’s terrifying. The whole place reminded me of a natural reproduction of the sound of a Disney heroine’s voice, impossibly sonorous, secretly sad. There’s a stalacpipe organ in the caves that looks like it came out of The Little Mermaid, but in a steampunk sequel drained of its happy ending.
And to think, I remember musing, looking around, this wall and I are made of the same things.
Caverns will fill you with awe like that. They’re Wonderlandish in their opposition. It seems impossible that my world could include a place like that and yet there they were. I’ll always wonder how big they really are compared to how big they felt when I was a young girl, short to begin with and silent in crowds, seeing the reflected shine of the gems on the ceiling in my church’s painted stars of Bethlehem above the altar for weeks after.
The whole Shenandoah is like that for me, closely crafted, sharp and steady. I regret that most of the time I’ve spent there has been on my way to somewhere else. When I introduce myself as being from Virginia, and I rarely do, it’s because that’s the image I have of the commonwealth I love so much and it’s the one to which I want to be able to say I belong. Such blues and greens, ones that make me miss home every time I see a Monet in the Met. If cobalt were a scent the Blue Ridge would breathe it. A lusher palette than the stark bright blue of the Southwest, not the blue of the hunter kachina, but that of a bluejay in a rainstorm. Clouded but not obscured. The color of my family’s eyes, in fact, my mother’s, my sister’s, and mine.
It’s not the vast desert or bold mountains of the Southwest and it’s not the urban splendor of Europe. To most people, it’s not even notable. That soft sequence of glorified hills ornamented with the occasional faded red farmhouse off the Piedmont is overlooked for brighter things. And I understand. I make the same mistake. For I love the vibrant bay to its east and the bolder Appalachians to its west as much as anyone, and I’ll never denigrate them in favor of their more humble liaison. Quiet majesty is my unlikeliest companion, in places and in people, and my perpetual one, my most necessary one. There’s beauty in their balance, their overflow of life, the bravery of nurturing when there are skies to pierce and earth to shake. No sound is heard from them, yet their voice goes out through all the world, their words to the ends of the earth.