Fortunate Fortune

The view from Rockfish Gap.

The view from Rockfish Gap. Catch your breath. I had to.

Rockfish Gap, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, carving out its path between Waynesboro and Charlottesville, is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Admittedly, I am not a world traveler so my slate of contenders reads short of complete, and I freely concede a bias for all things Virginia. But if you could experience the majesty of the view, perched high above the valley below; feel your breath slip away as you behold the expanse of farm country spread out like a carefully set dinner table; if you could stand next to me now, shading your eyes against the blinding blue sky, so wide and hypnotic, stretching on forever with gentle mountain peaks greeting it at the distant horizon, you would no doubt agree. But even though I have called the Shenandoah Valley home for most of my life, trekked through the gap on many travels south and back again, I hadn’t fully appreciated it until today. For nearly forty years, I have taken its splendor, millions of millennia in the making, for granted.

Sometimes in the blur of business, it’s easy to overlook the gifts awaiting discovery in this world that surrounds us. Sometimes it takes a big old traffic jam in life’s rush-hour to make us stop and see the radiance, a panorama of provocative vistas, biding time for our overdue adulation. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The pleasure of what we enjoy is lost by wanting more.

I didn’t come up with that on my own. I found it on my front porch this morning, as a long-ago-discarded cookie fortune from Chinese food we ordered more than a month ago. How it ended up positioned squarely on my front step, greeting me on this particular Monday morning, I’m not sure. Probably a stray cat in the garbage.

But I choose now to think of it as a stray cat steered by something divine.

After plucking the Chinese proverb off the porch, I turned to go back inside to put it in the trash, but as my hand gripped the doorknob, I paused. No clear thought entered my conscience, just an overall feeling to hold on to the little slip of paper. Its message said something I needed to understand; it meant something, even if my not-yet-caffeinated brain didn’t fully comprehend. This feeling directed me away from the house and toward the driveway, guiding me to the driver’s seat of my Subaru Legacy. That same feeling then suggested I prop the fortune in view on the dashboard. I obeyed, and it sits there even now.

As I sped down Interstate 64 minutes later, heading east to my office in Crozet, Virginia, a succession of brake lights flashed, catching my attention despite the glare of the midmorning sun. I slowed to a stop, checking my watch, cursing its report: 9:42. I had 18 minutes to get to the clinic. The stalled traffic mocked this ridiculous deadline. Cones ushered the creeping cars to a detour, which–surprise, surprise–surrendered us to more road work. We inched along, traveling two miles in twenty minutes. I listened to the BBC broadcast a story about the recent elections in Pakistan. I tried to keep my eyelids from snapping shut to the serene cadence of British voices.

Finally, traffic broke loose on route 250, a scenic highway that exits the east end of Waynesboro on its journey to Rockfish Gap and points beyond. The two-lane road accrues a passing lane as it winds up the base of Afton Mountain, allowing me to accelerate past the tractor trailers that puttered along in the right lane beside me. I was moving now! I wanted to get to work. I wanted to get there now. I wanted to put the mountain behind me and be at its opposite base in Crozet.

The pleasure of what we enjoy is lost by wanting more.

I almost missed the glory of the landscape that rushed by in a blur of green and blue and brown and red, racing unappreciated out of view in the passenger-side window. My want to truncate my travel time and get to work almost snuffed out the pleasure of what I had right before me. Almost.

Finally, I slowed down and stopped. I opened my eyes. Wide.

Rockfish Gap, one of the lowest gaps in the region, still reaches 1,900 feet above sea level. After a quick read through Wikipedia, I learned that it is a wind gap, which means water once flowed through the mountain’s broken bedrock, leaving a notch in the mountain top. Streams now roll along the divide on their course to the James and Shenandoah Rivers. In the 1700s, Native Americans traversed trails along the gap as they escaped the ever-expanding colonists of Virginia. In 1818, the Mountain Top Tavern at Rockfish Gap hosted President James Monroe, former presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and Chief Justice John Marshall, as Charlottesville earned selection as the site for Jefferson’s University of Virginia. Confederate General Stonewall Jackson maneuvered soldiers away from advancing Union forces through a railroad tunnel built under the gap twelve years prior in 1850 by the Blue Ridge Railroad. (My husband says he’s heard it’s haunted.) In the twentieth century, Interstate 64 and U.S. Highway 250 evolved as major thoroughfares in the region, intersecting at the gap, along with the more scenic routes of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, which converge at Rockfish Gap.

And today, May 13, 2013, Virginia Department of Transportation workers labored to fix a sinkhole and stabilize a small landslide, closing the interstate from mile markers 94 to 99. They also made me late for work.

But because I had to slow down for a literal traffic jam, the view’s breathtaking beauty slowed my normally frenzied descent down Afton Mountain. Tree tops reached over the road’s three lanes, joining green-leaved fingertips, forming a canopy that filtered dappled sunlight onto the road below. Fences followed rolling hills, lazily rising and falling with the terrain, their worn wooden planks a stark contrast to the spring’s bright young grass. Cattle grazed in fields. Horses strolled alongside them. I saw three blazing-red cardinals, Virginia’s State Bird, lofting into Dogwood trees, Virginia’s State Tree. The Old Dominion produced quite a spectacle to calm me on this previously frustrating Monday morning. All I had to do was look.

By denying my wants, the universe allowed me to appreciate the pleasures of this beautiful region, which is truly my own back yard.

So it bears repeating, if only for myself: The pleasure of what we enjoy is lost by wanting more. 

Look more. Long less. Seriously.

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