Katie Letcher Lyle

Books & Articles:

Only in the Land of Goshen

Uncommon Wealth

from Uncommon Wealth: Essays on Virginia's Wild Places

© Falcon, 1999


Goshen Pass has been my favorite playground most of my life. What I have lately discovered is that, for such an apparently supernal, wild area, fragility may be its most salient feature.

For sheer awe, there's Natural Bridge adorning the county named for it. For libraries, learning, and boutiques, Lexington is the place. But for the jewel of Rockbridge County, wind your way north and west fifteen miles out Route 39 to Goshen Pass. There, the north fork of the James winds and gushes between dramatic limestone cliffs through a boulder-choked five-mile gorge to enter the Valley of Virginia, meandering past Lexington, Buena Vista, and Glasgow, and on to the Chesapeake Bay.

My mother and a friend with a kid my age first took me there in our homemade bathing suits in 1943, where Mama perched on a rock. Her habit of enduring weekly tortures at the beauty parlor left her scalp angrily red, and as long as I knew her, she never went swimming. She wasn’t going to ruin her set.

It was early summer and overcast, the water pellucid green, white where it foamed in the rapids. Boulders as big as houses loomed above us, jutting out of the cliffs overhead. Evergreens and sycamores rustled in the constant breeze. We’d just driven east from San Diego to come live with Daddy’s parents in Lexington while he fought Japanese in the Pacific.

I remember how big the pass seemed, how swift the water, when the woman who wasn’t my mother persuaded me to jump off the rock I stood on at the lower end of Indian Pool, and into her arms. From then on, I preferred river to beach.

After Daddy returned from the war, we spent two more years in the Marine Corps, in Norfolk, then California, before returning for good to Virginia.

I begged to get driven to Goshen every day in summer, year after year. My three siblings and I, and often assorted friends, would hang our heads out the windows in the hot car until we came under the dark rocks and trees of the pass, instantly ten degrees cooler. We’d shiver, even on the hottest days, getting wet bit by bit, screaming or stolid (I was a screamer), until, finally immersed, we’d slide down rapids, ripping the seats of our bathing suits, splash each other, jump recklessly off rocks, even swim a bit. Daddy would strip down to nothing or, if Mama or others were along, a disreputable pair of droopy woollen shorts with a drawstring, don his diving mask, then crash in without flinching, maneuvering on his stomach around boulders to case the pools for fish he could come back and catch another day.

Mama had a friend who loved picnicking at a particularly dramatic overhang called Devil’s Kitchen, who always brought deviled eggs and devil’s food cake. It amused her, and suited us fine. We’d spread a blanket on a nearly level rock in the river, eat ourselves silly, and lie in the sun with baby-oil-iodine slathered on, waiting for an hour to pass so we could slip back into the water.

When we got older, we’d wash our hair in the river, convinced that Goshen water made it shinier. We’d never heard of pollution. We sang a song a friend wrote, plunking along on our ukeleles, that started: I got a notion for Goshen, the best place around to go; to Hell with the ocean .... On summer nights in high school the ultimate dare was to strip and skinnydip in Blue Hole.

We went in winter when it was always windy, and rawer than in town, dirty snow lingering for months in deep hollows where sun never pierced. The water was milky gray-green, and icicles hung as thick as stalactites. On the mountains, ice split the rocks. Once a boulder bigger than our car lay smack in the middle of the road, and we had to turn back.

We’d hike up Laurel Run in early spring when the water was light green and ice-cold to see the speckle-leafed yellow dogtooth violets, to spot the first pink trillium, the diminutive blue-purple wild iris. Occasionally cadets or Washington and Lee students would get killed trying to canoe or tube the swollen water of late spring that hid the boulders, when pea-soup silt made the rapids invisible until it was too late. One year, a cadet on a scholarship in honor of a boy who’d drowned years before, drowned.

As the sun returned northward, and we could see summer vacation on the horizon, we knew to watch for snakes and poison ivy, as the water softened to its summer color, clear gold-green, and the landscape thickened from the tender greens of spring to the solid dense emerald of July.

A blond boy, somewhere between heed and hedonism, would dive into water that was too shallow, to show off—while I waited paralyzed with fear—and come up spouting, grinning at my terror. He’d pretend remorse, and clamber up the rock to where we all lay on towels burning and gossiping, enfold me in his arms, crooning fake apologies while the chorus of girls shrieked. I’d struggle to get my hands between my hot skin and his dripping cold arms, my flesh recoiling from his wet flesh. We’d slip into the bottle green water, to howls from the upper gallery. I’d look up at their tanned laughing faces honeycombed from the sun glancing off the lapping water, off guard long enough for him to duck me. Sometimes we would kiss in the water, and I felt embarrassed, for the river was clear from their vantage, but honored, too, even beautiful.

Goshen Pass, I came to know, was almost a sacred site to generations of Virginia Military Institute (VMI) cadets and Washington and Lee boys, and the girls they imported from nearby colleges each spring to sun and drink beer and woo. Every spring of my college days at Hollins, engagement diamonds sprouted like daffodils. “I got it last weekend, at Goshen,” a besotted classmate would chirp, wiggling her ring around to make it flash.

The river running through Goshen Pass is named for Matthew Fontaine Maury, head of the Confederate Navy, “Pathfinder of the Seas,” professor of meteorology at VMI, whose body lay unburied for seven months because he requested that it be carried through the pass en route to his final resting place when the rhododendron bloomed. Though Maury died in February 1873, at most four months before the blooming, his request was inexplicably neglected until September, when the coffin was decked with autumn leaves—too little too late, some might say.

The mountains rising above Goshen on both sides are pocked with limestone caves, and at least one painted cave wall has been discovered. The remains of fires in that cave have been carbon-dated to as far back as A.D. 875. Mysteriously, there are in the area an abundance of Archaic (8000-1000 B.C.) sites of occupation, but a dearth for the Woodland period (1000 B.C.-European contact). Near the eastern end of the pass was a large mound, about which George Washington Bagby wrote in 1872, “we rummaged an Indian mound, a very mass of bones....” In 1901 Edward P. Valentine excavated that mound for his Richmond museum. Today the Valentine Museum claims that the “eighty perfect skulls, a number of nearly perfect skeletons, and the . . . bones of more than four hundred people and eight dogs,” which were “shipped to the Museum for scientific study” are, inexplicably, lost. Nobody knows what tribes or groups they belonged to. Nobody measured the bones. Nobody catalogued the grave goods.

Sometime back, the rash of reported UFO sightings all over America included one from Goshen Pass. Someone called the sheriff: supposedly three cars, two going one way, one the other, were stopped late one night by a strange craft blocking the road. All three drivers got out, noted each other as well as the craft, but strangely, never spoke to each other. Just got back in their cars and drove on after the craft rose slowly from the road, then vanished.

Rockbridge Countians share their love for this natural area with each new generation. My children know what my grandfather and father taught me: there used to be wolves and panthers in Goshen Pass. My grandfather, when a boy, tamed a fox cub found motherless in the field by Wilson Springs, and kept it awhile. Halfway between a cat and a dog, is what he told me. Bison once grazed that same field. We've heard a bobcat scream, an absolutely horrifying wail. We know the plaintive call of the whippoorwill.

My husband the bird watcher has taught us to recognize phoebes, Louisiana waterthrushes, pileated woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers, green herons, and kingfishers. Ravens, kestrels, and vultures ply the skies over the pass; bald eagles and ospreys pass through. On summer nights we hear the eerie cries of screech owls. We all know arbor vitae, scores of different ferns, oaks, cedars and pines, hemlock, mountain laurel and rhododendron. We gather morels, watercress, chanterelles, wineberries, catnip.

Once, my husband and children and I saw a huge shambly black dog lope across the road in front of the car. Only as it disappeared into underbrush and boulders did we realize we’d seen a black bear— hadn’t we? Each year, hunters with fierce dogs and walkie-talkies tree and shoot the shy bears for the sport of it. Rarely do they eat the meat.

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