It starts in the Appalachians, born as a humble stream in the mountains of Virginia before it greets civilization. When it makes its journey downward, it splits Alleghany County, with a population of 16,161, from its big brother Botetourt County, which houses 33,002. Few tourists stop to see the small-town charm at the split of Interstates 64 and 81, but the River doesn’t discriminate.
It passes through Eagle Rock, Arcadia, Glasgow, never stopping its flow, but somehow remaining there forever. At the feet of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was given its own state park at Gladstone. It moves further southward, through Scotsville, Columbia, Powhatan, greeting small towns and open country, carrying kayakers, weathering storms, until it reaches the borders of its big city. Richmond is known not only as its state’s capital, but also as “The River City.”
This is where I met the river, on a Sunday afternoon, walking as a child on the Belle Isle footbridge, my father promising I wouldn’t fall through. I stared down into it, fearing its rocky bed, sensing its power, wanting to set my bare feet on the stones at the shore and feel its gentle, refreshing trace. I used to wish this was my home, with the touch of the trees along the trail, the rush of the River, all with the view of the city skyscrapers with the city behind me. I returned to it frequently, bringing my giant dog to stumble awkwardly into the water, almost getting swept away with my friend Maggie, sunning on the rocks as a teen, having a picnic on its shore during my senior class’s final days together. Along its path, the River creates dear memories, yet it never lingers — it keeps moving, changing.
The River somehow flows continually, yet it defies the trace of time. It was a source of survival for Native Virginians, who called it by a different name, “Powhatan.” Then, it became a lifeline, the “James,” that allowed future-American settlers to stay. It can be seen in Civil War photographs, surrounding broken buildings, dividing battle lines. It was there through the boom of industry, as steel bridges formed new shadows over it. It sits there still through modern tourist photography of its magnificent sunsets in front of the city.
It flows through regions of affluence and poverty, through uninhabited countryside and inner city, unaware of differences, unaware that most of the people it connects on its way will never meet. It connects, it creates memories, it gives life, and it keeps moving. It is not defined by human eras, constructions, or names, but it has always been known.
The River never stops being born in the mountains, a quiet babbling stream. It never stops growing, creating diverse scenery. It only ends it journey when it empties into Hampton Harbor, then the Chesapeake Bay. Here, it must leave itself behind to join others of its kind, before it reaches to the wider world as a part of a vast ocean.
Julia Kinder’s writing stems from a desire to discover the stories of the people and places around her. She is an English major at Randolph-Macon College and continues to explore writing styles that allow her to express these stories.