From a dozen or so strategic vantage points in the outer suburbs, you can cast your eye westward—there's a feeling I get when I look to the west—and see them undulate along the horizon from gap to ridge, the measure of detail depending on exactly where you are looking from. Regardless, whenever the opportunity presents itself I will at least glance towards those modest mountains, and remember countless days spent hiking and exploring the long wooded spine of Virginia.
So it was with a certain amount of chagrin that only within the last year or so I have had to confront my own willful ignorance of the true nature of Northern Virginia's geology and geography.
What I have viewed so wistfully on so many occasions from the outer suburbs, more often than not, is in fact Bull Run Mountain. Technically the easternmost constituent of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Bull Run Mountain is the southern extension of the Catoctin Mountains, which run northward through Maryland towards Pennsylvania, and peter out and die towards the south around New Baltimore, Virginia.
What I recall hiking on and exploring is the Blue Ridge proper, that broader, longer and taller range some twenty or thirty miles farther towards the west across the rolling Piedmont. Bull Run, Blue Ridge, Massanutten, Alleghenies. While Bull Run Mountain comes and goes in a short distance, the main process of the Blue Ridge extends more or less uninterrupted from Alabama to the Maritimes before diving beneath the waves and heading towards Iceland. It is that range that carries the Appalachian Trail, that hosts Shenandoah National Park, and that accretes so many things of beauty along its forest-draped flanks and hollows.
I was forced to confront my willful ignorance when we started regularly traveling the flank of Bull Run Mountain, and I began to recognize it as an entity in its own right with its own charm and distinctive nature. I also had to try and understand exactly how my brain had managed to willfully ignore the countless times I crossed that twenty of thirty miles of rolling valley without mentally acknowledging the two different sets of mountains. Amusingly, I am fairly certain that of all the places and times I have hiked and explored, exactly one was on Bull Run Mountain, it was short, it was utterly unremarkable and it is now almost completely forgotten.
I laugh to myself now when I look westward. My new understanding of the true nature of gently rolling Virginia doesn't materially change the feeling it gives me to look towards the mountains. In fact, it increases my appreciation, now that I know it in greater, more honest, detail without abridgement or elision. It still makes me happy to look out and see Bull Run Mountain, knowing that just behind it, somewhat obscured by the turn of the earth's surface, lie what I always used to think I was seeing.
Never too old to learn, never too old to recover from a mistake.