Geology helps to explain why hikers can see a vista of mountains from the top of Dragon's Tooth near Roanoke, why the Chesapeake Bay Bridge has two tunnels... and why the western part of the state is mountainous but the eastern part of Virginia is flat.
Obviously, Virginia is on the eastern edge of the North American continent - but we are not on the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate. Virginia is closer to the middle of the tectonic plate than to the eastern edge. The eastern edge of the tectonic plate is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The western edge is the San Andreas fault on the California coast.
There are constant earthquakes on the edges of the plate, where rock is oozing up to the surface (in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge) or rubbing against other plates (in California). Since Virginia is near the center, friction against other plates is minimal here - that's the main reason Virginias feel so few earthquakes.
"Few" is more than zero, of course. If you were in Northern Virginia during the afternoon of August 23, 2011, you felt a 10-20 second rumbling from a 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered near Mineral, Virginia. Items fell from bookshelves, cracks appeared in the Washington Monument, the nuclear reactors at North Anna were shut down, and many buildings in Washington DC and Richmond were evacuated.
Virginia wasn't always where it is today. Plate tectonics theory says we're moving west towards Japan at perhaps one inch (2.3cm or 23mm) per year. Different parts of North America are moving at different rates, and in slightly different directions. According to the UNAVACO Plate Motion Calculator, the Fairfax campus of George Mason University is moving at 14.49mm/year (1.5cm/year), heading north at 1.68mm/year and west at 14.39mm/year.1
That is roughly the rate at which the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is spreading - and, coincidentally, the rate at which our hair and fingernails grow. When you get a haircut, the length of your hair that is cut equals the distance we have travelled towards Asia.
Measured in English units, one inch per year is almost a foot per decade, or nearly a yard each century. Since the Godspeed, Discovery, and Susan Constant first arrived in 1607, Jamestown has moved about 10 yards westward with continental drift. Since the first immigrants from Asia walked into Virginia (or maybe they sailed from southwestern France?) about 12-18,000 years ago, Virginia has drifted about the length of a football field. In the last million years, Virginia moved 15 miles to the west through continental drift.
The topography of Virginia was formed through a series of continental collisions that created vast mountain ranges in Virginia, and the ancestral Appalachian Mountains may have been 20,000 feet high 200 million years ago.2
The collisions that created tall mountain ranges in Virginia were followed by erosion that etched away those mountains. The eroded sediments have created the flat Appalachian Plateau west of Virginia, and the flat Coastal plain east of I-95. The shorelines of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast have changed as the mountains washed away, and as sea level has changed.
Virginia is not as flat as a pancake today, despite 200 million years of rain and wind and gravity. Some ridges have resisted erosion, there may be some uplift underway due to tectonic forces that squeeze the North American Plate as it moves, and the deeply-buried "roots" of the ancient Appalachians have floated up as erosion has lowered the mountains on the surface.
To understand why there are individual ridges in some places and valleys in others, it helps to know the history of those collisions. And since the locations of towns, highways, even soccer fields is determined in part by the geology of Virginia, it helps to understand the bedrock and the topography if you want to understand the people and the culture of the state. (Could we have mountain music or "mountain dew" - moonshine whisky - without mountains?)
The links below provide an overview of Virginia's rocks and ridges. For the solidly-scientific perspective, see The Geology of Virginia from William and Mary, and The Geological Evolution of Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic Region from James Madison University.
And for more detail:
topography of Eastern United States
Source: National Atlas
Vulcan Quarry, surrounded by suburbia west of Manassas
Source: National Agriculture Imagery Program, Manassas National Battlefield Park DOQ
Williams Ordinary, historic colonial-era structure in Dumfries
with Aquia sandstone quoins on the corners to accent the brick walls