Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE NATURAL BRIDGE. - Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 2
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THE NATURAL BRIDGE. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 2 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 2.
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THE NATURAL BRIDGE.
“Come on, sir; here's the place:—Stand still. How fearful And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low!”
The shrewd Yankee driver of the “extra exclusive return stage” which contained four out of six of our travelling party in Virginia was jocose about the approach to the Natural Bridge. Mr. L. and I were on horseback, and the driver of the stage called after us when we were “going ahead” to warn us that we should get over the bridge without knowing it, if we went first. We, of course, determined to avoid looking so foolish as we should do, if we passed the Natural Bridge,—the little spot deemed important enough to be put in capital letters in maps of the American Union,—without knowing it. Heads were popped out of the stage window to shout the warning after us; and the jokes really seemed so extremely insulting that we were disposed to push on, and get our sight of Jefferson's great wonder before our fellow-travellers came up. For five miles we kept out of sight of the stage: but at this point there was a parting of the roads, and we could see no possible means of learning which we were to follow. We were obliged to wait in the shade till the distant driver's whip pointed out the right-hand road to us. We were now not far from the object of our expectations, We agreed that we felt very quiet about it—that we were conscious of little of the veneration which the very idea of Niagara inspires. The intensity of force, combined with repose, is the charm of Niagara. No form of rock, however grand in itself, or however beautifully surrounded, can produce any thing like the same impression. Experience proved that we were right.
At a mile from the Bridge, the road turns off through a wood. While the stage rolled and jolted along the extremely bad road, Mr. L. and I went prying about the whole area of the wood, poking our horses' noses into every thicket, and between any two pieces of rock, that we might be sure not to miss our object; the driver smiling alter us whenever he could spare attention from his own not very easy task of getting his charge along. With all my attention, I could see no precipice, and was concluding to follow the road without more vagaries, when Mr. L., who was a little in advance, waved his whip, as he stood beside his horse, and said, “Here is the Bridge!” I then perceived that we were nearly over it, the piled rocks on either hand forming a barrier which prevents a careless eye from perceiving the ravine which it spans. I turned to the side of the road, and rose in my stirrup to look over: but I found it would not do. I went on to the inn., deposited my horse, and returned on foot to the Bridge.
With all my efforts I could not look down steadily into what seemed the bottomless abyss of foliage and shadow. Front every point of the Bridge I tried, and all in vain. I was heated and extremely hungry, and much vexed at my own weakness. The only way was to go down and look up; though where the bottom could be was past my imagining, the view from the top seeming to be of foliage below foliage for ever.
The way to the glen is through a field opposite the inn, and down a steep, rough, rocky path which leads under the Bridge, and a few yards beyond it. I think the finest view of all is from this path, just before reaching the Bridge. The irregular arch of rock, spanning a chasm of 160 feet in height, and from 60 to 90 in width, is exquisitely tinted with every shade of grey and brown; while trees encroach from the sides, and overhang from the top, between which and the arch there is an additional depth of 56 feet. It was now early in July; the trees were in their brightest and thickest foliage; and the tall beeches under the arch contrasted their verdure with the grey rock, and received the gilding of the sunshine as it slanted into the ravine, glittering in the drip from the arch, and in the splashing and tumbling waters of Cedar Creek, which ran by our feet. Swallows were flying about under the arch. What others of their tribe can boast of such a home?
We crossed and re-crossed the creek on stepping-stones, searching out every spot to which any tradition belonged. Under the arch, thirty feet from the water, the lower part of the letters G. W. may be soon carved in the rock. When Washington was a young man, he climbed up hither, to leave this record of his visit. There are other inscriptions of the same kind, and above them a board, on which arc painted the names of two persons, who have thought it worth while thus to immortalize their feat of climbing highest. But their glory was but transient, after all. They have been outstripped by a traveller whose achievement will probably never be rivalled, for he would not have accomplished it if he could by any means have declined the task. Never was a wonderful deed more involuntarily performed. There is no disparagement to the gentleman in saying this: it is only absolving him from the charge of fool-hardiness.
This young man, named Blacklock, accompanied by two friends, visited the Natural Bridge, and, being seized with the ambition appropriate to the place, of writing his name highest, climbed the rock opposite to the part selected by Washington, and carved his initials. Others had perhaps seen what Mi. Blacklock overlooked,—that it was a place easy to ascend, but from which it is impossible to come down. He was forty feet or more from the path; his footing was precarious; he was weary with holding on while carving his name, and his head began to swim when he saw the impossibility of getting down again. He called to his companions that his only chance was to climb up upon the Bridge, without hesitation or delay. They saw this, and with anguish agreed between themselves that the chance was a very bare one. They cheered him, and advised him to look neither up nor down. On he went, slanting upwards from under the arch, creeping round a projection on which no foot-hold is visible from below, and then disappearing in a recess filled up with foliage. Long and long they waited, watching for motion, and listening for crashing among the trees. He must have been now 150 feet above them. At length their eyes were so strained that they could sec no more, and they had almost lost all hope. There was little doubt that he had fallen while behind the trees, where his body would never be found. They went up to try the chance of looking for him from-above. They found him lying insensible on the Bridge. He could just remember reaching the top, when he immediately fainted. One would like to know whether the accident left him a coward in respect of climbing, or whether it strengthened his confidence in his nerves.
The guide showed us a small cedar, which projected from a shelf of the rock about two hundred feet above our heads, and along whose stem a young lady climbed several feet, so as to court destruction in a very vain and foolish manner. If the support had failed, as might reasonably have been expected, her immortality of reputation would not have been of an enviable kind.
We remained in the ravine till we were all exhausted with hunger; but we had to wait for dinner still another hour, after arriving at the inn. By way of passing the time, one gentleman of our party fainted, and had to be laid along on the floor; which circumstance, I fancy, rather accelerated the announcement of our meal. The moment it was over, I hastened to the Bridge, and was pleased to find that, being no longer fatigued and hungry, I could look into the abyss, with perfect case. I lay down on the rocks, and studied the aspect of the ravine, in its afternoon lights and shadows, from five different points of view. While thus engaged, I was called to see a handsome copper-headed snake; but it had gained its hole before I could reach the spot. We ladies so much preferred the view of the Bridge from the glen to the view of the glen from the Bridge, that we went down for another hour before departing. It looked most beautiful. The sunshine was slowly withdrawing from under the arch, and leaving us in the shadows of evening while all was glowing like noon in the region—to which we looked up from our lowly scats,—the stepping-stones in the midst of the gushing creek.
The Natural Bridge is nearly in the centre of Virginia, and about half way between Fincastle and Lexington, which are about thirty-seven miles apart. The main central road of Virginia runs over the Bridge; so that no excuse is left for travellers who neglect to visit this work, framed by the strong hand of Nature,
—vexed, not by the iumults of Chaos, but by the screams of caverned birds, the battles of snakes with their prey, and the chafing of waters against opposing rocks.