Picturing America

How an 1870s bestseller captured the look of a nation

By Jean Dunbarn

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The artists "improved" nature by adding elements like the birds in R. Swain Gifford's Coast Scene, Marin County, Calif.

Rockbridge County, Va., owes its name to one of the wonders of the natural world, the Natural Bridge—a colossal, misshapen croquet wicket of solid rock, carved over eons by a now nearly exhausted Cedar Creek. A road lined with trees tops its arch but affords no view of it. Entry to the bridge, once owned by Thomas Jefferson and still in private hands, is guarded by a hulking, white-columned visitors center.

Tourists reach the ticket booth by turning left at the candy counter and voyaging past islands of scented candles, bumper stickers, and corn relish jars in a sea of Natural Bridge coffee mugs, T-shirts, key chains, Staffordshire plates, dishtowels, and mouse pads. Outside, a woodsy trail, advertised as having exactly 137 steps, leads ever downward to a walkway edging the creek, where the Summerhouse Café tempts the weary with beer, barbecue, and "The Bridge" sandwich.

Then the walkway curves and straightens, revealing a vast, looming natural rock formation that inspires a gust of pure sensation, something akin to terror, emptying the mind and making the heart hammer—the very response to "the sublime" so prized in the 19th century. The eye is riveted by the great ragged arch and the empty space under it. Despite the modern merchandising gauntlet one must run to get here, this is the same sight that has thrilled visitors for centuries.

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