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Friday, May 05, 2006

Lover's Leap

Lover's Leap, Patrick County, Virginia, image by L. Shelor

Since I was a small child I have heard stories of the origin of the name "Lover's Leap", a steep drop off the side of the mountain, just a little way down from the top. During the construction of Highway 58 an overlook with a stone wall was built that locals call the "Rock Cut". Later a park was put in by the county and named after Fred Clifton, a local historian.

The original story, shared with lots of places known by the same name, has been lost over time. There is a version that tells of two young Indians that were forbidden to marry because they were from warring tribes who leaped together to their deaths. Another version tells of a settler and an Indian maiden, separated by prejudices, and still another claims that the doomed couple were from feuding mountain families.

View from Route 58 near Lover's Leap, image by Sue Shelor
This legend, or similar versions, is shared by a good many high places known as Lover's or Lovers' Leap all across the Blue Ridge. There is even a bridge near Independence, Virginia, that is reputed to be haunted because of a pair of suicidal lovers. A beautiful view of New River can be seen from Lover's Leap at Hawks Nest State Park in Ansted, West Virginia. Several versions of tales of leaping lovers are also told about this particular Leap. A jilted lover supposedly ended his life by plunging from Wills Mountain in Cumberland, Maryland. There is a Lover's Leap at Purgatory Chasm State Reservation in Massachusetts. And of course Rock City, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, boasts a Lover's Leap in their gardens atop Lookout Mountain. There are many more sites that supposedly commemorate the deaths of star-crossed lovers across the mountains of the Blue Ridge.
Why are there so many "Lover's Leap" sites across the Blue Ridge Mountains? The settlers of the Blue Ridge are not often seen as romantics, and the hard work required to survive on subsistence farms with rock-strewn fields would seem to discourage fantasy. But the mountain settlers came from the common stock that originated the folk tale and ballad. Legends of lovers committing suicide by leaping from high places exist in the early tales of Greek mythology. These legends may be the prototype of the later Lover's Leap legends in America, which are often told about Native Americans. One of the earliest Lover's Leap tales involves De Soto and his soldiers, about Virgin Bluff near present day Cape Fair, Missouri. An Indian maiden supposedly leaped to her death when her father objected to her marriage to a Spanish soldier.
The tradition of story runs deep with the mountain people. Placing a well-known traditional tale in a local setting and changing it to reflect a Native American background probably happened over and over through the mountains. The fact that legend belongs to the distant past, and that the Blue Ridge was settled relatively recently, would have made it natural that the stories would often involve Native Americans. The story of a Greek maiden who died for love, traveling with the common folk throughout Europe and across the Atlantic to America, became the story of a Native American princess who also gave her life because of heartbreak.
Today people picnic at Clifton Park below Lover's Leap in Patrick County and give little thought to desperate lovers. In such scenic surroundings, with rhododendron blooming on the slopes and fresh breezes blowing, despair seems as remote as the green fields beneath the mountains.

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  • At Friday, 05 May, 2006, Blogger Mark said…

    I spent many hours behind the wheel last year traveling up and down highway 58 to the ship yards and only had about five minutes to spend at this site. It was around 3am and pitch black dark on my way home one night. Of course I couldn't see anything, so I just stood there on a cold November night listening to the quitness knowing that something big lay before me in the darkness.

  • At Friday, 05 May, 2006, Blogger D L Ennis said…

    This is wonderful Leslie...all the Romeo's and Juliet’s through the ages!

  • At Saturday, 06 May, 2006, Blogger John Roberts said…

    I didn't realize there were so many "Lover's Leaps"! The Romeo& Juliet syndrome seems to be cross-cultural.


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