A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Isabella Bird

Letter 13

The blight of mining — Green Lake — Golden City — Benighted — Vertigo — Boulder Canyon — Financial straits — A hard ride — The last cent — A bachelor’s home — “Mountain Jim” — A surprise — A night arrival — Making the best of it — Scanty fare.

The answer regarding a horse (at the end of my former letter) was given to the landlord outside the hotel, and presently he came in and asked my name and if I were the lady who had crossed from Link’s to South Park by Tarryall Creek; so news travels fast. In five minutes the horse was at the door, with a clumsy two-horned side-saddle, and I started at once for the upper regions. It was an exciting ride, much spiced with apprehension. The evening shadows had darkened over Georgetown, and I had 2,000 feet to climb, or give up Green Lake. I shall forget many things, but never the awfulness and hugeness of the scenery. I went up a steep track by Clear Creek, then a succession of frozen waterfalls in a widened and then narrowed valley, whose frozen sides looked 5,000 feet high. That is the region of enormous mineral wealth in silver. There are the “Terrible” and other mines whose shares you can see quoted daily in the share lists in the Times, sometimes at cent per cent premium, and then down to 25 discount. These mines, with their prolonged subterranean workings, their stamping and crushing mills, and the smelting works which have been established near them, fill the district with noise, hubbub, and smoke by night and day; but I had turned altogether aside from them into a still region, where each miner in solitude was grubbing for himself, and confiding to none his finds or disappointments. Agriculture restores and beautifies, mining destroys and devastates, turning the earth inside out, making it hideous, and blighting every green thing, as it usually blights man’s heart and soul. There was mining everywhere along that grand road, with all its destruction and devastation, its digging, burrowing, gulching, and sluicing; and up all along the seemingly inaccessible heights were holes with their roofs log supported, in which solitary and patient men were selling their lives for treasure. Down by the stream, all among the icicles, men were sluicing and washing, and everywhere along the heights were the scars of hardly-passable trails, too steep even for pack-jacks, leading to the holes, and down which the miner packs the ore on his back. Many a heart has been broken for the few finds which have been made along those hill sides. All the ledges are covered with charred stumps, a picture of desolation, where nature had made everything grand and fair. But even from all this I turned. The last miner I saw gave me explicit directions, and I left the track and struck upwards into the icy solitudes — sheets of ice at first, then snow, over a foot deep, pure and powdery, then a very difficult ascent through a pine forest, where it was nearly dark, the horse tumbling about in deep snowdrifts. But the goal was reached, and none too soon. At a height of nearly 12,000 feet I halted on a steep declivity, and below me, completely girdled by dense forests of pines, with mountains red and glorified in the sunset rising above them, was Green Lake, looking like water, but in reality a sheet of ice two feet thick. From the gloom and chill below I had come up into the pure air and sunset light, and the glory of the unprofaned works of God. It brought to my mind the verse, “The darkness is past, and the true light now shineth”; and, as if in commentary upon it, were the hundreds and thousands of men delving in dark holes in the gloom of the twilight below.

O earth, so full of dreary noises!

O men, with wailing in your voices,

O delved gold, the wailer’s heap,

God strikes a silence through you all,

He giveth His beloved sleep.

It was something to reach that height and see the far off glory of the sunset, and by it to be reminded that neither God nor His sun had yet deserted the world. But the sun was fast going down, and even as I gazed upon the wonderful vision the glory vanished, and the peaks became sad and grey. It was strange to be the only human being at that glacial altitude, and to descend again through a foot of untrodden snow and over sloping sheets of ice into the darkness, and to see the hill sides like a firmament of stars, each showing the place where a solitary man in his hole was delving for silver. The view, as long as I could see it, was quite awful. It looked as if one could not reach Georgetown without tumbling down a precipice. Precipices there were in plenty along the road, skirted with ice to their verge. It was the only ride which required nerve that I have taken in Colorado, and it was long after dark when I returned from my exploit. I left Georgetown at eight the next morning on the Idaho stage, in glorious cold. In this dry air it is quite warm if there are only a few degrees of frost. The sun does not rise in Georgetown till eleven now; I doubt if it rises there at all in the winter! After four hours’ fearful bouncing, the baggage car again received us, but this time the conductor, remarking that he supposed I was just traveling to see the country, gave me his chair and put it on the platform, so that I had an excellent view of that truly sublime canyon. For economy I dined in a restaurant in Golden City, and at three remounted my trusty Birdie, intending to arrive here that night. The adventure I met with is almost too silly to tell. When I left Golden City it was a brilliant summer afternoon, and not too hot. They could not give any directions at the stable, and told me to go out on the Denver track till I met some one who could direct me, which started me off wrong from the first. After riding about two miles I met a man who told me I was all wrong, and directed me across the prairie till I met another, who gave me so many directions that I forgot them, and was irretrievably lost. The afterglow, seen to perfection on the open plain, was wonderful. Just as it grew dark I rode after a teamster who said I was then four miles farther from Boulder than when I left Golden, and directed me to a house seven miles off. I suppose he thought I should know, for he told me to cross the prairie till I came to a place where three tracks are seen, and there to take the best-traveled one, steering all the time by the north star. His directions did bring me to tracks, but it was then so dark that I could see nothing, and soon became so dark that I could not even see Birdie’s ears, and was lost and benighted. I rode on, hour after hour, in the darkness and solitude, the prairie all round and a firmament of frosty stars overhead. The prairie wolf howled now and then, and occasionally the lowing of cattle gave me hope of human proximity. But there was nothing but the lone wild plain. You can hardly imagine the longing to see a light, to hear a voice, the intensely eerie feeling of being alone in that vast solitude. It was freezing very sharply and was very cold, and I was making up my mind to steer all night for the pole-star, much fearing that I should be brought up by one of the affluents of the Platte, or that Birdie would tire, when I heard the undertoned bellowing of a bull, which, from the snorting rooting up of earth, seemed to be disputing the right of way, and the pony was afraid to pass. While she was scuffling about, I heard a dog bark and a man swear; then I saw a light, and in another minute found myself at a large house, where I knew the people, only eleven miles from Denver! It was nearly midnight, and light, warmth, and a good bed were truly welcome. You can form no idea of what the glory on the Plains is just before sunrise. Like the afterglow, for a great height above the horizon there is a shaded band of the most intense and glowing orange, while the mountains which reflect the yet unrisen sun have the purple light of amethysts. I left early, but soon lost the track and was lost; but knowing that a sublime gash in the mountains was Bear Canyon, quite near Boulder, I struck across the prairie for it, and then found the Boulder track. “The best-laid schemes of men and mice gang aft agley,” and my exploits came to an untimely end today. On arriving here, instead of going into the mountains, I was obliged to go to bed in consequence of vertigo, headache, and faintness, produced by the intense heat of the sun. In all that weary land there was no “shadow of a great rock” under which to rest. The gravelly, baked soil reflected the fiery sun, and it was nearly maddening to look up at the cool blue of the mountains, with their stretches of pines and their deep indigo shadows. Boulder is a hideous collection of frame houses on the burning plain, but it aspires to be a “city” in virtue of being a “distributing point” for the settlements up the Boulder Canyon, and of the discovery of a coal seam.

I got up very early this morning, and on a hired horse went nine miles up the Boulder Canyon, which is much extolled, but I was greatly disappointed with everything except its superb wagon road, and much disgusted with the laziness of the horse. A ride of fifteen miles across the prairie brought me here early in the afternoon, but of the budget of letters which I expected there is not one. Birdie looks in such capital condition that my host here can hardly believe that she has traveled over 500 miles. I am feeling “the pinch of poverty” rather severely. When I have paid my bill here I shall have exactly twenty-six cents left. Evans was quite unable to pay the hundred dollars which he owed me, and, to save themselves, the Denver banks, though they remain open, have suspended payment, and would not cash my circular notes. The financial straits are very serious, and the unreasoning panic which has set in makes them worse. The present state of matters is — nobody has any money, so nothing is worth anything. The result to me is that, nolens volens, I must go up to Estes Park, where I can live without ready money, and remain there till things change for the better. It does not seem a very hard fate! Long’s Peak rises in purple gloom, and I long for the cool air and unfettered life of the solitary blue hollow at its base.

Would that three notes of admiration were all I need give to my grand, solitary, uplifted, sublime, remote, beast-haunted lair, which seems more indescribable than ever; but you will wish to know how I have sped, and I wish you to know my present singular circumstances. I left Longmount at eight on Saturday morning, rather heavily loaded, for in addition to my own luggage I was asked to carry the mail-bag, which was heavy with newspapers. Edwards, with his wife and family, were still believed to be here. A heavy snow-storm was expected, and all the sky — that vast dome which spans the Plains — was overcast; but over the mountains it was a deep, still, sad blue, into which snowy peaks rose sunlighted. It was a lonely, mournful-looking morning, but when I reached the beautiful canyon of the St. Vrain, the sad blue became brilliant, and the sun warm and scintillating. Ah, how beautiful and incomparable the ride up here is, infinitely more beautiful than the much-vaunted parts I have seen elsewhere.

There is, first, this beautiful hill-girdled valley of fair savannas, through which the bright St. Vrain curves in and out amidst a tangle of cotton-wood and withered clematis and Virginia creeper, which two months ago made the valley gay with their scarlet and gold. Then the canyon, with its fantastically-stained walls; then the long ascent through sweeping foot hills to the gates of rock at a height of 9,000 feet; then the wildest and most wonderful scenery for twenty miles, in which you cross thirteen ranges from 9,000 to 11,000 feet high, pass through countless canyons and gulches, cross thirteen dark fords, and finally descend, through M’Ginn’s Gulch, upon this, the gem of the Rocky Mountains. It was a weird ride. I got on very slowly. The road is a hard one for any horse, specially for a heavily-loaded one, and at the end of several weeks of severe travel. When I had ridden fifteen miles I stopped at the ranch where people usually get food, but it was empty, and the next was also deserted. So I was compelled to go to the last house, where two young men are “baching.” There I had to decide between getting a meal for myself or a feed for the pony; but the young man, on hearing of my sore poverty, trusted me “till next time.” His house, for order and neatness, and a sort of sprightliness of cleanliness — the comfort of cleanliness without its severity — is a pattern to all women, while the clear eyes and manly self-respect which the habit of total abstinence gives in this country are a pattern to all men. He cooked me a splendid dinner, with good tea. After dinner I opened the mail-bag, and was delighted to find an accumulation of letters from you; but I sat much too long there, forgetting that I had twenty miles to ride, which could hardly be done in less than six hours. It was then brilliant. I had not realized the magnificence of that ride when I took it before, but the pony was tired, and I could not hurry her, and the distance seemed interminable, as after every range I crossed another range. Then came a region of deep, dark, densely-wooded gulches, only a few feet wide, and many fords, and from their cold depths I saw the last sunlight fade from the brows of precipices 4,000 feet high. It was eerie, as darkness came on, to wind in and out in the pine-shadowed gloom, sometimes on ice, sometimes in snow, at the bottom of these tremendous chasms. Wolves howled in all directions. This is said to denote the approach of a storm. During this twenty-mile ride I met a hunter with an elk packed on his horse, and he told me not only that the Edwardses were at the cabin yesterday, but that they were going to remain for two weeks longer, no matter how uncongenial. The ride did seem endless after darkness came on. Finally the last huge range was conquered, the last deep chasm passed, and with an eeriness which craved for human companionship, I rode up to “Mountain Jim’s” den, but no light shone through the chinks, and all was silent. So I rode tediously down M’Ginn’s Gulch, which was full of crackings and other strange mountain noises, and was pitch dark, though the stars were bright overhead. Soon I heard the welcome sound of a barking dog. I supposed it to denote strange hunters, but calling “Ring” at a venture, the noble dog’s large paws and grand head were in a moment on my saddle, and he greeted me with all those inarticulate but perfectly comprehensible noises with which dogs welcome their human friends. Of the two men on horses who accompanied him, one was his master, as I knew by the musical voice and grace of manner, but it was too dark to see anyone, though he struck a light to show me the valuable furs with which one of the horses was loaded. The desperado was heartily glad to see me, and sending the man and fur-laden horse on to his cabin, he turned with me to Evans’s; and as the cold was very severe, and Birdie was very tired, we dismounted and walked the remaining three miles. All my visions of a comfortable reception and good meal after my long ride vanished with his first words. The Edwardses had left for the winter on the previous morning, but had not passed through Longmount; the cabin was dismantled, the stores were low, and two young men, Mr. Kavan, a miner, and Mr. Buchan, whom I was slightly acquainted with before, were “baching” there to look after the stock until Evans, who was daily expected, returned. The other settler and his wife had left the park, so there was not a woman within twenty-five miles. A fierce wind had arisen, and the cold was awful, which seemed to make matters darker. I did not care in the least about myself. I could rough it, and enjoy doing so, but I was very sorry for the young men, who, I knew, would be much embarrassed by the sudden appearance of a lady for an indefinite time. But the difficulty had to be faced, and I walked in and took them by surprise as they were sitting smoking by the fire in the living room, which was dismantled, unswept, and wretched looking. The young men did not show any annoyance, but exerted themselves to prepare a meal, and courteously made Jim share it. After he had gone, I boldly confessed my impecunious circumstances, and told them that I must stay there till things changed, that I hoped not to inconvenience them in any way, and that by dividing the work among us they would be free to be out hunting. So we agreed to make the best of it. (Our arrangements, which we supposed would last only two or three days, extended over nearly a month. Nothing could exceed the courtesy and good feeling which these young men showed. It was a very pleasant time on the whole and when we separated they told me that though they were much “taken aback” at first, they felt at last that we could get on in the same way for a year, in which I cordially agreed.) Sundry practical difficulties had to be faced and overcome. There was one of the common spring mattresses of the country in the little room which opened from the living room, but nothing upon it. This was remedied by making a large bag and filling it with hay. Then there were neither sheets, towels, nor table-clothes. This was irremediable, and I never missed the first or last. Candles were another loss, and we had only one paraffin lamp. I slept all night in spite of a gale which blew all Sunday and into Monday afternoon, threatening to lift the cabin from the ground, and actually removing part of the roof from the little room between the kitchen and living room, in which we used to dine. Sunday was brilliant, but nearly a hurricane, and I dared not stir outside the cabin. The parlor was two inches deep in the mud from the roof. We nominally divide the cooking. Mr. Kavan makes the best bread I ever ate; they bring in wood and water, and wash the supper things, and I “do” my room and the parlor, wash the breakfast things, and number of etceteras. My room is easily “done,” but the parlor is a never-ending business. I have swept shovelfuls of mud out of it three times today. There is nothing to dust it with but a buffalo’s tail, and every now and then a gust descends the open chimney and drives the wood ashes all over the room. However, I have found an old shawl which answers for a table-cloth, and have made our “parlor” look a little more habitable. Jim came in yesterday in a silent mood, and sat looking vacantly into the fire. The young men said that this mood was the usual precursor of an “ugly fit.” Food is a great difficulty. Of thirty milch cows only one is left, and she does not give milk enough for us to drink. The only meat is some pickled pork, very salt and hard, which I cannot eat, and the hens lay less than one egg a day. Yesterday morning I made some rolls, and made the last bread into a bread-and-butter pudding, which we all enjoyed. To-day I found part of a leg of beef hanging in the wagon shed, and we were elated with the prospect of fresh meat, but on cutting into it we found it green and uneatable. Had it not been for some tea which was bestowed upon me at the inn at Longmount we should have had none. In this superb air and physically active life I can eat everything but pickled pork. We breakfast about nine, dine at two, and have supper at seven, but our MENU never varies.

To-day I have been all alone in the park, as the men left to hunt elk after breakfast, after bringing in wood and water. The sky is brilliant and the light intense, or else the solitude would be oppressive. I keep two horses in the corral so as to be able to explore, but except Birdie, who is turned out, none of the animals are worth much now from want of shoes, and tender feet.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/lady/letter13.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31