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

Letter 16

A harmonious home — Intense cold — A purple sun — A grim jest — A perilous ride — Frozen eyelids — Longmount — The pathless prairie — Hardships of emigrant life — A trapper’s advice — The Little Thompson — Evans and “Jim.”

Once again here, in refined and cultured society, with harmonious voices about me, and dear, sweet, loving children whose winning ways make this cabin a true English home. “England, with all thy faults, I love thee still!” I can truly say,

Where’er I roam, whatever realms I see.

My heart, untraveled, fondly turns to thee.

If it swerved a little in the Sandwich Islands, it is true to the Pole now! Surely one advantage of traveling is that, while it removes much prejudice against foreigners and their customs, it intensifies tenfold one’s appreciation of the good at home, and, above all, of the quietness and purity of English domestic life. These reflections are forced upon me by the sweet child-voices about me, and by the exquisite consideration and tenderness which are the atmosphere (some would call it the hothouse atmosphere) of this house. But with the bare, hard life, and the bare, bleak mountains around, who could find fault with even a hothouse atmosphere, if it can nourish such a flower of Paradise as sacred human love? The mercury is eleven degrees below zero, and I have to keep my ink on the stove to prevent it from freezing. The cold is intense — a clear, brilliant, stimulating cold, so dry that even in my threadbare flannel riding dress I do not suffer from it. I must now take up my narrative of the nothings which have all the interest of SOMETHINGS to me. We all got up before daybreak on Tuesday, and breakfasted at seven. I have not seen the dawn for some time, with its amber fires deepening into red, and the snow peaks flushing one by one, and it seemed a new miracle. It was a west wind, and we all thought it promised well. I took only two pounds of luggage, some raisins, the mailbag, and an additional blanket under my saddle. I had not been up from the park at sunrise before, and it was quite glorious, the purple depths of M’Ginn’s Gulch, from which at a height of 9,000 feet you look down on the sunlit park 1,500 feet below, lying in a red haze, with its pearly needle-shaped peaks, framed by mountain sides dark with pines — my glorious, solitary, unique mountain home! The purple sun rose in front. Had I known what made it purple I should certainly have gone no farther. Then clouds, the morning mist as I supposed, lifted themselves up rose lighted, showing the sun’s disc as purple as one of the jars in a chemist’s window, and having permitted this glimpse of their king, came down again as a dense mist, the wind chopped round, and the mist began to freeze hard. Soon Birdie and myself were a mass of acicular crystals; it was a true easterly fog. I galloped on, hoping to get through it, unable to see a yard before me; but it thickened, and I was obliged to subside into a jog-trot. As I rode on, about four miles from the cabin, a human figure, looking gigantic like the spectre of the Brocken, with long hair white as snow, appeared close to me, and at the same moment there was the flash of a pistol close to my ear, and I recognized “Mountain Jim” frozen from head to foot, looking a century old with his snowy hair. It was “ugly” altogether certainly, a “desperado’s” grim jest, and it was best to accept it as such, though I had just cause for displeasure. He stormed and scolded, dragged me off the pony — for my hands and feet were numb with cold — took the bridle, and went off at a rapid stride, so that I had to run to keep them in sight in the darkness, for we were off the road in a thicket of scrub, looking like white branch coral, I knew not where. Then we came suddenly on his cabin, and dear old “Ring,” white like all else; and the “ruffian” insisted on my going in, and he made a good fire, and heated some coffee, raging all the time. He said everything against my going forward, except that it was dangerous; all he said came true, and here I am safe! Your letters, however, outweighed everything but danger, and I decided on going on, when he said, “I’ve seen many foolish people, but never one so foolish as you — you haven’t a grain of sense. Why, I, an old mountaineer, wouldn’t go down to the Plains today.” I told him he could not, though he would like it very much, for that he had turned his horses loose; on which he laughed heartily, and more heartily still at the stories I told him of young Lyman, so that I have still a doubt how much of the dark moods I have lately seen was assumed. He took me back to the track; and the interview which began with a pistol shot, ended quite pleasantly. It was an eerie ride, one not to be forgotten, though there was no danger. I could not recognize any localities. Every tree was silvered, and the fir-tree tufts of needles looked like white chrysanthemums. The snow lay a foot deep in the gulches, with its hard, smooth surface marked by the feet of innumerable birds and beasts. Ice bridges had formed across all the streams, and I crossed them without knowing when. Gulches looked fathomless abysses, with clouds boiling up out of them, and shaggy mountain summits, half seen for a moment through the eddies, as quickly vanished. Everything looked vast and indefinite. Then a huge creation, like one of Dore’s phantom illustrations, with much breathing of wings, came sailing towards me in a temporary opening in the mist. As with a strange rustle it passed close over my head, I saw, for the first time, the great mountain eagle, carrying a good-sized beast in his talons. It was a noble vision. Then there were ten miles of metamorphosed gulches — silent, awful — many ice bridges, then a frozen drizzle, and then the winds changed from east to north-east. Birdie was covered with exquisite crystals, and her long mane and the long beard which covers her throat were pure white. I saw that I must give up crossing the mountains to this place by an unknown trail; and I struck the old trail to the St. Vrain, which I had never traveled before, but which I knew to be more legible than the new one. The fog grew darker and thicker, the day colder and windier, the drifts deeper; but Birdie, whose four cunning feet had carried me 600 miles, and who in all difficulties proves her value, never flinched or made a false step, or gave me reason to be sorry that I had come on.

I got down to the St. Vrain Canyon in good time, and stopped at a house thirteen miles from Longmount to get oats. I was white from head to foot, and my clothes were frozen stiff. The women gave me the usual invitation, “Put your feet in the oven”; and I got my clothes thawed and dried, and a delicious meal consisting of a basin of cream and bread. They said it would be worse on the plains, for it was an easterly storm; but as I was so used to riding, I could get on, so we started at 2:30. Not far off I met Edwards going up at last to Estes Park, and soon after the snow-storm began in earnest — or rather I entered the storm, which had been going on there for several hours. By that time I had reached the prairie, only eight miles from Longmount, and pushed on. It was simply fearful. It was twilight from the thick snow, and I faced a furious east wind loaded with fine, hard-frozen crystals, which literally made my face bleed. I could only see a very short distance anywhere; the drifts were often two feet deep, and only now and then, through the blinding whirl, I caught a glimpse of snow through which withered sunflowers did not protrude, and then I knew that I was on the track. But reaching a wild place, I lost it, and still cantered on, trusting to the pony’s sagacity. It failed for once, for she took me on a lake and we fell through the ice into the water, 100 yards from land, and had a hard fight back again. It grew worse and worse. I had wrapped up my face, but the sharp, hard snow beat on my eyes — the only exposed part — bringing tears into them, which froze and closed up my eye-lids at once. You cannot imagine what that was.

I had to take off one glove to pick one eye open, for as to the other, the storm beat so savagely against it that I left it frozen, and drew over it the double piece of flannel which protected my face. I could hardly keep the other open by picking the ice from it constantly with my numb fingers, in doing which I got the back of my hand slightly frostbitten. It was truly awful at the time. I often thought, “Suppose I am going south instead of east? Suppose Birdie should fail? Suppose it should grow quite dark?” I was mountaineer enough to shake these fears off and keep up my spirits, but I knew how many had perished on the prairie in similar storms. I calculated that if I did not reach Longmount in half an hour it would be quite dark, and that I should be so frozen or paralyzed with cold that I should fall off. Not a quarter of an hour after I had wondered how long I could hold on I saw, to my surprise, close to me, half-smothered in snow, the scattered houses and blessed lights of Longmount, and welcome, indeed, its wide, dreary, lifeless, soundless road looked! When I reached the hotel I was so benumbed that I could not get off, and the worthy host lifted me off and carried me in.

Not expecting any travelers, they had no fire except in the bar-room, so they took me to the stove in their own room, gave me a hot drink and plenty of blankets and in half an hour I was all right and ready for a ferocious meal. “If there’s a traveler on the prairie to-night, God help him!” the host had said to his wife just before I came in. I found Evans there, storm stayed, and that — to his great credit at the time — my money matters were all right. After the sound and refreshing sleep which one gets in this splendid climate, I was ready for an early start, but, warned by yesterday’s experience, waited till twelve to be sure of the weather. The air was intensely clear, and the mercury SEVENTEEN DEGREES BELOW ZERO! The snow sparkled and snapped under one’s feet. It was gloriously beautiful! In this climate, if you only go out for a short time you do not feel cold even without a hat, or any additional wrappings. I bought a cardigan for myself, however, and some thick socks, got some stout snow-shoes for Birdie’s hind feet, had a pleasant talk with some English friends, did some commissions for the men in the park, and hung about waiting for a freight train to break the track, but eventually, inspirited by the good news from you, left Longmount alone, and for the last time. I little thought that miserable, broiling day on which I arrived at it with Dr. and Mrs. Hughes, of the glories of which it was the gate, and of the “good times” I should have. Now I am at home in it; every one in it and along the St. Vrain Canyon addresses me in a friendly way by name; and the newspapers, with their intolerable personality, have made me and my riding exploits so notorious, that travelers speak courteously to me when they meet me on the prairie, doubtless wishing to see what sort of monster I am! I have met nothing but civility, both of manner and speech, except that distraught pistol shot. It looked icily beautiful, the snow so pure and the sky such a bright, sharp blue! The snow was so deep and level that after a few miles I left the track, and steering for Storm Peak, rode sixteen miles over the pathless prairie without seeing man, bird, or beast — a solitude awful even in the bright sunshine. The cold, always great, became piteous. I increased the frostbite of yesterday by exposing my hand in mending the stirrup; and when the sun sank in indescribable beauty behind the mountains, and color rioted in the sky, I got off and walked the last four miles, and stole in here in the colored twilight without any one seeing me. The life of which I wrote before is scarcely less severe, though lightened by a hope of change, and this weather brings out some special severities. The stove has to be in the living-room, the children cannot go out, and, good and delightful as they are, it is hard for them to be shut up all day with four adults. It is more of a trouble than you would think for a lady in precarious health that before each meal, eggs, butter, milk, preserves, and pickles have to be unfrozen. Unless they are kept on the stove, there is no part of the room in which they do not freeze. It is uninteresting down here in the Foot Hills. I long for the rushing winds, the piled-up peaks, the great pines, the wild night noises, the poetry and the prose of the free, jolly life of my unrivalled eyrie. I can hardly realize that the river which lies ice bound outside this house is the same which flashes through Estes Park, and which I saw snow born on Long’s Peak.

Yesterday morning the mercury had disappeared, so it was 20 degrees below zero at least. I lay awake from cold all night, but such is the wonderful effect of the climate, that when I got up at half-past five to waken the household for my early start, I felt quite refreshed. We breakfasted on buffalo beef, and I left at eight to ride forty-five miles before night, Dr. Hughes and a gentleman who was staying there convoying me the first fifteen miles. I did like that ride, racing with the other riders, careering through the intoxicating air in that indescribable sunshine, the powdery snow spurned from the horses’ feet like dust! I was soon warm. We stopped at a trapper’s ranch to feed, and the old trapper amused me by seeming to think Estes Park almost inaccessible in winter. The distance was greater than I had been told, and he said that I could not get there before eleven at night, and not at all if there was much drift. I wanted the gentlemen to go on with me as far as the Devil’s Gate, but they could not because their horses were tired; and when the trapper heard that he exclaimed, indignantly, “What! that woman going into the mountains alone? She’ll lose the track or be froze to death!” But when I told him I had ridden the trail in the storm of Tuesday, and had ridden over 600 miles alone in the mountains, he treated me with great respect as a fellow mountaineer, and gave me some matches, saying, “You’ll have to camp out anyhow; you’d better make a fire than be froze to death.” The idea of my spending the night in the forest alone, by a fire, struck me as most grotesque. We did not start again till one, and the two gentlemen rode the first two miles with me. On that track, the Little Thompson, there a full stream, has to be crossed eighteen times, and they had been hauling wood across it, breaking it, and it had broken and refrozen several times, making thick and thin places — indeed, there were crossings which even I thought bad, where the ice let us through, and it was hard for the horses to struggle upon it again; and one of the gentlemen who, though a most accomplished man, was not a horseman, was once or twice in the ludicrous position of hesitating on the bank with an anxious face, not daring to spur his horse upon the ice. After they left me I had eight more crossings, and then a ride of six miles, before I reached the old trail; but though there were several drifts up to the saddle, and no one had broken a track, Birdie showed such a pluck, that instead of spending the night by a camp-fire, or not getting in till midnight, I reached Mr. Nugent’s cabin, four miles from Estes Park, only an hour after dark, very cold, and with the pony so tired that she could hardly put one foot before another. Indeed, I walked the last three miles. I saw light through the chinks but, hearing an earnest conversation within, was just about to withdraw, when “Ring” barked, and on his master coming to the door I found that the solitary man was talking to his dog. He was looking out for me, and had some coffee ready, and a large fire, which were very pleasant; and I was very glad to get the latest news from the park. He said that Evans told him that it would be most difficult for any one of them to take me down to the Plains, but that he would go, which is a great relief. According to the Scotch proverb, “Better a finger off than aye wagging,” and as I cannot live here (for you would not like the life or climate), the sooner I leave the better. The solitary ride to Evans’s was very eerie. It was very dark, and the noises were unintelligible. Young Lyman rushed out to take my horse, and the light and warmth within were delightful, but there was a stiffness about the new regime. Evans, though steeped in difficulties, was as hearty and generous as ever; but Edwards, who had assumed the management, is prudent, if not parsimonious, thinks we wasted the supplies recklessly, and the limitations as to milk, etc., are painfully apparent. A young ex-Guardsman has come up with Evans, of whom the sanguine creature forms great expectations, to be disappointed doubtless. In the afternoon of yesterday a gentleman came who I thought was another stranger, strikingly handsome, well dressed, and barely forty, with sixteen shining gold curls falling down his collar; he walked in, and it was only after a careful second look that I recognized in our visitor the redoubtable “desperado.” Evans courteously pressed him to stay and dine with us, and not only did he show the most singular conversational dexterity in talking with the stranger, who was a very well-informed man, and had seen a great deal of the world, but, though he lives and eats like a savage, his manners and way of eating were as refined as possible. I notice that Evans is never quite himself or perfectly comfortable when he is there; and on the part of the other there is a sort of stiffly-assumed cordiality, significant, I fear of lurking hatred on both sides. I was in the kitchen after dinner making rolled puddings, young Lyman was eating up the relics as usual, “Jim” was singing one of Moore’s melodies, the others being in the living-room, when Mr. Kavan and Mr. Buchan came from “up the creek” to wish me good-bye. They said it was not half so much like home now, and recalled the “good time” we had had for three weeks. Lyman having lost the ow, we have no milk. No one makes bread; they dry the venison into chips, and getting the meals at all seems a work of toil and difficulty, instead of the pleasure it used to be to us. Evans, since tea, has told me all his troubles and worries. He is a kind, generous, whole-hearted, unsuspicious man, a worse enemy to himself, I believe, than to any other; but I feel sadly that the future of a man who has not stronger principles than he has must be at the best very insecure.

I. L. B.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/lady/letter16.html

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