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Bits of Travel at Home (1878) by Helen Hunt Jackson


CHEYENNE CANYON.

There are nine “places of divine worship” in Colorado Springs,—the Presbyterian, the Cumberland Presbyterian, the Methodist, the South Methodist, the Episcopal, the Congregationalist, the Baptist, the Unitarian, and Cheyenne Canyon.

Cheyenne Canyon is three miles out of town; but the members of its congregation find this no objection. They are forced just now to go over a troublesome road to reach it. Until within the past month the road led directly up one of the main spurs of the mountain, through fine breezy fields, with glorious views in all directions; but the owners of these fields have seen fit to shut them up by wire fences, which neither man nor horse can pass, and now all Cheyenneans must go up the creek, through a tangle of sand-bar, willow copse, meadow, field, farm, ford, and scramble, which is hard at first to learn, but which will soon become dearer to their hearts than the old road.

The day we first drove over it we were followed by a party of four laboring men, also seeking the way. Sittings are free in the cathedral of Cheyenne Canyon.

“Is this the road to Cheyenne Canyon?” we called back to them, at a point where, to say truth, there seemed very little road at all, only faint traces of wheels in a meadow radiant with golden daisies. They stopped singing to answer.

“Reckon so, sir. That’s where we’re going; but we’ve never been before.”

We were wrong, though. The track grew fainter and fainter, and, after leading us across the creek and up a steep bank, thick with cotton-wood trees, ended in front of a log cabin. In the doorway sat a girl, with a mass of dark auburn hair, from which no one could easily look away. Once before I have seen such hair. Very sure I am that it rarely happens to a person to see two such sights in a lifetime. On her knees she held her boy, a superb baby, two years old. He was shining from his Sunday-morning bath, and every now and then he sobbed at the memory of it. Poor little fellow, “he had cried hard all the time,” the young girl-mother said. She looked at us wistfully as she told us how to find the road to the canyon. It was an event in her day our driving up to her door, and I was glad we had taken the wrong ford.

“This is the wrong road. The ford is higher up,” we called out to the wagonful of men as we met them following us.

“All right,” they answered gaily. wheeling their ugly little mules; and, as we drove on ahead, they broke out into full chorus of the hearty Methodist song:—

“If you get there before we do,
Tell them that we are coming too.”

The ford was a picture. The creek widened just above it, and was divided by three long sand-bars into three small zigzagging streams, which looked as if the creek were untwisting itself into shining strands. The water was of amber brown, so clear that the pebbles gleamed through. The sand-bars were set thick with spikes of the blue penstemon, a flower like a foxglove, growing here some foot or foot and a half high, with its bright blue blossoms set so thick along the stem that they hinder each other’s opening.

As I looked up from the ford to the mouth of the canyon, I was reminded of some of the grand old altar-pieces of the early centuries, where, lest the pictures of saints and angels and divine beings should seem too remote, too solemn and overawing, the painters used to set at the base, rows of human children, gay and mirthful, leaping and laughing or playing viols. So lay this sunny belt of sparkling water, glistening sand, and joyous blue blossom, at the base of the picture made by the dark mouth of the canyon, where two great mountains had recoiled and fallen apart from each other, leaving a chasm, midway in which rose a smaller mountain of sharp rocks, like a giant sentry disputing the way. Forests of pines fill the rift on either side this rock, and their dark lines stretch high up, right and left, nearly to the top of each mountain. Higher and ruggeder peaks rise beyond, looking as if they must shut the canyon sharply, as a gate closes an alley; but they do not. Past them, among them, in spite of them, the creek took its right of way, the mountains and rocks yielded, and the canyon winds.

Entering it, one loses at first the sense of awe, of grandeur. It might be any bright, brook-stirred wood. Overhead a canopy of fir and willow boughs, with glimmers of sky coming through; thickets of wild roses, spiraeas, glittering green oak bushes, and myriads of lovely lesser things on each hand; tiny, threadlike streams lapsing along gently between green, grassy paths and sandy rims; great bowlders, however, and bits of driftwood here and there, telling a tale of slides and freshets; and presently, even while looking back, we can see glimpses of the wide distances of the plain; and, almost before we know that we are in the canyon, the path narrows, the walls grow high, and the brook has become a swift, leaping, white-foamed torrent, which we must cross carefully on a slippery, dead log. In a few moments we cross again. The path seems a caprice; but there is small choice of foot-holds on the sides of this canyon. This time we cross on a superb pine-tree, fallen, still green, with every bough on the upper side waving, and those on the lower side dipping and swaying in the swift water below. Here we come to a sheer rock wail on the right, and on the left three high, jagged red-sandstone rocks, hundreds of feet high, marked, and, as it were, mapped, with black and green lichens. Tall firs, growing in the edge of the creek, reach one-third of the way up these walls. Tall firs, growing on their very tops, look like bushes. Climbing a little further, now in shadow, now in sun, now in thickets of willow close on the water’s edge, now on bare and gravelly slopes higher up, we come to the third crossing. This is a more serious affair. Stones and driftwood. That is all. It is a species of dam. It would give way if the water hurried much. Around every stone is a white line of foam. Above the dam is a smooth, clear space,—so clear that the shadow of the upper edge of the rock wall, with the shrubs waving there, is marked distinct and dark on the shining gravel bed. Tiny tufts of fern nod from crevices, and one brave strawberry vine vainly flings out its scarlet runners in the air far above our heads. The path grows wilder; fallen trees cross it, piled bowlders crowd it; the rock walls are hollowed, hewn, piled, and over-piled; they are scarred, seamed, lined with the traces and records of ages, of glaciers and avalanches, of flood and perhaps of fire. Surely the black seams and lines look as if they might have been burned and branded in. Still, the firs and pines and willows make beautiful shade along the brook. It is still a flowery, spicy, sunny summer wood through which the path climbs. Clematis and woodbine tangle the trees together. Up the whole length of the highest pines races the woodbine, and flings out shining streamers at top: while the clematis, as much humbler as it is more beautiful, lies in long, trailing wreaths on the lower bushes, even on the ground. Again and again the path crosses the brook, we forget to count how many times. Each crossing is a new picture. Now sharp stone peaks, seeming to wheel suddenly across the canyon, as it there could be no going further; now the walls widening and curving out into a sort of horseshoe shape, with a beautiful little grove of pines in the hollow; now, turning a sharp corner and springing, for a rod or more, from bowlder to bowlder, in the widest part of the creek, we come to a spot where, standing midway in the stream, we look down into a huge stone fortress half filled with pines, and up into another stone fortress half filled with pines. Just above these close-walled fortresses comes a wider space, where the rocky sides take gentle slopes, with here and there soft, grassy spaces, even to their very tops,—grassy spaces where yellow columbines and white spiraeas wave, safe from all touch save that of winds and birds and insects. What an estate for a lark or a butterfly, such a little grassy bit as this, a thousand feet up on a rocky wall, with Colorado sun to keep him warm, and all Cheyenne Creek to drink from! Below these pine-tufted, grass-tufted walls, the brook runs slower. Shadows of every thing growing on the banks flicker on its bed, and the flickering shadows on the bed are thrown back again in flickering lights on shelving rocks which overhang it. A lovely mertensia, with its tiny pink and blue bells, hangs over the edge of the water, and a great yellow daisy stands up triumphant in a sunny corner, giving the one bit of strong color needed to make the picture perfect. To make the picture perfect to the eye, and to make it perfect to the heart, two babies lie cooing in the shade. A German family,—father, mother, children,—friends, and neighbors, are dining just here, between services. They are poor people, but the table-cloth spread on the ground is snowy white, and the babies look fresh and clean. Who can reckon the good which such a day may do in the laboring man’s life? Soul, body, heart, all refreshed, stimulated, purified. The very canyon itself seemed glorified in our eyes as we passed this cheery bit of home in it.

One more crossing and we have reached a barrier past which. though the creek can come, we cannot go. In a grand stone chamber we stand and look up to its northern wall, over which the creek comes leaping at three steps. The wall is in sloping terraces, hollowed and scooped into basins and pools. There are six more such terraces of pools and basins higher up; but we cannot see them from below. Midway in the last fall there is a font-like projection of rock, into which the stream falls,—how deep no man knows, but so deep that nearly the whole body of water is thrown back in a great sheaf-shaped jet of shining drops,—a fountain in the centre of a fall, fantastic, unexpected, beautiful. Behind the sheaf of falling drops, smooth swift threads of water run in unbroken lines of descent, making a background of shifting silver under the glittering shower of diamond drops. Below the sheaf of falling drops, an amber, silent pool, marvellously undisturbed by the ceaseless fall which rains upon it, its outer ripples breaking as gently on the bright gravel rims at base of the rocky walls, as if only a languid summer breeze had stirred its surface. It needs but one wall more to make this basin of the Cheyenne Falls seem the bottom of a granite well, with sides hundreds of feet high; yet the noon sun lies hot in its depths, and the water is warm to the taste.

From the bottom of this well one looks up incredulously to the top, which he is told he can reach by a not very difficult path. “It is only a matter of time,” say they who are in the habit of going to the top of Cheyenne Canyon. “You must not hurry going up.”

“It is also a question of strength,” will be retorted by the ordinary traveller, when he finds himself invited to mount some twelve or fifteen hundred feet up the side of a mountain, where for many a long interval there is no path, only perpendicular, sliding, rolling, crunching surfaces of disintegrated rock, gravel, and tine sand, in which he seems to slip back at every step further than he climbs, and in which he can get a breathing space only by swinging himself sharply around in front of a pine-tree and bracing himself against it, never without fear that his weight will detach the tree from its perilous slant, and he and tree shoot clown together in confusion. Stinging recollections crowd on his mind, of unpleasant arithmetical problems given to youth, in which a certain number of steps forward are set in complicated formula with a certain number of slips back, with the question at the end, How long will it take to go a mile?” He also thinks more of Bruce’s spider than he has thought for many years. It is an ugly, hard climb. But ah, the reward of ugly, hard climbs in this world! Mentally, morally, physically, what is worth so much as outlooks from high places? All the beauty, all the mystery, all the grandeur of the canyon as we had seen it below were only the suggestion, the faint prelude of its grandeur as seen from above.

We looked out to the east over the tops of the peaks. Long stone ridges, running south and north, seemed to be interlocked with each other, as fingers can interlock with fingers; and each line of interlacement was marked by the crowding tops of pines and firs. Running transversely to these, now and then hiding them, winding and winding again, sometimes at sharp angles, but still keeping its direction east and west, was the dark, fir-topped line of the canyon. A royal road to the plain the creek had made for itself through the very heart of the range, in spite of the mountains having locked and interlaced themselves together. And following the creek’s royal road below was a royal road through the air, down whose radiant vista we could look. Framed between two stone walls, which slope sharp to right and sharp to left, sharp as a pyramid’s side, there lay the plains, shining, sunny, near, and yet looking infinitely remote.

By a curious freak of the apparent perspective, these sharp, pyramidal lines framing this picture seemed to come toward us and vanish in an impossible “point of sight” midway between us and the horizon. The effect of this was to make the triangular spaces of plain look, when we bent our heads low to one side, like gigantic triangular banners of green and gold, flung up the canyon, and lying across from wall to wall like canopies. Then when we lifted our heads they were again radiant distances of plain, hundreds of feet below us, and seemingly days’ journey away.

Creeping close to the edge of the rocky precipice, we looked over at the falls,—three, four, five. The three we had seen merged into one, and above that four others, simply narrow lines of white foam as we looked clown on them from this great height,—lines of white foam running swiftly down a great stone sluiceway, hollowed into basins, narrowed into flumes, widened into broad shelves. On one of these shelves stood four men.

“They don’t look bigger’n a minute!” exclaimed a man who was lying on his breast just beyond us and looking over the edge. He was one of the Methodist brethren who had followed us in the morning singing songs. All day they had been following the creek and climbing in the woods. They wore their work-day clothes, grimed, stained. Evidently it was by some very hard and repulsive toil that they earned bread; but to-day their faces shone with delight, and again the very canyon itself became glorified in my sight by reason of unconscious human witness to its good.

From this summit we could also look westward. As far as the eye could reach here also were ridges and peaks and canyons and lines of dark pines and firs. We bore away one trophy with us,—the top, the very top, of a high balsam fir. How this victory was won is the conqueror’s secret still; but the trophy hangs on my wall and is as regal in captivity as in freedom. Seventy-three purple-blue cones are on its boughs,— seventy-three, blue as ripe grapes at their bluest in the sun and purple as grapes at their darkest in shadow. Seventy-three! Cones of Eshcol I call them.

Going clown the canyon in the late afternoon, we found new pictures at every turn, a different beauty in every spot. The brook was still amber and brown and white; but it was in shadow now, no longer shining and transparent. The dancing golden light which had lighted its every nook and depth in the morning had gone, and now lay serene, radiant, high up on the walls of the canyon. These great spans of vivid yellow light on the rocks shone marvellously through and between the pines. At every step we took they moved, rising higher, higher, falling to right or left, and sometimes going out of a sudden, as the blaze of a fire goes out in a wind.

The canyon was incomparably more beautiful in this light and shadow than it had been when the sharp morning light revealed and defined every thing; “as much more beautiful,” said one, thoughtfully, “as life is when our eyes are fixed on radiant heights of purpose and action and the little things of the moment lie in shadow.”

Just outside the mouth of the canyon we sat down and waited for the twilight. No sun was in sight; but the plains were sunny as at noon, and the higher peaks each side the canyon were golden red. Slowly the light left peak after peak, until only one narrow sunbeam bar was left along the upper edge of the southern summit. This bright bar stretched behind a line of tall firs, and made them gleam out for a moment like figures in shining armor. Then they grew misty and dark and melted into the mountain’s dim purple outline. The birds’ evening songs ceased, the wind died slowly away, and the beautiful Sunday came to an end.


Next: Colorado WeekContentsPrevious: Colorado Springs

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