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


I once said of a face, at hasty first sight, “What a plain face! How is it that people have called it handsome? I see no single point of beauty in it.”

That face afterward became in my eyes not only noble, fine, strong, sweet, but beautiful. apart from its beauty as an index and record of the loveliest nature and life I have ever known. Again and again I try to recall the face as I first saw it. I cannot. The very lineaments seem totally changed.

It is much the same with my first impression of the Colorado Springs. I shall never forget my sudden sense of hopeless disappointment at the moment when I first looked on the town. It was a gray day in November. I had crossed the continent, ill, disheartened, to find a climate which would not kill. There stretched before me, to the east, a bleak, bare, unrelieved, desolate plain. There rose behind me, to the west, a dark range of mountains, snow-topped, rocky-walled, stern, cruel, relentless. Between lay the town—small, straight, new, treeless.

“One might die of such a place alone,” I said bitterly. “Death by disease would be more natural.”

To-day that plain and those mountains are to me well-nigh the fairest spot on earth. To-day I say, “One might almost live on such a place alone.” I have learned it, as I learned that human face, by heart; and there can be a heart and a significant record in the face of a plain and a mountain, as much as in the face of a man.

To those who care to know the position of Colorado Springs geographically, it can be said that its latitude is about the same as that of Washington City; that it lies in El Paso County, seventy miles to the north of Denver and five miles from the foot of Pike’s Peak. For myself and for those whom I might possibly win to love Colorado Springs as I love it, I would say simply that it is a town lying due east of the Great Mountains and west of the sun.

Again, to those who are curious as to statistics and dates and histories of affairs, it might be said that three years ago the town of Colorado Springs did not exist, and that to-day it numbers three thousand inhabitants; that it is also known as the “Fountain Colony,”—a name much more attractive than Colorado Springs, and also more fitting for the place, since there is not a spring of any sort whatever in the town, and the soda and chalybeate springs, which have done so much to make the region famous, are five miles away, in the town of Manitou.

The trustees of the Fountain Colony are men of means, position, and great executive ability. What is more, they are enthusiasts,—enthusiasts in their faith in the future of this region, and enthusiasts in their determination to exert their controlling power in the right direction. They hold in their jurisdiction a tract of about ten thousand acres of land: and the money derived from the sales of two-thirds of this property is to be and is being expended in the construction of irrigating canals, roads, parks, schools, the planting of trees, and other improvements. All deeds contain an improvement clause, and a clause prohibiting the manufacture or sale of intoxicating liquors on the property. Already the liquor-dealers and the company have come into collision, and the contest will wax hotter, no doubt; but the company is resolved that the town shall continue to be, as it began, a temperance town, and it will be an evil day for the little village if ever the whiskey dealers and drinkers win the fight.

The streets of the town are laid out at right angles, and are alternately one hundred and one hundred and forty feet wide. Narrow streams of running water are carried through all the streets, as in Salt Lake City. Cotton-wood trees have been planted regularly along these little streams. Already these trees are large enough to give some shade. Already there are in the town, bakeries, laundries, livery stables, billiard halls, restaurants, mills, shops, hotels, and churches. In all these respects, the town is far better provided than the average New England town of the same population. Remoteness from centres of supplies compels towns, as it compels individuals, to take care of themselves.

These things I mention for the sake of those who are anxious as to statistics, and dates, and the history of affairs. There is much more of the same sort that might be told; of the great increase in the value of property, for instance, lots having trebled in value within six months; of the great success in stock-raising in this region, the herds running free on the plains all winter long, requiring no shelter, and feeding well on the dry, sweet grasses; of the marvellous curative qualities of the climate,—asthma, throat diseases, and earlier stages of consumption being, almost without exception, cured by this dry and rarefied air. But all these things are set forth in the circulars of the Fountain Colony, in the reports of medical associations, and in pamphlets and treatises on Western immigration and the future of Colorado,—set forth accurately, even eloquently. The statistician, the pioneer, the builder of railroads, has his own language, his own sphere; and to him one must go for the facts of a country, for the catalogue of its resources, the forecasting of its destiny. But it is perhaps also worth while to look at a lover’s portrait of it. A picture has uses, as well as a gazeteer. There is more stimulus sometimes in suggestion than in information: more delight in the afterglow of reminiscence than in the clear detail of observation. For myself, therefore, and for those alone whom I might possibly win to love Colorado Springs as I love it, I repeat that it is a town lying east of the Great Mountains and west of the sun. Between it and the morning sun and between it and the far southern horizon stretch plains which have all the beauty of the sea added to the beauty of plains. Like the sea they are ever changing in color, and seem illimitable in distance. But they are full of tender undulations and curves, which never vary except by light and shade. They are threaded here and there by narrow creeks, whose course is revealed by slender, winding lines of cotton-wood trees, dark green in summer, and in winter of a soft, clear gray, more beautiful still. They are broken here and there by sudden rises of table-lands, sometimes abrupt, sharp-sided, and rocky, looking like huge castles or lines of fortifications; sometimes soft, mound-like, and imperceptibly widening, like a second narrow tier of plain overlying the first.

The sloping sides of these belts of table-land are rifted and hollowed and fluted endlessly. Miniature canyons, filled with green growths, nooks and dells, and overlapping mounds, make up the mystery of their beauty. Water-washed stones and honeycombed rocks are strewed on many of them, showing that their shapes were rounded ages ago by mighty waves. No wonder, then, that these plains add, as I said, to the beauty of plains all the beauty of the sea. Their surface is covered with close, low grasses,—amber brown, golden yellow, and claret red in winter; in summer of a pale olive green, far less beautiful, vivid, and vitalized than the browns and yellows and reds of the winter. But in the summer come myriads of flowers, lighting up the olive green background. making it into a mosaic of white and purple and pink and scarlet and yellow. Smooth, hard roads cross these plains, north, south. east, west, without turning, without guide-post, without landmark; many of them seeming so aimless, endless. that one wonders why they are there at all. It takes but a few times driving anywhere to mark out a a road If a ditch overflows and a gully is made, the next hall dozen passers-by drive a little to the right or left; the. new road is begun and practically made, and after a few mornings purple vetches and daisies will be blossoming in the old one. Looking northward over this sea-plain, one sees at the horizon a dark blue line. like a wall, straight, even-topped, unbroken. This is the “Divide,” —another broad-spreading belt of table-land. lifting suddenly from the plains, running from east to west, and separating them. Its highest point is eight thousand feet above the sea, and is crossed by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. On its very summit lies a lake, whose shores in June are like garden-beds of flowers, and in October are blazing with the colors of rubies and carnelians.

It is a gracious and beautiful country the Divide, eight or ten miles in width and seventy long, well wooded and watered, and with countless glens and valleys full of castellated rocks and pine groves. All this one learns journeying across it; but, looking up at it from Colorado Springs, it is simply a majestic wall against the northern sky,—blue, deep. dark, unfathomable blue, as an ocean wave might be if suddenly arrested at its highest and crystallized into a changeless and eternal boundary. It is thirty or forty miles away from us; but in every view we find our eyes fastening upon it, tracing it, wondering how, not being built of lapis lazuli or clouded sapphire, it can be so blue. It is the only spot in our glorious outlook which is uniform of color. Sunsets may turn the whole north sky golden yellow, and the afterglow may stretch rosy red the entire circle round, while the plains below fade from . brilliant sunlight to soft, undistinguishable gray; but the wall of the Divide remains always of its own unchanging blue. Storms sweep over it, black and fierce, but the blue shows through. Snow covers it and the winter sky arches white above it, but still its forest ranks of pines and firs stand solid, constant blue in the horizon. This is a dim picture of what we who dwell in this town east of the mountains and west of the sun see when we look south and east or north,—a very dim picture, since it sets forth only the shapes and proportions, and can in no wise suggest the colors. If I say that even on this day (the two hundred and eleventh day that I have looked on these plains) I see colors and combinations of colors I never saw before, and that out of the two hundred and eleven days there have been no two days alike, who will believe me? No one,— perhaps not even they who have dwelt by my side; yet it is true, and a calendar might be kept which would prove it. In such a calendar there would be records of days when the whole plain looked like a soft floor of gray mist, its mounds and hills like mounds and hills of vapor, slow curling and rounding; when it looked like a floor of beaten gold, even, solid, shining; or like a tapestry, woven in bands of brown and yellow,—a magic tapestry, too, for the bands are ever shifting, deepening, paling, advancing, receding, vanishing and coming again, as the clouds come or go, deepen or pale, in the skies above; or, if it be winter, like a trackless, illimitable, frozen ocean, with here and there dark icebergs looming up. Not the furthest Polar Sea can look like wider, icier Arctic space than does this sunny plain when it is white with snow.

In such calendar there would be records of hours when, in spite of the whole sunset plains being darkened by overhanging clouds, the sunlight floods every bluff and castellated mound in the east, lifting them and making them look like fairy realms, with spires and slopes and turreted walls of gold; of hours again when the plains, being in strong, full light, clouds chance to rest above the same bluffs, transforming them into grim and dark and terrible fortresses, bearing no semblance to the smiling fairy castles of gold they were the day before; of hours on some winter morning, when every tiny grass-blade, flower-stalk, and shrub on the whole plain has been covered with snow crystals in the night, —not with the common round feathery crystals, but with acicular crystals fine as a cobweb thread, an inch or an inch and a half long, and so close set that even stout weed-stalks curve and bend under the weight of their snowy fringe. Upon these myriads, acres, miles of crystals flashes the hot sun, and almost in the twinkling of an eye the plain changes from soft and solid white to a field of glistening sparkles, and from the glistening sparkles back to its pale yellows and browns. Even in the few seconds while I have been walking past an oak shrub I have seen every dried leaf on it change from white to brown, so marvellous is this Colorado sun,— its direct rays burning as through a burning-glass. There would be records of hours when having gone a few hundred feet up on the eastward slope of Cheyenne Mountain, we sat down in a fragrant garden of gillias, scarlet penstemons, spiraeas, wild roses, columbines, red lilies, lupines. harebells, and myriads more which we knew not, and looked off over the plains. Though they were only three or four miles away, they looked as if we might journey for days and not reach them,—so wide, so remote, so deep down, so ineffably soft and misty. We sat, as I say, in a garden; but there was in the garden, besides the flowers, a confusion of great rocks and oak bushes and tall pines and firs. There were no level spaces, only nooks between rocks and here and there zigzag intervals: but on every inch of ground some green or flowering thing grew; ravines, with unsuspected brooks in them, were on each hand. Parting the tangles of bushes and creeping or. springing down their sides, we found great clumps of golden and white columbines and green ferns.

Between the pines and firs were wonderful vistas of the radiant plain. Each glimpse was a picture in itself, —now an open space of clear, sunny distance; now a belt of cotton-wood trees, making a dark green oasis in the yellow: now the majestic bluffs, looking still more castlelike, framed in the dark foreground lines of pine boughs. We were in shadow. The sun had set for us; but it was yet early afternoon on the plain and it was brilliant with sun. As we went slowly down, bearing our sheaves of flowers, the brilliance slowly faded, and the lower sunset light cast soft shadows on every mound and hill and hollow. The whole plain seemed dimpling with shadows; each instant they deepened and moved eastward; first revealing and then slowly hiding each rise and fall in the vast surface. Away in the east, sharply against the sky, lines of rocky bluffs gleamed white as city walls; close at the base of the mountain the foot-hills seemed multiplied and transfigured into countless velvet mounds. The horizon line seemed to curve more and more, as if somehow the twilight were folding the world up for night, and we were on some outside shore watching it. One long, low cloud lay in amber and pink bars above the blue wall of the Divide, a vivid rosy band of afterglow spread slowly in the east and south; and the town below us looked strangely like an army, with its wide avenues and battalion-like parallelograms of houses.

If I have dwelt long on what one sees looking north, east, south from Colorado Springs, it is not because the westward outlook—I had almost said uplook—is less grand, less satisfying; rather because the reverent love for mountains is like a reverent love for a human being, —reticent, afraid of the presumptuousness of speech. Looking westward, we see only mountains. Their summits are in the skies, ten, twelve, fourteen thousand feet high. Their foot-hills and foot-hill slopes reach almost to the base of the plateau on which the town stands. Whether the summits or the foot-hills are more beautiful one for ever wonders and is never sure. The summits are sharp, some of them of bare red rock, gleaming under the summer sunrise like pyramids of solid garnet, yet blue again at sunset,—of a purple blue, as soft as the purple blue of grapes at their ripest. Sometimes in winter, they are more beautiful still,—so spotless white, stately, and solemn that if one believes there is a city of angels he must believe that these are the towers and gates thereof.

The foot-hills are closely grown with grass. In winter they are, like the prairies, brown and yellow and claret, varying in tint and shade, according to the different growths and in every shifting light from sunrise to sunset. No one who has not seen can fancy the beauty of a belt of such colors as these at base of mountains of red and yellow sandstone. The foot-hills lap and overlap and interrupt each other, sometimes repeating in softened miniature the outline of the crowding and overlapping peaks above. Here and there sharp ridges of sandstone rock have been thrown up among them. The spaces between these are so hollowed and smooth-moulded that they look like beautiful terraced valleys, with jagged red walls on either hand. When sunset casts alternate beams of light and shade across these valleys, and the red walls glow redder and redder, they look like veritable enchanted lands; and if one looks up to the snow-topped mountains above the sense of enchantment is only heightened. And this is what Colorado Springs sees, looking west. Are there many spots on earth where the whole rounded horizon is thus full of beauty and grandeur, and where to all the grandeur of outline and beauty of color is added the subtle and indescribable spell of the rarefied air and light of six thousand feet above the sea?

One day last winter we saw a prismatic cloud in the sky. It was high noon. The cloud lay close to the sun: it was fleecy, yet solid; white, yet brilliant with all the rainbow tints of mother-of-pearl. All who saw it held their breaths with a sense of something preternatural in its beauty. Every instant the tints changed. They paled, they deepened, they shifted place,—pink, yellow, green, separate, blended, iridescent. As one holds up a mother-of-pearl shell to the light, turning it slowly back and forth to catch the rays, it seemed as if some invisible hand must be holding up this shining cloud and moving it slowly back and forth in the sun. The wonderful spectacle lasted some ten minutes; then slowly the iridescence disappeared, leaving the cloud simply a white and fleecy cloud, like myriads of others in the sky. It seemed to me emblematic of the beauty of this whole panorama, which has as mystical a quality of endless change as the iridescent tints of mother-of-pearl. While light lasts never shall mother-of-pearl show twice exactly the same harmony, exactly the same succession of tints. And I believe that hour after hour, day after day, and year after year, these plains and mountains will never show twice the same harmony, the same succession. Most earnestly I believe, also, that there is to be born of these plains and mountains, all along the great central plateaus of our continent, the very best life, physical and mental, of the coming centuries. There are to be patriarchal families, living with their herds, as patriarchs lived of old on the eastern plains. Of such life, such blood, comes culture a few generations later,—a culture all the better because it comes spontaneously and not of effort, is a growth and not a graft. It was in the east that the wise men saw the star; but it was westward to a high mountain, in a lonely place, that the disciples were led for the transfiguration!

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