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


To the east and the south and the north great sunlit plains, bounded by a rounding wall of the furthest visible sky,—it might be by the Atlantic and the Arctic and the Antarctic seas, for aught the horizon line tells to the contrary; to the west a grand range of the Rocky Mountains, built up and up and up,—(first soft, dimpling, crowding foot-hills; then jagged, overlapping ridges; then sharp, glistening, snow-topped peaks, till the blue is touched fifteen thousand feet high in the air); fronting the mountains, making a little space of shining dots and lines on the sunlit plains, the baby town of Colorado Springs, the “Fountain Colony.” It is the fourteenth day of December, winter, by the calendar. Winter, too, to the eye. Ice lies firm-frozen in the gutters, and even the low foot-hills are powdered with snow. The mercury registered only 14 degrees this morning at six o’clock, and we are wrapped in furs for our drive; but we are going in an open carriage, and our eyes must be sheltered from the blazing sun as much as if it were midsummer. Winter by the calendar, winter to the sight and touch; but winter which wooes and warms like June.

The horses bound and spring like frolicsome kittens. The electric air stirs their blood, as well as ours. Not until after long driving will they settle down to a steady trot.

We turn our backs on the sun. It is not yet eleven o’clock; but there is the feeling of noon in the air, and it is pleasanter driving west than east. The mountains look only a few steps away; but we shall have trotted steadily toward them for one good half-hour before we shall have reached the first of the foot-hills.

Across sandy bottoms, where silvery-gray cotton-wood trees mark the courses of small brooks, through the one street of poor, desolate, mistaken, discouraged “Colorado City,” up gently climbing slopes, brown and gray and orange-tinted, and set here and there with sharp, serrated ledges of gleaming red sandstone, and we strike the line of the Fountain Creek, a dashing little amber brook, which has made brave way down the pass up which we are going. The road follows the creek, crosses it wherever it doubles, and crowds it close for room in narrow places.

Before we know that we have fairly left the plains, we find ourselves shut in by hills on either side, and in the very heart of Manitou. Manitou is a glen, a valley consisting chiefly of sides, a little fairy canyon, full of rocks and fir-trees, and the creek, and effervescing medicine springs. It holds also three hotels, a post-office, a store, a livery stable, and a few other houses. Here Grace Greenwood has built a dainty cottage, in a clematis tangle. Here Dr. Bell, an Englishman, well known in Colorado, has built a house of the pink and red stone, which blends so exquisitely with the landscape that it looks like a natural outgrowth of it. Here, ten years hence, will be dozens of villas, perched in little grassy spots on the ledges and rocky slopes. Already most of the building sites are sold,—and chiefly to Englishmen. To cross both an ocean and a continent for one’s summer home seems a brave indifference to trouble.

But even this shining little nook does not keep us this morning. We dash through it, still side by side with the creek, following and crossing and recrossing it, and in five minutes Manitou is lost to us, as the plains were just back, and we are once more walled in on either side,—this time by higher, closer, and rockier walls. This is the real entrance of the Ute Pass. The road seems leading straight into a mountain of rock. A strange hollowed niche faces us; it looks like a gigantic portal, barred and double-barred. On the left, many feet below, runs the little amber-colored creek. No, it does not run; it skips, it threads its way, it is half in, half out of sight. Between ice and snow and huge bowlders, journeying is made hard for it this morning; but wherever it is clearly in sight it is still amber and yellow and limpid, and fine red and white pebbles gleam through it like mosaics. And wherever the ice veils it the effects are yet more fantastic. We have swung round the gigantic stone portal, and are fairly in the pass. On little grassy bits of soil and in crevices of the rock, high up above our heads, fir-trees grow at perilous slants. Gray, leafless cotton-wood trees and alders, graceful with dried brown catkins on every twig, grow on the edges of the creek below. We look down through their tops in some of the steepest places. On the summits of the walls, on both sides, are magnificent masses of red and yellow and brown rock, shaped like castles, like monuments, like ruins; some most curiously mottled with black lines or vivid green lichens. But we cannot remember to look up. The creek rivets our eyes. Surely never before of a warm and sunny morning were such ice fantasies to be seen and heard. We jump from the carriage. The horses toil up the steep road. We turn from all the grandeur of the pass, and walk with downward-bent eyes, looking into a weird and shining realm. How shall they be told, the marvellous things which water and ice and sunshine are doing in the bed of the Fountain Creek on this June day of December! Ice bridges; ice arches; ice veils over little falls; rippled water-lines frozen into ice films; ice sheaths on roots and twigs; ice canopies on shelving places, with fringing rows of ice-drops rounded and tapered like bells; ice shields, round and wrought in daintier patterns than Damascus ever drew; ice colonnades, three floors deep, the stalactites all tapering to the top like masts, and the sunlight making rainbow bars on the lowest floor,—these are a few of the shapes and semblances to which words can give names. Then there were, in wider places of the brook, round capes of ice, making out into the amber water. These were scolloped on the outer edges, wonderfully like the shell-shaped fungi which grow on old trees. They were full of fine lines, following always the scollop of the outer edge, like the lines on the fungi. Sometimes there were three layers of these exquisite ice shells, all transparent, all mottled, and lined with infinite intricacy of design, and the water gliding above, below, between them, breaking now and then on their edges suddenly like a wave,—the tidal record of some other wave far up the pass.

These tidal waves made their most exquisite record on the thinner ice edges of some limpid pools further up the creek. Here they pulsed in and out with a rhythmic motion, and as each withdrawal left the ice rim perfectly transparent, the swift sunlight struck it, marking the outer edge with fine pencilled lines of flashing silver. As regular as the strokes of a metronome, and seeming almost to keep time for the melody of the bubbling water, they came and went, and came and went; amber, silver, amber, silver. No doubt there was a liquid syllable of sound to each individual curve, and there were ears finer than ours which could hear it,—the cony and the fox, perhaps, for they had been there before us. Their weird little, pattering foot-prints were all about on the snow: disappearing at entrances of rock crevices or under fallen logs, crossing and re-crossing on the ice bridges, which looked too frail to bear even a cony’s weight.

But conies are said to be a fearless folk: and well they may be who dwell in impregnable homes in the walls of the Ute Pass. There was also one tiny track of a bird. Barely a third of an inch long the foot-prints were, but as firmly defined on the feathery snow as if a pencil had drawn them but the moment before. The little creature had evidently gone to the very edge of the ice to drink. There it had slipped, and, struggling to regain a foothold, had made a tiny trampling. We dipped our drinking-cup at the same spot and drank to the health of the unknown guest before us. Magpie? blue jay? A happy new year to you! And a happy year they have of it, in these cedars and firs, with spicy juniper berries for the picking. They flit about on all the roads, as familiarly and as commonly as robins in May. The blue jay has a fine crest’on his head, and is of such a brilliant and shimmering blue, when the sun strikes him, that he looks like a bit of sky tumbled down and floating about. As for the magpie, he is so vivid a black and white that he lights up a pine-tree almost as well as an oriole can.

Now we have reached the main fall of the creek. No cony or fox has crossed here. Even the tiniest bird’s footfall would have dislodged this thin-fringed ice and snow canopy which overhangs the fall. It sways from side to side and undulates, and we look momently to see it fall; but it does not. There must be ice pillars beneath it, which we cannot see. Exactly in the centre, reaching almost down to the rushing water, hangs one pendant globule, pear-shaped, flashing like a diamond in the sun. “The solitaire of all the world!” said we; “and presently it shall be dissolved and swallowed in a foaming draught.” “And who sits at the banquet?” “The name of the queen is Nature, and he who loves is emperor always.”

These things we said, because when to midwinter at six thousand feet above the sea is added the sun of June the heads and hearts of men grow gay as by wine.

Then we crept out to the edge of a sharp rock, and there in the warm sun we sat, looking down into the huge crystal bowl into which the water had been pouring and foaming and freezing, until the frozen foam reached up half way to the top of the fall. A glorious crystal beaker it was,—solid white snow at bottom, granulated frost-work up the sides, and trestlework of stalactites around and below it, and every moment the foaming silver was building it higher and higher.

But noon is near, and the seven homeward miles will seem long. In a peculiarly narrow bend of the road, where the hind wheels graze the rock wall and our horses’ heads look off over the precipice, we turn. We are not half through the pass. For five miles more the road and the creek crowd up into the heart of the mountains; but we count those miles as misers count gains to come. Millionaires that we are, we have yet whole months of winter mornings ahead.

Now, as we descend, we see the full grandeur of the pass. Across its opening, to the southwest, stand the mighty mountains. Pikes Peak, fifteen thousand feet high, and Cameron’s Cone, only a little lower, are in full sight, and it seems that the only way out must lie through the sky over their tops. With every turn we make new mountains rise across our path and the walls on our right hand and our left seem wilder and more abrupt. Then of a sudden we swing out into the open peace and sunshine of lovely Manitou again, and home over the plains, seven miles to the hour, the June sun burning our faces and the December snow dazzling our eyes. And this is midwinter in Colorado.

Next: Grand Canyon of the ArkansasContentsPrevious: Cradle of Peace

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management