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Only from Saturday to Saturday, and I suppose the days could not have been more than twenty-four hours long; but what a week it was! Ten hours a day out under a Colorado sky; ten hours a day of Colorado mountain air; ten hours a day of ever-changing delight; beauty deepening to grandeur, grandeur softening to beauty, and beauty and grandeur together blending in pictures which no pencil, no pen can render,— pictures born only to be stamped upon hearts, never to be transferred to canvas or to page. I said that the clays could not have been more than twenty-four hours long. I spoke hastily, and am not at all sure of any thing of the kind. There is a comic story of a traveller in Colorado who, having been repeatedly misled and mystified by the marvellous discrepancies between real and apparent distances in the rarefied air, was found one day taking off his shoes and stockings to wade through a little brook, not a foot wide.
“Why, man, what are you about? Why don’t you step over?” exclaimed everybody.
He shook his head and continued his preparations for wading.
“No! no! you can’t fool me,” he exclaimed. “I shan’t be surprised if it turns out to be a quarter of a mile across this brook.”
One comes to have much the same feeling about outdoor days in Colorado. Enjoyment can be rarefied, like air, so that its measures of time grow meaningless and seem false, as do the measures of distance in the upper air. I am not in the least sure, therefore, that these days of which I write were only twenty-four hours long. I do know, however, that it was on a Saturday we set out, and on the next Saturday we came home, and that the week might be called the Holy Week of our summer.
We set out at noon from Colorado Springs. Thirty-five miles, chiefly up-hill miles, were to be driven before night. The seven hours would be none too long. As we drove through the busy streets of the little town, hearty “good-byes” and “good-times to you” came from friend after friend, on the sidewalk or in the door-ways. Not the least among the charms of the simple life in this far new West is the out-spoken interest and sympathy between neighbors. That each man knows what each other man does or is going to do becomes an offence or a pleasure according to the measures of good will involved in the curiosity and familiarity. In older communities people have crystallized into a strong indifference to each other’s affairs, which, if it were analyzed, would be found to be nine parts selfishness. In the primitive conditions of young colonies this is impossible. Helpfulness and sympathy are born of the hard-pressing common needs and the closely-linked common life. The hearty, confiding, questioning, garrulous speech of the Western American really has its source in a deep substratum of this kindly sympathy. It sounds odd and unpleasant enough, no doubt, to Eastern ears and tried by the Eastern standards of good manners; but, reflecting on it, one comes to do it a tardy justice and meet it on its own ground fairly and with honest liking. All this I thought as, driving out of Colorado Springs that Saturday noon, we passed many persons who, although they knew only one of our party, were evidently well aware that we were setting out for the mountains, waved their hands and smiled and called out: “Good-bye, good-bye. A good trip to you.” Who shall say that the influence of such cheery benedictions from friendly hearts does not last far beyond the moment in which they are spoken; does not enter into one’s good luck, by some moral chemistry subtler than any for which the material science can find analysis or formula? The world would be none the worse for believing this, at any rate, and we should all be friendlier and readier and freer in greetings.
Thirty-five miles westward and up-hill we drove that afternoon, through the lovely nestled nook of Manitou and up the grand Ute Pass. The oftener one goes through this pass, the grander it seems. There are in it no mere semblances, no delusions of atmospheric effect. It is as severely, sternly real as Gibraltar. Sunlight cannot soften it nor storms make it more frowning. High, rocky, inaccessible, its walls tower and wind and seem at every turn to close rather than to open the path through which the merry little stream comes leaping, foaming down. The rocks on either side are scarred and grooved and seamed and wrought, as if the centuries had rent asunder some giant fortress, but found slender triumph in its fall,—two fortresses being set now to guard the spot where before there had been but one. The contrast is sharp and weird between the sparkling amber and white brook, paved with shining pebbles and shaded by tangled growths of willows and clematis and tasselled festoons of wild hops, and the bare red and gray rock walls, rising hundreds and hundreds of feet, unrelieved except by straight, stern, dark, unyielding firs,—so sharp, so weird a contrast that one unconsciously invests both the brook and the rock walls above with a living personality and antagonism, and longs that the brook should escape. For a short distance the road is narrow and perilous—on strips of ledges between two precipices, or on stony rims of the crowded brook, which it crosses and recrosses twenty-four times in less than three miles. Then the Pass widens, the rocky walls sink gradually, round and expand into lovely hills—hill after hill, bearing more and more off to the right and more and more off to the left —until there is room for bits of meadow along the brook and for groves and grassy intervals where the hills join; room and at the same time shelter, for the hills are still high. And that their slopes are sunny and warm in the early spring we find record written in clumps of the waving seed-vessels of the beautiful blue wind-flower of Colorado, the Anemone patens. In April, if we had been here, we should have seen these slopes blue with the lovely cup-blossoms. Except in color, the seed-vessels are no less beautiful. Fancy a dandelion seed-globe with each one of its downy spokes expanded into a hairy plume two inches or two and a half in length, the soft gray hairs set thick on both sides the tiny centre thread, regular as on an ostrich feather and fine as the down on a butterfly’s wing. I have one before me as I write. It was over-ripe when I gathered it. The plumes had been blown and twisted by the wind, till no two are alike in their curve or direction. Yet it is still a globe; a dainty dishevelled little curly-head of a thing, by whose side the finest dandelion “blow” would look stupid and set and priggish. Out of curiosity—not idle, but reverent—I set myself to counting the plumes. They were tangled, so that it was not easy. I counted twelve springing from a pin’s-point centre. There must be a hundred or more in all. But I left off counting, for it seemed like a cruel pulling of a baby’s hair.
It was nightfall when we reached the ranch at which we were to sleep. We had climbed several divides, rising, falling, rising, falling, all in the depths of pine forests, all steadily mounting westward, toward the great grand central range; and we came out at sunset on a ridge from which we could look down into a meadow. The ridge sloped down to the meadow through a gateway made by two huge masses of rocks. All alone in the smooth grassy forest, they loomed up in the dim light, stately and straight as colossal monoliths, though they were in reality composed of rounded bowlders piled one above another. Because they are two and alone and set over against each other, men have called them The Twins. All over the world, even among the most uncultured people, we find this unconscious investiture of Nature with personality, so instinctive a tendency have sensitive hearts toward a noble and tender pantheism.
As we paused on this ridge, the western sky was filled with red sunset clouds; the western horizon was one long line of dark blue mountain peaks, seeming to uphold the red canopy of clouds. Only at the point of the sun’s sinking was there a golden tint. There two blue peaks stood sharply outlined against a vivid yellow sky; one fine line of gold, like an arch, spanned the interval and linked the peaks together. The magic bridge lasted but a second; before we had fully caught the beautiful sight, arch and yellow sea and blue peaks together were all swimming in rosy clouds.
The ranch was a cluster of log cabins. When the Colorado ranchman prospers, his log cabins multiply and grow out from and on to one another, very much as barnacles spread and congregate on a rock. At foot of a hill and spreading up on its side, such a log-cabin clump is a wonderfully picturesque sight. The irregular white plaster lines in all the crevices between the brown logs; the yellow hewn ends interlocked at the corners; the low doors, square windows, and perhaps flat roof, with grass waving on it,—altogether the picture is not unpleasing, and is beautiful compared with that of the average small frame house,—high, straight, sharp-angled, narrow-roofed, abominable. On entering, you will probably find the walls and ceiling papered with old newspapers. The ultimate intent of illustrated weeklies flashes instantly clear on one’s comprehension. They may be forgiven for existing. To the dwellers in log cabins they are priceless. I have seen in rich men’s houses far uglier wall-papers than they make, and there is endless entertainment in lying in bed of a morning and reading up and down and across your bedroom walls that sort of verse which is printed in the “Blades” and “Flags” and “Spirits” and “Times” of our Union.
When we first looked to the west the next morning the two peaks which had been blue the night before and circled by the fine line of gold were deep gray on a faint pink sky. Our road lay directly toward them. “All day we shall see.” we said, “the mystic gold arch spanning the space between them, as we saw it in yesterday’s sunset.” But we did not. Sufficient unto the day is the beauty thereof in Colorado. One does not remember nor anticipate the beauties of yesterday or tomorrow. The gold arch was forgotten before we had driven half an hour through the meadows of flowers. Great patches of brilliant fire-weed on all sides. On the road edges. rims of a fine feathery white flower, new to us all; dainty wild flax, its blue disks waving and nodding; clumps of scarlet “painter’s-brush” gleaming out like red torches in the grass; tall spikes of white and pink and scarlet gilia; and everywhere, making almost a latticed setting for the rest, mats and spikes and bushes of yellow blossoms. Six different kinds of yellow flowers we counted; but, shame to us, we knew the names of no one of them.
On a knoll in the meadows, within stone’s throw of the sluggish Platte River, yet well sheltered by wooded hills on two sides, stood a small frame house,—the house of a famous old hunter. Deer-skins and fox-skins were drying on the fences; huge elk-horns leaned against the sides of the house. As we drove slowly by, the old man came out. His hair was white and his face thickly wrinkled; but his eye was bright, clear, and twinkling with gladness and energy, like the gladness and energy of youth.
“Never go out hut what I bring home something, sir, —an antelope, if nothing more,” he said, in reply to a question as to the hunting in the neig[h]borhood. Summer and winter the old man ranges the hills and his name is well known in the markets of Denver and Colorado Springs.
Leaving the Platte meadows, we began again to climb hills to the west. Divide after divide, like those we had climbed and crossed the day before, we climbed now. Still the Great Range stood apparently as far off as ever. From the tops of all the ridges we looked off to it, and, looking backward, saw Pike’s Peak making as high and majestic a wall in the east. The hills were so alike, the distance so apparently undiminished that we began to feel as if we were in an enchantment,—living over a “Story without an find,” in which we should wander for ever in a succession of pine-covered ridges and valleys, lured on by an endlessly retreating wall of snow-topped mountains before us. But an end came; that is. an end to the pine-covered ridges. It was an end which was a beginning, however. Shall we ever forget the moment when, having climbed the highest of the pine-covered ridges, we found ourselves on a true summit at last, on the summit of the eastern wall of the great South Park.
The South Park is sixty miles long and forty wide, a majestic, mountain-walled valley; a valley eight or nine thousand feet high. Its extreme western wall is the great central range of the Rocky Mountains, but so many lesser ranges are massed and built up against this that the effect to the eye is as if there lay only mountains to the very outermost edge of the world. To the north and to the south it is the same. We looked down on this valley from near the centre of the eastern ridges. The view had the vastness of a view from a high mountain peak, mingled with the beauty of one from near hills. A great silence, like the great silence of the place, fell upon us. The scene seemed almost unreal. From our very feet to the distant western wall, forty miles away, stretched the soft, smooth, olive-gray surface of the valley, with belts and bars and flickering spaces of dark shadow of yellow sunlight playing over it. Here and there rose hills,—some wooded, some bare and of the some soft olive-gray of the valley. Some were almost high enough to be called mountains; some were low and fluted in smooth water-worn grooves These were islands when South Park was a lake. They looked hardly less like islands now, and the olive-gray plain when it was a placid sea could not have had a smoother tint or a tenderer light on its shimmering surface. The dome of the sky looked strangely vast and high. It was filled with fleecy, shifting clouds and its blue was unfathomably deep. There seemed no defined horizon to west or south or north; only a great outlying continent of mountain peaks, bounding, upholding, containing the valley, and rounding, upholding, and piercing the dome above it. There was no sound, no sight, no trace of human life. The silence, the sense of space in these Rocky Mountains solitudes cannot be expressed; neither can the peculiar atmospheric beauty be described. It is the result partly of the grand distances, partly of the rarefied air. The shapes are the shapes of the north, but the air is like the air of the tropics,—shimmering, kindling. No pictures of the Rocky Mountains which I have seen have caught it in the least. There is not a cold tint here. No dome of Constantinople or Venice, no pyramid of Egypt, ever glowed and swam in warmer light and of warmer hue than do these colossal mountains. Some mysterious secret of summer underlies and outshines their perpetual snows Perhaps it is only the ineffable secret of distance. Nowhere else in the world are there mountains fourteen and fifteen thousand feet high which have all the room they need,— great circles and semicircles of plains at their feet and slopes a half continent long!
As we drove down into the valley, the horizon peaks slowly sank; with each mile they changed place, lessened, disappeared, until only the loftiest ones remained in sight. Winding among the hills, which had looked from the summit of the valley like isolated islands, we found them sometimes linked together by long divides, which we climbed and crossed, as we had those of the valley walls. With each of these lifts came a fresh view of the myriad mountains around us. Then we sank again to the lower level, and the plain seemed again to stretch endlessly before and behind and around us. Now and then we came to small creeks, meadows, and a herdsman’s ranch; but these were miles and miles apart, and hardly broke in on the sense of solitude. Early in the afternoon storms began to gather in the horizon. In straight columns the black clouds massed and journeyed; sometimes so swiftly that the eye had to move swiftly to follow them, and the spaces of sun-light and shadow on the sky seemed wheeling in circles; sometimes spreading slowly and blotting out a third of the horizon in gray mist. All the time we were in broad hot sun, looking out from our light into their darkness. We were nearing the western wall. As we came closer, we saw that there were myriads of lovely parks making up among the wooded foot-hills. These were the inlets of the old lake days; and of their rich soil had been born exquisite groves of aspen, lying now like solid mounds of green moss on the hill-sides. Toward sunset the storm-columns thickened, blended, and swept down on all sides. Mountain after mountain and near hill after near hill were veiled in mist,—first white, then, gray, then dark blue-black. At last the last blue sky, the last clear spot surrendered. We were hemmed in completely in a great globe of rain. Drenched and dripping, but, for all that, glad of the rain—it had been such a masterly storm to see—we clashed on, turning northward and skirting the western hills, to the town of Fair Play. Fair Play is a mining town, one of the oldest in Colorado. It ought to be a beautiful village, lying as it does on a well-wooded slope at foot of grand mountains and on the Platte River. It is not. It is ill arranged, ill built, ill kept, dreary. Why cannot a mining town be clean, well-ordered, and homelike? I have never seen one such in Colorado or in California. Surely, it would seem that men getting gold first hand from Nature might have more heart and take more time to make home pleasant and healthful than men who earn their money by the ordinary slow methods.
To enter Fair Play from the south, you go down into and up out of the Platte River. The Platte River just there is an odd place. It consists of, first, a small creek of water, then a sand-bar, then a pebble tract, then an iron pipe for mining purposes, then another pebble tract, then a wooden sluice-way for mining purposes. then a sand-bar with low aspen trees on it, then a second small stream of water, and lastly a pebble tract,—each side of these a frightful precipice. To go down the first precipice, across the creeks, sand-bars, pebble tracts, pipes, and sluiceways, and up the second precipice requires, for strangers new to the ways and blinded by gales of rain, some nerve. This was the way we entered Fair Play. We shall remember it.
At sunset the rain stopped; the clouds lifted and showed us the grand summit of Mount Lincoln, which we had come to ascend.
“Up to the top of that mountain in a carriage!” we exclaimed. “It is impossible.” “It is not even difficult,” was the reply. “The road is as good a road as you have been over to-day. The steepness is the only trouble. It takes five hours to go from here, and it is only twelve miles to the summit.”
We were incredulous. Mount Lincoln was nearly fifteen thousand feet high. It rose bare, precipitously, and seemed to pierce the sky. A bank of snow lay along its upper line.
“There’s a mine just below that snowbank,” continued the astonishing tale. “The miners live in a cabin there all the year round and there are loads of ore drawn down every day over this road you are going on.” The sides of the mountain looked more and more precipitous each moment that we gazed upon them. The story must be true, but it was incredible. The road must be real, but it was terrible to think of. We dreaded the morning. And it was the morning of a day which we would gladly live over again. So false are fears in this life.
We set out early,—down into the Platte meadows; up a rift between mountains, called a valley; along the edges of pine forests; past dismal little mining settlements, where great piles of sulphur smoked lurid and yellow,—seven miles of this, with the bare, brown, terrible mountains looming up straight and near before us, and we came to the base of Mount Lincoln. Seven miles we had come in a little more than an hour. It was to take us four hours to climb the remaining five miles. No wonder, at our first turn into the mountain road, we looked at each other aghast. It seemed nearly perpendicular. It was full of stones, of bowlders; it looked like the washed-out bed of a fierce mountain torrent. The pine forest on either hand was grand and stately. We could see no longer the bare summit above us: but, looking back, we saw minute by minute, by the receding valley and the opening up of new views of hills and ravines and parks in all directions, how fast we were mounting. On all sides of us blazed enchanting color,—solid spaces of fire-weed, brilliant pink, purple and yellow and white asters, and blue harebells by tens of thousands; green grassy nooks under the pine trees were filled or bordered or clotted with the gay blossoms. The contrast between these and the devastated gully in which we were climbing seemed inexplicable. The horses’ sides heaved like billows and their breathing was loud. Every two minutes they must stop to recover breath. Only the strongest brakes could hold the carriage in its place. “This is nothing,” said Jack, the driver. “I don’t mind any thing about it below timber line.”
Neither did we after we had been above timber line. That was some three thousand feet below the summit. Just there stood a group of cabins—the cabins and stables of the muleteers who work for the mines.
“You’ll never get up with them hosses,” called out one of the mule-drivers, as we passed.
Jack received the taunt in contemptuous silence.
“I hain’t never been by here yet without some o’ them fellers tellin’ me I couldn’t get up,” said he. “They think there can’t nothin’ go up this mountain except a mule.”
“Well, when we come down all safe you can ask them which knew best,” said I.
“No, I don’t never say nothin’ to ’em,” replied Jack; “for as like as not some day I shan’t get up, and then they’ll fling it up at me. I’m the only fellow in our stable but what has had his bosses give out on this road.”
We were out, fairly out on the bald, bare, blistering mountain,—on Mount Bross, which we must nearly cross to reach Mount Lincoln. The mountains, instead of being sheer solid rock. as we had supposed, looking at them from below, were simply piles, giant piles of fine-broken stone, broken into sharp, fine fragments, as if it had been crushed in a rolling mill,—not a single smooth roadstone among them, and so little sand or gravel or soil of any kind that it seemed a marvel how the great mass was held together; why strong winds did not blow it gradually away in showers of stones; why it was not perpetually rolling down; how it could possibly be tunnelled or driven over.
“There’s the road,” said Jack, pointing up to a dim zigzag line of a little lighter color than the rest of the mountain. “That’s the worst place,” indicating what looked like a track on which there had been a slide some day. “I shan’t refuse anybody that likes to get out and walk there.”
It was indeed fearful. Nothing but the grandeur of the off-look into space could have held our terror in check. That and the blue of the bluebells all around us in great masses, making solid color as a cloverfield has. There they stood, the dainty, frail, beloved blue-bells, hugging the ground for safety; none of them more than three or four inches high, but clear, shining, and lovely as those which waved on the shady terraces below. Blue-bells twelve thousand feet above the sea, and they were not alone. There were dozens of other low flowers, which we knew not,—blue, white, lavender, and pink,—all keeping close to the ground, like mosses, but all perfect of form and tint. These comforted us. When for very dizziness we could not look up or off, we looked down to the ground, and there secure, content little faces reassured us.
The road wound and doubled, making occasional vertical thrusts upward. It seemed to have been made by pushing down the loose stones, bracing them and packing them a little tighter; that was all. Again and again we saw ahead of us what we supposed to be the road, and it proved to be only an accidental depression or projection in the mountain side. The horses could go only about twice or three times the carriage length at a time. Then, gasping and puffing, they stopped and rested five or six minutes. It seemed to me cruel to compel them to draw us. I jumped out and announced my intention of walking. A very few steps showed me that it was out of my power. Each step that I took seemed to resound in my head. I could not breathe. I was dizzy. My forehead seemed bursting from the pressure of the surging blood.
“Shade of Henry Bergh!” I exclaimed. “Couldst thou be humane at thirteen thousand feet above the sea? I cannot.” And at the end of the first rod I called piteously to Jack that I must be taken into the carriage again. Two-thirds of the way up Mount Bross were several small cabins, projecting like odd-shaped rocks from the side of the mountain. Places for these also had apparently been scooped out among the fine rolling stones. This was the “Dolly Varden” Mine. Some of the miners stood in the cabin-doors as we passed. I gazed at them earnestly, expecting to see them look like sons of gnomes of the upper and lower air; but their faces were fresh, healthful, and kindly. A little further along Jack exclaimed:—
“We’re riding over the Moose Mine now. There’s tunnels right under us here that you could drive a four-hoss team through.” Looking cautiously over the edge of the precipice to the right, we could see the roofs of the cabins many feet below us, and in a few moments we passed the road leading down to them. It was just such a road as we were on, and we could still see nothing but loose stone above, below, around. Mysterious mountain! Apparently a gigantic pile of tiny, rolling bits of stone, and yet mined and tunnelled and counter-tunnelled, and full of silver from top to bottom.
The road wound around the northern face of Mount Bross and then came out on a narrow ridge or saddle connecting Mount Bross to Mount Lincoln. This was perhaps the grandest point of all. To the north we looked up Mount Lincoln, a thousand feet above us; to the east we looked off and clown to the river level, over and through and between myriads of sharp peaks and unfathomable gorges, and beyond these off to a horizon of mountains. To the west also we looked down into a confusion of peaks and ridges wedged between canyons; and just below us lay a small lake, so smooth, so dark it looked like a huge steel shield flung into the chasm.
As we ascended the last few hundred feet of Mount Lincoln a fierce wind blew in our faces. It seemed as if to such a wind it would be a trifling thing to whisk our carriage and us off the narrow ledge of road. Very welcome was the roaring fire in the cabin of the “Present Help” Mine at the summit, and very significant seemed the name of the mine.
Nothing in the mining country is odder than the names of the mines. They are as indicative of parentage as are the names of men and women; and, over-hearing them in familiar conversations, one is often much bewildered. Once on a hotel piazza I overheard the following sentences:—
“He’s sold out i’ the Moore and bought into the Moskeeter; ’n he’s got suthin’ in Hiawatha, too.”
“Well, I think Buckskin Joe’s pretty good, don’t you?” replied the listener.
The cabin was, like those of the Dolly Varden Mine, below, built against the side of the mountain, in a spot apparently scooped out of the stones. From its front was a transcendent off-look to the south and east. Its door was perhaps three feet from the edge of a sheer precipice. Hundreds and, for aught I know, thousands of feet down would that man fall who made a misstep; and yet the men went back and forth swiftly, and jostled the mules carelessly to one side if they happened to wander in there. We, however, crept slowly around the cabin corner, holding by the logs, and did not venture to look off until we were fairly in the doorway.
The cook was a cheery fellow, with a fine head and laughing brown eyes. He was kneading bread. His tin pans shone like a dairymaid’s. The cabin was by no means a comfortless place. One wide, long bench for table; a narrow one for chairs; tin cups, tin pans, black knives and forks,—we borrowed them all. The cook made delicious coffee for us and we took our lunch with as good relish as if we had been born miners. The men’s beds were in tiers of bunks on two sides of the cabin, much wider and more comfortable than stateroom berths in steamers. In each berth was a small wooden box, nailed on the wall, for a sort of cupboard or bureau drawer. In these lay the Sunday clothes, white shirts, and so forth, neatly folded. There were newspapers lying about, and when I asked the cook if he liked living there, he answered: “Oh, yes! very well. We have a mail once a week.” A reply which at once revealed the man and was significant of the age in which he lived.
There were still two hundred feet of Mount Lincoln to be climbed. The little cabin had seemed to be but a step below the summit-line; but now we looked up to two sharp pyramids of stones above us. Up to the first point, over fine, sharp bits of stone, which slipped and rolled under our feet at every step, we crawled; up to the second, over great bowlders, piled and poised and tipped on each other, we scrambled and leaped, and sunk down at the foot of the flag-staff. We were literally on the apex point of the continent! Here, on the one hand, were the head-waters of the Arkansas River, going south; on the other, the head-waters of the Platte, going east; and just across a small divide, almost within a stone’s throw, the headwaters of the Grande, going west to the Pacific. Well did the old Spaniards name this central range “Sierra Madre”—“Mother Mountains.” It is said that the view from this peak has a radius of over a hundred and fifty miles. It would be easy to believe it greater. Fancy such a radius as this sweeping slowly around a horizon circle of lofty peaks, and the entire space from the outer horizon to the central summit tilled with great mountain ranges and their intervening parks and valleys. The great South Park, a days journey wide, was a hand’s-breadth now of soft olive-gray, its wooded ridges and hills making clots of dark color; vet its tint and its outline were as distinct as when seen from its near wall.
As we looked clown on the narrow chains and into the closer chasms, it seemed as if this great giant pyramid on which we stood must hold, in some mysterious way, in its secret chambers, the threads of all the other ranges, as if they centred in it, radiated out from it, circled around it, in an intricate bond, like that by which the spider-web is spun and swung. The near peaks and ridges were bare, stony, sharp. Their chasms looked unfathomable; like ghastly seams cloven to the earth’s very centre. Among these, to the north, were two silent, black, gleaming lakes. From these nearer peaks the eye journeyed downward, with a sense of relief, to wooded ranges, intervals of sunny valley; and then outward, in the vast circle, to mountains with snowy tops; and at last to mountains in the furthest horizon, blue, dim, and unreal,—mountains of which one could unquestioningly believe that they were not of this world, but of some other,—parapets of some far planet, on which at that moment beings of an unknown race might be standing and looking off across the great space wonderingly at us.
Who knows that among the “things prepared” there may not be this: that, we being set free from all hindrances of space, as well as from those of time, there will be recognition, converse from planet to planet, the universe round, as quick and complete as there is now from face to face within hand’s reach. On such heights as this one sees clearly, and feels a million times more clearly than he sees, that this glorious world could never have been fashioned solely for the uses of our present helplessness. Deeper than the secret stores of gold and silver and gems with which these great untouched mountains are filled, there lies in them a secret, a prophecy of life to come, into which they shall enter and of which we shall be triumphant possessors.
With brakes clinched, wheels tied, and teeth set, we grazed, twisted, slid down the mountain; none too soon, for a storm was gathering in the west, which gave us a hard race down the valley and across the river meadows. But we came in ahead at sunset, and were warming our hands over a big fire in the Fair Play Hotel when it burst in avalanches of cold rain.
“This is snow on the mountains,” said the landlord. Sure enough. Next morning all the upper peaks were solid white,—so white that it was hard to see where snow left off and clouds began. As we looked back and up from the bed of the Platte at the majestic shining pyramids and cones, we doubted our memories of the day before. As well tell us we had been caught up into the skies.
We were a very glad party that morning. We were setting our faces toward an unanticipated pleasure; more than that, toward a pleasure we had longed for but had unwillingly abandoned all hope of. We were setting out for the Twin Lakes. We owed this to Jack. Jack was a reticent fellow. A hasty observer might have thought his face a sullen one; but there were fine lines around the corners of his eyes which meant good, and a smile now and then which showed a sensitive nature. He had led a wild life. He had been a stage-driver in Mexico; had spent whole winters trapping on the shores of Itaska Lake; had fought Indians everywhere; and just now was lying by in inglorious quiet in a Fair Play livery stable. Before he had been long with us on the mountain, he knew what we liked. The first remark which betrayed his discriminating observation was called out by our enthusiastic ejaculations about the flowers. Without turning his head and speaking low, as if in a soliloquy, he said: “There’s great differences in folks about noticin’ things.”
Have we the tutor of Sandford and Merton for a driver? thought I, and I smothered a laugh as I said: “Yes. indeed. Jack. But what reminded you of that?”
“I was a-thinkin’ of the two people I drove up here day before yesterday. I never heard ’em say one word from first to last about any thin’ they see; an’ they wanted to turn right round an’ come straight down ’s soon ’s they got up. I don’t know what such folks ’s them takes the trouble to travel round for. I s’pose it’s just for the name on’t,—to say they’ve done it.”
The words give no idea of the drollery and contemptuousness of his manner. We could hardly reply for laughing.
Oh! Jack, didn’t they even notice the flowers?” we said.
“Don’t believe they’d have said there was a flower on the road,” replied Jack. “All they see was the stones and the steep places. The man, he swore at ’em.”
“But there ain’t nothin’ that you’ll see to-day,” he continued, “which is ’s handsome, to my way o’ thinkin’, ’s the Twin Lakes. You’re goin’ there, ain’t you?”
“No, Jack,” we said. “We can’t take the time to go there.”
Jack’s countenance fell.
“Can’t you?” he said. “I’d like first-rate to have you see them lakes. They’re the nicest things in this country.”
Again and again in the course of the day he alluded to them. It evidently went sorely against him that we should not see those lakes.
“You like flowers so much,” he said. “You hain’t seen any flowers yet to what you’ll see there, an’ there ain’t no kind of difficulty in gettin’ to the Twin Lakes. It’s a plain road from Fair Play.”
“Yes, Jack,” we said; “but it is two days’ journey, and we can’t spend so much time.”
Jack fairly sprang round on his seat, and, facing us, exclaimed:—
“Who’s been a-tellin’ you it was two days’ journey? It’s only thirty-five miles straight across the range. You’ll do it easy in one day.”
And so, all by reason of Jack’s having noticed the “differences in people about noticin’ things,” we set off on the fourth morning of our Holy Week for the Twin Lakes.
“Jack,” said I, as we were climbing up out of the Platte River, “what is the reason you like the Twin Lakes so much?”
An awkward, half-shamefaced look flickered over Jack’s features, as if I had asked him some question about his sweetheart.
“I don’t know,” he said, hesitatingly. “I reckon it’s because its such a lonely-lookin’ kind o’ place. I hain’t been there but once.” There was a strange mixture of the hermit and the adventurer in our Jack. We liked journeying in his company.
We were out once more in the great, grand South Park. It was glorious under the morning light. Its broad stretches shone silver-gray, and its myriad-mountained wall was blue in the south and in the east and in the west snow-topped. We drove a few miles south-ward, then turned sharply to the west, and followed a grassy road into one of the many lovely valleys which we had seen two days before, making up like inlets between the foot-hills of the western wall of the Park. This wall we were to cross. Its multiplying and towering crests looked impassable; but we had learned the marvel of the secret windings of mountain passes, and a messenger had already met us,—a messenger white with haste, so fast had he come down and out.
By the same road we would go up and in, and so across. Almost immediately the valley narrowed. The creek, the messenger, became a foaming brook and the road clung to its bank. It was thick set with willows, bush-maples, and alders. Their branches brushed into our faces, they grew so close; flowers burst into our sight like magic on all sides,—fireweed, harebells, painter’s-brush, larkspur, asters of all colors and superbly full and large. It was a fairy garden. The grass was green,—real, perfect green grass, the first, the only true green grass I have ever seen in Colorado. Except for the towering and stony walls above our heads and for the fiery scarlet of the painter’s-brush and the tall spikes of larkspur, I could have fancied myself in a wild thicketed cave in Vermont. The green grass ran up in lovely spaces under the pines and firs; the air was almost overladen with fragrance; white butterflies wheeled and circled above us and then flew on ahead; the road was set, literally set, thick with borders of lavender, gray, purple, white, and yellow asters. Even down the middle of the road they grew,— not only asters, but harebells; under the horses’ feet, safe, untouched, in the narrow central strip of grass, lifted high between the two trodden furrows.
The rocky walls narrowed and still narrowed; we were at bottom of a chasm. Then imperceptibly our road would rise, its borders widen, and we would find ourselves on a narrow divide, with deep ravines on either hand. I am at utter loss to describe how these Rocky Mountain ridges underlie, overlie, cross, and swallow up each other. They remind me of nothing but masses of colossal crystals, so sharp their edges, so straight their sides, so endless their intersections. They are gigantic wedges driven into the mountains and each other, and piled up again in tiers, making mountains upon mountains. The ravines between them seem to have been cloven by them, as an axe cleaves wood and remains fast in the rift it has made.
Over and on and up and down these wedged ridges, through unvarying pine and fir forests and through ever-varying flower-beds, we slowly climbed the range. At last the pines and firs stopped. We were eleven thousand feet high. The bare ridge on which we were, tapered to a point before us and disappeared in the side of a stony peak. A small dark lake lay in the hollow just below their intersection. A sharp wind blew from the left; we were at the top. We looked over into another ravine. A dark wooded mountain shut across it like a gate; between us and it were a bit of meadow and a little stream.
After these, the ravine narrowed again and the road grew steep and rocky,—very steep and very rocky. Through a very carnival of bowlders, fallen pines, drift-wood, and foaming water we descended. Soon, through a grand rock gateway, we saw the valley of the Arkansas, olive-gray, with meandering lines of solid green marking the river course, and with strange and exquisitely beautiful terraces in it, rising abruptly and in detached curves,—the record of changing water-lines in the ancient days. As we reached the edge of the valley, we saw a faint track leading off to the left.
“Ah!” said Jack. “Here’s the short cut.” And he turned into it.
“What short cut?” said I, being by nature and by experience distrustful of short cuts to any thing.
“There’s a short cut through here clown to the river, that saves four miles. So McLaughlin said. He’s been through here. It don’t look much worn, though; that’s a fact,” said Jack, as we drove into the meadow grass.
Zigzagging around that meadow, now in now out of sight, over boggy places and round hillocks, led that “short cut.” We were in no danger of losing our way, for there lay the Arkansas meadows in full sight; but the road seemed to be making no special headway toward them. The question was about the ford. Should we hit it? Presently we came out into a travelled road and in full sight of the Arkansas River; that is, of several tortuous lines of alders and willows in a bright green meadow. Not a gleam of water to be seen. Neither did our short cut in any wise cross this travelled road, which ran parallel with the river. There was no suggestion of a track leading down to the river at this point. Slowly we drove up and down that road, peering into the grass on its river side for sign or trail of a road leading to a ford. There was none. At last, jack, giving the horses a revengeful stroke, as if they had suggested the short cut. poor things! drove rapidly up the road, saying: “Well, I reckon we’ll save time to drive up to the ford I know, four miles up the road.”
“So much for short cuts, Jack. They never turn out well,” said I, as we passed the point where the road we had forsaken joined the one we were on. It would have brought us to the ford an hour sooner.
After the ford, six miles down-stream again, through the luscious meadow grass, in which cows grazed ankle-deep. The mountains we had crossed stood bare and red in the east, the mountains we were still to enter stood soft and blue in the west,—two high ranges, and the Arkansas River and its meadows between; and yet we were in that very world of near peaks and ravines and ridges upon which we had looked down from Mount Lincoln the day before. We had thought it all mountains. Yet here in one of those chasms, which had looked to us like nothing more than clefts, there was room for a river, and river meadows, homesteads, and herds.
The sun was so low that he cast huge profiles of shadow on all the northern slopes of the western mountains, as we turned toward them. Once more to the right, once more into a grassy valley making up between the foot-hills; soft, round, covered only with low grass and a pale bluish shrub, they fairly shimmered in their ghostly gray as the twilight settled on them. One, two, three, tour, five we climbed, and seemed to get no nearer the mountains. “I’d forgotten there were so many of these hills,” said Jack. “You’ll see the lakes after the next one, sure.” But we did not; nor after the next, nor the next. At last the sight came,—beautiful enough to have been waited for. Before us a line of high, sharp peaks, dark blue nearly to the top, their summits just touched by the red sunset-light. They seemed to curve westward and to curv[e]s eastward till they met the terraced line of hills on which we stood. At their feet and at ours lay the two lakes,—dark, motionless, shining, stretching close to the mountain bases on all sides, and linked to each other by a narrow neck of green land, across which a line of green bushes stretched, looking like a second band set to strengthen or to adorn the first. Afterward we saw that it was a closer link than we dreamed; for beneath the line of green bushes runs a little creek, mingling the waters of the upper and the lower lake perpetually.
Jack turned and looked at us in silence.
“Yes, you were right, Jack,” we said. “It is more beautiful than any thing we saw yesterday, and it is a very lonely-looking kind of place.”
Not so lonely as we could have wished, however, when we drove down the steep hills to the Log Cabin Hotel, where we must sleep. People walking about, white-covered camp-wagons, high-topped buggies, all told us that we were too late on the list of arrivals.
“Indeed, I can’t,—not to make you anyways comfortable,” was the landlady’s honest answer when we appeared at her door, saying: “Here we four are, and must stay. Can you take care of us?” It wasn’t so bad as it might have been, that wind-swept, fluttering room in which we went to bed that night, bounded to west by a chinky log wall, to north by an open window, to east and south by a scant calico curtain, which parted, but did not sever us from the dining-room. Colorado travellers have often fared worse, no doubt; but, taking all things into account, we thought it an odd coincidence that over at the head of one very unrestful bed there should have been pasted a leaf of “The Overland Monthly,” containing the first stanzas of an “Ode to Pain.” Never shall I cease to regret that we were so stupefied by lack of sleep and by the repeated alarms at the fluttering calico curtain that we omitted to copy that “Ode to Pain.” The pattern of the calico of the calico curtain I recollect perfectly,—it is stamped on my brain for ever; but not a line of the Ode can I recall.
All the next morning we sat under a pine-tree on the northern shore of the lakes and looked out upon them. Marvellous, lovely twins! Ten thousand feet above the sea and thousands of miles away from it, they held all its charm and none of its sadness. The soft waves lapped on the shore with a sound as gentle as the sigh of pines, and the water was clear as crystal sixty feet down. They were seas, translated, glorified, come to their spiritual resurrection, and wedded to each other for all eternity. The lower lake is about three miles in length; the upper one only half as long. They are not more than a mile and a half wide. But when you sit on the shore, and see the great mountains’ full height and the dome of the sky reflected in them as in a glass, and reaching only half way across, they seem much wider. The mountains are wooded half way up. The green line of firs and pines and aspens reproduces on the mountain side exactly the line which the summits make against the sky. This beautiful, jagged summit line, therefore, is three times mapped in the beautiful picture,—mapped first in red against the blue sky, then in green on the mountain side, and then red and green outlines both are mapped again together on the dark amber of the lake. The picture seemed to be drawn by a trembling hand. At the slightest breeze on the surface it quivered and was effaced, but returned in an instant again if the breeze died down. As we drove away in the early afternoon, along the terraced hills on the northern shore, the lakes were motionless, and dark blue as tempered steel, and the picture of the wooded mountains stretched across the shining surface in lines as fine and distinct as Damascus ever graved on her magic metal for blade or shield.
We followed the lake outlet down toward the Arkansas meadows again, over more of the soft, sage-gray hills, past deserted mining villages where grass grew high round blackened hearthstones, and past villages where men are still mining for gold, down, down as fast as the creek into the fertile bottom-lands. The Arkansas here is narrow, and doubles on itself perpetually, as if it sought to baffle some pursuer. Its meadow at this point is a delicious bit of color. First the curving lines of willows and cottonwoods, dark green; then the rank meadow grass, bright yellow-green; then the foot-hill slopes of the exquisite gray-green, paling to silver-gray at top, and with the red soil gleaming through everywhere; then the dark, wooded slopes of the mountains, reaching up to ten or eleven thousand feet, and above those the bare peaks, gray, or red, or blue, or purple, according to the day and the hour. Again and again I wonder at the ineffable loveliness of the soft tints in this stern-visaged country. Again and again I long for an artist to come who can seize the secret of their tenderness, the bloom of their beauty. The meadow grew less and less,—from fields to narrow strips, from strips to fringes it diminished, and the mountains came closer and closer. On every side of us were weird and fantastic rocks, shaped in all manner of semblances, so distorted, so uncouth, so significant of ages of violence, that they were almost fearful. At sunset we looked out to the mouth of this canyon on a scene bewilderingly beautiful. No mirage in the desert ever played a more fantastic trick upon traveller’s eyes than did the sweet light and mist slanting over the distance beyond the mouth of the canyon. Against the southern sky rose one of the highest mountain ranges, its summit-line majestically cut into square buttress shapes in the centre, and in slowly lowering peaks and undulations to ri.;ht and left. It was two-thirds in shadow,—deep, dark blue,—the upper third so bathed in light that the clouds floating above it seemed part of it, and we disputed with each other hotly as to where the real crests of the mountains were. At foot of this range, bathed in a golden light and yet misty and pale blue in parts, there lay what seemed to be a great city of Oriental architecture. Domes and minarets and towers and roofs,—nothing could be plainer. The light streamed in among them; the beams lay in dusty gold aslant across them; shining spots here and there looked like the kindling reflections of sunlight on glass surfaces. What could it be? No city, certainly. It was into the wilderness we gazed, but what did the shapes mean? They were far too solid to be mere atmospheric effects, optical illusions. As well as if we were touching their foundations, we knew that they were solid, real. Behind us the western sky was one sheet of gold. Floating crimson clouds hung low over the near mountains, and the east was clear blue. Slowly the city sank into shadow. Even after it was wrapped in gray, the domes and the minarets and the towers remained. It was a city still. And we drove down into the valley almost believing that some strange chance had brought us to that height at the exact moment when the sun’s rays had revealed some unknown ruins in a hollow of the great hills.
There could hardly be a sharper contrast than that from the gorgeous color and fairy-like spectacle on which we had been feasting at top of the hill, to the dank, dark hollow into which a few moments brought us,—to the low, flat-roofed cabins, and the sad, worn face of the woman who stood in their doorway.
The cabins were built close to the bank of the river. Hills to the north and to the south shut in all the dampness and shut out hoursful of sun. There was a heavy and ill-odored moisture in the air, such as I had not supposed could exist in Colorado. I shuddered at the thought that we must sleep in it.
In reply to the question whether she could take care of us for the night, the sad-faced woman answered:—
“I’ll do the best I can.”
The expression of her face made my heart ache. She looked ill, hopeless; every feature showed refinement, and her voice and her words were those of an educated woman.
“I am sure you are from the East,” I said to her. The tears filled her eyes instantly.
“Yes, I am from New York State,” she said, and turned away.
Before night we knew her whole story. It seemed to be a relief to her to tell it to us. She had been a school teacher in western New York. Of delicate fibre physically, and of an unusually fine and sensitive mental organization, she was as unfitted for life in the Colorado wildernesses as a woman could well be. Yet she had borne up under it bravely until the last three years, when ill health had been added to her other burdens. Within the last month, two of her three children had died, and this last blow had broken her heart. One had died of scarlet fever, and the other, she said, “of this dreadful new disease that the doctors don’t know much about,—the cerebro-spinal meningitis, they call it, or some such name.”
Poor babies! No wonder, living in that damp hollow, with the river miasms, if there were any, shut in and kept over from night to night in the low-roofed cabin!
The remaining child, a little boy of six or eight, looked very pale and lifeless. He too had had the fever. It would have seemed cruel to say to that helpless mother, “The only chance for healthful life for him and for you is a new house on some sunny hillside.” Yet I yearned to say it. It will be long before I forget that sad little home on the Arkansas.
The next morning—our sixth morning—we set out early on our homeward way. A few miles brought us to the magic city of the night before. The marvel was not so strange. Here were hills, upon hills,—sharp, rounded, crowded, piled with rocks, which even by day bore almost the shapes they had shown to us by night, —pinnacles, buttresses, terraces, towers, with sharp-pointed firs growing among them. It was indeed a city —a silent, tenantless city—which reminded me of some of the stories I read in my childhood of Edom and Petraea. We were in the canyon still, but it was fast widening and bearing to the right. The way of the Arkansas River lay south, and we could follow it no longer. We must turn northward and climb the range again. We had lost many hundred feet of elevation in coming down this easier way by the river’s road. Five hours of good climbing did it. Over divide after divide, as we had so many times climbed before; under the pines and among the flowers and out on the bare ridges at top; then down, miles down, into the grand, steadfast, reposeful plain of the park. We were a half day’s journey now to the south of Fair Play and our road skirted the western wall of the park. We looked up into all the lovely valleys, thrusting their arms into the forest slopes of the mountains. They were alike and not alike,—all green and smooth and creek-fed, but no two of the same outline, no two of the same depth, any more than any two of the inlets on a fretted seashore. A night at Fair Play again, and then we retraced, our road of the first two days,—eastward, instead of westward, across the park; eastward over the mountains and through the passes, and at sunset of the eighth day down into our own beloved plains. The first glimpse of their immeasurable distance was grander than all we had journeyed to see.
Their mystic vanishing line, where earth and sky seem one, only because eyes are too weak to longer follow their eternal curves, always strikes upon my sight as I think there would fall upon the ear the opening perfect chord of some celestial symphony,—a celestial symphony which we must for ever strain to hear, must for ever know to be resounding just beyond our sense, luring our very souls out of this life into the next, from earth to heaven.
Only, as I said, from a Saturday to a Saturday. But what a week it had been,—the Holy Week of our summer!
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