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


THE CRADLE OF PEACE.

Only half of this name is my own. I wish I could honestly claim the whole; but the sweetest word in it was the thought of the man who had known and loved the spot years before I saw it. I, coming later and perhaps more tired, saw that the air of the land was peace; but all honor to him who first saw and said that it lay in the shape of a cradle. Men going before had called it a park; and one who for some years fed herds on its meadows, had given it his own name, “Bergun.” By this name alone it will be found recorded in the books which guide travellers; but much I mistake if any traveller, having once slept and waked in it, will from that day call it by any other name than ours,— “The Cradle of Peace.”

A giant cradle, indeed,—nine miles long and three wide; Pike’s Peak for its foot and a range of battlemented mountains for its head; lying, as it should, due north and south, with high sides sloping up to the east and up to the west to meet the gracious canopy of sky. In the old, mysterious days of which men think they know, when every thing was something quite different from what it is to-day, all these Rocky Mountain parks were lakes, it is said.

Looking down on and into the Cradle of Peace from the high hills of its sides, one easily believes this, but says to himself that the beauty of the primeval lake was only the beauty of a promise. To-day is the fulfilment. They are born by the baptism of water,—this meadow, these grassy slopes, these pine forests; it was that they might be, that the lake was set and ebbed away.

All that is left of it now is a tiny, nameless creek, which zigzags along in the meadow-bottom, revealed by the very willows and alders it has lifted to hide itself; revealed also by the bright green of the rich growths on either hand; just water enough in the creek to make the cradle safe and prosperous for a home; just green enough in the meadow strip to light up the soft brown and yellow slopes above, and the dark pines still further above, into an enchanting picture. This is what the ancient lake does for the park to-day, giving it a secret of vitality and an inherited fairness, as does some unknown and unthanked old ancestor far back in the line of a noble house.

I rested three days in the Cradle of Peace. Each moment of each day was brimful of delights to sense and soul; each hour has left me a vivid picture, yet words come slow as I seek to set those pictures in frames of speech. Only he who sees can ever know how surpassingly beautiful is this mountain-walled, pine-walled valley, swung in the air.

On its western side the slopes rise gently to the forest-line. They are grass-grown,—chiefly with the “tuft-grass,” which is in July silvery white, and curled in thick mats at the base, with a few slender, brown stalks rising three or four inches high. This gives to the whole surface a uniform tint of indescribable softness, as if a miraculous hoar-frost had fallen, of a pale, brownish-yellow. Sometimes these slopes are broken abruptly by sandy cliffs,—their fronts bright red, of the red sandstone color, and their lines curving as only water-worn cliffs can curve. Looking down the whole length of the park, the forest-line on these western slopes seems nearly straight and unbroken. Driving along it, one finds that it is a series of promontories of pines, making out into the smooth, grassy level; or, perhaps one ought the rather to say, remembering the days of the ancient lake, that the smooth, grassy level makes up in inlets into the forest. Be it called inlet of smooth, grassy surface, or promontory of pine, inlet and promontory together make, along the whole western side of the park, a succession of sunny-centred, pine-shadowed, miniature half-parks of wonderful beauty. They round into the forest-like coves, they open out on the great park like mouths of rivers. After all, is it the spell of the ancient lake, that the water must still lend all the shapes whose names will fit to the shapes of these nooks in the western forest-edge of the Cradle of Peace? Some of them, as I said, are narrow, and round into the forest like coves; some of them are acres broad, and have in their centres a thread of brook, tinkling slowly down under a green meadow cover to the creek below. In some of them stand, lonely, bare, inexplicable, great rocks of red sandstone, grooved and rounded and hollowed and smoothed, poised one above another, as if only yesterday the waves had lodged them there; or standing erect, solitary, like single pillars of temples swept away. Nothing could be more weird than these huge, strange-shaped rocks, standing isolated in the pine forests; not a small stone, not a tiny pebble at their base,—only the smooth, grassy spaces and the silent forest about them. No ruin I have ever seen of cities of men’s building seemed so solemn, so mysterious, so significant of centuries. On the eastern side of the park, the grassy slopes are very soon broken up into hills. First low, rounding foot-hills, whose lines are only undulations; next higher hills and steeper, but still gentle of curve, and linked each to each by soft, grass-grown hollows; lastly sharp, rocky peaks, separated by deep and difficult ravines. Over all these hills and to the top of the highest peaks grow the same stately pines which make the forest-walls of the western side of the park. The ground is covered many layers thick with the pine-needles, and in a sunny forenoon the air is almost overpoweringly spicy with the pine fragrance. Rambling south or north, one goes from hill-top to hill-top through a succession of dells, no two dells alike and each dell hard to leave; some sudden, narrow, with sides so straight that one might slip swiftly to the bottom and lie as in a hammock; some broader and more open, but still with sides so straight that, climbing up them, one sees the blue sky brought into a marvellously close horizon-line on the upper edge; some filled full of young, waving pines; some with a narrow, water-worn gully in the centre, where water runs in spring, and in summer bloom white spiraeas, blue and purple penstemons, harebells, crowfoot, and the huge white thistles, beloved of butterflies: some, almost the most beautiful of all, without either pines or flowers, only the soft, white yellow, and brown and white grasses, with here and there glossy green mats of kinnikinnick,—dainty, sturdy, indefatigable kinnikinnick. How shall kinnikinnick be told to them who know it not? To a New Englander it might be said that a whortleberry-bush changed its mind one day and decided to be a vine, with leaves as glossy as laurel, bells pink-striped and sweet like the arbutus, and berries in clusters and of scarlet instead of black. The Indians call it kinnikinnick, and smoke it in their pipes. White men call it bear-berry, I believe; and there is a Latin name for it, no doubt, in the books. But kinnikinnick is the best,—dainty, sturdy, indefatigable kinnikinnick, green and glossy all the year round, lovely at Christmas and lovely among flowers at mid-summer, as content and thrifty on bare, rocky hillsides as in grassy nooks, growing in long, trailing wreaths, five feet long, or in tangled mats, five feet across, as the rock or the valley may need, and living bravely for many weeks without water, to make a house beautiful. I doubt if there be in the world a vine I should hold so precious, indoors and out.

Climbing a little higher, following one of the grassy hill-top lines, as it curves into the forest, you come here and there to small level opens, some so surrounded by pines that you see no vistas, no glimpses of the park, no distance,—only a grassy field, walled high with green and roofed with blue. Some, less shut in, from which you look off in all directions through vistas framed by yellow pine timbers,—now a vista of sky and cloud, now a distant mountain, now a bit of the shining meadow below. A step to right, to left, the vista is changed and the picture new. A forenoon flies like an hour in these sunny forest chambers, with new birds, new insects, new sounds, new sights on every hand. There is a locust in these woods who on the wing is yellow as a butterfly, on the ground is mottled brown and white, like a rattlesnake. His rattle is like castanets, and so loud that when he springs it suddenly under your feet you start as if you had stumbled over “bones” at a negro concert. There are golden-winged woodpeckers and black and white woodpeckers, and yellow birds, and orioles, and multitudes of sparrows; not singly and far apart, like the terrified survivors in civilized woods, but in numbers, at ease and unconcerned, at home in their wilderness. There are tiny sparrows, no larger than the rice-birds we see in cages. These fly in flocks and spend hours at a time in one tree. I watched a pine-tree full of them one morning. There must have been dozens: yet never was there even one still for one second. The tree itself seemed all a-flutter,—dusky backs, snowy breasts, green pine-needles, and yellow branches in a swift kaleidoscope of shifting shape and color.

Now and then a great hawk soars out noiselessly from a tree-top near by, and, circling a few times overhead, sinks back again into the pines, so close to you that you fancy you hear the branches open with a soft plash like waves. Squirrels dart back and forth, not even looking at you, and run races and fight fights in the branches of a fallen pine, almost within your hand’s reach. When the yellow pine dies and stands still erect, it is a weird thing to see. It looks like a ship’s mast, with huge grape-vine tangles fastened to it at right angles. If it falls, it looks still ghastlier,—like some giant lizard, its body stiffened straight in death and its myriad limbs convulsed and cramped in agony. My thoughts linger on these memories of the sounds and sights of those sunny out-door chambers, as my feet lingered, walking through them. But there are higher levels yet and an outlook to come; an outlook all the more beautiful, all the more thrilling, because you reach it by the way of the dells and the walled spaces and the near horizons of the wooded foot-hills.

Following the line of some tiny brook, which has ambushed in willows and alders, you will come up and out among the higher peaks, the deep ravines. It is hard scrambling, but well worth while. Each lift to a new ridge-line opens up more and more, until, standing finally on the third or fourth terrace level, you can look fairly over to the west and up to the north and down into the park. Now you see to perfection the sunny inlet spaces in the forest on the western slope, the tender outreaching promontories of pines, and the bright-tinted belts and winding lines of green crops in the meadow centre. Now you see the exquisite contour of the up-curving sides, east and west, and the majestic height of the mountains, north and south, which form the cradle.

You see also still further to the west, making a vivid break of light in the wilderness of dark pines, another park, higher than this and of not half its size. Few men have trod there, and no man may dwell in its sweet seclusion, for it has no water. Lonely and safe for ever it lies; its only mission to make a perpetual golden gleam in the picture from the upper eastern wall of the Cradle of Peace.

Midway in the forest rises a huge mountain of rock, of most marvellous shape. Turret, roof, wall, it stands a gigantic abbey, and the few pines which grow on its stony sides look merely like the ivy clinging to a ruin. It is a startlingly comic thing to be told that this mountain is called Sugar Loaf; but this is its name, and it is said that, seen from the south country, the shape makes the name true. To one seeing it only from the east this seems incredible, and casts the fable of the gold and silver shield into the shade.

The western horizon is broken by only one peak, which lies sharp cut as a pyramid against the sky. In the northwest and north rise some of the grand mountains of the central range, mighty, snow-topped, remote. The park, the beautiful cradle, seems but a hand’s-breadth long, lying at the feet of these giants.

In the south, if it is sunset,—and only at sunset should dwellers in the Cradle of Peace climb its eastern wall,—Pike’s Peak stands glowing. The north and northwestern side of this glorious mountain are its true face of beauty. Living to the eastward of it, no one knows its grandeur, no one feels its height. Smaller peaks crowding close about it divide and lessen its glory. Its northwestern line stretches along the sky in a steady, harmonious descent, from fifteen thousand feet to eight or ten. Miles and miles of mountain-tops welded into one long, grand spur and ending at last in a sudden lift,—a distinct and separated summit, as straight cut as a prramid and sharper pointed. If it is sunset,— and, as I said, unless it be sunset come not,—you will see this long spur, welded, forged, fitted and piled of mountain masses, glowing in full light, while the park is in soft shadow. Its surfaces are many-sided, sharp-ridged, as if the very mountains had crystallized. The faces which turn west are opaline pink, the faces which turn east are dusky blue, and the pink and the blue change and shift and pale and brighten, until the sweet silence of the twilight seems marked into rhythms by the mere motions of color. It is a sight solemn as beautiful, and the absolute soundlessness of the great forest spaces makes the solemnity almost overawing. But as you go slowly down among the pines into the soft grassy hollows, the silence is broken by a sound subtler than stringed instrument, brook, or bird can give,—a sound more of kin to Nature, it always seems to me, than any one of Nature’s own. It is the faint and diatant tinkle of the bell-cow’s bell. There is a home in the Cradle of Peace. Standing on one of the low foot-hills, you can look down on it, and see the brown and white herds hurrying toward it through the meadow.

It is a ranch of six cabins,—log cabins, bright brown outside and bright yellow in. One is the dairy, one is the house of the master of the ranch, one the home of his men, the other three are bedroom cabins, built solely for those coming from the world to rest in the Cradle of Peace. Their walls and their floors are of bare boards: their ceilings are of paper, nailed up with tacks. This is the record the realist will bring away. But the artist will only remember that, the boards of the walls being bright yellow pine and the clay in the chinks being red sandstone clay, the sides of his room were in alternate stripes of gold and red brown, a perpetual feast of color to his eye; that, the paper of the ceiling being of a soft blue gray, spaced into panels by narrow mouldings of the bright yellow pine, and tacked on here and there by silver-headed tacks, he lay half awake in his bed in the morning twilights, and gazed overhead with a dreamy notion that he was looking up at a starry sky through a yellow lattice-work roof. But realist and artist alike will remember the evenings around the cabin hearth, the light of the blazing pine-logs and the voice of the master of the ranch,—Rugby boy and Cambridge man,—telling how in his “longs” he used to hunt seals in the caves of the wild Hebrides.

Every day Colorado sees men with the blood and the love, the traditions and the culture, of Old England strong within them falling under the spell of her wildernesses and surrendering to her mountains. But I think she has won no truer allegiance, no more genuine enthusiasm, than those which bind and kindle the life and purpose in these cabins in the Cradle of Peace.

Beautiful Cradle of Peace! There are some spots on earth which seem to have a strong personality about them,—a charm and a spell far beyond any thing which mere material nature, however lovely, can exert; a charm which charms like the beauty of a human face, and a spell which lasts like the bond of a human relation. In such spots we can live alone without being lonely. We go away from them with the same sort of sorrow with which we part from friends, and we recall their looks with the yearning tenderness with which we look on the photographs of beloved absent faces.

Thus I left, thus I shall always recall, the beautiful Cradle of Peace.


Next: Colorado Springs WinterContentsPrevious: Bowlder Canyon

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