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


Georgetown is the American cousin of Bad-Gastein. As Bad-Gastein crowds, nestles, wedges itself into a valley among the Austrian Alps, so does Georgetown crowd, nestle, wedge itself into its canyon among the Rocky Mountains. And as the River Ach runs through and in the streets of Gastein, so runs Clear Creek in and through the streets of Georgetown. But Clear Creek does not leap, like the Ach. Georgetown has no waterfall. Neither are the sides of the canyon wooded, like the beautiful, glittering sides of the Gastein Valley. Georgetown is bare and brown. Georgetown is Gastein stripped of its fortune, come to the New World to begin anew in the hard pioneer life. In the old days of Gastein, silver and gold mines were worked in all the mountains round about. Those were the days of the haughty Weitmosers, whose history is wrought into legends, and linked with every rock and forest and waterfall in the Gastein Valley. Now the Weitmoser name is seen only on tombstones, and the water-wheels and sluices of the old gold mines are slowly rotting away. Perhaps three hundred years hence the steep sides of the Georgetown Canyon will he covered again with balsams and pines; the pinks, daisies, and vetches will carpet the ground as the pink heath does in Gastein; the mill-wheels will stand still; the mines will be empty; and pilgrims will seek the heights as they seek Gastein’s, not because they hold silver and gold, but because they are gracious and beautiful and health-giving.

To Georgetown, as to Gastein, there is but one easy way of going,—that is, by private carriage. The public coaches are here, as everywhere, uncomfortable, overloaded, inexorable. I know of no surer way to rob a journey of all its finest pleasures, than to commit one’s self to one of these vehicles. It means being obliged to get up at hours you abhor, to sit close to people you dislike, to eat when you are not hungry, to go slowest when there is nothing to see and fastest when you would gladly linger for hours, to be drenched with rain, choked with dust, and never have a chance to pick a flower. It means misery. The private carriage, on the other hand, means so much of delight, freedom, possession, that it is for ever a marvel to me that all travellers with money, even with a little money, do not journey in that way. Good horses, an open carriage, bright skies overhead; beloved faces,—eager, responsive, sympathetic,—on either hand; constant and an unrestrained interchange of thought, impression, impulse,—all this, and the glorious out-door world added! Is there a way of being happier? I think not.

It was thus that we set out, early on a June day, to go from Central City to Georgetown.

“Up to Georgetown,” somebody said in our hearing.

“Is there any going further up?” we exclaimed.

It had not seemed that there could be. Did not the sky rest on the tops of the sharp-precipiced hills near whose summits we were clinging?

Nevertheless it was “up” to Georgetown at first,— up through Nevada Gulch, a steeper, narrower, stonier, dirtier gulch than we had yet seen, more riddled with mines and crowded with more toppling houses. Then, out upon what seemed an “open” by comparison with the gulches, but was really only an interval of lesser hills and canyons. Deserted mills, mines, and cabins were here; hardly a trace of cultivation, but everywhere green shrubs and luxuriant flowers, to show what fertility was lying neglected in the unused soil. Three miles of this, and then, turning to the left, we plunged into a road so stony, so overgrown, it seemed hardly possible it could be the one we had been told to take to reach the top of Bellevue Mountain.

Let no one forget, in going from Central City to Georgetown, to ask for and find this wild path. Its outlook is worth all the rest of the journey.

It was a severe climb,—we did not know how severe, for our eyes were feasting on the wayside lovelinesses of green oak and juniper and golden asters, white daisies and purple vetches. From the bare and stony gulches we had left behind, to this fragrance and color, was a leap from a desert into a garden. Suddenly looking up, we found that we were also looking off. We were on a grand ridge or divide, around which seemed to centre semicircles of mountains. So high and so separated is this ridge, and yet so central in the great fields of peaks which make up this part of the great Rocky Mountain chain, that, while we could look off far enough to see the Snowy Range, we could also look down into the canyons and gorges among the nearer mountains. It was a surpassing sight! It is one of the few extended views I have seen which have also composition, beauty of grouping, and tenderness of significance and revelation. We could see long, shining, serrated spaces of the solid, snow-covered peaks, the highest on the continent,—peaks from whose summit one could look, if human vision were keen enough, to the Western and the Eastern Oceans. These lofty serrated lengths of shining snow lay cut against the uttermost horizon blue, like an alabaster wall rounding the very world. Seeming to join this wall, and almost in lines of concentric curves, were myriads and masses of lower mountains, more than the eye could count. To the very foot of the watch-tower ridge on which we stood, the peaks seemed crowded. We could look into the green valleys lying between them, and trace the brown thread of road winding up each valley. We sat under the shade of pines and firs. The ground was gay with yellow lupines, daisies, and great mats of killikinnick vines (the bear-berry) with full clusters of delicate pink bells, as lovely as arbutus blossoms, and almost as fragrant.

Ten thousand feet above the sea, and yet the air was as spicy and summer-laden as in an Italian June! Ten thousand feet above the sea, and yet the warm wind burnt our faces fiercely, and the snow-topped horizon wall seemed like a miracle under such a tropical sun!

On the very summit of the mountain, even here among the daisies and lupines, and within sight of all the solemn kingdoms of mountains, we came upon one who dug for gold. He was a German, tall, broad-chested, straight-shouldered, blue-eyed, flaxen-haired,— a superbly made man. Health and power actually seemed to radiate from him under the sunlight, and the unconscious joyousness of their unconscious possession lighted his eye and beamed in his smile. He stood all day long at the mouth of a shaft, and drew up buckets full of ore which might mean a few dollars of gold. It was an old claim. He had two partners in the ownership of it, and they were now working it for a few months, merely to comply with the provisions of the recent Miner’s Act. He spoke that delicious and effective broken English which only Germans use. To him the Act meant personal inconvenience; but he had thought deeper than that. “It is good for the country. There will be not the wild cat any more. It shall be that a man do not throw his money away that another man shall move his stakes in the night.”

I do not know why this man’s figure seemed to me more typical of the true genius and soul of gold-winning than all the toiling crowds in mining towns. It was, perhaps, the loneliness of the spot, the glorious lift of it above the world around, or even the beauty of the blossoms and the scent of the firs. It might have been just such a nook in the Hartz Mountains to which the genii of gold and silver led the favored mortals to whom they elected to open the doors of their treasure-house.

From Bellevue Mountain to Idaho it is three miles, downhill. Not downhill in the ordinary acceptation of the word, not such downhill as one may have three miles of any day in northern New England; but downhill in a canyon,—that is, downhill between two other hills so sharp that they wall the road. Truly, labyrinths of interlacing hills can be marvellous. Much I question whether the earth holds anywhere a more delightful confusion than has been wrought out of these upheavals of the Rocky Mountains, and planted with firs and bluebells. In a hollow made by the mouth of the canyon down which we had driven, and by the mouths of several other canyons, all sharp-walled and many-curved, lay Idaho. From the tops of the mountains which circle it, the little handful of houses must look like a handful of pebbles at the bottom of an emerald-sided well. Thither come every summer multitudes of men and women,—Coloradoans, Californians, and travellers from the East,—seeking to be made well and strong by bathing in hot soda springs, which bubble out of the rocks of a small creek.

For the benefit of those who, not being disciples of Hahnemann, do not shudder at the thought of medicated baths, I give the analysis of the water:

Carbonate of Soda30.80
Carbonate of Lime9.52
Carbonate of Magnesia2.88
Carbonate of Iron4.12
Sulphate of Soda29.36
Sulphate of Magnesia18.72
Sulphate of Lime3.44
Chloride of Sodium4.16
Silicate of Soda4.08
Chloride of Calcium and Magnesium, of each a trace.

If it were proposed to any man to go into an apothecary’s shop and take from the big jars on the shelves all these carbonates, sulphates, silicates, and chlorides, dissolve them in his bath-tub, and then proceed to soak himself in the water, absorbing the drugs through his million-pored skin, he would probably see the absurdity and the risk of the process. But, because Nature, for some mysterious purposes, has seen fit to brew these concoctions in the bowels of the earth, which spits them out as fast as it can, men jump at the conclusion that they are meant-for healing purposes, and that one cannot drink too much of them, or stay in them too long.

“Do you take the baths yourself?” I asked the man in charge of the “Pioneer Bathing Establishment.”

“Yes’m, I’m tryin’ ’em. But if I stay in more ’n fifteen minutes, I get just as weak as any thing,—real weak feeling all over: it seems as if I couldn’t get out. But there’s plenty of folks that comes and stays in an hour and a half, and-say it does ’em good.”

“But are you not afraid of any thing which is so powerful that it makes you feel so weak in so few minutes? Why do you take the baths at all? Are you ill?” I said.

“No’m, I ain’t sick. Leastways, nothing to speak of. I hain’t ever been very strong. But I thought I’d try ’em. The doctors all say they’re good, and I expect they must be; they ought to know. And I’m here all day, with not much of any thing to do. I might as well go in.”

What an epitome of truth in the bathman’s words! What an unconscious analysis of the process by which patients are made,—lack of occupation, and an ignorant faith in doctors’ assertions.

Up a westward canyon from Idaho lies the road to Georgetown,—twelve miles of it. There is just room for it and for Clear Creek, and for narrow rims of cottonwood, willows, and wild roses, and for here and there a bit of farm. The sides of the canyon are sometimes bare, stony; sometimes green with pines and firs and young aspens; sometimes gray, because fire has killed the pines; sometimes gray with piles of ore thrown up from mouths of mines; always a changing succession of color; always a changing succession of shape, of contour. Ah! the twelve miles it is to remember; and alas! the twelve miles it is to long and yet fail to describe. Canyons after canyons open and shut as we pass. Just such a road as we are on flings its alluring brown thread up each one. If there were no such thing as a fixed purpose, and an inexorable appointed day, we would follow each clew and learn each canyon by heart. No two canyons are alike to true lovers of canyons, any more than any two faces are alike to the student of faces. To the outer edge of the concentric, curving ranges of this Rocky Mountain chain one might journey, in and out and up and over, and in and out and in and out again, I am persuaded, all summer long, for summers and summers, and find no monotony, no repetition. That is, if one be a lover; and if one be not, what use in being alive? Rather, one should say, in having a name to live while one is dead.

Georgetown is a surprise at last. It has no straggling outposts of houses, and you have become so absorbed in climbing the canyon, watching the creek and the mountains, the trees and the flowers, that you forget that a town is to come. Suddenly you see it full in view, not many rods ahead, wedged, as I said before, like Bad-Gastein,—crowded, piled, choked in at the end of the narrowed rift up which you have climbed. In and out among the narrow streets runs the creek, giving shining and inexplicable glimpses of water, here, there, and everywhere, among the chimney-tops and next to doorsteps. The houses are neat, comfortable, and have a suggestion of home-loving and abiding, quite unlike the untamed and nomadic look of Central City. You turn corner after corner, crossing the mountain side sharply at each turn, and getting up higher and higher, street by street, till on the very highest level you come to the Barton House, and look off from its piazza over the roofs of the town. On either hand are towering mountain sides, dotted wellnigh to the tops with the shining pyramids of the gray ore thrown up by mines. They mark lines like ledges hundreds of feet above the town. The hills are honey-combed by galleries and shafts; but they look still and peaceful and sunny as the virgin hills of the Tyrol.

“Shall we go down into a silver mine? Have you had enough of mines?” said the one experienced in mines.

“Never enough of mines,” I replied. “And down into a mine must be a thing quite unlike headforemost into a mine. Let us go.”

“Then I will take you to the ‘Terrible Mine,’” he said. “It is the nearest, and one of the largest.’ “Is it so very terrible?” I asked. The word was not alluring.

“Only ‘Terrible’ by reason of the amount of money sunk in it,” he laughed. “It is the most picturesquely situated and attractive mine I know of. But it has swallowed up more money than any other three mines in the region, and is only just now beginning to pay.”

As the horses’ heads were turned sharp to the right from the hotel door and we began to climb again, I exclaimed, incredulously: “What, still further up?”

“Oh, yes! two miles straight up. There might be a ladder set from here to there, if one could be made long enough,” was the reply. If it had been a ladder it would have seemed safer. A narrow shelf on the precipitous side of the mountain,—winding, zigzagging up in a series of sharp curves, with only a slight banking of the earth and the stone at the outer edge, and a sheer wall hundreds of feet below, down to the foaming creek, —this is the terrible road up to the “Terrible Mine.” It was like swinging out into space when we turned the corners. Teams heavily loaded with silver ore were coming down. In places where two inches’ room made all the odds between being dashed over the precipice and not, we passed them,—that is, our carriage passed them. We were not in it. We were standing close to the inner wall, backed up against it, holding our breaths to make ourselves thin. “Can’t go on the outside, sir, with this load,” was the firm though respectfully sympathizing reply of teamster after teamster; and on the outer and almost crumbling edge of the road, where the heavy load of ore would have been in danger of crushing down the entire shelf, there our wheels were airily poised, waiting for the wagons to pass. More than once, watching closely from behind, I failed to see even a rim of road beyond the wheel. One careless misstep of a horse, one instant’s refusal to obey the rein, and the carriage would have toppled over and down into the foam. Yet our driver seemed as unconcerned as if he had been driving on a broad boulevard, and had evidently a profound contempt for his passengers, who persisted in jumping from the carriage at every turn-out.

The creek was one pauseless torrent of white foam. All the beautiful amber spaces were gone. Not a breath did it take; it seemed like two miles of continuous waterfall. Tall fir-trees shaded it, but their tops were far below us; their shining darkness made the white of the foaming water all the whiter by contrast. On the rocky wall on our right were waving flowers and shrubs,—columbines, bluebells, spiraeas; so slight their hold they seemed but to have just alighted, like gay-winged creatures, who might presently soar and pass on.

One thread-like stream of water came down this precipice. It zigzagged to get down as much as we were zigzagging to get up. At turn after turn in the road we continued to see new leaps, new falls of it, until at last we saw the spot where it cleft the uppermost rock, looking like nothing but a narrow, fleecy wisp of cloud, lying half on the gray summit and half on the blue sky.

The miners’ cabins were perched here and there among the bowlders, hundreds of feet up, bare, shelterless, remote. They looked more like homes for eagles than for men. No path led to them; no green thing, save firs and low oaks, grew near them; only by the sharp roof-tree line could one tell them from the rocks which were piled around them.

At the end of two miles, we came to a spot where creek and road and precipice paused and widened. The creek was dammed up, making a smooth, clear lake, with odd little pine-planked bridge-paths circling it; the road space widened into a sheltered, shady spot, where, nestled against the mountain of stone, stood three or four small buildings. A fountain played before one and children played before the others. These were the offices and homes of the men in charge of the mine, and the mouth of the mine was in sight, high up on the mountain side. An enormous pyramid of the glistening gray ore lay in front of it. On the top of this two men were at work loading the ore into small buckets, swung on wire from the mouth of the mine to the top of a high derrick on the edge of the creek. Back and forth and back and forth glided the buckets, swift and noiseless. The wire was but just visible in the air; the buckets seemed, coming and going, like huge shining shuttles, flung by invisible hands.

By gasps we threaded our way among the bowlders and up to the mouth of the mine. Here, indeed, a ladder would have been a help.

Then, miners’ jackets on our shoulders, candles in our hands, facing an icy wind and breathing the fumes of gunpowder, again we entered the earth by an oven-door in a rock. We walked on the iron rails of the track, down which cars loaded with ore came constantly rumbling out of the darkness. We shrank into crannies of the rock to let them pass. The track was wet and slippery. It seemed a long way, but was only a few hundred feet, before we came to a vaulted chamber, so dimly lighted that it looked vast. Strange sounds came from its centre. As our eyes gradually grew used to the darkness, a strange shape in its centre grew gradually distinct. The sounds and the shape were one. It was a steam-engine. It was at work. Puff, puff, hiss, creak, slide,—weird beyond all power of words to say sounded these noises in that ghostly place. A gnome-like shape, in semblance of a man, stood by, with a controlling hand on the puffing engine. “Would you like to go down in the mine?” said the Shape, courteously.

It was a hospitable gnome. This was the one entertainment at his command. Tremblingly I said “Yes.” The Shape disappeared. We were left alone in the vaulted chamber. The steam-engine stopped. No sound broke the silence. The darkness seemed to grow darker. I reached out for a friendly hand, and was just about to say, This is, indeed, the ‘Terrible Mine,’” when a sudden light flashed into the place, and, springing back, I saw the head of another Shape coming up from an aperture at my feet. A trap-door had been flung open. The Shape had a lighted candle in the band of his cap. If I were to describe him as he appeared to me in that first instant, I should say that frightful flames issued from his forehead. He smiled friendlily: but I grasped the protecting hand closer.

“Is the lady coming down, sir? The bucket will be up in a minute,” he said.

This was the mouth of the shaft. The Shape had crawled up on a ladder. It was no more than an ordinary front stairs to him.

I was ashamed to say how afraid I grew. The Shape answered my unspoken thought.

“There’s ladies goes down every day. There’s no danger,—not the least,” he said.

“Ye wouldn’t miss it, not for any thing.”

The bucket came up. It was swung off to one side of the trap-door. It was an extra-sized water-pail, with high sides,—sides coming up just above the knees of them who stood in it. It could hold just two,—no more. It was necessary to stand facing in a particular way to prevent its swinging round and round. By an iron hook from the centre of the handle it was suspended over the dark aperture. It was raised and lowered by the steam-engine.

“Ready?” said the Shape who stood with his hand on the engine.

“All ready,” replied the Shape who stood with one hand on the edge of our bucket.

“Now, keep cool. Don’t mind the bucket’s swinging. The shaft ain’t straight, and it will twist some. I’ll be down there before you are. He’ll let you down slow.” And the friendly Shape vanished in the gloom.

It was odd how much it felt like being lowered by the hair of one’s head, the going down in that bucket. It is odd how very little consciousness one has of any thing solid under one’s feet, standing in such buckets under such circumstances. It is odder still what a comfort there is in a bit of lighted candle in this sort of place. All that the candle showed me was the slanting wooden wall, against which we bumped with great force every now and then. Why the sight of this should have been reassuring it is impossible to tell; but, during the hour—three minutes long—which we passed in that descending, swinging, twisting, bumpinb bucket I fixed my eyes on that candle-flame as earnestly as if it had been a light-house, and I a sailor steering to shore by its guidance.

“All right, ma’am. You didn’t mind it much, did you?” came suddenly from the darkness, and a pair of strong hands laid violent hold on the bucket edge, and, resting it firm on a wet and stony ground, helped us out. This was the nethermost gallery of the mine. We were five hundred feet down in the earth and there were five galleries above our heads. We followed the friendly Shape over rocks, piles of ore, past mouths of pits, and through dripping water, to the end of the gallery, where we found a party of miners drilling and picking. Here and there we saw long, glistening veins of the precious ore in the walls over head. It seemed to run capriciously, branching now to right, now to left. Here and there we came to dark openings in the walls, through which our guide would call to men at work above us. Their voices reverberated in the heavy gloom and sounded preternaturally loud.

The place grew more and more weird and awesome at every step. The faces of the miners we met seemed to grow more and more unhuman, less and less friendly. I was glad when we began to retrace our steps; and the bucket, swinging in mid-air, looked like a welcome escape, a comforting link between us and the outer world. Whether bucket, shaft, steam-engine, or we were in fault I do not know; but the upward journey was a terrible one. The bucket swung violently,— almost round and round; our clothes had not been carefully secured, and they were caught between the bucket and the shaft-sides and wrench’ed and twisted; and, to add to the horror, our candle went out. No words were spoken in that bucket during those minutes; they were minutes not to be forgotten. Still the guide was right: we would not “have missed it for any thing.”

When we offered our guide money, he said: “No, thank you. I don’t take any money for myself; but, if you’ll read that notice,”—pointing to a written paper on the office wall,—“perhaps you’ll give us something for our reading-room.” This paper stated that the miners were trying to collect money enough to build a small room, where they might have books and papers and perhaps now and then a lecture. They had subscribed among themselves nearly three hundred dollars.

“You see,” said our guide, if we had some such place as that, then the boys wouldn’t go down to the town evenings and Sundays and get drunk. When a fellow’s worked in a mine all day he’s got to have some hing.”

How the thought struck home to our hearts at that minute. We had been in that airless, sunless cavern only one short half hour; yet the blue sky, the light, the breeze, the space already seemed to us unreal. We were dazzled, bewildered. What must be the effect of weeks and months and years of such life?

“Indeed, we will give you all the help we can,” we said; “and, what is more, we will ask everybody we know to send you some papers or books.”

Here is the guide’s address:

Henry F. Lampshire,                  
Foreman of the “Terrible Mine,”        

From Georgetown down to Idaho at sunset is more beautiful even than from Idaho up to Georgetown of a morning.

Full speed; sunlight gone from the left-hand wall, broad gold bands of it on the right; now and then a rift or canyon opening suddenly to the west and letting in a full flood of light, making it sunny in a second, afternoon, when the second before it had been wellnigh sombre twilight and the second after it will be sombre twilight again; red, gray, and white clouds settling down in fleecy masses upon the snowy mountain towers of the gateway of the valley,—this is sunset between Georgetown and Idaho. And to us there came also a wayside greeting more beautiful than the clouds, bluer than the sky, and gladder than the sun,—only a flower, one flower! But it was the Rocky Mountain columbine, —peerless among columbines, wondrous among flowers. Waving at top of a stem two feet high, surrounded by buds full two inches and a half in diameter, the inner petals stainless white, the outer ones brilliant blue, a sheaf of golden-anthered stamens in the centre,—there it stood, pure, joyous, stately, regal. We gazed in speechless delight into its face. There was a certain solemnity in its beauty.

“That’s the gladdest flower I ever saw,” were the first words spoken, and the face of the man who said them glowed.

Oh! wondrous power of a fragile thing, born for a single day of a single summer! I think that the thing I shall longest remember and always most vividly see of that whole trip in the Colorado canyons will be that fearless, stainless, joyful, regnant blossom, and my friend’s tribute of look, of tone, when he said, “The gladdest flower I ever saw.”

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