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


The Arkansas River at Pueblo is a very languid stream. It goes zig-zagging along as dilatorily as a boy goes to school of a May morning. In and out, among and around gravelly sand-bars and long narrow strips of islands, plumy with cotton-woods, its twisting and untwisting threads of water seem hardly to make a respectable river. But as soon as you set your face westward and follow up the way it has come down, you find that it is not an aimless, characterless wanderer, after all. A narrow-gauge railroad (the Denver and Rio Grande) creeps up on its left side, and is very soon pressed for room. The banks become vertical walls, and in many places rise almost sheer from the water. As the river curves, so must the railroad, and the bends are sharp. Often the engine and the first car are in full view to the right or the left from the rear car. The river is swift and muddy. Boiling chocolate, with the cream frothing on the top, is like it. Old snags, gray and weather-beaten, come sailing past. Now and then, an uprooted tree drifts by, head down, with the roots tossing like arms reaching for help. The high banks are of yellow sandstone, limestone, and clay. The rocks are strangely rounded out, like turrets and bastions. Sometimes they seemed to be piled up in thin layers; sometimes they look like solid hewn stone from base to top. The clay or sand slopes are dotted with low pine-trees, but the trees are never so thick as to shut out the pallid yellow-gray tint of the clay or rock on which they stand. It is an ugly color and in a strong sunlight makes a glare as unpleasant to the eye as that from a white surface; and much more irritating to the nerves, because, the color being so dull, it has no business to glare and you cannot understand how it manages to do it. Nevertheless, the panorama of the river is a beautiful one as it unfolds mile after mile. It is rimmed with cotton-woods and willows. Wherever it widens it has little islands also green with cotton-woods and willows, and here and there are picturesque yellow log cabins surrounded by meadow fields. The bluffs look like long lines of fortifications, sometimes falling into ruin; sometimes as clean cut and complete in arch, doorway, embrasure, and turret as if they but waited for guns. As the valley opens wider, the vista to the west is longer, and mountain range after mountain range comes into sight, rising like walls across the pathway of the river, which sweeps ahead in curves, like a huge, shining sickle, reaping the meadow. The cotton-wood trees are a great beauty in the picture. The cotton-wood is among the trees what the mocking-bird is among birds. It can take any shape it likes and deceive your eye, as the mocking-bird deceives your ear. Only its color betrays it. That is a light, brilliant green, almost transparent in the spring. On the Atlantic seaboard there is no tree tint to compare with it, unless it be the tint of a young white birch in early June, when it stands between you and the sun. The effect of thick rounded masses of this vivid green, as seen against red sand-stone or granitic rocks, or thrown up by the pale olive gray of the Colorado plains, cannot be described, and if it were faithfully rendered in a painting would be thought crude or impossible. And when one sees this plumy green arrayed on the forms of slender, drooping elms, stiff, straight poplars, swaying birches, round-topped sugar-maples, fantastic sycamores, and even old gnarled and twisted apple-trees, it is bewildering. Yet all these may be seen in capriciously blended groups in the valley of the Arkansas River, between Pueblo and Canyon City. Canyon City is a small village lying just at the mouth of Grand Canyon of the Arkansas. You reach it, if you have come by rail, just at sunset and in the sunset light it is picturesque. It has a background to the west and north of mountains, which will be purple at that hour and cast soft dark shadows far beyond the village, out over the river valley. Next morning you look out on a scene so changed that it seems like enchantment. The gold has literally turned to ashes, for the whole region is of a pallid gray. The soil is adobe, cracked and seamed and printed with the mark of each wheel, each foot, which went over it in the last wet days when it was mud. The mountains are comparatively bare and rocky, and the foot-hills present a succession of oval fronts, all of pale gray limestone or adobe clay. The penitentiary, also of gray stone, stands conspicuously in sight. The convicts, in queer tights, with alternate black and white stripes going round them from chin to ankles—legs, arms, body all alike—are running to and fro, wheeling barrows full of gray stone or digging gray stone out of the gray foot-hills. They look like zebras, or imps in an opera. The sun streams full from the east on the bare gray foot-hills and pale adobe clay, and is reflected sharply back from the mountain wall, without a softening shadow or break to the pallid glare. I have seldom seen any thing more hopelessly ugly than Canyon City of a hot morning. Yet it is something to be picturesque and beautiful once in every twenty-four hours, and of that Canyon City may boast. Moreover, to be just to the little town, it has a wide-awake look and is growing fast. The shops are good and there are three hotels, all of which are tolerable. No doubt, in a few years it will be largely known as a resort for invalids, for the winter climate is a very pleasant one,—much warmer and milder than that of Colorado Springs. and, therefore, better for many consumptives. Moreover, there are bubbling up in the limestone rocks at the mouth of the Grand Canyon several nauseous hot springs, variously medicated, and the class of people who will drink this sort of water is a large and nomadic one.

The drive from Canyon City to the top of the Grand Canyon is a ten-miles climb up-hill. You do well if you make it in three hours. The road winds among low hills, round, pointed, conical, barren except for the cactuses and piñon trees.

The road is red. The hills are red, with here and there a cropping out of yellow limestone. For a mile or two, the road follows the course of what is called, with a dismal literalness, “Sand Creek.” A creek of sand it is, indeed. Now and then, for a few rods, a darkened line of moisture or perhaps a threadlike glimmer of water; but for the rest only a ghastly and furrowed channel, dry as a desert. “In the spring it is full, I suppose,” I said, forgetting that it was a spring morning then. The driver looked at me with mild wonder. “Never see it higher ’n ’tis now,” he replied. “Dunno what they call ’t a creek for, anyhow.” But a creek it must have been at some time. The Arkansas River is shallower to-day by reason of loss of its water. Its bed is full of water-worn pebbles, and its banks are hollowed out and terraced as nothing can hollow and terrace except that master builder and destroyer, water.

Three miles from the canyon we stopped to buy milk at a little ranch which we had named in our hearts the year before “Lone Woman’s Ranch.” We had found living there an elderly woman, whose husband had just died. She had buried him on a low hill a rod or two from the house. The grave was surrounded by a high paling made of split cedar logs. The little house was comfortable, built of adobe bricks, and stood in a sunny and sheltered nook. The farm was a good one, she said, and there were a hundred and sixty acres of land; but it was a sad outlook for her, the undertaking to work it herself. We had often thought of her, and wondered now, as we drove up to the gate, if we should find her living there still. She was there, and with her a daughter and grandchild. The lonely year of hard work had told on her face, and she was gladder than ever of a few moments’ chat, even with strangers. Every thing looked as., neat and well-kept as before; nothing had changed except the woman’s face, which had grown thin and dark, and the cedar palings around the grave, which had grown white and glistening. As we drove away, she called after us: “I hope you’ll enjoy yourselves: but it’s a dreadful ugly place up there. At least, I couldn’t never see any thing pretty in it.”

She was right. There is nothing “pretty” about the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas. From the moment when you first reach the top of the grand amphitheatre-like plateau in which the rift was made, until the moment in which you stand on the very edge of the chasm and look dizzily over and down, there is but one thought, but one sense,—the thought of wonder, the sense of awe. The uncultured mind to-day is but one remove from the savage mind in its feeling when confronted with nature at her grandest. I do not know what Indians inhabited the region of the Arkansas River a half century ago; but I would hazard the statement that they held many an unhallowed rite on the edge of this abyss and believed that the bad Spirit lived in it. The superstition is shorn of its strength and definiteness to-day, but lingers still in a vague antagonism to the spot,—a disposition to avoid it because it is not “pretty.”

I said that the plateau in which the rift is made was amphitheatre-like. The phrase is at once a good and a bad one,—bad because it is hardly possible for the mind to conceive of the amphitheatre shape without a good deal of limitation in size. Do what we will, the Coliseum is apt to rise before us whenever we use the word amphitheatre. To picture to one’s self an amphitheatre whose central space shall be measured by tens, twenties, and thirties of miles, shall be varied by meadow parks and the forests which enclose the parks, and whose circling tiers of seats shall be mountain ranges, rising higher and higher, until the highest, dazzling white with snow, seem to cleave the sky, rather than to rest against it,—this is not easy. Yet it is precisely such an amphitheatre as this that we are in as we approach the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas. From every hill-summit that is gained the amphitheatre effect is more and more striking, until at last its tiers of mountain walls are in full view,—south, west, north, and east. Then it is that, walking along through the groves of piñon-trees and seeing so far and so clear in all ways, one wonders where can be the canyon. This is a broad mountain-top plateau. It seems as if one might journey across it in any direction one liked, and come sooner or later to the base of the horizon heights. Suddenly, going southward, one finds the trees scantier, wider apart, ceasing altogether. The stony ground becomes stonier and stonier, until only armed cactuses and thorny shrubs keep foot-hold in the confusion of rocks. Then, looking southward, one sees a few rods ahead a strange effect in the air. There is no precipice edge visible as yet; but the eye perceives that just beyond there is a break, and there against the sky looms up a wall whose base is out of sight. It is strangely near, yet far. Between it and the ground you stand on is a shimmer of inexplicable lights and reflections. This wall is the further wall of the Great Canyon. A few steps more and you look in. You have been already for some moments walking on ground which was only the surface of an outjutting promontory of the nearer wall. Twelve hundred feet below you roars the Arkansas River, pent up in a channel so narrow that it looks like a brook one might ford. On its narrow rims of bank there are lying sticks of wood which look like fine kindling wood. They are heavy railroad ties, floated down from the timber-lands in the mountains.

This point, which it has taken a ten miles’ climb to reach, is only two miles from the mouth of the canyon. To one looking eastward through the mouth, the plains seem but a lower belt of sky, sky and plains together making a triangle of bars of dainty color, put up like a stile, as it were, from wall to wall of the canyon, or stretched like a curtain, or set like a band of gay tiles from eaves to eaves of a huge gable, the roof being the sky. There is no end to the fancies one-has, looking at these distant triangles of sky, or of sky and plain, seen between the converging lines of canyon walls in this country of wonderful perspectives.

But this single outlook from and downlook into the canyon gives only a small idea of its grandeur. To comprehend it, one must toil slowly westward along its edge, climbing up and down to the upper and lower promontories of its walls. It is six or seven miles long and at every step its features change. Now the wall rises abruptly from the water,—so abruptly that it looks as if it might reach as many hundred feet below as above; and now it is broken into different slopes, as if slides upon slides had narrowed it below and widened it above. Now it is bare rock, lined and stained and furrowed, as if wrought by tools; now it is cleft from base to top, as if streams had leaped over and worn pathways for themselves. No doubt they did; for in these clefts are patches of solid green,—wild currants and gooseberries and spiraeas and many a graceful green-leaved thing I did not know. The rocks are all granitic, the prevalent tint being red or gray, with sharp markings of black. Seen closer, they are a mosaic of lichens,—gray, black, light-yellowish green, and deep orange. They sparkle with mica, and have here and there glistening white pebbles of quartz set in their red surfaces, like snowy raisins in a crimson pudding. Again and again you come out upon points from which no river can be seen, so sharply do the walls turn and shut off the view both ways. The further west you go, the wilder and more terrible the abyss becomes, until the walls begin to slope down again to the western plain or park, through which the river has come. The wall on which you are walking seems sometimes to be nothing but a gigantic pile of separate bowlders. More than once I turned back shuddering from a rocky causeway in front of which the bowlders were so loosely poised that I could look down between them, through fantastic window after window, into the chasm below. Here and there among these toppling yet immovable bowlders stood an old piñon-tree, holding on to the rocks by its gnarled roots as by grappling-irons. About four miles up is a second canyon, some three or four hundred rods long, leading to the right, as if the river had tried first to break through there, but had found the mountain too strong. It is but a figure of ignorant speech, however, to say that the river broke through. The volcano went ahead and tunnelled its road. Water never makes violent way for itself; and whenever it does wear a channel through rock it works backward, as at Niagara. Standing on the edge of this great chasm and looking down to the narrow thread of foam at its bottom, one wonders that even the most ignorant mind could for a moment suppose that the water had cleaved the rock. It must have been a mighty throe of volcanic action which did it. A supreme moment to have seen, surely, if there had been any spot just then cool enough to stand on. The other day I saw a curious little thing,—a silver button which had burst into an irregular rose-shaped flower by the same process and by virtue of the same law. It was an odd thing to be reminded by a dainty silver rose lying in the palm of my hand of a vast rock-walled canyon, with a river rushing through it; yet I was, for a sudden cooling made them both. The little silver button is heated to a certain point, and in the process absorbs oxygen. The instant it is taken out of the oven and the cold air strikes it, the oxygen is violently expelled, and the silver shoots upward, falls apart, and stiffens in fantastic and irregular points, which are wonderfully petal-like in their arrangement. Yet they reminded me instantly of the outlines of many of the rock walls and ridges in Colorado. Perhaps, if one could go high enough and look down, one might see in the great mountain ranges a similar grouping, a petal-like centring, a Titanic efflorescence of a planet cooled suddenly at white heat.

It was late twilight when on our homeward way we stopped again for a moment at “Lonely Woman’s Ranch.” The cedar palings around the lonely grave glistened whiter in the struggling moonlight and the spot looked lonelier than it did in the morning. The woman was more profuse than ever in her voluble welcome. She asked eagerly if we had no friends who would like to buy her ranch. “One hundred and sixty acres for fifteen hundred dollars.” It was “a good chance for anybody that wanted to come into this country to settle.”

“You really want to sell it?” we said.

“Yes. I want to be nearer to town, for sake of schools,” she said. And then, as if a little conscience-stricken at having given only a part of her reason, she added, with a touching pathos in her tone: “And it is so lonesome for me, too.”

In the bushes behind the house an owl was hooting, “Twohoo! hoo! hoo!” and as we drove on both echoes blended strangely in our ears:—

“Twohoo! hoo! hoo!
Lonesome for me, too, too!”

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