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


Rosita, which being turned from Spanish into English means Little Rose, is a mining camp in the silver region of the Sierra Mojada, in southern Colorado. A legend runs that there was once another “Little Rose,” a beautiful woman of Mexico, who had a Frenchman for a lover. When she died, her lover lost his wits and journeyed aimlessly away to the north; he rambled on and on until he came to this beautiful little nook, nestled among mountains, and overlooking a great green valley a thousand feet below it. Here he exclaimed, “Beautiful as Rosita!” and settled himself to live and die on the spot.

A simpler and better authenticated explanation of the name is, that when the miners first came, six years ago, into the gulches where the town of Rosita now lies, they found several fine springs of water, each spring in a thicket of wild roses. As they went to and fro, from their huts to the springs, they found in the dainty blossoms a certain air of greeting, as of old inhabitants welcoming new-comers. It seemed no more than courteous that the town should be called after the name of the oldest and most aristocratic settler,—a kind of recognition which does not always result in so pleasing a name as Rosita (Tompkinsville, for instance, or Jenkins’s Gulch). Little Rose, then, it became, and Little Rose it will remain. Not even a millionaire of mines will ever dare to dispute this vested title of the modest little flower. Each spring would brand him as a usurper, for the wild rose still queens it in the Sierra Mojada.

I suppose there may be many ways of approaching Rosita. I know only the one by which we went last June; going from Colorado Springs, first to Canyon City, by rail.

Canyon City lies at the mouth of the Grand Canyon by which the Arkansas River forces its way through the Wet Mountain range. It is a small town, which has always been hoping to be a large one. Since the Arkansas comes down this way from the great South Park, men thought they could carry and fetch goods on the same road; but the granite barrier is too much for them. Bold and rich must the railroad company be that will lay a track through this canyon. Canyon City has also many hot springs, highly medicinal; and it has hoped that the world would come to them to be cured of diseases. It has coal, too, in great quantity, and of good quality; and this seemed a certain element of prosperity. But, spite of all, Canyon City neither grows nor thrives, and wears always a certain indefinable look of depression and bad luck about it, just as men do when things go wrong with them year after year. It is surrounded on two sides by low foot-hills, which present bare fronts of the gloomiest shade of drab ever seen. One does not stop to ask if it be clay, sand, or rock, so overpowering is one’s sense of the color. It would not seem that so neutral a tint could make a glare; but not even on the surfaces of white houses can the sun make so blinding and intolerable a glare as it does on the drab plains and drab foot-hills of Canyon City. One escapes from it with a sense of relief which seems at first disproportionate,—a quick exhilaration, such as is produced by passing suddenly from the society of a stupid person into that of a brilliant and witty one. You see at once how frightfully you were being bored. You had not realized it before. Through six miles of this drab glare we drove, in a south-westerly direction, when we set out for Rosita. On the outskirts of the town we passed the penitentiary,—also of a drab color, —a fine stone building. To liven things a little, the authorities have put the convicts into striped tights, black and white. The poor fellows were hewing, hammering, and wheeling drab stone, as we drove past. They looked droll enough,—like two-legged zebras prancing about.

The six miles of drab plain were relieved only by the cactus blossoms. These were abundant and beautiful, chiefly of the prickly pear variety, great mats of uncouth, bristling leaves, looking like oblong, green griddle-cakes, made thick and stuck full of pins, points out,—as repellant a plant as is to be found anywhere on the face of the earth; but lo! out of the edge of this thick and unseemly lobe springs a many-leaved chalice of satin sheen, graceful, nay, regal in its poise, in its quiet. No breeze stirs it; no sun wilts it; no other blossom rivals the lustrous transparency of its petals. Of all shades of yellow, from the palest cream-color up to the deepest tint of virgin gold; of all shades of pink, from a faint, hardly perceptible flush, up to a rose as clear and bright as that in the palm of a baby’s hand. Myriads of these, full-blown, half-blown, and in bud, we saw on every rod of the six miles of desolate drab plains which we crossed below Canyon City. As soon as the road turned to the west and entered the foot-hills we began to climb; almost immediately we found ourselves on grand ledges. On these we wound and rose, and wound and rose, tier above tier, tier above tier, as one winds and climbs the tiers of the Coliseum in Rome; from each new ledge a grander off-look to the south and east; the whole wide plain wooded in spaces, with alternating intervals of smooth green fields; Pike’s Peak and its range, majestic and snowy, in the north-eastern horizon; countless peaks in the north; and, in the near foreground, Canyon City, redeemed from all its ugliness and bareness, nestled among its cotton-wood trees as a New England village nestles among its elms. It fills consciousness with delight almost too full, to look off at one minute upon grand mountain summits, and into distances so infinite one cannot even conjecture their limits,—see the peaks lost in clouds, and the plains melting into skies; and the next minute to look down on one’s pathway and he dazzled by a succession of flowers almost as bewildering as the peaks and the plains. Here, on these rocky ledges, still grow the gold and pink cactus cups; and beside these, scarlet gilias, blue penstemons, white daisies and yellow spiraea, blue harebells and blue larkspur. This blue lark-spur is the same which we see in old-fashioned gardens in New England. In Colorado it grows wild, side by side with the blue harebell, and behaves like it,—roots itself in crevices, and sways and waves in every wind.

The crowning beauty of the flower-show on these rocky ledges was a cactus, whose name I do not know. It is shaped and moulded like the sea-urchin, and grows sometimes as large as the wheel of a baby-carriage. Its lobes or sections are of clear apple-green, and thick set with long spines of a glistening white. The flower is a many-leaved, tubular cup, of a deep, rich crimson color. They are thrown out at hap-hazard, apparently, anywhere on the lobes. You will often see ten, twelve, or even twenty of these blossoms on a single plant of only medium size, say, eight or ten inches in diameter, When we first saw one of these great, crimson-flowered cacti, wedged in like a cushion or flattened ball in the gnarled roots of an old cedar-bush, on the side of this rocky road, we halted in silent wonder, and looked first at it and then at each other. Afterward we grew wonted to their beauty; we even pulled several of them up bodily, and carried them home in a box; but this familiarity bred no contempt,—it only added to our admiration a terror which was uncomfortable. A live creature which could bite would be no harder to handle and carry. It has one single root growing out at its centre, like the root of a turnip; this root is long and slender; it must wriggle its way down among the rocks like a snake. By this root you can carry the cactus, and by this alone. Woe betide you if you so much as attempt to tug, or lift, or carry it by its sides. You must pry it up with a stick or trowel till you can reach the root, grasp it by that handle, and carry it bottom side up, held off at a judicious distance from your legs.

At last we had climbed up to the last ledge, rounded the last point. Suddenly we saw before us, many hundred feet below us, a green well, into the mouth of which we looked down. There is nothing but a well to which I can compare the first view from these heights of the opening of Oak Creek Canyon. The sides of the well slant outward. Perhaps it is more like a huge funnel, little end down. The sun poured into these green depths, so full and warm that each needle on the fir-trees glittered, and a fine aromatic scent arose, as if spices were being brewed there. One small house stood in the clearing. It was only a rough-built thing, of unpainted pine; but Colorado pine is as yellow as gold, and if you do not know that it is pine, you might take it, at a little distance, for some rare and gleaming material which nobody but kings could afford to make houses of.

Down into this green well we dashed, on precipitous ledges as steep as that we had climbed. Once down at the bottom of the well, we stopped to look up and back. It seemed a marvel that there should be a way in or out. There are but two: the way we had come, scaling the ledges; and the way we were to go, keeping close to Oak Creek. Close indeed! The road clings to the creek as one blind might cling to a rope; for miles and miles they go hand in hand, cross and recross and change places, like partners in a dance, only to come again side by side. It would take botany and geology, and painting as well, to tell the truth of this exquisite Oak Creek Canyon. Its sides were a tangle of oak, beeches, willows, clematis, green-brier, and wild rose; underneath these, carpets of white violets and blue, yellow daisies and white, and great spaces of an orange-colored flower I never saw before, which looked like a lantana; a rich purple blossom also, for which I have neither name nor similitude. Above these banks and waving walls of flowers, were the immovable walls of rock, now in precipices, now in piles of bowlders, now in mountain-like masses. Often the canyon widens, and encloses, now a few acres of rich meadow-land, where a ranchman has built himself a little house, and begun a farm; now a desolate and arid tract, on which no human being will ever live. At all these openings there are glimpses of snowy peaks to the right and to the left. The road is literally in the mountains. At last,—and at last means nearly at sunset,—we reached the end of the canyon. It had widened and widened until, imperceptibly, it had ceased, and we were out in a vast open, with limitless distances stretching away in all directions. We were on a great plateau; we had climbed around, through, and come out on top of, the Sierra Mojada. We were on a plateau, yet the plateau was broken and uneven, heaved up into vast, billowy ovals and circles, which sometimes sharpened into ridges and were separated by ravines. It was a tenantless, soundless, well-nigh trackless wilderness. Our road had forsaken the creek, and there was no longer any guide to Rosita. Now and then we came to roads branching to right or left; no guide-posts told their destination, and in the silence and forsaken emptiness of these great spaces, all roads seemed alike inexplicable. In the west, a long, serrated line of snow-topped summits shone against the red sky. This was the grand Sangre di Cristo range, and by this we might partly know which way lay Rosita.

By a hesitating instinct, and not in any certainty, we groped along in that labyrinth of billowy hills and ravines, twilight settling fast upon the scene, and the vastness and the loneliness growing vaster and more lonely with each gathering shadow.

We were an hour too late. We had lingered too long among the flowers. Had we come out on this plateau in time to see the marshalling of the sunset, we should have looked down on Rosita all aglow with its reflection, and have seen the great Wet Mountain valley below like one long prism of emerald laid at the feet of the mountains which are called by the name of the “Blood of Christ.”

It was dark when we saw the Rosita lights ahead, and there was a tone of unconfessed relief in the voice with which my companion said:

“Ha! there is Rosita now!”

I think if I had driven down into a deep burrow of glow-worms in Brobdingnag, I should have had about the same sensations I had as we crept down into the black twinkling gulches of Rosita. When I saw them by daylight, I understood how they looked so weird by night, but at my first view of them they seemed uncanny indeed. The shifting forms of the miners seemed unhumanly grotesque, and their voices sounded strange and elfish.

“The House of the Snowy Range,” they all replied, as we asked for the name of the best inn. “That’s the one you’d like best. Strangers always go there.”

“The House of the Snowy Range” was simple enough English, I perceived, the next morning, but that night it sounded to me mysterious and half terrifying, as if they had said, “Palace of the Ice King,” or, “Home of the Spirits of the Frost.”

Never was a house better named than the House of the Snowy Range. It is only an unpainted pine house, two stories high, built in the roughest way, and most scantily furnished. Considered only as a house, it is undeniably bare and forlorn; but it is never to be considered only as a house. It is the House of the Snowy Range. That means that as you sit on the roofless, unrailed, unplaned board piazza, you see in the west the great Sangre di Cristo range,—more peaks than you would think of counting, more peaks than you could count if you tried, for they are so dazzling white that they blind the eye which looks too long and too steadily at them. These peaks range from ten thousand to fifteen thousand feet in height; they are all sharp-pointed and sharp-lined to the base: no curves, no confusion of over-lapping outlines. Of all the myriad peaks, lesser and greater, each one is distinct; the upper line made by the highest summits against the sky is sharply serrated, as if it were the teeth of a colossal saw; the whole front, as shown sloping to the east, is still a surface of sharp, distinct, pyramidal peaks, wedged in with each other in wonderful tiers and groupings. From the piazza of the House of the Snowy Range to the base of the nearest of these peaks is only five miles; but you look over at them through so marvellous a perspective that they seem sometimes nearer, sometimes much farther. They lie the other side of the great Wet Mountain valley. The House of the Snowy Range is one thousand feet above this valley, and gets its view of it between two near and rounding hills. From the piazza, therefore, you look at the Sangre di Cristo peaks across the mouth, as it were, of a huge, oval, emerald well, one thousand feet deep, yet illuminated with the clearest sunlight. It is an effect which can never be described. I am humiliated as I recall it and re-read these last few sentences. I think it would be the despair of the greatest painter that ever lived. What use, then, are words to convey it?

The Wet Mountain valley, or park, is thirty miles long and from four to five wide. It is one of the most fertile spots in Colorado. In July the meadow grasses grow higher than a man’s knee, and the hill slopes are carpeted with flowers. It is full of little streams and never-failing springs, fed from the snows on the mountain wall to the west. Here are large farms, well tilled and fenced in, and with comfortable houses. The creeks are full of trout, and the mountain slopes are full of game. It ought to be a paradise coveted and sought for; but the sound of the pickaxe from the hills above them reaches the ears of the farmers, and makes them discontented with their slower gains. Man after man they are drawn away by the treacherous lure, and the broad, beautiful valley is still but thinly settled. This is a mistake; but it is a mistake that is destined to go on repeating itself for ever in all mining countries. The contagion of the haste to be rich is as deadly as the contagion of a disease, and it is too impatient to take note of facts that might stay its fever. It is a simple matter of statistics, for instance, that in the regions of Georgetown and Central City the average miner is poor, while the man who sells him potatoes is well off. Yet for one man who will plant potatoes, twenty will go into a mine.

I am not sure, however, that it is wholly the lure of silver which draws men up from the green farms of Wet Mountain valley to the hills of Rosita. It might well be the spell of the little place itself. Fancy a half dozen high, conical hills, meeting at their bases, but sloping fast and far enough back to let their valleys be sunny and open; fancy these hills green to the very top, so that cattle go grazing higher and higher, till at the very summit they look no bigger than flies; fancy these hills shaded here and there with groves of pines and firs, so that one need never walk too far without shade; fancy between five and six hundred little houses, chiefly of the shining yellow pine, scattered irregularly over these hill-sides; remember that from the door-ways and windows of these houses a man may look off on the view I have described,—across a green valley one thousand feet below him, up to a range of snow-topped mountains fifteen thousand feet above him,—and does it not seem natural to love Rosita? Another most picturesque figure in the landscape is the contrast of color produced by the glittering piles of quartz thrown up at the mouths of the mines. There are over three hundred of these mines; they are dotted over the hill-sides, and each mine has its great pyramid of loose stone, which shines in the sun and is of a beautiful silvery gray color. The names of these mines are well-nigh incredible, and produce most bewildering effects when one hears them on every hand in familiar conversation. “Leviathan,” “Lucille,” “Columbus,” “Hebe,” “Elizabeth,” “Essex,” Humboldt,” “Buccaneer,” “Montezuma,” “Ferdinand,” “Sunset,” “Bald Hornet,” “Silver Wing,” “Evening Star,” and “Hell and Six,” are a few of them. Surely they indicate an amount and variety of taste and research very remarkable to be found in a small mining community.

On the morning after our arrival, we drove down into Wet Mountain valley, crossed it, and climbed high up on one. of the lower peaks of the Sangre di Cristo range. From this point we looked back on the Sierra Mojada; it was a sea of green mountain-tops, not a bare or rocky summit among them. Rosita was out of sight, and, looking at its close-set hills, one who did not know would have said there was no room for a town there.

At our feet grew white strawberry-blossoms, the low Solomon’s seal, and the dainty wild rose, as lovely, as perfect, and apparently as glad here, ten thousand feet above the sea, as they seem on a spring morning in New England’s hills and woods.

Finding one’s native flowers thousands of miles away from home seems to annihilate distance. To be transplanted seems the most natural thing in the world. Exile is not exile, if it be to a country where the wild rose can grow and a Snowy Range give benediction.

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