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Next: North Cheyenne CanyonContentsPrevious: Grand Canyon of the Arkansas

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


OUR NEW ROAD.

What a new singer or a new play is to the city man, a new road is to the man of the wilderness.

I fancy the parallel might be drawn out and amplified, much to the exaltation of the new road, if the man of the wilderness chose to boast, and if people were sensible enough to value pleasures as they do other fabrics, by their wear. It would be cruel, however, to make the city man discontented. Poor fellow! he is joined to his idols of stone, buried alive above them now, and soon he will be buried dead below them. Let him alone! It is no part of my purpose in this paper to enter the lists in defence of my joys, or to make an attack upon his. It is merely to describe our new road; and my pronoun “our” is by no means a narrow one,—it is a big plural, taking in some four thousand souls, all the dwellers in the town of Colorado Springs and its near neighborhood. The “new road” is up and across Cheyenne Mountain. Cheyenne Mountain is the southernmost peak of the grand range which lies six miles west of our town. Only those who dwell at the feet of great mountain ranges know how like a wall they look, what sense of fortified security they give; people who come for a day, to gaze and pass by, or even people who stay and paint the hills’ portraits, know very little. A mountain has as much personality as a man; you do not know one any more than you know the other until you have summered and wintered him. You love one, and are profoundly indifferent to another, just as it is with your feeling towards your neighbors; and it is often as hard to give good and sufficient reason for your preference in the one case as in the other. But no lover of Cheyenne was ever at loss to give reasons for his love. The mountain is so unique in its grandeur and dignity that one must be blind and stolid indeed not to feel its influence.

As I said, it is the southernmost peak of the range lying west of Colorado Springs. This is as if I said it is the southern bastion of our western wall. It is only two or three thousand feet above the town (the town, be it remembered, lies six thousand feet above the sea). Pike’s Peak, a few miles farther north, in the same range, is nearly twice as high; so it is not by reason of height that Cheyenne is so grand. Pausing now, with my pen in my hand, I look out of my south window at its majestic front, and despair of being loyal to the truth I would like to tell of this mountain. Is it that its eastern outline, from the summit down to the plain, is one slow, steady, in-curving slope, broken only by two rises of dark timber-lands, which round like billows; and that this exquisite hollowing curve is for ever outlined against the southern sky? Is it that the heavily cut and jagged top joins this eastern slope at a sharp angle, and stretches away to the northwest in broken lines as rugged and strong as the eastern slope is graceful and harmonious; and that the two lines together make a perpetual, vast triangulation on the sky? Is it that when white clouds in our heavens at noon journey south, they always seem to catch on its eastern slope, and hang and flutter there, or nestle down in an island-like bank reaching half-way up the mountain? Is it that the dawn always strikes it some moments earlier than it reaches the rest of the range, turning it glowing red from plains to sky, like a great illumined cathedral? Is it that the setting sun also loves it, and flings back mysterious broken prisms of light on its furrowed western slopes, long after the other peaks are black and grim? Is it that it holds canyons where one can climb, among fir-trees and roses and clematis and columbine and blue-bells and ferns and mosses, to wild pools and cascades in which snow-fed brooks tumble and leap? These questions are only like the random answers of one suddenly hard pressed for the explanation of a mystery which has long since ceased to be a mystery to him,—ceased to be a mystery not because it has been fathomed, but because it has become familiar and dear. No lover of Cheyenne but will say that Cheyenne is better than all these; that no one of all these is quite truly and sufficiently told; and I myself in the telling feel like one stammering in a language but half learned, the great mountain all the while looking down on me in serene and compassionate silence. At this moment, it looks like a gigantic mountain of crystals, purple and white. Every smallest ridge slope fronting to the east or south is of a red purple, like the purple of a Catawba grape over-ripe; every smallest ridge slope to the north or west is white like the white of alabaster, and soft with the softness of snow. The plains are a clear, pale yellow, and the spot where the slope melts into the level, and the purple melts into the yellow, is a triumph of shape and color from which men who build and men who paint might well turn away sorrowful.

Knowing well, as I do, just where among these crystalline ridges our new road winds, I yet look up incredulous at the sharp precipices and ledges. But it is there, bless it!—our new uplifter, revealer, healer, nearer link of approach to a nearer sky! The workmen know it as the road over to Bear creek valley, and they think they have built it for purposes of traffic, and for bringing down railroad ties; it is a toll-road, and the toll-gatherer takes minute reckoning of all he can see passing his door. But I think there will always be a traffic which the workmen will not suspect, and a viewless company which will elude the toll-gatherer, on this new road of ours.

It was on one of our tropical midwinter days that I first climbed it. A mile southward from the town, then a sharp turn to the west, fronting the mountains as directly as if our road must be going to pierce their sides, across brooks where the ice was so thick that our horses’ hoofs and our wheels crunched slowly through, up steep banks on which there were frozen glares of solid ice, and across open levels where the thin snow lay in a fine tracery around every separate grass-stalk, —one, two, three miles of this, and we were at the base of the mountain, and saw the new road, a faint brown track winding up the yellow slope and disappearing among the pines.

As we turned into the road, we saw, on our right, two ranch-men leaning, in the Sunday attitude, against a fence, and smoking. As we passed, one of them took his pipe from his mouth and said nonchalantly, “S’pose ye know this ere’s a toll-road.” The emphasis on the word “know” conveyed so much that we laughed in his face. Clever monosyllable, it stood for a whole paragraph.

“Oh, yes,” we said, “we know it. It’s worth fifty cents, isn’t it, to get high up on Cheyenne Mountain?”

“Well, yes,” he replied, reflectively, “’spose ’tis. It’s a mighty good road, anyhow. Found blossom rock up there yesterday,” he added, with the odd, furtive, gleaming expression which I have so often seen in the eyes of men who spoke of a possible or probable mine; “true blossom rock. The assayer, he was up, an he says it’s the real mineral, no mistake,” he continued, and there seemed a fine and unconscious scorn in the way he fingered the dingy and torn paper half dollar with which we had paid for the right to drive over what might be chambers of silver and gold.

“Blossom rock,” I said, “why ‘blossom’?” To call this particular surface mineral the flower of the silver root lying below, is a strange fancy, surely; it seems a needlessly poverty-stricken device for Nature’s realms to borrow names from each other.

A few rods’ steep climb, and we have left the foot-hill and are absolutely on the mountain. The road tacks as sharply as a ship in a gale; we are facing north instead of south, and are already on a ledge so high that we have a sense of looking over as well as of looking off. The plains have even now the pale pink flush which only distance gives, and our town, though it is only four miles away, looks already like a handful of yellow and white pebbles on a sand beach, so suddenly and so high are we lifted above it. We are not only on the mountain, we are among the rocks,—towering rocks of bright red sandstone, thick-grown in spaces with vivid yellow-green lichen. They are almost terrible, in spite of their beauty of color,—so high, so straight, so many-pointed are they. The curves of the road would seem to be more properly called loops, so narrow are they, so closely do they hug the sharp projections round which they turn and wind and turn and wind. One is tempted to say that the road has lassoed the mountain and caught it, like a conquered Titan, in a tangle of coils. At every inner angle of the curves is a wide turn-out, where we wait to give the horses breath, and to watch if there be any one coming down. Round the outer angles we go at a slow pace, praying that there may be no one just the other side. When we face northward, the mountain shuts off all sun and we are in cold shadow; the instant we double the outer point of the ridge and face southward, we are in full sunshine; thus we alternate from twilight to high noon, and from high noon to twilight, in a swift and bewildering succession. On our right, we look down into chasms bristling with sharp rocks and pointed tops of fir-trees; on our left the mountain-side rises, now abruptly like a wall, now in sloping tiers. After a mile of these steep ascents, we come out on a very promontory of precipices. Here we turn the flank of the mountain, and a great vista to the west and north opens up before us, peak rising above peak, with softer hills crowding in between; below us, canyon after canyon, ridge after ridge, a perfect net-work of ins and outs and ups and downs, and our little brown thread of a road swinging along at easy levels above it all. There is no more hard climbing. There are even clown slopes on which the horses trot, in the shade of high pine-trees on either hand, now and then coming upon a spot where the ridge has widened sufficiently for the trees to dispose themselves in a more leisurely and assured fashion, like a lowland grove, instead of clinging at a slant on steep sides, as they are for the most part driven to do; now and then coming out on opens, where a canyon lies bare and yawning, like a great gash in the mountain’s side, its slopes of fine red or yellow gravelly sand seeming to be in a perpetual slide from top to bottom,—only held in place by bowlders here and there, which stick out like grotesque heads of rivets with which the hill had been mended. Here we find the kinnikinnick in its perfection, enormous mats of it lying- compact, glossy, green and claret-tinted, as if enamelled, on the yellow sand. Painters have thought it worth while to paint over and over again some rare face or spot whose beauty perpetually eluded their grasp and refused to be transferred to canvas. Why should I not be equally patient and loyal to this exquisite vine, of which I have again and again, and always vainly, tried to say what it is like, and how beautiful is the mantle it flings over bare and stony places?

Imagine that a garden-border of box should lay itself down and behave like a blackberry vine,—run, and scramble, and overlap, and send myriads of long tendrils out in all directions,—and you will have a picture of the shape, the set of the leaf, the thick matting of the branches, and the utter unrestrainedness of a root of kinnikinnick. Add to this the shine of the leaf of the myrtle. the green of green grass in June, and the claret-red of the blackberry vine in November, and you will have a picture of its lustrousness and its colors. The solid centres of the mats are green; the young tendrils run out more and more vivid red to their tips. In June it is fragrant with clusters of small pink and white bells, much like the huckleberry blossom. In December it is gay with berries as red as the berries of the holly. Neither midsummer heat nor midwinter cold can tarnish the sheen nor shrivel the fulness of its leaf. It has such vitality that no barrenness, no drought, deters it; in fact, it is more luxuriant on the bare, gravelly slopes of which I was just now speaking, than I have ever seen it elsewhere. Yet its roots seem to take slight hold of the soil. You may easily, by a little care in loosening the tendrils, pull up solid mats five to seven feet long. Fancy these at Christmas, in one’s house. I look up, as I write, at one upon my own wall. It has a stem an inch in diameter, gnarled and twisted like an old cedar,—the delight of an artistic eye, the surprise and scorn of the Philistine, to whom it looks merely like fire-wood. From this gnarled bough bursts a great growth of luxuriant green branches, each branch claret-red at its tips and vivid green at its centre. It has hung as a crown of late dower over the head of my Beatrice Cenci for two months, and not a leaf has fallen. It will hang there unchanged until June, if I choose. This virtue is partly its own, partly the spell of the wonderful dryness of our Colorado air, in which all things do as Mrs. Stowe says New Englanders do when they are old,— “dry up a little and then last.”

Still running westward along the north side of the mountain, the road follows the ridge lines of the huge, furrow-like canyons which cleave the mountain from its base to its summit. These make a series of triangles piercing the solid mass; and we zigzag up one side, round the sharp inner corner, and down the other side, then round the outer point, and then up and clown just such another triangle,—and so on, for miles. The sight of these great gorges is grand: a thousand feet down to their bottom on the one hand, and a thousand feet up to their top on the other. Looking forward or back across them, we see the line of our road like a narrow ledge on the precipice; a carriage on it looks as if it had been let down by ropes from the top. Soon we come to great tracts of pines and firs, growing scantily at incredible angles on these steep slopes; many trees have been cut, and are lying about on the ground, as if giants had been playing jackstraws, and had gone away leaving their game unfinished. They call these trees “timber;” that is “corpse” for a tree. A reverent sadness always steals on my thoughts when I see a dead tree lying where the axe slew it. The road winds farther and farther into a labyrinth of mountain fastnesses: gradually these become clear to the eye, a certain order and system in their succession. The great Cheyenne Canyon stretches like a partially hewn pathway between the mountain we are on and the rest of the range lying to north of it. This northward wall is rocky, seamed, and furrowed; bare, water-worn cliffs, hundreds of feet high, alternate with intervals of pine forest, which look black and solid in the shade, but in full sunlight are seen to be sparse, so that even from the other side of the canyon you may watch every tree’s double of black shadow thrown on the ground below, making a great rafter-work floor, as it were, from which the trees seem to rise like columns. Above this stretch away endless tiers of peaks and round hills, more than one can count, because at each step some of them sink out of sight and new ones crop up. Some are snow-topped; some have a dark, serrated line of firs over their summits; some look like mere masses of bowlders and crags, their upper lines standing clear out against the sky, like the jagged top of a ruined wall. On all the slopes leading down into the canyons are rows of pines, like besiegers climbing up; and on most of the upper connecting ridges lies a fine white line of snow, like a silver thread knitting peak to peak. From all the outer points of these gorges, as we look back to the east, we have exquisite glimpses of the plains, framed always in a triangle made by sloping canyon walls. I doubt if it would be possible to render one of these triangle pictures as we get them from between these intersecting and overlapping walls. A yucca plant, ten inches high, may happen to come into the near foreground, so that it helps to frame them; and yet their upper horizon line is miles and miles away. I have never seen so marvellous a blending of the far and the near as they give.

Still the road winds and winds, and the sense of remoteness grows stronger and stronger. The silence of the wilderness, what is there like it? The silence of the loneliest ruin is silence only because time has hushed the sounds with which the ruin was once alive. This is silence like that in which the world lay pregnant before time began.

Just as this grand, significant silence was beginning to make us silent, too, we came suddenly upon a little open where the wilderness was wilderness no longer. One man had tamed it. On our right hand stood his forge, on our left his house. Both forge and house were of a novel sort; nowhere but in the heart of the Rocky Mountains would they have been called by such names. The forge consisted of a small pine-tree, a slender post some four feet distant from it, a pile of stones and gravel, a log, and a pair of bellows. The house was perhaps eight feet high; the walls reached up one third that height: first, three logs, then, two planks; there the wall ended. One front post was a pine-tree, the other a rough cedar stump; from the ridgepole hung a sail-cloth roof which did not meet the walls; very airy must be the blacksmith’s house on a cold night, in spite of the southeast winds being kept off by a huge bowlder twenty feet high. On one side stood an old dead cedar-tree with crooked arms, like some marine monster; one of the arms was the blacksmith’s pantry, and there hung his dinners for a week or more, a big haunch of venison. A tomtit, not much larger than a humming-bird, was feasting on it by snatches. The tiny creature flew from the topmost branch of the tree down to the venison, took a bite, and was back again safe on the upper bough in far less time than I take to write his name; less than a second a trip he took, I think; never once did he pause for a second bite, never once rest on a lower branch: he fairly seemed to buzz in the air, so fast he flew up and down.

“So you board the tomtit, do you?” we said to the blacksmith, who stood near by, piling boughs on a big fire.

“Yes; he’s so little I can afford to keep him,” replied the blacksmith, with a quiet twinkle in his eye and the cheery tone of a good heart in his voice: “he jest about lives in that tree, an’ there’s generally suthin’ there for him.”

It was a spot to win a man’s love, the spot the blacksmith had chosen for his temporary home, the little open had so sheltered and sheltering a look: to the south, east, north, mountain walls; to the west a vista, a suggestion of outlet, and a great friendliness of pine-trees. Two small brooks ran across the clearing. A thick line of bare, gray cotton-woods marked them now; in the summer they would be bowers of green, and the little bridges across them would be hid in thickets of foliage. The upper line of the southern mountain wall stood out against the sky in bold and fantastic shapes, endlessly suggestive. That rocks not hewn by men’s hands should have such similitudes is marvellous. I have seen photographs of ruins in Edom and Palmyra which seem to be almost reproductions of these rocky summit outlines of some of our Colorado peaks.

A half-mile farther on we came upon the camp of the men who were building the road. “Camp” is an elastic word. In this case, it meant merely a small pine grove, two big fires, and some piles of blankets. Here the road ceased. As we halted, three dogs came bounding towards us, barking most furiously. One of them stopped suddenly, gave one searching look at me, put her tail between her legs, and with a pitiful yelp of terror turned and fled. I walked slowly after her; she would look back over her shoulder, turn, make one or two lunges at me, barking shrilly, then with the same yelp of terror run swiftly away; at last she grew brave enough to keep her face toward me, but continually backed away, alternating her bark of defiance with her yelp of terror in a way which was irresistibly ludicrous. We were utterly perplexed by her behavior until her master, as soon as he could speak for laughing, explained it.

“Yer see, that ’ere dog’s never seen a woman afore. She was reared in the woods, an’ I hain’t never took her nowheres, an’ thet’s jest the fact on’t; she dunno what to make of a woman.”

It grew droller and droller. The other dogs were our good friends at once, leaped about us, snuffed us, and licked our hands as we spoke to them. Poor Bowser hung back and barked furiously with warning and menace whenever I patted one of the other dogs, but if I took a step nearer her she howled and fled in the most abject way.

Two men were baking bread, and there seemed a good-natured rivalry between them.

“I’ve got a leetle too much soda in it,” said one, as I peered curiously into his big bake-kettle, lifting the cover, “but his ’n’s all burnt on the top,” with a contemptuous cock of his eye towards his fellow-baker. It is said to be very good, this impromptu bread, baked in a shapeless lump in an iron kettle, with coals underneath and coals on the lid above. It did not look so, however. I think I should choose the ovens of civilization.

The owner of my canine foe was a man some fifty-five or sixty years old. He had a striking face, a clear, blue-gray eye, with a rare mixture of decision and sentiment in it, a patriarchal gray beard, and a sensitive mouth. He wore a gray hat, broader-brimmed even than a Quaker’s, and it added both picturesqueness and dignity to his appearance. His voice was so low, his intonation so good, that the uncultured speech seemed strangely out of place on his lips. He had lived in the woods “nigh eight year,” sometimes in one part of the Territory, sometimes in another. He had been miner, hunter, farmer, and now road-builder. A very little talk with men of this sort usually draws from them some unexpected revelations of the motives or the incidents of their career. A long lonely life produces in the average mind a strange mixture of the taciturn and the confidential. The man of the wilderness will journey by your side whole days in silence; then, of a sudden, he will speak to you of matters of the most secret and personal nature, matters which it would be, for you, utterly impossible to mention to a stranger. We soon learned the secret of this man’s life in the woods. Nine years ago his wife had died. That broke up his farm home, and after that “all places seemed jest alike” to him, and “somehow” he “kinder took to the woods.” What an unconscious tribute there is in that phrase to nature’s power as a beneficent healer.

“There was another reason, too,” he added. ”My wife, she died o’ consumption, hereditary, an’ them two boys’d ha’ gone the same way ef I hadn’t kep’ ’em out-o’-doors,” pointing to two stalwart young men perhaps eighteen and twenty. “They hain’t slep’ under a roof for eight year, an’ now they’re as strong an’ hearty as you’d wish to see.” They were, indeed, and they may thank their father’s wisdom for it.

Just beyond this camp was a cabin of fir boughs. Who that has not seen can conceive of the fragrant loveliness of a small house built entirely of fir boughs? It adds to the spice and the green and the airy lightness and the shelter of the pine-tree a something of the compactness and deftness and woven beauty of a bird’s nest. I never weary of looking at it, outside and in: outside, each half-confined twig lifting its cross of soft, plumy ends and stirring a little in the wind, as it used to do when it grew on the tree; inside, the countless glints of blue sky showing through the boughs, as when one lies on his back under a low pine-tree and looks up. This cabin has only three sides built of boughs. The fourth is a high bowlder, which slants away at just the right angle to make a fire-place. The stone is of a soft, friable kind, and the fire has slowly eaten its way in, now and then cracking off a huge slice, until there is quite a fine “open Franklin” for the cabin. It draws well when the wind is in the right direction, as I can testify, for I have made fires in it. If the wind is from the east, it smokes, but I never heard of an open Franklin that did not.

The coming down over our new road is so unlike the going up that the very road seems changed. The beautiful triangular pictures of the distant plains are constantly before our eyes, widening at each turn, and growing more and more distinct at each lower level we reach. The blue line of the divide in the northern horizon looks always like a solid line of blue. By what process a stretch of green timber land turns into a wall of lapis lazuli, does the science of optics teach?

It is nearly sunset as we descend. The plains look boundless. Their color is a soft mingling of pink and yellow and gray; each smallest hollow and hill has a tint of its own, and hills and hollows alike seem dimples on the smooth expanse. Here and there patches of ploughed land add their clear browns with a fine effect of dark mosaics on the light surface.

As we pass the bare slopes where the kinnikinnick is richest and greenest, we load our carriage with its lovely, shining mats. Below, on the soft pink plains, is a grave we love. It lies in the shade of great pines, on a low hill to the west of the town. Surely, never did a little colony find ready to its hand a lovelier burial-place than this.

Long ago there must have been watercourses among these low hills, else these pines could never have grown so high and strong. The watercourses are dried now, and only barren sands lie around the roots of the great trees, but still they live and flourish, as green in December as in June, and the wind in their branches chants endless chants above the graves.

This grave that we love lies, with four pines guarding it closely, on a westward slope which holds the very last rays of the setting sun. We look up from it to the glorious, snow-topped peaks which pierce the sky, and the way seems very short over which our friend has gone. The little mound is kept green with the faithful kinnikinnick vines, and we bring them, now, from the highest slopes which our new road reaches, on the mountain our friend so loved.


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