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


NORTH CHEYENNE CANYON.

Three miles south of Colorado Springs, on the main road to Pueblo, there is a road leading to the right. If you are looking for it, you will see it; otherwise you may easily pass by without observing it. This is the road which leads to the ranches on the foothills of Cheyenne Mountain. It is travelled by only two classes of people,—the hard-working farmers, who live on these ranches and come to town to sell butter, poultry, eggs, and wood; and pleasure-seekers, who go from town, past these ranches, up into the grand recesses of the mountain. For a mile or more the road is a lane between fenced fields. In June the fields are bright with red-and-white vetches, and purple lupines and white daisies grow on the edges of the lane. It follows closely along the bank of Cheyenne Creek, a stream which is a foaming torrent in spring and only a little thread of a brook in mid-summer. Its banks are thick-grown with the willow cotton-wood and with the white plum. When the plum is in flower, it makes the air so spicy sweet it draws all the bees and humming insects in the region, and makes you think you must be in Araby, as you drive by. Soon the lane plunges into great thickets of bushes,—low white oak, willow, plum, clethra, and, above all, the wild rose. You wind and wind in this tangle of green and blossom, looking out and up, past the waving tops of the bushes, at the red and black rocks of the precipitous mountain. The contrast is so vivid as to be bewildering and lends a peculiar enchantment to the approach to the canyon. You cross and recross the creek,—sometimes by a ford, sometimes by a log bridge, which rolls and rattles under the horse’s feet; the bushes become trees and meet over your head; great bowlders and fir-trees crowd on the road, which suddenly ends in a small clearing that is like a green, swarded well, with high sides of rock. You are in the canyon. The brook, still hid in its procession of leafy standard-bearers, comes leaping into this open with a loud music of sound. For a little space further is a footpath you may follow. Then the footpath also comes to end, crowded out by bowlders, by sand-slopes, by big firs, by driftwood from many a spring freshet, and by the rushing brook to-clay. On stones along the edge of the water or in it, on mossy logs and ledges. on crumbling sand-rims, you may keep on in the brook’s road, if you can. It is a scramble; but it is a delight.

The walls of the canyon are black, gray, or red granitic rock, with here and there sandstone. Tall pines and firs grow in clumps at their base, or in slanting rows, like slow-climbing besiegers on their sides. Now the canyon widens, and there are grassy banks to the brook, even a little bit of sandy beach now and then, and the water is amber-colored and still. Then the canyon narrows, the brook foams white over huge bowlders, and runs thin and shining, like shifting glass surfaces over great tables and slabs of dark stone. The walls on either hand are cloven in places, and stand out in turrets and towers fifty, a hundred, two hundred feet high. You cross the brook on logs,—logs three abreast, but no one firm. A huge bowlder in the middle of the stream divides it, turns it to the right and to the left, and tosses each current in fantastic jets and falls. Now the chasm bends to the south. Soft, green, and wooded hills come in sight, tokens of the fertile parks beyond. On the left hand is a level space, almost like a river interval, so thick grown with pines and firs that underneath their wide-spreading branches are great glooms of shade which no sun can reach. The ground is strewn thick with the fir-cones and pine-needles. On the right hand are perpendicular walls of rock, two hundred feet high, on which the sky seems to rest. These walls are in tiers, which lap and overlap. Tufts of green growths—bushes, grasses—wave on them, even to the topmost rock. At their bases are piles of driftwood; its shining surfaces glisten like gray satin in the sun. Whole trees, with their gnarled roots in the air, have whirled down and lodged here. To look down from the top to the bottom of this canyon, in a spring freshet, when the brook is amusing itself with this sort of play would be a spectacle worth seeing. One of these huge dead trees a woodbine has chosen for its trellis. In and out, in and out, wreathing every bough and branch, it has gone faithfully from root to topmost twig, and on no live tree could it possibly he so beautiful. Here is the kinnikinnick, our one undying vine, with its glossy green lengths looking almost like running hieroglyphs on the yellow sand; and the purple clematis, too, which winds its rings and coils so tight around twigs and stems that it cannot be parted from them, even if you wish. But you do not wish, for the clematis alone would not be half so fair as it is when it flings out its purple bells as streamers from an oak bough or a stem of spiraea. Through the fir-glooms on the left, gleam red towers, which stand behind them. Far up on the south slopes of the canyon are more isolated red rocks, —pillars, altars, pyramids. No rounded or smoothed shapes; all abrupt, sharp-edged, jagged. Now comes a still wider open, with amphitheatre-like walls circling it; spaces of green grass and low bushes on either side the stream. A few steps, and we leave this behind, and are again in a close, cleft way, whose rocky sides are so near together that, as you look back, they seem to shut behind you. The left-hand wall is a sheer precipice. In strange contrast to its massive dark stone are the tufts of flowers growing out of its crevices to the very top,—white spiraeas, white columbines, and, daintiest of all, the pink “shooting star.” This is a flower that must belong to the same family as the cyclamen, which all dwellers in Albano know so well in its shady haunts under the old ilex-trees. Mad violet the Italians call it, and certainly there is something mischievous in the way it turns its petals back, as a restive horse turns his ears. Colorado’s “shooting star” is of a delicate pink, with exquisite dark brown and bright yellow markings in the centre, at the base of the pistil, and its rosy petals all bent back as determinedly as those of the cyclamen. Hanging and waving on a mossy rock, scores of feet above one’s head, it is one of the most bewitching flowers in all the marvellous flora of Colorado.

On the top of this flowery precipice stands one tree, alone, dead, its skeleton arms stretched motionless against the sky. It could not have seemed so lonely, so hopelessly dead anywhere else. The very blue sky itself seems to mock its desolation, to resist its appeal.

The next change is an abrupt one. The sharp, precipitous wall ends suddenly, or, rather, trends backward in jagged slopes to the south, and is succeeded by a beautiful grassy hill, making the left wall of the canyon. On its top are huge bowlders and serrated rocks in confusion, looking as if a high wind might topple them down. The brook buries itself in a thicket of willows; under the willows is an army of bulrushes, with their bristling spear-points. Pushing through these, you are in one moment up again on a bare gravel hillside, so steep there is no trace of a path. It is of disintegrated rock, rather than of gravel, and at every step you sink ankle-deep in the sharp fragments. You clutch at tiny, frail bushes above, and you brace yourself against tiny, frail bushes below; but the bushes have not much firmer foot-hold than you have yourself, and there seems little to hinder you from slipping to the very bottom of the canyon. Wedged in the crevices of the rocks here are the mats of a variety of the prickly-pear cactus, now in blossom. The flower seems as strangely out of place as would a queen’s robe on a rough-shod beggar. Its yellow petals glisten like satin, and are almost transparent, so delicate is their texture. They are thick set in the shape of a cup, and in the centre is a sheaf of filaments as fine as spun silk. How was it born of this shapeless, clumsy, pulpy, dull-tinted leaf, bristling all over with fierce and cruel thorns? Well does the coarse creature guard its dainty gold cups, however. You will rue it, if you try to pick one.

The gravelly hillside does not last long. Well for one’s muscle and patience that it does not, for a rod of it is as tiring as a mile of any other sort of scrambling. In a few moments you reach a spot where the rocks and the bushes and the fir-trees conquer and make a rough terra firma again. The confusion of the rocks increases; they look as if they must all have been hurled at each other in a fight. Bowlders are piled upon bowlders, and the bed of the stream is a succession of tilted slabs. Suddenly comes the sound of falling water, and you see, just ahead, a beautiful succession of irregular and twisting falls,—slides, rather than falls, one might well call them,—and they have a certain beauty and a variety of coloring which a simple vertical fall must for ever lack. Water can do a hundred things more beautiful with itself than leaping off a precipice; but the world at large does not seem to know it. The noise and spatter and froth are what the world likes best. Here in these water-slides in North Cheyenne canyon you shall see in one small space water moving from side to side in a stately minuet motion over a many-colored surface of rock, more beautiful than a mosaic; water gliding inexplicably to right or to left; water leaping suddenly, flinging one jet and then no more; water turning and doubling on itself and pausing in dark pools. And, for sound, you shall hear in one moment a perfect orchestra of fine notes, of melodies all separate, yet all in unison, any one of which is as much sweeter and more delightsome than the noise of a fall as is the low ripple of mirth, which is but one remove from the silent smile, pleasanter to hear than the loud roar of open-mouthed laughter.

You will not go any further up the canyon. It widens soon and grows less and less wild, till it opens at last into the fertile Bear Creek Valley. To journey through it is pleasant; but you will sit all the rest of the day on the mossy ledges by this gliding and melodious water.

At sunset you will go down. The rocky walls of the canyon will seem to swing and part before you, as you descend, like gate, portcullis, bridge, opened by friendly retainers, to speed their lord’s guest. You will bear in your hands bunches of whatever flowers you love best and choose as you walk. I bore on this June day, whose pictures I have so faintly outlined here, a sheaf of the white columbine,—one single sheaf, one single root; but it was almost more than I could carry. In the open spaces I carried it on my shoulder; in the thickets I bore it carefully in my arms, like a baby. When at last I had set it triumphantly in a great jar on my south window-sill I counted its blossoms, and there were forty-three.


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