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


A STUDY OF RED CANYON.

On the fourth day of June, 1876, Pike’s Peak was white with snow, and glittered in the sun as if the snow were solid ice. Half-a-dozen little fleecy clouds flitted around its summit, like fairies wrapped in swan’s-down skating back and forth on the shining surface. Nowhere else in the radiant blue dome of sky was a cloud to be seen. The Fountain Creek, which runs eastward from Manitou toward Colorado Springs, was swollen high by melting snows in the mountains, and dashed along with foamy, white-capped waves. A tiny island, not more than two or three feet square, full of tall, waving, yellow lupines, was so nearly swallowed tip by the torrent that it hardly looked like an island,— rather like a gay bark, with a myriad golden pennons, tossing on a stormy sea.

To enter Red Canyon, one must ford this creek about two miles east of Manitou. It took some nerve to drive into the swift current. A second’s swaying of the carriage, a sudden plunge of the horses, a muffled clattering of their feet deep down beneath the water, and we were out on the other side, wheels dripping like mill-wheels and the horses shaking themselves like Newfoundland dogs after a swim.

“If the creek should continue to rise while we are in the canyon, what then?” said I, as we rounded the first rocky bank, and began to walk the horses in a soft, green open.

“Stay here till it fell,” was the wise and sententious answer. “We couldn’t ford it if it were two inches higher.”

How much did this thought enhance the pleasure of that day? Red Canyon was not only Red Canyon. It was a possible home, lodging, shelter,—a sudden sanctuary of refuge. Had we friends, they could not find us, get at us. Red Canyon had taken possession of us, had chosen to monopolize us by a grim and daring hospitality akin to that of the feudal ages. Had we enemies, were we fugitives, Red Canyon would not give us up. It was our extempore monarch and knew nothing of laws of extradition. The very thought of these possibilities seemed to drop a veil between us and home, only three miles away; to lend a spell as of unreckoned distance and uncounted time. The day, the place, became dramatic, and we were irresponsible dramatis personae, with no trouble about learning our parts. It was a novel and delicious sensation,—one of the many and inexhaustible surprises which they enjoy to whom the gods have granted that they may live in Colorado.

And so we studied Red Canyon. First, as I said, is a soft, green open or valley, not many rods wide, its left wall red sandstone, in thin horizontal layers, piled up from fifty to a hundred feet high, jagged edges, water-worn and seamed, with pine-trees growing in their crevices. On the right hand, low hills, grass-grown, a copse of oak bushes close to the road on the left; on the right, one of wild cherry-trees in full bloom. The sandstone ledges look in places like old ship-keels, turned up, stranded, battered. The oak bushes are so close to the road they brush your wheels. The road winds, now right, now left; more ledges, more grassy hills, more isolated rocks, columns, obelisks, all red. Three sharp pinnacles stand out on the left and seem to narrow and cut off the road. A second more, and a cone-like hill beyond has risen suddenly like a green fortress across the way between two red ledges. Now the road winds through a cottonwood grove, and the hills and ledges on each side seem to be slipping past, above the tree-tops, like the sliding canvas of a painted panorama. Then the rift widens into a little park. Close in front is one sharp sandstone peak, thick-grown half way up with pines and firs,—a pyramid of red set in a bowl of green. Hills upon hills rise on the right, full of green firs and pinnacles of red stone. Blue mertensias and penstemons grow among them. Now the canyon narrows again. It is only a chasm. The ledges on each side present a front as of myriads of plate edges, so thin are the layers and so many. Again they are rounded and smooth. One on the right looks like a gigantic red whale, hundreds of rods long. Opposite him are great surfaces of slanting rock, finely striated, as with engravers’ tools. You can see only a few rods ahead. The road is a gully. Roses begin to make the air sweet. In a thicket of them, the road turns sharply round a high rock, and you are again in a little grassy open, some hundred yards wide. The great red stone whale on the right has his backbone higher than ever, and dozens of loose bowlders are riding him. On the left hand the rock wall is perpendicular, serrated at top, and with slanting pinnacles shooting out here and there. Tall pines, also, seventy and eighty feet high, rooted in rocks where apparently is no crumb of earth. At the base of this wall, a thick copse of oak bushes, whose young leaves are of as tender and vivid a green as the leaves of slender white birches in June in New England. Now we cross a broad gully. In the bottom of its red and sandy bed is a thread of shining water. Ahead looms up a solid mass of green,—a fir wood,— out of which taller pines rise like canopies borne over heads below. The walls on either hand slope back, and have here and there little plateaus, which are thick with foliage, a sort of brilliant repoussť work in green on a red background. There is a sharp buzz of insects all through the air. Here comes another little thread-like stream leaping across the road, and suddenly the canyon widens again. The left-hand wall is a wall of green, none of its stone showing through; but in the centre of the canyon rises a huge minster-like pile of red stone, with tall firs and pines for towers and spires. Next we cross a dry and stony gully, and come to gypsum quarries, where the glistening white stone is tumbled about in fine, picturesque masses,—a sudden and delicious contrast of color after the dark reds and greens on which we have been looking so long.

The canyon narrows; the road narrows; the walls seem to brace their very feet together. Pink wild roses and shrubs of a beautiful white-flowered rubus overhang the road. There are huge red bowlders and peaks on our left; green hills and the white quarries on our right: a disused kiln, also, whose white doorway looks ghostly. The road sinks into rocky chasms, climbs out, turns such short corners we cannot see the horses’ lengths ahead, scrambles over bowlders and slabs and piles of gypsum, and comes to a dead stop in front of a hill, with great masses of cleft rock on its top. This is the head of the canyon,—the hard knot, as it were, in which the two walls are tied.

Tiers of soft, green, conical hills shut us in on all sides. A great shelf of rock juts out, and makes so large a shadow that a party of four or five might be comfortably be[d]stead here for a night. It has evidently been often used for such shelter, for the ashes of old fires lie thick in its recesses.

Summer days seem always reckoned by minutes, and not by hours. How much too short they seem in Colorado it would not be wise to try to tell; but no one will forget who has spent many of them out of doors there. Red Canyon has, doubtless, many secrets to keep. I shall keep well my share of the secrets of this fleeting fourth of June.

As we retraced our steps in the late afternoon, the canyon seemed like a new one we had never seen, so changed was it by our changed point of view. It is far more beautiful as you go clown. The sides seem abrupter, the contrasts more vivid, and there is ever before your eyes a magnificent background of distance to the north and northeast. The blue wall of the divide breaks it, and the grand gates of the Garden of the Gods glow like pinnacles of red cornelian in the sunset light.

The creek, which had been so full of foamy white-caps in the morning, was running so much more peacefully when we crossed it at night that our horses stood still in the middle and drank at their leisure; and the gay bark, with its yellow lupine pennons, was high above water, its sides looking black and worn, as if it had been in battle.


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