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Love In The Park
A tiny, ailing, middle-aged Victorian lady and an alcoholic, one-eyed mountain man are a couple far too unlikely for fiction. But just such a pair met, and fell in love, and suffered in Estes Park, Colorado, in 1873. Isabella Lucy Bird, our improbable heroine, became a prolific and popular travel writer as well as an intrepid tourist, and her journeys resulted in many books, some of which are still being reprinted. This story of her Colorado romance is from A Gallery of Dudes, to be published soon by Little, Brown.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
The poor invalid, Isabella Lucy Bird, was sick again in the spring of 1872, suffering from backache, headache, insomnia, bad teeth, and nervous tension, to say nothing of the pain of having passed her fortieth virginal year.
Isabella was sick also of her own large sad eyes, her small white face, her squat figure four feet eleven inches tall, which, she said, had “the padded look of a puffin.” She was sick of the damp of Scotland’s Isle of Mull, where she was staying with her adored sister Henrietta. She was sick of nursing the poor, of teaching Sunday school, of lecturing on the evils of drink. In July, when her doctor urged her to get out of bed and take a long sea voyage, she decided to sail to New Zealand and spend a year there. She felt guilty about leaving Henrietta behind and meant to atone for it by sending her letters about her adventures.
She got to Auckland safely, but it supplied few adventures, so she left in January of ’73 for the Hawaiian archipelago, which gave her more exciting letter material. Hawaiian women, she found, rode horses astride, on peaked Mexican saddles, an astonishing but tempting notion to this proper Victorian gentlewoman, who had always ridden sidesaddle. Isabella bought “a dainty bloomer costume … full Turkish trousers gathered into frills which fall over the boots—a thoroughly serviceable and feminine costume.” Riding astride seemed to cure the pain in her back. She roamed the Islands for six months, reporting to Henrietta on Hilo, lepers, and the liquor problem. She even climbed Mauna Loa, rising nearly fourteen thousand feet above the sea, and slept in a tent at the edge of its crater with a kind and considerate Englishman named Mr. Wilson—so kind and considerate that she never slept better in her life.
She loved these Sandwich Islands. But she pushed on in August of ’73 to America. This was not just restlessness. For one thing, Henrietta had threatened to join her in Hawaii, and that would not do. Furthermore, a friend, Rose Kingsley, daughter of the writer Charles Kingsley, had told Isabella exciting things about the Territory of Colorado. Rose had spent some months at Colorado Springs, which was full of Englishmen, and she had described the pleasures of that “Little London” below Pikes Peak.
Rose’s uncle, Dr. George Kingsley, had recommended quite a different kind of Colorado spot. He was about to hunt elk and bear and bighorn sheep in a secret valley of several thousand acres somewhere northwest of Denver. The valley was called Estes Park, after its first settler, Joel Estes; a hard-drinking Welshman, Griffith Evans, was now running the old Estes ranch in the valley. Although the area was almost inaccessible, an obscure trail ran in from the Little Thompson River up a gulch called Muggins. According to Kingsley, the Muggins Gulch entrance was guarded by an English desperado, Mountain Jim Nugent, a bachelor who had “black fits” and a tendency to commit mayhem on sprees in Denver’s grogshops.
Isabella had mulled over these descriptions and had concluded that she had to see this Colorado Territory. It would even be interesting to meet this English desperado; she carried a Colt revolver somewhere about her padded puffin figure and had no fear of mere ruffians.
On September 9, 1873, a small, prim lady in a gray and white dress over a crinoline stepped from the Denver Pacific train at Greeley, Colorado. Earlier, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Miss Isabella Bird had received a letter from Colorado’s ex-governor A. C. Hunt, another friend of Rose Kingsley’s, and following Hunt’s directions, she was now on her way to Estes Park.
The new Greeley before her was a ragged dream of Utopia. Westward were “the plains like the waves of a sea which had fallen asleep” merging into forested foothills, and then the great Front Range of the Rockies. She was able to observe and admire Greeley’s morality (saloons were banned, as they are still). She disliked the rest of it—the heat, the black flies, the bugs that swarmed over her that night at Mrs. Graham’s boardinghouse. But the morning brought the crisp, clear air, the golden glow of cottonwoods, the cheerful gossip of magpies, which make Colorado such a joy in early fall. She was thrilled by the view of Longs Peak, rising to more than fourteen thousand feet due west. “The Alps,” she wrote Henrietta, “from the Lombard plains, are the finest mountain panorama I ever saw, but not equal to this; for not only do five high-peaked giants, each nearly the height of Mount Blanc, lift their dazzling summits above the lower ranges, but the expanse of mountains is so vast, and the whole lie in a transparent medium of the richest blue, not haze—something peculiar to the region.”