Love In The Park

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Jim Nugent is a Colorado legend now, a tragic figure of romance immortalized by the pen of Isabella Bird. He did not live long after Isabella watched him and the rest of her Estes Park world go “down below the prairie seas.” In June of ’74, Griff Evans blasted him with a shotgun from his ranch-house porch. Griff pleaded self-defense, and was acquitted after Jim died from the wounds three months later in Fort Collins. Gossip had it, and still has it, that Griff shot Jim in an argument about squatter’s rights and also about Jim’s attentions to Jinny Griffith. On the day Jim died, Isabella was in Interlaken, Switzerland. She wrote later that he appeared to her in her hotel then to say goodbye to her, as he had promised to do that night on Longs Peak when love and marriage had seemed possible. He wore his tattered trapper’s garb, bowed low with courtly grace, and vanished.

And Isabella? That tiny, frail, tenderhearted, indomitable woman is an Estes legend too. The story of the park, as millions know it, is largely her creation. Her book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, is as widely read today as it was when it appeared in 1879. Her fantastic activity increased as she grew older, but her health got worse and worse—spots on her lungs, rheumatism, and a balky heart being added to her other ailments. She almost married Henrietta’s doctor, John Bishop, in 1878, when she was forty-seven, but could not face “being an invalid wife” and fled to Japan to rest up among the hairy Ainu of Hokkaido. Bishop, ten years her junior, continued to woo her, and they married soon after Henrietta’s death in 1880. Isabella buried Bishop five years later.

Her many travel books, immensely popular, told of her adventures in Hawaii, in the Malayas, in India, in Persia, in Turkistan, in China. How she survived these exhausting trips might be explained by her husband’s remark that she had the appetite of a tiger and the digestion of an ostrich. Besides writing, she worked at photography, chemistry, nursing, and bicycling. She used her fame as an author to establish mission hospitals in Kashmir, Seoul, and up the Yangtze. She died in Edinburgh on October 7, 1904, aged seventy-two, not long after crossing the Atlas Mountains of North Africa on an Arab mare loaned to her by the Sultan of Morocco—a mare almost as beautiful as the mare Mountain Jim had loaned her in Estes Park.