Love In The Park

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Governor Hunt’s letter was vague about the trail to Estes Park. He advised Isabella to go twenty-five miles farther west to Fort Collins and south to another new town, Longmont, where Griffith Evans and Mountain Jim got their supplies. At Longmont she should be able to find someone to take her thirty-five miles west to Estes Park. Isabella donned her Turkish trousers and big hat but could not find a horse in Greeley which she could mount without a stepladder, and so she rode a freight wagon to Fort Collins. That town pleased her no more than Greeley. “These new settlements,” she informed Henrietta, “are altogether revolting, entirely utilitarian, given up to talk of dollars as well as making them, with coarse speech, coarse food, coarse everything.”

From Fort Collins a “melancholy youth,” who lost his way often, drove her in a buggy to the impassable canyon of the Big Thompson River, where the Rockies begin. Here he dumped her on Thomas Chalmers, a pioneer from Illinois who seemed picturesque to Isabella mainly because his shoes did not match. Chalmers installed her in an open shed near his cabin. She did not find him lovable. She wrote, “He is slightly intelligent, very opinionated, and wishes to be thought well-informed, which he is not. He considers himself a profound theologian. … He hates England with a bitter, personal hatred, and regards any allusions … to the progress of Victoria as a personal insult.”

Chalmers claimed to know of a trail to Estes around the north side of Big Thompson Canyon. He and his fretful wife put Isabella on a skin-and-bones steed “like Don Quixote’s charger” and bounced her about the wilds for three days. The hillsides blazed with groves of aspen, orange and yellow. Gooseberry and scrub oak glowed crimson. Longs Peak was often in view—a tantalizing promise of Estes Park. But, scenery aside, the junket was a disaster. Chalmers did not find the Estes trail and the trio returned to the mouth of Big Thompson Canyon. Soon after, on September 25, Isabella escaped to Longmont in a passing wagon. The twenty-two-mile trip over the broiling prairie brought her to the end of her strength. Longmont’s small St. Vrain Hotel was jammed and uncomfortable. All the ailments which had put her to bed on the Isle of Mull seemed to recur—“neuralgia, inflamed eyes, and a sense of extreme prostration.”

At supper she described her fortnight of woe to the hotel’s owner. She told him how her Estes Park plans had failed and how she must get to Denver somehow in the morning to take a train to New York because she was dying in this unendurable West. The owner was indignant. People get well in the Rockies, not sick. Besides, he said, Estes Park was a marvelous place and it would be a shame for her not to see it. He moved away, and returned in minutes to announce that her troubles were over. “You’re in luck this time. Two young men have come in from Greeley and are going to take you with them to Estes tomorrow.”

She was terrified. She lay sleepless through the hot Longmont night worrying about her neuralgia, about Muggins Gulch, about Mountain Jim Nugent’s “black fits,” about the accommodations she would—or wouldn’t—find at the Evans ranch. The magic of the Colorado morning bucked her up a little, but the big horse she rented seemed skittish. She wondered about her young guides (the innkeeper called them “innocent,” whatever that meant). Their names were S. S. Downer (a future Greeley judge) and Platte Rogers (a future mayor of Denver), and they were wondering in turn about Isabella. Platte Rogers, who had just graduated from Columbia Law School, recalled later: “The proprietor of the hotel asked that a lady might accompany us. We were not at all partial to such an arrangement, as we were traveling light and free, and the presence of a woman would naturally operate as a restraint upon our movements. However, we could not refuse and we consoled ourselves with the hope that she would prove young, beautiful and vivacious. Our hopes were dispelled when, in the morning, Miss Bird appeared, wearing bloomers … with a face and figure not corresponding to our ideals.”

Isabella revived rapidly once she got in the saddle, her pack of “indispensables” behind and a black umbrella hanging from the pommel. The air was “keener and purer with every mile,” the horse “a blithe, joyous animal,” the ride “a recurrence of surprises.” The travellers climbed from the hot prairie into the cool red canyon of North St. Vrain River, and on up to Little Thompson River—“loveliness to bewilder and grandeur to awe.” In late afternoon they ascended Muggins Gulch, riding in the bed of the crystal stream when the walls pressed in. Isabella watched for Mountain Jim, whom people called “humbug,” “fourflusher,” “scoundrel,” “braggart.” The party approached a “rude, black log cabin” set in a scrub oak glade, and suddenly there he was at the door. The tiny spinster—fortyish, as Victorian as a gazebo, gazed at Jim Nugent curiously and later described the moment for Henrietta: