Love In The Park

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Everything about Estes entranced Miss Bird—the great ranges enclosing it, the indescribable dawns and sunsets, the noisy skunk under her lake cabin, the bighorn sheep drinking there, the rides up Fish Creek toward Longs Peak among the big yellow pines or over the Big Thompson to Black Canyon. She enjoyed being useful. She treated Griff’s bad hangovers with bromide of potash, cooked and scrubbed in the main cabin, played the reed organ in the evenings for the dudes. She learned how to herd Griff’s cattle with the tenderfoot cowboys, Rogers and Downer. She watched the progress of two dude love affairs but declined to see a parallel in Mountain Jim’s daily calls on her as he went to check his traps.

He called and called—always charming, respectful. He was a gay and witty man, obviously well educated, versed in the world’s literature. He told her of his past, but warily, as though he were making it up and wanted the inventions to dovetail—his alleged birth in Montreal, his Irish father who had served as a high officer in the British Army, his early affair with a seventeen-year-old girl that ended darkly and drove him to drink, his jobs in Canada teaching and trapping for the Hudson’s Bay Company, his scouting in Sioux country for the U.S. Army, and his strange withdrawal at last to Muggins Gulch. He read to her poems of his own—not very good—mostly about the girl of his youth, or Jinny perhaps. He told of the grizzly bear attack in July of 1871 while he was in Middle Park. His collie, Ring, had scared up the bear and her cubs. The dog ran to Jim for protection, with the bear after him. Jim put four balls into the grizzly without stopping her. She jumped on him, chewed his left arm through at the elbow, bit off a thumb at the first joint, slashed his face, and left him for dead. He managed to get to his white mule and rode eight miles to Grand Lake, where a passing doctor sewed up fifty wounds. The claws of the bear did not destroy his right eye, but tore the skin in such a way that a carbuncle formed over it.

Jim’s talk of Longs Peak enthralled Isabella. He said that the first ascent had been made in 1868. Just recently, government surveyors had reached the northeast foot of Longs Peak by a trail coming up from the south—roughly that of today’s highway from Boulder to Ward and through Raymond and Allenspark. As the government party ascended the blazed trail, Griff Evans had appeared from his ranch twelve miles away with eight guests. One of them was the famous Philadelphia lecturer Anna E. Dickinson, who planned to be the first woman to climb the mountain. The two parties had camped together that night and had reached the top next morning, September 13, 1873.

Often Isabella gazed at Longs Peak from her cabin and dreamed of climbing it herself, with Jim as her guide. The climbing idea was too absurd. She still thought of herself as a sort of invalid. On October 15, she would be forty-two years old. She had climbed Mauna Loa, but Longs Peak was more difficult. And Jim Nugent was hardly comparable to her gentle and considerate tentmate on Mauna Loa, Mr. Wilson. She ignored the dreams, until Jim happened to tell her what the remarkable Miss Dickinson had done, at the age of thirty-one. His admiration for Miss Dickinson may have aroused Isabella’s competitive spirit. She determined to try. She persuaded Rogers and Downer to go along, and to hire Jim as the guide. And so on Monday, September 29, the four of them loaded their horses with food and blankets and set out up Fish Creek to the start of the Longs Peak trail.

As a great landmark, Longs Peak has guided man since the beginning of his time on this continent. It forms one of the most beautiful masses in all the Rockies. It rises to 14,256 feet above the sea—more than a mile above Rocky Mountain National Park, in which it lies. Its timber stops at eleven thousand feet. The rest is bleak granite—precipices, chasms, ridges, shelves, notches. There are tiny blue lakes and bits of tundra and ptarmigan and snow ravines and baleful ravens and falling water. It is hard to breathe, which gives drama and urgency to everything. The view is overwhelming—the Continental Divide trundling westward and southward, the elephantine Mummy Range and the Never Summer Mountains north and west of Estes, the Great Plains in blue-gray infinity to the east. Longs’ east face, two thousand feet of sheer rock, is one of the few expert climbs in the United States. Tens of thousands have reached the summit by other faces, but none of them is an easy walk for amateurs. At least twenty-one people have lost their lives on Longs, and there have been many injuries.

In 1873, the “trail” consisted of nothing more than occasional blazes on trees. For the able-bodied, the blazes marked a good summer route. For a frail, middle-aged spinster weighing less than a hundred pounds it was madness to try it as late as September 29. Besides physical strain, there was the risk of bad weather.

And still, Isabella and her three men rode blithely up Fish Creek. Jim looked like a pirate in his smashed hat and falling-apart clothes, with a knife in his belt and a pistol in his pocket. Isabella wore her Turkish trousers—getting pretty tattered—and her Hawaiian blouse, threadbare from washing. Her shoes were worn through. They passed Lily Lake, maneuvered their horses through the evergreens, and reached the timber line at twilight. They camped near a snow bank in a grove of pines which is called “Jim’s Grove” still. After supper Jim settled Isabella in a bower of evergreens.