- Historic Sites
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
A half-moon shone down on the peak but she slept badly most of the night. The wind set up a roar in Jim’s Grove, and animals howled below. Tuesday dawned at last, and Jim called her to look at the sunrise. “From the chill grey Peak above,” she wrote Henrietta, “we looked to where the Plains lay cold, in blue grey, like a morning sea against a far horizon. Suddenly, as a dazzling streak at first, but enlarging rapidly into a sphere, the sun wheeled above the grey line. … The grey of the Plains changed to purple, the sky was all one rose-red flush, on which vermilion cloudstreaks rested; the ghastly peaks gleamed like rubies, the earth and heavens were new-created.”
Soon after breakfast the four reached Longs’ great boulder field, at twelve thousand feet, on the north side. They left the horses and scrambled to that odd overhung rock formation called, nowadays, the Keyhole. The summit was still a thousand vertical feet above them. Here there was a crisis. At the Keyhole, a path edged its uneven way some hundreds of feet across a pitch of broken rock called the Ledge to the middle part of a great ravine, the Trough. At the top of the Trough another frightening shelf passage, the Narrows, led to the brief Homestretch grind to the top. As Jim pointed out these details of the last thousand feet, Isabella’s courage failed her. She could not go on. “You know,” she later wrote to Henrietta, “I have no head and no ankles, and never ought to dream of mountaineering; and had I known that the ascent was a real mountaineering feat I should not have felt the slightest ambition to perform it.”
She was distressed further by a bitter argument. Rogers and Downer favored crossing the Ledge to the Trough. Jim said the Ledge was too icy. They must take a much longer route, descending a thousand feet vertically to pick up the Trough below. The men split on the issue. And Jim refused to let Isabella give up. He seemed obsessed with the idea that she could do whatever Anna Dickinson had done. He roped her to him and dragged her along “like a bale of goods, by sheer force of muscle,” down to a lower part of the Trough and up again. “That part,” Isabella wrote, “to me was two hours of painful and unwilling submission to the inevitable. … Slipping, faltering, gasping from the exhausting toil in the rarified [ sic ] air, with throbbing hearts and panting lungs, we reached the top of the gorge [the Trough] and squeezed ourselves between two gigantic fragments of rock by a passage called the ‘Dog’s Lift,’ when I climbed on the shoulders of one man and then was hauled up.”
Rogers and Downer had had to wait for them at that Dog’s Lift start of the Narrows. The reunited four crossed the Narrows, and (wrote Isabella) “as we crept from the ledge round a horn of rock, I beheld what made me perfectly sick and dizzy to look at—the terminal Peak itself—a smooth, cracked face or wall of pink granite.… Scaling, not climbing, is the correct term for this last ascent. It took one hour to accomplish, pausing for breath every minute or two. The only foothold was in narrow cracks or minute projections on the granite … but at last the Peak was won. A grand, well-defined mountaintop it is, a nearly level acre of boulders, with precipitous sides all around, the one we came up being the only accessible one. It was not possible to remain long.”
Isabella and Jim returned to the Keyhole by the long Trough route of their ascent. By her own account, it was a tender process, “Jim going before me so that I might steady my feet against his powerful shoulders. I had various falls and once hung by my frock, which caught on a rock, and Jim severed it with his hunting-knife, upon which I fell into a crevice full of soft snow.… Sometimes I drew myself up on hands and knees, sometimes crawled; sometimes Jim pulled me up by my arms or a lariat, and sometimes I stood on his shoulders, or he made steps for me of his feet and hands. But at six we stood on the Notch [the Keyhole] in the splendour of the sinking sun, all colour deepening, all peaks glorifying, all shadows purpling, all peril past.” Jim carried her—a light burden—in his arms across part of the boulder field to the Jim’s Grove camp and rolled her in blankets near the campfire.
While Rogers and Downer slept, the older people talked awhile. Jim sang ballads in his soft Irish tenor. They discovered that both believed in spiritualism, and each promised to appear to the other after death. Isabella confided to Henrietta: “Jim, or Mr. Nugent, as I always scrupulously called him, told stories of his early youth, and of a great sorrow which had led him to embark on a lawless and desperate life. His voice trembled, and tears rolled down his cheek.”
And then it happened, though just what happened Isabella refused to reveal, even to her sister. Perhaps Jim kissed her, caressed her, made love. Whatever it was, she knew that the desperado had fallen in love with her, and she with him. “For five minutes,” she wrote Henrietta, “at the camping ground his manner was such that I thought this possible. I put it away as egregious vanity, unpardonable in a woman of forty.”