- 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
But Isabella Lucy Bird did not really put it away. The thought of marrying this disreputable person colored everything she did for the remaining two months of her Colorado adventure. She planned a trip to Rose Kingsley’s Colorado Springs but kept putting it off. She threw herself into the frantic activity of a woman troubled by love. She scrubbed her cabin, repaired her clothes, tried to get the roughness from her brown hands. She revealed her heart to Henrietta after a ride with Jim:
I changed my horse for his beautiful mare, and we galloped and raced in the beautiful twilight, in the intoxicating frosty air. [I wish] you could have seen us as we galloped down the pass, the fearful looking ruffian on my heavy wagon-horse, and I on his bare wooden saddle, from which beaver, mink and marten tails and pieces of skin were hanging raggedly, with one spur, and feet not in the stirrups, the mare looking so aristocratic and I so beggarly! Mr. Nugent is what is called “splendid company.” Ruffian as he looks, the first word he speaks—to a woman at least—places him on a level with educated gentlemen. … Yet, on the whole, he is a most painful spectacle. His magnificent head shows so plainly the better possibilities which might have been his. His life, in spite of a certain dazzle which belongs to it, is a ruined and wasted one, and one asks what good can the future have in store for one who has for so long chosen evil?
Shall I ever get away?
She did get away on Monday, October 20, escorted by one of the dudes to Longmont and the St. Vrain Hotel. She rode “a bay Indian pony, Birdie, a little beauty, with legs of iron, fast, enduring, gentle and wise; and with luggage for some weeks, including a black silk dress, behind my saddle.” She was no longer the frightened, ailing woman of the month before. Her small face must have had a new attractiveness. No man had made a play for her in a hotel lobby in years. But now here was a Colonel Heath—”an amateur sculptor and a colonel in the rebel Army, a dreadful man”—pestering her while she was trying to write Henrietta:
If my sense of the ludicrous had not predominated, I should have thought of [using] the deadly weapon in my jacket. He was egregious. “Making love” was the only phrase that could be used—delicate flattery, all arts by which he supposed he could make himself agreeable. I might have said he proposed ten times. If I had any means of knowing when I should get back I would get Mountain Jim to come for me, for there are things which become unendurable.
Isabella avoided the smitten colonel in the morning, and rode Birdie south over the prairie trail to Denver. In late afternoon she put a skirt over her Turkish trousers, mounted sidesaddle, and moved on. “There the great braggart city lay spread out,” she wrote, “brown and treeless, upon the brown and treeless plain. The shallow Platte, shrivelled in a narrow stream with a shingly bed six times too large for it, and fringed by shrivelled cottonwoods, wound along by Denver.” She spent that night with members of Griff Evans’s family on Seventeenth Street, west of the river. Birdie carried her across the Fifteenth Street bridge in the morning to breakfast at Charpiot’s and to call on ex-governor Hunt and Editor William N. Byers of the Rocky Mountain News. She planned to take the newly installed train to Colorado Springs, but Hunt urged her to ride Birdie instead. He gave her the names of ranching friends of his along the way, where she and Birdie would be welcome to spend the nights.
The eighty-mile trip to Colorado Springs was not as easy as Hunt seemed to think. Isabella lost the trail twice and spent five days getting to Pikes Peak. She and Birdie stayed close to the Front Range, passing the mouth of South Platte Canyon, and then through a serene, lovely valley that today’s tourists never see; the four-lane highway passes east of it. Isabella spent one night of luxury near present-day Larkspur, at the still-famous Perry Park Ranch. Thereafter Birdie trudged through deepening snow over the desolate, South Platte-Arkansas divide (now Palmer Lake) and on down and across the empty pineland site of today’s Air Force Academy. They went through the Garden of the Gods, a multicolored sandstone caricature of Gothic architecture “in which,” Isabella remarked tartly, “were I a divinity, I certainly would not choose to dwell.” On Monday afternoon, October 27, Birdie paused on the hill just west of Colorado Springs. Miss Bird was not pleased with Rose Kingsley’s Little London:
I got off Birdie, put on a long skirt, and rode sidewise, though the settlement scarcely looked like a place where any deference to prejudices was necessary. A queer embryo-looking place it is, out on the bare Plains, yet it is rising and likely to rise, and has some big hotels much resorted to. It has a fine view of the mountains, specially of Pike’s Peak, but the celebrated springs are at Manitou, three miles off, in really fine scenery. To me no place could be more unattractive than Colorado Springs, from its utter treelessness.