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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
She had meant to spend weeks there, but she was restless from the start, wondering how the Estes Park dudes were doing without her, wondering if Jim was staying off whiskey and attending to his traps. She put up at a Kiowa Street boardinghouse for consumptives and called on Rose Kingsley’s friends, the J. E. Lillers, who had come from England to edit the Colorado Springs Gazette. Liller was an intense young man, obsessed by fear that liquor was ruining the Springs’ moral climate. Isabella thought him extreme, her own temperance stand having moderated lately. She gave him a big dose of bromide of potash to help him sleep, and did not explain that she had given the same dose to Griff Evans for his hang-overs. The commons room of her consumptives’ boardinghouse was crowded, noisy, and gay on Tuesday night. The landlady and her guests laughed and sang for hours. Isabella was distracted by her view into the next room where,
I saw two large white feet sticking up at the end of the bed. I watched and watched, hoping these feet would move, but they did not, and, somehow, to my thinking, they grew suffer and whiter, and then my horrible suspicion deepened, that while we were sitting there a human spirit, unattended and desolate, had passed forth into the night.… And still the landlady laughed and talked, and afterwards said to me, “it turns the house upside down when they just come here and die; we shall be half the night laying him out.”
Early Wednesday morning, before anyone else died, Isabella and Birdie were on the road again. Governor Hunt had praised the beauties of South Park, and Isabella decided to return to Denver and Estes Park by that long wilderness route. She spent a night at a Manitou hotel and rode up a new wagon road which had just been blasted out of the canyon of Fountain Creek. She visited the Manitou Park ranch of the Englishman Dr. William A. Bell, north of Pikes Peak, thinking that “it would put me out of conceit with Estes Park. Never! It is long and featureless, and its immediate surroundings are mean. It reminds me in itself of some dismal Highland strath—Glenshee, possibly.” On Friday Birdie carried her across “a hideous place,” Hayden’s Divide (now the town Divide, on today’s U.S. 24), and into the “pine-sprinkled grassy hills” of the Twin Rocks wagon road. To the south she could see the lacy spires of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Darkness caught her at a small Twin Rocks cabin, where a man and his wife made her feel at home, though warning her that she risked her life travelling in November in the South Park country, “where if snow comes you will never be heard of again.” She was warned again when she spent Saturday and Sunday near Florissant, and again Monday night at the Link ranch, near today’s town of Lake George. She would not be deterred. Birdie, she said, was a miracle horse, and those first November days were miracles too:
As bright and warm as June, and the atmosphere has resumed its exquisite purity. … I have developed much sagacity in finding a trail, or I should not be able to make use of such directions as these: “Keep along a gulch four or five miles till you get Pike’s Peak on your left, then follow some wheel-marks till you get to some timber, and keep to the north till you come to a creek, where you’ll find a great many elk tracks; then go to your right and cross the creek three times, then you’ll see a red rock to your left,” etc.
The Links directed her thirty miles northward to their daughter’s place on Tarryall River through the flamboyant red-orange-purple Tarryall Mountains. Next day she ran into light snow as she entered the high north end of South Park, a vast grassy basin. But the summer weather returned, so she was bound to ride Birdie up the last bright trickle of the Tarryall, and a mile more above the timber line to the bleak, tense spine of the continent at Breckenridge (now Boreas) Pass, some 11,500 feet above sea level. Birdie brought her back down and got her out of South Park that same day (past a mining camp where the miners had just hanged somebody). The rest of the trek was an easy downhill ride to Denver, which she reached on Saturday, November 8. A few days later, Birdie carried her up the Estes trail toward Muggins Gulch, which, she declared, was “infinitely more beautiful than the much-vaunted parts I have seen elsewhere.”
It is not possible to comment quietly on Isabella’s Pikes Peak circuit. It was incredible. Even today, her route makes a rugged motor trip of five hundred miles, some of it negotiable only by jeep. Isabella covered the terrain at that period of late fall when the weather can be treacherous. She wore tropical clothes in shredded condition. Her health was poor, and her horse was not much larger than herself. She had no money to speak of because the Panic of ’73 had reached Colorado and banks were not cashing checks. She picked her way through the empty land without compass or guide. When night came, she trusted to luck that someone would take her in.