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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
In consequence of the very blameworthy way in which you spoke to me on Monday, there can be nothing but constraint between us. Therefore it is my wish that our acquaintance shall at once terminate.
ISABELLA LUCY BIRD
Late that afternoon, in a spirit of regained freedom, she saddled a big horse and went galloping down Muggins Gulch “in my ragged Hawaiian dress with two huge hounds with me—the very picture of outlawed free leggism.” And there on the trail she met a changed Jim, his manner irresistibly appealing, as suited a man suffering from unrequited love. Her heart melted.
I was terrified to encounter him but he was quiet and courteous. I had the note in my pocket and told him I was going to give it to him. He said I was very kind to write and put it in his pocket. He said that he was feeling so very ill that he was going home, that he had caught a very bad cold on the Range, and that an old arrow wound in his lung had become very painful. He looked so ill and wretched going to his dark lonely lair, and I felt I had stabbed him and had not made sufficient allowance for him. He said if he was better he would like to call tomorrow evening. I said nothing, for well I knew he would never call after reading my note. I wished him good-bye, wishing I could bring him here and make him warm tea and be kind to him, rather than kill him as I had done.
But her note did not kill Jim. Instead it was like the last clap of thunder ending a storm. It brought them to an understanding, to acceptance of the inevitable, even to a sort of sad serenity. Jim’s way of life, alcoholic and violent, stood between them, and he could not change. They would part, and still they would be friends. That was clear when she saw him Sunday and found him relaxed and charming again.
Thereafter, the days passed pleasantly. Isabella saw no reason now to be in a rush about leaving Estes. She made a splendid four-pound cake for Griff’s dudes on Thanksgiving Day, and she wrote an article on her Longs Peak trip which Editor Liller would publish in Colorado Springs. Jim corrected the piece for her while she watched “the wind lifting his thin curls from as grand a head as was ever modelled … may our Father which is in Heaven yet show mercy to his Outcast child.” The time of her departure for the railroad station at Greeley came on Tuesday morning, December 9, 1873. She had accepted Jim’s offer to escort her as far as the Greeley stage. Griff Evans rode with her from the ranch as far as Jim’s cabin. “At the top of the hill,” she wrote, “I forgot to turn round and take a last look at my colossal, resplendent, lonely sunlit den, but it was needless for I carry it away with me.” Jim loaned her his Arab mare for the trip and gave her a farewell present—”a mouse-colored kitten beaver’s skin.” Their arrival Wednesday evening at the stage station inn caused excitement. Isabella wrote:
The landlady asked, with great eagerness, who the gentleman was with me, and said that the men outside were saying that they were sure that it was “Rocky Mountain Jim,” but she was sure it was not. When I told her that the men were right, she exclaimed, “Do tell! I want to know! that quiet, kind gentleman!” and she said she used to frighten her children when they were naughty by telling them that “he would get them, for he came down from the mountains every week, and took back a child with him to eat!”
It was bitter-cold Thursday morning. Seventy-five days had passed since Isabella and Jim had met in the park, many of them tumultuous with the heartbreak of an impossible love. But their parting was casual. The Greeley stage arrived, and Isabella found a friend on it, an Englishman whom she introduced to Jim as Mr. Fodder. She wrote:
He [Mr. Fodder] was now dressed in the extreme of English dandyism, and when I introduced them, he put out a small hand cased in a perfectly-fitting lemon-colored kid glove. As the trapper stood there in his grotesque rags and odds and ends of apparel, his gentlemanliness of deportment brought into relief the innate vulgarity of the rich parvenu. Mr. Fodder rattled on so amusingly as we drove away that I never realized that my Rocky Mountain life was at an end, not even when I saw Mountain Jim, with his golden hair yellow in the sunshine, slowly leading the beautiful mare over the snowy Plains back to Estes Park. … A drive of several hours brought us to Greeley, and a few hours later, in the far blue distance, the Rocky Mountains, and all that they enclose, went down below the prairie seas.