- 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
The poor invalid, Isabella Lucy Bird, was sick again in the spring of 1872, suffering from backache, headache, insomnia, bad teeth, and nervous tension, to say nothing of the pain of having passed her fortieth virginal year.
Isabella was sick also of her own large sad eyes, her small white face, her squat figure four feet eleven inches tall, which, she said, had “the padded look of a puffin.” She was sick of the damp of Scotland’s Isle of Mull, where she was staying with her adored sister Henrietta. She was sick of nursing the poor, of teaching Sunday school, of lecturing on the evils of drink. In July, when her doctor urged her to get out of bed and take a long sea voyage, she decided to sail to New Zealand and spend a year there. She felt guilty about leaving Henrietta behind and meant to atone for it by sending her letters about her adventures.
She got to Auckland safely, but it supplied few adventures, so she left in January of ’73 for the Hawaiian archipelago, which gave her more exciting letter material. Hawaiian women, she found, rode horses astride, on peaked Mexican saddles, an astonishing but tempting notion to this proper Victorian gentlewoman, who had always ridden sidesaddle. Isabella bought “a dainty bloomer costume … full Turkish trousers gathered into frills which fall over the boots—a thoroughly serviceable and feminine costume.” Riding astride seemed to cure the pain in her back. She roamed the Islands for six months, reporting to Henrietta on Hilo, lepers, and the liquor problem. She even climbed Mauna Loa, rising nearly fourteen thousand feet above the sea, and slept in a tent at the edge of its crater with a kind and considerate Englishman named Mr. Wilson—so kind and considerate that she never slept better in her life.
She loved these Sandwich Islands. But she pushed on in August of ’73 to America. This was not just restlessness. For one thing, Henrietta had threatened to join her in Hawaii, and that would not do. Furthermore, a friend, Rose Kingsley, daughter of the writer Charles Kingsley, had told Isabella exciting things about the Territory of Colorado. Rose had spent some months at Colorado Springs, which was full of Englishmen, and she had described the pleasures of that “Little London” below Pikes Peak.
Rose’s uncle, Dr. George Kingsley, had recommended quite a different kind of Colorado spot. He was about to hunt elk and bear and bighorn sheep in a secret valley of several thousand acres somewhere northwest of Denver. The valley was called Estes Park, after its first settler, Joel Estes; a hard-drinking Welshman, Griffith Evans, was now running the old Estes ranch in the valley. Although the area was almost inaccessible, an obscure trail ran in from the Little Thompson River up a gulch called Muggins. According to Kingsley, the Muggins Gulch entrance was guarded by an English desperado, Mountain Jim Nugent, a bachelor who had “black fits” and a tendency to commit mayhem on sprees in Denver’s grogshops.
Isabella had mulled over these descriptions and had concluded that she had to see this Colorado Territory. It would even be interesting to meet this English desperado; she carried a Colt revolver somewhere about her padded puffin figure and had no fear of mere ruffians.
On September 9, 1873, a small, prim lady in a gray and white dress over a crinoline stepped from the Denver Pacific train at Greeley, Colorado. Earlier, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Miss Isabella Bird had received a letter from Colorado’s ex-governor A. C. Hunt, another friend of Rose Kingsley’s, and following Hunt’s directions, she was now on her way to Estes Park.
The new Greeley before her was a ragged dream of Utopia. Westward were “the plains like the waves of a sea which had fallen asleep” merging into forested foothills, and then the great Front Range of the Rockies. She was able to observe and admire Greeley’s morality (saloons were banned, as they are still). She disliked the rest of it—the heat, the black flies, the bugs that swarmed over her that night at Mrs. Graham’s boardinghouse. But the morning brought the crisp, clear air, the golden glow of cottonwoods, the cheerful gossip of magpies, which make Colorado such a joy in early fall. She was thrilled by the view of Longs Peak, rising to more than fourteen thousand feet due west. “The Alps,” she wrote Henrietta, “from the Lombard plains, are the finest mountain panorama I ever saw, but not equal to this; for not only do five high-peaked giants, each nearly the height of Mount Blanc, lift their dazzling summits above the lower ranges, but the expanse of mountains is so vast, and the whole lie in a transparent medium of the richest blue, not haze—something peculiar to the region.”
Governor Hunt’s letter was vague about the trail to Estes Park. He advised Isabella to go twenty-five miles farther west to Fort Collins and south to another new town, Longmont, where Griffith Evans and Mountain Jim got their supplies. At Longmont she should be able to find someone to take her thirty-five miles west to Estes Park. Isabella donned her Turkish trousers and big hat but could not find a horse in Greeley which she could mount without a stepladder, and so she rode a freight wagon to Fort Collins. That town pleased her no more than Greeley. “These new settlements,” she informed Henrietta, “are altogether revolting, entirely utilitarian, given up to talk of dollars as well as making them, with coarse speech, coarse food, coarse everything.”
From Fort Collins a “melancholy youth,” who lost his way often, drove her in a buggy to the impassable canyon of the Big Thompson River, where the Rockies begin. Here he dumped her on Thomas Chalmers, a pioneer from Illinois who seemed picturesque to Isabella mainly because his shoes did not match. Chalmers installed her in an open shed near his cabin. She did not find him lovable. She wrote, “He is slightly intelligent, very opinionated, and wishes to be thought well-informed, which he is not. He considers himself a profound theologian. … He hates England with a bitter, personal hatred, and regards any allusions … to the progress of Victoria as a personal insult.”
Chalmers claimed to know of a trail to Estes around the north side of Big Thompson Canyon. He and his fretful wife put Isabella on a skin-and-bones steed “like Don Quixote’s charger” and bounced her about the wilds for three days. The hillsides blazed with groves of aspen, orange and yellow. Gooseberry and scrub oak glowed crimson. Longs Peak was often in view—a tantalizing promise of Estes Park. But, scenery aside, the junket was a disaster. Chalmers did not find the Estes trail and the trio returned to the mouth of Big Thompson Canyon. Soon after, on September 25, Isabella escaped to Longmont in a passing wagon. The twenty-two-mile trip over the broiling prairie brought her to the end of her strength. Longmont’s small St. Vrain Hotel was jammed and uncomfortable. All the ailments which had put her to bed on the Isle of Mull seemed to recur—“neuralgia, inflamed eyes, and a sense of extreme prostration.”
At supper she described her fortnight of woe to the hotel’s owner. She told him how her Estes Park plans had failed and how she must get to Denver somehow in the morning to take a train to New York because she was dying in this unendurable West. The owner was indignant. People get well in the Rockies, not sick. Besides, he said, Estes Park was a marvelous place and it would be a shame for her not to see it. He moved away, and returned in minutes to announce that her troubles were over. “You’re in luck this time. Two young men have come in from Greeley and are going to take you with them to Estes tomorrow.”
She was terrified. She lay sleepless through the hot Longmont night worrying about her neuralgia, about Muggins Gulch, about Mountain Jim Nugent’s “black fits,” about the accommodations she would—or wouldn’t—find at the Evans ranch. The magic of the Colorado morning bucked her up a little, but the big horse she rented seemed skittish. She wondered about her young guides (the innkeeper called them “innocent,” whatever that meant). Their names were S. S. Downer (a future Greeley judge) and Platte Rogers (a future mayor of Denver), and they were wondering in turn about Isabella. Platte Rogers, who had just graduated from Columbia Law School, recalled later: “The proprietor of the hotel asked that a lady might accompany us. We were not at all partial to such an arrangement, as we were traveling light and free, and the presence of a woman would naturally operate as a restraint upon our movements. However, we could not refuse and we consoled ourselves with the hope that she would prove young, beautiful and vivacious. Our hopes were dispelled when, in the morning, Miss Bird appeared, wearing bloomers … with a face and figure not corresponding to our ideals.”
Isabella revived rapidly once she got in the saddle, her pack of “indispensables” behind and a black umbrella hanging from the pommel. The air was “keener and purer with every mile,” the horse “a blithe, joyous animal,” the ride “a recurrence of surprises.” The travellers climbed from the hot prairie into the cool red canyon of North St. Vrain River, and on up to Little Thompson River—“loveliness to bewilder and grandeur to awe.” In late afternoon they ascended Muggins Gulch, riding in the bed of the crystal stream when the walls pressed in. Isabella watched for Mountain Jim, whom people called “humbug,” “fourflusher,” “scoundrel,” “braggart.” The party approached a “rude, black log cabin” set in a scrub oak glade, and suddenly there he was at the door. The tiny spinster—fortyish, as Victorian as a gazebo, gazed at Jim Nugent curiously and later described the moment for Henrietta:
“Roused by the growling of the dog, his owner came out, a broad, thickset man, about the middle height, with an old cap on his head, and wearing a grey hunting-suit much the worse for wear (almost falling to pieces, in fact), a digger’s scarf knotted round his waist, a knife in his belt, and ‘a bosom friend,’ a revolver, sticking out of the breast-pocket of his coat; his feet, which were very small, were bare, except for some dilapidated moccasins made of horse hide. The marvel was how his clothes hung together, and on him. The scarf round his waist must have had something to do with it. His face was remarkable. He is a man about forty-five, and must have been strikingly handsome. He has large grey-blue eyes, deeply set, with well-marked eyebrows, a handsome aquiline nose, and a very handsome mouth. His face was smooth-shaven except for a dense moustache and imperial. Tawny hair, in thin uncared-for curls, fell from under his hunter’s cap and over his collar. One eye was entirely gone, and the loss made one side of the face repulsive, while the other might have been modelled in marble. ‘Desperado’ was written in large letters all over him. I almost repented of having sought his acquaintance. His first impulse was to swear at the dog, but on seeing a lady he contented himself with kicking him, and coming up to me he raised his cap, showing as he did so a magnificently-formed brow and head, and in a cultured tone of voice asked if there were anything he could do for me?
“I asked for some water, and he brought some in a battered tin, gracefully apologizing for not having anything more presentable. We entered into conversation, and as he spoke I forgot both his reputation and appearance, for his manner was that of a chivalrous gentleman, his accent refined, and his language easy and elegant. I inquired about some beavers’ paws which were drying, and in a moment they hung on the horn of my saddle.… As we rode away, for the sun was sinking, he said courteously, ‘You are not an American. I know from your voice that you are a countrywoman of mine. I hope you will allow me the pleasure of calling on you.’”
Soon after, Isabella and her guides reached Park Hill at the head of Muggins Gulch, and she looked at last on the valley of her dreams lying below in the soft light of the setting sun—a view which has since awed many millions of tourists. Her description still seems as fresh and true as when she wrote it:
“[It is] an irregular basin, lighted up by the bright waters of the rushing Thompson, guarded by sentinel mountains of fantastic shape and monstrous size, with Long’s Peak rising above them all in unapproachable grandeur, while the Snowy Range, with its outlying spurs heavily timbered, come down upon the Park slashed by stupendous canyons lying deep in purple gloom. The rushing river was blood-red, Long’s Peak was aflame, the glory of the glowing heaven was given back from earth. Never, nowhere, have I seen anything to equal the view into Estes Park. The mountains ‘of the land which is very far off’ are very near now, but the near is more glorious than the far, and reality than dreamland. The mountain fever seized me, and giving my tireless horse an encouraging word, he dashed at full gallop over a mile of smooth sward at delirious speed.”
The gallop brought her to the Griffith Evans establishment, which lay beside a small blue lake. The scope of the property surprised her—four comfortable-looking log cabins around a long central cabin, with two corrals of riding horses, a dairy house, milk cows strolling in to be milked, and hundreds of beef cattle in the distance. Actually, Griff Evans was running a dude ranch, thirty years before dude ranches were officially invented. He came running from the central cabin to welcome his new guests (he had nine men and women already), and he told Isabella that she could have the log cabin nearest the lake for herself. The charge would be eight dollars a week for cabin, board, and riding horse.
She liked Griff on sight, though the smell of bourbon emanated from his bushy beard. She learned that he had bought the Estes buildings for a few dollars in ’67, a year before Mountain Jim had taken his shack in Muggins Gulch. Both were squatters, holding land without titles to it, since the region had not yet been surveyed for homestead entry. Bad blood existed between Evans and Nugent, partly because they competed in guiding parties around the area. Isabella also got an impression from Griff that Jim in his cups had made improper advances to Griff’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Jinny. All of which made good material to send to Henrietta. Isabella wrote, “Jim’s ’I’ll shoot you’ has more than once been heard in Griff’s cabin.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
From that day to this, no one, man or woman, has duplicated her feat. She herself seemed to think nothing of it; she was too busy observing Colorado—its ranching, mining, towns, people. She had published things before and she felt that her letters to Henrietta might contain material for travel books. She observed the scene, and also she considered her heart’s yearning for Jim Nugent. “It takes peace away,” she wrote Henrietta. She wondered if she could be a good wife to a man, after forty-two years of independence. When, in the soft twilight of November 15, she came to Jim’s cabin in Muggins Gulch, no light shone through the chinks and all was silent. She was disappointed, and she was relieved also. Perhaps he had gone off and she would not have to make a decision. But:
Soon I heard the welcome sound of a barking dog.… Calling “Ring” at a venture, the noble dog’s large paws and grand head were in a moment on my saddle, and he greeted me with all those inarticulate but perfectly comprehensible noises with which dogs welcome their human friends. Of the two men on horses who accompanied him, one was his master, as I knew by the musical voice and grace of manner. … Jim leant on my horse and said, “I’m so happy to have met you, so very happy. God bless you.” And his poor disfigured face literally beamed with nice kindly feelings … and sending the [other man] and fur-laden horse on to his cabin, he turned with me to Evans’s.
The next eight days were days of anguish for both of them, the bitter-sweet anguish of middle-aged people perceiving what might have been and knowing nothing can be done about it. On Monday, Jim took her riding across the Big Thompson to see the Black Canyon beaver dams, “his mood as dark as the sky overhead.” She wrote of the ride later, laying it on a bit thick perhaps, to thrill Henrietta:
He was quite silent, struck his horse often, started off on a furious gallop, and then throwing his mare on her haunches close to me, said, “You’re the first man or woman who’s treated me like a human being for many years.”… Then came a terrible revelation that as soon as I had gone away he had discovered he was attached to me and it was killing him. It began on Longs Peak, he said. I was terrified. It made me shake all over and even cry. He is a man whom any woman might love, but who no sane woman would marry. Nor did he ask me to marry him, he knew enough for that. … He has a squatter’s claim, and forty head of cattle, and is a successful trapper besides, but envy and vindictiveness are raging within him. He gets money, goes to Denver, and spends large sums in the maddest dissipation, making himself a terror. … Of course I can’t give details. A less ungovernable nature would never have said a word but his dark proud fierce soul all came out then. … He stopped his horse and said, “Now you see a man who has made a devil of himself! Lost! Lost! Lost! I believe in God. I’ve given Him no choice but to put me with the devil and his angels. I’m afraid to die. You’ve stirred the better nature in me too late. … Don’t speak to me of repentance and reformation. I can’t reform.”… My heart dissolved for pity for him and his dark lost self-ruined life. He is so lovable and fascinating yet so terrible. I told him I could not speak to him, I was so nervous, and he said if I could not speak to him he would not see me again. He would go and camp out on the Snowy Range till I was gone.
On Tuesday, a tragicomic war of love’s frustration began. Jim, pale, haggard and more than a little drunk, called for her late in the afternoon, “but it was a dismal and depressing ride. Jim’s manner was courteous but freezing.” He coughed constantly, the implication being that it was all her fault. He repeated that he was off to the Snowy Range. That night Isabella dreamed “that as we were sitting by the fire Mr. Nugent came in with his revolver in his hand and shot me. But there is no such peril. I wonder if he really will stay up on the range?”
Jim kept her wondering all through Wednesday and Thursday. She busied herself with preparations to leave Estes for good. She washed her hair, made drawers out of a nightgown, and sat in the middle of her cabin “without nearly all my clothes,” mending everything. But she had to unburden herself to Henrietta:
If only it were not for Jim. It is so sad to think of him and no more to see his Arab mare tied in front of the house. It was very wrong of him to speak as he did. He should have let me go without the sorrow of knowing this. Thus again that hideous whiskey fiend crossed my path. You would like him so. He is so quick, like a needle, a thoroughly cultured Irishman … such an agreeable facility of speech. I cannot but think of poor Mr. Wilson on Hawaii and his quiet, undemonstrative, unannoying ways and compare him with this dark, tempestuous, terrible character, wondering how it is that the last is so fascinating.
On Friday, November 21, Griff Evans’s last two lingering dudes told Isabella that they had seen Jim (still coughing and with “an awfully ugly fit on him”) returning to his cabin by the lower ford of the Big Thompson. His use of the lower ford meant that he had avoided passing her cabin. This, she decided, was the end. She would deliver her last word to him herself. She wrote the icy phrases in her small spidery hand:
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.
Jim Nugent is a Colorado legend now, a tragic figure of romance immortalized by the pen of Isabella Bird. He did not live long after Isabella watched him and the rest of her Estes Park world go “down below the prairie seas.” In June of ’74, Griff Evans blasted him with a shotgun from his ranch-house porch. Griff pleaded self-defense, and was acquitted after Jim died from the wounds three months later in Fort Collins. Gossip had it, and still has it, that Griff shot Jim in an argument about squatter’s rights and also about Jim’s attentions to Jinny Griffith. On the day Jim died, Isabella was in Interlaken, Switzerland. She wrote later that he appeared to her in her hotel then to say goodbye to her, as he had promised to do that night on Longs Peak when love and marriage had seemed possible. He wore his tattered trapper’s garb, bowed low with courtly grace, and vanished.
And Isabella? That tiny, frail, tenderhearted, indomitable woman is an Estes legend too. The story of the park, as millions know it, is largely her creation. Her book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, is as widely read today as it was when it appeared in 1879. Her fantastic activity increased as she grew older, but her health got worse and worse—spots on her lungs, rheumatism, and a balky heart being added to her other ailments. She almost married Henrietta’s doctor, John Bishop, in 1878, when she was forty-seven, but could not face “being an invalid wife” and fled to Japan to rest up among the hairy Ainu of Hokkaido. Bishop, ten years her junior, continued to woo her, and they married soon after Henrietta’s death in 1880. Isabella buried Bishop five years later.
Her many travel books, immensely popular, told of her adventures in Hawaii, in the Malayas, in India, in Persia, in Turkistan, in China. How she survived these exhausting trips might be explained by her husband’s remark that she had the appetite of a tiger and the digestion of an ostrich. Besides writing, she worked at photography, chemistry, nursing, and bicycling. She used her fame as an author to establish mission hospitals in Kashmir, Seoul, and up the Yangtze. She died in Edinburgh on October 7, 1904, aged seventy-two, not long after crossing the Atlas Mountains of North Africa on an Arab mare loaned to her by the Sultan of Morocco—a mare almost as beautiful as the mare Mountain Jim had loaned her in Estes Park.