The Purple Mountains’ Fading Majesty

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Not long ago, my family and I, travelling on horseback with friends, rode up Henson Creek above Lake City to American Flats, 12,000 feet high, mile upon mile of alpine tundra rolling around the feet of towering peaks. Scars showed everywhere—colored splotches of waste rock beside old prospect holes, a network of paths eroded into the thin, friable soil by uncounted numbers of sheep, the slash of a mine road climbing across a distant pass. A bruised land—but the wind sang, the cumulus clouds piled dazzlingly. An occasional jeep ground past, following the mine road, its sunburned occupants staring wide-eyed. A family banged along on two motor scooters, children clinging to their parents’ waists; probably they lacked money for jeep rentals, or time or experience for horses, and this was the only way for them to see the highlands. Red flags fluttering from short yellow stakes showed where surveyors were contemplating a normal highway that would enable still more visitors to partake of the scene.

Then we veered away from the sheep trails and the roads, following the old Horsethief Trail through a gap in the rim. During the i88o’s enterprising rustlers had stolen horses and mules in Lake City, had driven them across this breathless route to sell them in Ouray —then had doubled their profits by stealing more stock in Ouray for sale back in Lake City.

Behind us, Coxcomb Peak rose like a cleaver, Wetterhorn like a chisel snout. Ahead yawned Uncompahgre Canyon, 6,000 feet of blue-misted space from the top of Potosi down to the town of Ouray in the canyon bottom. High-antlered deer trotted along the near skyline, watching us as curiously as we watched them. One by one our horses came abruptly off a shale bank onto a sharp gray ridge. We rode dumbly, looking left into the stupendous gash of Uncompahgre gorge; and all at once, under our right boot toes, as startling as a yell in the night, gaped the Cow Creek drop we had forgotten about, one more mile of collapsing cliffs and trees and tormented ravines sliding down, down, down, to soar again on the opposite side to the stark cliffs of Courthouse Mountain.

Long ago someone had named that knife-edged ridge between the chasms the Bridge of Heaven. We held our breath as the horses walked gingerly across. Devilish things had reputedly happened there in the past. Wind had blown one prospector off to his death below. Lightning had killed another. A sheepherder, crossing the narrows in company with a rival in romance, had given the fellow a push. Or so they say. We zigzagged down among stately blue spruce, through asters and paintbrush and grass as high as our stirrups, past deep-blue larkspur, among white aspen boles, lost in a murmur that we called silence but that in reality was only the absence of human sound. Early the next morning we drove from Ouray up the winding highway to the south. High above the town, we pulled out on an overlook and studied the northeastern rim of the gigantic amphitheatre of cliffs, hoping to spot some part of the trail we had followed the day before. There? Or there? We could not be sure—so tiny a thread in the vastness.

“Never mind,” my wife said. “We’ll remember: all of it was a bridge of heaven.”

Our eyes dropped back to the town. Red sight-seeing jeeps were leaving the garages to pick up the day’s passengers. The strident thrum of a motorcycle reached even to where we stood. A huge sign, which we knew glared with lights by night, was stretched across a cliff face, showing the way to a local scenic wonder that everyone was invited to see—for a price. To the right, a large white star and a large white cross gave manmade blessings to the dark spruce. Behind us, noisome as well as visual, a fluff of smoke rose from the town dump, surely the loveliest dump site in the entire nation.

And above, in the high thin blueness, the Bridge of Heaven on Horsethief Trail. Four hundred years of it —the plunder trail to heart’s desire. So it was for Coronado’s Spaniards and William Ashley’s beaver hunters, for the miners and the stockmen and the Utopian colonists, for tie cutters and ditchdiggers. So, too, for today’s vacationists and the purveyors who batten on them—there are, after all, more ways than one to skin either a cat or a continent.

The jeepsters sang and waved as they passed, and who is to say they were any less happy than the backpackers heading for the Mt. Hayden Hiking Trail, up Canyon Creek above the glaring sign? That’s the hell of heaven: defining it to everyone’s taste. Somehow, though, it has to be managed. For there simply are not four hundred more years of plunder remaining, either in the Rockies or in the country as a whole.