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Isabella Bird

English traveller and writer

1831-1904

A selection from
A LADY'S LIFE IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS

Narrated by Wanda McCaddon

Download mp3 file: A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

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ESTES PARK, COLORADO TERRITORY, October 2

How time has slipped by I do not know. This is a glorious region, and the air and life are intoxicating. I live mainly out of doors and on horseback, wear my half-threadbare Hawaiian dress, sleep sometimes under the stars on a bed of pine boughs, ride on a Mexican saddle, and hear once more the low music of my Mexican spurs. "There's a stranger! Heave arf a brick at him!" is said by many travelers to express the feeling of the new settlers in these Territories. This is not my experience in my cheery mountain home. How the rafters ring as I write with songs and mirth, while the pitch-pine logs blaze and crackle in the chimney, and the fine snow dust drives in through the chinks and forms mimic snow wreaths on the floor, and the wind raves and howls and plays among the creaking pine branches and snaps them short off, and the lightning plays round the blasted top of Long's Peak, and the hardy hunters divert themselves with the thought that when I go to bed I must turn out and face the storm!

You will ask, "What is Estes Park?" This name, with the quiet Midland Countries' sound, suggests "park palings" well lichened, a lodge with a curtseying woman, fallow deer, and a Queen Anne mansion. Such as it is, Estes Park is mine. It is unsurveyed, "no man's land," and mine by right of love, appropriation, and appreciation; by the seizure of its peerless sunrises and sunsets, its glorious afterglow, its blazing noons, its hurricanes sharp and furious, its wild auroras, its glories of mountain and forest, of canyon, lake, and river, and the stereotyping them all in my memory. Mine, too, in a better than the sportsman's sense, are its majestic wapiti, which play and fight under the pines in the early morning, as securely as fallow deer under our English oaks; its graceful "black-tails," swift of foot; its superb bighorns, whose noble leader is to be seen now and then with his classic head against the blue sky on the top of a colossal rock; its sneaking mountain lion with his hideous nocturnal caterwaulings, the great "grizzly," the beautiful skunk, the wary beaver, who is always making lakes, damming and turning streams, cutting down young cotton-woods, and setting an example of thrift and industry; the wolf, greedy and cowardly; the coyote and the lynx, and all the lesser fry of mink, marten, cat, hare, fox, squirrel, and chipmunk, as well as things that fly, from the eagle down to the crested blue-jay. May their number never be less, in spite of the hunter who kills for food and gain, and the sportsman who kills and marauds for pastime!

But still I have not answered the natural question, "What is Estes Park?" Among the striking peculiarities of these mountains are hundreds of high-lying valleys, large and small, at heights varying from 6,000 to 11,000 feet. The most important are North Park, held by hostile Indians; Middle Park, famous for hot springs and trout; South Park is 10,000 feet high, a great rolling prairie seventy miles long, well grassed and watered, but nearly closed by snow in winter. But parks innumerable are scattered throughout the mountains, most of them unnamed, and others nicknamed by the hunters or trappers who have made them their temporary resorts. They always lie far within the flaming Foot Hills, their exquisite stretches of flowery pastures dotted artistically with clumps of trees sloping lawnlike to bright swift streams full of red-waist-coated trout, or running up in soft glades into the dark forest, above which the snow peaks rise in their infinite majesty. Some are bits of meadow a mile long and very narrow, with a small stream, a beaver dam, and a pond made by beaver industry. Hundreds of these can only be reached by riding in the bed of a stream, or by scrambling up some narrow canyon till it debouches on the fairy-like stretch above. These parks are the feeding grounds of innumerable wild animals, and some, like one three miles off, seem chosen for the process of antler-casting, the grass being covered for at least a square mile with the magnificent branching horns of the elk.

As I intend to make Estes Park my headquarters until the winter sets in, I must make you acquainted with my surroundings and mode of living. The "Queen Anne mansion" is represented by a log cabin made of big hewn logs. The chinks should be filled with mud and lime, but these are wanting. The roof is formed of barked young spruce, then a layer of hay, and an outer coating of mud, all nearly flat. The floors are roughly boarded. The "living room" is about sixteen feet square, and has a rough stone chimney in which pine logs are always burning. At one end there is a door into a small bedroom, and at the other a door into a small eating room, at the table of which we feed in relays. This opens into a very small kitchen with a great American cooking-stove, and there are two "bed closets" besides. Although rude, it is comfortable, except for the draughts. The fine snow drives in through the chinks and covers the floors, but sweeping it out at intervals is both fun and exercise. There are no heaps or rubbish places outside. Near it, on the slope under the pines, is a pretty two-roomed cabin, and beyond that, near the lake, is my cabin, a very rough one. My door opens into a little room with a stone chimney, and that again into a small room with a hay bed, a chair with a tin basin on it, a shelf and some pegs. A small window looks on the lake, and the glories of the sunrises which I see from it are indescribable. Neither of my doors has a lock, and, to say the truth, neither will shut, as the wood has swelled. Below the house, on the stream which issues from the lake, there is a beautiful log dairy, with a water wheel outside, used for churning. Besides this, there are a corral, a shed for the wagon, a room for the hired man, and shelters for horses and weakly calves. All these things are necessaries at this height.

I shall not soon forget my first night here.

Somewhat dazed by the rarefied air, entranced by the glorious beauty, slightly puzzled by the motley company, whose faces loomed not always quite distinctly through the cloud of smoke produced by eleven pipes, I went to my solitary cabin at nine, attended by Evans. It was very dark, and it seemed a long way off. Something howled—Evans said it was a wolf—and owls apparently innumerable hooted incessantly. The pole-star, exactly opposite my cabin door, burned like a lamp. The frost was sharp. Evans opened the door, lighted a candle, and left me, and I was soon in my hay bed. I was frightened—that is, afraid of being frightened, it was so eerie—but sleep soon got the better of my fears. I was awoke by a heavy breathing, a noise something like sawing under the floor, and a pushing and upheaving, all very loud. My candle was all burned, and, in truth, I dared not stir. The noise went on for an hour fully, when, just as I thought the floor had been made sufficiently thin for all purposes of ingress, the sounds abruptly ceased, and I fell asleep again. My hair was not, as it ought to have been, white in the morning!

I was dressed by seven, our breakfast hour, and when I reached the great cabin and told my story, Evans laughed hilariously, and Edwards contorted his face dismally. They told me that there was a skunk's lair under my cabin, and that they dare not make any attempt to dislodge him for fear of rendering the cabin untenable. They have tried to trap him since, but without success, and each night the noisy performance is repeated.

October 3

This is surely one of the most entrancing spots on earth. Oh, that I could paint with pen or brush! From my bed I look on Mirror Lake, and with the very earliest dawn, when objects are not discernible, it lies there absolutely still, a purplish lead color. Then suddenly into its mirror flash inverted peaks, at first a dawn darker all round. This is a new sight, each morning new. Then the peaks fade, and when morning is no longer "spread upon the mountains," the pines are mirrored in my lake almost as solid objects, and the glory steals downwards, and a red flush warms the clear atmosphere of the park, and the hoar-frost sparkles and the crested blue-jays step forth daintily on the jewelled grass. The majesty and beauty grow on me daily. As I crossed from my cabin just now, and the long mountain shadows lay on the grass, and form and color gained new meanings, I was almost false to Hawaii; I couldn't go on writing for the glory of the sunset, but went out and sat on a rock to see the deepening blue in the dark canyons, and the peaks becoming rose color one by one, then fading into sudden ghastliness, the awe-inspiring heights of Long's Peak fading last. Then came the glories of the afterglow, when the orange and lemon of the east faded into gray, and then gradually the gray for some distance above the horizon brightened into a cold blue, and above the blue into a broad band of rich, warm red, with an upper band of rose color; above it hung a big cold moon. This is the "daily miracle" of evening, as the blazing peaks in the darkness of Mirror Lake are the miracle of morning. Perhaps this scenery is not lovable, but, as if it were a strong stormy character, it has an intense fascination.

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