By Linda Ballou
Destination Story Gold winner of the Twelfth Annual Solas Awards
As I crested the bluff overlooking Estes Park, the summer sun pushed away the gray that had followed me from Denver (an hour’s drive away) to reveal bluebird skies. The sweet mountain town, guarded by 14,000-foot peaks of the Rocky Mountain National Park, rests in a cleft carved by the Big Thompson River. I was drawn here by the vivid descriptions of this magical place by Isabella Lucy Bird who journaled her stay as she rode 800 miles solo on her mare Birdie in 1873.
I imagined her sense of relief at having finally arrived at what she dubbed the “Inner World.” She had begun her journey by train to Cheyenne, Wyoming and made her way by coach to the home of the Alexanders on the banks of the Big Thompson River in Loveland, Colorado. They were hardscrabble squatters on the land presently occupied by the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch. Isabella was put to work washing and mending clothes and helping Mrs. Alexander with chores while she waited for a guide to take her to Estes Park. After a grueling ride and many missteps through thickly forested slopes and steep gullies, it became apparent that her guide did not know the way. Having reached an impassable box canyon framed in towering rock pinnacles, they had to turn back.
Undaunted, Ms. Bird managed to get to Longmont and an alternate route that took her up present-day Highway 36 to Estes Park. Today this bustling town is the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park. I enjoyed this scenic highway ramble through pine-sheathed mountains in my rental car, but nearly 150 years earlier it had taken Isabella several days to make the strenuous journey on horseback. When she arrived, the valley was spotted with the rough-hewn log cabins of settlers, hunters, and the random misanthrope.
She descended into the valley and was greeted by Mountain Jim—a desperado by her description—who charged a toll to enter nature’s sanctuary. He wore animal skins crudely fashioned into clothing and a revolver at his waist. Strapped to his horse’s saddle pad made from a beaver skin (complete with dangling paws) was a formidable rifle. His demeanor was calm, but his overall appearance was frightening. Blond curls to his shoulders framed a face that was strikingly handsome on one side and shockingly disfigured on the other. He had only let her see the good profile, shielding her from the fact that he only had one eye and a face badly scarred from a run-in with a bear. Although taken aback by his appearance, she let him guide her to Evans boarding house, the valley’s only lodging, where she was assigned a chink-style log cabin that let the snow filter in during storms.
I felt cozy in my four-poster bed beneath a down comforter at my lodging in Estes Park, as I thought of her waking to a light blanket of snow on her covers and eyelashes crusted in frost. Strangely, this Victorian woman with delicate health found wilderness life invigorating. She felt alive; connected with the turnings of nature and enamored with the vastness of the place. Unspoiled beauty awaited her each morning and prompted her out of bed to see the sun cresting the peaks and casting a crimson glow. She had come in the autumn when burnt orange and golden willows lined the many creeks and the ground was fecund with a mat of falling leaves. She inhaled deeply the scent of pine and rose, eager to tack up Birdie and ride in the park where she met elk and deer on her hacks.
Evans owned cattle grazing land in the meadows that were once home to thunderous herds of buffalo. Since Isabella was an enthusiastic horsewoman, they offered to pay her to gather their cattle. She loved the thrill of rounding up unruly cows and was soon well-respected among the male boarders who rode with her. Lording over the pristine valley was the 14,000-foot-monarch, snow-tipped Longs Peak. As she herded cattle in the park, she became deeply immersed in the staggering beauty of the Inner World. She longed to know the vista from the stern gray face at the top of the world. She knew she couldn’t go alone and asked Mountain Jim if he would take her.
I drove Trail Ridge Road in the RMNP to an overlook with a stunning view of Longs Peak and its neighbors stacked on the horizon. Though hundreds of peak baggers climb the mountain each year, I could not imagine taking up that challenge. I had hiked to pristine, glacier-fed Loch Lake resting at 10,000 feet the day before. The combination of the altitude and the stiffness of the climb had taken all my strength to get there and back. Spreading far below my vantage point were the lush green meadows where Isabella rode shod over Evans’ cattle. Happily, the expansive valley is free of over-grazing today and serves to support the elk, deer, and antelope that are common sightings in the park.
Two of the early Evans’ boarders had wanted to climb Longs Peak as well. Jim agreed to take them, but only if Isabella could come along. Beneath Jim’s rough attire beat the heart of a gentleman. He had a civilized manner and read poetry on dark nights while sipping whiskey by the fire. He was drawn to Isabella, but knew his disfigurement was more than any woman could, or should, bear. They rode to a base camp near Lilly Lake and made the strenuous hike from there. She was wearing her Hawaiian riding dress left over from her days riding on the Big Island (perfect for the tropics, but silly on this climb). Jim provided her with proper boots and a warm coat made from animal skins. Isabella managed to make it to the notch near the top on her own steam, but the strenuous hand-over-hand climb, combined with the altitude, made her weak and breathless. Mountain Jim did not want her to be disappointed, so he literally dragged and, in some instances, carried her on his shoulders to the top of the world. What she saw she expressed as “Nature, rioting in her grandest mood, exclaimed with voices of grandeur, solitude, sublimity, beauty, and infinity.”
After the arduous descent from the mountain, they sat together beside a fire gazing at shivering stars. It is a favorite rumor in the region that her gratitude to him and his admiration for her were given full reign on that night.
Isabella continued her quest to explore points south, including Denver and Boulder, Colorado. I carried on my own explorations, left the Inner World, and headed up Highway 34 towards Loveland and the Sylvan Dale Ranch where I was to spend the night. There is no mention in the guide books of the staggering beauty of this drive that traces the mighty Big Thompson River. The canyon carved over the millennium by this mad rush of water through blocks of granite shooting skyward is often closed due to rock slides and flooding. This is the box canyon that had stopped Isabella short in her first attempt to reach the inner world. The road could not be engineered until 1904.
After her circuit through Colorado, Isabella returned to Evans lodge in the winter to know still beauty, silence, and solitude again. “The park below lying in intense sunlight, with all the majestic canyons which sweep down upon it in depths of infinite blue gloom, and above, the pearly peaks, dazzling in purity and glorious form, cleft the turquoise blue of the sky. How can I ever leave it?” This she asked herself in letters to her sister Henrietta back in Scotland that make up her travel memoir A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.
Isabella Lucy Bird would be pleased to know that in spirit she never left the Inner World. Her loving descriptions helped bring attention to the spectacular region protected today from development known as the Rocky Mountain National Park. I was surprised that locals in Estes Park who had lived there many years, and the thousands of hikers who flock to the region each year to re-connect to the wild, did not know her name. Her legacy lives on with me.
Linda Ballou is an adventure travel writer and author of the travel memoir, Lost Angel Walkabout—One Traveler’s Tales, a historical novel; Wai-nani, A Voice from Old Hawai’i; and the novel, The Cowgirl Jumped over the Moon. Find more information at www.LindaBallouAuthor.com and her blog www.LindaBallouTalkingtoyou.com.