Hitting A High Spot In Colorado
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
AN enthusiastic young millionaire, the son of a pioneer, determined that my companion and I ought to see the mountain parks. It was winter, and for reasons all too plainly visible from Denver, no automobiles had attempted the ascent since fall, for the mountain barrier, rearing itself majestically to the westward, glittered appallingly with ice and snow.
"We can have a try at it, anyway," said our friend.
So, presently, in furs, and surrounded by lunch baskets and thermos bottles, we set out for the mountains in his large six-cylinder machine.
Emerging from the city, and taking the macadamized road which leads to Golden, we had our first uninterrupted view of the full sweep of that serrated mountain wall, visible for almost a hundred miles north of Denver, and a hundred south; a solid, stupendous line, flashing as though the precious minerals had been coaxed out to coruscate in the warm surface sunshine.
There was something operatic in that vast and splendid spectacle. I felt that the mountains and the sky formed the back drop in a continental theater, the stage of which is made up of thousands of square miles of plains.
Striking a pleasant pace we sped toward the barrier as though meaning to dash ourselves against it; for it seemed very near, and our car was like some great moth fascinated by the flash of ice and snow. However, as is usual where the air is clear and the altitude great, the eye is deceived as to distances in Colorado, and the foot-hills, which appear to be not more than three or four miles distant from Denver, are in reality a dozen miles away.
Denver has many stock stories to illustrate that point. It is related that strangers sometimes start to walk to the mountains before breakfast, and the tale is told of one man who, having walked for hours, and thus discovered the illusory effect of the clear mountain air, was found undressing by a four-foot irrigation ditch, preparatory to swimming it, having concluded that, though it looked narrow, it was, nevertheless in reality a river.
Nor is optical illusion regarding distances the only quality contained in Denver air. Denver and Colorado Springs are of course famous resorts for persons with weak lungs, but one need not have weak lungs to feel the tonic effect of the climate. Denver has little rain and much sunshine. Her winter air seems actually to hold in solution Colorado gold. My companion and I found it difficult to get to sleep at night because of the exhilarating effect of the air, but we would awaken in the morning after five or six hours' slumber, feeling abnormally lively.
I spoke about that to a gentleman who was a member of our automobile mountain party.
"There 's no doubt," he replied, as we bowled along, "that this altitude affects the nerves. Even animals feel it. I have bought a number of eastern show horses and brought them out here, and I have found that horses which were entirely tractable in their habitual surroundings, would become unmanageable in our climate. Even a pair of Percherons which were perfectly placid in St.. Louis, where I got them, stepped up like hackneys when they reached Denver..
"I think a lot of the agitation we have out here comes from the same thing. Take our passionate political quarreling, or our newspapers and the way they abuse each other. Or look at judge Lindsey. I think the altitude is partly accountable for him, as well as for a lot of things the rest of us do. Of course it 's a good thing in one way : it makes us energetic ; but on the other hand, we are likely to have less balance than people who don't live a mile up in the air."
As we talked, our car breezed toward the foothills. Presently we entered the mouth of a narrow canon and, after winding along rocky slopes, emerged upon the town of Golden.
Golden, now known principally as the seat of the State School of Mines, used to be the capital of Colorado. Spread- out upon a prairie the place might assume an air of some importance, but stationed as it is upon a slope, surrounded by gigantic peaks, it seems a trifling town clinging to the mountainside as a fly clings to a horse's back.
The slope upon which Golden is situated is a comparatively gentle one, but directly back of the city the angle changes and the surface of the world mounts abruptly toward the heavens, which seem to rest like a great coverlet upon the upland snows.
Rivulets from the melting white above, were running through the streets of Golden, turning them to a sea of mud, through which we plowed powerfully on "third." As we passed into the backyard of Golden, the mountain seemed to lean out over us.
"That 's our road, up there," remarked the Denver gentleman who sat in the tonneau, between my companion and myself. He pointed upward, zig-zagging with his finger.
We gazed at the mountainside.
"You don't mean that little dark slanting streak like a wire running back and forth, do you?" asked my companion.
"Yes, that 's it. You see they've cut a little nick into the slope all the way up and made a shelf for the road to run on."
"Is there any wall at the edge?" I asked.
"No," he said. "There's no wall yet. We may have that later, but you see we have just built this road." "Is n't there even a fence?"
"No. But it's all right. The road is wide enough." Presently we reached the bottom of the road, and began the actual ascent.
"Is this it?" asked my companion.
"Yes, this is it. You see the pavement is good." "But I thought you said the road was wide?"
"Well, it is wide—that is, for a mountain road. You can't expect a mountain road to be as wide as a city boulevard, you know."
"But suppose we should meet somebody," I put in. "How would we pass ?"
"There 's room enough to pass," said the Denver gentleman. "You 've only got to be a little careful. But there is no chance of our meeting any one. Most people would n't think of trying this road in winter because of the snow."
"Do you mean that the snow makes it dangerous ?" asked my companion.
"Some people seem to think so," said the Denver gentleman.
Meanwhile the gears had been singing their shrill, incessant song as we mounted, swiftly. My seat was at the outside of the road. I turned my head in the direction of the plains. From where I sat the edge of the road was invisible. I had a sense of being wafted along through the air with nothing but a cushion between me and an abyss. I leaned out a little, and looked down at the wheel beneath me. Then I saw that several feet of pavement, lightly coated with snow, intervened between the tire, and the awful edge. Beyond the edge was several hundred feet of sparkling air, and beyond the air I saw the roofs of Golden.
One of these roofs annoyed me. I do not know the nature of the building it adorned. It may have been a church, or a school, or a town hall. I only know that the building had a tower, rising to an acute point from which a lightning rod protruded like a skewer. When I first caught sight of it I shuddered and turned my eyes upward toward the mountain. I did not like to gaze up at the heights which we had yet to climb, but I liked it better on the whole than looking down into the depths below.
"What mountain do you call this ?" I asked, trying to. make diverting conversation.
"Which one?" asked the Denver gentleman. "The one we are climbing."
"This is just one of the foothills," he declared. "Oh," I said.
"If this is a foothill," remarked my companion, "I suppose the Adirondacks are children's sand piles."
"See how blue the plains are," said the Denver gentleman sweeping the landscape with his arm. "People compare them with the sea."
I did not wish to see how blue the plains were, but out of courtesy I looked.. Then I turned my eyes away, hastily. The spacious view did not strike me in the sense of beauty, but in the pit of the stomach. In looking away from the plains, I tried to do so without noticing the town below. I did not wish to contemplate that pointed tower, again. But a terrible curiosity drew my eyes down. Yes, there was Golden, looking like a toy village. And there was the tower, pointing up at me. I could not see the lightning rod now, but I knew that it was there. Again I looked up at the peaks.
For a time we rode on in silence. I noticed that the snow on the slope beside us, and in the road, was be-coming deeper now, but it did not seem to daunt our powerful machine. Up, up we went without slackening our pace.
"Look!" exclaimed the Denver gentleman after a time. "You can see Denver now, just over the top of South Table Mountain."
Again I was forced to turn my eyes in the direction of the plains. Yes, there was Denver, looking like some dream island of Maxfield Parrish's in the sea of plain.
I tried to look away again at once, but the Denver man kept pointing and insisting that I see it all.
"South Table Mountain, over the top of which you are now looking," he said, "is the same hill we skirted in coming into Golden. We were at the bottom of it then. That will show you how we have climbed already."
"We must be halfway up by now," said my companion hopefully.
"Oh, no; not yet. We are only about—" There he broke off suddenly and clutched at the side of the tonneau. Our front wheels had slipped sidewise in the snow, upon a turn, and had brought us very near the edge. Again something drew my eyes to Golden. It was no longer a toy village; it was now a map. But the tower was still there. However far we drove we never seemed to get away from it.
Where the brilliant sunlight lay upon the snow, it was melting, but in shaded places it was dry as talcum powder. Rounding another turn we came upon a place of deep shadow, where the riotous mountain winds had blown the dry snow into drifts. One after the other we could see them reaching away like white waves toward the next angle in the road.
My heart leaped with joy at the sight, and as I felt the restraining grip of the brakes upon our wheels, I blessed the elements which barred our way.
"Well," I cried to our host as the car stood still. "It has been a wonderful ride. I never thought we should get as far as this."
"Neither did I!" exclaimed my companion rising to his feet. "I guess I'll get out and stretch my legs while you turn around."
"So will I," I said.
Our host looked back at us.
"Turn around ?" he repeated. "I'm not going to turn around."
My companion measured the road with his eye.
"It is sort of narrow for a turn, isn't it?" he said. "What will you do—back down?"
"Back nothing !" said our host. "I'm going through."
The pioneer in him had spoken. His jaw was set. The joy that I had felt ebbed suddenly away. I seemed to feel it leaking through the soles of my feet. We had stopped in the shadow. It was cold there and the wind was blowing hard.. I did not like that place, but little as I liked it, I fairly yearned to stop there.
I heard the gears click as they meshed. The car leaped forward, struck the drift, bounded into it with a drunken, slewing motion, penetrated for some distance and finally stopped, her headlights buried in the snow.
Again I heard a click as our host shifted to reverse. Then, with a furious spinning of wheels, which cast the dry snow high in air, we made a bouncing, back-ward leap and cleared the drift, but only to charge it again.
This time we managed to get through. Nor did we stop at that. Having passed the first drift, we retained our momentum and kept on through those that followed, hitting them as a power dory hits succeeding waves in a choppy sea, churning our way along with a rocking, careening, crazy motion, now menaced by great boulders at the inside of the road, now by the deadly drop at the outside, until at last we managed, somehow, to navigate the- turning, after which we stopped in a place comparatively clear of snow.
Our host turned to us with a smile.
"She 's a good old snow-boat, isn't she ?" he said. With great solemnity my companion and I admitted that she was.
Even the Denver gentleman who occupied the tonneau with us, seemed somewhat shaken.
"Of course the snow will be worse farther up," he said to our host. "Do you think it is worth going on ?"
"Of course it is," our host replied. "I want these boys to see the main range of the Rockies. That 's what we came up for, isn't it?"
"Yes," said my companion, "but we wouldn't want you to spoil your car on our account."
It was an unfortunate remark.
"Spoil her!" cried our host. "Spoil this machine? You don't know her. You haven't seen what she can do, yet. Just wait until we hit a real drift !"
The cigar which I had been smoking when I left Denver was still in my mouth. It had gone out long since, but I had been too much engrossed with other things to notice it. Instead of relighting it, I had been turning it over and over between my teeth, and now in an emotional moment, I chewed at it so hard that it sagged down against my chin. I removed it from my mouth, and tossed it over the edge. It cleared the road and sailed out into space, down, down, down, turning over and over in the air, as it went. And as I watched its evolutions, my blood chilled, for I thought to myself that the body of a falling man would turn in just that way—that my body would be performing similar aerial evolutions, should our car slew off the road in the course of some mad charge against a drift.
I was by this time very definitely aware that I had my fill of winter motoring in the mountains. The mere reluctance I had felt as we began to climb had now developed into a passionate desire to desist. I am no great pedestrian. Under ordinary circumstances the idea of climbing a mountain on foot would never occur to me. But now, since I could not turn back, since I must go to the top to satisfy my host, I fairly yearned to walk there. Indeed, I would have gladly crawled there on my hands and knees, through snowdrifts, rather than to have proceeded farther in that touring car.
Obviously, however, craft was necessary.
"I believe I'll get out and limber up a little," I said, rising from my seat..
My companions of the tonneau seemed to be of the same mind. All three of us alighted in the snow. "How far is it to the top ?" I asked our host.
"A couple of miles," he said.
"Is that all ?" I replied. "Couldn't we walk it, then?"
I was touched by the avidity with which my two companions seized on the suggestion. Only our host objected.
"What 's the matter?" he demanded in an injured tone. "Don't you think my car can make it? If you '11 just get in again you '11 soon see!"
"Heavens, no!" I answered. "That 's not it. Of course we know your car can do it."
"Yes; oh, yes, of course !" the other two chimed in. "All I was thinking of," I added, "was the exercise." "That 's it," my companion cried. "Exercise. We haven't had a bit of exercise since we left New York." "I need it, too!" put in the Denver man. "My wife says I 'm getting fat."
"Oh, if it 's exercise you want," said our host, "I'm with you."
Even the spirits of the chauffeur seemed to rise as his employer alighted.
"I think I had better stay with the car, sir," he said.
"All right, all right," said our host indifferently. "You can be turning her around. We'll be back in a couple of hours or so."
The chauffeur looked at the edge.
"Well," he said, "I don't know but what the exercise will do me good, too. I guess I '11 come along if you don't mind, sir."
On foot we could pick our way, avoiding the larger drifts, so that, for the most part, we merely trudged through snow a foot deep. But it was uphill work in the sun, and before long overcoats were removed and cached at the roadside, weighted down against the wind with stones. Now and then we left the road and took a short cut up the mountainside, wading through drifts which were sometimes armpit deep and joining the road again where it doubled back at a higher elevation. Presently our coats came off, then our waistcoats, until at last all five of us were in our shirts, making a strange picture in such a wintry landscape.
Now that the dread of skidding was removed I began to enjoy myself, taking keen delight in the marvelous blue plains spread out everywhere to the eastward, and inhaling great drafts of effervescent air.
When we had struggled upward for perhaps two hours we left the road and assailed a little peak, from the top of which our host believed the main range of the Rockies would be visible. The slope was rather steep, but the ground beneath the snow was fairly smooth, giving us moderately good footing. By making trans-verse paths we zigzagged without much difficulty to the top, which was sharp, like the backbone of some gigantic animal.
I must admit that I had not been so anxious to see the main range as my Denver friends had been to have me see it. It did not seem to me that any mountain spectacle could be much finer than that presented by the glittering wall as seen from Denver. I had expected to be disappointed at the sight of the main range, and I am glad that I expected that, because it made all the greater the thrill which I felt when, on topping the hill, I saw what was beyond.
I do not believe that any experience in life can give the ordinary man—the man who is not a real explorer of new places—the sense of actual discovery and of great achievement, which he may attain by laboring up a stope and looking over it at a vast range of mountains glittering, peak upon peak, into the distance. The sensation is overwhelming. It fills one with a strange kind of exaltation, like that which is produced by great music played by a splendid orchestra. The golden air, vibrating and shimmering, is like the tremolo of violins; the shadows in the abysses are like the deep throbbing notes of violoncellos and double basses; while the great peaks, rising in their might and majesty, suggest the surge and rumble of pipe organs echoing to the vault of heaven.
I had often heard that, to some people, certain kinds of music suggest certain colors. Here, in the silence of the mountains, I understood that thing for the first time, for the vast forms of those jewel-encrusted hills seemed to give off a superb symphonic song—a song with an air which, when I let my mind drift with it, seemed to become definite, but which, when I tried to follow it, melted into vague, elusive harmonies.
There is no place in the world where Man can get along for more than two or three minutes at a time without thinking of himself. Everything with which he comes in contact suggests him to himself. Nothing is too small, nothing too stupendous, to make man think of man. If he sees an ant he thinks : "That, in its humble way, is a little replica of me, doing my work." But when he looks upon a mountain range he thinks more salutary thoughts, for if his thoughts about himself are ever humble, they will be humble then. Indeed, it would be like man to say that that was the purpose with which mountains were made—to humble him. For it is man's pleasure to think that everything in the universe was created with some definite relation to himself.
However that may be, it is man's habit, when he looks upon the mountains, to endeavor to make up for the long vainglorious years with a brief but complete orgy of self-abnegation. And that, of course, is a good thing for him, although it seems a pity that he cannot spread it thinner and thereby make it last him longer. But man does not like to take his humility that way. He prefers to take it like any other sickening medicine, gulping it down in one big draft, and getting it over with. That is the reason man can never bear to stay for any length of time upon a mountain top. Up there he finds out what he really is, and for man to find that out is, naturally, painful.
As he looks at the mountains the ego, which is 99 per cent. of him, begins to shrivel up. He may not feel it at first. Probably he doesn't. Very likely he begins by writing his own name in the eternal snows, or scratching his initials on a rock. But presently he gazes off into space and remarks with the Poet Towne : "Ain't Nature wonderful!" And, of course, after that he begins to think of himself again, saying with a great sense of discovery : "What a little thing I am!" Then, as his ego shrinks farther, the orgy of humility begins.
"What am I," he cries, "in the eyes of the eternal hills? I am relatively unimportant! By George, I should n't be surprised if I were a miserable atom ! Yes, that 's what I am ! I am a frail, wretched thing, created but to be consumed. My life is but a day. I am a poor, two-legged nonentity, trotting about the surface of an enormous ball. I am filled with egotism and self-interest. I call myself civilized—and why? Because I have learned to make sounds through my mouth, and have assigned certain meanings to these sounds; because I have learned to mark down certain symbols, to represent these sounds; and because, with my sounds and symbols, I can maintain a ragged interchange of ragged thought with other men, getting myself, for the most part, beautifully misunderstood.
"Of what else is my life composed? Of the search for something I call `pleasure' and something else I call `success,' which is represented by piles of little yellow metal disks that I designate by the silly-sounding word, `money..' I spend six days in the week in search of money, and on the seventh day I relax and read the Sunday newspapers, or put on my silk hat and go to church, where I call God's attention to myself in every way I can, praying to Him with prayers which have to be written for me because I have n't brains enough to make a good prayer of my own; singing hymns to Him in a voice which ought never to be raised in song; telling Him that I know He watches over me; putting a little metal disk, of small denomination, in the plate for Him; then putting on my shiny hat again—which I know pleases Him very much—going home and eating too much dinner."
That is the way man thinks about himself upon a mountain top. Naturally he can only stand it for a little while before his contracting ego begins to shriek in pain.
Then man says: "I have enjoyed the view. I will note the fact in the visitors' book if there happens to be one, after which I will retire from this high elevation to the world below."
Going down the mountain he begins to say to himself: "What wonderful thoughts I have been thinking up there! I have had thoughts which very few other men are capable of thinking ! I have a remarkable mind if I only take the time to use it !"
So, as he goes down, his ego keeps on swelling up again until it not only reaches its normal size, but becomes larger than ever, because the man now believes that, in addition to all he was before, he has become a philosopher.
"I must write a book! he says to himself. "I must give these remarkable ideas of mine to the world !" And, as you see, he sometimes does it.