IT would seem, perhaps, that to people living six thousand feet up in the air, a mile or so farther up would not be a matter of much moment or interest. Not so. The most passionate climbers and lovers of mountains are mountain-dwellers. Only they know the mystic lure a peak just out of reach can be ; or the haunting, insatiate desire which takes possession of one, gazing, day after day, from heights already won to heights unattained, but near.
When a road was opened from the town of Colorado Springs across Cheyenne Mountain, the southern bulwark and ending of the grand range lying west of the town, it was an event of distinct personal interest to every soul in the village. The fact that the road was part of a contemplated route, shorter and better, to Cañon City entered not at all into most people’s interest outside of the corporation which had been deluded into building it. That it was a way of getting “ up on Cheyenne ” was the main thing to everybody.
People who had never suspected themselves of a longing to be on the mountain suddenly became restless to try the “ new road,” and for a long time not the least of the interests in driving over the road was the watching what diverse sorts of people were drawn thither by the resistless magnet of the sky.
Laboring men, of a Sunday, their young sons trudging along with them, carrying a tin lunch-pail, perhaps, or a bunch of scarlet pentstemons for the tired mother in the little house below; fine ladies, lolling back in barouches, “ summer boarders ” from the hotels of Manitou ; hunters, with guns and knapsacks; camping parties, with wagons packed so full of tents, rifles, stove, and stores that the campers must walk and ride in tie; tramps in rags, with a stick and a bundle, going, nobody, least of all themselves, could tell where or for what; prospecters, tramps also, but with visages unlike those of the common, aimless vagabond. Keen, intent, analytic, is the face of the Rocky Mountain “prospecter.” To the instincts and training of the hunter he adds the patience and the habit of the alchemist; his faith, also, and a touch of his mysticism, and, after a time, the complacent serenity of the hermit. I knew of one such, who tramped and slept on Cheyenne Mountain for years. I never saw him, but I envied him. He is gone now, doubtless, to some remoter, higher mountain. I often see deserted “ mine-holes ” that he dug; and there are several springs, near which I knew of his dwelling for short seasons. I never drink at them without drinking to his health.
All this was in the old days of the “new road.” New things crowd new close and fast in the opened wilderness, and the very words “ old ” and “ new ” lose significance from shifting and interchanging with each other so perpetually. Our “new road” up Cheyenne Mountain is five years old. That is very old, — as old as forty for a woman, or eighteen for a young man.
Last summer, however, the old new road renewed its youth, and lived afresh in the interest of the people, by an expedient very simple and a process very natural, — as simple and natural as a grandchild or a wedding.
A mile higher up than Colorado Springs, quite out of sight, — in fact, not even indicated by a break or a dip in the mountain’s front, as seen from the town, — is a vast basin, where, in the days of those prehistoric poets, the pterodactyls, there must have been a mighty mountain-locked sea. Pike’s Peak had its feet in it, and a half score more of grand peaks, from ten to twelve thousand feet high. Gradually part of it filtered and sank; made its way to the plains in two or three beautiful little streams ; and what was left of it broke up into a chain or group of seven lakes, separated by belts and circles of grassbearing, flower-bearing meadow.
Hunters have known the spot for many years ; a cross-trail to it was made years ago from the Pike’s Peak trail, so that the strong and adventurous, who can sit a whole day on the back of a horse which is dancing on his hind legs and pawing the air with his fore legs,— this is as animate a description of what it is like to go up steep “ trails ” on horseback as I can give, — have been able to see the Seven Lakes. But a spot that can be reached only in this method cannot be properly said to be accessible ; and, spite of the cross-trail, these beautiful lakes remained, summer after summer, almost an incognita aqua to the thirsty people living on the parched plain, only a mile below ; that is, only a mile below as the plummet flies, —nearly twenty by the trail.
Four or five years ago two of the hunters who first discovered the place built there a log house, two stories high, and with fourteen rooms, — an uncommon height and size for a log house. The log house, however, was only the tangible token of an air-castle much bigger and higher than itself. Loving the spot as only hunters could, and knowing all its beauty and fascination as only hunters can, they had wild dreams that merely by sheltering and feeding people who came up there they could lure them into staying a long time. They had still wilder dreams of stocking the lakes with fish, cutting bridle-paths to the tops of all the high peaks, keeping donkeys, guides, and all sorts of hunting equipments, and so making a “ summer resort ” of the place. Of course, they failed miserably. To build even a log house where every pound of nails must be brought twenty miles by horse or mule, a twenty miles’ steady climb, is dear work. The poor fellows had to give up, with a good deal less than their “ labor for their pains,” and their log house came into the hands of a strange man, — a man who, if he had been born a Mohammedan, would, no doubt, have been a sacred dervish, and roamed from city to city and desert to desert, preaching by the wayside. I never see him on our streets without thinking how quick a bronzed skin, a green turban, and a flowing robe could transform him into the semblance of an ideal dervish of the higher order. But, having been born an American, he drifted into some outof-the-way beliefs of the spiritualistic order, and also into a kind of semi-medical, semi-religious practice among the sick; never taking fees, and, I believe, rating the laying on of hands, after the old Apostolic fashion, as of more value, in most cases, than anything set down in the materia medica. He has wandered nearly around the globe, walked over the greater part of Palestine, and finally, in a pause of the currents of his strange life, has come to a halt in Colorado, — finding in the scenery there a greater resemblance to the natural features of the Holy Land than he has seen anywhere else in the world. His wife — whom, though he is a man long past sixty, he married only a few years ago — is a person of as exceptional characteristics as his own, and as peculiar in attire and speech. She has, however, made some study of the science of medicine through regular channels, and her type of unworldliness is a shade more worldly than his; but they seem a singularly well-matched and mated pair, and the wilderness is their natural habitat. Together they stride up, down, and across the mountains in midwinter, day or night, without fatigue or alarm. The old man times himself on his quick runs down to the town, and exults in their marvelous record, not so much as a token of his own remarkable vigor as a token of how the human body was meant to last, strong and vigorous, for a hundred years, he says ; and he bids fair to do all one man can towards proving it, since few men of forty can equal him to-day.
It was in one of their long tramps together that he and his wife struck out a pathway from their house on the Seven Lakes to the old “ new road ” on Cheyenne Mountain ; by it they have been in the habit of coming and going, for pleasure, ever since. It was a twenty miles’ walk as against a fifteen ; but that odds would never enter into their reckoning, one way or the other. It was thus that the idea of the grandchild of our old new road started. A wagonroad once made through this eight miles’ labyrinth of beautiful parks and grand peaks, by which the doctor and his wife went up and down, people might drive comfortably to the very lakes, and the original intent of the inn on the shores still be realized. How much the idea of possible profit to come from such innkeeping may have had to do with the project is neither here nor there in our satisfaction in the result.
The doctor and his wife are not beholden to any inn-keeping for bare support ; for he has always had money in a moderate way, and might have grown rich, like many of his neighbors, I dare say, if he had not had such an unworldly habit of helping men poorer than himself, by easy loans or outright gifts. This is matter of common knowledge in the region, and is one among the strongest reasons in the minds of that moneygetting, money - begetting community for holding the old man to be not quite sound of intellect. I fancy that upon another showing and a different standard he might, on this very ground, be adjudged to be one of the few sane men in the State. But this, also, is neither here nor there in the story of the road. It was no doubt part of their plan to make money by lodging and feeding people in their house ; and the wife has a more extended scheme of setting up a " milk cure” there, like those which have had such success and fame in Switzerland. There is sweet pasturage in abundance on the lower slopes of the surrounding mountains, and something might come of such a project in other and more conventional hands than hers.
The rumors of the completion of this road outran the speed of the workers on it. Again and again we heard that it was open, only to hear again that it was not. By every fresh delay impatience gained and anticipation heightened, until, finally, it was with a certain unjustified sense of personal triumph that, one early September morning, we set off, sure at last of being able to drive all the way to the lakes; eleven thousand five hundred feet above sea level.
Our old new road winds and unwinds in lasso loops on the ridges and around the ravines of the north side of Cheyenne Mountain. We have summered and wintered it till we know it so well that no railroad-tie man can cut down one fir-tree in sight of the road without our missing it; and we perceive if a single purple clematis patch comes to grief between one summer and another.
Ten or twelve miles we have thus known for years ; and once, on a memorable summer day, we pushed still farther on, by a track faintly worn, in some places hardly that, as far as wheels could go, — down the western slopes of the mountain, into a succession of wooded basins and spurs and spaces of meadow, like breathing-holes for the hurrying streams. Here, in one of these meadow bits, the road flickered out and disappeared in tumbled grass.
When I heard of the new road across to the Seven Lakes, I at once recalled this spot, and fancied it must be there that the Seven Lakes road came in; that ending seemed so fit beginning for a charmed way to a charmed spot. But when we reached the place, we found the wild meadow wild meadow no longer. Camp-fires had smirched its fair green on either side, and a scare-crow, the freak of some vagabond, stood in it. Why any one had seen fit to cast away so seemingly decent a coat, hat, and trousers there is no knowing; but there they were, hung conspicuously, stuffed out into the semblance of a man, and bearing a rough label, “ Bound for Pike’s Peak, or Bust.” One felt an impulse to burn the thing down. It seemed such insolent affront to the solitude. The road, which I recollected as a flickering grassy trail at this point, was now travelworn and dusty, and led on still westward, still up and down, over ridges and through basins ; wilder and wilder, however. The stream was choked by bowlders, and tangles of fallen trees made layers upon layers of drifting latticework across it; the forests were darker and thicker; bare summits of stone and disintegrated rock stood out fierce against the sky. At last, from the top of a long spur, which was all a-flutter with yellow aspens, we looked down into a little valley, laid like a mat between the mountain ridges : it was a mosaic of exquisite colors, brown, green, and that richest of all yellows, soft, yet bright, which painters know as “ Indian yellow.” Four separate mountain peaks walled the valley to south and west: one, bare, stony, gray, and red ; the next one, green, flecked with blazing yellow in great spaces where pines had burned down and aspens come in; the next one, bare and stony ; the fourth, a solid wall of fir forest to within a thousand feet of the top ; there, crowned with huge masses of many-colored rock, looking like ruins of a colossal temple. A rude gate of twisted saplings set across the road here is the only token of man’s presence or possession. It is a fair enough spot to attract owners of herds. As we followed the grassy trail we passed one patch of blackened, frostbitten potatoes ; a most melancholy, blighted, lost-looking little stray of a field. On the other side of the valley the road begins again, this time in earnest. The west wall is a Gibraltar; the loops and turns of the road upon it look, from below, mere vertical lines. No horses could draw a loaded carriage up them; it is all they can do to take up the empty carriage itself ; driver and all must walk. In the rarefied air at this altitude, one’s heart becomes an alarming pedometer ; at each step of the climb, it beats harder and quicker. When we reached the crest of this wall, by a simultaneous impulse we began to count pulses. From a hundred and thirty to a hundred and forty they ranged. Another valley and another wall ; this time so high up that, as we looked back and off, through vistas of the forest, there was only sky for background down to the very bottom of the nearest trees. Sky lines of myriads of summits, in drawing massive, yet clear cut, were all around us; through openings to the west were glimpses of the peaks of the main range, glittering in their eternal snow. From thousands of feet below us, to the north, there stole up shining glints and gleams of the water of the Seven Lakes. We were on the top of the south wall of their basin. Descending by zigzags through a dense forest, one gets, at turns of the fragrant fir-walled tunnel, sudden sparkles of bright water ; such as one gets driving fast across a wide river on a covered bridge with windows in it at intervals.
We came out on the shore of the largest lake, just as sunset reds and yellows, streaming across the zenith sky, were reflected in its surface, — the only way this lake ever knows sunsets, translated and handed down to it by skies. The sole motion in the scene was a comical, slow-moving group just before us: a woman, with a big sketch-book under her arm, sitting with evident uneasiness and alarm on a donkey led by a little girl. The donkey, frightened by the unusual sound of wheels, began to run, and twitched his rope from the girl’s hand ; the artist screamed, slipped off, and sat down ignominiously on the ground ; the donkey flung his heels in the air, and galloped away with a triumphant snort, answered instantly on the opposite shore by a bray from his mate, who came running at full speed to hear the joke. The expression of the two donkeys’ faces, as they put their noses together, was irresistible : the first donkey, with one ear cocked back, pointing over his shoulder, so to speak, at his outwitted leader and unseated rider, plodding along on foot in the distance; the second donkey listening with a sly, appreciative, man-of-the-world expression to the story. To have painted the scene and caught the donkeys’ looks would have been a fortune to an artist.
The largest of the Seven Lakes is about eighty acres in extent, and lies close up to the southern wall of the basin. The next one is separated from it by a strip of meadow, only a few feet wide, through which gurgles a tiny rivulet, hidden in lush grasses, — the unseen bond between the two lakes. The others follow in irregular groups, and are of varying sizes in different seasons. It will not be at all out of the natural course of things, in Rocky Mountain parks, if a day comes when there is no lake left of all the seven. But it will not be until long after the memory of the place as it is now has been lost from the earth.
The peaks which make the south wall of the basin are all between thirteen and fourteen thousand feet high. Over such a wall as this moons and suns come late and stealthily, as if they had no right in the place. The slow approaches of moonlight on a full-moon night are wonderful to see. Its first radiance begins on the northernmost peak, while yet all the lakes and the whole basin are wrapped in darkness ; it is not a radiance, but a sort of shining dusk, only one shade less dark than the darkness. For hours this creeps slow as a mist, inch by inch, from peak to peak, round by way of the west; then, above the upper line of the south wall, comes a white glow ; from this is gradually diffused a silvery sheen over the upper half of the valley. Still no moon; still the larger lakes, at base of the silvercrested south wall, are black. Not until full midnight or past does the first direct beam fall on the water ; then it is but a bar, — one narrow, sharp-lined, straight bar of white, — beneath which the water seems to quiver, shot through and through with silver sparkles; then, in a second more, the moon, as if the bar of light had been her silver wand, lifted just in advance of her, compelling surrender of the spot.
Dawn comes over in the same way. Long after day has begun, the lakes lie purple and black and darkest malachite greens ; and the shadows of the mountains do not seem to give place. Not until ten o’clock of the forenoon on the day we left did the full sunlight get in. It came with a rush at the last second ; as it swept over us, it seemed strange that it should be soundless, for it passed swift like a wind.
I had a curiosity to know if continued living in so weird and lonely a place wore away the strangeness of it ; but I found that to the doctor and his wife there was no loneliness or weirdness in the spot.
“ I am tired of civilization ; it is so common,” said the doctor’s wife, in a quiet tone of supreme confidence which gave one a sudden sense of half shame of civilization. “ There are no wicked people up here,” she continued, in the same low, half-dreamy voice. “ When I lived in Colorado Springs, I had to make companions of birds, cats, and dogs. There have been only two wicked people up here all summer.”
This dire reflection on the character (and characters) of Colorado Springs stung faintly, — stung us into replying, “ But if all the good were to seclude themselves in this manner, in high mountain places, and leave all the wicked people shut up together below, would not the wicked people be likely to grow more wicked ? Ought not the good to endure the cross of living with the wicked, for the sake of making them better ? ”
Our little weapon fell to the ground harmless, all the edge of its satire blunted and turned by the quiet reply in the same low, dreamy voice : “ Probably it is because I am wicked myself that I can’t bear to be among wicked people.”
It seemed she had spent many weeks entirely alone in the place, and proposed to pass a large part of the coming winter there alone, her husband’s affairs requiring his absence.
“ Are you not afraid ? ” was our surely not unnatural exclamation.
“ What should I be afraid of ? ” she replied. “ I am never ill. The house is secure.”
“ But will you never be lonely ? ” I said.
“ Oh, no,” in the same placid, low tone. “ I shall have plenty of fuel and food laid in, and my books and study. What more could I need ? ”
The repose and poise of her manner made it seem pusillanimous even to think of needing more ; but discussing the matter on the way home, we reverted to a more human way of looking at things, and reassured ourselves enough to take the liberty of bestowing on the contented recluse some pity ; at which, no doubt, she would simply have smiled, if she had known it. Going down the heights we had climbed was almost terrifying ; surely, only people of the order — if it be not a genus — of the doctor and his wife would ever have laid out such a road. Before it will lure many to their inn, some of its steepest plunges must be done away with.
The day of our going down was one of those days, such as only September knows, when the air fairly shines with flights and flocks of winged seeds. There are no days in the whole year so splendid ; and it is in my mind a question whether there are in the whole world any so beautiful things as seed vessels, which are built for scudding before the wind, on high aerial seas. Colorado has a fine navy of them : the clematis, purple and white ; the purple anemone, which sets afloat a globe of downy wheel spokes more exquisite than the dandelion’s; and the despised “ grease wood,” a single bush of which will, in its season, launch a million a minute of tiny narrow pinnaces, feathered as fine as an ostrich plume.
But the most splendid show of all is made by the fire-weed, which grows in Colorado four and five feet high. Its stems and seed pods are brilliant red ; semi-transparent, too, so that in sunlight slanting across them their color kindles like wine held up to light. When the pod bursts, and the silver-winged seed first is set partly free, it instantly coils and twists around the stem, as if loath to depart. The lower half of the plant thus becomes tangled and draped with this fine curling silver plumage, rising above which stands the superb columnar red stem set with the narrow red pods. There are many wild clearings where this fire-weed grows solid by the acre ; and on a breezy day in September every wind that sweeps across snatches whole fields of these silver plumes, and whirls them aloft, to separate and float, and drift as they may.
We saw on this day, in many a sky “offing,” fleets of them, which had almost a preternatural look, as of shoals of glittering pearl flies, or slow-floating snow, where no snow could be. At sunset, great masses of crimson and gold clouds hovered above the heights where we had been in the morning. Long after these had all faded into gray, there lingered at the highest peak, as if clinging to it, one long narrow thread of crimson. It seemed to float like a banner ; and, recalling the weird valley and the weird waters, lying high, dark, and lonely at the foot of this peak, and the tone of voice in which the doctor’s wife had asked, “ What more could I want?” it seemed natural enough that a cloud should linger and float there, unseen and unknown of the strange recluses, but keeping “colors flying” for them till dark