Read CHAPTER FOUR of A Mountain Boyhood , free online book, by Joe Mills, on ReadCentral.com.

DANCING ACROSS THE DIVIDE

So new was the life, so fascinating the animals and elements of the primitive world, so miraculous was it that my lifelong dreams were come true, that I never thought of home-sickness, nor missed the comrades left behind me, although the Parson and his quiet wife were rather elderly companions for a youngster. There were, too, the diversions of going for the mail, either horseback or in the old spring wagon behind the steady, little mountain ponies, the swapping of yarns while waiting for the generally belated stage to dash up, its four horses prancing, and steaming, no matter how cold the weather, from the precipitous ups and downs of the mountain roads they had traveled. The return journey in the dusk or by moonlight was never without incident: porcupine, deer, bear, Bighorn, mountain lion some kind of game invariably crossed my trail.

And, as was true in all pioneer regions, the community abounded in interesting personalities. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the fame and fairness of the country had reached the centers of Eastern culture, and had lured the ambitious and the adventurous to try their skill in hunting and trapping and fishing in this Paradise, roamed over by big game, crossed by sparkling streams, alive with trout. Kit Carson was the first white man to look down upon its beautiful valleys. Others soon followed: Joel Estes, for whom the Park was eventually named; “Rocky Mountain Jim,” a two-gun man, living alone with his dogs, looking like a bearded, unkempt pirate, taciturn, yet not without charm, as later events proved, unmolesting and unmolested, enveloped in a haze of respected mystery. There was also that noted lady globe-trotter, Miss Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman of undoubted refinement, highly educated whose volume, “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains,” is one of the earliest and most picturesque accounts of that time upon whom “Rocky Mountain Jim” exerted his blandishments. Some sort of romance existed between them, how serious no one knows, for the tragic shooting of Jim, by an irate pioneer father, cut short its development.

In the early sixties, an English nobleman and sportsman, the Earl of Dunraven, attracted by the wealth of game in the region, attempted to make it into a private hunting park or preserve. He took up all the acreage which he could legitimately acquire in his own name, then took up fraudulent claims in the names of his tenants. But the hardy pioneers, who were coming into the country in ever-increasing numbers, rightly doubting the validity of his own ownership of so many thousands of acres, homesteaded land to their liking and built their log cabins upon it. Lord Dunraven tried to scare them off, but they would not be bluffed, and in the contest which followed, he lost out and departed from the region. Although his coming to the Park contributed much to its romantic history, in his “Memoirs” two thick, heavy volumes, published a few years ago he devotes only half a page to his Estes Park experiences. Whether this is because he considered them negligible or unworthy, would be interesting to know.

The old Dunraven Lodge was the first hostelry in the region, and about the great fireplace in its spacious, trophy-hung lobby gathered many of the political and artistic celebrities of that day. The fame of the mountain beauty spot spread visitors came. The settlers added “spare rooms” to their log cabins, and during the summer and early fall “took in boarders,” thus helping to eke out their living expenses and, what was even more far-reaching perhaps, the outer world was thus “fetched in” to them: they heard of railroads annihilating the long oxen-traversed distances of covered wagon days, of new gold strikes, of national politics, rumblings of the Civil War, slavery agitation, presidential elections, and those other momentous, history-making events of their time.

The most important and regular social occasion of that day was the community dinner and “literary.” Imagine the picturesque company, congregated from miles around, each contributing whatever he could muster of food and drink the old Earl of Dunraven, as well as others, had a bar! and seated at a long, single table. What genuine, home-made fun! What pranks, what wit yes, what brilliance! Some one, usually Parson Lamb, sometimes gaunt old Scotch John Cleave, the postmaster, rarely some noted visitor, who either from choice or ill-health lingered on into the winter, made a speech. There were declamations, debates, the interminable, singsong ballads of the frontier, usually accompanied by French harp or fiddle. Families were few, bachelors much in the majority; I remember that at one of the community affairs there were eighteen bachelors out of a total attendance of thirty persons! But as the region settled up, the bachelor ranks dwindled. They, like the big game, disappeared, as though in their case “open season” prevailed likewise.

I had attended several of these pioneer festivities and had enjoyed them greatly, and was much impressed with their importance, for underlying all the fun was an old-fashioned dignity seldom found nowadays. But Parson Lamb told me these dinners were tame compared to a real mountain dance. “Just you wait till you see a real shindig” he said. “Then you’ll have something to talk about.” In January, there was a letter in the mail from Jim Oss, my acquaintance of the train on which I came West. We had been carrying on a desultory correspondence, but this message was momentous.

“I am giving a dance Monday,” he wrote, “to celebrate proving up on my homestead. Come ahead of time so you can see all the fun.” His hundred and sixty acres lay on the western slope of the Continental Divide fifty-five miles away. Snow lay deep over every one of those intervening, upstanding miles! The Parson was concerned about my going alone.

“’Tain’t safe to cross that old range alone any time of year, let alone the dead of winter. Hain’t no one else agoing from here?”

I inquired, but it seemed there was not. Secretly I was well pleased to have it so. I was young enough to thrill at the chance of so hazardous an experience.

Parson Lamb agreed that Friday morning would be a good time to start. We were not superstitious, and it wasn’t the thirteenth. The trip had to be made on snowshoes, with which I was not very adept, but that only added to its attractions. In order to cross the Divide, it was necessary to descend from my lofty nine thousand feet elevation to seven thousand five hundred, before starting to climb Flattop trail, which led over to Grand Lake, the last settlement before reaching Oss’s place. By sundown I reached a deserted sawmill shack, the last shelter between me and Grand Lake. It was six miles below the top of the Divide, and twenty miles to the Lake. There I spent the night and at dawn was trailing upward, in the teeth of a sixty-mile gale!

The first two of those uprising six miles were fair going, and took only a little more than an hour. Thereafter the trail grew more precipitous. The third mile required one hour, and the fourth, two hours of exhausting work. The sun rose, but not the temperature; powdery snow swirled around the heads of the peaks; clouds swept above the ridges, flayed and torn; from above timberline came the roar of the wind.

Dark glasses protected my eyes from snow and wind; and I was warmly dressed. I left my bedding roll at the sawmill, to be picked up on the return trip, for shelter could be had at Grand Lake. The light pack I carried contained peanuts, chocolate, and a change of socks.

The higher I climbed the wilder became the wind. From timberline I surveyed the prospect ahead and hesitated. Clouds and snow whirled up in a solid mass, blinding and choking me. The cold penetrated my heavy clothing. I went on. In a few minutes I was in the midst of the turmoil, utterly lost, buffeted about. I tried to keep the wind in my face for compass, but it was so variable, eddying from all directions, that it was not reassuring. Near the top of the mountain a blast knocked me down, and half smothered me with flying snow. I arose groggily, uncertain which way to head; it was impossible to see even a step in front. The staff I carried served me well, with it I went tapping and feeling my way like a blind man. There I was on the top of the world, thirteen thousand feet above sea level and overlooking nothing.

Flattop mountain is shaped like a loaf of bread, sloping off steeply at the ends, its sides guarded by sheer cliffs.. It was these cliffs I feared and strove to avoid. I had heard startling tales of the effects of high altitude on one; how the atmosphere was very rare and light. Had it been any heavier that day, I could not have survived. Violent blasts of wind frequently bowled me over. After one of these falls, I arose uncertainly, drifted with the wind for a moment’s respite, neglected to feel ahead with my staff and walked out upon a snow cornice that overhung the top of the cliff. The cornice broke away! Amidst an explosion of snow I plunged downward, struggling frantically as I went!

I landed in a snowdrift featherbed which, while it broke my fall, almost buried me alive. The wind reached me only in occasional gusts, so I realized that I must be sheltered by the cliff wall. In the first brief lull I took my bearings. I had landed upon a narrow ledge a few feet wide. Below me yawned the gorge. It was a terrible half hour’s work with a snowshoe as a shovel to extricate myself, but a few minutes later I was once more on top.

Again I struggled upward. I reached the pass and started down the western slope toward timber. My fingers and toes were frosted, I was numb with cold, and so battered by the gale I could only pant. My careful calculations had come to naught, as I was far behind the schedule I had planned. I decided to make up time by abandoning the trail and taking a shortcut to timber and shelter through an unknown canyon which I thought led to Grand Lake.

But the canyon was hard going. Thick, young evergreens, entangling willows and fallen logs impeded every step. I could make no headway and darkness was coming on. Disgusted, despairing, I took to the frozen stream, only to skid over icy bowlders and at last to break through the ice crust into the frigid water.

Long after dark I staggered down the single street of Grand Lake toward a dim patch of light. It proved to be the window of a store. Within was a glowing stove, surrounded by a group of men.

The proprietor eyed me with suspicion. “Where’d you drop from?”

I waved vaguely toward the Continental Divide.

“Must ‘a’ bin something urgent to make you tackle the Flattop trail in winter.”

He awaited my explanations curiously but I had slumped down near the stove and was half asleep.

Next morning I looked back up the way I had come low clouds, tattered to shreds. Even at that distance I could hear the roar of the wind among the loft crags. I was thankful that I had crossed the Divide the day before. It was still thirty miles to the cabin of my friend, but they were fairly easy miles compared with those I had just traversed. Even so, so spent was my strength, it was pitch dark when I dragged wearily up the broken road to where that cabin nestled in its grove of spruces.

The dance was not until Monday night, so I took it for granted that I should be the first to arrive, since I was a full day ahead of the function. But no! Many were already there! They were eating supper and made room for me at the long table before the open fire. They were cordial and made me feel at home at once, marveling over my making the trip alone, and praising my pluck. I was much too weary and hungry to protest, even though I had been becomingly modest. Seeing this, they filled my plate and let me be, turning their nimble tongues on our host What handsome whiskers la! la! He’d better be careful with those hirsute adornments and a cabin with a plank floor! He couldn’t hope to remain a bachelor long! So the banter ran.

Supper over and the dishes cleared away, the candles were snuffed out and the company (visitors were never called guests) sat around the flickering hearth and speculated over the possible coming of the Moffat railroad. What an assorted company it was! Young and grizzled trappers, miners, invalids seeking health, adventurers, speculators, a few half-breeds; all men of little education, but of fascinating experience; a few women of quiet poise and resourcefulness. Their clothes were nondescript and betrayed the fact that they had come from the East, having been sent west by condoning relatives, no doubt after having lived in more fashionable circles. There were two little children who fell asleep early in the evening in their parents’ arms.

The company was put to bed in Oss’s one-room house by the simple means of lying down upon the floor fully dressed, feet to the fire.

All were up early next morning, and each found some task to do. Some of the men cut wood and piled it outside the door; the women folks assisted Oss with breakfast which was cooked in the fireplace; for he had not yet reached the luxury of a cook stove, which would have to be “fetched in” over sixty miles of mountain roads and would cost a tidy sum besides.

Some artistic soul, with a memory of urban ways, made long ropes of evergreens and hung them in garlands from the rafters, a flag was draped above the fireplace, lanterns were hung ready to light.

Distant “neighbors” kept flocking in all day, each bringing a neighborly offering; fresh pork from the owner of an only shoat; choice venison steaks; bear meat from a hunter who explained that the bear had been killed months before and kept frozen in the meat house. Wild raspberry jam, with finer flavor than any I have ever tasted before or since, was brought by a bachelor who vied with the women folks when it came to cookery. The prize offering, however, were some mountain trout, speared through the ice of a frozen stream.

Dancing began early. The music was supplied by an old-time fiddler who jerked squeaky tunes from an ancient violin, singing and shouting the dance calls by turns. Voice, fiddle and feet, beating lusty time to his tunes, went incessantly. He had an endless repertoire, and a talent for fitting the names of the dancers to his ringing rimes.

Some of his offerings were:

“Lady round lady and gents so low!
First couple lead to right
Lady round lady and gents so low
Lady round gent and gent don’t go
Four hands half and right and left.”

The encores he would improvise:

“Hit the lumber with your leather
Balance all, an’ swing ter left.”

All swayed rhythmically, beating time with their feet, clapping their hands, bowing, laughing. The men threw in their fancy steps, their choice parlor tricks. A few performed a double shuffle; one a pigeon’s wing; a couple of trappers did an Indian dance, twisting their bodies into grotesque contortions and every so often letting out a yell that made one’s hair stand on end.

There was little rest between the dances, for the old fiddler had marvelous powers of endurance. He sawed away, perspired, shouted and sang as though his life depended on his performance. He was having as good, or better time, than anyone. With scarcely a moment to breathe he’d launch into another call and not once the whole night through did he repeat:

Olé Buffler Bill Buffler Bill!
Never missed an’ never will.”

Then as the dancers promenaded he’d switch to a new improvisation, ending in a whirlwind of wit and telling personalities, which sent the company into hysterical laughter. I joined in the dance, rather gawkily no doubt, for my mother’s father was a Quaker preacher and we had never been allowed to dance at home. The ladies regarded my clumsiness with motherly forbearance, and self-sacrificingly tried to direct my wayward feet. But either because I was not recovered from my trip or because the strangeness and confusion wearied me, I could not get the hang of the steps. Presently an understanding matron let me slip out of the dance, and I sat down by the fiddler and dozed. Clanking spurs, brilliant chaps, fur-trimmed trappers’ jackets, thudding moccasins, gaudy Indian blankets and gay feathers, voluminous feminine flounces swinging from demure, snug-fitting basques all whirled above me in a kaleidoscopic blur!

A wild war whoop awakened me nothing but a little harmless hilarity! It was two o’clock in the morning. I wished the dance would end so I could sleep undisturbed. I envied the two children asleep on the floor. But the dance went on. The fiddle whined, its player shouted, heavy shoes clumped tirelessly on the plank floor. There was still energetic swing and dash to the quadrilles, still gay voices were raised in joyous shouts. Those hearty pioneers were full of “wim, wigor and witality”!

Dawn broke redly over the Divide; still the dance continued. Daylight sifted over the white world, and yet the dancers did not pause. At last as the sun came up, the old fiddler reluctantly stood on his chair and played “Home Sweet Home.”

All-night dances were at that time the custom of the mountain folk; the company assembled as far ahead of time as was convenient, and remained, sometimes, a day or two after the close of the festivities. There was no doubt as to one’s welcome and there was no limit to the length of his stay. Isolation made opportunities for such social intercourse rare and therefore everyone got more “kick” out of these occasions than is possible in our swiftly moving, blase age.

Weather conditions changed while we danced: the wind eased off and the mountain tops emerged from the clouds and drifting snow. I trailed up the canyon I had struggled through in the darkness; and except for the final stretch of the steep mountain above timberline the snowshoeing was nothing except plain hard work. In some places the wind had packed the snow hard; again it was soft so that I sank knee deep at every step. In the soft snow, where there was a steep slope to negotiate, each snowshoe had to be lifted high, until my knee almost touched my chest. The webs accumulated snow, too, until each shoe weighed many additional pounds.

But the fairyland that I found on top of the Divide was worth all the effort required to reach it. It was the first time I had found the wind quiet; every peak stood out sharp and clear, many miles away seemed but a few minutes’ walk. There were none of the usual objects that help estimate distance; no horses or cattle, no trees or trails, nothing but unbroken space. The glare of the sun was blinding; even my very dark snow glasses failed to protect my eyes.

The silence was tremendous. Always before there had been the wind shrieking and crashing. Now there was not a sound, not a breath of wind, not even a snow-swirl. I shouted, and my voice came back across the canyon without the usual blurring; each word was distinct. I whistled softly and other echoes came hurrying back. Never have I felt so alone, or so small. As far as the eye could reach were mountains, one beyond the other. Near by loomed the jagged Never-summer range, while farther down the Divide Gray’s and Terry’s peaks stood out; then the Collegiate range Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

In the midst of my reverie there came a creaking, groaning sound from almost beneath my feet. I had paused on the brink of the same precipice over which I had fallen on my way to Grand Lake. Before I could move, the snow-cornice broke away and several hundred feet of it crashed down the cliff. In places it appeared to be ten to forty feet thick. It must have weighed thousands of tons. It fell with a swishing roar, with occasional sharp reports, as loose rocks dropped to the clean-swept ledges of the cliff. It seemed to explode as it struck, to fly into powder which filled the gorge between Flat top and Hallett peaks.

The wind had drifted the snow over the edge of the precipice where some of it had clung. Farther and farther it had crept out, overhanging the abyss, its great weight slowly bending the cornice downward until it had at last given way.

I shuddered a little at the awfulness of it; felt smaller than ever, backed away from the rim of the canyon, and headed for home.