Colorado College Tutt Library

Century Chest transcription 79

The Mystery of the Mountains

by Hamlin Garland

"I plead for the preservation of the forests and cry out against the desecration of the crystal streams."

When the leader of the first wagon train, halting on its long way from the Missouri river the land of gold, detected low on the sunset sky a faintly blue cloud which endured while its fellows faded, he raised a great shout. "See, there they loom, the mountains!" and the cry was echoed from lip to lip as mariners shipwrecked and drifting on a pitiless sea repeat the hail of "land ho!"

Every heart exulted and bowed heads lifted, for to the merciless, challenging emptiness of the plain a bound had been set. The drear expanse of burning russet sod had been broken by a wall of grateful blue.

Instantly all wavering, all indecision vanished. Each adventurer thereafter pressed forward as to a goal. His eyes were lifted to Pikes Peak as to a star. No matter how the ways divided he chose that which led toward the lord of the range.

As the slow-paced oxen with straining limbs and clashing horns toiled on, the Peak increased in majesty, and the ever-lengthening rampart wall became more deeply accented with caņons, purple-pillared gates to golden untrod lands beyond. With an ever-deepening longing to enter these mysterious portals, the path finders pushed relentlessly onward.

As they neared the base of this stern barrier - this iron shore of a waveless sea, the hearts of the women quailed, and to the exultation of the pioneers themselves was added a thrill of distrust, of fear. Who could say what dangers lurked in those mysterious deeps? Storms developed without warning in the cloudless sky of noon and thunder crashed and boomed round the worn old crowns of the great peaks, leaving them white with snow. With these tempests the mystery of the mountains deepened appallingly and some turned back, but the many pressed on, allured by the perils which the faint-hearted could not face. Of such relentless temper are the pathfinders.

In such sprit they of the plains in early days approached the peaks. After them came the settlers who sat down in the valleys and built homes; they uncovered gold in the sand, and planted corn on the mesas. They made their homes here and came at last to love that which they had feared, but we of the plains still find the mountains a marvel as well as a great joy. Our fear and distrust are gone, but we have not ceased to wonder and admire, though your picks and your plow have cut athwart the trails and turned the wild parks into orchards.

We confess to a sense of sorrow as we face the ravage of the miner and the engineer, and we rejoice that not even iron-handed commerce can utterly subdue those mighty presences. Trade can scar, but it cannot destroy caņon and cliff. These high lands still have a message to those whose lives are keyed to the desolate monotony of the autumn plains and to the slow pulsing of the lowland river.

Until these mountains were known America was incomplete. The west was a vacuum. They supplemented the Mississippi valley. They completed the circle. They were necessary in a subtler sense. In all times and to all men the heights have spoken a peculiar word - teaching liberty in life and a certain loftiness of phrase. They have ever been the legendary abodes of demi-gods and their paths are known to lead to the lands of the spirit fathers.

The prairies have majesty of line and charm of color, but the mountains compel, they devour and transform men. The plains have breadth and much light, but lack vista - while the ways of the mountains are full of change. Before the traveler they open like gates. They are a perpetual invitation to explore. They draw the eyes of man upward. The plain is logic; the mountains are philosophy. The prairies are lyric, the plains epic, but the mountains colossal drama. The spirits of Chance, of Luck and of Adventure beckon from the crags and point the way to obscure canons and high slopes. The streams of the plains are slow, full of dream and drowse. Those of the mountains are white with speed and their restless rushing leads to action. They come from the shadows of the clouds on the peaks and descend to the hot plain with clamor.

In these days the power of nature to mold and fashion all organisms to itself is fully admitted, and the men of the plains who meet and grapple with these great mountain forces must change as the wolf and cougar are cut and colored to their environment by the same inexorable law. Out of these stern highlands a new type of man is sure to come. It may be that the man of the western mountains is soon to deeply influence American literature as he has already added picturesqueness and power to our common speech.

In the hearts of both miner and engineer, no matter how they cut and ravage, is ever a sense of the mystery of the mountains. In the upturned rocks the miner reads the titanic tale of the past - the records of fire and water and the history of cataclysmic shifting of vast areas. He is touched with wonder of these forces and the awe redeems him, sets him apart from the mere plodder with the spade; makes him for the moment a poet, a dreamer. This mysterious element reaches out and lays hold of the heart of the promoter, and he too becomes a visionary whose enthusiasm compels attention, co-operation. Every caņon is a strong-box to be unlocked; every range a magnificent problem to be solved. The engineer strikes hands with the most impracticable of prospectors and the work they do makes the rhymer a laggard, the historian a slow coach.

Each year the mountains call to the people of the plains "Come up higher," and each year the floods of those who come deepen and widen, and as they return to the lower level lands each soul carries away visions which enrich him and leave no scar upon the changeful beauty of the hills. Indubitably contact with these glorious heights gives to the prairie-dwellers who visit them a higher concept of man's power and a deeper sense of the beauty of God's earth. They have been exalted and their memories of sounding streams, purple peaks and dark mysterious gorges grow in value as they plod to and fro in their native fields. The glory of the mountains will become a part of them like a strain of oft-repeated splendid song.

Let those of you who will defend the murder of tree and the gashing of the hills, celebrating the material wealth and boundless enterprise of the mountain west; my office is a different one. I plead for the preservation of the forests and cry out against the desecration of the crystal streams. Let me emphasize the inestimable value of beauty here in your splendid Colorado, so essential, so far-reaching in its effect upon the lower lands. I predict that the coin value of your waterfalls, your violet cliffs, your shadowed secret lakes and your dim cool caņons will yet outreach the wealth of your mines. Let me beg of you to offer sternest opposition henceforth to all wanton destruction of things beautiful. Be harshly forbidding to all who pollute the streams, deface the rock or needlessly assault the earth.

We of the plains are coming to love the high country almost as well as you who are native to it. We need your gold, your fruit, but we also need your clear, sweet air, and the message of your glorious streams. We are coming to feel a spiritual proprietorship in Ouray and Shavano, In Sierra Blanca and the Needle range. To us they are more than mountains, they are flaming sentinels set to guard the beauty of the untracked lands.

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