Isabella, Jim and Ring Ascend Long’s Peak

One her trip through Colorado in 1873, Isabella Bird finally arrived at her long-sought destination, Estes Park. She had hoped to climb “The American Matterhorn,” Long’s Peak, but it was late in the year and the weather seemed to be against it.

But then the weather cleared and “Mountain Jim” Nugent volunteered to take her up, with two surly young men tagging along for some unknown reason. In “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains,” she has some brilliant descriptions of the scenery, as well as this sketch of her companion:

“Jim was a shocking figure; he had on a pair of high boots, with a baggy pair of old trousers made of deer hide, held on by an old scart tucked into them; a leather shirt, with three or four ragged unbuttoned waistcoats over it; an old smashed wideawake [hat], from under which his tawny, neglected ringlets hung; and with his one eye [a grizzly bear tore out the other], his one long spur, his knife in his belt, his revolver in his waistcoat pocket, his saddle covered with an old beaver skin, from which the paws hungs down; his camping blanket behind him, his rifle laid across the saddle in front of him, and his axe, canteen, and other gear hanging to the horn, he was as awful-looking a ruffian as one could see.”

They get to the timberline and Jim makes a fire and they drink tea from meat tins and eat strips of beef reeking with pine smoke under a “big half moon hung out of the heavens.”

“‘Treat Jim as a gentleman and you’ll find him one,’ I had been told; and though his manner was certainly bolder and freer than that of gentlemen generally, no imaginary fault could be found. He was very agreeable as a man of culture as well as a child of nature; the desperado was altogether out of sight. He was very courteous and kind to me, which was fortunate, as the young men had little idea of showing even ordinary civilities.

“That night I made the acquaintance of his dog ‘Ring,’ said to be the best hunting dog in Colorado, with the body and legs of a collie, but a head approaching that of a mastiff, a noble face with a wistful human expression, and the most truthful eyes I ever saw in an animal.

“His master loves him if he loves anything, but in his savage moods ill-treats him. Ring’s devotion never swerves, and his truthful eyes are rarely taken off his master’s face. He is almost human in his intelligence, and, unless he is told to do so, he never takes notice of anyone but Jim.

“In a tone as if speaking to a human being, his master, pointing to me, said, ‘Ring, go to that lady, and don’t leave her again tonight.’

“Ring at once came to me, looked into my face, laid his head on my shoulder, and then lay down beside me with his head on my lap, but never taking his eyes from Jim’s face.

“The long shadows of the pines lay upon the frosted grass, an aurora leaped fitfully, and the moonlight, though intensely bright, was pale beside the red, leaping flames of our pine logs and their red glow upon our gear, ourselves, and Ring’s truthful face.”

Like a lot of other people, I had a tough time with this book the first time through, but now I feel that Isabella and Mountain Jim and Ring are dear old friends.