The Original Helen Hunt

Out-of-town visitors to Colorado Springs regularly think of the present-day Hollywood actress when Helen Hunt’s name comes up during my tours as a volunteer docent at the Pioneers Museum. Both share a name and a relationship to California, but Helen Hunt, the First (1830-1885), was a pioneering woman and writer during our town’s infancy, in the latter half of the 19th century. Her initial impressions were inauspicious. “I shall never forget my sudden sense of hopeless disappointment at the moment when I first looked on the town. There stretched before me, to the east, a bleak, bare, unrelieved desolate plain. There rose behind me, to the west, a dark range of mountains, snow-topped, rocky-walled, stern, cruel, relentless. Between lay the town-small, straight, new, treeless. One might die of such a place alone.” No chamber of commerce would advertise these words on its banner. It is ironic that Colorado Springs did, in time, pride itself of the person who expressed them and name the popular waterfalls in North Cheyenne Cañon after her.

Helen Hunt Falls in North Cheyenne Cañon

Helen Hunt, née Fiske, was 43 years old in November 1873 when she suffered these somber sensations after a cross-country train journey across the flat, monochromatic Great Plains from her home in Massachusetts to Colorado. Knowing about her past life, they are understandable. Motherless since age 13, fatherless since 16, she had lost her 11 month-old son Murray at 23, her 42 year-old husband Edward B. Hunt when she was 32, and her nine year-old son Warren at 34. Ill at heart and ill in body, she came at the behest of her physician, who recommended a change of scenery for a chronic respiratory condition. Before the antibiotic era, Colorado, by virtue of its healthy climate, was among the premiere destinations for health seekers suffering from consumption. During a period of frequent misdiagnosis, Helen might have been afflicted by tuberculosis, but officially it was asthma.

Fortunately for the burgeoning community at the foot of Pikes Peak, founded only two years prior, the dry air of the mountains did, indeed, benefit her health, while their beauty lifted her spirits. Helen decided to stay, after a complete reversal of her earlier attitude. In an essay about her new home in the New York Independent in August 1874, less than a year after her arrival, she reflected, “To-day I say, one could almost live on such a place alone.” “Almost” because she continued to love and pursue travel.

While mourning in Massachusetts, Helen Hunt had started to compose and publish poetry. Once she voyaged abroad, travelogues ensued. Her circle of friends in New England included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Emily Dickinson, with whom she had attended boarding school in New York. They corresponded throughout Helen’s lifetime and she encouraged Emily to publish her poems in vain (they appeared only posthumously). Once settled in Colorado, Helen added novelist to her résumé. She belonged to an elite group of women authors able to make a living from their craft.

Colorado Springs, designed on a drawing board and in an early state of growth, did not yet offer many accommodations. Helen resided at the Colorado Springs Hotel, the settlement’s earliest, where she met fellow boarder William Sharpless Jackson. He was secretary and treasurer of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad which, like Colorado Springs, had been founded by General William Jackson Palmer. Helen and Mr. Jackson’s friendship led to marriage in 1875.

Four years later, a lecture by Ponca Chief Standing Bear altered the course of Helen’s few remaining years. She researched the mistreatment of the Indians and became an outraged and outspoken activist on their behalf. In 1881, she distributed her critical treatise, A Century of Dishonor, to members of Congress. Though it remained largely unnoticed, it led to an assignment by Century Magazine to explore the situation of the Indians of the former Spanish missions in Southern California. She subsequently managed to have herself appointed a special agent by the Commissioner for Indian Affairs, and described the Indians’ pitiable living conditions and prospects. It also moved her to fictionalize their predicament. In a May 2, 1883 letter to the editor of the Atlantic Monthly she articulated her ambitions thus, “If I could write a story that would do for the Indians a thousandth part what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful for the rest of my life.”

In her novel Ramona, feverishly written in four months, and published in 1884, she conveyed her indignation. A tragedy about the ill-fated love between an American Indian man and a mixed-race Indian-Scottish woman, raised as an orphan by a family of Spanish-Mexican heritage, it delves into the racial prejudices and abuses suffered by the Indians of the Catholic missions in the former Mexican territory of California which was ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).

While the extent to which Helen Hunt’s reporting effected Indian policy reforms has been difficult to quantify, her novel Ramona became a literary bestseller. It has been in print since 1884, adapted for multiple film versions, and, since 1923, performed annually as a drama at the Ramona Pageants in Hemet, California.

Sadly, Helen’s death soon followed the birth of her masterpiece. I sincerely hope that the sale of more than 15,000 copies in the 10 months between its publication and her passing, was gratifying to her. True to her convictions till the end, she beseeched President Grover Cleveland to correct the wrongs inflicted on the Indians from her deathbed in California, where she was trying to recuperate. On August 2, 1885, she succumbed to presumptive stomach cancer at only 54, with William by her side.

Helen loved Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs so much that her husband had remodeled their house to enable her to view it from her chambers. Now he honored her wish and buried her in the mountain’s shadow, at Inspiration Point near Seven Falls, already a tourist attraction in her days. She lay interred under a growing mound of rocks, lovingly placed by the hands of her many fans who pilgrimaged to the site.

Helen Hunt’s former resting place near Inspiration Point (with the wrong year of birth)

View of modern-day Colorado Springs from Helen Hunt’s former resting place near Inspiration Point

Eventually, she was relocated to the Jackson family plot at Evergreen Cemetery. It is consoling for her acolytes to know that her grave is the one closest to, and with a direct view of the mountain which she so cherished.

Helen Hunt’s resting place at Evergreen Cemetery, with a view of Cheyenne Mountain

When the city acquired the Jackson property in 1961 and the house was slated for demolition, the family donated portions of her domicile to the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, which showcases four of Helen’s original rooms and furnishings in a permanent exhibition.

Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum

Portions of Helen Hunt’s dining room and library in the preserved rooms at the museum

Helen Hunt Jackson occupies a special place among the early citizens of Colorado Springs. Her indomitable spirit allowed her to overcome one blow of fate after another, and her American Indian activism was unusual for a woman of her era and social standing. In our local historic universe, she shines as one of the brightest stars.

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Helen Hunt’s portrait came from a photograph I took of a postcard issued by the Pikes Peak Library District. Photographer and date unknown.

Breeding Bird Survey

I was in a deep sleep when the alarm jolted me awake at 2:30 AM. The wind billowing the curtains and rattling the windows, the neighbors’ dogs barking, and fear of oversleeping had not been conducive to restful slumber. When a friend had asked me to help her with a Breeding Bird Survey, I had agreed, eager for this novel experience. In order to reach the starting point of her assigned area near Olney Springs in Crowley County, about 80 miles away, by the official start time of 4:59, we had to depart Colorado Springs by 3:30. I met Diana and another friend, Rose, at a parking lot, where we piled ourselves and our bags into one car and set out.

The early rising did not make for a good night, but it allowed us to witness a spectacular sunrise. Diana and Rose had done a survey in another locale a few days before, but I still needed to be initiated. “Breeding bird survey” had invoked images of stealthily searching for occupied nests in my mind. Instead, we got out of the car every half mile and recorded all the birds seen or heard within 3 minutes. Covering a distance of 25 miles, this meant a total of 50 stops. As soon as Diana identified birds, she called out their names. As one of two scribes, I kept a checklist with species and numbers. Rose, as the other, monitored and jotted down GPS coordinates and associated landmarks to assist future surveyors. This long-term monitoring event of North American bird populations has been organized and overseen by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service since 1966.

In this Colorado terrain carpeted by shortgrass prairie and dotted with cholla cactus, the most frequent feathered denizens and enthusiastic singers were Western Meadowlarks, Northern Mockingbirds, Horned Larks, Lark Buntings, Mourning Doves, and Cassin’s Sparrows, and they serenaded us throughout the morning hours. Red-tailed, Swainson’s, and Ferruginous Hawks soared in the cloudless sky. Our species count in this relatively homogeneous habitat was 35.

At our first few stops, we wore long sleeves, but the rising sun quickly made us peel off layers. Besides feathered we saw furred creatures: fox, coyote, pronghorn, and jackrabbits. And two turtles that traversed our path. When I transferred one from the middle of the road, I was promptly reminded that numerous animals relax their bladders when stressed. My rescue was probably unnecessary, because we encountered a mere four vehicles in five hours.

Shortly before the conclusion of our survey at about 10 AM, we happened across a prairie dog town. Luckily, the endearing rodents shared space with Burrowing Owls, always a treat. One of them perched on a post next to the car, and its stare seemed to suggest it was time for us to leave. We obliged.

Scattered ranches represented human activity on this challenging land, some active, some in ruins. We were particularly impressed by a sturdily-built structure with a stone foundation. Who had resided there, in somewhat grand style? What human stories happened under its now defunct roof?

Similar to previous sojourns in Colorado’s prairie, my appreciation for the human, animal, and plant life adapted to an austere environment only deepened.

Thank you for inviting me along, Diana.

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24 Hours Among Wild Horses

Horsemeat — the potential fate of wild mustangs? When I read about this scenario in the newspaper, I feel the overwhelming desire to spend some time with them. This is facilitated by my attendance at a birding convention in Steamboat Springs in northwest Colorado in early June. Some 70 miles beyond this gem on the Yampa River lies the range of one of our state’s four wild horse herds. Ever since a brief trip with my husband a few years back, I have cherished the hope to return.

When I enter Moffat County’s Sand Wash basin, my burning question is whether or not I will see wild equines. Because they range freely, they are not always near the gravel road. I scan my surroundings with binoculars. Piles of fresh horse apples suggest the animals’ proximity, but I have to exercise patience for several miles before a single suggestive silhouette on the northern horizon allows me to breathe a sigh of relief. To my utter joy, this is only the first of many long-tailed, shaggy-maned creatures, especially once I happen upon one of their watering holes, where I witness their hustle and bustle.

The visitors range from loners to groups of a few dozen. Bands of testosterone-laden teenagers wrangle for dominance. Most of their bickering appears playful, but scarred hides suggest more serious horseplay.

Harems of mares with colts are herded by alpha studs who bare their teeth and nip or kick at potential rivals too close for comfort. I am unaware that horses live in traditional family units, but one particular clan convinces me otherwise. It consists of the putative father, the mother, a foal likely born this spring, who is her steady shadow, and a yearling. Even though it seems physiologically improbable, she appears pregnant again, judging by her belly bulge. Those four stick together closely, and he makes sure to keep intruders at leg’s length.

The horses’ routines are dominated by foraging for food and water. Frequent water breaks are essential on this 80 plus-degree day. Each adult requires 10 to 12 gallons daily, nursing mares twice as much. The region’s 7 to 12 inches of annual precipitation, insufficient to meet demand, are supplemented by human hands.

In a landscape devoid of trees, the animals are entirely at the mercy of the elements — scorching sun in summer, cutting cold in winter. Pesky flies cause torment. Hefty breezes create constant clouds of dust. My car and everything in it, myself included, wears a veneer of desiccated earth. During my sojourn I wait out a violent storm in the vehicle. The horses have no shelter from the impressive claps of thunder, intimidating flashes of lightning, and inundating squalls of rain. I imagine them huddled together, with the little ones protected in the center as best as possible.

I relish my twenty-four hours at Sand Wash, where the air is scented by sage each time I brush against the silvery shrubs. I hear only the whistling of the wind and the birds, the whinnying of the mustangs, and the wailing of coyotes at night. But my observations make me question some of my presuppositions. Life for the horses, though free, comes at a price. Certainly it is no picnic. Most herds live in a desert-like environment. Do they enjoy their existence? Would they be better off not having to fend for themselves? Do we keep them wild to support our own romantic notions? Wild steeds in the Wild West?

This question remains relevant in light of a perpetual quandary. Since the passing of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act by Congress in 1971, the Bureau for Land Management (BLM) manages and protects the equines named therein. The program has always been controversial. The horses breed too successfully for their own good. Without predators, their count doubles every four years, necessitating the regular thinning of herds. Sand Wash can sustain about 300 horses, but is shouldered with 600. Captured animals are sold to private buyers promising their humane treatment, but many linger on feedlots, and some die. The practice of darting mares with contraceptives has been hampered by logistics and cost. Cattlemen have opposed the program from the beginning, because of competition for grazing land. Now the current US government wants to reduce spending by at least 10 million dollars, by allowing the horses’ sale to organizations which could resell them to neighboring countries where butchering is legal.

Population densities exceeding available habitat results in disease, starvation, and death. The corpse I see stretched out among the sparse vegetation is a sobering sign. Without question, something must be done. I understand the arbitrariness of considering some animals suitable for human consumption, and of excluding others. For my sensibilities, horsemeat need not, should not be the answer. Birth control and adoption ought to continue and broaden, with the understanding that the adoptees will be treated well.

The 2005 memoir, The Pastures of Beyond, by writer and conservationist, Dayton O. Hyde (born 1925), shows that the present dilemma is not new, but also suggests an alternative approach. In 1988 he used his experience as a cowboy, ranch owner, and horse lover to purchase land and establish the Black Hills Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota for supernumerary BLM quadrupeds. Kudos to him for translating his passion into a dream come true — for him, and for the animals. On page 243 of the first hardcover edition he reflects, “High on the ridges above the Cheyenne River, I see wild horses running in pure joy…I have been able to give the wild horses over ten thousand horse years of freedom, but what is really important is this. There are still some of us who care.“

I admire his dedication and wish for more dreamers and visionaries who care, and who will follow in his (horse)tracks.

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Great Blue Hunter

The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is North America’s largest and most ubiquitous heron. This long-legged and long-necked slate gray and blue wading bird is hard to miss.

Tall, slender, elegant, it often stands motionless, statuesque, at the water’s edge, seemingly at ease.

But appearances are deceptive. With the speed of lightning it thrusts its head and neck under water and impales or grabs its prey with its dagger-like bill.


The bulge in the neck is caused by the food bolus.

Ready to look for the next meal.


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The Original South Park

     What is now Colorado was once the domain of the Utes. According to their tradition, they always lived in this region, in contrast with American Indian groups who were pushed westward while trying to stay ahead of the incessant march of white newcomers. Also known as The Mountain People, their homeland stretched from the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains all the way to present-day Utah, hence that state’s name.

     From Colorado Springs, US Highway 24 travels through Ute Pass, one of the main natural corridors into the high country. Local bands of Utes overwintered in the milder climate at the foot of Pikes Peak, then migrated along the pass to their hunting grounds at South Park in the summer. By all accounts, this was teeming with bison, pronghorn, deer, and elk. Along the South Platte River which courses like an emerald ribbon through this otherwise semi-arid habitat countless beaver also abounded.

     The modern-day visitor enjoys a jaw-dropping view of that somewhat unexpected landscape from the top of 9504 foot-tall Wilkerson Pass, 60 miles west of Colorado Springs (see featured image above). From the Pass, one drives down into the flat and open expanse of South Park.

Driving from Wilkerson Pass into South Park

One of three so-called parks in Colorado’s topography, along with Middle and North Parks, the name was derived from “parc”, a designation by French trappers for mountain basins rich in game. They were among the early exploiters of nature’s wealth.

     In the vastness of South Park, I try to envision the area without fences, houses, roads, and cars, when it was crisscrossed only by paths wide enough for animals and people on horseback. Surrounded by snow-covered peaks, one feels reduced in size — a speck of sand on this dusty soil which was nonetheless replete with prairie grasses, fragrant sagebrush, and further forage nutritious enough to sustain large numbers of herbivores.

     Conjuring images of tens of thousands of buffalo is challenging. Their bounty is long gone. In typical, short-sighted European fashion, most of these humpbacked, shaggy ungulates were hunted to the brink of extinction. The near-erasure of the animal iconic of the American West is a sad story. Even sadder is the subsequent loss of the homeland of the Utes, who had coexisted with and whose livelihood depended on those beasts since time immemorial. They were driven from their territory, to reservations in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah which could not sustain their way of life.

     But there is hope for the natural balance of South Park. Descendants of the North American Bison were successfully reintroduced and can be seen munching on what, to our eyes, appears sparse sustenance. Their comeback to the environment to which they were perfectly adapted has been slow but steady, even though their numbers are minimal compared to those heady days.

American Bison (Bison bison) in South Park

The next generation

The same is true for the fastest land animal of the Western Hemisphere which formerly had to outsprint the now-extinct American Cheetah.

North American Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), female on the left, male on the right

     Many generations have come and gone since Manifest Destiny stood as an unquestioned conviction, and we have tried to remedy some, though not all of our misguided beliefs. Just as bison have been returned to South Park, might the same be possible for the Utes, whose existence once was inextricably linked with them? In southwest Colorado, the Sleeping Ute Mountain dominates the scenery. According to Ute legend, one day the chief will rise from his slumber, and with him his people.

Sleeping Ute Mountain

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One year ago today, I published my first post. Thank you for following my blog.

Operation Bunny Rescue

     Rabbit populations undergo ten-year cycles of ups and downs, and according to local biologists, their numbers peaked two years ago. We had a first inkling of this in 2015, when hordes of small critters overran the yard, and sprinted from the car’s headlights left and right at dusk and dawn. A more immediate reminder was the unexpected presence of a tiny ball of gray in the window well of our downstairs bedroom which we detected after a rustling sound reached our half-awake ears through the window. To say we were surprised to find a rabbit in the hole is an understatement. Was this a dream, and would Alice follow?

     We did not know if it had fallen down 4 feet from ground level, or crawled through a French drain (if it had, it did not want to leave again that way), but we were relieved to detect no obvious injuries. The velvety baby simply sat there, twitching its teeny nose, tilting its delicate ears this way and that.

     How to rescue this little creature? When we slid open the window and removed the screen, the cottontail vanished into the drain, only to reappear a few minutes later. It stayed close to this escape hatch, and availed itself of it each time we tried to catch it. After what amounted to at least one hour, it finally hopped far enough away for us to cover the hole and to capture it in a blanket. We carried it outside, where it scurried underneath a juniper bush and sat nonchalantly, as if nothing had happened.

     When nighttime noises emerged from the window well last May, we looked at one another in disbelief. We closed the window and waited till daybreak, but otherwise repeated the same procedure as before. In the course of the summer, we had to perform this ritual twice more, and successfully released bunnies number two, three, and four. We suspected them of playing a game of dare: Who gets to keep us busy the longest?

     According to scientific predictions, rabbit numbers are trending downward, and we were hoping for an uneventful season. But 2017 did not disappoint and brought no change to their tendency to disrupt our slumber. To our knowledge, this house had not seen an animal rescue in almost thirty years, but now we are three for three. Apparently they are not interested in statistics.

     After bunny number five it’s finally time to consider window well covers!

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An Ode to Fountain Creek Regional Park

In recent years, the need to immerse myself in nature has become paramount. I feel fortunate that, despite Colorado’s growing population with its attendant problems, I still have access to spaces which promise solitude and an escape from continually calamitous news. One such refuge is Fountain Creek Regional Park, about eight miles south of our Colorado Springs home. It assumes a central role in my life and hardly a week goes by without a visit.

Starting as a county park in 1985, it has grown to its current size through gradual additions. The Fountain Creek Nature Center was completed in 1992, and expanded in 2014. Run by the devoted Nancy Bernard, a gaggle of paid staff, and a flock of volunteers, it fosters curiosity about the environment with its engaging exhibits, year-round youth programs, and an inviting trail system. Its incredibly scenic window and porch afford sweeping sights of our fourteener, Pikes Peak, and of its lower neighbors. Located at the boundary of the Great Plains and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the area benefits from the vital presence of water because it straddles our region’s largest stream, Fountain Creek. This provides live-giving liquid to a string of ponds with surrounding wetlands, and to copses of cottonwood trees with a dense understory, thereby creating a variety of habitats. Springtime with its lengthening days and warming temperatures engenders an eruption of greenery, fragrant bushes, and animal activity.

View of Pikes Peak from one of the ponds in the Cattail Marsh

The park is among El Paso County’s prime birding sites, and the number of reported species stands at 266 (according to ebird). Alas, I haven’t witnessed even half of that count, and some that were sighted decades ago likely won’t return during my lifetime. I make a game of assigning one signature bird to my favorite spots, and here, Red-winged Blackbirds rule the roost. Theirs are typically the first and most vociferous voices heard upon opening the car door in the nature center’s parking lot, because of the proximity of their realm, cattail marshes. The male’s squeaking and squealing sounds conspire with his curious comportment to garner attention. While balancing on top of a reed, he projects his head, pumps his arms, and fans his tail, communicating his earsplitting invitation to his companions.

Red-winged Blackbird, aka Superman in his cape

Blackbirds are not the exclusive exuberant and effusive members of the avifauna presently engaged in singing, feeding, mating, nest-building, or rearing their young, and with spring migration only ratcheting up, they will soon be joined by many more. Instead of attempting to enumerate all the uncommonly handsome callers, I will let a few photos speak for themselves.

Cooper’s Hawk

Belted Kingfisher: quite the hairdo

Great Horned Owl

White-faced Ibis

Great Blue Heron: a dude with a ‘tude

Plumed creatures are not the only tenants of this territory. Even though muskrats are theoretically nocturnal like their cousins, the beavers, they are diurnal enough to show their fuzzy faces in full daylight frequently. On warm days, turtles scramble onto exposed rocks. Available space is at a premium, and late-comers slide back into the pond to seek a sunny spot elsewhere. White-tailed Deer graze stretches of grassland but, to my surprise, even sample algae in shallow pools. Much squirrely commotion results in more photogenic moments. Rabbits browse in the underbrush and, no doubt, support the raptor population. Monarchs, and the park’s inspirational role in their preservation and propagation, were the topic of a previous post. A variety of butterflies and bees flutter and fly from blossom to perfumed blossom, filling the air with the faint flipping of their wondrous wings while performing the essential task of pollination.


Sunning turtles

White-tailed deer after an aquatic snack

Squirrel, also catching some rays

Doubtless, all this vibrancy is one of the reasons I crave this cherished sanctuary, where I can daily experience nature’s life-affirming powers which, in turn, make me feel more alive and hopeful.

Dedicated to my late mother-in-law, Hilda J. Britton (1928-2017), who loved Fountain Creek and Bear Creek Regional Parks so much, that she flew with the flock of volunteers for a number of years.

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