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Down on the Ground with Mr. Probus and Ms. Turnbull

By George Sibley

Soon as a bluebird settles on a fence,

Two shall string out and beat it up the trail,

A jackass first, a miner at his tail.

I’m taking a break this month from the urban-rural, metro-nonmetro divide and what it’s doing to us, and going back to our natural Great Divide and a lost piece of our past, recently rediscovered.

The lines above are from a poem written by an interesting but almost forgotten poet, Belle Turnbull. She was born in New York in 1881, educated at Vassar, and came west to teach high school English in Colorado Springs. She retired in her mid-fifties to move, with her fellow writer and companion Helen Rich, to Breckenridge, where she lived the rest of her life hiking the mountains and valleys, looking for their poetry and stories. She died there in 1970, after 33 years of seeing Breckenridge and the Ten Mile Range go through the sea change from Colorado’s first established mountain mining town to one of its first resort-retirement-amenities towns (the transition from Ed Quillen’s “Chicago model” to the “Los Angeles model” I wrote about last month).

Slight and delicately beautiful, Turnbull was hardly the generic image of the Rocky Mountain Woman, but no one – male or female – has written stronger and more uncompromising poetry about the magnificence and meanness of life in the general region of timberline where – in her words:

Things are warped that are too near heaven,

Ink runs clotted down the pen,

Verse has the twist of timberline trees.


David Rothman, a Crested Butte poet, teacher, skier (not necessarily in that order), introduced me to Belle Turnbull’s work, during a wine-tinged dinner party at Garlic Mike’s Restaurant in Gunnison. Rothman has now made her available to the world in Belle Turnbull: On the Life and Work of an American Master, published in the Pleiades Press/Gulf Coast ‘Unsung Masters Series’ (ISBN 978-0-9641454-9-8). The book is a collection of Turnbull’s poetry and prose, with essays by others about Turnbull and her territory. (Full disclosure: one essay is mine.) Don’t go to Amazon for the book; go to your local bookstore and tell them to get it if they don’t have it; it should be in every bookstore in Central Colorado.

Belle Turnbull, I discovered, was out there ahead of me in my own ongoing effort to understand the Colorado I love, Colorado above the 7,000-foot contour – Colorado as a state of mind distinct from the playground and real estate development I don’t love so much. I’m like the miner in the epigraph above – pushing my ass up the hill and down and around, here for as long as it takes me to figure out why I’m here.

The general depth of perception of Colorado as a state of mind is reflected in the common mistranslation of the Spanish name itself, colorado, which everyone thinks means “red.” No. Red in Spanish is rojo. According to the Spanish Royal Academy Dictionary, “red” or “reddish” is just a secondary meaning of colorado; as the word’s root itself suggests – indeed seems to shout – colorado means primarily “having color,” “colored,” “colorful” – any color. “Colorful Colorado,” as the billboards say: Colorado colorado.

And Colorado colorado as a state of mind has fallen under the spell of many colors: rich brown pelts, gold and silver flashes in pan and hole, golds of aspen and the more somber and loggable greens of pine and spruce, the red rock, yes, but also all the black and pink and purple and brown and more than fifty shades of gray rock that are reflected in the rio Colorado, river of many colors. Over it all (literally) the pure deep white of the long winter, once cussed, now prayed for. Anyone who looks at Colorado above that 7,000-foot contour and still thinks “colorado means red” just isn’t there.

I’ve long been intrigued by some of the other names we find here, mostly named in the mining era by 1900. There are the obvious names (the scores of Bald Mountains and Brush Creeks), or the nostalgic names (Virginia Basin, Nebraska Flats), or political names (Mt. Garfield, Mt. Emmons), or even the worthy attempts to keep native names alive (Curecanti Creek, Ouray Peak). No, the intriguing ones are the unlikely names, like the muddy falsefront tent towns with glittering classical or biblical names like Ophir or Ilium; and more intriguing, the humorously depressive names of mines or ranches like Poverty Gulch, Busted Flats, or No Hope No. 3. There is the point off of Black Mesa above the Smith Fork Valley called Mendicant Ridge. Who came up with names like these?

I have assumed that some, maybe many of those who came to live in the mountains – then and now – were what I think of as “walking mad” (being of that category myself, though now mellowed). There are men and women not quite capable of living an orderly and productive life in the urban-industrial mainstream, concerned like Melville’s Ishmael about an inner urge to start “stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” Some were obviously well educated, although more likely majored in philosophy or history than business. And one suspects there were a lot of veterans, terminally Cain-marked by that most uncivil war, who realized they would best  go where there were few people and more private challenges to safely beat your head against.

Did they come thinking they would get rich? Find that mother-lode? Maybe, in one thread of their tangled minds. Mostly they just came, and survived on beans, whiskey, and a sense of irony that kept them from taking anything, including themselves, too seriously. They dug into the No Hope No. 3 for the balance it offered between stupid hope and a deeper reality.

Such a one was Belle Turnbull and her Colorado colorado. She saw herself as “mountain mad” –

Why, because of the way

Earth-heaps lie, should I be

Choked by joy mysteriously;

Stilled or drunken-gay? …

Her madness was controlled by a poet’s capacity to stand back and see it, to tell it honestly through watching, words, and the irony that she called humor’s “sterner relative” – a sidelong way of looking at things that gentled truth with empathy.

Along with a modest collection of poetry that wasn’t used to start fires in the woodstove, she wrote a prose poem, Goldboat, about the dredges that turned so much of our mountains inside out, and a standard novel, The Far Side of the Hill, a Heidi-like story about the impossibility of taking a girl out of the mountains without first taking the mountains out of the girl.

Her best creation, in my mind, was all poetry: an old miner, Mr. Probus, the male side of her soul’s syzygy, a composite of those of us for whom the gold or beavers or snow was our first excuse for leaving the civilization below:

Our god was ice with goldleaf plastered on. …

Now all he was has assayed out to nil,

And newer outfits sweating hope and blood

Raise in his place yet more preposterous gods.

A century of Breckenridge in a sonnet, 1870 to 1970. The nine sonnets Turnbull wrote about (for? from?) Mr. Probus are the best thing anyone has ever written about why people stay and die in ridiculous places at seven, eight, ten-thousand-foot elevations, in half-serious pursuit of preposterous gods despite an awareness that it will eventually all assay out to nil. Don’t get your hopes too high because, as another poet said, “hope would be hope for the wrong thing.”

Mendicant Ridge is the ironic name that, for me, has a glimmer of “Probus truth.” A mendicant is one who is poor like St. Francis, materially poor by chance or choice but not giving a fig: looking beyond the fool’s gold and the pelts and the unreal estate for something “showing color” that’s more colorado. Probus pushing his ass from Poverty Gulch up to Mendicant Ridge was on a complex journey that invited the sidelong ironic watchfulness of a poet like Belle Turnbull, who was on the same kind of journey when she stumbled onto a lode like this:

How am I to tell you?

I saw a bluebird

A bluebird incandescent

Flying up the pass

And where the wind came over,

The Great Divide came over,

Invisible and mighty,

He struck a wall of glass.

I saw his bright wings churning,

I saw him stand in heaven,

The bird’s power, the wind’s power

Miraculously hold.

Now I will tell you,

Dare my soul to say it,

Speak the name of Beauty,

Accurate and cold.

Up on some mendicant’s ridge. “I have to laugh, said Mr. Probus. I have to laugh.”

Thanks for rediscovering Belle for us, David. Belle and Mr. Probus.

George Sibley writes from the Upper Gunnison valleys, where he has no jackass to follow up the trail but still goes out to stay a little lost whenever he can.