One overcast morning last June, I hopped in my car and drove toward Longs Peak. I was on my way to visit a kindred spirit. I had an appointment with Enos!
Enos Mills, conservationist, nature writer, and lecturer among many other things, was a key force in getting Rocky Mountain National Park established in 1915. My appointment wasn’t with him per se, since he died in 1922. Rather I was meeting his great granddaughter Eryn, at the one-room cabin he built at the base of Longs Peak when he was 15 years old. The cabin is now an unconventional museum, run by-appointment-only.
I felt a deep connection with Enos not only because he was a writer who loved to be outdoors, but also because he was someone whose life had been transformed, at a young age, by the power of the mountains.
Enos was born in Kansas in 1870. He grew up thin and sickly. Doctors didn’t expect him to live long. He left home at age 14 to search for better health, or to at least experience something of the world before he died. He hitchhiked to Kansas City and worked in a bakery, then made his way to Colorado and to the base of Longs Peak, where some relatives of his owned a ranch. He began working in a lodge as a housekeeper.
Enos climbed Longs Peak for the first time in 1885. It was a transformational experience. That same summer he began building his cabin at its base, which he finished the following summer. He couldn’t file for a homestead right away because he wasn’t 21; it took him more than a decade to get the patent. He was able to get his 160 acres classified as “unsuitable for farming,” which freed him up to spend summers tramping and nature guiding in the mountains, and winters working in the mining industry in Montana, where he became a licensed engineer.
When Enos had time and money, he traveled widely. One day he was walking on a beach in San Francisco, and picked up a piece of kelp, and asked old guy who was standing nearby about it. That old guy turned out to be John Muir, the naturalist and conservation activist. Muir encouraged Enos to pursue his interests in the natural world, to join the cause of conservation, and to write about his outdoor adventures. Enos and John remained friends until Muir died in 1914.
In the early 1900s, Enos bought out his relatives’ ranch and converted it into a lodge, where he set up an early form of ecotourism and trained other nature guides. He also started getting published and lecturing widely. His articles appeared in the leading magazines of the day, and he published 18 nonfiction books in all.
He didn’t live in his cabin much after 1909, since his work on getting the national park established required him to be near a phone (which was across the road at his lodge). When Congress created Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, it was Enos who gave the keynote speech at the dedication.
“I’m late!” I said, eying my dashboard clock as my car sat at a standstill on the road beneath the lofty peak. I had forgotten about the summer road works on Highway 7. Was Eryn going to wait for me?
Not to worry. Eryn was standing at homestead gate with a smile on her face when I arrived. We walked to the cabin, and spent nearly two hours chatting about all aspects of Enos’s amazing life.
“Having a death sentence at age 14 gives you a different perspective,” she said.
“I identify with him,” I said, “Because I feel like I was kind of like him. When I was little, I was timid and nonathletic. I didn’t even want to go outside. But something happened to me in my teens, when I started going to the mountains. I became stronger, adventurous, and confident. I became passionate about life, and I wanted to experience the whole world. All wanted to do was be out in it. That’s what the power of the mountains can do for you. So I’m curious about Enos. Did the mountains transform him too?”
“Yes. Also, he found out he was allergic to wheat,” she said.
“Oh,” I said, and thought: There goes my theory!
“It was after he started working in the mines in Butte,” said Eryn. “He met a doctor there who was from New York, who knew about allergies, who filled him about ‘don’t eat bread.’”
Aha! I thought. Enos didn’t go to Butte until two years after he first climbed Longs Peak. In the interim he built his cabin and tramped all over the Rockies – hardly the accomplishments of a weak and sickly kid. Surely the power of the mountains had infused him, and put him well on the mend before he ever learned about tweaking his diet.
Esther, Enos’s eventual wife, seems to have been similarly infected. She came to Rocky Mountain Park in 1916 with her sister for what was supposed to be a two week vacation. She’d been working as an interior designer in Cleveland, and was fed up. When her two weeks were over she decided to stay and apply for a homestead. Both she and her sister also became a nature guides at Enos’s Longs Peak Inn.
One night in the winter of 1917, Esther was feeling cabin fever and decided to take a moonlit walk across the Continental Divide. She wanted to visit some friends who lived at Grand Lake, on the other side. She accomplished the journey in one night.
This caught Enos’s attention. They married in 1918, in the doorway of his cabin.
It is pure coincidence that Enos’s birthday is April 22: Earth Day.
If you’d like to visit the Enos Mills Cabin Museum, go to enosmills.com. You can call the number listed there and make an appointment.