On June 26, 2010, I was driving north to Fort Collins, Colorado, to attend a High School class Reunion, when I got a great view of an old friend – Horsetooth rock. Although there was a forest fire just a few miles south in the foothills making the air smoky, from my vantage point the air was clear enough to give me an unusually good view of the rock.
Horsetooth rock is a peak in the foothills of what is called the front range of the Rocky Mountains, overlooking the Fort Collins area in Larimer County, Colorado. The distinctive shape of this rock with its two gaps reminded early settlers of the molars of a horse. Those Anglo settlers, however, were not the only people who found this prominent peak remarkable.
An Indian legend I heard back when growing up in Fort Collins referred to what we have named Horstooth rock as the heart of a giant who lived up that canyon. According to this Cheyenne or Arapaho story every time the tribe in their annual rounds and migrations passed by the canyon mouth that leads to Horsetooth; they were accosted by the giant who demanded that they give him a pure young maiden in exchange for peaceful passage. After many years of this sacrifice the maiden chosen one year was beloved by a heroic young warrior of the tribe. Determined to rescue his beloved, he waited behind when the tribe passed on. That night the giant tied the maiden securely and lay down to sleep. As he slept the young hero crept into the giant’s camp and struck two mighty blows with his tomahawk, chopping directly into the heart of the giant. The blows killed the giant, the warrior freed his beloved, and they left the canyon, presumably to live happier ever after.
The distinctive rock that we see now represents the heart of the giant, turned to stone in death and by the passage of time, with the two gaps showing where the young hero struck with his tomahawk. As a young man, climbing and hiking around the rock myself, I felt that the native legend about this rock was of considerably greater interest than any implications of our name for it, however descriptive it might have been. In our search for scientific truth we sometimes give up a certain amount of excitement and glamour.