Friday, September 30, 2011

Traveling rough in 1873

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, Isabella Bird

Reading about the travels of Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Smith Gibson in The Sisters of Sinai reminded me of Isabella Bird and her travels.  Many years ago a friend gave me a copy of A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, saying, "Oh, you have to read this."  I never did get around to reading it, but I remembered the author's name when I came across it in a book I've mentioned before, Sue Shepherd's book on food history, Pickled, Potted and Canned.  That led me to read Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, and to dig out my copy of A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Born in Yorkshire in 1831, Isabella Bird developed health problems early in her life, including a spinal tumor at age 18 that was successfully but painfully removed.  Her doctor advised her to travel for her health.  For many Victoria women, this meant a visit to a European spa town, or a winter in Italy.  Isabella Bird would travel the world for the next fifty years.  Her last trip, at age 70, was to Morocco.

Her first trip abroad was to Canada and the United States in 1854, an account of which was published two years later as The Englishwoman in America  (I posted about it back in February).  In 1872 she set off on an extended voyage that took her to Australia and New Zealand, across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands, and finally to the United States.  Landing in San Francisco in September of 1873, she immediately set off for Colorado. She spent  four months exploring the Rocky Mountains, primarily in Colorado, before heading east to sail home to England.  Like several of her other books, A Lady's Life is a collection of the letters she wrote home to her sister Henrietta.  I didn't realize that this book follows directly after the account of her Hawaiian adventure, Six Months in the Sandwich Islands, which I have on the TBR pile.  If I had, I might have read it first, since Bird frequently referred to Hawaii.

I can't help but wonder if the title of this book was meant ironically, because Isabella Bird's life in those four months was anything but "ladylike" according to Victorian standards, even for a middle-aged woman of forty-two.  She spent those months riding around northern Colorado, covering more than 800 square miles.  She sometimes had guides, including an infamous one-eyed outlaw named "Mountain Jim," whom she discovered to be a man of education and culture, ruined by drink and the violence of the frontier, who became a good friend and traveling companion.  At other times Bird set off alone, riding astride in trousers under her long skirt, with only the vaguest of directions, trusting to find shelter in scattered settlers' cabins, often caught in the extremes of winter weather, including blizzards.  I'm not sure she realized how fortunate she was to come safely through all that she did.  Due to a wide-spread financial crisis, she was unable to cash her equivalent of traveler's checks, and when her money ran out she was forced to spend almost a month living in a snow-bound cabin in Estes Park, with two hunters wintering there, with whom she cheerfully shared cooking and cleaning duties, as well as minding the stock.

Bird was completely captivated by the gorgeous scenery of Colorado, devoting many pages of her letters to describing the majesty of the mountains.  "Jim" took her with two male tourists on an expedition to Long's Peak, and with the help of the men she climbed (and was dragged) to the top.  She was equally interested in the people that she met, though many of them were rough settlers, uncomfortable with tourists.  As in her 1854 trip, Bird still met hostility toward England, which I understand better after reading Amanda Foreman's book on Britain and the American Civil War.  It seems that wherever she went, Bird met friends and acquaintances, and she also made friends easily.  She was a good listener, and she took a share in whatever work there was to be done.  She went out of her way to help those in need, including nursing the sick and caring for children.  She seems to have taken everything in stride; the difficulties and privations she faced counted for nothing compared with the glorious mountains.

I found the Isabella Bird of 1873 much better company than the 1854 version, and now I'm greatly looking forward to Six Months in the Sandwich Islands.


  1. I am in awe of this lady! She must have been courageous or fearless to undertake the journey that she did. And it sounds like her character improved and she learned from her experiences along the way. What a great read!

  2. Hi, Lisa May!
    It's not a dorky question at all...I wasn't clear! Our plan is that we'll all post our thoughts on The House of the Seven Gables on our own blogs on Oct 14th, then take time over the weekend to visit around and see what everyone else thinks, comment back and forth, etc. etc.
    Hope you can join us!

    ps my word is 'apork' - I would hate to find meaning in that! :)

  3. Anboyln, she was an amazing character. She would go anywhere and talk to anyone. She did have some caustic comments in the privacy of her letters to her sister - but then she published them!

  4. This is one of my favorites, which I picked up at Rocky Mountain National Park. That helped me understand how totally intoxicating the landscape was. She was quite a gal!

  5. I have only passed through Colorado, without spending any time except in the Denver airport. It would be something to read her letters in the places she describes. Maybe I'll try that with the Hawaiian book, preferably in January :)


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!