Before Globe Trekker or Rick Steves on TV and before Paul Theroux had written a word about travel there was Isabella Bird. Sickly as a child,with a spinal complaint, doctors advised her to spend time out of doors. So she learned to ride. As a middle aged adult she travelled to Colorado, the newest state in the Union in 1873, and her skills as a horsewoman stood her in good stead as she rode for 800 miles, on her own, through the Rocky Mountains.
Isabella Bird’s book “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” tells the tale of this amazingly daring travel adventure. She wrote letters to her sister at home in England and these letters are the basis for the book. At the start of her trip she would hire a horse to take short trips. Here is an excerpt on how she felt on seeing the horse that had been chosen for her.
“I saw, to my dismay, a high-bred beautiful creature, stable kept, with an arched neck, quivering nostrils and restless ears and eyes. My pack was strapped behind the Mexican saddle and my canvas bag hung on the horn, but the horse did not look fit to carry “gear” and seemed to require two men to hold and coax him.”
Nonetheless she mounts up and rides off . I should add that she always rode astride which was scandalous at that time but more comfortable for long days in the saddle. The horse proved to be excellent.
“I felt better quite soon; the horse in gait and temper turned out perfection–all spring and spirit, elastic in his motion, walking fast and easily and cantering with a light , graceful swing as soon as one pressed the reins on his neck, a blithe, joyous animal, to whom a day among the mountains seemed a pleasant frolic. …..I could have ridden him a hundred miles as easily as thirty. We have only been together for two days , yet we are firm friends and thoroughly understand one another. I should not require another companion on a long mountain tour.”
Later on in her travels she finds a small mare that will be her mount and companion for the majority of the journey across Colorado. The mare is named Birdie.
“She is the queen of ponies,and is very gently,though she has not only wild horse blood but is herself the wild horse. She is always cheerful and hungry, never tired, looks intelligently at everything, and her legs are like rocks.”
At various points in the journey Isabella takes time to stay in one place and lives with ranchers and comes to know the life of people in the Rockies, including a real life desperado ‘Mountain Jim’. It was clear to me that now Mountain Jim would be diagnosed as an alcoholic with bi-polar disorder but in the 1870s no one considered such things. To Isabella he was always a true gentleman and opened his heart to her of how he had ruined his life and most of the relationships in it.
Was it dangerous for a woman to travel alone in this the Wild West? I would have thought so but Isabella was not concerned. On one occasion she had to get a night’s rest in a place where there were some very suspect characters. She slept in a room that had neither roof nor door. She did have a revolver which she had considered a nuisance but on this occasion she decided to take it out and clean it, just in case.
“….Laid it under my pillow, resolving to keep awake all night. I slept as soon as I lay down and never woke till the bright morning sun shone through the roof, making me ridicule my own fears and abjure pistols forever!”
Sometimes, with her horse Birdie, she had to ride through terrible storms.
“It grew worse and worse. I had wrapped up my face, but the sharp, hard snow beat on my eyes bringing tears to them, which froze and closed my eyelids up at once. It was truly awful at the time. I often thought. “Suppose I am going South instead of east? Suppose Birdie should fail? Suppose it should grow quite dark?” I was mountaineer enough to shake these fears off and keep up my spirits but I knew how many had perished on the prairie in similar storms.”
She did make it through to a small village and there had to be lifted off Birdie as she was completely benumbed. But she survived this and quite a few other very difficult times. However once her trip was ended it was with a sadness that she recalled her last day. She got on to the “stage-wagon” to travel east and said goodbye to Mountain Jim. As the wagon drove away she chatted with another passenger and then….
” Mr. Fodder chatted so amusingly as we drove away that I never realized that my Rocky Mountain Life was at an end, not even when I saw ‘Mountain Jim’ with his golden hair yellow in the sunshine, slowly leading the beautiful mare over the snowy plains back to Estes Park, equipped with the saddle on which I had ridden 800 miles! A drive of several hours over the plains brought us to Greeley, and a few hours later, in the far blue distance, the Rocky Mountains, and all that they enclose, went down below the prairie sea.”
When I came to those final lines in this delightful book I had tears in my eyes. Not only for Isabella whose adventure in the Rockies was over but for the knowledge that this little book would not be waiting for me to read the next night.
I highly recommend this book. It is a time and a way of life that is long gone and it is so vividly described by Isabella in the letters to her sister. Come to think of it, the fact that she wrote these letters in such detail is something that is of the past. Does anyone write emails like this to relatives at home? How could Tweets ever be made into a wonderful description of breathtaking scenery and recount the lives of the hardy folk who struggled to make a life in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in the 1870’s?
If this personal story of adventure travel appeals to you do get it. It is still in print in a Dover paperback edition which is the “unabridged republication of the seventh edition of the work originally published in 1882 by Putnam and Sons.”