A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains

ladys life rocky mountainsThis book, perhaps Isabella Bird’s most famous, is actually her fourth. By the time she wrote it in 1879, she had already travelled from her native England to Australia, to Hawaii, 800 miles on horseback through the Colorado Rockies, and on a trip through Asia that included Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia. Bird was one of the most famous traveling women in the world at that time — she’d made a name for herself as someone who could ride, shoot, care for herself and others, and remain a gentlewoman. So, sure, the Rockies, with avalanches and mountain-climbing and grizzly bears and desperadoes. NBD, right?

The book is written in the form of letters to Bird’s sister. It works really well: the eagerness to communicate what she has seen to someone she knows well, along with the strong desire to receive letters in return and not feel so alone, provides a framework for writing down every little detail. Bird’s descriptions of the beauties of the new Colorado territories are sometimes as rhapsodic as anything Anne of Green Gables could provide:

From the dry, buff grass of Estes Park we turned off up a trail on the side of a pine-hung gorge, up a steep pine-clothed hill, down to a small valley, rich in fine, sun-cured hay about eighteen inches high, and enclosed by mountains whose deepest hollow contains a lily-covered lake, fitly named “The Lake of the Lilies.” Ah, how magical its beauty was, as it slept in silence, while there the dark pines were mirrored motionless in pale gold, and here the great white lily cups and dark green leaves rested on amethyst-coloured water!

Bird’s anecdotes, however, are not restricted to the magical and the amethyst. She thinks nothing of riding miles in sub-zero temperatures over nonexistent trails. She is happy to work as a cattle hand, a cook, a housekeeper, or a woman-of-all-work in order to earn her keep. She has a keen eye for beauty, cleanliness, and gentility, and sharp words for those families who don’t value it:

By the whole family all courtesy and gentleness of act or speech are regarded as “works of the flesh,” if not of “the devil.” They knock over all one’s things without apologising or picking them up, and when I thank them for anything they look grimly amazed. I feel that they think it sinful that I do not work as hard as they do. I wish I could show them “a more excellent way.” This hard greed and the exclusive pursuit of gain, with the indifference to all which does not aid in its acquisition, are eating up family love and life throughout the West.

On the other hand, when she meets “Mountain Jim” Nugent, a famous and deadly desperado, she has nothing but praise for his manners. This murderer, hung about with furs he’s trapped, barely restraining his ferocious dog, and missing an eye (you could not possibly ask for more from a Colorado pirate), politely offers Bird the only seat in his cabin, reads her poetry, makes sure she is warm and safe, and guides her wherever she wishes to go. Nature’s gentleman! Later in the narrative, he confesses his dreadful life — alas, too late! — and says that she has inspired him to make a change. It’s even more beautiful than the Lake of the Lilies, from a Victorian perspective. Later, this gentleman gets compared to a theological student who ought to be a gentleman, and is not: one of the funniest bits of the book.

If you like travelogues, you absolutely could not do better than this classic. Colorado isn’t exotic today, but it was then: the elk, the eagle, the grizzly, the corral, the ranch, the Puritan. And, of course, the mail, delivering letters, making the journey known.

This entry was posted in Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel/ Exploration. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains

  1. Elle says:

    I’ve heard of Bird before–she sounds like an extraordinary woman. Have you read Sara Wheeler’s O My America? Bird features as one of its six American pioneering women; the rest of the book is a little uneven, but Bird comes out of it well, and Wheeler talks about Jim Nugent too!

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t, but I really enjoy books about exploration and pioneering, so it sounds good. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Hey, killer. I hope you bring this book another hundred readers. Its the book that has everything.

  3. aartichapati says:

    I read this one some time back and thought it was very entertaining. I had this whole phase of reading about pioneer women.

    • Jenny says:

      That sounds like a great phase! I’d love to hear who else you read about. I like travel and exploration books, and it sounds like there’d be a lot of overlap.

  4. Christy says:

    Yay! This sounds good. I’ve been keeping an eye out for travel classics written by women. I do also have Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa, and the Freya Stark’s Valley of the Assassins (from a later time period – 1930’s), but haven’t read them yet.

  5. I’ve known of Isabella Bird for years but have not read her. Has anyone verified just how accurate she is. While I enjoy books like this one, some of them are not exactly trustworthy.

    • Western historians are very happy with Bird’s book. She omits some things that she must have seen as too personal (about herself, but also about people she met). But otherwise my impression is that historian’s think they can use the book as an original source.

      • Jenny says:

        Thanks, Tom, that’s what I was going to say. So many of these travelogues are too astonishing to be true, and this one is no exception. But most of them are true anyway, and so is this one.

  6. JaneGS says:

    I love this book! Being a Coloradoan, how could I not? I loved your comment about rhapsodizing ala Anne of Green Gables. I first Lady’s Life when I was still enthralled by Anne, which is maybe why I have such affection for it. It’s been probably 20 years at least since I last read it, but really enjoyed your quotes and now am hankering to reread it.

    Yes, Isabella had a thing for Mountain Jim (Colorado pirate, indeed!), who basically carried her up Longs Peak.

    Wonderful review. Have you ever read Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s Letters of a Woman Homesteader? It’s equally enjoyable.

    • Jenny says:

      No, I never have! I find travel/ exploration/ pioneering memoirs fascinating, so I’ll put that right on my list. Thanks for the great recommendation! And I didn’t know you were from Colorado. I’m glad you authenticated the review!

Leave your comment here, and feel free to respond to others' comments. We enjoy a lively conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.