This 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.