Saturday, October 9, 2010

Book Review: A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird

" I had gone to sleep with six blankets on, and a heavy sheet over my face. Between two and three I was awoke by the cabin being shifted from underneath by the wind, and the sheet was frozen to my lips. I put out my hands, and the bed was thickly covered with fine snow.  Getting up to investigate matters, I found the floor some inches deep in parts in fine snow, and a gust of fine, needle-like snow stung my face. The bucket of water was solid ice.  I lay in bed freezing till sunrise, when some of the men came to see if I 'was alive', and to dig me out. They brought a can of hot water, which turned to ice before I could use it."

Isabella Bird is not a modern-day author, she lived in the 1800s, and traveled the world as a single, fearless woman and wrote about her adventures in letters back to her sister in England.  Her travel letters in the Rocky Mountains are collected in this little volume called "A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains", now a real classic, that I happened to find right before we decided to spend some time in Colorado this summer. I started reading it on the plane to Denver, and I was hooked.

Isabella describes her travels from San Francisco via trains over the Sierra Nevada, then to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and on to Fort Collins, Colorado.  From there she is adamant about getting up into the Rocky Mountains, where no railroads yet have come (this is before the big railroad era in the Colorado Rockies, and the mining had just started).  She buys a horse, travels alone, and takes in as a boarder at the local houses and farms along the way.  She stays a long time at Estes Park, part of it involuntarily in the winter (see above), and she also visits Denver, Colorado Springs, and passes over many mountain passes.  In time she becomes famous for her ability to negotiate bad trails and bad weather.

typical wide valley inside the Rockies

Her book is full of detailed and funny descriptions of people she meet, and the everyday life they live.  I would guess this is probably one of the few books that describes the often poor and miserably life many pioneer women (and men) lived out West, living in squalor, without enough food and in very harsh weather.  But she also describes nature in exquisite detail, from sunsets to conifer forests, geologic features, rushing rapids of waters in canyons, and snow and stormy winds during dark nights far from her cabin. Her feelings of isolation and appreciation of company is true.

But what gets me most is that this is a real person writing, someone that experienced it all and wrote down her thoughts in her diary-like letters to her sister, never to think they ever would get published.  The letters are raw and honest, but beautiful and so well-written it is unbelievable she wrote them with ink pen at candlelight under sometimes very harsh circumstances. But Isabella is perpetually encouraging, even in dark or dangerous moments.

"I rode up one great ascent where hills were tumbled about confusedly; and suddenly across the broad ravine, rising above the sunny grass and the deep-green pines, rose in glowing and shaded red against the glittering blue heaven a magnificent and unearthly range of mountains, as shapely as could be seen, rising into colossal points, cleft by deep blue ravines, broken up into sharks' teeth, with gigantic knobs and pinnacles rising from their inaccessible sides, very fair to look upon, a glowing heavenly, unforgettable sight, and only four miles off."

This is a Highly Recommended book, I loved it!


sandy, from gardenpath said...

This looks very good, I am going to look for it.

LS said...

Hi Sandy, they have it on Amazon for not too much money. I got my copy for free on (a fantastic book exchange website). I hope you like it!