Another Good Book: Adventures in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird

“There’s nothing Western folks admire so much as pluck in a woman….”

I’ve been meaning to read this slim volume of Isabella Bird’s letters home ever since I was working on my dissertation. Bird was a Brit who traveled to the American west in 1873 and was the first woman to scale Long’s Peak (14,700 ft.) in the Colorado Rockies. I wanted to read this book not so much because I plan to scale the Andes when I head on down to Peru this January but because I am interested in women travelers and their writing. I was sorta thinkin’ I might join the ranks of these travel writers and well, ur, write something about my own travels. Seems sorta presumptuous of me, but it’s something I’m actually considering….

First off, I have to say that I read the book practically in one sitting, didn’t want to put it down. It was delightfully descriptive (in the way that nineteenth-century travel writing usually is) and full of drama and humor. I knew Bird’s story, so I was not surprised at her successfully making the climb, but what did surprise me was some of her reflections on the experience and on her time in the West.

She opens with a visit to Lake Tahoe, via the town of Truckee. Having spent a lot of time at Tahoe as a kid, I found her portrait very accurate. Her retelling of the Donner Party tale, however, was so filled with lies as to be unrecognizable. No doubt these are the lies she had been told, but what she heard was a fireside horror story unfounded in truth. Anyway, I was hooked right away with her first line: “I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one’s life and sigh.” If you’ve never been to Tahoe, you may think this an exaggeration. I know better.

She comes to Colorado rather too late in the season to do much mountain climbing (at least according to locals), not that her goal in coming was to scale a mountain. No. In fact, her goal was to get to Estes Park, a difficult enough jaunt. When there she meets a notorious desperado named “Mountain Jim” whom she calls Mr. Nugent. During a bit of mild weather in early October, Jim offers to take her, and two college students staying at her lodgings, up to the top of Long’s Peak. She had been advised, “Treat Jim as a gentleman and you’ll find him one.” Good advice, which she followed and which proved true.

It is Jim who coaxes Bird to the peak when she tries repeatedly to give up along the way. Arriving at the “Notch” — a gate of rock through which climbers go before scaling the peak itself — she marvels at the view and then reflects: “Never-to-be-forgotten glories they were, burnt in upon my memory by six succeeding hours of terror. You know I have no head and no ankles, and never ought to dream of moutaineering; and had I known that the ascent was a real mountaineering feat I should not have felt the slightest ambition to perform it.” This struck me as somehow more than merely a comment on her adventure. How many of us may feel the same way about childbirth or grad school or…well, you fill in the blank…? Sometimes it is best not to know the trials we will face.

My favorite bit comes when she finally crawls her way to the summit: “Uplifted above love and hate and storms of passion, calm amidst the eternal silences, fanned by zephyrs and bathed in living blue, peace rested for that one bright day on the Peak.”

Peace be with you all.


4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the review. And please let me encourage you to pursue your own travel writing. I do a bit of it, and I really love being able to share the world with my readers. And even if one doesn’t get a lot of readers, it’s still wonderful to simply commit to paper that things that have delighted you during your wanderings. And you just don’t know who might read your work. I’m sure Bird never imagined that someone would be reading her letters more than a hundred years later.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement. I am definitely thinking of pursuing this some. It’d be fun to try a new direction in my teaching when I return from sabbatical, too.

    Love your site, btw.

  3. Hmmm……not having read the book in question (and therefore not knowing if the book contains untruths), but being a native of Colorado, and even having a book somewhere on the Donner Party Expedition, I’m not so sure that the book would contain lies. Perhaps if you are not actually from Colorado, you are not aware that this IS a true story of cannibalism by Alfred Packer…

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

  4. Oh, yes, I grew up in Sacramento, CA, and know the cannibalism is true. But Bird’s story is outlandish and all about a ruffian who WANTS to eat people and goes insane, etc. A bit embellished 🙂

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