Since I was just in the Rocky Mountains, I will linger there for a day by writing about A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879) by Isabella Bird, the greatest tourist of the 19th century. In this book she is mostly in Colorado, exploring the mountain trails on horseback, often alone, sometimes assisted by the desperados, settlers, and other tough characters she encounters.
… I at once inquired if I could get to Green Lake. The landlord said he thought not; the snow was very deep, and no one had been up for five weeks, but for my satisfaction he would send to a stable and inquire. The amusing answer came back, “If it’s the English lady traveling in the mountains, she can have a horse, but not any one else.” (Letter XII)
Her adventures – her unlikely existence – featured in the Colorado newspapers, Bird becomes a celebrity while she is there. She is not the only celebrity in Colorado, but perhaps the only one who is not an outlaw, like the terrifying Comanche Bill (“my intelligent, courteous companion was one of the most notorious desperadoes of the Rocky Mountains, and the greatest Indian exterminator on the frontier,” Letter XI) and a man who becomes Bird’s close friend and companion, Rocky Mountain Jim Nugent (“She was as proud of having him in her house as if he had been the President, and I gained a reflected importance!,” Letter XVII).
Mountain Jim guides Isabella Bird on her ascent of Longs Peak, a highlight of the book. Nowadays I believe you can drive most of the way to the top, and Bird herself writes that “[t]ruly terrible it was for me, to a member of the Alpine Club it would not be a feat worth performing” (Letter VII). Nevertheless Bird’s book is part of the 1870s mountain-climbing craze, in the less crazed division. Photo from the National Park Service. They also have a little tribute to Bird as one of the founders of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Once Bird started traveling, and writing, she never stopped. Trips to and books about Australia and Hawaii preceded A Lady’s Life, and the next stop would be Japan. She is the woman that rode the mule ‘round the world, so to speak (warning: music). I have read Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880). As interesting as that book is, it does not have as good a story as A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, which in places has the narrative drive of an exciting novel and is curiously made more interesting by being less exotic. Bird observes her own culture but in an unfinished form, as if civilization has collapsed but is being rebuilt amidst the rattlesnakes, blizzards, and black flies. “Here the life was rough, rougher than any I had ever seen” she writes early in the book (Letter IV). She not only develops a taste for certain parts of that roughness – not for the filth and flies – but helped develop that taste in who knows how many readers.