A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains

Isabella Bird was an Englishwoman who penned this tale through several letters to her sister during her 1873 travels back from the Hawaiian Islands through San Francisco to Sacramento (“very repulsive city”) to Lake Tahoe and Truckee (strange retelling of the Donner Party wherein only 2 of the party die), through Utah, Cheyenne, finally to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. She arrives in the full heat of September, black flies and bugs aplenty. From Fort Collins she hires a buggy driven “by a profoundly melancholy young man” who got lost several times but finally deposited her in a canyon at the house of Mr. Chalmers whose hard and sad-looking wife said they would take her for five dollars a week if she’d make herself agreeable. Bird decides to stay on in the wretched accommodations – an unfinished cabin in which a fox or skunk intrudes at night, snakes, sleeping on the floor.

This is “a life in which nothing happens.” When the buggy disappeared, I felt as if I had cut the bridge behind me. I sat down and knitted for some time – my usual resource under discouraging circumstances. I really did not know how I should get on. There was no table, no bed, no basin, no towel, no glass, no window, no fastening on the door. The roof was in holes, the logs were unchinked, and one end of the cabin was partially removed! Life was reduced to its simplest elements.

Somehow she escapes from the Chalmers after a failed attempt to lead her to Estes Park despite Chalmers bragging that he could lead her there blindfolded. She buys a horse from him and makes it to Estes Park from Longmount with the help of two young men headed that way. Her first encounter with the desperado “Mountain Jim” has him retelling the recent exploit where a grizzly bear ripped his eye out. She finds him a decent man, treats him with as much respect as he treats her, and he leads her up to Long’s Peak and various other spots throughout the park. The accommodations aren’t much better in Estes Park, as winter sets in snow covers her bed frequently, the men hold her ink pot near the fire so it doesn’t freeze, food becomes scarce. A “shallow, arrogant youth” appears at their doorstep and greedily consumes more than his share of the rations – although there is a funny story about her mistakenly using cayenne pepper instead of ginger in a cake that the boy eats in the middle of the night – choking, coughing, groaning. It’s so cold that eggs have to be kept on the coolest part of the stove to keep them fluid, a few of the calves freeze to death. On the verge of catching cold, the men suggest a trapper’s remedy of hot water with a pinch of cayenne pepper – “a rapid cure.”
She’s pretty much a bad ass, riding 600 miles alone through intensely wintery and snowy conditions, managing to survive in sub-zero temperatures, helping rustle up the cattle along with the dudes. There are hints that she loves Jim, but ultimately she leaves him and he’s killed a few months later by another of the men.

In our sunless, misty climate you do not know the influence which persistent fine weather exercises on the spirits. I have been ten months in almost perpetual sunshine, and now a single cloudy day makes me feel quite depressed.

****
Discovered by B @ The Green Arcade