Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Review: “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” by Isabella Bird

To escape the unhealthy climate of her homeland, English writer Isabella Bird travels the globe, from Hawaii to Tibet, Australia to Turkey. When she visits the mountains of Colorado in 1873, she is already a fearless veteran traveler.

In the newly settled state, there are a hundred miles of untamed wilderness for every town, and hotels are an even rarer sight than English gentry. Her letters to her sister describe a world rough-hewn and ungentle, populated by desperadoes and consumptives. The bleakness of human life is placed in sharp contrast to the timeless magnificence of the Rocky Mountains that surround them.

But the staggering radiance of the landscape is not the only source of beauty that Bird discovers on her journey. In the lonely sanctuary of Estes Park, human generosity reaches a sublime state. By necessity, doors are thrown open to the traveler, for a night or for a month. Here is a world with no space for tourists, only participants.One's neighbors are one's lifeline, and bitter feuds and intense rivalries are laid aside in the face of the mutual need to survive.

Bird plans to visit Colorado only for a short time, but her departure is delayed at every turn. In an economic downswing, the frontier banks refuse to cash her English banknotes, leaving her dependent upon the charity of her newfound friends. Thunderous winter storms close the mountain passes for weeks on end while supplies run scarce. Her hosts, initially dubious of this well-bred foreigner, recognize Bird's skill as a rider and employ her on the roundup of their far-ranging mountain cattle. Meanwhile, the notorious outlaw "Mountain Jim" Nugent, a fellow Englishman in exile, courts Bird with magnificent style, desperate to keep her near him.

Bird describes her time in Colorado in vivid detail, from the shifting colors of the sunset on Long’s Peak to the firelight on Mountain Jim's scarred face, her eyelids freezing shut on a snowy night and  her ride of eight hundred miles in the dead of winter. She writes with keen criticism of human folly and foibles, but also with compassion and wonder. She punctuates it all with that particular dry English humor that makes her tale a delight to read.

4 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)
Let's try some narrative nonfiction! A family member sent me A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains shortly after I moved to Colorado myself. The title and the description didn't grab me, so I put off reading it for some time. When I finally cracked the spine, I was amazed by the adventure I found hiding inside this dull-looking little book. As a travelogue, it’s thrilling and evocative; as a memoir, it’s mesmerizing and warm.

A snapshot from my own "life in the Rocky
Mountains," taken near Estes Park, where most of
Bird's narrative takes place.
But here’s the real selling point: as a romance, it’s Hollywood-perfect and 100% true.

Bird has a very light touch when it comes to writing about her inner thoughts, so it takes a while for the subtext of her interactions with Mountain Jim to become apparent. This outlaw, a dangerous mountain ghost who steals away bad children (at least according to their mothers), turns gallant hero in Bird’s presence. He offers to escort her on the ascent of Long’s Peak--making her the first (known) woman to reach the summit at 14,000 feet--and when their companions want to leave Bird behind, he declares that “if it were not to take a lady up he would not go up at all” and carries her the rest of the way. He sends his dog to guard her in the night, and wants to know where she is hiding her gun and what do you mean you don’t carry a gun I’ll get you one myself. He recites poetry and writes for the local newspapers. He tramps through the snow to her cabin just to announce that the sunset is fantastic and that they should go for a ride. He is a favorite with the local children. He aggravates his neighbors by being, at least locally, the Most Interesting Man In The World. He suffers black bitter moods worthy of any Brontë hero. He argues with her about God and morality, and curses himself for having met her too late in life to make himself worthy of her and dear reader I am not making any of this up and neither is Bird. I checked the historical records.

And if that’s not enough: Mountain Jim is quite literally handsome on half his face, but scarred and one-eyed from a bear attack on the other. When they have their Deep Conversations Bird talks about the light shining on the better side of his face and it's so picture-perfect I don’t even know what to say. In a letter excised from the published collection, she calls him "a man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry." I need to find the rest, because apparently there’s a magnificent ghost story that might (or might not) be supported by Bird’s other letters.
"Now you see a man who has made a devil of himself. Lost! Lost! Lost! I believe in God. I’ve given Him no choice but to put me with ‘the devil and his angel.’ I’m afraid to die. You’ve stirred the better nature in me too late. I can’t change. If ever a man were a slave, I am. Don’t speak to me of repentance and reformation. I can’t reform. Your voice reminded me of --"

Then in feverish tones, “How dare you ride with me? You won’t speak to me again, will you?”

He made me promise to keep one or two things secret whether he were living or dead, and I promised, for I had no choice; but they come between me and the sunshine sometimes, and I wake at night to think of them.
It’s pure classic Hollywood romance in every scene, and the fact that it’s true and therefore ends in inevitable tragedy just kills me.

To my surprise and delight, Bird is treated with absolute courtesy by every man she meets, from the loggers who find her horse running spooked and return it to a limping Bird, to the two hunters she bunks with for a winter, sharing chores and food equally. After consuming so much media in which "woman alone" is a synonym for "victim"--and hearing so many claims that history is full of violence and misogyny because it's "part of [man's] nature"--this is a reminder not to let modern worldviews convince us to  believe the worst of the past.

I would like to give A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains a full five stars, but in fairness to you, dear reader, I have to knock some points off for readability, as not everyone is used to prosy English epistolary novels. I must also issue a content warning for period racism. Bird has my respect for understanding that the "Indian situation" was created by the cruelty and entitlement of white settlers, but it doesn't change the latent air of discrimination.

Readers who have visited northern Colorado will share my enjoyment in Bird's descriptions of familiar landmarks, and her depictions of the earliest days of Denver, Fort Collins, Greeley, Longmont, and of course Estes Park.

This and other of Bird's collected letters are on Project Gutenberg for free!

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