BY TRACY ROSS
Isabella Bird was born in Yorkshire County, England, in 1831. She was a sickly girl but had a forward-thinking doctor who prescribed travel as an antidote to the insomnia and blues she suffered after an 1850 operation. She traveled by steamer to the eastern United States and Canada, and upon returning, published her first book, The Englishwoman in America. She hated the title, but the gig—travel, then write—felt like a fit.
In 1875, after living in Hawaii for a time, she published Six Months in the Sandwich Islands. Her third book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains in which she details her time in the American West—and in Estes Park—in a series of notes to her younger sister Henrietta, was an international bestseller that let her spend the rest of her life exploring and reporting.
Between then and her death in 1904, she traveled to and wrote about the people, cultures, and mysteries of countries spanning from India and Tibet to Kurdistan and Turkey. And her contributions to the world—not just stories of exotic locales but also humanitarian work, including helping Scottish workers and setting up a school for missionaries and nurses in Africa—earned her induction into England’s Royal Geographic Society and the respect of armchair adventurers around the world. And yet, until a couple of months ago—and despite being a Colorado mountain resident for nearly two decades—I’d somehow managed, through my own apathy and silliness, to avoid reading Bird. Truth is, I probably would never have cracked A Lady’s spine if a happy circumstance hadn’t thrown us together.
I was in Alaska when a friend who’d also admits to passing her on the aisle en route to Wallace Stegner and Mark Twain asked me to snoop around the life of what he called “America’s first badass literary mountain woman” for a story. While I was excited about the idea, I was skeptical. I bought a copy of A Lady’s Life crawled into a tent, and five minutes later, I'd all but forgotten about Denali, North America’s tallest peak, the one I’d come to spend the summer near with my family. From that point on, I spent every spare minute toggling between A Lady’s Life and Anna M. Stoddart’s biography, The Life of Isabella Bird. And I came away believing that anyone wanting a full picture of the 1880s West needs to read Bird, without further hesitation.
Here are seven reasons everyone who travels to Estes Park should drop everything to immerse themselves in her work:
1. She put Estes on the map
She came to Colorado because she was intrigued by this mountainous territory that had not yet become a state. Her trip to Estes, through Fort Collins, “Nameless Region,” the St. Vrain Canyon, “Longmount,” and into the mountains, was hot, filthy, dangerous (rattlesnakes abounded), and potentially lethal (in the canyon, her horse fell on her and could have crushed her). But the toil was worth it. When she finally arrived—in the autumn of 1873, she wrote to Henrietta, “ESTES PARK!!! I wish I could let those three notes of admiration go to you instead of to a letter. They mean everything that is rapturous and delightful—grandeur, cheerfulness, health, enjoyment…. I have just dropped into the very place I have been seeking, but in everything it exceeds all of my dreams.” Now, more than 100 years later, rangers at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) call her the “Mother” of the region. Today RMNP is the 4th most visited park in the country and Estes Park one of the country’s premier mountain towns.
2. Her writing rivals the best stuff in the outdoor canon.
If you love the outdoors, you’ve probably read Thoreau, Abbey, Matthiessen, and McPhee, maybe Krakauer and Terry Tempest Williams. Do yourself a favor and add Bird to your list. While some detractors complain that her prose was too flowery, she more than made up it for with vitality, fire, insight, and attention to every lovely and stark detail of the mountains and living in them. Case in point: “This is no region for tourists and women, only for a few elk and bear hunters at times, and its unprofaned freshness gives me new life. I cannot by any words give you an idea of scenery so different from any that you or I have ever seen. This is an upland valley of grass and flowers, of glades and sloping lawns, and cherry-fringed beds of dry streams, and clumps of pines artistically placed, and mountain sides densely pine-clad, the pines breaking into fringes as they come down upon the 'park,' and the mountains breaking into pinnacles of bold grey rock as they pierce the blue of the sky." It didn’t hurt that that she had the perfect audience for her writing, her beloved sister, Henrietta back in England. Every Estes traveler should take a cue from Bird and write a letter to someone they love, telling them what they saw and experienced.
3. She was a nonchalant outdoor badass.
The history books should put her right up there with Shackleton and Mallory. She was a top-notch adventurer, and while she may not have been the first woman to climb 14,259-foot Longs Peak, she did it in the fall, in rubber boots and in a flowing, silk, Hawaiian dress. She and her pal “Mountain Jim” spent the night before at a camp near Grand Crater, and rose in the morning to several degrees below zero. Humble Bird felt humiliated by her performance—“Jim dragged me up, like a bale of goods, by sheer force of muscle,” she wrote. But Andy Hansen, a Colorado Mountain School guide who specializes in Longs trips, says Longs “is generally considered one of the more difficult Colorado fourteeners. Bird did it without technical equipment and was outfitted with marginally adequate clothing. Given the harsh nature of Longs even on the nicest days, her feat was quite remarkable!” And it was just one of the hundreds of things Bird did that made no sense for a lady of her stature in the 1800s.
4. She could tame mountain men.
Her "pal" Jim? He was in love with her. Many of the other tough, resourceful, rugged, and unruly men she rubbed elbows and spurs with in the Rockies were enamored with her too. She was a good, Victorian, Christian lady, though, so she didn’t (or couldn't) love them back. That didn’t stop Jim from swooning in her presence or seasoned ranchers from declaring her a better cattle driver than a man (a sure sign of adoration) nor in Comanche Bill, known as “the most successful Indian fighter of the 1800s”, from calling her “good company” while riding up a mountain in the dead of winter near Breckenridge. But ultimately, she returned home and married the doctor who'd prescribed her travels in the beginning, John Bishop.
5. She was progressive before that was a thing.
History books have Bird, at 16, publishing her first “pamphlet,” addressing Free Trade vs. Protectionism. I don’t know about you, but when I was 16, my mind was elsewhere. But Bird’s sharp thinking and belief in her mental and physical abilities would protect her, in essence, from the rigid Victorian beliefs of her era. Like a true individual, she defied the conventions of the time to bash barriers around the world, to understand her fellow humans. That said, she wasn’t perfect. “She was often fairly critical of other women that she encountered in her travels, women who are indigenous to the area they’re in,” says historian and author Heather Hansen. “But I do think of her as clever. She got an opportunity to escape and do something different [than other women of her demographic]. And I think she evolved through her solo travels.”
6. She led a big, big life.
Bird did her own thing on her own terms, and not a person nor a landscape nor a continent could deter or contain her. On the East Coast, setting of her first book, she arrived to a country in the throes of cholera, but it didn’t turn her off. In Hawaii, she lived among royalty, missionaries, and everyday Hawaiians. After the Rockies, she went to Japan, where she stayed among the region’s original inhabitants on the island of Hokkaido. From Japan, she hit Hong Kong, Canton, Saigon, and Singapore. Next up, five weeks in the Malayan Peninsula. The history books say she loved the man she married, Dr. Bishop (and he must have been some kind of guy to encourage her continued adventures), but he died five years after they got hitched and she kept going. This time to Kashmir and Ladakh, where maybe five other white, western women had ever been. By now, in her fifties, she was still as tough as ever. From northern India she traveled to Iran, then spent six months heading up her own caravan through northern Iran, Kurdistan, and Turkey. Then she went to back to Japan, to Korea, and to China’s Yangtze River. It was 1897 when, at 66, Bird finally began to settle down. She’d also fought for Scottish workers’ rights, and established two hospitals (one in honor of Henriette, the other for Bishop). She was famous in the reading world, and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society named her the first woman fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. She took one last trip—at 70—to Morocco, and then, in 1904, likely unaware of the millions more she’d inspire and thrill, she passed onto her next big journey, death, from Edinburgh in 1904.
7. And, finally, if you need still more convincing, here’s this:
“From the ridge…at a height of 9,000 feet, we saw at last Estes Park, lying…in the glory of the setting sun, an irregular basin, lighted up by the bright waters of the rushing Thompson…with Long’s Peak rising above them all in unapproachable grandeur… The rushing river was blood-red, Long’s Peak was aflame,, the glory of the glowing heaven was given back from earth. Never, nowhere, have I seen anything to equal the view into Estes Park. The mountains ‘of the land which is very far off’ are very near now, but the near is more glorious than the far, and reality than dreamland.”
It’s descriptions like these, full of so much love, that have made me an instant fan of Bird’s, and a reawakened admirer of Colorado, Rocky, and, most especially, Estes Park.
Photos above in order of appearance: The Denver Public Library. Western History Collection. [C56-1 ART] Painting by Albert Bierstadt, [Z-74, Z-76, and Z-75]