Book Review: A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains
June 9, 2020
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella L. Bird: Review by Meilee Anderson
I enjoyed reading A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, a collection of letters author Isabella Bird wrote to her sister. The letters begin in September of 1873 when Isabella, a well-traveled middle-aged English woman launched herself into a solo adventure with the goal of improving her health. She traveled rails and trails from California to Colorado to explore the Rocky Mountains and try the “mountain cure.”
I was drawn to the idea of a 41-year old woman heading out solo on a trip of this magnitude in the 1870’s. Turns out this daughter of a clergyman was not a delicate flower she was tough as nails! Isabella hiked, rode horseback, and adventured her ass off for more than 700 miles!
In her letters she matter-of-factly describes hardships without a hint of self-pity. She could be self-deprecating, poetic, humorous and judgmental. A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is part memoir, part travel log and all of it lovingly documented for her sister. Her writing style seamlessly wove from elegant prose to succinct descriptions of flora and fauna. Her letters took me through places I’ve never seen but could easily imagine.
Without the help of a GPS Isabella found her way through wild places. Through freezing blizzards without nary a piece of technical clothing she endured snowstorms in the mountains. Without the protection of sunglasses, or sunscreen she faced sweltering heat in the plains. She met grizzly bears, wolves, coyotes, gunslingers, trappers, ranchers and even a handsome desperado.
Though she described magnificent sunrises and sunsets so beautiful it was a spiritual experience to witness, Isabella wasn’t on vacation. She ran out of money at one point and worked for room and board. She camped in the mountains, and stayed at a ranch where she threw herself into manual labor.
Isabella was born in 1831 and published her first book in 1856. She was an extensive traveler, wrote several books and articles, and died at the age of 73. My only complaint about her book was her cringe inducing description of indigenous first nation people.
It was easy to imagine narrow winding canyons, immeasurably deep crevasses, and bone-chilling cold atop a mountain peak. I was transported from the comfort of my patio chair sitting in the spring sunshine. I could practically hear the howling winds and feel the biting cold. Her journey was just the distraction I needed. I had a hard time putting this book down.
“I cannot describe my feelings on this ride, produced by the utter loneliness, the silence and dumbness of all things, the snow falling quietly without wind, the obliterated mountains, the darkness, the intense cold, and the unusual and appalling aspect of nature. All life was in a shroud, all work and travel suspended. There was not a foot-mark or wheel-mark. There was nothing to be afraid of; and though I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed the ride, yet there was the pleasant feeling of gaining health every hour.”
I was glad I read A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains and will look for more of her works. Hopefully this summer you can find me huffing and puffing on the trails at Mount Rainier. I hike at the pace of a sloth. Isabella would not approve of my pace. I could never have kept up with her. I lack her tenacity and mountaineering skills. Though I’m slow going I’ll have a smile on my face because I’m enjoying the great outdoors and thinking of Isabella.
Isabella L. Bird was a unique woman for her time. Born October 15, 1831, she traveled extensively as an adult and was both a writer and natural historian. Her works include The Englishwoman in America, The Two Atlantics and Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.
Buy A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains Here.