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Isabella Bird, a very intrepid solo woman travelerIsabella Bird, a very intrepid solo woman traveler.

Great Travel Writers of History

Intrepid Solo Women's Travel - Isabella Bird

When you Google 'intrepid solo women's travel,' they should have a picture of Isabella Bird. I have been reading her book about Colorado, which she visited in the 1870s, but she also visited Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, India,Tibet, Turkey, Persia, Kurdistan, Baghdad, Tehran, China, Korea, and Morocco.

In later life, she used the celebrity status she had attained to found not one but two hospitals in India.

The following excerpts are from A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains. The book is a trifle slow-going at the beginning, but it winds up galloping away with you. Here is her description of a cattle round-up in Estes Park, Colorado:

A Cattle Round-Up

"In one wild part of the ride we had to come down a steep hill, thickly wooded with pitch pines, to leap over the fallen timber, and steer between the dead and living trees to avoid being 'snagged,' or bringing down a heavy dead branch by an unwary touch.

Emerging from this, we caught sight of a thousand Texan cattle feeding in a valley below. The leaders scented us, and, taking fright, began to move off in the direction of the open park, while we were about a mile from and above them.

'Head them off, boys!' Our leader shouted, and with something of the 'High Tally-Ho in the Morning!' away we went at a hard gallop down-hill.

I could not hold my excited animal; down-hill, up-hill, leaping over rocks and timber, faster every moment the pace grew, and still the leader shouted, 'Go it boys!' and the horses dashed on at racing speed, passing and repassing each other, till my smart but beautiful bay was keeping pace with the immense strides of the great buck jumper ridden by 'the finest rider in North Americay,' [some guy mentioned earlier] and I was dizzied and breathless by the pace at which we were going.

A shorter time than it takes to tell it brought us close to and abreast of the surge of cattle. The bovine waves were a grand sight: huge bulls, shaped like buffaloes, bellowed and roared, and with cows with yearling calves, galloped like racers, and we galloped alongside of them, and shortly headed them and in no time were placed as sentinels across the mouth of the valley.

It seemed like infantry awaiting the shock of cavalry as we stood as still as our excited horses would allow. I almost quailed as the surge came on, but when it got close to us, my comrades hooted fearfully, and we dashed forward with the dogs, and, with bellowing, roaring, and thunder, the wave receded as it came.

Estes Park, ColoradoEstes Park, Colorado.

I rode up to our leader, who received me with much laughter. He said I was 'a good cattleman,' and that he had forgotten that a lady was of the party till he saw me 'come leaping over the timber, and driving with the others.'"

Isabella Meets Mountain Jim

"...we entered a long gulch with broad swellings of grass belted with pines.

"A very pretty mare, hobbled, was feeding; a collie dog barked at us, and among the scrub, not far from the track, there was a rude, black log cabin, as rough as it could be to be a shelter at all, with smoke coming out of the roof and window.

"We diverged toward it; it mattered not that it was the home, or rather den, of a notorious 'ruffian' and 'desperado.' One of my companions had disappeared hours before; the remaining one was a town-bred youth. I longed to talk to some one who loved the mountains.

"I called the hut a a den -- it looked like the den of a wild beast. The big dog lay outside it in a threatening attitude and growled. The mud roof was covered with lynx, beaver, and other furs laid out to dry, beaver paws were pinned out on the logs, a part of the carcass of a deer hung at one end of the cabin, a skinned beaver lay in front of a heap of peltry just within the door, and antlers of deer, old horseshoes, and offal [guts] of many animals lay about the den."

[Can't you just tell that romance is in the air?]

"Roused by the growling of the dog," she continues, "his owner came out, a broad, thickset man, about middle height, with an old cap on his head, and wearing a grey hunting suit, much the worse for wear (almost falling to pieces, in fact), a digger's head scarf knotted around his waist, a knife in his belt, and a 'bosom friend,' a revolver, sticking out of the breast pocket of his coat; his feet, which were very small, were bare, except for some dilapidated moccasins made of horse hide. The marvel was how his clothing hung together, and on him. The scarf round his waist must have had something to do with it.

"His face was remarkable. He is a man about forty-five, and must have been strikingly handsome. He has large grey-blue eyes, deeply set, with well-marked eyebrows, a handsome aquiline nose, and a very handsome mouth. His face was smooth shaven except for a dense mustache and imperial. Tawny hair, in thin uncared-for curls, fell from under his hunter's cap and over his collar.

"One eye was entirely gone, and the loss made one side of his face repulsive, while the other might have been modeled in marble..."

Mountain Jim brings her a drink of water in a battered tin "apologizing for not having anything more presentable." They chat. She asks about some beaver paws and he presents them to her.

"Apropos of the wild animals of the region, he told me that the loss of his eye was owing to a recent encounter with a grizzly bear, which, after giving him a death hug, tearing him all over, breaking his arm and scratching out his eye, had left him for dead.

"As we rode away, for the sun was sinking, he said, courteously, 'You are not an American. I know from your voice that you are a countrywoman of mine. I hope you will allow me the pleasure of calling on you.'"

Isabella, Jim and Ring Ascend Long's Peak

One her trip through Colorado in 1873, Isabella Bird finally arrived at her long-sought destination, Estes Park. She had hoped to climb "The American Matterhorn," Long's Peak, but it was late in the year and the weather seemed to be against it.

Isabella Bird in Kurdistan, later in lifeIsabella Bird in Kurdistan, later in life.

But then the weather cleared and "Mountain Jim" Nugent volunteered to take her up, with two surly young men tagging along for some unknown reason. She has some brilliant descriptions of the scenery, as well as this sketch of her companion:

"Jim was a shocking figure; he had on a pair of high boots, with a baggy pair of old trousers made of deer hide, held on by an old scart tucked into them; a leather shirt, with three or four ragged unbuttoned waistcoats over it; an old smashed wideawake [hat], from under which his tawny, neglected ringlets hung; and with his one eye [a grizzly bear tore out the other], his one long spur, his knife in his belt, his revolver in his waistcoat pocket, his saddle covered with an old beaver skin, from which the paws hungs down; his camping blanket behind him, his rifle laid across the saddle in front of him, and his axe, canteen, and other gear hanging to the horn, he was as awful-looking a ruffian as one could see."

They get to the timberline and Jim makes a fire and they drink tea from meat tins and eat strips of beef reeking with pine smoke under a "big half moon hung out of the heavens."

"'Treat Jim as a gentleman and you'll find him one,' I had been told; and though his manner was certainly bolder and freer than that of gentlemen generally, no imaginary fault could be found. He was very agreeable as a man of culture as well as a child of nature; the desperado was altogether out of sight. He was very courteous and kind to me, which was fortunate, as the young men had little idea of showing even ordinary civilities.

"That night I made the acquaintance of his dog 'Ring,' said to be the best hunting dog in Colorado, with the body and legs of a collie, but a head approaching that of a mastiff, a noble face with a wistful human expression, and the most truthful eyes I ever saw in an animal.

"His master loves him if he loves anything, but in his savage moods ill-treats him. Ring's devotion never swerves, and his truthful eyes are rarely taken off his master's face. He is almost human in his intelligence, and, unless he is told to do so, he never takes notice of anyone but Jim.

"In a tone as if speaking to a human being, his master, pointing to me, said, 'Ring, go to that lady, and don't leave her again tonight.'

"Ring at once came to me, looked into my face, laid his head on my shoulder, and then lay down beside me with his head on my lap, but never taking his eyes from Jim's face.

"The long shadows of the pines lay upon the frosted grass, an aurora leaped fitfully, and the moonlight, though intensely bright, was pale beside the red, leaping flames of our pine logs and their red glow upon our gear, ourselves, and Ring's truthful face."

A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains is full of wonderful, vivid travel writing. It's not easy to find, but it's well worth the trouble.


Stephen Hartshorne



Stephen Hartshorne is the associate editor of GoNOMAD. He writes a blog called Armchair Travel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales.




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Tags: storySection: Historic Travel
author: Stephen Hartshorne
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