Friday, August 9, 2013

Nonfiction Book of the Month: A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

Cover image for A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

Isabella Bird was an Englishwoman who traveled to remote corners of the world in the second half of the 19th century; she became the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society and wrote extensively about her travels. Unusually, she traveled alone, and in A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, she gives vivid and frank descriptions of life in the Rocky Mountains when they were first being settled; she visited there when she was in her forties.

She roughed it, sleeping in the homes of settlers, in dilapidated cabins, and sometimes outdoors; wherever she went, she worked alongside her hosts, assisting them with their chores. She was an accomplished horsewoman, braving bad weather and spotty trails on horseback, and at several points helping people round up cattle; most of the time she didn't ride sidesaddle, but seated herself as a man would. She wound up befriending a desperado, "Mountain" Jim Nugent, who helped her ascend Long's Peak. All of her writing renders the natural world beautifully, but even when she's in raptures over a particular location (such as Estes Park), there's always a steadiness to her work; you could tell she had sharp eyes and a good head on her shoulders. She comes across a variety of people in the Rockies and on the bordering Plains, and makes an unsentimental analysis of settler society, both the favorable and unfavorable qualities of it.

The book - a compilation of letters she wrote from the Rockies to her sister back in England - is a treat, for its literary and historical value. So dive in and travel alongside her:

There were snow patches, snow slashes, snow abysses, snow forlorn and soiled looking, snow pure and dazzling, snow glistening above the purple robe of pine worn by all the mountains; while away to the east, in limitless breadth, stretched the green-grey of the endless Plains.