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Don't just take my word for how great this book is, check out what Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, and BookPage have to say.

And if those sources didn't tell you enough, how about this review from the New York Times (!), this story from The Lily, or this tweet from Secretary Clinton: 

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Given that we are currently #SaferAtHome, I've been making the podcast rounds. Give a listen to Zestful Aging, where we talked about just doing it,  Mama Bear Dares, where we talked about the importance of local government, and/or The Upstate Regular, where I talk about our county's COVID-19 Challenges. 

NEW: I did an online reading for the Princeton Public Library and talked a little bit about what local government is facing right now. If you've wondered what I look like at a reading, give it a gander.

NEW NEW: The Hillary Clinton story continues...

izzy bird, paring potatoes

Isabella has left the Plum Creek ranch — the one that she says has a “screw loose” — but only makes it four miles before the storm makes travel impossible. Fortunately, there is a boarding house, where she and 11 other “wretched travelers” are able to take shelter.

Because she has learned the fine art of making herself useful, she spent the two hours she is there “paring potatoes and making scones.” When she left, her hosts would accept no money in exchange for her time indoors.

The storm did let up long enough for Isabella to re-saddle Birdie and ride four more miles. When she crossed a frozen creek, “the ice … broke and let the pony through, to her great alarm.* I cannot describe my feelings on this ride, produced by utter loneliness, the silence and dumbness of all things, the snow failing quietly without wind, the obliterated mountains, the darkness, the intense cold, and the unusual and appalling aspect of nature. There was nothing to be afraid of; and though I can’t exactly say I enjoyed the ride, yet there was the pleasant feeling of gaining health every hour.”

Who hasn’t been there?

Fortunately, Isabella found a “most romantically situated” cabin in which to spend the night. There were 11 men, plus the family, all in the cabin. Plus all the dogs and some of the smaller livestock because it was so cold.

“And still the snow fell softly,” she wrote, “and the air and earth were silent."

* fair

Izzy Bird, Plum Creek weirdos

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Isabella is on the move. She has collected Birdie* and ridden out from the Mrs Evans’ shanty. “Town tired and confused me,” she said. I think we can all understand perfectly.

It was the custom in these times and in this land to present yourself to any large house in the area and receive room and board for the night. Hotels and taverns are few and far between. On this first night, Isabella discovered that it is a custom not all in the country follow. She has stopped at a ranch near Plum Creek and found “the host was unwilling to receive people in this way…the host looked repellent, but his wife, a very agreeable, lady-like-looking woman, said they could give me a bed on a sofa.”

While there, Isabella met a lady from Laramie, who had been trying the camp cure** but found it unsuccessful. “She had a wagon with beds, tent, tent floor, cooking-stove, and every camp luxury, a light buggy, a man to manage everything, and a most superior ‘hired girl.’” There is no word on what made this hired girl better than average. Still, I find it interesting how much stuff some would travel with — but probably had to when actual places to stay were so sparse.

Isabella spends one night at the ranch and skedaddles. She does not dig the vibe at the Plum Creek Ranch. “I soon found out there was a screw loose in the house, and was glad to leave early the next morning, although it was obvious a storm was coming on.”


* there’s a whole side story here about how the stableman called Birdie a “little demon” who had bucked him off of a bridge. It is not a thing she does with Isabella, mind, because they seem to be perfect for each other. Isabella rides out of town sidesaddle, which is just long enough to make her back hurt, then switches to astride for the rest of the ride. She passed wagons frequently, and found a purse with $500 in it. But reunited it with its owner so all ended well.

** for her TB


Izzy Bird, the street of Denver

Isabella paints a picture of what walking through the Denver streets is like.

There is a large number of Indians,* for starters, which is something you don’t often see in Edinburgh. They were Utes and “Governor Hunt introduced me to a fine-looking chief, very well dressed in beaded hide, and bespoke his courtesy for me if I needed it.

“The crowds in the streets, perhaps owing to the snow on the ground, were almost solely masculine. I only saw five women the whole day. There were men in every rig: hunters and trappers in buckskin clothing; men of the Plains with belts and revolvers, in great blue cloaks, relics of the war;** teamsters in leathern suits; horsemen in fur coats and caps and buffalo hide boots with the hair outside, and camping blankets behind their huge Mexican saddles; Broadway dandies in light kid gloves; rich English sporting tourists, clean, comely, and supercilious looking; and hundreds of Indians on their small ponies, the men wearing buckskin suits sewn with beads, and red blankets, with faces painted vermillion and hair hanging lank and straight, and squaws much bundled up, riding astride with furs over their saddles.”

* This was way before the idea of “Indigenous People.”

** I keep forgetting that the Civil War wasn’t all that long ago when Isabella was there. I mean, it’s really not that long ago even now, given that we never resolved anything beyond the surface of racism.

Izzy Bird, on Denver

Isabella has made it to Evans’ shanty* in Denver. It’s where Mrs Evans and the kids are overwintering, rather than remain in Estes Park.
Initially, Isabella was going to leave Birdie with the family and take the train to various places. She is convinced by Governor Hunt and an editor of the Rocky Mountain News that it makes more sense to just ride. They draw a route for her and provide a letter of recommendation.
Then some words about Denver:
It is “no longer the Denver of Hepworth Dixon.** A shooting affray in the street is as rare as in Liverpool, and one no longer sees men dangling to the lap-posts when one looks out in the morning!” There are shops and hotels and some factories. It’s starting to become a real city.
The biggest draw remains the “camp cure” for those with breathing difficulties. “Asthmatic people are there in such numbers as to warrant the holding of an ‘asthmatic convention’ of patients cured and benefited,” she says.
The city “stands at a height of 5,000 feet, on an enormous plain, and has a most glorious view of the Rocky Range. I should hate to even spend a week there. The sigh of those glories so near and yet out of reach would make me nearly crazy…The number of ‘saloons’ in the streets impresses one, and everywhere one meets the charismatic loafers of a frontier town, who find it hard even for a few days or hours to submit to the restraints of civilization…To Denver men go to spend the savings of months of hard work in the maddest dissipation."
* her description
** Dixon (below), also British, was a travel (and other) writer active about 20 years before Isabella. He also went to the American West and was a member of the Royal Geographic Society. He wrote a bunch of biographies, including one of William Penn, and about a billion other things. Spiritual Wives, his 1868 book, led to him being accused of indecency. In the 1870s, his eldest two children died, he lost his life savings, and his house was destroyed after a boat full of gunpowder exploded on Regent’s Canal. His daughter Ella was also a writer of note, if less colorful and with less expansive facial hair.

Izzy Bird, ships of the grass

Isabella has been invited to eat her mid-day meal with a family in one of the Prairie Schooners. She provided tea, which they’d not had for at least a month.* They provided hominy.

The family has been on the road for three months and had come from Illinois. They expected the rest of the trip to Wet Mountain Valley to take another month. En route, they had lost several oxen and, heartbreakingly, one child.**

“Owing to their long isolation and the monotony of the march, they had lost count of events, and seemed like people of another planet,” Isabella says.

They invite her to travel with them but they are moving too slow for her timetable.

“We parted with mutual expressions of good will, and as their white tilt went ‘hull down’ in the distance on the lonely prairie sea, I felt sadder than I often feel taking leave of old acquaintances. That night they must have been nearly frozen, camping out in the deep snow in the fierce wind. I met afterwards 2,000 lean Texas cattle, herded by three wild-looking men on horseback, followed by two wagons containing women, children, and rifles.*** They had traveled 1,000 miles. Then I saw two prairie wolves, like jackals, with gray fur, cowardly creatures, which fled from me in long leaps.”

Tomorrow: Denver.

* I imagine going for a month without a sip of coffee or bite of chocolate. It makes me so sad that I stop imagining it.

** We forget how fragile childhood was.

*** I want to know this story.

Izzy Bird, unpleasant men

A few days have passed between letters. Isabella is now in Great Platte Canyon.

She warns her sister that the letters will be very dull from here on out. By the time Isabella rides all day, eats supper, looks after Birdie, hears about routes and weather, and collects the “pastoral, agricultural, mining, and hunting gossip of the neighborhood,” there isn’t much time left for writing. Somehow, she has managed to pack quite a bit of intriguing content into this very long letter.*

Before she left Longmount, she met a man who had been a Confederate colonel. She did not care for him. “[He] made a most unfavorable impression upon me, and it was a great annoyance to me when he presented himself on horse-back to guide me ‘over the most intricate part of the journey.’ Solitude is infinitely preferable to uncongeniality,** and is bliss when compared with repulsiveness, so I was thoroughly glad when I got rid of my escort and set out upon the prairie alone."***

She was told to steer south and stay on the beaten track for her ride to Denver, which is “very little settled, and with trails going in all directions.” It was an easy, if dull, ride. There were herds of cattle, then herds of horses, and rolling waves of tall, brown grass.

“Occasionally, I met a horsemen with a rifle lying across his saddle, or a wagon of the ordinary sort, but oftener I saw a wagon with a white tilt, of the kind known as the ‘Prairie Schooner,’ laboring across the grass, or a train of them, accompanied by herds, mules, and horsemen, bearing emigrants and their household goods in dreary exodus from the Western States to the much-vaunted prairies of Colorado.”


* I’ll be breaking it up because reading all of it on social media would be headache-inducing.

** truer words have never been written.

*** she does not explain exactly how she got rid of him, unfortunately. I want to know her ways.

Izzy Bird, on the move

Isabella is in Longmount. Finally.

Her leave-taking didn’t quite go as planned. She intended to head out at 8 a.m. “but the horses were lost.” By the time they were rounded up, it was 9:30. But — and this is important — she is on the trail again.

She is traveling with the musical French-Canadian student from a couple of entries back. She’s riding a bay Indian pony named “Birdie,”* who is “a little beauty, with legs of iron, fast, enduring, gentle, and wise.”

She’s packed up enough clothes for a few weeks but left most of her luggage in Estes Park. She’ll circle back for them after this adventure.

“It was a most glorious ride. We passed through the gates of rock, through gorges where the unsunned snowily deep under the lemon-colored aspens; caught glimpses of far-off, snow-clad giants rising into the sky of deep sad blue; lunched above the Foot Hills at a cabin where two brothers and a ‘hired man’ were ‘keeping bach,’ where everything was so trim, clean, and ornamental that one did not miss a woman.”

Despite some directional problems once the sun set, Isabella and the French Canadian arrived in fine health.


* Birdie will come up a lot so add her to your list of characters.