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Izzy Bird, Storm Peak

After the horses are found, Isabella saddles up. They continue trying to find the trail to Estes Park.*

After four fruitless hours, Chalmers goes off in search of the trail he just knows is there. He “returned rejoicing… soon, sure enough, we were on a well-defined old trail, evidently made by carcasses which have been dragged along by hunters. Vainly, I pointed out to him that we were going north-east when we should have gone south-west, and that we were ascending instead of descending.** ‘Oh, it’s all right, and we shall soon come to water,’ he always replied. For two hours we ascended slowly through a thicket of aspen, the cold continually intensifying; but the trail, which had been growing fainter, died out, and an opening showed the opening of Storm Peak not far off and not much above us, though it is 11,000 feet high. I could not help laughing… His wife sat on the ground and cried bitterly.”


So they turn around. Mrs C is thrown from her horse, which is followed by the mule’s girth strap breaking (which flings their supplies everywhere), which is followed by Mrs C’s girth strap breaking, which flung her to the ground again. At the outlet of the trail, they start a fire, have some bacon and bread, and spend two hours searching for water. What they find is a muddle that has been “trodden and defiled by hundred of feet of elk, bears, cats, deer , and other beasts, and containing only a few gallons of water thick as pea soup, with which we watered our animals and made some strong tea.”

Thus fortified, they trudged four hours back to the Chalmers’ cabin.

“Yet, after all,” Isabella sums up, “they were not bad souls; and though he failed so grotesquely, he did his incompetent best.”


* Spoiler: they do not find it.

** Those who grew up in Pittsburgh will recognize this method of navigation.

Izzy Bird, a tall tale

Isabella did not make it to Estes Park that day. Instead, around dusk, they had to struggle up a gulch and emerged cut and bruised, scratched and torn.

“Poor Mrs C was much bruised, and I pitied her, for she got no fun out of it as I did. It was an awful climb. When we got out of the gulch, C was so confused that he took the wrong direction, and after an hour of vague wandering was only recalled to the right one by my pertinacious assertions acting on his weak brain.* I was inclined to be angry with the incompetent braggart, who had boasted that he could take us to Estes Park ‘blindfold;’ but I was sorry for him, too, so said nothing.”

Eventually it gets too dark and they are too tired to go on. They bed down in the open under snow flurries. They do have a fire. Isabella makes a pillow out of her inverted saddle and sleeps soundly.

Despite Isabella suggesting that Chalmers hobble the horses for the evening, he does not do this. When the crew awakens, the horses are “merrily trotting homewards. I saw them miles off an hour ago with him after them. His wife, who is also after them, goaded to desperation, said ‘ He’s the most ignorant, careless, good-for-nothing man I ever saw,’ upon which I dwelt upon his being well-meaning.”

They have no water, by the way, because the canteen lost all its contents when the mule fell.**

And then Isabella made her wildest claim: I have found the stomach of a bear with fully a pint of cherry stones in it, and have spent an hour getting the kernels; and lo! Now, at half-past nine, I see the culprit and his wife coming back with the animals.”

Seriously, Isabella? You ate cherries from the belly of a dead bear? I call BS.


*I can only imagine what this sounded like.

** somewhere in here, the mule fell. I missed it.

Izzy Bird, Bumptious Chalmers

Isabella is on the move. Today’s letter to her sister is titled “Nameless Region, Rocky Mountains, September.” It seems, she says, “farther away from you than any place I have been to yet.”

The scenery is giving Isabella joy. It is “glorious, combining sublimity with beauty, and in the elastic air fatigue has dropped off from me. 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. There 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.

“This is view to which nothing needs to be added,” she says. “It is magnificent, and the air is life giving.”

What isn’t bringing her joy is “the stupidity and pigheadedness of Chalmers.”

First, their saddles are insufficient to their needs, with rotting straps, a broken girth, and too many quilts beneath. The horse carrying their packs should be one they ride; the one Chalmers is riding would be better suited to carrying packs.

Second, after a four hour ride, Chalmers couldn’t find the trail to Estes Park. They know roughly where the town is, mind, but can’t figure out how to get there.

“Chalmers, who had started out confident, bumptious*, blatant, was ever becoming more bewildered, and his wife’s thin voice more piping and discontented, and my stumbling horse more insecure, and I more determined that somehow or other I would reach that blue hollow, and ever stand on Long’s Peak were the snow was glittering. Affairs were becoming serious, and Chalmers’s incompetence a source of real peril …”

Will they make it? Find out tomorrow!


* a word that needs to come back in fashion.

Izzy Bird, Mrs Grundy

Isabella is still in the canyon. She decided to walk down to the cabin of an English physician who settled about a half-mile from the Chalmers’ place.

The Hughes’ place was the polar opposite of the Chalmers’ compound. The Hughes live in a building that resembles a Swiss chalet that is surrounded by a vegetable garden irrigated by a ditch. A young Swiss girl “was bringing the cows slowly home from the hills, an Englishwoman in a clean print dress stood by the fence holding a baby, and a fine-looking Englishman in a striped Garibaldi shirt,* and trousers of the same tucked into his high boots, was shelling corn.”

Isabella and Mrs Chalmers are invited in. “Inside, though plain and poor, the room looked like a home, not like a squatter’s cabin…It was an oasis.”

Mrs C heads home after an hour and a half. Isabella stays to talk. “We launched upon a sea of congenial talk. They said they had not seen an educated lady for two years, and pressed me to go and visit them.” When Isabella returns to the dark, cold Chalmers cabin, she is told that Mrs C had gone back to tell everyone there that “Those English talked just like savages. I couldn’t understand a word they’d said.”

After dinner, Chalmers came to visit Isabella to ask her about something the family wondered. Mrs C overhead Isabella and Dr Hughes discussing a “Mrs Grundy.”** Chalmers wanted to make sure he met her if she was living in the area — or if a woman he already knew had two names. “I longed to tell Chalmers that is was he and such as he, there or anywhere, with narrow hearts, bitter tongues, and harsh judgements, who were the true ‘Mrs Grundys,’ dwarfing individuality, checking lawful freedom of speech, and making men ‘offenders for a word,’ but I forebore. How I extricated myself from the difficulty, deponent sayth not.”

Tomorrow: Isabella is finally on the move.


* Ritratto di Giuseppe Garibaldi by lega 1861

** my first introduction the Mrs Grundy was in a Heinlein book when I was a kid - so the reference survived into the 1960-70s, at least.**

** which is when the Heinlein was written, not when I read it.

Izzy Bird, hard, greedy life

Isabella takes a minute in this letter to describe her hosts. She is still in “canyon,” waiting for a guide to get her to Estes Park.*

Mr Chalmers came to Colorado from Illinois nine years previous. He nearly dead from consumption but the clear air perked him right up. He is operates a lumber mill and “tall, gaunt, lean, and ragged, and has lost one eye. On an English road, one would this him a starving or dangerous beggar. He is slightly intelligent, very opinionated, and wished to be thought well informed, which he is not.”

The family belongs to the strait-laced Reformed Presbyterians, a “narrow and unattractive religion, which I believe still to be genuine, and an intense but narrow patriotism, are the only higher influences” on his life. Which sounds pretty darned familiar in America, 120+ years on.

Of Mrs C, the is less flattering. Isabella tells her sister that Mrs C “looks like one of the English poor women of our childhood — lean, clean, toothless, and speaks, like some of them, in a piping disconnected voice, which seems to convey a personal reproach.”**

The family includes a grown-up son who works in the mill with the father; a “girl of 16, a sour, repellent-looking creature with as much manners as a pig; and three hard, un-child-like younger children.”** Some of that hardness, she reckons, is because of the poverty. But she also puts her finger on something that has been a feature of American life since its inception. It’s this “hard greed, and the exclusive pursuit of gain, with the indifference to all that does not aid in its acquisition, are eating up family love and life throughout the West.”

Which is easier to say when you come from a relatively well-off English family but, still. She’s hit a nerve.

“You will now have some idea of my surroundings,” Isabella writes. “It is a moral, hard, unloving, unlovely, unrelieved, unbeautified, grinding life. These people live in a discomfort and lack of ease and refinement which seems only possible to people of British stock.”**


* She will get there, I promise, and it is glorious. But we are still in the slack time.

** It isn’t, of course, like this everywhere.

Izzy Bird, impressing her hosts

Isabella is still waiting for the stars to align so that she can make the trip to Estes Park. It looks like it will happen the next day.*

She is staying with the Chalmers family and trying to make herself agreeable. It doesn’t go well. She offers to help with the washing up — but Mrs C, with a look which conveyed more than words, a curl of her nose, and a sneer in her twang, said ‘guess you’ll make more work nor you’ll do. Those hands of yours’ (very coarse and brown they were) ‘ain’t no good; never done nothing, I guess.’” This is, Isabella notes, the only time she’s seen Mrs C almost laugh.

Isabella has risen in their estimation, if only a little, by improvising an oil lamp with some kitchen fat and a scrap of fabric. So there’s that.

“Another advance was made by means of the shell-pattern quilt** I am knitting for you. There has been a tendency towards approving of it, and a few days since the girl snatched it out of my hand, saying, ‘I want this,’ and apparently took it to the camp. This has resulted in my having a knitting class, with the woman, her married daughter, and a woman from the camp, as pupils.”

Which just goes to show the power that knitting holds.

She impressed the men in camp by catching and saddling a horse. Would that these were the only two skills one needed in life to win friends and influence people.

* spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

** I know what you’re thinking. I’m pretty sure she’s using “quilt” to describe size, not sewing.

Izzy Bird, so many sneks

During her breaks from knitting, Isabella has been enjoying wildlife encounters.
“I killed a rattlesnake this morning close to the cabin, and have taken its rattle, which has 11 joints. My life is embittered by the abundance of these reptiles — rattlesnakes and moccasin snakes, both deadly, carpet snakes and ‘green racers,’ reputed dangerous, water snakes, tree snakes, and mouse snakes, harmless but abominable. Seven rattlesnakes have been killed just outside the cabin since I came. A snake, three feet long, was coiled under the pillow of the sick woman. I see snakes in all withered twigs, and am ready to flee at ‘the sound of a shaken leaf.’ And beside snakes, the earth and air are alive and noisy with forms of insect life, large and small, stinging, humming, buzzing, striking, rasping, devouring!”
Like I said, she really should work for the tourism board.
The Territory* is hopping with tourist anyway because the air there is highly recommended for “consumptives, asthmatics, dyspeptics, and sufferers from nervous diseases” who are there in the hundreds. Isabella points out all of the place’s perks, like being able to sleep outside for six months out of the year, nearly constant sunlight, and dry air. Lots of those who come for a cure wind up staying.
Isabella herself isn’t feeling well and is suffering from a “singular lassitude and difficulty in taking exercise, but this is said to be the milder form of the affliction known on higher altitudes as soroche, or ‘mountain sickness,’ and is only temporary.”
Or it could be the malaise that comes from being surrounded by snakes. I’m just saying.
* Because I am a Yankee not well versed in the history of Colorado,** I didn’t realize it wasn’t yet a state in 1873, when Isabella was there.
** I can tell you a bunch about Texas, tho, because you can’t escape UT Austin without having at least one class in the state's history

Izzy Bird, a DISCOVERY

Isabella is having an experience that mirrors the current day as she waits to continue her adventure.
“Five days here, and I am no nearer Estes Park. How the days pass I know not; I am weary of the limitations of this existence. This is ‘a life in which nothing happens.’”
SAME, Isabella. Same.*
Here is where I made a fascinating discovery: she is a knitter.
“When the buggy disappeared, I felt as if I had cut the bridge behind me. I sat down and knitted for some time — my usual resource under discouraging circumstances. I really did not know how I would get on. There was no table, no bed, no basin, no towel, no glass, no window, no fastening on the door. The roof was in holes, the logs were unchanged, and one end of the cabin.was partially removed. Life was reduced to its simplest elements.”
But, let me stress again: she has her knitting, which helps, if I can badly misquote Elizabeth Zimmermann: soothes the unsettled mind and is pretty good for the settled mind, too.**
After five days, Isabella has rolled up her sleeves and made herself useful because the family needs the help with basic chores and, frankly, there’s nothing else to do. She’s also taken to sleeping like the family does: outside on a bag of straw. There are no bugs, apparently, and even though the weather is cold, it is tolerable.
In the morning, she draws water from the well, washes herself and her clothes — a calf recently sucked on of her garments into “a hopeless rag” — and spends the rest of the day “mending, knitting, writing tp [her sister], and the various odds and ends which arise when on has to do all for oneself.”
Oh - and “a distressed emigrant woman has just given birth to a child in a temporary shanty by the river, and I go to help her each day.”
* only it feels like everything is happening while nothing happens.
** I have zero doubt someone will correct me***
*** I am also now obsessed with finding out if there is any other evidence of her knitting. Are there Isabella Bird scholars out there?

Izzy Bird, the slack time

Isabella is entering one of the slack periods of her trip. Her ultimate goal on this leg is Estes Park — but it seems to be impossible to get there from where she is. And where she is is a place she’s simply calling “Canyon.”
In her impatience to just get moving, she hitches a buggy ride with a “profoundly melancholy young man. We met nobody, saw nothing except antelope in the distance, and he became more melancholy and lost his way.” They meander around until he finds an old trail that takes them to a fertile “bottom.*” Here there are a few houses, two of which had been recommended to Isabella as the sort that will take on strangers. One of those is full of “reapers,** and in the other a child was dead.” They press on and drive over the boundless prairie. It is like “being at sea without a compass.”
“The driver thought he had understood the directions given, but he was stupid, and once again we were brought up by an impassable canyon. He grew frightened about his horses, and said no money would ever tempt him into the mountains again; but average intelligence would have made it all easy.” After nine hours, they finally find a settlement where Isabella finds a room of the “rudest kind, with a wall at one end partially broken down, holes in the roof, holes for windows, and no furniture but two chairs and two unplaned wooden shelves, with some stacks of straw on them for beds.” A hard, sad-looking woman offers Isabella a room for $5 a week, should she choose to wait there in hopes of someone passing through who was going to Estes Park.
“Here the life was rough, rougher than any I had ever seen, and the people repelled me by their faces and manners; but if I could rough it for a few days, I might, I thought, get over canyons and all other difficulties into Estes Park, which has become the goal of my journey and hopes. So I decided to remain.”
* ahem.
** I keep reading “reapers” and “reavers,” like in Firefly. Same in spirit, really.
Izzy estes park?
The circled bit in the photo is where she last was; the arrow is where she is going. Not sure exactly where she is.

Izzy Bird, election day

Isabella has arrived in Greeley, Colorado. Or, as it was known then, the Greeley Temperance Colony. More info:

This was 1873, remember, well before the U.S. tried its hand at banning drink entirely. With, one must observe, completely anticipated results. Isabella is pro-temperance, by the way, and will only lean into the movement more as time passes.

Greeley was founded by “emigrants from the East*, all totally abstainers, and holding advanced political opinions.” They bought and fenced 50,000 acres of land complete with an irrigation canal. The population is 3,000 and are the “most prosperous and rising colony in Colorado, being altogether free of laziness and crime.”**

The men of Greeley recently sacked three houses near their enclave that were selling the demon drink and smashed the whisky barrels. Which I’m sure makes them super popular on the frontier.

Still, it is not the perfect town. Dinner at her rooming house involved mostly grease and black flies. The kitchen is the only sitting room — given that there are no bars to hang out in — and she goes to bed early, where she strikes a light and finds “such swarms of bugs that I gathered myself up on the wooden chairs, and dozed uneasily till sunrise.”

The next morning, she lights out for Fort Collins, following the course of the river Cache-a-la-Poudre. The views are lovely.

More importantly, it is election day in the territory and men*** are galloping all over the prairie so that they can register their votes. “They spoke openly and shamelessly of the prices given for votes; and apparently was not a politician on either side who was not accused of degrading corruption.”

She does not note, however, who wins this particular contest.


* I’m assuming she means the U.S. East Coast, not Asia.

** I mean. Sure. We can go with that, even though it seems highly unlikely.

*** and, yes, just men.