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Izzy Bird, global events

While Isabella was making her way to Estes Park, a global economic downturn* was doing the same. The two forces met in early October 1873.

Her host has not yet returned from Denver. Two “campers of suspicious aspect” were sent ahead of him. They were followed by Mr Buchan, “one of our usual inmates.” He brought letters for everyone but Isabella, which was sad. The most important thing he delivered, however, was news.

“The financial panic has spread out West, gathering strength on its way. The Denver banks have suspended business. They refuse to cash their own checks, or to allow their customers to draw a dollar; and would not even give the green-backs for my English gold. Neither Mr Buchan not Evans** could get a cent. Business is suspended, and everybody, however rich, is for the time being poor.”

As if that weren’t enough, the indigenous people*** are burning ranches and killing cattle in the area because the white men killed buffalo on the plains and left them to rot. Colorado Springs is full of fugitive settlers who escaped with their lives and little else.

All of this would cause more problems for Isabella further down the road. Right now, however, she’s waiting for her mail and content in her cabin.


* In the U.S., this was referred to as the “Great Depression” until the 1920s when the world went through an even greater depression. The 1873 edition came about, it appears, because railroads expanded too quickly, which led to banks making riskier loans, which led to defaults, which led to the biggest bank closing, which led to a cascade of banks closing. This uncertainty lasted for years — and seriously derailed Reconstruction because it took the federal governments attention off of goals like stopping the rise of the KKK and of ensuring equal access to the voting booth**** Would we be facing massive race-based inequities now if this financial panic hadn’t happened? Hard to say — and I’m sure a couple hundred dissertations have explored the idea. More here:

** her host

*** Isabella doesn’t use the term, mind.

**** for men, mind. Women won’t get the vote until 1920.

Izzy Bird, daily routine

Isabella gives us a glimpse into her day.

“The routine is breakfast at 7, then I go back and ‘do’ my cabin and draw water from the lake, read a little, loaf a little, and return to the cabin and sweep it alternately with Mrs. Dewy, after which she reads aloud till dinner at twelve.”

Then Isabella goes for a ride with Mr Dewy or, sometimes, with Mrs Dewy, who is learning how to ride in the “cavalier” fashion* so that she can go exploring. After supper at six, which must have been a fairly light meal, she settles into the main cabin living room to write letters or mend her clothes, which, she says, are “dropping to pieces.”

The other guests have their own habits. “Some sit round the table playing at eucre, the strange hunters and prospectors lie on the floor smoking, and rifles are cleaned, bullets cast, fishing flies made, fishing tackle repaired, boots are waterproofed, par-songs are sung.” At about 8:30, she heads back to her cabin to wash up for bed.

Unlike her previous lodging across the west, this is not a rough place to be. “Politeness and propriety always prevail in our mixed company, and though various grades of society are represented, true democratic equality prevails, not its counterfeit, and there is neither forwardness on one side nor condescension on the other.”

The biggest challenge is remaining connected to the outside world. Every couple of weeks, Mr Evans rides to Denver to pick up mail, newspapers, and packages. Isabella has heard nothing from her sister in five weeks and is getting impatient. “Wait for the wagon,” she says, “has become a maddening joke.”**

* astride

** let this be another reminder that the postal service is amazing.

Izzy Bird, wildlife

Isabella is recounting her first night in her little cabin for her sister.

“…. I was soon in my hay bed. I was frightened — that is, afraid of being frightened, it was so eerie — but sleep soon got the better of my fears. I was awoke by a heavy breathing,* a noise like someone sawing under the floor, and a pushing and upheaving, all very loud. My candle was all burned, and, in truth, I dare not stir.”

The noise continued for about an hour, then stopped just as quickly as I started. Isabella went back to sleep.

When she woke up, she recounted her story at the breakfast table at the big cabin, and her host “contorted his face dismally.”

“… there was a skunk’s lair under my cabin, and that they dare not make any attempt to dislodge him for fear of rendering the cabin untenable. They have tried to trap him since, but without success, and each night the noisy performance is repeated.”

Judging by what Isabella says next, I get the feeling there aren’t skunks in England? She describes them as if she’d never heard of them.**

“The bravest man in a coward in its neighborhood. Dogs run their noses on the ground until they bleed when they have touched the fluid, and even die of the vomiting produced by the effluvia. The odor can be smelt a mile off. If clothes are touched by the fluid they must be destroyed.”***

The pelts, however, are hot commodities and the trappers take shots at them when they can. One was killed the day before Isabella wrote this letter.

“Plunk, the big dog, touched it and has to be driven into exile. The body was valiantly removed by a man with a long fork, and carried to a running stream, but we are nearly choked with odor from the spot where it fell. I hope that my skunk will enjoy a quiet spirit so long as we are near neighbors.”


* It’s not Jim.

** Bit of trivia: the owners have named this skunk “Mephitis.”

*** I mean… really? Are Rocky Mountain skunks more potent than East Coast skunks?

Izzy Bird, side of beef

Isabella is still describing Estes Park and where she is lodging to her sister.

She goes into great detail about the main cabin but the mental image she creates of her personal cabin, which is a little ways away from the big house, moves me more.

“My door opens into a little room with a stone chimney, and that again into a small room with a hay bed, a chair with a tin basin on it, a shelf and some pegs. A small window looks onto the lake, and the glories of the sunrises which I see from it are indescribable.* Neither of my doors has a lock, and, to say the truth, neither will shut, as the wood has swelled.”

For this room (which sounds perfect, frankly, even though the hay bed would make me sneeze all night), Isabella pays $8 a week. This includes the unlimited use of a horse and meals.

“We breakfast at seven on beef, potatoes, tea, coffee, new bread, and butter. Two pitchers of cream and two of milk are replenished as fast as they are exhausted. Dinner at twelve is a repetition of breakfast, but with the coffee omitted and a gigantic pudding added. Tea at six is a repetition of breakfast.”

It appears that the formal meals end after tea. But guests are encouraged to eat as much milk and bread as they’d like whenever the mood suits them.

Where does the beef come from?**

“The steer which was being killed on my arrival is now being eaten through from head to tail, the meat being hacked off quite promiscuously, without any regard to joints. In this dry, rarefied air, the outside of the flesh blackens and hardens, and though the weather may be hot, the carcass keeps sweet for two or three months.***”

There are other guests and long-term residents who circulate in and around the property. Mountain Jim lives about four miles away but he seems to spend a lot of time at Isabella’s lodge while she is in residence. This is, she says, “a miniature world of great interest, in which love, jealousy, hatred, envy, pride, unselfishness, greed, selfishness, and self-sacrifice can be studied hourly, and there is always the unpleasantly exciting risk of an open quarrel with the neighboring desperado, whose ‘I’ll shoot you!’ has more than once been heard in the cabin.”


* Given how wordy writers of her time are, I’m a little surprised she didn’t spend three or four paragraphs going on about the purple-ness of the Lady Dawn’s first fingers as they reached across the expiring night sky, etc.

** Whichever one of you just said “cows, I think” is now on my list.

*** This would not work nearly as well nearly anywhere with any humidity. Unless, of course, you like your meat with a side of about nine thousand different kinds of bacteria that will kill you. To say nothing of the insects.

Izzy Bird, all the adjectives

Isabella is back in Estes Park and has decided to stay there for a bit. As such, she is trying to explain what “Estes Park” is to her London-adjacent sister.
“The name, with the quiet Midland Countries sound, suggests park palings well lichened, a lodge with curtseying women, fallow deer, and a Queen Anne mansion,” she writes. “Such as it is, Estes Park is mine. It is unsurveyed, no man’s land, and mine by right of love, appropriation, and appreciation; by the seizure of its peerless sunrises and sunsets, its glorious afterglow, its blazing noons, its hurricanes sharp and furious, its wild auroras, its glories of mountain and forest, of canyon, lake, and river*…. Mine, too, are its majesty wapiti, which play and fight under the pines in the early morning…”
She goes on to list nearly every species that can be found in that part of Colorado. They are all majestic. She concludes “… and all the lesser fry of mink, marten, cat, hare, fox, squirrel and chipmunk, as well as things that fly, from the eagle down to the crested blue-jay.”
And there are mountains and meadows and “great rolling prairie.” Streams and ponds and, you know, nature.
“Dismiss all thoughts of the Midland Counties. For park palings, there are mountains…for a lodge, two sentinel peaks of granite guarding the only feasible entrance; and for a Queen Anne mansion, an unchinked log cabin with a vault of sunny blue skies overhead.”
I mean … how quickly can I pack?
* why use one description when you can use 20?

Izzy Bird, purple prose

Isabella, Jim, and the two students are descending Long’s Peak. They hike about 2,000 feet down when the two other men decided to take the faster, steeper route.

Perhaps the two students peeled off because Isabella was slowing them down. “I had various falls,” she says, “and once hung by my frock, which caught on a rock, and Jim severed it with a hunting knife, upon which I fell into a service full of soft snow.”*

It gets more treacherous as they go. Sometimes she goes on hands and knees and “sometimes Jim pulled me up by my arms or a lariat, and sometimes I stood on his shoulders, or he made steps for me of his feet and hands, but at six we stood on the Notch in the splendor of the sinking sun, all color deepening, all peaks glorifying, all shadows purpling, all peril past.”

I mean … this is really about as swoon-y as she gets. And I’m still sort of shocked that she wasn’t concerned about appearances. I guess if it were England, it would be more of a worry? Or if she weren’t already well-past marrying age?

All four of them make it back to where the horses are tethered. They settled in for a night’s rest before tackling the rest of the return trip. Isabella falls asleep quickly with Ring curled up beside her. After a couple of hours, unknown wild animals spoked the horses, a merry chase was on, and Jim had them re-rounded up in a half-hour.

They reached Estes Park by noon the following day.

“A more successful ascent of the Peak was never made, and I would not now exchange my memories of its perfect beauty and extraordinary sublimity for any other experience of mountaineering in any part of the world. Yesterday snow fell on the summit, and it will be inaccessible for eight months to come.”


*Seriously. The rom-com writes itself.

Izzy Bird, some snow

Isabella is being hauled up Long’s Peak by Jim.

“… I should never have gone halfway had not Jim, nolens volens,* dragged me along with patience and skill, and withal a determination I should ascend the Peak, which never failed…slipping, faltering, gasping from the exhausting toil in the rarefied air, with throbbing hearts and panting lungs, we reached the top of the gorge and squeezed ourselves between two gigantic fragments of rock called the ‘Dog’s Lift,’ when I climbed on the shoulders of one man and then was hauled up.”

It gets more harrowing from there, so much so that even Ring, the dog, chose to sit it out. He remained at the Lift and howled piteously. When Isabella and crew finally made it to the top, the view made it all worthwhile.

“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.” The panorama includes Gray’s Peak and Pike’s Peak, “all nearly the height of Mont Blanc.” She concludes that it has well earned the nickname of the “American Matterhorn.”

She also offers up a caveat: “Let no practical mountaineer be allotted by my description into the ascent of Long’s Peak. Truly terrible as it was to me, to a member of the Alpine Club it would not be a feat worth performing.”

They pushed up the last near-vertical bit to the tippy top of the peak, where they didn’t remain long because one of the young men “was seriously alarmed by bleeding from the lungs.” Which is fair.

They placed their names in a tin within a crevice**** and started their descent.


* “whether you like it or not”


*** so I’m thinking there was some snow?

**** I wonder if that tin is still there? Anyone?

Izzy Bird, baggage

Isabella, Jim, and the two young men, after an evening of singing ‘round the fire*, settled in as best they could for the night. In the morning, they’d take on Long’s Peak.
Isabella didn’t sleep well. It was below freezing and the wind was picking up. The rest of the crew got a good rest. Still, she says, “it was exciting to lie there, with no better shelter than a bower of pines, on a mountain 11,000 feet high, in the very heart of the Rocky Range, under 12 degrees of frost, hearing the sounds of wolves, with shivering stars looking through the fragrant canopy, with arrowy pines for bed posts, and for a night lamp the red flames of a camp fire.”
Honestly? This sounds delightful.
After they watched an amazing sunrise,** they had breakfast and hit the trail. It is harrowing, with steep drops and “awful chasms deep with ice and snow.”
Isabella at this point confessed to her sister that the climb was more than her beginner mountaineering skills could match. Had she known what would be required, she would not have attempted it.
“As it is, I am only humiliated by my success, for Jim dragged me up, like a bale of goods, by sheer force of muscle…Two thousand feet of solid rock towered above us, four thousand feet of broken rock shelved precipitously below; smooth granite ribs, with barely a foothold, stood out here and there; melted snow refrozen several times, presented a more serious obstacle; many of the rocks were loose, and tumbled down when touched.”
She wants to return to safety and the younger men said that “a woman was a dangerous encumbrance.***” But Jim said that if Isabella did not make the trek, he would not go at all and the two young men could find their own way.
That, however, is not what happened.
* a Latin student’s song, two Negro melodies, “Sweet Spirit Hear My Prayer,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “The Red, White, and Blue.” Jim recited a “very clever poem of his own composition and told some fearful Indian stories.” I don’t think they made s’mores.
** the phrase "Tyrian purple" was evoked
*** T-shirt slogan?

Izzy Bird, meet Ring

Isabella is just starting her three day ascent of Long’s Peak.

“We rode upwards through the gloom on a steep trail blazed through forest, all my intellect concentrated on avoiding being dragged off my horse by impending branches…. The dense, ancient, silent forest is to me awe inspiring. On such an evening it is countless, except for the branches creaking in the soft wind, the frequent snap of decaying timber, and a murmur in the pine tops as of a not distant waterfall, all tending to produce EERINESS* and a sadness ‘hardly akin to pain.’”

The four of them are reaching the area of the climb where the weather can get weird. A gentlemen who’d attempted the climb just before Isabella arrived camped for a week where she is as he waited out the storms. Eventually, he gave up and came back down. They are hoping for better weather.

Now this crew will camp in the same spot. They’ve unpacked and picketed the horses, made beds of pine branches, and dragged over logs for a fire. She sounds content. “It didn’t matter much that we had to drink our tea out of the battered meat tins in which it was boiled, and eat strips of beef reeking with pine smoke without plates or forks.”

This was the night when Isabella met Ring, Jim’s dog that tags along wherever he goes. Ring has “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.”

Ring is devoted to Jim and obeys his every command.

“In a tone as if speaking to a human being, Jim, pointing at me, said ‘Ring, go to that lady, and don’t leave her again tonight.’ Ring at once came to me, looking 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.”**


*her emphasis

** dogs are so great, you guys.

Izzy Bird, the cut of his jib

Isabella has written an account of ascending Long’s Peak. The trip to three days and she is “much disinclined to write it, especially as no sort of description within my powers could enable another to realize the glorious sublimity, the majestic solitude, and the unspeakable awfulness and fascination of the scenes.”

Long’s Peak, 14,700 feet high, is called the American Matterhorn and had only truly been summited five years previous to Isabella’s arrival. Ever person she’s encountered in Estes Park has told her that it is far too late in the year to even attempt such a thing. And, yet, when Mountain Jim comes in and offers to guide her,* Isabella jumps at the chance. Mrs Edwards** bakes bread to last three days, “steaks were cut from the steer which hangs up conveniently, and tea, sugar, and butter were benevolently added.”

Isabella spends some time discussing Jim’s appearance. He “was a shocking figure; he had on an old pair of high boots, with a baggy pair of old trousers made of deer hide, held on by an old scarf tucked into them;*** a leather shirt, with three or four unbuttoned waistcoats over it; an old smashed wideawake, from under which his tawny, neglected ringlets hung; and with his one eye; 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 hung down…**** … he was as awful-looking a ruffian as one could see.”


(pictured is Rembrandt in his wideawake hat.)

Thus packed and ready, they rode out and up.

“… up a steep pine-clothed hill, down to a small valley, rich in fine, sun-cured hay about 18 inches high, and enclosed by high mountains whose deepest hollow contains a lily-covered lake fitly names ‘The Lake of the Lilies.’ Ah, how magical its beauty was, as it slept in silence, while THRE the dark pines were mirrored motionless in its pale gold, and HERE the great white lily cups and dark green leaved rested on the amethyst-colored water.”


* the two young men who accompanied her to Estes Park also came along so there was no funny business.

** the woman of the house, I think, but not married to Evans? This is confusing.

*** anyone else get a Steven Tyler vibe? Just me, then?

**** she goes on in her description for a bit. It’s like her listing of every type of tree but with describing a dude.