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Izzy Bird, hospitality

Isabella describes her current lodgings to Henrietta. Remember, her host is Griffin Evans, a Welshman from the slate quarries near Llanberis.

After meeting Mountain Jim, Isabella and her guides descended into Estes Park. She was hungry and cold and wondering if they would be finding rough shelter for the night before continuing on. Then they “came suddenly upon a small lake, close to which was a very trim-looking log cabin, with a flat mud roof, with four smaller ones;* picturesquely dotted about near it, two corrals,** a long, shed, in front of which a steer was being killed, a log dairy*** with a water wheel, some hay piles, and various evidences of comfort.****”

Evans runs up to Isabella to greet her, not because he expected her but because, in her riding costume from afar, he thought she was Mountain Jim. Which I offer again as a demonstration of how crazy the idea of a woman riding astride was.

Isabella entered the main cabin to see a “rough fireplace, in which pine logs, half as large as I am, were burning; a boarded floor, a round table, two rocking chairs, a carpet-covered backwoods couch; and skins, Indian bows and arrows, wampum belts, and antlers, fitly decorated the rough walls, and equally fitly, rifles were stuck up in the corners.”

She wonders how Evans will find room for her because there are seven men, smoking, lying about on the floor, a sick man on the couch, and a middle-aged lady writing at the table. Evans, however, has a plan. There is a small cabin not two minutes walk from the main one that is empty. “So in this glorious upper world, sigh god mountain pines behind and the clear lake in front, in the ‘blue hollow at the foot of Long’s Peak,’ at a height of 7,500 feet, where the hoar frost crisps the grass every night of the year, I have found more than I dared hope for.”


* cabins, that is. Not roofs.

** In a footnote, she explains that the word “corral” is lifted from Spanish like the words bronco and ranch. I find it interesting that this wasn’t a thing someone back in Britain would know.

*** no idea what that is.

**** should I ever travel again, I shall refer to every hotel as having “various evidences of comfort,” even if they fail to kill a steer for me.

Izzy Bird, Mountain Jim

Isabella is about to meet the man long rumored to be her first true love.
As she rode into Estes Park, she spied a pretty mare and a collie dog, who barked at them. Then she saw a rude, black log cabin, described as the “den” of a notorious “ruffian” and “desperado.”* As she moved closer, she noticed “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 of many animals, lay about the den.**”
This is the home of Mountain Jim, who swaggered out to meet the. His is about 45 and was once handsome, she says. She describes his well-marked eyebrows, his aquiline nose, his tawny hair in uncared for curls that fell from under his cap. He’s a snack, in other words. Except.
“One eye was entirely gone, and the loss made one side of the face repulsive while the tore might have been modeled in marble,” she says.
He explains the loss of his eye — a grizzly bear was involved — and gives her a pair of beavers’ paws that she admired. He, too, is British by birth and looks forward to calling on a countrywoman as time permits.
He’s well known in these parts and “the fame of his many daring exploits is sullied by crimes which are not easily forgiven here…of his genius and chivalry to women, there does not appear to be any doubt; but he is a desperate character, and is subject to ‘ugly fits’ when people think it best to avoid him.”
Or, as her host says, “‘When he’s sober, Jim’s a perfect gentleman; but when he’s had liquor he’s the most awful ruffian in Colorado.”***
* It really begins like any good romance should.
** I mean, I’m not saying she should build a summer home here but the trees are actually quite lovely.
*** In fact, Jim would meet his end nine months after meeting Isabella. He was shot in a fight and never recovered from the wound.

Izzy Bird, spring in her step

Isabella’s ride to Estes Park was all she could have hoped for — and seems to have made the past few weeks of not making it to Estes Park worth the irritation.*

“…the horse in gait and temper turned out to be perfection — all spring and spirit, elastic in his motion, walking fast and easily, and cantering with a light, graceful swing as soon as one pressed the reigns on his neck, a blithe, joyous animal, to whom a day among the mountains seemed a pleasant frolic… I should have ridden him a hundred miles as easily as 30.”

Not only does she have a good horse, she is ridding through some delicious country.

“A tremendous ascent among rocks and pines to a height of 9,000 feet brought us to a passage seven feet wide through a wall of rock, with an abrupt descent of 2,000 feet, and yet higher ascent beyond. I never saw anything so strange as looking back. It was a single gigantic ridge which we had passed through, standing up knife-like, built up entirely of great brick-shaped masses of red rock, some of them as large as the Royal Institution, Edinburgh, piled one on another by Titans.”

And, of course, there was wildlife.

“Here, in the early morning, deer, bighorn, and the stately elk, come down to feed, and there, in the night prowl and growl the Rocky Mountain lion, the grizzly bear, and the cowardly wolf. There were chasms of immense depth, dark with indigo gloom of pines, and mountains with snow gleaming on their splintered crests, loveliness to bewilder and grandeur to awe, and still streams and shady pools, and cool depths of shadow; mountains again, dense with pines, among which patches of aspens gleamed like gold…”

I mean. Come on. I’m ready to pack up right now.


* Here is where Isabella and I differ: I’d still be a little grumpy about the whole thing.

Izzy Bird, a memory and a loss

This is only a little bit about Isabella. It is a lot about loss.

Yesterday, on the 75th anniversary* of the bombing of Hiroshima, I spent some time going through my photos of the morning I spent there. The entire trip to Japan was a trip of a lifetime, mind, and I hope to be lucky enough to go again and retrace Ms Bird's footsteps into Hokkaido, but Hiroshima was something else entirely. I am certain that you can't go there and not be changed.


Our approach to the city from the Inland Sea.


From a first-person narrative collected in the museum.


Folded cranes in honor of Sadako Suzaki, who was two at the time of the bombing but would die ten years on from radiation poisoning. 


The only structure left standing for miles in any direction. This river was full of bodies. 


It was right about here that I had to have a bit of a sit-down and just cry. Our tour guide was telling us stories of parents trying to find their kids and vice-versa. And I couldn't help but imagine what that must have felt like, especially since my kids were half a world away at the time. And while this kind of sentiment is not my default setting, the land here remembers and wants us to remember, too.

A little Tai Chi on the riverbank.


Even as somber as the place is, people are still people. There is lightness and silliness always -- and there are always Japanese teens who make this exact gesture in every single picture I took.

I was going to close yesterday's post about Hiroshima with something profound, I'm sure. Or, at least, something about how I hoped to get there again and live out my Isabella Bird fantasies. I never got around to writing it, though. No good reason. It was one of those days where other projects to priority and then it was bedtime. 

When I woke up this morning, I learned that J. Scott Van Der Meid had died. We went to college together. When my Scott and I got married, J. Scott was a groomsman. We hadn't seen in each in person for years -- life is like that sometimes -- but we remained connected by those invisible threads that develop in some relationships. You stay connected in ways you wouldn't imagine. For example, one of the lecturers on the Japan trip was one of J. Scott's friends from Brandeis and we all had a good laugh about the smallness of the world.

J. Scott and I planned to meet up during my Japan trip last May -- coincidently, he was there to visit his husband's family** and do some work for Brandeis -- but we couldn't figure out how to wind up in the same city at the same time. Japan was like a second home to him and I'd already mentioned that I wanted him to be the Ito to my Isabella, if only virtually, because two grown adults, one of whom who has a real 9-to-5 job,*** cannot get months off to wander around together but can definitely text. 

There's just never enough time, you know?

Here's where I should write the profound thing that sums this all up. I've got nothing. Only this: tell the people in your life who are connected by those threads how much you appreciate them, even if you haven't seen each other in forever. Do it today. There is only now.


* "anniversary" makes it sound celebratory, which is not my intention.

** one of my favorite J. Scott stories involved his then-boyfriend-now-spouse and a penis festival, which is a thing in Japan. 

*** him, not me.

Izzy Bird, at last

Isabella is in Estes Park - or as she puts it in the letter to her sister “ESTES PARK!!!”
Those three exclamation points are important. “They mean everything that is rapturous and delightful — grandeur, cheerfulness, health, enjoyment, novelty, freedom…I have just dropped into the very place I have been seeking, but it everything it exceeds all my dreams.”*
She’s living in a log cabin, which is raised on six posts, and has a skunk’s nest** underneath it. It’s near a small lake and there is frost every night. The ranch is owned by a Welsh couple,*** “who laugh with loud, cheery British laughs, sing in parts down to the youngest child, are free hearted and hospitable, and pile the pitch-pine logs half-way up the great rude chimney.”
The food is delightful. Her bed has fresh straw in six bug-free blankets. But best of all is the view. “The scenery is the most glorious I have ever seen, and is above us, around us, at the very door.”
Before she learned about Estes Park, locals tried to convince Isabella she should head to Colorado Springs because Estes Park would be too hard to access**** and that the season was over. But, she says, “In traveling there is nothing like dissecting people’s statements, which are usually colored by their estimate of the powers or likings of the person spoken to, making all reasonable inquiries, and then pertinaciously***** but quietly carrying out one’s own plans. This is perfection, and all the requisites for health are present, including plenty or horses and grass to ride on.”
Speaking of horses, tomorrow will be all about them.
* For the record: I don’t know that I have ever been as excited about anything ever.
** seems sub-ideal to me but the heart loves what it loves
*** from Llanberis, which is probably pronounced “York” or something.
**** I mean… it kinda was.
***** “holding firmly to an opinion or a course of action"

Izzy Bird, a step back

Isabella has given up on ever making to Estes Park. Dr. H packed up the wagon and they are traveling to Longmount, from which she’ll find a ride to Denver, then New York City, then home.*

The weather during the trip to Longmount isn’t helping her mood. “Instead of the delicious atmosphere of yesterday, I found intolerable suffocating heat, a BLAZING (not BRILLIANT**) sun, and a sirocco like a Victorian hot wind.” Both she and the good doctor are feeling poorly, but trudge on regardless.

Longmount is also known as the “‘Chicago Colony,’*** and it is said to be prospering, after some preliminary land swindles. It is as uninviting as Fort Collins. We first came upon duct-colored Frame houses set down at intervals on the dusty buff plain, each with its dusty wheat or barley field adjacent, the crop, not the product of the rains of heaven, but of the muddy overflow of ‘Irrigation Ditch No. 2.’”

She and Dr. H check-in to the St. Vrain Hotel,**** which is named after the St. Vrain River, without which none of this would be possible. The hotel is full of black flies but has tea, which is a great treat because Isabella has been without it for two weeks. She talks with the landlord, “a jovial, kindly man,” about her failed Estes Park plan.

“Estes Park and its surroundings are, he says, ‘the most beautiful scenery in Colorado,’ and ‘it’s a real shame,’ he added, ‘for you not to see it.’”

A couple of hours later, he’s found a hired horse for Isabella and two young men who plan to go up the next morning. Isabella’s hopes aren’t high but agrees to give it a whirl.

What continues to amaze me is how all of these arrangements feel contrary to what I know of women’s life at that time. The idea that an unmarried woman would travel alone with men who are strangers to her in the 1870s is hard for me to wrap my head around. Was it okay because she was middle-aged? British? It was the West?

* If this is what actually occurred, this would be a short book.

** emphasis hers.


**** (in separate rooms!)

Izzy Bird, smartness

Isabella is staying at the Hughes’ house, at the moment. This is, of course, before Mrs H died, etc. Our Isabella has some observations about life in the Colorado territory.

“One of the most painful things… is the extinction of childhood. I have never seen any children, only debased imitations of men and women, cankered by greed and selfishness, and asserting and gaining complete independence of their parents at 10 years old. The atmosphere in which they are brought up is one of greed, godlessness, and frequently profanity. Consequently these sweet things seem like flowers in a desert.

“Except for love, which here as everywhere raises life into the ideal, this is a wretched existence. The poor crops have been destroyed by grasshoppers over and over again, and that talent defiled here under the name of ‘smartness’ has taken advantage of Dr. H in all bargains, leaving him with little except food for his children.”

After a lengthy description of all of the work they all do — the three women (Mrs H, the Swiss girl, and Isabella) patch clothes and make shirts while Dr. H reads Tennyson to them or they are baking and cleaning and canning — Isabella goes on about ‘smartness.’

“This is not Arcadia. ‘smartness,’ which consists of over-reaching your neighbor in every fashion which is not illegal, is the quality which is held in the greatest repute and Mammon is the divinity. From a generation brought up to worship the one and admire the other little can be hoped.”

Ouch, Isabella. And just wait until she finds out who the president currently is….*


* Yes, I know. She’s very much dead. But can you imagine her response?

Izzy Bird, the Hughes family

Isabella is back in the lower canyon and still at the Chalmers. She has a cautionary tale to offer about the Hughes family, who we met earlier.

The story “indicates who should NOT come to Colorado.” Hughes is the son of a successful physician in London and he was a partner in a thriving practice in “the second city*” in England. He started to show symptoms of pulmonary disease, someone mentioned Colorado to him, and he fell in love with the idea of “being able to found or reform society on advanced social theories of his own.”

Mrs H is “charming and lovable… Both are fitted to shine in any society but neither has the slightest knowledge of domestic and farming details. They arrived at Longmount, bought this claim, rather for the beauty of the scenery than for any substantial advantages, were cheated in land, goods, oxen, everything…everything has failed with them, and they they ‘rise early, and late take rest, and eat the bread of carefulness,’** they hardly keep their heads above water.

“A young Swiss girl, devoted to them both, works as hard as they do. It is the hardest, least ideal struggle that I have ever seen made by educated people.”

There are six in the family and the children, Isabella says, are delightful. But the hard work is wearing on them all. “They consider their mother in all things, going without butter when they think the stock is too low, bringing in wood and water too heavy for them to carry, anxiously speculating on the winter prospect and the crops, yet withal the most childlike an innocent of children.”

Isabella kept up with the family after she left Colorado. Mrs H died a few days after giving birth, leaving her husband with five kids under the age of six, which makes me tired to just think about. Dr. H gave up on the county and moved to “one of the sunniest islands in the Pacific, with the devoted Swiss friend as his second wife.”***


* Pretty sure this is Birmingham, where the air was so thick at this point in time, you could chew it.

** not sure what she’s quoting. Anyone?

*** I know.