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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.

Izzy Bird, baching it

Evans has offered Isabella $6 a week if she will stay into the winter and cook because Mrs. Edwards* will hightail it to the city soon.
It creates a quandary — but it’s hard to tell how serious of one. Isabella thinks it could be a lark to stay on but would prefer to ride after cattle than to be chained to the kitchen. “I think I should like playing at being a ‘hired girl,’” she says, “if it were not for the bread-making!”
The men in camp don’t care for “‘baching,’** as they call it in the wilds — i.e. ‘doing for themselves.’ They washed and ironed their clothes yesterday, and there was an incongruity about the last performance.”
Isabella does believe that she’ll leave tomorrow, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The weather is moderate and the snow has evaporated, as it does in such a dry place. Reports suggest the trail passable. Odds are good she’ll make it out of Estes Park at sunrise.
* current cook
** my mom used this term, too.

Izzy Bird, the snow falls

Isabella is still in Estes Park. This time, she is not being detained by cattle but by a three-day long snow event.

“I never spent a more fearful night than two nights ago, alone in my cabin in the storm, with the roof lifting, the mud cracking and coming off, and the fine snow hissing through the chinks between the logs, while splittings and breakings of dead branches, wind wrung and snow laden, went on incessantly, with screeching, howlings, thunder and lightning, and many unfamiliar sounds besides.”*

Overnight, another foot of snow fell, which blocks her in her cabin. She goes to sleep with six blankets and a heavy sheet over her face, only to be woken up in the middle of the night “by the cabin being shifted from underneath by the wind, and the sheet frozen to my lips…Getting up to investigate matters, I found the floor some inches deep in parts with fine snow, and a gust of needle-like snow stung my face. The bucket of water was solid ice.”

At sunrise, some of the men come to see if she’s alive and, if so, to dig a path from her cabin to the main house. The main house has a drift on one side that reaches the roof and snow is blowing in through the gaps in the logs so quickly that one of the men is shoveling it.

On her way back to her cabin, the wind lifts her off of her feet and deposits her in a drift, scattering her writing book, some letters, and a photograph. Only the book is later found.

Regardless, “nature is grand under this new aspect.”

* Confession: I love snowstorms like this, if only because they give me a reason to cocoon inside. However, I have a well-insulated house and highly efficient heating so …

many things make a post

Izzy Bird, still in Estes Park

Isabella is still in Estes Park and helping her host drive cattle.

“Two thousand head of half-wild Texas cattle are scattered in herds throughout the canyons,* living on more or less suspicious terms with grizzly and brown bears, mountain lions, elk, mountain sheep, spotted deer, wolves, lynxes, wild cats, beavers, minks, skunks, chipmunks,** eagles, rattlesnakes, and all the other two-legged, four-legged, vertebrate, and invertebrate inhabitants of this lonely and romantic region.”

They are driving the cattle out of the canyons, where snowfall can trap the herds and lead to starvation. Once in Estes Park to overwinter, the calves will be branded.

“Some ‘necessary’ cruelty is involved in the stockman’s business, however humane he may be,” she observes. “The system is one of terrorism, and from time to time that the calf is bullied into the branding pen, and the hot iron burns his shrinking flesh, to the day when the fatted ox is driven down from the endless pastures to be slaughtered in Chicago, ‘the fear and dread of man’ are upon him.”

Isabella takes great joy in the intensity of the round-up. In another life, maybe, she would have performed in a wild west show or been a cowboy. This is her happy place.

She approves, by the way, of the manner in which American’s treat their livestock.

“There were no stock whips, no needless worrying of the animals in the excitement of sport. Any dog seizing a bullock by his tail or heels would have been called off and punished, and quietness and gentleness were the rule. The horses were ridden without whips, and with spurs so blunt they could not hurt even a human skin, and were ruled by voice and a slight pressure on the light snaffle bridle…I never saw a horse BULLIED into submission in the United States.”

* the canyon is at 7,500 feet, with mountains surrounding that are 11,000 to 15,000 feet.
** I’m thinking chipmunks are less of a threat than the bears but am not a cattle rancher.