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Izzy Bird, winter's faint melancholy

Isabella is still in the cabin in Estes Park. A passing trapper brought the news to her that Jim is unwell.

“… after washing up the things after our late breakfast, I rode to his cabin, but I met him in the gulch coming down to see us. He said he had caught cold on the Range, and was suffering from and old arrow wound in the lung.* We had a long conversation without adverting to the former one, and he told me some of the present circumstances of his ruined life.”

The short version is that she feels empathy for this ruined man who lives with a dog that many people like better than him. And she knows what is to blame: liquor.

“I urged him to give up whisky which at present is his ruin, and his answer had the ring of a sad truth in it: ‘I cannot, it binds me hand and foot — I cannot give up the only pleasure I have.’”

The view as she rides down back down the gulch is spectacular and more grand than she has ever before seen. It inspires her to question how she will ever leave such an amazing place. “We are going on the principle, ‘Let us eat and drink, fo tomorrow we die,’ and the stores are melting away. The two meals are not an economical plan, for we are so much more hungry that we eat more than when we had three. The ‘faint melancholy’ of this winter loneliness is very fascinating.”


* like one does

Izzy Bird, pickled pork

Isabella is still in the cabin in Estes Park.

She and the young men were happy to have finished up the pickled pork last night because they had grown weary of it but are now without meat. Fortunately, the young men shot an elk the previous day. Unfortunately, they intended to keep it intact to sell in Denver. Fortunately, they gave up on that plan and Isabella awoke to the smell of venison.

Supplies are running low. “… there is only coffee for one week,* and I have only a scanty three ounces of tea left. The baking powder is nearly at an end.” They are economizing by breakfasting late and having two meals rather than three. They hope Evans comes soon with a resupply.

Still, the mood is light. “Our evenings are social and pleasant. We finish supper about eight, and make up a huge fire. The men smoke while I write to you. Then we draw near the fire and I take my endless mending, and we talk or read aloud.” They also discuss their present circumstance re: supplies and sick calves and “the possible intentions of a men whose footprints we have found and traced for three miles.” These are all topics that recur, she says, “and few of which can be worn threadbare.”


* this, my friends, would be my limiting factor.

Happy Thanksgiving

No new Isabella Bird installments today and tomorrow. My brain has left the building.
But! I do want to share this story from my personal past as we head into this weird Thanksgiving.
Here's what you need to know before I tell you about our first Thanksgiving in Texas, which would have been in 1993. We were fresh out of college in PA and had lived in Austin for just a couple of months. I was working for a knock-off Crate and Barrel wannabee; Scott was in grad school at UT.
My previous Thanksgivings revolved around working. In high school, I worked at the Waldenbooks at the mall. In college, I stayed on campus because we annually loaded in Nutcracker on Friday. (Related: Nutcracker (and A Christmas Carol) are two shows I need never see again.) A faculty member would invite us over to their place for the holiday each year.
So for most of my life, someone else dealt with cooking and my only job was to show up. Which is likely how it is for most people in their early 20s. It's how we expected that first Austin Thanksgiving to go. We were waaaaaay too broke to travel back east and planned to go to a distant relative's place for the meal.
Only that was the year that Austin had an out-of-character ice storm, one that turned the entire city into a skating rink. Texans, btw, can't drive in rain. You don't want to see the chaos that happens with winter precipitation. I think they were fishing cars out of the Colorado River (aka Town Lake) for a few years after.
Sensibly, we canceled our plans and had just enough time to scoot out to the Fiesta for a turkey and whatever fixins we could find, which included homemade tortillas because of course.
"The only turkey we could find" was easily 20 pounds and still frozen solid. We spent most of the holiday watching football and news footage of the aforementioned car-related shenanigans. Oh - and routinely refilling the tub with warm water because the turkey was too large to fit into our kitchen sink because our apartment was sized for hobbits. If memory serves, a hairdryer might also have been involved but I could be making that up.
We finally got the bird thawed enough to stick in the oven (and we had to bend its limbs nearly backward to get it to fit in our wee oven) by 8 p.m. and ate it in the wee hours. I can't imagine it was tasty but do remember that it was lunch and dinner for a week or two.
Clearly, I also remember it as a time when we had to bend what we expected from a holiday and learned how to make do and embraced the challenge with the best attitude we could muster. Which isn't to say that there wasn't a moment or two when I wept and cursed thermodynamics because I was starving and had no holiday meal. But I also knew that as far as big deals go, this wasn't one. Plus, we had tortillas and had splurged on Shiner Bock.
Over the intervening years, our cooking skills have greatly improved. We're also the ones who can now invite stranded students over for the big meal and load 'em up with leftovers. Such is the great circle of life. And this weird time we're in will cycle out soon enough.
Stay well out there, y'all. Happy Thanksgiving.

Izzy Bird, hazy shade of winter

Isabella is still in the cabin in Estes Park. The bleakness of late November is starting to get to her.*

“This is a piteous day, quite black, freezing hard, with a fierce north-east wind. The absence of sunshine here, where it is nearly perpetual, has a very depressing effect, and all the scenery appears in its grimness of black and gray.”

Three of the horses, including Birdie, leapt the fence the previous night and they have no way to round them up. The two men were out looking for them and saw Jim returning to his cabin. He had “an awfully ugly fit on him” and they chose to avoid making their presence known. The two men are also weary of Estes Park, given that they promised to look after the place for five days until Evans returned. It has been five weeks.

“… in the grimness of a coming storm, Had that view of the park which I saw first in the glories of an autumn sunset. Life was all dead; the dragon-flies no longer darted in the sunshine, the cotton-woods had shed their last amber leaves, the crimson trailers of the wild vines were bare … How can you expect me to write letters from such a place, from a life ‘in which nothing happens?’”

Spoiler: Isabella finds a way to keep writing.


* Isabella is all of us, right now.

Izzy Bird, beaver dams

Isabella is still in the cabin in Estes Park. Jim just showed up on her doorstep.
He “walked in very pale and haggard looking, and coughing severely. He offered to show me the trail up one of the grandest of the canyons and I could not refuse to go.”
The pair rode along and Isabella admired the work of the local beavers, whose “engineering skill is wonderful.”* The canyon, she says, “was glorious beyond any other, but it was a dismal and depressing ride. The dead past buried its dead….Not an allusion was made to the conversation previously. Jim’s manner was courteous, but freezing, and when I left home on my return he hardly thought he should be back from the Snowy Range before I left. Essentially an actor, was he, I wonder, posing on the previous day in the attitude of desperate remorse, to impose on my credulity or frighten me; or was it a genuine and unpremeditated outburst of passionate regret for the life which he had thrown away? I cannot tell, but think it was the last.”
Historians have speculated that Jim was her one, true love but I don’t know. I think her true love was the freedom to travel and everything else was secondary.


Izzy Bird, labor

Isabella is still in the Estes Park cabin with the two young men. She’ll be here for a bit so just settle in.

The three are figuring out how to make the workflow easier, especially for Mr Buchan, who is, apparently, delicate.

“You will wonder* how three people here in the wilderness can have much to do. There are the horses which we keep in the corral to feed on sheaf oats and take water twice a day, the fowls and dogs to feed, the cow to milk, the bread to make, and to keep a general knowledge of the whereabouts of the stock in the event of a severe snow storm coming on.”

There is also wood to cut and stack as well as niceties like cooking, washing and mending. The men hunt and fish. Plus, there are two** sick cows to mind.

One died the day before she wrote this letter. “It suffered terribly, and looked at us with the pathetically pleading eyes of a creature ‘made subject to vanity.’” Disposing of the body was the hardest part. The wagon horses are off in Denver and the other horses refuse to pull it. Eventually, the manage to get it outside the shed and call it good enough.

“… a pack of wolves came down, and before daylight nothing was left but the bones. They were so close to the cabin that their noise was most disturbing, and on looking out several times I could see them all in a heap wrangling and tumbling over each other.”***

* Honestly? I don’t wonder that because life on the frontier in the 1870s sounds labor intensive under the best of circumstances.

** soon to be one

*** This reminds me of the old “Dogs in Elk” internet list serve thing.

Izzy Bird, sourdough

After her time in the snow storm with Jim, Isabella returned to the cabin in Estes Park that she is sharing with two young men while she waits for the banks to honor her circular checks.

Her life right now is not glamourous.

“I cleaned the living room and the kitchen, swept a path through the rubbish in the passage room, washed up, made and baked a batch of rolls and four pounds of sweet biscuits, cleaned some tins and pans, washed some clothes, and gave things generally a ‘redding up.’* There is a little thick buttermilk, fully six weeks old, at the bottom of a churn, which I use for raising the rolls; but Mr Kavan, who makes ‘lovely’ bread, puts some flour and water to turn sour near the stove, and this succeeds admirably.”

Which just goes to show you that our recent turn to starting our own sourdough bread during the pandemic is nothing terribly new. When you are stuck, make sourdough.

Isabella is concerned about her clothing, however. She has been in Colorado for three months, during which the season has changed. She has only what she could carry in a small carpet-bag and after “legitimate wear, the depredations of calves, and the necessity of tearing some of them up for dish-clothes,” she is down to a single change of clothes. She needs new shoes but can’t buy any in Denver because of the money situation. She does have a formal black dress and coat, which she has taken to wearing during dinner so that she can spend the evening mending her daily outfit.

* This phrase should be familiar to all Pittsburghers everywhere.

Izzy Bird, storms

Isabella confesses that Jim’s story ended where it did because foul weather closed in. He guided her to a sheltered place and, after some more words (which I’ll detail below), rode off into the storm.

Jim confessed that he believed in God and that Isabella “stirred the better nature in me too late. I can’t change. If ever a man were a slave, I am.”*

Jim then made Isabella promise that some of the things he said must never be revealed, “I promised, for I had no choice; but they come between me and the sunshine sometimes, and I wake at night to think of them. I wish I had been spared the regret and excitement of that afternoon.

“My soul dissolved in pity for his dark, lost, self-ruined life, as he left me and turned away in the blinding storm to the Snowy Range, where he said he was going to camp for a fortnight; a man of great abilities, real genius, singular gifts, and with all the chances in life which other men have had.”

With that, Isabella waited until the worst of the snow had passed, then started her way back to the cabin in Estes Park.

* you in danger, girl.