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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Colony_of_Colorado

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.


a touchstone for tough times

I ran the trifecta of the modern writer's bucket list during the week Somebody's Gotta Do It came out. There was a New York Times review. I was made into a meme. And Hillary Clinton tweeted about my work. It would have been enough.

But there is more to the story. I've not told it because a) I can't quite believe it happened and b) it felt too tender and personal to share. However, now is the time.

After the tweet, a little bird at the publisher's office told me that HRC herself would like an autographed copy. With it, the wee avian suggested, toss in a personal note and something small from your region, because she really loves this part of the state. Which is what I did, after 48 hours of agonizing about what to say and what to send. Like one does.

Then a pandemic happened. It's the same one that continues to happen so we have that, at least, because a new pandemic on top of this one might break me. While I have had more than a few moments where I wonder what the sales numbers on my book would look like if the momentum of the first week wasn't interrupted by chaos and death, most of my mind has been on much more important things, not the least of which was what was happening on the county government level. It has been ... rough.

Time passed.

About a month ago, my Elder Teenager yelled up the stairs that a letter for the "Honorable Adrienne Martini" was in the pile of mail on the table. I assumed it was from someone who wanted to let me know that I was going to hell or a worthless shill for "King Cuomo" or the like. I get these often enough that they no longer phase me. I also don't rush to open them. 

Oddly, all three of the other humans who live in the house were downstairs when I opened the letter. Those same humans also got to hear the string of very adult words I said when I realized who the letter was from:

It just came back from Artware in Oneonta, the best frame shop in the region. I don't know where I will hang it but need it to be somewhere I'll see it when the work is feeling harder than usual and I've convinced myself none of it is worth all of the aggravation. 

Izzy Bird, mind blown

Isabella has had her mind blown by Colorado.

There is the notable terrain: “Plains, plains, everywhere, plains generally level, but elsewhere rolling in long undulations, like the waves of a sea which had fallen asleep.”* Mostly, tho, she’s flipped over the concept of prairie dogs.


The plains “are peopled with large villages of what are called prairie dogs, because they utter a short, sharp bark, but the dogs are, in reality, marmots.** Hundreds of burrows are placed together. On nearly every rim, a small furry reddish-buff beast sat on his hind legs, looking, so far as the head went, much like a young seal. These creatures were acting as sentinels, and sunning themselves. As we passed, each gave a warning yelp, shook its tail, and, with a ludicrous flourish of its hind legs, dived into its hole. The appearance of hundreds of these creatures, each 18 inches long, sitting like a dog begging, with their paws down and all turned sunward, is most grotesque.”

She also opines that with so many burrowing marmots that the prairies will be seriously injured and rendered completely unsafe for horses. It’s good that she never lived to see strip malls and CAFOs.***

The burrows, she is told, are also shared by owls. Many people insist to her that they are also shared by rattlesnakes, “but I hope for the sake of the harmless, cheery little prairie dog, that this unwelcome fellowship is a myth.”


* This is followed by a detailed description of all of the grasses on said plains but I’ll spare you.

** Thanks for spoiling the magic, Izzy.

*** concentrating animal feeding operations, which are truly grotesque

Izzy Bird, region of hard greed

Isabella is leaving Cheyenne as quickly as she can. The reason is hauntingly familiar.

“A ‘help’ here says that there have been 56 deaths from cholera during the last 20 days. Is common humanity lacking, I wonder, in this region of hard greed? Can it not be bought by dollars here, like every other commodity, votes included?”

Just sit for a second with that phrase: region of hard greed. The more things change, etc.

But wait. There’s more.

“Last night I made the acquaintance of a shadowy gentleman from Wisconsin, far gone in consumption, with a spirited wife and young baby. He had been ordered to the Plains as a last resource,* but was much worse. Early this morning he crawled to my door, scarcely able to speak from debility and bleeding from the lungs, begging me to go to his wife, who, the doctor said was ill of cholera. The child had been ill all night, and not for love or money could he get any one to do anything for them, not even go for medicine. The lady was blue, and in great pain from cramp, and the poor unweaned infant was roaring for nourishment which had failed.”

Isabella does what she can, including searching for a “feeding bottle.” She has no success and resorts to a sponge in some milk and water. She also finds a random local girl to take charge of the infant for $2 a day.**

With that matter as settled as it is going to be, Isabella heads to Greeley, which will be her staging area for a trip into the mountains.

* Today I learned that moving to Colorado was often suggested as a cure for all kinds of lung ailments. Which is interesting, if only because I would worry about what the altitude would do to my ability to breathe.

** which seems like a lot?

many things make a post

  • IF YOU READ NOTHING ELSE: To Comptroller DiNapoli I say: No Shit. This really deserves its own post but, dang, I'm so tired of talking about collapsing county budgets ... and, yet, they keep collapsing and it's increasingly clear we are on our own.



Izzy Bird, not a fan of Cheyenne


Isabella is not in love with Cheyenne but admits it is useful because it is a depot for all of those who live within 300 miles. It is a “god-forsaken, god-forgotten” place according to some. Yet, as she says, “that forgets that God is written on its face.”

A short time ago, the place was inhabited only by “rowdies and desperados, the scum of advancing civilization; and murders, stabbings, shooting, and pistol affrays were at times events of almost hourly occurrence in its drinking dens.”* The good people of Cheyenne cleared the place out by running said ruffians out of town and/or hanging them without benefit of trial.**

The population is about 4,000 in an assortment of shanties and frame houses. The place produces “the foulest smells I have smelt for a long time… there is not a bush, or garden, or green thing; it just straggles out promiscuously on the boundless brown plains, on the extreme verge of which three toothy peaks are seen. It is utterly slovenly looking, and unornamental, abounds in slouching bar-room-looking characters, and looks a place of low, mean lives.”

The population bounced up a couple of years after her visit because gold was discovered nearby. The character of the town changed, Isabella adds in a footnote. Still, I don’t think she’ll find work for the tourist board any time soon.


* for more one this, watch Deadwood. It’s so good.

** I don’t advocate this, mind.

Isabella, temple of Morpheus

Isabella is on the “huge Pacific train, with its heavy bell tolling” heading toward Cheyenne.
She has sprung for a Silver Palace car. The “slippered steward, whispering low, conducted me to my berth — a luxurious bed three and a half feet wide, with a hair mattress on springs, fine linen sheets, costly California blankets.* The 24 inmates of our car were all but invisible, asleep behind rich curtains. It was a true Temple of Morpheus.”**
Rockies leg 2
The next morning, the trip continues. They travel under a cloudless sky over empty plains. They stop twice at rickety houses where coarse, greasy food is available. It’s snowing. They travel through another night.
The steward turned them out of their berths soon after sunrise. They are running down the Great Salt Lake and bound by the white Wahsatch ranges. She admires the Mormon industry that has compelled the ground to yield fine crops of hay and barley; and “we passed several cabins, from which, even at that early hour, Mormons, each with two or three wives, were going forth to their day’s work. The women were ugly, and their shapeless blue dresses hideous.”
She continues through that day and night. Daybreak found her “shivering” in Fort Laramie, then Sherman, then across the Continental Divide. “It became mercilessly cold; some people thought it snowed but I only saw rolling billows of fog. Lads passed through the cars the whole morning, selling newspapers, novels, cacti***, lollipops, pop corn, pea nuts, and ivory ornaments****, so that having lost all reckoning of the days, I never knew it was Sunday till the cars pulled up at the door of the hotel in this detestable place.”
She is not, as we’ll discover, a fan of Cheyenne.
* Does anyone know if the “California” part is important here? Was it like Belfast linen, which signified a higher grade of linen? Or is this information lost to the mists of time?
** It was probably less sigh-worthy in reality but, dang. This sounds like my kind of temple.
*** ?
**** ??