A review of "A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains" by Isabella Bird (Mint Editions, 170 pages, $11.29)

An American Character

When Isabella Bird, a lone, 42-year-old Englishwoman, traveled by train from San Francisco into the Sierras in the late summer of 1873, she sat with the miners and loggers and railroad men. She had little money and no prospects other than to make her way home to England. But first she wanted to see what she could of this country she thought to be the most beautiful of all she had found on her journeys to Canada and China and from Australia to the Sandwich Islands. Chronically ill and in search of some relief from the life of an invalid as much as her actual frailties, she was not to be deterred by nature or caution or pain.

Her excellent and colorful writing, full of the wonder of the moment, does not shy from addressing the discomforts and perils, the hygiene, bad food, cramped space, and lack of sleep, so we can believe her when she says she never felt endangered by the rough men with whom she traveled. For instance, “the only hotel in Truckee had windowless rooms and rented their beds by the hour amongst “men’s coats and sticks hanging up . . . miry boots littered about and a rifle in one corner . . . I slept soundly, being only once awoke [sic] by an increase of the same din in which I had fallen asleep, varied by three pistol shots fired in rapid succession.”

Given the times, she does not mention the toilet, but admits the linen was washed only occasionally. She carried a carpet bag with necessities. She wore a “dust cloak,” an “Hawaiian” riding dress and a silk skirt, or pantaloons for riding. And when an opportunity arose, she hired a horse and rode alone into the great pines of the Sierras at 6,000 feet to the yet untrammeled beauty of Lake Tahoe, where she encountered a bear, was thrown, and had to walk for miles before being rescued by lumbermen.

In the parlor of the hotel, “A San Francisco Lady, much ‘got up’ in paint, emerald-green velvet, Brussels lace, and diamonds, rattled continuously for the amusement of the company . . . in a racy western twang, without the slightest scruple as to what she said.” But, she noted, “Womanly dignity and manly respect for women are the salt of society in the wild West.”

To understand a deeper ingredient of American culture it might be worth considering these marvelous accounts, written as letters to her sister, that are easily found reprinted today in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, but originally published in book form by John Murray in 1879. There, you might even understand how this 42-year-old preacher’s daughter from Yorkshire could have fallen in love with a local ruffian, “Mountain Jim” Nugent, while spending time alone in his company amidst the unspoiled glory of Estes Park Colorado, and never fear for that dignity.

“Jim,” she says, 

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 ragged 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 on his belt, his revolver in his waistcoat pocket, his saddle covered with an old beaver skin, from which the paws hung down, his camping blankets behind him, his rifle laid across the saddle in front of him, and his axe, canteen and other gear hanging on the horn, he was as awful-looking ruffian as one could see.

Now, you might assume that I was thinking only of Nugent as my American character, but, though he is an excellent candidate in his own right, representing as he does the last of that independent breed of “mountain men” who had been with us from the time of Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton 100 years before him and had made America what it was. But my subject here is as much the indomitable Isabella Bird, an Englishwoman, and preacher’s daughter—really just a tourist—but she of the mitochondrial DNA and true American spirit without whom Daniel Boone and company would have made no impact on history at all.

My point is that we were not the sole product of a lawless breed, nor even very much of that, but we were in fact the children of those who were civilized, courageous and bold, who did not let discomfort mind their manners or set their goals. America was made by dreamers, too, but it was the clear-eyed, such as Isabella Bird, who overcame hardship and persevered. That she herself did not stay is an accident of individual circumstance, but her kind certainly did. Sadly, for us, even those who might have had the particular talent to write were usually too busy with the hard edges of a difficult life to get the experience down on paper.

This glimpse of that bygone age and geography is also precious, for while the mountains endure, little of the surface has been left by the real estate developers, mining corporations, and lumber companies—at least not that can be easily seen from the grading of interstate highways and the curated slopes of ski resorts. The windows of the passenger cars on the remnant of the Central Pacific today, when they are occasionally cleaned, only offer fragments of the beauty that Isabella Bird saw. And though you might climb away from the trodden path and even yet see more, the characters of that age have truly vanished.

On an ascent of Long’s Peak with a small party, Isabella recalled, “Treat Jim as a gentleman and you’ll find him one, I had been told; and though his manner was certainly bolder and freer than that of gentlemen generally, no imaginary fault could be found. He was very agreeable as a man of culture as well as a child of nature; the desperado was altogether out of sight. He was very courteous and even kind to me, which was fortunate, as the young men had little idea of showing even ordinary civilities.”

After singing songs around their raging campfire against the cold, including “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Jim recited a very clever poem of his own composition and told some fearsome Indian stories.” Her most immediate companion was “Ring,” said to be the best hunting dog in Colorado, who was commanded by Nugent to stay by her side, which he did.

“But above all, 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 twelve degrees of frost, hearing 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.”

Taken now, apart from the wonders of the text, this is a truer perspective of male-female relations in the Old West not usually offered by the sensationalism of television and movies, much less the books of our time—one where civility reigns. Even in the context of a cable TV series such as “Deadwood,” where the semblance of civility is a mask for corruption, it is that surface appearance that gives some meaning or value to the degradation.

“Tonight, I am in a beautiful place like a Dutch farm, large, warm, bright, clean, with an abundance of clean food and a clean, cold little bedroom to myself. But it is very hard to write, for two free-tongued, noisy Irish women, who keep a miner’s boarding house . . . are going to winter quarters in a freight wagon and are telling the most fearful stories of violence, vigilance committees, Lynch law, and ‘stringing,’ that I ever heard. It turns one’s blood cold only to think that where I travel in perfect security, only a short time ago men were being shot like skunks.”

On the trail in a snowstorm, and having fallen into a dark mood, Isabella learned from Mountain Jim that his father had been a British officer stationed in Montreal, that he had run away from home when his first true love had died and he had joined the Hudson’s Bay Company. “If you want to know how nearly a man can become a devil, I’ll tell you now.” When “even that lawless life” proved “too strict for him” he worked for the United States government as an Indian scout on the Plains and achieved some fame for “some of the most daring deeds on record . . . and the bloodiest crimes.” A story that, “took three hours to tell and was crowded with terrible illustrations of a desperado’s career, told with a rush of wild eloquence that was truly thrilling.”

“He was quite silent, struck his horse often, started off on a furious gallop, and then throwing his mare on her haunches close to me, said ‘You’re the first man or woman who’s treated me like a human being for many a year,’” and later, “I believe in God. I’ve given Him no choice but to put me with the devil and his angel. I’m afraid to die. You’ve stirred the better nature in me too late. I can’t change.”

“Mountain Jim” Nugent was killed only a few months later. Isabella notes, “The tragedy is too painful to dwell upon. ‘Jim’ lived long enough to give me his own statement and to appeal to the judgement of God.” But one cannot help but read more into the tale than what propriety allowed her to tell.

The values of American culture were established and taught at the hearth, more often by women than men, and the relations between men and women were most often guided by common sense more than religious or political dictate. There is ample evidence of the litter of families and lives that did not find the equanimity of a civil life, but it is from those who did that our social structure sprang. A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains is an unintended portrait of what made us.

About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: Steam train carrying mail across the Sierra Nevada mountains, 1870. Getty Images

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