I just finished Isabella L. Bird's A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains. This is a book I read a good thirty-five years ago, lost my copy, and was able to pick up recently at one of my favorite indy bookstores, hello hello books in Rockland, Maine (http://www.hellohellobooks.com/). Isabella Bird was one of those intrepid Victorian lady travelers who made their way to the far-flung corners of the Empire and beyond. In 1873, on her way back from the Hawaiian Islands, she landed in San Francisco and went east to explore the Rockies. I was sorry to see her journey end.
In this memoir, she rode 800 miles, alone, on various steads, but mostly a trusty Indian pony named Birdie--"a little beauty with legs of iron, fast, enduring, gentle, and wise; and with luggage for some weeks, including a black silk dress, behind my saddle, I am tolerably independent" (p. 134-135). Wow. Despite being a white woman of privilege (the "lady" part), she definitely roughed it out of necessity as there just weren't any other options, and fell in with all kinds of 19th Century American Western "types."
Her heartthrob, "Mountain Jim," with whom she rode many miles and who courted her, is a very familiar figure to those of us who watched 20th century "Westerns"-- an old guide, more than handy with a gun, an outlaw with a reputation, wearing buckskins and the parts of various other animals and sporting 16 long blond curls falling over his chest. At the same time, of course, he has also a gentle, "cultivated" side quoting poetry as he and Isabella make their way over almost impassable mountain trails. I don't need to add that his forehead was "like sculpted marble."
But the book isn't corny at all. Miss Bird is a wonderful traveling companion--stalwart, curious, and tolerant. I have always been enamored of the independent women traveler, something I started thinking about in my teens as this excerpt shows:
"It had been an emerging itch over time that became a question: Why only them? I wondered. Why should the boys have all the fun? Keroauc, Kesey, Ginsberg, Snyder, Theroux, and before them, in high school English: Byron, Whitman, Wordsworth. Our surfer boyfriends would pack up their boards and fly to Eleuthera in the Bahamas in search of the perfect wave; the ones who had saved more money from their summer jobs could go to Southern California and slip over the Border for underage beer. Why not me, I thought, why not us? Young white women in the 1960s with the Pill and driver’s licenses, we could go on the road, too.
After all, we were Americans, and it was our birthright. Packing up and taking off just for the hell of it was in our chromosomes. Rock and roll and the literature of the Beats spawned the restlessness of hippies, and although I couldn’t find the character that was “me” in the tales of male adventures, I knew the itch that floated from the pages of books and acid rock airwaves.
The men in those books, boozers or dopers though they might have been, were cool, the pain they might have caused others flying by as the wheels ate up the miles. I bought it all. I wanted to go with them—across the country, hopping a steamer to the Far East, slipping over the border to farout Mexico, hiking to a fire lookout with a pack full of books.
But most of all, I wanted to be them. I wanted to go whenever and wherever I wanted. Sure, there had been women on some of the trips in those books, even babies sometimes. But that wasn’t the same. That wasn’t doing it yourself, calling the shots. It wasn’t driving."
My own subsequent late 20th Century adventures seem to pale compared to Isabella's riding 40 miles alone in a trackless blizzard, although in retrospect, I probably did expose myself to comparable dangers. I think I might re-read the book again.
(Except from "On Our Own Road" in Hullabaloo on the Space Coast: A Memoir of Place, copyright Linda S. Buckmaster, 2012.)