Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now

Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now

by Robert Root

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A world traveler, Isabella Bird recorded her 1873 visit to Colorado Territory in her classic travel narrative, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. This work inspired Robert Root’s own discovery of Colorado’s Front Range following his move from the flatlands of Michigan. In this elegantly written book, Root retraces Bird’s three-month journey, seeking to understand what Colorado meant to her—and what it would come to mean for him.

Following Isabella is a work of intersecting histories. Root interweaves an overview of Bird’s life and work with regional history, nature writing, and his own travels to produce a uniquely informative and entertaining narrative. He probes Bird’s self-transformation as her writing moved from private letters to published books, and also draws on reflections of other authors of her day, including Grace Greenwood and Helen Hunt Jackson. Like Bird, Root experiences his most fulfilling moments in the mountains, climbing formidable Longs Peak, living alone in the cabin of famed editor William Allen White, and wandering wild landscapes.

Through reflections on earlier writers’ experiences, and by weighing his own response to them, Root learns not only how to come to Colorado, as visitors so often do, but more important, how to stay.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806184159
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 12/07/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Robert Root, Professor Emeritus of English, Central Michigan University, teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University. An author and editor, he recently published Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place and The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction.

Read an Excerpt

Following Isabella

Travels in Colorado Then and Now

By Robert Root


Copyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8415-9



The mountains startled me when they appeared across the plains one Sunday morning in September. It was as though I'd never seen them before. I'd taken my wife to catch an early flight and, as I drove away from the Denver airport, I mused idly about the white meringue peaks of its multi-tented roof and silently began listing chores for the coming few days of solitary living. I was vaguely aware that I was the only one heading west on the toll road. The sky was cloudless and the air clear; the plains northeast of Denver were bathed in sunlight and, for a very short stretch, seemed uninhabited and empty. I value those moments when, as I ride the crest of a ridge, the land around me is too flat to expose landmarks anywhere ahead and I'm aware only of an expanse of dry tan grasses meeting an expanse of cobalt blue sky. Here, at such a moment, I was lifted out of listmaking and suddenly alert to the sensation of terrain.

Then the road rose to the top of another low ridge and the mountains appeared, spread out all across the horizon. I live much closer to the mountains than this, see them every day, if only for a few moments, hike in them as often as I can. By now they're familiar sights to me. But somehow, though I'd traveled this route often for more than a year, this view of the mountains was unexpected. It caught me by surprise. I checked my mirrors—the tollway was still empty behind me—and slowed the car to concentrate on the view.

Had I truly not realized that the entire expanse of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains was visible from certain points on the plains? It was, and even I, who can never quite sort out the names of the mountains visible from my apartment balcony—even I could identify Pikes Peak, far to the south, and Longs Peak, the northernmost 14,000-foot summit in the range. A multitude of mountains rose between them in the distance, like an upright row of uneven sawteeth, some dingy white, some dark gray, separating unbroken beige earth and unblemished blue sky.

At that moment, my unexpected view of the mountain panorama, together with my location on mostly empty plains, jolted me with a frisson of frontier déjà vu. Suddenly I sensed the surprised consternation that westward-bound travelers must have experienced, after days on seemingly limitless rolling prairie, to discover a definite boundary lying up ahead, across the whole length of the horizon—a boundary that grew larger, more imposing, the nearer they came to it. And yet, unnervingly insurmountable though the mountains may appear, they are also riveting and magnetic; once seen, that first view is impossible to forget and the next view, eagerly anticipated.

A few minutes later I rounded a bend or topped a ridge and suddenly there was Denver in the distance, the sprawl of suburbia racing to fill all the empty spaces between the tollway and the city, and even more metropolitan development forming a line between the mountains and the plains. And then a descent or another curve cut off the chance for vistas and I became aware of the highway again.

Nonetheless, I'd had that one spellbinding moment of beauty and awe. I'd also had a glimpse into how that view might have affected those early adventurers and explorers and entrepreneurs who were lured west by the promise of new beginnings. Though I had some kinship with them, as someone who had also come to Colorado in search of new beginnings, I especially appreciated being able to see the Front Range anew, as if for the first time, because I suddenly realized how, in September 1873, the Front Range might first have appeared to Isabella Bird.


The Approach

These letters, as their style sufficiently indicates, were written without the remotest idea of publication. They appeared last year in the Leisure Hour at the request of its editor, and were so favourably received that I venture to present them to the public in a separate form, as a record of very interesting travelling experiences, and of a phase of pioneer life which is rapidly passing away.

I. L. B.

Tobermory, Argyleshire October 1879

Prefatory Note, A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, 1st Edition

Here is the itinerary for Isabella Lucy Bird's three months in Colorado. She came on the Denver-bound train from Cheyenne, Wyoming, on Friday, September 9, 1873, and disembarked in Greeley. For nearly two weeks she failed in her attempts to reach Estes Park, a valley surrounded by mountains of the Front Range. She finally reached Estes Park on Sunday September 28, and boarded at a ranch run by Griffith Evans, a Welshman. A few days later she climbed Longs Peak. After three weeks in Estes Park, on Monday, October 20, she left on horseback for a solitary tour of Colorado Territory (it would not become a state until 1876). She rode south as far as Colorado Springs, then west over the Rampart Range through the broad valley known as South Park up to the Continental Divide, then northeast back to Denver. After a sidetrip through the major mining district to Georgetown and visits to towns then called Golden City and Boulder City, she returned to Estes Park on Thursday, November 20. She remained there until Tuesday, December 9. It took her three days to make it over to Greeley, and the train to Cheyenne carried her out of Colorado on Friday, December 12.

I can be this precise about her itinerary because, as she remarks in her Prefatory Note, while she traveled she wrote a series of long journaling letters to her younger sister, Henrietta, then living in Scotland; some years later those letters, much edited and revised, formed the basis, first, for a series of articles titled "Letters from the Rocky Mountains," published in 1878 in The Leisure Hour, a British magazine, and subsequently for a book titled A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, published in London and New York in 1879. The original letters to her sister that still survive—the ones from the earliest weeks apparently no longer exist and the rest were censored by Isabella herself—were published in 2002, in Letters to Henrietta, edited by Kay Chubbuck. A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains ran through three editions at the end of 1879 and the beginning of 1880, and many more editions followed. My most recent review of seventy-one listings for Isabella Bird in Books in Print, after eliminating books out of stock or available only on demand or edited from her writings by others, found thirty-seven editions of nine of her books still available at the beginning of the twenty-first century—thirteen of those are editions of A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains.

The daughter of a clergyman and a Sunday school teacher, Isabella Lucy Bird was born in North Yorkshire, England, in 1831. She suffered from ill health throughout her youth, particularly from back problems; she had a fibrous tumor surgically removed when she was eighteen and frequently wore a brace to support her spine. Although her physical ailments were real enough, she toured and wrote about Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, the Malay Peninsula, the Sinai, Persia, Kurdistan, Tibet, and Korea between 1873 and her death in 1904 at age seventy-three. Some biographers and commentators, noting her active life on and off horseback all over the globe, suspect her complaints were more psychosomatic than physical. Certainly she had a "high-strung temperament," and her health curiously bloomed while she traveled and wilted when she returned home.

It was her health, and perhaps her depression, that motivated her parents to send her to North America at age twenty-three. Her tour of eastern Canada and the northeastern cities of the United States resulted in her first book, The Englishwoman in America, published in 1856 by John Murray, her publisher throughout her life and still the major repository for her letters. A second trip in 1857 led to a second book, Aspects of Religion in the United States of America, published in 1859. Following the death of her father, Edward Bird, in 1858, Isabella, Henrietta, and their mother, Dora, relocated to Edinburgh, where Bird's life revolved around charitable work and familial obligations, with intermittent bouts of ill health (though she managed to get out a book on Edinburgh). After Dora Bird died in 1866, the sisters lived together in a flat in Edinburgh until 1872, when Henrietta moved to a cottage in Tobermory and Isabella launched herself on another journey.

By the time Isabella Bird reached Colorado, she had been traveling for over a year. She sailed from Liverpool in July 1872, landed in Australia in October, departed for New Zealand at the end of November, and set off for San Francisco on January 1, 1873. Her landing and subsequent stay in Hawaii was another act of inadvertence, but it says something about her burgeoning talents as a writer that her travels in a single year would lead to two remarkable and still readable books, The Hawaiian Archipelago (published in 1875 and also known as Six Months in the Sandwich Islands) and A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains. Both books were fueled by letters home to Henrietta (as were her other books before Henrietta's death in 1880), and I suspect that the habit of recording and reflecting upon her experiences in Hawaii primed her for her writing about Colorado.

The title is a little misleading. She may have been a lady in her deportment, but a three-month visit doesn't really make up a "life," and it would be more accurate, if clumsy, to describe the book as "Letters from an Englishwoman Traveling along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains." Although Bird's book is the best known and the easiest to find, travel writing about Colorado by women authors abounded in the 1870s. Bird's friend and countrywoman Rose Kingsley spent a considerable amount of time in the territory in 1871, accompanying her brother Maurice, then assistant treasurer of the Fountain Colony in Colorado Springs. Kingsley's book, South by West, Or, Winter in the Rocky Mountains and Spring in Mexico, was published in 1874, but Bird was in correspondence with her before then and relied on Kingsley's recommendations about whom to contact and where to go in Colorado. Grace Greenwood (the pen name of Sarah Jane Lippincott) was also in Colorado in August and September of 1871 and November of 1872. Well-established as a poet, lecturer, and journalist by then, she traveled around the country writing what she referred to as "light letters" for the New York Times, which she later collected in New Life in New Lands: Notes of Travel (1873). Greenwood returned to Colorado in summer 1873 and, from a base in Colorado Springs, toured the southern part of the territory with a large party of affluent tourists, one of whom was the artist Eliza Greatorex. Greatorex's book on her travels, Summer Etchings in Colorado, with an introduction by Greenwood, was published within months of her trip. Another writer, Helen Hunt (later Helen Hunt Jackson), advised to visit Colorado Springs for her bronchitis, arrived in Colorado around the time Isabella was leaving it. She too was a well-established poet and travel writer (as H. H.) and later wrote the enduringly popular California novel Ramona. She married a Colorado Springs businessman named William Sharpless Jackson and settled in Colorado Springs, publishing her observations on the territory and other sections of the United States in Bits of Travel at Home (1878). In addition, the orator/actress Anna Dickinson, who climbed Longs Peak shortly before Bird did, was also making well-publicized lecture appearances around the territory; she briefly summarized her travels in A Ragged Register (of People, Places, and Opinions) (1879).

In Colorado in the 1870s, then, a woman writer was hardly a rare species, but Isabella Bird, alone of all these writers, is the one whose Colorado book a modern reader is most likely to find and most likely to enjoy. Companionable, observant, self-effacing, and wry, she managed to create what she termed "a faithful picture of the country and state of society as it then was." Changes in the country and the state of society haven't made her prose outdated. Perhaps equally important for me, her path around the territory was the broadest in scope and the one least centered on seats of commerce and development.

The interests of editors and biographers and storytellers in A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains vary a good deal. Some are concerned with what they might glean of her personal life in its pages, particularly alert to the hints of incipient romance between Isabella and the trapper Jim Nugent, or focused on the air of high adventure in her climb up Longs Peak and wild rides rounding up cattle, or hoping for (or against) confirmation of her attitudes about women's liberation. Others have studied her life and writing to discover more about her attitudes and observations and to contemplate her contributions to social history, natural history, and women's literature. As a "Victorian lady traveler," a clergyman's daughter, an invalid whose health improved whenever she left for foreign climes, an apparent spinster until the age of fifty, a small, well-mannered woman who traveled alone and mostly rode astraddle in an age when ladies rode side-saddle, a cultured representative of a specific social class and a particular nationality, a prolific and well-read writer, and the first woman elected as a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, she has proved to be of enduring and varied interest in a number of academic fields, not the least travel literature, geography, anthropology, history, and women's studies.

My interest has been most sympathetic with those determining her contribution to what would now be termed "ecoliterature" or "environmental writing." In his highly useful annotated edition of her Rocky Mountain book, Ernest S. Bernard asserts, "As the first major chronicler of the region that later became one of America's most important wilderness and scenic areas, Bird clearly deserves recognition both as a figure in preservation politics and as a contributor to the literature of the early national park movement." Histories of Rocky Mountain National Park routinely quote from A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, and those of us who have benefited from artist-in-the-parks programs often find her, along with painters such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, held up as an early example of how conservation in general and national parks in particular have been served by art. Her comments on landscape in the book reflect familiarity with writers on nature and theorists on landscape—we know she met Emerson and Thoreau earlier in life, and clearly had read William Wordsworth and William Gilpin. It says something about the book's richness that, though popular tastes and academic interests continually shift, it has not grown irrelevant or outmoded.

* * *

I first became aware of Isabella Bird some twenty-five years ago, when I encountered an excerpt from A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains in The Wilderness Reader, edited by Frank Bergon. I doubt that I read the excerpt, which was the account of her climb up Longs Peak (as I learned this morning when I pulled the anthology from a bookshelf). In those days I read very little about the West, since I never expected to be in the West. The name of the book and its author were mere items of literary trivia stored in memory until a few years ago, when circumstances raised both to the center of my consciousness.

I'd been teaching at a university in Michigan for over twenty-five years when a friend and colleague in the English department invited me to co-chair and keynote a conference on nonfiction she was organizing. The conference, titled "Mapping Nonfiction," would highlight varieties of creative nonfiction, with emphasis on the non-fiction of place, and be held at the YMCA Center of the Rockies in Estes Park. I eagerly accepted. Determined to localize my talk by quoting a relevant piece of literary non-fiction, I quickly stumbled on Isabella Bird's book. It was a serendipitous discovery, not simply for the keynote I would give but also for the life I would soon be living.

With our children grown and gone to three separate coasts, my wife and I had decided to change our lives and leave our teaching jobs—I would complete unfinished books and essays and start new ones, she would join an educational research firm in Denver. She began her job a year before the conference at Estes Park and the date I could leave my university. From time to time, though she was able to work from Michigan most of that year, she would fly out to Denver for a week and a couple of times, when my schedule allowed, I joined her to scout out locations where we might begin living that following June.

Colorado was virtually a new world for me. I'd spent most of my life near the Great Lakes, from my childhood in western New York through my teaching career in Michigan; the farthest west I'd ever lived had been in Iowa, during graduate school, only an hour's drive west of the Mississippi. I was a midwestern flatland boy through and through. To give up the Great Lakes and the North Woods for the Great Plains and the Front Range dislocated me in every sense of the word, and I cast about for a way to gain a sense of place.


Excerpted from Following Isabella by Robert Root. Copyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
The Approach,
The Plains,
The Canyon,
The Park,
The Peak,
The Tour: Southern Circuit,
The Tour: Mining District,
The Last Canyon,
The Park in Winter,

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