Isabella was a spinster who traveled around the world. She made an extended tour of the Rocky Mountain area of Colorado when she was on her way back to England from the Sandwich Islands (now the Hawaiian Islands), During her lifetime she also traveled to Canada, India, Tibet, Japan, the Malay Peninsula among many others. She established hospitals in Kashmir, Punjab, China and Korea. She was the first woman ever elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in England.
And she did all this traveling alone. Amazing to me. I’m always filled with awe when I read of her travels. But my favorite of her travels was her months long journey through the Rocky Mountains, most of the time alone. According to the forward of “A Lady’s Life,” she didn’t go to see the curiosities or the sights. She was more interested in discovering what it felt like to live in other places. “She had an amazing capacity quickly to become a resident.” And so she did in the Rocky Mountains.
My copy of the book has numerous passages underlined. I love her descriptions of the shape and color of place. You feel like you’re there with her, riding along as she meets ordinary (are there any?)and extraordinary people.
One of her adventures was ascending Long’s Peak. Remember there were no roads then, and it was a harrowing effort. This is her initial impression of the peak: “It is one of the noblest of mountains, but in one’s imagination it grows to be much more than a mountain. It becomes invested with a personality. In its caverns and abysses one comes to fancy that it generates and chains the strong winds, to let them loose in its fury. The thunder becomes its voice, and the lightnings do it homage. Other summits blush under the morning kiss of the sun , and turn pale the next moment; but it detains the first sunlight and holds it round its head for an hour at least, till it pleases to change from rosy red to deep blue; and the sunset, as if spell-bound, lingers on its crest.
“The soft winds which hardly rustle the pine needles down here are raging rudely up there round its motionless summit. The mark of fire is upon it; and though it has passed into a grim repose, it tells of fire and upheaval as truly, through not as eloquently, as the living volcanos of Hawaii.”
She was guided up the mountain by “Mountain Jim,” a notorious desperado and “as awful-looking a ruffian as one could see.” But she had been told, “Treat Jim as a gentleman, and you’ll find him one.” So he did, and she described meeting the man’s dog, “Ring, said to be the best hunting dog in Colorado, with the body and legs of a collie, but a head approaching that of a mastiff, a noble face with a wistful human expression, and the most truthful eyes I ever saw in an animal.” Later, “‘Jim’ or Mr. Nugent, as I always scrupulously called him, told stories of his early youth, and of a great sorrow which had led him to embark on a lawless and desperate life. His voice trembled, and tears ran down his cheek. Was it semi-conscious acting, I wondered, or was his dark soul really stirred to its depths by the silence, the beauty, and the memories of youth?”
She mentions courtesies extended by men she meets along the way, then adds, “These men might have been excused for speaking in a somewhat free-and easy tone to a lady riding alone, and in an unwonted fashion. Womanly dignity and manly respect for women are the salt of society in this wild West.”
And so she continues with tales of people she meets and places she’d been with such eloquence that you want to read some passages over and over.
About one homesteader, she wrote:”Mrs. H lays aside her work for a few minutes and reads some favorite passage of prose or poetry as I have seldom heard either read before, with a voice of large compass and exquisite tone, quick to interpret every shade of the author’s meaning, and soft speaking eyes, moist with feeling and sympathy. These are our halcyon hours, when we forget the needs of the morrow, and that men still buy, sell, cheat, and strive for good, and that we are in the Rocky Mountains, and that it is near midnight.”
I love her eloquence and empathy for people and the land. I greatly admire her grit, curiosity and unquenchable good nature that made friends of everyone she met, even “ruffians” and desperadoes.
What a great heroine!
I’m holding a small contest. Do you have a favorite real life heroine? Past or present? Tell us why.
I’ll send a copy of “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” to the one of those who reply.