In 1873, explorer Isabella Bird arrived in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains – and declared she’d never felt more alive. Author Sara Wheeler finds herself equally uplifted
Isabella Bird was always a heroine to me. The tweed-skirted Victorian travel writer cast off the domestic shackles of home and took to the road, fearful only, ever, of journey’s end. She went everywhere, riding an elephant through the Perak jungle and watching Hong Kong burn. At the end of her life she said she liked the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains best, especially a blue hollow below Longs Peak, the toothy 4,346-metre-er that dominates what is now the Rocky Mountain National Park. She lived in a log cabin in the shadow of the peak, listening to coyotes scream in the forest.
And so did I, because I was on her tail.
Longs Peak is one of the highest mountains in the Front Range, a southern spur of the Rockies and the first barrier the homesteaders encountered when they trundled west across the Great Plains to fulfil their Manifest Destiny. The Continental Divide bisects the Front Range from north-west to south-east, at one point looping sharply, with the result that the Pacific basin is momentarily east of its Atlantic counterpart. (The Divide effectively operates as a snow fence in Colorado: more snow falls on the western side, but most glaciers are on the east because the snow blows over.) On both sides a flux of summer rain falls daily at one o’clock. Somebody told me about this one o’clock business before I set out. It seemed unlikely. But I could have set my watch by it.
Bird was 42 when she arrived in Colorado in 1873. She was 4ft 10”, with no teeth, and considered a ride of 100 miles over rough terrain in sub-zero temperatures an inconsequential matter. She woke in the Longs Peak cabin with the sheets frozen to her lips and fine snow hissing through the chinks in the walls.
In the Wild West – Colorado was not yet part of the Union – she met Rocky Mountain Jim, a one-eyed desperado with a beguiling smile. He was an arrow-scarred bandit known across the free Territory for bravado, braggadocio and brawling. (“There is no God west of the Missouri,” Bird wrote in her description of him in her masterpiece A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.) But in the flickering firelight of an alpine camp he revealed that he had a heart. “You’re the first man or woman who’s treated me like a human being for many a year,” he told her as they sat under the stars. It was he who accompanied Bird when she summited Longs Peak. “Jim dragged me up,” she wrote, “like a bale of goods by sheer force of muscle.”
Avoiding the tour buses clogging the visitor centres beloved of the National Park Service, I pursued Bird up and down the back-country trails she describes – though they weren’t trails then. It was she who broke them. Elk of extraordinary heft grazed in glacier-formed meadows where the Indian paintbrush were just coming into bloom, their delicate persimmon petals freckling the onion grass.
Higher up, montane forest of ponderosa pine and aspen merged into a denser sub-alpine landscape dotted with bighorn sheep. At around 3,500m, the trees stopped abruptly, like a lifted curtain. (About a quarter of the Rocky Mountain National Park lies above the tree line.) On a higher slope, a figure moved like a beetle across Andrews Glacier. Cornices and sugarloaves almost filled the sky and clouds moved between them in a continual displacement of light and dark. I did not see 5,000 head of Texas cattle on their way to Iowa, like Bird did. But it was still possible to be alone in a wilderness that, once the railroad had joined up the country, became and remains such an essential part of the American national imagination.
In her letters home to her sister, Bird repeatedly used the words ‘exhilarated, ‘intoxicating’ and ‘sublime’, and she referred to an elasticity in the air that made her feel more alive than she had ever felt in her life. Mountain air everywhere tends to have that effect but there is a certain translucence to the light in the Front Range that sharpens every shape and enhances every shade. Longs Peak in particular has something of the mystical about it, not least on account of the turban of cloud at the top. “In one’s imagination it grows to be more than a mountain,” Bird wrote of Longs. The Arapaho, who revered it, kept an eagle trap on top and used the feathers in their ceremonies. Even the glittering red-granite boulders that lie everywhere in the Rockies appear to have showered down in a cosmic explosion.
Estes Park is the gateway resort to the Colorado Rockies. Driving out of it the other way, east through Big Thompson Canyon, I ended up in back country around Masonville. The buttes blazed red; you could see why the Spaniards named the region Colorado. The fields smelt of crushed juniper and the air was heavy with heat and burned light. There was nobody, anywhere. Masonville had two shops, both selling Harley Davidson leathers and moccasins. I entered, browsed and left both without seeing a storekeeper. Apparently, there wasn’t one in Masonville.
The first settlers of central Colorado came to pan in 1858, after a veteran of the California gold rush sieved up placer metal in the South Platte River near Pike’s Peak (it’s since lost the possessive apostrophe). Hundreds arrived from the east in the wagons called prairie schooners, the canvas sides painted with the words, ‘Pike’s Peak or Bust’. It was bust, more often than not. By the time Colorado joined the union in 1876 (the 38th state to accede), silver had overtaken gold, and Bird, on a southern excursion from the Longs Peak cabin, rode into the heart of the Front Range to Colorado’s first silver city. A spur line had just linked Georgetown to the transcontinental Union Pacific at Cheyenne, and the rails brought hobos, speculators and tourists, as well as English sparrows, which nested in the box cars.
With silver long gone and nothing to replace it, the Georgetown environs are quieter than when Bird rode through the high gulches. My companions on the highway, more often than not, were bikers with bandanas and no helmets, and no silencers either. The region has stagnated since the energetic frontiersman Bird knew shipped tens of thousands of pamphlets to Europe promising that “the mines and fields of the new west will pour forth golden harvests”.
Georgetown itself has nothing to live off but its history. Squashed into a narrow strip of land between Clear Creek Canyon and Interstate 70, it is a scrappy town with a reverentially preserved historic district, unpaved streets and a modern half struggling to survive, like so much of small-town America, in the foothills of the 21st century. On Saturday, at the time Indians call ‘cow dust’, Denver weekenders began arriving, ready to climb Mount Bierstadt at dawn. The smoke from their campfires rose from the forest in the Guanella Pass like spires.
Reversing Bird’s route (she rode up from the other direction), I crossed the Continental Divide at Breckenridge, which was full of river rafters and yogi. Buffalo herds roamed over the semi-arid high plains to the east.
It was an attenuated landscape, parsed of colour. Bird called it ‘an uplifted prairie sea’. To me it was Clint Eastwood territory, a land where the fabled drifters of the south-west roam to a Ry Cooder soundtrack.
Pikes Peak is the most-visited mountain in the United States (a cable car hauls up the hordes). To avoid it, I departed from Bird temporarily to drive from Manitou Springs out onto the Great Plains, so I could look back and see the Rockies as the pioneers did (what did they think!). After so long in the mountains, the plains were like the planet turned onto its side. Only windmill water pumps and the prongs of long-horned cattle pierced the flatness. The roads might have been drawn with a ruler, and the intersections with a set square. The ranches had names such as Bald Eagle, Dry Creek and Jonathan’s Cut; posters advertised the forthcoming ‘19th Annual Machine-Gun Shoot’. At Elliott, a highway marker announced, ‘No Motorist Services for 95 miles’. The air was so still it was all glare, and the sky covered the plains like a bowl.
At Rush, the Tres Hermanos store sold chicharrón (fried pork rinds) and pregnancy-testing kits. The bored young Mexican at the till had come after five years in Chicago. He and his parents and sister lived in a trailer out back. It had pretty window boxes.
Rippling corn fields stretched to the horizon, a hot wind blew out of Kansas and I walked on public land among burrowing things and cacti. In Ordway, a digital thermometer on Main Street announced 92°F (33°C). These were poor, agricultural plains communities, not the Fattytowns of the urban corridors. At Ordway’s Columbine Saloon, two men sat on home-hewed bar stools equipped with arms, presumably so patrons couldn’t fall off. There was a pool table, stalls with buttoned vinyl banquettes, heavy metal music and a smell of urine. The barmaid shouted over The Grateful Dead that they didn’t do food, and directed me to the Ordway Hotel on the other side of the railroad tracks. There I ate a hamburger while the owner recounted the details of a recent fire. A man in a nearby town burnt his trash in 110km-an-hour winds, and the fire hurdled from ranch to ranch, village to village. Two firefighters died, one bringing up four children on his own. There was nothing to say after that.
I returned to the blue hollow, as she did. “It is uninteresting down here,” she wrote before setting off again for the beloved log cabin under the mountain. “I long for the rushing winds, the piled-up peaks, the great pines, the wild night noises, the poetry and the prose of the free, jolly life of my unrivalled eyrie.” Who wouldn’t?
She kept house for some woodcutters for a month, dusting the cabin with a buffalo’s tail and frying venison steaks in home-churned butter. In a letter to her sister, she said that in the Rockies she realised how little one really needs. She found the freedom to be herself in the clear Front Range air. Extraordinarily, she managed to nail those feelings in words. A Lady’s Life made her famous, and Bird became the first female Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, an unprecedented reflection of admiration by the walrus-whiskered satraps of that deeply conservative institution.
Before the dreaded plane home, I drove the 77km Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved highway in the US. At one end is Grand Lake, the headwater of the Colorado River, and sacred to the Ute people, who called it Spirit Lake. Pine forest fell sharply to the shore, the boardwalks creaked, and music drifted from the window of a Fitness Center, where a woman was pummelling a punch bag. Off Trail Ridge Road I hiked along the inundated banks of the Colorado in Kawuneeche Valley, in the lee of the Never Summer Range. A ribbon of cloud hung parallel to the ground on the lateral moraine. There was a river otter and the collapsed walls of a dude ranch.
Over 2m of snow lay banked on the side of Trail Ridge Road. At the highest point, over 3,600m, prairie falcon butterflies hovered in the nooks of the Lava Cliffs, whimsical tuff formations created by a volcanic explosion in the Never Summers. A kind of peace came down, like a benediction. Bird would have loved it. But it was inaccessible in the 1870s, even to the hardiest traveller. I thought I had lost her up there. But at a lookout, overlooking Desolation Peaks, the National Park people had erected a metal sign quoting her. ‘Every valley ends in mystery,’ it said.
It was she who was following me.
Sara Wheeler is working on a book about English women who went west in the 1800s. Her book Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990-2010 is out now.