Isabel Bird traveled by horseback from Truckee, California through the Tahoe Basin and on to Colorado in one of the most unusual travel narratives of its day. Bird’s time in the Rockies was enlivened especially by her acquaintance with Jim Nugent, “Rocky Mountain Jim,” a textbook outlaw with one eye and an affinity for violence and poetry. “A man any woman might love, but no sane woman would marry”, Bird declared in a section excised from her letters before their publication. Nugent also seemed captivated by the independent-minded Bird, but she ultimately left the Rockies and her “dear desperado”. Nugent was shot dead less than a year later.
The author, Isabella Bird, ventured around the world and supported herself with her writing. Born in England, Bird left Britain in 1872, going initially to Australia, which she disliked, and then to Hawaii (known in Europe as the Sandwich Islands), her love for which prompted her second book (published three years later). While there she climbed Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. She then moved on to Colorado, where she had heard the air was excellent for the infirm. Dressed practically and riding not sidesaddle but frontwards like a man (though she threatened to sue the Times for saying she dressed like one), she covered over 800 miles in the Rocky Mountains in 1873. Her letters to her sister, first printed in the magazine The Leisure Hour, comprised Bird’s fourth and perhaps most famous book, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.
This is an unsung classic of Western literature.