Post holidays letdown eased by 1870s novel
It’s that time of year again – time for the Great Holiday Letdown. You know the feeling – that dull, dreary knowledge that the holidays, the parties, the presents, the escape-to-childhood-again are all over. No more cool baby boomer Christmas cartoons on TV. No more excuse to eat an entire box of chocolate-covered cherries in one afternoon. No more Christmas lights to brighten up our winter landscape.It’s back to work and back to reality for another year.
We’re given every trick in the book about how to survive and make festive the holidays, but no one ever comes out with advice about how to deal with the weeks that follow. For me, books have always provided my great escape. This time of year, when the imagination needs a little jump-starting, I always start a hoard of books to keep me going. I begin stashing this hoard sometime before Christmas, and save it for after the holidays. This year, during my weeks of hoarding in December, I found a winner. Written in 1873 and still in print, “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains” is an actual account of an Englishwoman’s solitary travels on horseback through the roughest terrain in the country, discovering the real, unadulterated Wild West.
Isabella Bird was born in England in 1831. Her life was spent in chronic illness, and when she was in her 20s her father gave her the money to travel to America, where she hoped to regain her health in a more temperate climate. Thus began a lifetime of traveling, for Bird discovered that she had gypsy feet – a condition frowned upon for women in the Victorian era. Bird’s solitary journeys took her as far afield as China, Korea, Morocco, Hawaii – and Colorado.Isabella Bird’s Colorado in the 1870s was the real Colorado – full of the dreams of miners, built on a few crumbling rocks of ore; the hopes of invalids who came here to survive incurable lung ailments in the high altitudes (and a surprising number did); the passion of homesteaders whose aesthetic and spiritual sense led them to a territory like no other in the world.
Bird did all of her traveling alone on horseback – unlike her countrywomen, she rode Western-style on a Mexican saddle. But Bird was a class act. She may have ridden and roped cattle like a man, but she insisted on wearing a feminine garment of Turkish trousers she picked up in Hawaii, and when she returned home she sued the London Times for saying that she had dressed in men’s clothing. Her favorite place was Estes Park, and her descriptions of Larimer County make you almost wish that Colorado was still an unclaimed territory. If you can imagine riding alone straight up the rocky crevices of Big Thompson Canyon on an Indian pony, with the snow beginning to blow into the valley -well, that was the easy part. Her trips on horseback took her all over the state – from Georgetown to Boulder to Golden (where the town’s only boardinghouse had never accommodated a lady before). Denver frankly bored her – she only used it as a pit stop for supplies – because it was populated. Like Wordsworth’s Lucy, Isabella Bird preferred the untrammeled ways.If you’re fond of a little armchair time-travel during these snowbound High Country winter days, then Isabella Bird’s timeless love letter to the Wild West that was Colorado is a grand way to spend a snowy evening. It serves as a reminder that the architecture and the fleeting works of man may change and even disappear throughout the centuries, but the snowcapped peaks and rugged heights of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains will remain – and endure.
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