Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Intrepid Traveler

I have just finished reading a wonderful little book, a part of the Penguin Great Journeys paperback series. The book is about 4x6 and fits in a handbag, it fits the hand as a paperback book should. That is only the overt delight. Excerpts from Isabella Bird's letters when traveling in the Rocky Mountains is 119 wonderful pages of graceful writing such as hardly anyone writes these days for publication, let alone as letters to a friend. She is a genius at describing sunrise, sunset and mountain scenery, her vocaulary is astonishingly rich and brilliantly used. But that is the icing on the cake.

Isabella Bird was an English woman who traveled alone. She had been to Hawaii before she sailed to California but we get only hints of that. She crosses California from San Francisco to the Sierras, describes a stay in the Tahoe, Donner Lake areas in which she rents horses and goes off for solitary rides in the mountains, comes across grizzley bears that terrify her horse, and yet is utterly fearless when chasing down her horse on foot. She writes about the atomsphere of the gold rush towns, the lawlessness of the men and corruption of politics and the gentlemanly way the men treat a woman alone.

Then she crosses the montains to Colorado, meets up with desperados who are gallant toward her, stays in the Estes Peak area helping her host round up cattle -- her horsemanship is astonishing -- uncomplainingly stays through a bitter winter in an unchinked log cabin where boiled water freezes before she can us it to wash. And these are only a few of her adventures. The woman seems to have been fearless. Although she writes of her terror when being urged on to the top of Long Mountain, climbing in the voluminous clothing of the 1800s and in rubber boots that she found on the trail. She writes about people good and bad and complicated, about how badly the Indians are treated, about being down to 26 cents and the banks all refusing to even cash the gold coins she carried.

The only problem I have with the book is that it needs at least a couple of pages of editorial biographical information about Isabella Bird. I am going to stop writing this and read the Wikipedia bio info about her. What a heroine! And such glorious writing!!

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