The Undeterred Writer Isabella Bird
by Lesley Sudders
What if (those magic words!) you couldn’t write because your technology didn’t work? A power outage, you can’t remember where you stashed Mom’s ancient Royal that is nearly museum-quality. Or, if you had to write by hand like Isabella Bird, and your ink froze every few minutes?
Numerous goblins appear at times to deter us from writing. Distractions abound in all our lives. Computers can be fussy, new “upgraded” software harder to use. Kids, work, illness — a meteor might be approaching, and we need to remain aware.
Isabella Bird, a nineteenth-century English woman with a history of health problems, was not deterred by much. Icy ink barely slowed her down.
I discovered her travel memoir, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, during a visit to the historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. Finding this book was for me a great day in so many ways. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.
In her day, people wrote letters. This book was compiled from letters Isabella wrote to her sister in England around 1868 while traveling from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to California and on to Denver and Estes Park, Colorado. She spent the winter there. Colorado Rocky Mountain winters can be brutally cold, and this one was no exception.
During the harsh winter, Isabella shared an impossible-to-heat cabin with a few cowpokes. She needed to keep her ink bottle on the stove to keep it from freezing. When she sat to write a letter, one of the cowpokes would grab the bottle of thawed ink and carry it to her. She would dip her pen and write as much as possible until the ink in the bottle turned to ice. Then the guys would run it back to the stove to thaw, and she would contemplate her next thoughts. The routine continued until she retired for the night.
Her descriptions of trying to sleep in this weather are enough to make you shiver, even in Phoenix.
A keen observer, she provided a wealth of details that illuminate the often-harsh life in the west at that time. She thought Denver was a horrible settlement, didn’t hesitate to ask strangers for lodging, and noted about children, poignantly, “There are no children in the west, only small adults.”
Isabella rode astride, participated in cattle roundups, and became the first woman to climb Longs Peak. Her guide was a local trapper named Rocky Mountain Jim. One can read between the lines of her description of their friendship that she was clearly taken with him. And perhaps the reverse was true. But she returned to England, while he remained in the west.
Isabella went on to numerous other travels, became the first woman to be elected to the Royal Geographical Society, wrote four books, and had other accomplishments – despite her uncertain health.
So when I’m cursing my computer for being slow, or Spellcheck for not agreeing with me about an unusual word, or my coffee isn’t ready, I think of Isabella. I imagine her huddled in layers of clothing to keep from freezing to death and, by God, writing those letters. Undeterred.
Lesley Sudders has published a mystery, The Brodick Affair, writing as Les Brierfield, and is at work on her next novel and several short stories. A Colorado native, she lives in Arizona with her husband and writing collaborator Eduardo Cervino (E.C. Brierfield). Follow her blog: Les Brierfield, Author. Lesley welcomes contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.