Written by Jo Woolf, the RSGS Writer-in-Residence, who recently authored The Great Horizon in which Isobella Bird features.
“I am forming a plan for getting farther into the mountains… There is a most romantic place called Estes Park, at a height of 7,500 feet, which can be reached by going down to the plains and then striking up the St Vrain Canyon…” (Isabella Bird, 1873)
High in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Estes Park was named after Joel Estes and his son, Milton, who went there looking for gold in 1859. They found no fortune, but built a cattle ranch and moved in with their family. This was an untamed, unforgiving country of long bitter winters, demanding hardiness and total self-sufficiency of its inhabitants. With the nearest town a couple of days’ ride away over difficult country, arguments were often settled at gunpoint and questions asked later, if at all.
After a couple of bad years the Estes family moved away, and in their place came a rugged Welshman named Griff Evans, who renovated the log cabins and began to rent them out. Evans’ nearest neighbour was Jim Nugent, otherwise known as ‘Rocky Mountain Jim’, a notoriously trigger-happy outlaw with a fiery temper. Both were inveterate alcoholics; they tolerated each other, but tensions were building and a shoot-out was inevitable.
Into this powder-keg scenario rode Isabella Bird, the unmarried daughter of a Yorkshire vicar, making the best of a borrowed horse.
Although she suffered from frail health, for some curious reason the thrill of travel stimulated Isabella’s mind and body, allowing her to endure the kind of discomforts that she would never have entertained at home. Fresh from the rainforests of Hawaii, in the autumn of 1873 Isabella had arrived in San Francisco and travelled by train across the Sierra Nevada into Utah and Wyoming. Her plan was “to plunge boldly into Colorado.”
In Hawaii she had been relatively safe, making friends with British officials and their families, but now she was riding into unknown danger. It took considerable determination just to reach Estes Park, because there was no visible track, and the terrain was virtually impassable. Isabella’s first guides tried several routes but were forced to turn back when their horses kept stumbling and Isabella suffered a nasty fall. Back in her dismal lodgings in Longmont, she tended her injured arm and found new guides. This time, she succeeded in reaching her goal. On 28th September, she wrote an exultant letter to her sister, Henrietta:
“I have just dropped into the very place I have been seeking but in everything it exceeds all my dreams. I have a log cabin, raised on six posts, all to myself… and a small lake close to it. There is health in every breath of air…”
Isabella’s host was Griff Evans, and she was renting one of his cabins. It seems that Evans, with remarkable forward thinking, was one of the pioneers of an early tourist industry, and Isabella was one of his first guests. Her residence was spartan: she soon found that snow would find its way in through the gaps in the walls and form piles that needed to be swept out in the morning. But she could light a fire, and she was invited to eat with her hosts in the main cabin, where the menu consisted of ample meat, potatoes and freshly baked bread. She was jubilant.
The surrounding scenery was breathtaking. Isabella gazed in awe at an immense ridge of mountains with pine trees growing in the canyons, and stands of golden aspen and cottonwood glowing in the sunshine. The air was keen and pure, and there was a deep sense of solitude; frost persisted all day, against a sky that was a deep brilliant blue. This was the haunt of elk and mountain lions, grizzly bear and wolf; but for Isabella, any danger from wild animals was infinitely preferable to the swarms of flies and locusts that had made her life unbearable down in the prairies.
A perceptive judge of character, she soon summed up Griff Evans and his wife as “jovial, hearty Welsh people from Llanberis, who laugh with loud, cheery British laughs,” and noted with delight that the whole family, including the children, could sing naturally in harmony. But Isabella was never one to sit and warm her hands by the fire when there were adventures to be had. She lost no time in getting herself acquainted with Rocky Mountain Jim.
Outside his black log cabin, its mud roof covered with drying animal skins, a big dog growled at her approach. More pelts were piled high near the door, along with deer antlers and old horseshoes. “It mattered not,” remembered Isabella, “that it was the home, or rather den, of a notorious ‘ruffian’ or ‘desperado’… I longed to speak to some one who loved the mountains.”
At the warning of his dog, the object of Isabella’s curiosity soon emerged. She beheld a broad, thickset man of about 45, with an old cap on his head, wearing a ragged hunting suit and a digger’s scarf knotted around his waist; in his belt was a knife, and a revolver protruded from his coat pocket. Isabella’s gaze, however, was riveted on his face. Handsome features and an aquiline nose were framed by tawny curls which fell over his collar. From one side, he was strikingly handsome; but the other side of his face was horribly disfigured and one eye was missing, the result of a near-death encounter with a grizzly bear many years ago. While Isabella hesitated, he swore at his dog and then raised his cap, asking politely if he could be of assistance. Summoning her courage, she asked if she might have a glass of water; he brought her a drink in a battered tin can, with profuse apologies.
So began the most unlikely of friendships. Isabella, lured as ever by the sight of distant mountain summits, set her heart on climbing Long’s Peak, and asked Jim Nugent if he would be her guide. Griff Evans’ wife baked her enough bread for several days, and she borrowed a pair of Evans’ old boots; over her horse’s saddle, she draped blankets and a warm quilt, knowing that the nights would be freezing.
“The long shadows of the pines lay upon the frosted grass, an aurora leaped fitfully, and the moonlight, though intensely bright, was pale beside the red, leaping flames of our pine logs…”
Lighting a camp fire in the evenings, they sang and recited poems as they gazed at its warm glow, and then made a bed out of pine shoots and blankets. Two young surveyors had gone with them for the experience – the same two young men who had guided Isabella into Estes Park. They provided extra assurance of her safety, although it is doubtful by this time whether Isabella was worried. Hearing wolves howling in the distance, Jim ordered his faithful collie, Ring, to sleep next to Isabella’s bed.
As the air grew colder and breathing became more difficult, Isabella began to have serious trouble with the over-large boots that Griff Evans had lent her. “You know I have no head and no ankles,” she wrote to her sister, “and never ought to dream of mountaineering.” It was a bit late for regrets of that kind, but Jim heroically hauled Isabella up all the most difficult stretches. Not for nothing was the 14,200-foot Long’s Peak called ‘the American Matterhorn’. By the time Isabella reached the summit, she was exhausted, dizzy and nauseous. The climbers placed their names and the date of their ascent in a tin which they secreted into a crevice, and started back down. “I had various falls, and once hung by my frock, which caught on a rock, and ‘Jim’ severed it with his hunting knife, upon which I fell into a crevice full of soft snow,” she remembered. Later that night, Isabella wrapped herself in her blankets and gazed up at the stars; the party returned safely to Estes Park just days before the first snows made the mountain inaccessible for the next eight months.
Isabella drew on her considerable horse-riding skills to help out in the cattle driving. This entailed long and arduous days in the saddle, sometimes staying in tumbledown lodges with the cowboys. Trusting as she was, she slept with a revolver under her pillow. She developed a fondness for Jim: “Mr Nugent is what is called ‘splendid company… he has pathos, poetry, and humour, an intense love of nature… a great power of fascination, and a singular love of children.” He also had dark moods, of which she was well aware; but she was not quite ready for the revelations that he was about to make to her.
As winter storms raged and snow lay thick against the cabin walls, Thanksgiving Day was celebrated with a feast. Shortly afterwards, Isabella decided that it was time for her to move on. Jim Nugent called to see her one day, and asked her to go out horse-riding with him. As they rode, he told her that she was the first person who had treated him like a human “for many a year,” and poured out his life story. Isabella listened in growing horror: after a doomed love affair as a young man, he had first entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and then joined the Indian Scouts of the Plains. He developed a reputation for violence and lawlessness, and had a string of bloody crimes to his credit. While he was unwelcome in all the local bars and saloons, women were still attracted to him, and despite his notoriety he claimed that his chivalry never failed him.
“He made me promise to keep one or two things secret whether he were living or dead, and I promised, for I had no choice; but they come between me and the sunshine sometimes, and I wake at night to think of them.”
Jim made Isabella a proposal of marriage. Isabella, heartbroken but adamant, refused. In the early days of December, it was Jim who escorted her out of Estes Park and bade farewell to her on her long journey back to Britain. Before they parted, they made a promise to each other: that if there was such a thing as life after death, the first of them to die would appear to the other to let them know. Isabella, who had watched Jim’s smouldering hatred of Griff Evans, and had tried in vain to talk him out of his addiction to whisky, knew that she would not see him alive again.
On arriving in London, Isabella began to collect her letters and prepare them for publication in a book about her journey. In July 1874, just as she was about to depart for Switzerland, she received news that Jim Nugent was dead. Various stories emerged, but the general consensus was that he had been involved in a drunken shoot-out with Griff Evans. Isabella grieved deeply and alone, feeling that his life had been wasted. One morning in early September, as she lay in bed in her Swiss hotel, she opened her eyes to see Jim, dressed in his hunting suit just as she remembered him, standing in the middle of the room. As his eyes met hers, he said, “I have come as I promised.” Then, with a farewell salute, he disappeared.
Later, Isabella discovered that Jim had not died immediately; a doctor had attended him, and he had been sent to a hotel in Fort Collins, where he lingered for several months. The date of his death coincided with her vision. She cherished the memory of him all her life.
Isabella’s career as an explorer, photographer and travel writer would take her all over the world, including much of Asia and the Far East. Her book, ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’ was startlingly frank about her experiences, in view of the strait-laced Victorian society into which it was launched, but Isabella maintained her spotless reputation with skill and determination. Travellers, she once said, were allowed to do the most improper things with perfect propriety.
2019 marks the 140th anniversary of the publication of ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’. Isabella would later become the first female Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and she was also one of the Society’s first woman lecturers. When she was not travelling, she shared in a house above Tobermory harbour with her sister, Henrietta.