Amiable, bookish wanderings along paths blazed by a genteel lady in the Rockies more than a century ago.
Root, a retired professor from Michigan, tracks the English travel writer Isabella Bird, whose A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains was published in 1879. Recounting a season’s exploration of the mining towns and byways above modern Denver, Bird’s book did not, as Root quietly notes, really describe “a life”—and other women had written about the region before Bird got there. But she hit the zeitgeist, and, as one later editor observed, gave early voice to the preservationist impulse that would lead to the protection of Estes Park and other places. Root writes more prosaically than Bird, who was given to bursts of Victorian purplishness, but he has a well-honed appreciation for such things as how the sky of the Great Plains meets the towering mountains. While admitting to a touch of acrophobia, he has no fear of traveling vertiginous mountain roads “strewn with fallen rocks the size and shape of urban telephone books” in pursuit of just the right all-commanding overlook. “I concede to her the prize for pluck and perseverance, for resolve and resilience,” he writes. “By comparison, I’m rather wussy and don’t intend to be otherwise.” Perhaps so, but Root is no slouch. It’s true that Bird traveled by horseback and Root by compact car and other motorized vehicles, but they share qualities and concerns, finding plenty of untraveled stretches of all-too-busy Colorado to write about and marveling at them. Root also does a nice job of bringing Bird to life by reminding readers of her relationship with a wily mountain man who appeared to her in a faraway vision on the night he was shot to death—“a quirky story,” he notes, that reminds us that Bird was “complex and problematic.”
A worthy addition to Colorado literature.