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The “plucky” adventuress who fell for a one-eyed outlaw

On one occasion, she cut open a dead bear… Getty

The Victorian adventuress Isabella Bird has “largely been forgotten by history”, says Ruby Wax in The Guardian. And that’s a tragedy, because she was “hardcore”. Born in Yorkshire, she travelled to the Rocky Mountains in 1873 after a doctor suggested that fresh air might heal her seemingly perpetual ill health. She didn’t mess around. Riding solo for 800 miles across Colorado, she climbed the state’s highest peaks wearing just a kaftan over her smock for warmth, and slept in snow for nights on end.

Bird wrangled cattle, learnt how to lasso, and became known across the Rockies as the Englishwoman “who could ride just as well as any man”. On one occasion, she cut open a dead bear and ate cherry pits from its stomach. “There’s nothing western folk admire so much as pluck in a woman,” she noted in her letters. Her trip was enlivened by a love affair with a one-eyed outlaw known as Rocky Mountain Jim, who had an affinity for violence and poetry. “A man any woman might love, but no sane woman would marry,” Bird explained in a letter to her sister, before leaving both the Rockies and her “dear desperado” behind and heading back home.

Trailblazers: A Rocky Mountain Road Trip is on BBC Two at 9pm tomorrow