Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now
By Robert Root
University of Oklahoma Press, $19.95, 306 pages
In Following Isabella: Travels in Colorado Then and Now, Robert Root becomes a model “migrant flatlander” by making an adventure of his move to Colorado’s Front Range from central Michigan. Root’s wife takes on a new job in Denver, and he follows, but readers of this book will soon discover that its author isn’t content to sit around and do yard work in his retirement.
Instead, Root immerses himself in Colorado’s natural and literary history and sets out to explore his new surroundings including the state’s hiking trails, back roads, and high peaks. Root models his travels after those of bold British traveler Isabella Bird, who visited the Colorado Territory in 1873 and wrote about what she discovered in her classic travel narrative A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.
As Root retraces her three-month journey, Isabella Bird emerges as more of a muse than simply as one of Colorado’s early adventurers. She prompts Root to consider what it means for an outsider to try to understand a new place. And in using Bird’s travels as a template for his own, Root moves from being someone “completely adrift” in his new surroundings to being someone who can say that he has “achieved a Colorado of [his] own.”
Such a transformation doesn’t occur overnight, nor does it happen spontaneously. Root maps and plans his explorations, and Following Isabella is neatly organized into sections that detail important geographical markers such as Colorado’s plains and canyons. Root devotes a section each to tours of Colorado’s mining district and to its “southern circuit,” which includes his visits to Colorado Springs and the Florissant Valley, and his precarious drive up the rough dirt road of Boreas Pass. In this way, the Colorado landscape—along with Bird’s historic travels—becomes the impetus for this story’s narrative development.
Root titles two of the book’s middle sections “The Park” and “The Peak,” referring to Estes Park and to Long’s Peak, the fourteen-thousand-plus-foot peak that dominates the Rocky Mountain National Park skyline. That Root devotes a hefty chunk of his book’s midsection—its heart, one might say—to these topics isn’t surprising given Isabella Bird’s love of Estes Park and her courageous explorations of its surroundings, including a successful early summit of Long’s Peak.
In Estes Park, Isabella Bird revels in the mountain landscape and participates with the locals by helping them round up cattle grazing freely in the valley. Bird’s partnership with others living in this place perhaps gives her a deeper sense of it, and Root’s attempt to experience these things for himself doesn’t go unrewarded. Through an artist-in-residency program, Root lives for a few weeks within Rocky Mountain National Park in famed editor William Allen White’s cabin. Here, he wakes to the sounds of squirrels scratching around in his rafters and coyotes yowling just outside his front door.
In such a setting, Root becomes aware of the proximity he shares with Isabella Bird. He grants that while he can’t dwell in the same place with Bird at the same time, he is yet beginning to understand the “feelings she gives voice to.” In an insightful moment, Root comes to realize that the “sense of identification…with a place that enthralls you can make you confused about whether you possess the place or the place possesses you.” Nonetheless, Root comes to echo Isabella Bird’s emphatic declaration: “Such as it is, Estes Park is mine.”
This is a pivotal moment in the narrative because here Root begins to see himself as someone in communion with the Rocky Mountain landscape. He is no longer the outside observer he may have felt himself to be at the beginning of the book. More importantly, Root starts to think of himself as being more than someone simply in a new place; he begins to comprehend what it means to be of< that place as well.
In Following Isabella, Robert Root again showcases his talents as a writer of place. His natural descriptions and reflections on the Rocky Mountain landscape will make other flatlanders want to follow in his footsteps, and Colorado natives will read this book knowing that Root has written a memorable testament to their home state.
Readers who prefer their action fast-paced may have a difficult time, however, with the more slow-steady approach of this writer. Root comes across as a cool-headed narrator, and he leans towards lingering descriptions of his surroundings. It takes time for Root’s own narrative and the story of Isabella Bird to come together, as it isn’t until Root understands more about his role in this new place that their stories successfully merge.
For readers who are content to invest that time in this narrative, the rewards are many. In one standout chapter, for example, Root climbs to the summit of Long’s Peak along with several other members of the Colorado Mountain Club. Throughout the narrative of his ascent, Root weaves in story of Isabella Bird’s Long’s Peak climb, and he also adds in enough mountaineering history and natural detail to give readers a rich account of this adventurous undertaking.
Just as Root uses Isabella Bird’s travels as a template for his own, Following Isabella offers readers a way to relate to their surroundings, whether they’re familiar or new. Root sets out on a search to find out how he fits in to a new place, but his tale ends up being a guidebook, or sorts, for those wanting to explore how much more deeply connected they can be to the places in which they live.