Isabella Bird Bishop, an Englishwoman born in 1831, lost both her parents by the time she was 24. Afterward, she suffered from depression, backaches, and insomnia.
When her doctor recommended a change of scenery, Bishop set sail for Australia in July 1872. Six months later, she took another ship across the South Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands. A hurricane threatened to send the ship to the bottom, but Bishop was thrilled by the adventure.
In Hawaii, she watched women as well as men straddle horses while riding. (In Europe, a woman was expected to ride “sidesaddle,” with both legs on one side.) Bishop broke tradition, rode “cavalier fashion,” and loved it.
Bishop found the power and beauty of nature irresistible. She scrambled to the tops of volcanoes to watch them erupt into streams of lava. A torrent of water flowing through a gulch almost drowned her when she attempted to cross it. Drenched, exhausted, bruised, she had never felt better.
Bishop left Hawaii, sailed to the United States, and journeyed into the rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains. She worked alongside cowboys and drove cattle. One of her guides, Rocky Mountain Jim, was so smitten that he asked her to marry him. But she refused him. “He is a man any woman might love,” she wrote, “but no sane woman would marry.” Bishop traveled on to Japan, China, and Indochina (now Vietnam) before returning to England and marrying an Englishman. She wrote books of her travels that became enormously popular.
At the age of 58, Bishop traveled with missionaries to India, Turkey, and Persia. At age 70, she rode by camel 1,000 miles across Morocco. She wrote of her experiences and described the people, but she was always drawn most to the awesome spectacle of nature. And she never wearied of her travels.
Despite frail health, Bishop could eat anything and sleep anywhere. “She has the appetite of a tiger and the digestion of an ostrich,” wrote her husband. Bishop seemed to thrive on discomfort. When she died at age 79 in England, her trunks were packed for a trip to China.
Isabella Bird Bishop spent much of her travels in the shelter of tents. Her great endurance and tolerance of rough conditions allowed her to travel for months at a time.