by Linda Ballou
“Oh, the life on breezy hills on countless horses. This is the life meant for me. All my gear and occupations on the saddle and no thought of care.” Isabella Bird 1873
When Isabella Bird, at the age of 40, set sail for Australia and New Zealand, the Hawaiian Islands were not on her mind. Desperate for diversion from the dreary weather of Scotland and nagging maladies that kept her bedridden, she found solace in travel. She suffered from botched operations to remove carbuncles on her spine and was bled regularly with incisions and by leeches. She was so weak that doctors placed her in a steel brace to help her hold herself erect. An early victim of overdosing, she was given laudanum (opium extract), cannabis, and encouraged to drink copious amounts of alcohol to soothe the pain. Is it any wonder she was depressed?
A frightful storm off New Zealand blew the rickety vessel she was sailing on into Honolulu Bay for repair. This serendipitous mooring served to change Isabella’s life forever. The ship was only in the harbor for a week but, beguiled by the island’s beauty, Isabella went on what she termed a “ravage” of the Hawaiian Islands that lasted over six months.
At the age of twenty-eight, I found myself disheartened and sad. By then I had tasted the cynicism and exploitation found in Hollywood where I lived, cracked my head soundly on the corporate glass ceiling, and had a short stint with marriage under my belt. I dropped out of society and landed on Kauai. Like Isabella, I fell in love with the endless beauty of the lush, life-affirming Islands.
Lured by the fiery mystery of a living volcano, Isabella took passage on the Kilauea, a well-worn steamer that ferried locals to the outer islands. She slept on the ship’s skylight beneath a velvet dome pricked with stars and felt the warm trade winds. A bold-faced moon cast a path on the black water. Each breath of the balmy air stirred new life within her. In Hilo, she was given a horse and told she must ride astride up the flank of the volcano to reach the summit of Mauna Loa. It was a grueling ascent through matted vines draping the ohi’a trees pricked with blood-red blossoms. Even though her body was frail, she was ecstatic to learn that while riding astride, instead of side-saddle like a well-bred lady, she was not in pain! Exhausted, yet elated at this discovery she determined to explore all the wonders of the islands on the back of a good horse.
I spent the first couple of months on Kauai on the sunny side of the island in Poipu with my head literally stuck in the sand. I absorbed the warm energy of the sun and sloshed in the azure sea. Eventually, I found lodging on the rainy north shore which was a backwater at the time. There, I shared a house with another young woman and a man who was raising his six-month-old daughter. It wasn’t a commune; I paid rent and we lived individual lives.
I met people who were cultivating spiritual journeys, eating organic vegan food, smoking red hair cannabis, getting high on magic mushrooms, surfing a lot, and playing ukuleles. I planned to immerse myself in the beauty and raw sensuality of the island. I set a trap for lobster in the reef outside the door of my pole house at the end of tranquil Anini Road; hiked the narrow track overlooking the cobalt sea crashing upon the rugged Napali Coast up to a fern-laden grotto where I swam in the alluring plunge below Hanakap’ia Falls; sat next to expansive Hawaiian woman whose deep, powerful energy gave me the voice to sing along with her. I spent three days and three nights entirely alone in a tent on a secret beach eating fruits and nuts. This experiment was to test my reality without the mental interference of another human. Being in this state helped me determine my true course—my own reckoning. After a blissful, meditative year on the Islands, I felt centered, replenished, and ready to return to the mainland determined not to let my writing aspirations die while maintaining financial equilibrium.
After six months of harrowing and thoroughly wild horseback rides, Isabella left the healing balm of the Islands feeling invincible. She shared her exploits in her book Six Months in the Sandwich Islands giving me a roadmap to destinations that I would eventually explore.
I remained enchanted with the Hawaiian people and their culture, delved into their history, and made it my mission to write their story. This entailed going to many of the places Isabella described in her book. I spent three nights in Waipio Valley where the sacred bones of chiefs are buried in the steep cliffs framing the valley; exploring Hilo, Puna, and Mauna Loa. I booked a room overlooking Kealakekua Bay where Captain Cook was killed by the natives. I tried absorbing ancient energy at the Place of Refuge on the Big Island. I interviewed elders and read the oldest chronicles written by those alive prior to missionary contact. Isabella often stayed in rough quarters with locals, and rode in a charging cavalcade up mountains, down ravines across rivers so boldly they dubbed her a paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy). Her unrivaled descriptions of the powerful sea, lush jungles, daunting gorges on the Hamakua Coast, and mysterious Wailuku on Maui served as the lifeblood of my novel Wai-nani: A Voice from Old Hawai’i.
While living on the Islands, I was also wrestling with the question of marriage and whether I should bring another life into the world. Isabella said, ”If you want to be a vine winding around a tree, get married.” She did not marry until she was fifty and it was to a younger man who followed her lead. I wasn’t burning my bra in the streets, but I was rebelling against the traditional roles of women. It seemed the maternal gene was missing from my DNA. It was encouraging to find a woman who had many offers of marriage but decided to follow her own destiny.
I still dream of drowsy nights listening to the waves lapping softly on the shore beneath my pole house and the trade winds lifting the palms outside my open window. The warm air perfumed by night-blooming cereus and those sultry, languid days gave me solace and the strength to forge on. Isabella left the Islands because she was afraid lethargy would set in and she would never leave. She needed movement to keep her intense intellect occupied. She sailed on to San Francisco and took the train to Colorado where she rode 600 miles solo on her mountain tour.
Years later, I ran into Ms. Bird again while being hosted at a high-end guest ranch in Telluride. I used her book A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains to flesh out my articles about my high country adventure. I set out to explore all the places she described so lovingly in what became her most popular book.
Like Isabella, I am fully engaged in the state of exploration. When my travel wings were clipped by the pandemic, I wrote Embrace of the Wild inspired by this remarkable woman. I was honored to be selected to be the” Isabella Bird expert” in the BBC documentary spotlighting her harrowing adventures in the Rocky Mountains scheduled to air in November 2022.
Isabella’s later years were spent in China, Japan, Tibet, and Korea in places where no white woman had gone before. She was the first woman to be inducted into the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. A generous spirit, she gave all the profits from her writing to help those in need. Her gift to me was the courage to pursue a travel writing career. She inspired me to become more independent and to have the confidence to be myself wherever that path might take me. In short, she gave me the strength to paddle my own canoe.