At the turn of the twentieth century, the Rocky Mountains were still barely settled, and hardly tamed. While the transportation revolution made it possible to cross the continent quickly, mountain men, hardy pioneers, and intrepid travelers ventured into the wilderness to prove their mettle in the last of the untamed places. For one author, to ride in the Rocky Mountains was “to save your soul” from the confining influence of polite society.
Adventurer and writer Mary Roberts Rinehart sure thought so.
Born in 1876 to a genteel family in Pittsburgh, Rinehart studied to be a nurse and married a doctor. Her life was prosperous, but rather boring. It changed with the stock market crash of 1903. Hurting for cash, Rinehart began selling serial mystery stories to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. They became wildly popular and, by 1907, she was a best-selling novelist.
Often called the “American Agatha Christie,” Rinehart published about a book a year, many of which became immediate bestsellers. She also wrote plays, one of which, “The Bat,” was the inspiration for the Batman character.
Although Rinehart relished her fame and fortune among the East Coast elite, she also enjoyed defying the conventions of a wealthy lady writer. With the outbreak of the First World War, Rinehart managed to persuade her editor to send her to the western front as a correspondent. Despite a ban on journalists in occupied France, Rinehart convinced her contacts in London that her nursing career gave her the perfect cover. Rinehart finagled passage over the channel and soon she was dispatching regular updates from the Belgian front. She was widely read and trusted, a dashing literary celebrity, and the first American reporter on the front lines.
Despite her success, Rinehart returned home in a funk. Perhaps she felt a bit restless set back in her rarified life, surrounded by children and husband and domestic concerns. Luckily, a Wyoming landowner (and arguably the first dude rancher) named Howard Eaton came into her picture with a rather appealing proposal.
Eaton made it his business to guide the wealthy and intrepid through the wilderness of the West. He had a particular interest in fostering a tourist industry at the newly established Glacier National Park. It was remote and rugged country, but he knew the awe-inspiring sites would prove popular to an eastern audience. So, he enlisted Rinehart to come with him on an expedition. She would, of course, write home about the trek to her avid fans. For an adventure-starved author tired of suburban comfort, it was a win-win.
So, Rinehart set out with Eaton and a large party of cowboys and wranglers to ride 300 miles across the Continental Divide. She became, in her own words, a “sportsman of the road,” wearing a divided skirt and heavy boots. She learned to tack up her own horse, spent her leisure time angling for trout in the Flathead river, and floated uncharted rapids in a wooden boat.
A seasoned backcountry traveler, she scoffed at the tourists who crowded the roadways in the more populated sections of the park, ogling her rough riding party as they passed. Rinehart bemoaned that they ought to do their traveling to the cinema instead.
The Glacier expedition would not be Rinehart’s last adventure. In 1917 she set out for the backcountry again, this time with sons and husband in tow. The family trekked through the remote Chelan country of Washington State, occasionally filling in blank spots on USGS maps along the way. This expedition was longer and more dangerous than Glacier, but Rinehart never shied from the ice and glaring sun, from the harsh beauty of the high places. Her account of the adventure became the book Tenting Tonight.
In Montana, Rinehart was christened Pitamikan, or Running Eagle, by the Blackfoot tribe. True to her name, she rarely slowed down. Rinehart stormed the office of the Secretary of the Interior to demand federal relief for the tribe. The bureaucrats listened to Running Eagle. Later, Rinehart was sent to the Mexican border by the War Department on an intelligence mission, only to write another adventure story about the experience. She hiked the Grand Canyon, fished for sharks in the Florida Keys, and witnessed the ancient Hopi snake dance at Oraipi.
Even the most adventurous Victorian woman was expected to return home, eventually. At the end of a hard journey, Rinehart would board her train east, hunting clothes stained and torn. Once, she even did this with a three-foot flathead trout in hand. Steaming back to polite society over the wide plains, she brought with her enticing tales of wild places and hardy companions. She wrote: “The lure of the high places is in your blood. The call of the mountains is the real call…Go out to the west…the mountains will get you. You will go back.”
She was correct. Every year until her death, Mary Roberts Rinehart returned west, to ride in the high country of the Rockies, to save her soul.