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Bits of Travel at Home (1878) by Helen Hunt Jackson




Three nights and four days in the cars!” These words haunted us and hindered our rest. What should we eat and drink, and wherewithal should we be clothed? No Scripture was strong enough to calm our anxious thoughts; no friend’s experience of comfort and ease on the journey sounded credible enough to disarm our fears. “Dust is dust,” said we, “and railroad is railroad. All restaurant cooking in America is intolerable. We shall be wretched; nevertheless, we go.”

There is a handsome black boy at the Sherman House, Chicago, who remembers, perhaps, how many parcels of “life preservers” of one kind and another were lifted into our drawing-room on the Pullman cars. But nobody else will ever know.

Our drawing-room? Yes, our drawing-room; and this is the plan of it: A smalls square room, occupying the whole width of the car, excepting a narrow passage-way on one side; four windows, two opening on this passage-way and two opening out of doors; two doors, one opening into the car and one opening into a tiny closet, which held a washstand basin. This closet had another door, opening into another drawing-room beyond. No one but the occupants of the two drawing-rooms could have access to the bath-closet. On one side of our drawing-room a long sofa; on the other two large arm-chairs, which could be wheeled so as to face the sofa. Two shining spittoons and plenty of looking-glass, hooks high up on the sides, and silver-plated rods for curtains overhead, completed the list of furniture. Room on the floor for bags and bundles and baskets; room, too, for a third chair, and a third chair we had for a part of the way,—an easy-chair, with a sloping back, which belonged to another of these luxurious Pullman cars. A perplexing sense of domesticity crept over us as we settled into corners, hung up our cologne bottles, and missed the cat! Then we shut both our doors, and smiled triumphantly into each other’s faces, as the train glided out of the station. No one can realize until he has journeyed in the delightful quiet and privacy of these small drawing-rooms on the Pullman cars how much of the wear and tear of railroad travel is the result of the contact with people. Be as silent, as unsocial, as surly as you please, you cannot avoid being more or less impressed by the magnetism of every human being in the car. Their faces attract or repel; you like, you dislike, you wonder, you pity, you resent, you loathe. In the course of twenty-four hours you have expended a great amount of nerve force, to no purpose; have borne hours of vicarious suffering, by which nobody is benefited. Adding to this hardly calculable amount of mental wear and tear the physical injury of breathing bad air, we sum up a total of which it is unpleasant to think. Of the two evils the last is the worst. The heart may, at least, try to turn away from unhappy people and wicked people, to whom it can do no good. But how is the body to steel itself against unwashed people and diseased people with whom it is crowded, elbow to elbow, and knee to knee, for hours? Our first day in our drawing-room stole by like a thief. The noon surprised us, and the twilight took us unawares. By hundreds of miles the rich prairie lands had unrolled themselves, smiled, and fled. On the very edges of the crumbling, dusty banks of our track stood pink, and blue, and yellow flowers, undisturbed. The homesteads in the distances looked like shining green fortresses, for nearly every house has a tree wall on two sides of it. The trees looked like poplars, but we could not be sure. Often we saw only the solid green square, the house being entirely concealed from view. As we drew near the Mississippi River, soft, low hills came into view on each side; tangled skeins of little rivers, shaded by tall trees, wound and unwound themselves side by side with us. A big bridge lay ready, on which we crossed; everybody standing on the platform of the cars, at their own risk, according to the explicit prohibition of the railroad company. Burlington looked well, high up on red bluffs; fine large houses on the heights, and pleasant little ones in the suburbs, with patches of vineyard in the gardens.

“Make your beds now, ladies?” said the chamberman, whose brown face showed brighter brown for his gray uniform and brass buttons.

“Yes,” we replied. “That is just what we most desire to see.”

Presto! The seats of the arm-chairs pull out, and meet in the middle. The backs of the arm-chairs pull down, and lie flat on level with the seats. The sofa pulls out and opens into double width. The roof of our drawing-room opens and lets down, and makes two more bedsteads, which we, luckily, do not want; but from under their eaves come mattresses, pillows, sheets, pillow-cases, and curtains. The beds are made; the roof shut up again; the curtains hung across the glass part of the doors; the curtains drawn across the passage-way windows; the doors shut and locked; and we undress as entirely and safely as if we were in the best bedroom of a house not made with wheels. Because we are so comfortable we lie awake a little, but not long; and that is the whole story of nights on the cars when the cars are built by Pullman and the sleeping is done in drawing-rooms.

Next morning, more prairie,—unfenced now, undivided, unmeasured, unmarked, save by the different tints of different growths of grass or grain; great droves of cattle grazing here and there; acres of willow saplings, pale yellowish green; and solitary trees, which look’ like hermits in a wilderness. These, and now and then a shapeless village, which looks even lonelier than the empty loneliness by which it is surrounded,—these are all for hours and hours. We think, “now we are getting out into the great spaces.” “This is what the word ‘West’ has sounded like.” At noon we come to a spot where railway tracks cross each other. The eye can follow their straight lines out and away, till they look like fine black threads flung across the green ground, purposeless, accidental. A train steams slowly off to the left; the passengers wave handkerchiefs to us, and we to them. They are going to Denver; but it seems as if they might be going to any known or unknown planet. One man alone—short, fat—is walking rapidly away into the wide Southern hemisphere. He carries two big, shining brass trombones. Where can he be going, and what can be the use of trombones? He looks more inexplicable than ten comets.

We cross the Missouri at Council Bluffs; begin grumbling at the railroad corporations for forcing us to take a transfer train across the river; but find ourselves plunged into the confusion of Omaha before we have finished railing at the confusion of her neighbor. Now we see for the first time the distinctive expression of American overland travel. Here all luggage is weighed and rechecked for points further west. An enormous shed is filled with it. Four and five deep stand the anxious owners, at a high wooden wall, behind which nobody may go. Everybody holds up checks, and gesticulates and beckons. There seems to be no system; but undoubtedly there is. Side by side with the rich and flurried New-Yorker stands the poor and flurried emigrant. Equality rules. Big bundles of feather-beds, tied up in blue check, red chests, corded with rope, get ahead of Saratoga trunks. Many languages are spoken. German, Irish, French, Spanish, a little English, and all varieties of American, I heard during thirty minutes in that luggage-shed. Inside the wall was a pathetic sight,—a poor German woman on her knees before a chest, which had burst open on the journey. It seemed as if its whole contents could not be worth five dollars, —so old, so faded, so coarse were the clothes and so battered were the utensils. But it was evidently all she owned; it was the home she had brought with her from the Fatherland, and would be the home she would set up in the prairie. The railroad-men were good to her, and were helping her with ropes and nails. This comforted me somewhat; but it seemed almost a sin to be journeying luxuriously on the same day and train with that poor soul.

“Lunches put up for people going West.” This sign was out on all corners. Piles of apparently ownerless bundles were stacked all along the platforms; but everybody was too busy to steal. Some were eating hastily, with looks of distress, as if they knew it would be long before they ate again. Others, wiser, were buying whole chickens, loaves of bread, and filling bottles with tea. Provident Germans bought sausage by the yard. German babies got bits of it to keep them quiet. Murderous-looking rifles and guns, with strapped rolls of worn and muddy blankets, stood here and there; murderous, but jolly-looking miners, four-fifths boots and the rest beard, strode about, keeping one eye on their weapons and bedding. Well-dressed women and men with polished shoes, whose goods were already comfortably bestowed in palace-cars, lounged up and down, curious, observant, amused. Gay placards, advertising all possible routes; cheerful placards, setting forth the advantages of travellers’ insurance policies; insulting placards, assuming that all travellers have rheumatism, and should take “Unk Weed;” in short, just such placards as one sees everywhere,—papered the walls. But here they seemed somehow to be true and merit attention, especially the “Unk Weed.” There is such a professional croak in that first syllable; it sounds as if the weed had a diploma.

All this took two or three hours; but they were short. “All aboard!” rung out like the last warning on Jersey City wharves when steamers push off for Europe; and in the twinkling of an eye we were out again in the still, soft, broad prairie, which is certainly more like sea than like any other land.

Again flowers and meadows, and here and there low hills, more trees, too, and a look of greater richness. Soon the Platte River, which seems to be composed of equal parts of sand and water, but which has too solemn a history to be spoken lightly of. It has been the silent guide for so many brave men who are dead! The old emigrant road, over which they went, is yet plainly to be seen; at many points it lies near the railroad. Its still, grass-grown track is strangely pathetic. Soon it will be smooth prairie again, and the wooden head-boards at the graves of those who died by the way will have fallen and crumbled.

Dinner at Fremont. The air was sharp and clear. The disagreeable guide-book said we were only 1,176 feet above the sea but we believed we were higher. The keeper of the dining-saloon apologized for not having rhubarb-pie, saying that he had just sent fifty pounds of rhubarb on ahead to his other saloon. “You’ll take tea there to-morrow night.”

“But how far apart are your two houses?” said we.

“Only eight hundred miles. It’s considerable trouble to go back an’ forth, an’ keep things straight; but I do the best I can.”

Two barefooted little German children, a boy and girl, came into the cars here, with milk and coffee to sell. The boy carried the milk, and was sorely puzzled when I held out my small tumbler to be filled. It would hold only half as much as his tin measure, of which the price was five cents.

“Donno’s that’s quite fair,” he said, when I gave him five cents. But he pocketed it, all the same, and ran on, swinging his tin can and pint cup, and calling out, “Nice fresh milk. Last you’ll get! No milk any further west.” Little rascal! We found it all the way; plenty of it too, such as it was. It must be owned, however, that sage-brush and prickly pear (and if the cows do not eat these, what do they eat?) give a singularly unpleasant taste to milk; and the addition of alkali water does not improve it.

Toward night of this day, we saw our first Indian woman. We were told it was a woman. It was, apparently, made of old India-rubber, much soaked, seamed, and torn. It was thatched at top with a heavy roof of black hair, which hung down from a ridge-like line in the middle. It had sails of dingy-brown canvas, furled loosely around it, confined and caught here and there irregularly, fluttering and falling open wherever a rag of a different color could be shown underneath. It moved about on brown, bony, stalking members, for which no experience furnishes name; it mopped, and mowed, and gibbered, and reached out through the air with more brown, bony, clutching members; from which one shrank as from the claws of a bear. “Muckee! muckee!” it cried, opening wide a mouth toothless, but red. It was the most abject, loathly living thing I ever saw. I shut my eyes, and turned away. Presently, I looked again. It had passed on; and I saw on its back, gleaming out from under a ragged calash-like arch of basket-work, a smooth, shining, soft baby face, brown as a brown nut, silken as silk, sweet, happy, innocent, confiding, as if it were babe of a royal line, borne in royal state. All below its head was helpless mummy,—body, legs, arms; feet bandaged tight, swathed in a solid roll, strapped to a flat board, and swung by a leathern band, going around the mother’s breast. Its great, soft, black eyes looked fearlessly at everybody. It was as genuine and blessed a baby as any woman ever bore. Idle and thoughtless passengers jeered the squaw, saying: “Sell us the pappoose.” “Give you greenbacks for the pappoose.” Then, and not till then, I saw a human look in the India-rubber face. The eyes could flash, and the mouth could show scorn, as well as animal greed. The expression was almost malignant, but it bettered the face; for it made it the face of a woman, of a mother.

At sunset, the clouds, which had been lying low and heavy all the afternoon, lifted and rolled away from the outer edge of the world. Thunder-storms swept around the horizon, followed by broken columns of rainbow, which lasted a second, and then faded into gray. When we last looked out, before going to bed, we seemed to be whirling across the middle of a gigantic green disc, with a silver rim turned up all around, to keep us from falling off, in case we should not put down the brakes quick enough on drawing near the edge.

Early the next morning, we saw antelopes. They were a great way off, and, while they stood still, might as well have been big goats or small cows; but, when they were good enough to bound, no eye could mistake them. The sight of these consoled us for having passed through the buffalo country in the night. It also explained the nature of the steaks we had been eating. How should steaks be tender cut out of that acrobatic sort of muscle? We passed also the outposts of Prairie Dog Town. The owls and the rattlesnakes were “not receiving,” apparently; but the droll, little squirrel-like puppies met us most cordially. The mixture of defiance and terror, of attack and retreat, in their behavior was as funny as it always is in small dogs, who bark and run, in other places. But the number and manner of shelters made it unspeakably droll here. I am not sure that I actually saw the whole of any one prairie dog at a time. What I chiefly saw was ends of tails going into holes, and tips of noses sticking out to hark.

At noon, we were invited to dine at Cheyenne,— “Cheyenne Citv,” it is called. Most of the buildings which we saw were one-story wooden ones,—small, square, with no appearance of roofs, only a square, sharp-cornered front, like a section of board fence. These all faced the railroad station, were painted with conspicuous signs,—such as “Billiard Saloon,” “Sample Room,” “Meals for Fifty Cents;” and, in the doors of most of them, as the train arrived, there stood a woman or a boy, ringing a shrill bell furiously. It is curious, at these stations, to see how instantly the crowd of passengers assorts itself, and divides into grades,— of people seeking for the best; people seeking for the cheapest; and other people, most economical of all, who buy only hot drinks, having brought a grocery store and a restaurant along with them in a basket-tower. The most picturesque meals are set out on boards in the open air, and the most interesting people eat there; but I am afraid the food is not good. However, there was at Cheyenne a lively widow, presiding over a stall of this sort, where the bread and cheese and pickles looked clean and eatable. She had preserved strawberries also, and two bottles of California wine, and a rare gift at talking. She was a pioneer,—had come out alive from many Indian fights. Her husband had fared less well,— being brought home dead, with fourteen arrows in his body; but even this did not slake her love for the West. She “would not go back to the East, not on no account.” “Used to live in Boston;” but she “didn’t never want to see any o’ them sixpenny towns agin.”

In this neighborhood are found the beautiful moss agates,—daintiest of all Nature’s secret processes in stone. Instead of eating dinner, we ran up to a large shop where these stones are kept for sale, set in gold which may be said to be of their own kin, since it comes from Colorado.

The settings were not pleasing; but the stones were exquisitely beautiful. What geology shall tell us the whole of their secret? Dates are nothing, and names are not much. Here are microscopic ferns, feathery seaweeds, tassels of pines, rippling water-lines of fairy tides, mottled drifts of sand or snows,—all drawn in black or crowded gray, on and in and through the solid stone. Centuries treasured, traced, copied, embalmed them. They are too solemnly beautiful to be made into ornaments and set swinging in women’s ears!

From Cheyenne to Sherman, we rode on the engine, —on the foremost engine; for we were climbing mountains, and it needed all the power of two engines to draw us up.

At Cheyenne, we were only six thousand feet above the sea: at Sherman, we should be eight thousand two hundred and forty-two. The throbbing puffs, almost under our feet, sounded like the quick-drawn, panting breaths of some giant creature. Once in every three or four minutes, the great breastplate door opened; and we looked into its heart of fire, and fed it with fuel. Once in every three or four minutes, one of the keepers crept along on its sides, out to its very mouth, and poured oil into every joint: he strode its neck, and anointed every valve. His hand seemed to pat it lovingly, as he came back, holding on by the shining rods and knobs and handles. I almost forgot to look at the stretches of snow, the forests of pines, the plateaus of mountain-tops, on either hand, so absorbed was I ill the sense of supernatural motion.

The engineer seemed strangely quiet; a calm, steady look ahead,—never withdrawn for a moment at a time from the glistening, black road before us. Now and then, a touch on some spring or pulley, when great jets of steam would spurt out, or whistling shrieks of warning come.

“Where is the rudder?” said I, being from the sea. The engineer looked puzzled, for a second; then, laughing, said: “Oh! I don’t steer her; she steers herself. Put her on the track, and feed her. That’s all.”

Up, up, up! We are creeping, although we are mounting by steam. Snow lies on every side; and clumps of firs and pines, and rocks of fantastic shapes, are the only things which break this desolate loneliness. We are so much above the tops of many mountains that they themselves blend and become wide fields. over which we look to the far horizon, where rise still higher peaks, white with snow. We see off in all directions, as we did on the plains; yet clouds are below us, rolling and rising, and changing like meadow-mists! Still, we climb. The trees are stunted and bent, the rocks are dark and terrible; many of them look like grotesque idols, standing erect or toppling over. Wyoming has well named this region “The Black Hills.”

At Sherman, we dropped one of our engines, and left off using the other. The descent is so sharp and sudden that no steam is needed, only the restraining brakes.

A few hours later, at Laramie, we were again on a plain. We had gone down hill steadily, for miles and miles. The guide-book seemed incredible, when we read that we were still more than seven thousand feet above the sea. Yet here were wide plains, droves of cattle, little runs of water, and flowers on every side. The sun was setting in a broad belt of warm, yellow sky; snow lay in the crevices of the lower hills, and covered the distant ranges; winter and spring seemed to have wed.

On the morning of the fourth day we looked out on a desert of sage-brush and sand; but the desert had infinite beauties of shape and the sage had pathos of color. Why has the sage-bush been so despised, so held up to the scorn of men? It is simply a miniature olive-tree. In tint, in shape, the resemblance is wonderful. Travellers never tire of recording the sad and subtle beauty of Mediterranean slopes, gray with the soft, thick, rounded tops of olive orchards. The stretches of these sage-grown plains have the same tints, the same roundings and blendings of soft, thick foliage; the low sand-hills have endless variety of outline, and all strangely suggestive. There are fortresses, palisades, roof slopes with dormer windows, hollows like cradles, and here and there vivid green oases. In these oases cattle graze. Sometimes an Indian stands guarding them, his scarlet legs gleaming through the sage, as motionless as the cattle he watches. A little further on we come to his home,—a stack of bare bean-poles, apparently on fire at the top; his family sitting by, in a circle, cross-legged, doing nothing! Then comes a tract of stony country, where the rocks seem also as significant and suggestive as the sand-hills, —castles, and pillars, and altars, and spires: it is impossible to believe that human hands have not wrought them.

For half of a day we looked out on such scenes as these, and did not weary. It is monotonous; it is desolate: but it is solemn and significant. The day will come when this gray wilderness will be red with roses, golden with fruit, glad and rich and full of voices. At noon, at Evanstown, the observation car was attached to the train: (when will railroad companies be wise enough to know that no train ought to be run anywhere without such an open car?) Twice too many passengers crowded in; everybody opened his umbrella in somebody’s else eye, and unfolded his map of the road on other knees than his own; but after a few miles the indifferent people and those who dreaded cinders, smoke, and the burning of skin, drifted back again into the other cars, leaving the true lovers of sky, air, and out-door room to enjoy the cations in peace.

What is a cañon? Only a valley between two high hills; that is all, though the word seems such a loud and compound mystery of warfare, both carnal and spiritual. But when the valley is thousands or tens of thousands of feet deep, and so narrow that a river can barely make its way through by shrinking and twisting and leaping; when one wall is a mountain of grassy slope and the other wall is a mountain of, straight, sharp stone; when from a perilous road, which creeps along on ledges of the wall which is a mountain of stone, one looks across to the wall which is grassy slope, and down at the silver line of twisting, turning, leaping river, the word cañon seems as inadequate as the milder word valley! This was Echo Cañon. We drew near it through rocky fields almost as grand as the cañon itself. Rocks of red and pale yellow color were piled and strewn on either hand in a confusion so wild that it was majestic: many of them looked like gateways and walls and battlements of fortifications; many of them seemed poised on points, just ready to fall; others rose massive and solid, from terraces which stretched away beyond our sight. The railroad track is laid (is hung would seem a truer phrase) high up on the right-hand wall of the cañon,—that is, on the wall of stone. The old emigrant road ran at the base of the opposite wall (the wall of grassy slopes), close on the edge of the river. Just after we entered the cañon, as we looked down to the river, we saw an emigrant party in sore trouble on that road. The river was high and overflowed the road; the crumbling, gravelly precipice rose up hundreds of feet sheer from the water; the cattle which the poor man was driving were trying to run up the precipice, but all to no purpose; the wife and children sat on logs by the wagon, apathetically waiting,— nothing to be done but to wait there in that wild and desolate spot till the river chose to give them right of way again. They were so many hundred feet below us that the cattle seemed calves and the people tiny puppets, as we looked over the narrow rim of earth and stone which upheld us in the air. But I envied them. They would see the cañon, know it. To us it would be only a swift and vanishing dream. Even while we are whirling through, it grows unreal. Flowers of blue, yellow, purple are flying past, seemingly almost under our wheels. We look over them down into broader spaces, where there are homesteads and green meadows. Then the cañon walls close in again, and, looking down we see only a silver thread of river; looking up, we see only a blue belt of sky. Suddenly we turn a sharp corner and come out on a broad plain. The cañon walls have opened like arms, and they hold a town named after their own voices, Echo City. The arms are mighty, for they are snow-topped mountains. The plain is green and the river is still. On each side are small cañons, with green threads in their centres, showing where the streams come down. High up on the hills are a few little farm-houses, where Americans live and make butter, like the men of the Tyrol. A few miles further the mountains narrow again, and we enter a still wider gorge. This is Weber Cañon. Here are still higher walls and more wonderful rocks. Great serrated ledges crop out lengthwise the hills, reaching from top to bottom, high and thin and sharp. Two of these, which lie close together, with apparently only a pathway between (though they are one hundred feet apart), are called the Devil’s Slide. Why is there so much unconscious tribute to that person in the uncultivated minds of all countries? One would think him the patron saint of pioneers. The rocks still wear shapes of fortifications, gateways, castle fronts, and towers, as in Echo Cañon; but they are most exquisitely lined, hollowed, grooved, and fretted.

As we whirl by, they look as the fine Chinese carvings in ivory would chiselled on massive stones by tools of giants.

The cañon opens suddenly into a broad, beautiful meadow, in which the river seems to rest rather than to run. A line of low houses, a Mormon settlement, marks the banks; fields of grain and grass glitter in the early green; great patches of blue lupine on every hand look blue as blue water at a distance, the flowers are set so thick. Only a few moments of this, however, and we are again in a rocky gorge, where there is barely room for the river, and no room for us, except on a bridge. This, too, is named for that same popular person, “Devil’s Gate.” The river foams and roars under our feet as we go through. Now comes another open plain,—wide, sunny, walled about by snow mountains, and holding a town. This is Ogden, and the shining water which lies in sight to the left is the Great Salt Lake!

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