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


FROM OGDEN TO SAN FRANCISCO.

At Ogden the Union Pacific Railroad ends and the Central Pacific Railroad begins. The Pullman drawing-room cars also end, and the silver palace-cars begin; and we are told that there are good reasons why no mortal can engage a section of a sleeping-car to be ready for him at Ogden on any particular day. “Through passengers” must be accommodated first. “Through passengers,” no doubt, see the justice of this. Way passengers cannot be expected to. But we do most emphatically realize the bearing of it when we arrive at Ogden from Salt Lake City at four o’clock in the afternoon, and find anxious men standing patiently in line, forty deep, before the ticket-office, biding their chance of having to sit up for the two nights which must be spent on the road between Ogden and San Francisco. It was a desperate hour for that ticket agent; and the crowd was a study for an artist. Most to be pitied of all were the married men, whose nervous wives kept plucking them by the coattails and drawing them out of the line once in five minutes, to propose utterly impracticable devices for circumventing or hurrying the ticket-agent. I do not know whether I reveal things which should be hid, or whether the information would be of value upon all days; but there is a side window to that ticket-office, and a superintendent sometimes stands near it, and, by lifting a green curtain, conversations can be carried on, and money and tickets passed in and out. Neither do I know how many, if any, of the forty unfortunates rode all the way bedless to San Francisco; for our first anxiety as to whether we should each get a “section” was soon merged in our second, which was almost as great—what we should do with ourselves in it. A latent sense of justice restrains me from attempting to describe a section. It is impossible to be just to a person or a thing disliked. I dislike the sleeping-car sections more than I ever have disliked, ever shall dislike, or ever can dislike any thing in the world. Therefore, I will not describe one. I will speak only of the process of going to bed and getting up in it. Fancy a mattress laid on the bottom shelf in your cupboard, and the cupboard-door shut. You have previously made choice among your possessions which ones you will have put underneath your shelf, where you cannot get at them, and which ones you must have, and will therefore keep all night on the foot of your bed (that is, on your own feet). Accurate memory and judicious selection, under such circumstances, are impossible. No sooner is the cupboard-door shut than you remember that several indispensable articles are under the shelf. But the door is locked, and you can’t get out. By which I mean that the porter has put up the curtain in front of your section, and of the opposite section, and you have partially undressed, and can’t step out into the narrow aisle without encountering the English gentleman, who is going by to heat water on the stove at the end of the car; and, even if you didn’t encounter him, you can’t get at the things which have been stowed away under your shelf, unless you lie down at full length on the floor to reach them; and you can’t lie down at full length on the floor, because most of the floor is under your opposite neighbor’s shelf. So I said the door was locked simply to express the hopelessness of the situation. Then you sit cross-legged on your bed; because, of course, you can’t sit on the edge of the shelf after the cupboard-door is shut—that is, the curtain is put up so close to the edge of your bed that, if you do sit there in the natural human manner, your knees and feet will be in the way of the English gentleman when he passes. Sitting cross-legged on your bed, you take off a few of your clothes, if you have courage; and then you cast about to think what you shall do with them. It is quite light in the cupboard, for there is a little kerosene lamp in a tiny glass-doored niche in the wall; and it gives light enough to show you that there isn’t a hook or an edge of any thing on which a single article can be hung. You gaze drearily Around on the smooth, shining panels of hard wood. It is a very handsome cupboard, a good deal plated, besides being made of fine hard woods, into which you can’t drive even a pin. At last you have an inspiration. You stand up on the edge of your bed, and, grasping the belt of your dress firmly in each hand, boldly thrust one arm out above the curtain, and hook the belt over the curtain-rod. It swings safely! You sink back triumphant and exhausted; come down on your travelling-bag, and upset it; the cork comes out of the hartshorn bottle, and the hartshorn runs into the borax. Of course, you can’t cross the Alkali Desert without a good supply of counter alkalies. By the time you have saved the remainder of these, and propped the travelling bag up again, you are frightfully cramped from sitting so long cross-legged. So you lie out straight a few minutes to rest. Then you get up again, more cautiously than before, on the edge of the bed, and hook and pin a few more garments around the curtain-rod. Just as you are looking on the last one, and feeling quite elated, the car gives a sudden jerk, and out you go, head foremost into the aisle into the very arms of the English gentleman. Being an English gentleman, he would look the other way if he could; but how can he? He must hold you up! You don’t know just how you clamber back. Nothing seems very clear to you for some minutes except the English gentleman’s face, which is indelibly stamped on your brain.

You don’t sit up for the next five or six minutes, nor make a sound. Then you reflect that the night is really to be ten hours long, and that there are hairpins and hair. There is no need of greater explicitness.

The feeblest imagination can supply details and dilemmas. You sit up again, and soon become absorbed in necessary transactions. You glance up to the left! Horrors upon horrors! The cupboard-door has suddenly swung off its hinges! That is, the flank piece of the curtain, which is intended to turn a corner at the head of the bed, and shut you off from your neighbor in the next section, being not wide enough, and having no sort of contrivance to fasten it to the wooden partition, has slid along on the rod, and left you just as much exposed to the eyes of all passers-by as if your cupboard had no door at all. You drop—well —all you have in your hands, seize the curtain and hold it in place with your thumb and finger, while you grope for a pin to pin it with. Pin it, indeed! To what? I have before mentioned that the cupboard is of panels of highly-polished hard wood and silver plating. The cars are called “silver” and “palace” for this reason. At last you pin it to the upper edge of your pillow. That seems insecure; especially so, taking into account the fact that you are a restless sleeper. But it is the only thing to be done. Having done this, you look down at the foot of the bed, and find a similar yawning aperture there. You pin this flank curtain to the blanket, and pin the blanket to the mattress. You do all these things, getting about on your knees, with the car shaking and rocking violently over an unusually rough bit of road. When the flap is firmly pinned at the head and at the foot. you lean back against the middle of the back of your cupboard, to rest. The glass door outside your little lamp is very hot. You burn your elbow on it, and involuntarily scream.

“What is the matter, ma’am?” says the friendly conductor, who happens to be passing. You start up. That is, you would, if you could; but you can’t, because you are sitting cross-legged, and have the cramp besides. But it is too late. The cupboard-door is split in the middle, and there are the conductor’s sympathizing eyes looking directly in upon you. It is evidently impossible to have the curtains made tight at the head and foot of your shelf without their parting in the middle. They are too scant. At this despair sets in. However, you unpin the flap at the foot of the bed, repin it so as to leave only a small crack, through which you hope your neighbor will be too busy to look. Then you pin the two curtains together firmly in the middle, all the way up and down. Then you lie down, with your head on your travelling bag, and resolve to do no more till the cars stop. You fall asleep from exhaustion. When you awake, darkness reigns; a heavy and poisonous air fills your cupboard; the car is dashing on through the night faster than ever. Timidly you unpin the curtains, and peer out. The narrow aisle is curtained from one end to the other; boots are set out at irregular intervals; snores rise in hideous chorus about you; everybody has gone to bed, nobody has opened his window, and most of the ventilators are shut. With all the haste you can make, you try to open the window at the foot of your bed. Alas! while the day lasted you neglected to learn the trick of the fastening; now the night has come, in which no man can undo a car-window. You take the skin off your fingers; you bruise your knuckles; you wrench your shoulder and back with superhuman strains,—all the time sitting cross-legged. At last, just as you have made up your mind to follow the illustrious precedent of Mrs. Kemble’s elbow, you hit the spring by accident, and, in your exultation, push the window wide open. A fierce and icy blast sweeps in, and your mouth is filled with cinders in a second. This will never do. Now, how to get the window partly down! This takes longer than it took to get it up; but you finally succeed. By this time you are so exhausted that absolute indifference to all things except rest seizes you. You slip in between the sheets, and shut your eyes. As you doze off, you have a vague impression that you hear something tumble off the foot of the bed into the aisle. You hope it is your boots, and not your travelling-bag, with the bottles in it; but you would not get up again to see,—no, not if the whole car-load of passengers were to be waked up by a pungent odor of ammonia and alcohol proceeding from your cupboard. Strange to say, you sleep. Your dreams are nightmares,—but still you sleep through till daylight.

As soon as you awake you spring up and listen. All is still. Some of the snores still continue. You put up a fervent ejaculation of gratitude that you have waked so early. You resume the cross-legged position, and look about you for your possessions. It was your travelling-bag, after all, which fell off the shelf. You find it upside down on the floor in the aisle. You find, also, one boot. The other cannot be found. A horrible fear seizes you that it has gone out of the window. As calmly as your temperament will permit, you go on putting your remains together. The car is running slowly; and, all things considered, you think you are doing pretty well, when suddenly you encounter, in a glistening panel on the back of your cupboard, close to the head of your bed, a sight which throws you into new perplexity. There is—yes, it is—the face of the English gentleman. But what does it mean that the eyes are closed and a red silk handkerchief is bound about his florid brow? While you stare incredulously, the face turns on its pillow. A sleepy hand stretches up and rubs one eye. The eye opens, gazes languidly about, closes again, and the English gentleman sinks off into his morning nap. You seize your pillow, prop it up against the shining panel, so as to cut off this extremely involuntary view; then you stop dressing, and think out the phenomenon. It is very simple. The partitions between the sections do not join the walls of the car by two inches or more. The polished panel just behind this space is a perfect mirror, reflecting a part of each section; then you glance guiltily down to the similar mirror at the foot of your bed. Sure enough, the same thing! There you see the head of an excellent German frau, whom you had observed the day before. She also is sound asleep. You prop your other pillow up in that corner, lest she should awake; and then you hurry on your clothes stealthily as a thief. The boot, however, cannot be found, and you are at last constrained to go to the dressing-room without it. The dressing-room is at the further end of the car. Early as you are, fellow-women are there before you—three of them; one in possession of the washbowl, two waiting for their turn. You fall into line, thankful for being only the fourth. You sit bashfully on somebody’s valise, while these strangers make their toilets. You reflect on the sweet and wonderful power of adaptation which distinguishes some natures; the guileless trust in the kindliness of their own sex which enables some women to treat all other women as if they were their sisters. The three are relating their experiences.

“Well, I got along very well,” says one, “till somebody opened a window; and after that I thought I should freeze to death. My husband, he called the conductor up, and they shut the ventilators; but I just shivered all night. Real good soap this is; ain’t it, now?”

You feel yourself blushing with guilty consciousness of that open window. But you brave it out silently.

“I wa’n’t too cold,” said the washbowl incumbent, meditatively holding her false teeth under the faucet, and changing them deftly from side to side, to wash them well. “But I’ll tell you what did happen to me. In the middle o’ the night I felt suthin’ against my head, right on the very top o’nt. And what do you think it was? ’Twas the feet of the man in the next section to ou’rn! Well, sez I, this is more’n I can stand; and I give’em such a push. I reckon he waked up, for I never felt ’em no more.”

At this you fly. You cannot trust your face any longer.

“Got tired o’ waitin’?” calls out No. 3. “You can have my turn, if you’re in a hurry. We’ve got all day before us,” and the three women chuckle drearily.

When you reach your cupboard, Frank, the handsome black porter, has already transformed your bed into two chairs. The bedding is all put away out of sight; and there, conspicuously awaiting you, stands the missing boot, on a chair. You are not proud of your boots. For good reasons you decided to wear them on this journey; but false shame wrings you as you wonder if everybody has seen how very shabby that shoe is.

The English gentleman is in the aisle, putting on his boots. The German frau is bustling about in a very demi-dress. Nobody seems to mind anybody; and, now that the thing is over with, you laugh to think how droll it all was. And so the day begins.

We are told that in the night we have passed over the Great American Desert,—sixty square miles of alkali sand. This, then, on which we look out now, is not the desert. We had thought it must be. All we can see is sand, or sage-brush, or bunch-grass. Yet it is not dreary. The tints are exquisite. “We shall not be weary of it if it lasts all day,” we said. And it did last all day. All day long tints of gray and brown; sometimes rocky ravines, with low, dark growths on their sides; sometimes valleys, which the guide-book said were fertile, but which to us looked just as gray and brown as the plains. We passed a dozen or more small towns, all looking alike, all looking far more desolate than the silent plains. A wide and dusty space, like a ploughed field, only hardened and flattened; rows or groups of small unpainted wooden houses, all trying to face the railway station, and most bearing big signs on their front of something to sell or to hire or to drink; not a tree, not a flower, not a protecting fence, —that is the thing called town all along the road of the first day’s journey westward from Ogden. But at sunset we came to something else. We had been climbing up. Snow-topped mountains were in sight all about us. The air was clear and cold. “Humboldt Station” was the name of the station to which we had been looking forward for some hours, simply because it meant “supper.” But, when we stepped out of the cars, thoughts of supper fled. Four thousand feet above the sea, among alkali sands and stony volcanic beds, there stood a brilliant green oasis. Clover fields, young trees, and vegetable gardens surrounded the little house. In front was a fountain, which sparkled in the sun. Around it was a broad rim of grass and white clover. An iron railing enclosed it. It was a pathetic sight to see rough men, even men from the emigrant-car, stretching their hands through the railing to pick a blade of grass or a clover-blossom. One great, burly fellow, lifted up his little girl, and, swinging her over the iron spikes, set her down in the grass, saying: “There! I’d like to see ye steppin’ on green grass once more.” It was a test of loyalty to green fields, and there were no traitors. We had not dreamed that we had grown so hungry for sight of true summer. Just as the train was about to start, I remembered a gentle-faced woman in our car who had not come out. I reached into the grassy rim, without looking, and picked a clover-leaf to carry her as token. I gave it to her, without having looked closely at it.

“And a four-leaved clover, too!” she exclaimed, as she took it.

It was the first four-leaved clover I ever found. I have spent hours enough to count up into weeks in searching for them. I took back my gift with a superstitious reverence for it, as omen of our journey, and also as a fitting memento of that bright oasis which patience had created in the desert, and named by the name of a good and great man.

Next morning we waked up in the Sierras. We were nearly six thousand feet above the sea. As far as we could see on either hand rose snowy tops of mountains. We were on them, below them, among them, all at once. Some were covered with pines and firs; some were glistening and bare. We looked down into ravines and gorges which were so deep they were black. Tops of firs, which we knew must be hundreds of feet high, seemed to make only a solid mossy bed below us. The sun shone brilliantly on the crests and upper slopes; now and then a sharp gleam of light showed a lake or a river far down among the dark and icy walls. It seemed almost as if these lights came from our train, as if we bore a gigantic lantern, which flashed its light in and out as we went winding and leaping from depth to depth, from peak to peak. I think nothing could happen in life which could make any human being who had looked out on this scene forget it. Presently we entered the snow-sheds. These were dreary, but could not wholly interrupt the grandeur. Fancy miles upon miles of covered bridge, with black and grimy snow-drifts, or else still blacker and grimier gutters of water, on each side the track (for the snow-sheds keep out only part of the snow); through the seams between the boards, sometimes through open spaces where boards have fallen, whirling glimpses of snow-drifts outside, of tops of trees, of tops of mountains, of bottoms of canyons,—this is snow-shed travelling. And there are thirty-nine miles of it on the Central Pacific Railroad, It was like being borne along half blindfolded through the upper air. I felt as if I knew how the Sierras might look to eagles flying over in haste, with their eyes fixed on the sun.

“Breakfast in a snow-shed this morning, ladies,” said Frank, our chamber-maid. True; the snow-shed branched off like a mining gallery, widened, and took in the front of a little house, whose door was set wide open, and whose breakfast-bell was ringing as we jumped out of the cars. We walked up to the dining-room over icy rock. Through openings at each side, where the shed joined the house, we looked out upon fields of snow, and firs, and rocky peaks; but the sun shone like the sun of June, and we had not a sensation of chill. Could one be pardoned for remembering and saying that even at this supreme moment there was additional gladness from the fact that the trout also were warm, being on blazers? A good breakfast on blazers, in a snow-shed, seven thousand feet above the sea! But there was one man in the train (all honor to his line) who breakfasted on other fare than trout and canned apricots. Just as we were about to get off, I saw him come leaping into the snow-shed from a high snow-drift. He carried a big staff in his hand.

“Oh!” said I, “you have been off on the snow.”

“Indeed, have I!” exclaimed he. “So far that I thought I should be left. And it ‘bears’ everywhere. I jumped on the ‘crust’ with all my weight.”

Almost immediately we began to descend. In a few miles we had gone down three thousand feet, the brakes all the while holding us back, lest we should roll too fast. Flowers sprang up into sight, as if conjured by a miracle out of the ice; green spaces, too, and little branches, with trees and shrubs around them. The great American Canyon seemed to open its arms, finding us bold enough to enter. Its walls are two thousand feet high, and are rifted by other canyons running down, each with its tiny silver thread of water, till they are lost in the abysses of fir-trees below. The mining villages looked gay as gardens. Every shanty had vines and shrubs and flowers about it. On all the hillsides were long, narrow wooden troughs, full of running water, like miniature canals, but swift, like brooks. One fancied that the water had a golden gleam in it, left from the precious gold it had washed. Still down, down, out of snow into bloom, out of winter into spring, so suddenly that the winter and the spring seemed equally unreal, and we half looked for summer’s grain and autumn’s vintage, station by station. Nothing could have seemed too soon, too startling. We doubled Cape Horn, in the sunny weather, as gaily as if we had been on a light-boat’s deck; but we were sitting, standing, clinging on the steps and platforms of a heavy railroad train, whose track bent at a sharp angle around a rocky wall which rose up hundreds of feet straight in the air, and reached down hundreds of feet into the green valley beneath. A flaw in an inch of iron, and the train would be lying at the bottom of the wall, broken into fine bits. But, whirling around the perilous bend, one had only a sense of glee. After-thoughts give it another name.

We reached Colfax at noon of midsummer. According to all calendars, there had been months between our breakfast and our dinner. Men and boys ran up and down in the cars, offering us baskets of ripe strawberries and huge bunches of red, white, and pink roses. Gay placards, advertising circuses and concerts, were on the walls and fences of Colfax. Yellow stages stood ready to carry people over smooth, red roads, which were to be seen winding off in many ways. “Grass Valley,” “You Bet,” and “Little York” were three of the names. Summer, and slang, and history all beckoning.

Still down. The valleys widen to plains, the snow-topped mountains grow lower and dimmer and bluer, as they fall back into horizon lines. Our road runs through fields of grain and grass, wild oats wave almost up to the very rails, and the blue lupine and the yellow eschscholtzia make masses of solid blue and gold. The Sacramento Valley seems all astir with wind-mills. pumping up water for Sacramento vineyards. Sacramento is noisy,—hacks, hotels, daily papers, and all. “Casa Svizera” on a dingy, tumble-down building catches our eye as we are hurrying out of the city; it seems to suit the vineyards into which we go. A strong, cold wind blows; it is from the western sea. We climb again. Low, curving hills, lapping and overlapping, and making soft hollows of shade, begin to rise on either hand. We wind in among them, through great spaces of yellow, waving blossom—eschscholtzia, yellow lupine, and mustard by the acre. It seems as if California’s hidden gold had grown impatient of darkness, and burst up into flower! Twilight finds us in a labyrinth of low, bare hills. They are higher, though, than they look, as we discover when we enter sharp cuts and climb up canyons; but their outlines are indescribably soft and gentle. One thinks involuntarily of some of Beethoven’s Adagios. The whole grand movement of the vast continent seems to have progressed with harmonies and successions akin to those of a symphony, and to end now with a few low, tender, gracious chords.

But the confusion of the Oaklands ferry-boat dissipates all such fancies. It seems an odd thing to cross over America—prairies, deserts, mountains—and then, after all, be ferried to the western edge of the continent. But only so can we come to the city of San Francisco, —half an hour, at least, on a little steam-tug. It is dark, and it seems like any other steam-tug; but we have crossed the continent.

By our side in the jostling crowd are two brothers, searching for each other. They have not met for twenty years. How shall the boys (become men) know each other’s faces? They do not. At last an accidental word, overheard, reveals them to each other.

I looked into the two faces. Singularly upright, sweet faces, both of them; faces that one would trust on sight, and love on knowledge. The brother that had journeyed from the East was my friend. The brother that stood waiting on the Western shore was his twin; but he looked at least twenty years the older man. There are spaces wider than lands can measure or the seas fill. This was the moment, after all, and this was the thing which will always live in my memory as significant of crossing a continent.


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