BITS OF TRAVEL AT HOME.
By "H. H."
[Helen Hunt Jackson]
In the Spring of 1872, Rhode Island writer, novelist, and magazine editor Helen Hunt Jackson – who wrote extensively under the penname of "H.H." – and her good friend Sarah Chauncy Woolsey of New Haven, CT – herself a prolific writer of children's books who used the penname "Susan Coolidge" – traveled together to California on the Pacific Railroad. The detailed account of that journey by "H.H." which was included in her book, "Bits of Travel at Home," appears below. Susan Coolidge also published an account of this trip in the form of a practical guide for ladies taking summer excursions from the East to San Francisco and Northern California viâ the Pacific Railroad. Her article appeared in the May, 1873, issue of "Scribner's Monthly" under the title "A Few Hints on the California Journey." —BCC
* * *
FROM CHICAGO TO OGDEN. "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
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
Our drawing-room? Yes, our drawing-room; and this is the plan of it: A small, square room, occupying the whole width of the car, excepting a narrow passageway 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, books 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 be 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 had 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
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
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 eve 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 headboards 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 tomorrow 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 lie 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.
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
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
back, gleaming out from under a ragged calashlike 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
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, saving: " Sell us the
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. Thunderstorms 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 do, at a time. What I chiefly saw was ends of tails going into holes, and tips of noses sticking out to bark.
At noon, we were invited to dine at Cheyenne, "Cheyenne City," 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 shake 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 again."
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 here these stones are kept for sale, set in gold 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 in 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 el 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
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
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
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 lie 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 sandhills, 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 cañons 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!
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
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
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 mountain narrows 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.
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 shutthat 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. Soyou 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 hooking on the last one, and feeling quite elated, the car gives a sudden jerk, and out you 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 clashing 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 isyes, it isthe 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 youthree 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 augh to think how droll it all was. And so the day begins.
Humboldt House Advertisement
Courtesy Lawrence K. Hersh.
(see image upside-down,
below next paragraph)
[One of several restaurant advertisements from the Pacific Coast Railroad Gazetteer.]
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 earth, 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 House Advertisement
"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 snowdrifts, 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 cañons, 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 diningroom 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 fist. 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 Cañon seemed to open its arms, finding us bold enough to enter. Its walls are two thousand feet high, and are rifted by other cañons 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,
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
seemed too soon, too startling. We doubled Cape Horn, in the sunny weather,
as if we had been on a lightboat's deck; but we were sitting, standing,
clinging on the steps and platforms of a heavy railroad train, whose track
a sharp angle around a rocky wall which rose up hundreds of feet straight
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 snowtopped 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 pumpin-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 band. 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 cañons; 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.
Transcribed by and courtesy of the Bruce C. Cooper Collection.
Engravings added from "Crofutt's Trans-Continental Tourist's Guide" courtesy of the Bruce C. Cooper Collection.
Travelers' Official Railway & Hotel Guide 1881, Cover.
Links relating to the author, Helen Hunt Jackson ("H.
Colorado Women's Hall of Fame - Helen Hunt Jackson - Biography and Photograph
Colorado College Tutt Library - Helen Hunt Jackson Manuscript Collection
Social History - Helen Hunt Jackson
Helen Hunt Jackson - Bibliography and Links
Selected Poetry of Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885)
A Century of Dishonor (1881) - American Indians
California Authors - Helen Hunt Jackson