Passing Pictures – American Travel

AS our train crossed the Great Salt Lake the farther shores were glistening in a golden haze, half real, half mirage, like the shores as you see them from the monastery at Amalfi on a sunny day. Beyond the lake a portion of the desert was glazed with a curious thin film of water—evidently overflow—in which the forms of stony hills at the mar-gin of the waste were reflected so clearly that the eye could not determine the exact point of meeting between cliff and plain. Farther out in the desert there was no water, and as we left the hills behind, the world be-came a great white arid reach, flat as only moist sand can be flat, and tragic in its desolation. For a time nothing, literally, was visible but sky and desert, save for a line of telegraph poles, rising forlornly beside the right-of-way.

I found the desert impressive, but my companion, whose luncheon had not agreed with him, declared that it was not up to specifications.

“Any one who is familiar with Frederick Remington’s drawings,” he said, “knows that there must be skeletons and buffalo skulls stuck around on deserts.”

I was about to explain that the Western Pacific was a new railroad and that probably they had not yet found time to do their landscape gardening along the line, when, far ahead, I caught sight of a dark dot on the sand. I kept my eye on it. As our train overtook it, it began to assume form, and at last I saw that it was actually a prairie schooner. Presently we passed it. It was moving slowly along, a few hundred yards from the track. The horses were walking; their heads were down and they looked tired. The man who was driving was the only human being visible; he was hunched over, and when the train went by, he never so much as turned his head.

The picture was perfect. Even my companion admitted that, and ceased to demand skulls and skeletons. And when, two or three hours later, after having crossed the desert and worked our way into the hills, we saw a full-fledged cowboy on a pinto pony, we felt that the Western Pacific railroad was complete in its theatrical accessories.

The cowboy did his best to give us Western color. When he saw the train coming, he spurred up his pony, and waving a lasso, set out in pursuit of an innocent old milch cow, which was grazing nearby. That she was no range animal was evident. Her sleek condition and her calm demeanor showed that she was fully accustomed to the refined surroundings of the stable. As he came at her she gazed in horrified amazement, quite as some fat, dignified old lady might gaze at a bad little boy, running at her with a pea-shooter. Then, in bovine alarm, she turned and lumbered heavily away. The cowboy charged and cut her off, waving his rope and yelling. However, no capture was made. As soon as the train had passed the cowboy desisted, and poor old bossy was allowed to settle down again to comfortable grazing.

After a good dinner in one of those admirable dining cars one always finds on western roads, and a good smoke, my companion and I were ready for bed. But as we were about to retire, a fellow-passenger with whom we had been talking, asked, “Are n’t you going to sit up for Elko ?”

“What is there at Elko ?” inquired my companion, with a yawn.

“Oh,” said the other, “there ‘s a little of the local color of Nevada there. You had better wait.”

“I don’t believe we’ll be able to see anything,” I put in, glancing out at the black night.

“It is something you couldn’t see by daylight,” said the stranger.

That made us curious, so we sat up.

As the train slowed for Elko, and we went to get our overcoats, we observed that one passenger, a woman, was making ready to get off. We had noticed her during the day—a stalwart woman of thirty-three or four, perhaps, who, we judged, had once been very handsome, though she now looked faded. Her hair was a dull red, and her complexion was of that milky whiteness which so often accompanies red hair. Her eyes were green, cold and expressionless, and her mouth, though well formed, sagged at the corners, giving her a discontented and rather hard look. I remember that we wondered what manner of woman she was, and that we could not decide.

The train stopped, and with our acquaintance of the car, my companion and I alighted. It was a long train, and our sleeper, which was near the rear, came to a standstill some distance short of the station building, so that the part of the platform to which we stepped was without light. Beyond the station we saw several buildings looming like black shadows, but that was all; we could make out nothing of the town.

“I don’t see much here,” I remarked to the man who had suggested sitting up.

“Come on,” he said, moving back through the blackness, towards the end of the train.

As I turned to follow him I saw the red-haired woman step down from the car and hand her suitcase to a man who had been awaiting her ; they stood for a moment in conversation; as I moved away I heard their low voices.

Reaching the last car our guide descended to the track and crossed to the other side. We followed. My first glimpse of what lay beyond gave me the impression that a large railroad yard was spread out before me, its myriad switch-lights glowing red through the black night. But as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I saw that here was not a maze of tracks, but a maze of houses, and that the lights were not those of switches, but of windows and front doors: night signs of the traffic to which the houses were dedicated.

“There,” said our acquaintance. “A few years back you ‘d have seen this in almost any town out here, but things are changing; I don’t know another place on this whole line that shows off its red light district the way Elko does.”

After looking for a time at the sinister lights, were-crossed the railroad track. As we stepped up to the platform, two figures coming in the opposite direction rounded the rear car and, crossing the rails, moved away towards the illuminated region. I heard their voices; they were the red haired woman and the man who had met her at the train.

Was she a new arrival? I think not, for she seemed to know the man, and she had, somehow, the air of getting home. Was she an “inmate” of one of the establishments? Again I think not, for, with her look of hardness, there was also one of capability, and more than any one thing it is laziness and lack of capability which cause sane women to give up freedom for such “homes.” No; I think the woman from the train was a proprietor who had been away on a vacation, or perhaps a “business trip.”

Suppose that to be true. Suppose that she had been away for several weeks. What was her feeling at seeing, again, the crimson beacon in her own window?

What must it be like to get home, when home is such a place? Could one’s mental attitude become so warped that one might actually look forward to returning—to being greeted by the “family”? Could it be that, at sight of that red light, flaring over there across the tracks, one might heave a happy sigh and say to oneself : “Ah! Home again at last ! There ‘s no place like home”—?

One thing the Western Pacific Railroad does that every railroad should do. It publishes a pamphlet, containing a relief map of its system, and a paragraph or two about every station on the line, giving the history of the place (if it has any), telling the altitude, the distance from terminal points, and how the town got its name.

From this pamphlet I judge that some one who had to do with the building of the Western Pacific Railroad, or at least with the naming of stations on the line, possessed a pleasantly catholic literary taste. Gaskell, Nevada, one stopping place, is named for the author of “Cranford”; Bronte, in the same State, for Charlotte Bronte; Poe, in California, for Edgar Allan Poe; Twain for Mark Twain; Harte for Bret Harte, and Mabie for Hamilton Wright Mabie. Other stations are named for British Field Marshals, German scientists, American politicians and financiers, and for old settlers, ranches, and landmarks.

Had there not been washouts on the line shortly before we journeyed over it, I might not have known so much about this little pamphlet, but during the night, when I could not sleep because of the violent rocking of the car, I read it with great care. Thus it happened that when, towards morning, we stopped, and I raised my curtain to find the ground covered with a blanket of snow, I was able to establish myself as being in the Sierras, somewhere in the region of the Beckwith Pass —which, by the way, is by two thousand feet, the lowest pass used by any railroad entering the State of California.

Some time before dawn the roadbed became solid and I slept until summoned by my companion to see the canon of the Feather River.

Dressing hurriedly, I joined him at the window on the other side of the car (I have observed that, almost invariably, that is where the scenery is), and looked down into what I still remember as the most beautiful canon I have ever seen.

The last time I had looked out it had been winter, yet here, within the space of a few hours, had come the spring. It gave me the feeling of a Rip Van Winkle: I had slept and a whole season had passed. Our train was winding along a serpentine shelf nicked into the lofty walls of a gorge at the bottom of which rushed a mad stream all green and foamy. Above, the mountains were covered with tall pines, their straight trunks reaching heavenward like the slender columns of a Gothic cathedral, the roof of which was made of low-hung, stone-gray cloud—a cathedral decked as for the Easter season, its aisles and altars abloom with green leaves, and blossoms purple and white.

Throughout the hundred miles for which we followed the windings of the Feather River Canon, our eyes hardly left the window. Now we would crash through a short, black tunnel, emerging to find still greater loveliness where we had thought no greater loveliness could be; now we would traverse a spindly bridge which quickly changed the view (and us) to the other side of the car. Now we would pass the intake of a power plant; next we would come upon the plant itself, a monumental pile, looking like some Rhenish castle which had slipped down from a peak and settled comfortably beside the stream.

Once the flagman who dropped off when the train stopped, brought us back some souvenirs: a little pink lizard which, according to its captor, suited itself to a vogue of the moment with the name of Salamander; and a piece of glistening quartz which he designated “fools’ gold.” And presently, when the train was under way again, we saw, far down at the water’s edge, the “fools” themselves in search of gold—two old gray-bearded placer-miners with their pans.

At last the walls of the canon began to melt away, spreading apart and drifting down into the gentle slope of a green valley starred with golden poppies.. Spring had turned to summer—a summer almost tropical, for, at Sacramento, early in the afternoon, we saw open street-cars, their seats ranged back-to-back and facing outwards, like those of an Irish jaunting-car, running through an avenue lined with a double row of palms, beneath which girls were coming home from school bare-headed and in linen sailor suits.

Imagine leaving New York on a snowy Christmas morning, and arriving that same afternoon in Buffalo, to find them celebrating Independence Day, and you will get the sense of that transition. We had passed from furs to shirtsleeves in a morning.

Late that afternoon, we left the valley and began to thread our way among the Coast Range hills—green velvet hills, soft, round and voluptuous, like the “Paps of Kerry.” We were still amongst them when the sun went down, and it was night when we arrived at the terminal in Oakland.