A recent article in the Wall Street Journal was about Mark Twain’s Roughing It as one of America’s “road” books that far preceded Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that recently had it’s fiftieth anniversary.
I have read and reread On the Road several times over the years, so I downloaded Twain’s book from Gutenberg.org, intending just to glance through it. I expected his humor to be dated because I remembered Miss Christ (or Mrs. Christ?) was wildly enthusiastic about P. G. Wodehouse whose humor left me cold, then and now.
It was much better than I expected and I read through the whole thing. It is one of Twain’s early books, and he describes traveling by stagecoach from Missouri to Nebraska, accompanying his brother who was appointed secretary of the territory by Lincoln.
The journey took several days of constant travel. The horses were changed at way stations every ten miles and they could only make about fifty miles a day, but they also traveled through the night. At first, there were only him and his brother and another man as passengers, and a lot of mail stacked beside them. The driver was like the captain of the ship, and a conductor on board took care of details. Both changed every twelve hours.
For one short stretch, a woman passenger joined them—
Apparently she was not a talkative woman. She would sit there in the gathering twilight and fasten her steadfast eyes on a mosquito rooting into her arm, and slowly she would raise her other hand till she had got his range, and then she would launch a slap at him that would have jolted a cow; and after that she would sit and contemplate the corpse with tranquil satisfaction–for she never missed her mosquito; she was a dead shot at short range. She never removed a carcass, but left them there for bait. I sat by this grim Sphinx and watched her kill thirty or forty mosquitoes–watched her, and waited for her to say something, but she never did.
Now, that is funny stuff! The book is also interesting by its description of traveling a long distance by stagecoach. Twain wrote this about ten years after the event and already the train had made the journey obsolete.
Occasionally, Twain would ride on the roof behind the driver. He would doze off without danger of falling because, he tells us, a person will instinctively grasp the rails at a bump without even waking. The driver, too, would occasionally sleep a half hour or so without losing the reins or falling out of his seat.
He mentions seeing a pony-express rider, a small, jockey-sized man who traveled as light as possible—a thin saddle, light shoes or none at all, and no provisions. The letters themselves were written on especially thin paper, what we once used for air-mail. None of the messages were trivial, only important business was sent by pony-express. There were about eighty riders in the saddle at any time of the day or night, stretching from Missouri to California.
When they get to Salt Lake City he recounts a hilarious (fictional) meeting with Brigham Young and his problems with many wives and children that disguises a deadly criticism of polygamy. Equally deadly is a discussion of passages in the Book of Mormon that would be difficult to say today.
It got hot during the day and, since the woman had left and the land was unsettled, they stripped down to their underwear as they rode, even when riding on the top. I never remember John Wayne doing that. They would also leave paper bags with goodies along the way to mollify the Indians.
The story of the woman continues—
So I finally opened the conversation myself. I said: “The mosquitoes are pretty bad about here, madam.”
“What did I understand you to say, madam?”
Then she cheered up, and faced around and said: “Danged if I didn’t begin to think you fellers was deef and dumb. I did, b’gosh. Here I’ve sot, and sot, and sot, a-bust’n muskeeters and wonderin’ what was ailin’ ye. Fust I thot you was deef and dumb, then I thot you was sick or crazy, or suthin’, and then by and by I begin to reckon you was a passel of sickly fools that couldn’t think of nothing to say. Wher’d ye come from?”
The Sphinx was a Sphinx no more! The fountains of her great deep were broken up, and she rained the nine parts of speech forty days and forty nights, metaphorically speaking, and buried us under a desolating deluge of trivial gossip that left not a crag or pinnacle of rejoinder projecting above the tossing waste of dislocated grammar and decomposed pronunciation!
How we suffered, suffered, suffered! She went on, hour after hour, till I was sorry I ever opened the mosquito question and gave her a start.
Right on! I have often flown seated beside the direct descendants of that woman.