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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesRoughing It De Luxe - How Do You Like the Climate?
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Roughing It De Luxe - How Do You Like the Climate? Post by :runtonk Category :Long Stories Author :Irvin S. Cobb Date :May 2012 Read :1306

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Roughing It De Luxe - How Do You Like the Climate?

ONCE upon a time a stranger went to Southern California; and when he was asked the customary question--to wit: "How do you like the climate?" he said: "No, I don't like it!" So they destroyed him on the spot. I have forgotten now whether they merely hanged him on the nearest tree or burned him at the stake; but they destroyed him utterly and hid his bones in an unmarked grave.

History, that lying jade, records that when Balboa first saw the Pacific he plunged breast-deep into the waves, drew his sword and waved it on high, probably using for that purpose the Australian crawl stroke; and then, in that generous and carefree way of the early discoverers, claimed the ocean and all points west in the name of his Catholic Majesty, Carlos the Cutup, or Pedro the Impossible, or whoever happened to be the King of Spain for the moment. Personal investigation convinces me that the current version of the above incident was wrong.

What Balboa did first was to state that he liked the climate better than any climate he'd ever met; was perfectly crazy about it, in fact, and intended to sell out back East and move West just as soon as he could get word home to his folks; after which, still following the custom of the country, he bought a couple of Navajo blankets and some moccasins with blue beadwork on the toes, mailed a few souvenir postcards to close friends, and had his photograph taken showing him standing in the midst of the tropical verdure, with a freshly picked orange in his hand. And if he waved his sword at all it was with the idea of forcing the real-estate agents to stand back and give him air. I am sure that these are the correct details, because that is what every round-tripper does upon arriving in Southern California; and, though Balboa finished his little jaunt of explorations at a point some distance below the California state line, he was still in the climate belt. Life out there in that fair land is predicated on climate; out there climate is capitalized, organized and systematized. Every native is a climate booster; so is every newcomer as soon as he has stuck round long enough to get the climate habit, which is in from one to three days. They talk climate; they think climate; they breathe it by day; they snore it by night; and in between times they live on it. And it is good living, too--especially for the real-estate people and the hotel-keepers.

Southern Californians brag of their climate just as New York brags of its wickedness and its skyscrapers, and as Richmond brags of its cooking and its war memories. I don't blame them either; the California climate is worth all the brags it gets. Back East in the wintertime we have weather; out in Southern California they never have weather--nothing but climate. For hours on hours a native will stand outdoors, with his hat off and his head thrown back, inhaling climate until you can hear his nostrils smack. And after you've been on the spot a day or two you're doing the same thing yourself, for, in addition to being salubrious, the California climate is catching.


Just as soon as you cross the Arizona line you discover that you have entered the climate belt. As your train whizzes past the monument that marks the boundary an earnest-minded passenger leans over, taps you on the breastbone and informs you that you are now in California, and wishes to know, as man to man, whether you don't regard the climate as about the niftiest article in that line you ever experienced! At the hotel the young lady of the telephone switchboard, who calls you in the morning, plugs in the number of your room; and when you drowsily answer the bell she informs you that it is now eight-thirty and--What do you think of the climate? The boy who sells you a paper and the youth who blackens your shoes both show solicitude to elicit your views upon this paramount subject.

At breakfast the waiter finds out--if he can--how you like the climate before finding out how you like your eggs. When you pay your bill on going away the clerk somehow manages to convey the impression that the charges have been remarkably moderate considering what you have enjoyed in the matter of climate. Punching your round-trip ticket on the train starting East, the conductor has a few well-merited words to speak on behalf of the climate of the Glorious Southland, the same being the favorite pet name of the resident classes for the entire lower end of the state of California.

Everybody is doing it, including press, pulpit and general public. The weather story--beg pardon, the climate story--is the most important thing in the daily paper, especially if a blizzard has opportunely developed back East somewhere and is available for purposes of comparison. At Los Angeles, which is the great throbbing heart of the climate belt, I went as a guest to a stag given at the handsome new clubhouse of a secret order renowned the continent over for its hospitality and its charities. We sat, six or seven hundred of us, in a big assembly hall, smoked cigars and drank light drinks, and witnessed some corking good sparring bouts by non-professional talent. There were two or three ministers present--fine, alert representatives of the modern type of city clergymen. When eleven o'clock came the master of ceremonies announced the toast, To Our Absent Brothers! and called upon one of those clergymen to respond to it.

The minister climbed up on the platform--a tall man, with a thick crop of hair and a profile as clean cut as a cameo and as mobile as an actor's, the face of a born orator. He could talk, too, that preacher! In language that was poetic without being sloppy he paid a tribute to the spirit of fraternity that fairly lifted us out of our chairs. Every man there was touched, I think--and deeply touched; no man who believed in the brotherhood of man, whether he practiced it or not, could have listened unmoved to that speech. He spoke of the absent ones. Some of them he said had answered the last rollcall, and some were stretched upon the bed of affliction, and some were unavoidably detained by business in the East; and he intimated that those in the last category who had been away for as long as three weeks wouldn't know the old place when they got back!--Applause.

This naturally brought him round to the subject of Los Angeles as a city of business and homes. He pointed out its marvelous growth--quoting freely from the latest issue of the city directory and other reliable authorities to prove his figures; he made a few heartrousing predictions touching on its future prospects, as tending to show that in a year or less San Francisco and other ambitious contenders along the Coast would be eating at the second table; he peopled the land clear back to the mountains with new homes and new neighbors; and he wound up, in a burst of vocal glory, with the most magnificent testimonial for the climate I ever heard any climate get. Did he move his audience then? Oh, but didn't he move them, though! Along toward the close of the third minute of uninterrupted cheering I thought the roof was gone.

On the day after my arrival I made one very serious mistake; in fact, it came near to being a fatal one. I met a lady, and naturally right away she asked me the customary opening question. Every conversation between a stranger and a resident begins according to that formula. Still it seemed to me an inopportune hour for bringing up the subject. It was early in March and the day was one of those days which a greenhorn from the East might have been pardoned for regarding as verging upon the chilly--not to say the raw. Also, it seemed to be raining. I say it seemed to be raining, because no true Southern Californian would admit any actual defects in the climatic arrangements. If pressed he might concede that ostensibly an infinitesimal percentage of precipitation was descending, and that apparently the mercury had descended a notch or two in the tube. Further than that, in the absence of the official reports, he would not care to commit himself.

You never saw such touching loyalty anywhere! Those scoffing neighbors of Noah who kept denying on there was going to be any flood right up to the moment when they went down for the third time were rank amateurs alongside a seasoned resident of Los Angeles. I was newly arrived, however, and I hadn't acquired the ethics yet; and, besides, I had contracted a bad cold and had been taking a number of things for it and for the moment was, as you might say, full of conflicting emulsions. So, in reply to this lady's question, I said it occurred to me that the prevalent atmospheric conditions might for the nonce stand a few trifling alterations without any permanent ill effects.

I repeat that this was a mistake; for this particular lady was herself a recent arrival, and of all the incurable Californians, the new ones are the most incurable. She gave me one look--but such a look! From a reasonably solid person I became first a pulp and then a pap; and then, reversing the processes of creation as laid down in Genesis, first chapter, and first to fifth verses, I liquefied and turned to gas, and darkness covered me, and I became void and without form, and passed off in the form of a vapor, leaving my clothes inhabited only by a blushing and embarrassed emptiness. When the outraged lady abated the intensity of her scornful gaze and I painfully reassembled my astral body out of space and projected it back into my earthly tenement again, I found I'd shrunk so in these various processes that nothing I wore fitted me any longer.

I shall never commit that error again. I know better now. If I were a condemned criminal about to die on a gallows at the state penitentiary, I would make the customary announcement touching on my intention of going straight to Heaven--condemned criminals never seem to have any doubt on that point--and then in conclusion I would add that after Southern California, I knew I wouldn't care for the climate Up There. Then I would step serenely off into eternity, secure in the belief that, no matter how heinous my crime might have been, all the local papers would give me nice obituary notices.

I'd be absolutely sure of the papers, because the papers are the last to concede that there ever was or ever will be a flaw in the climate anywhere. In a certain city out on the Coast there is one paper that refuses even to admit that a human being can actually expire while breathing the air of Southern California. It won't go so far as to say that anybody has died--"passed away" is the term used. You read in its columns that Medulla Oblongata, the Mexican who was kicked in the head by a mule last Sunday afternoon, has passed away at the city hospital; or that, during yesterday's misunderstanding in Chinatown between the Bing Bangs and the Ok Louies, two Tong men were shot and cut in such a manner that they practically passed away on the spot. When I was there I traveled all one day over the route of an unprecedented cold snap that had happened along a little earlier and mussed up the citrus groves; and, though I will not go so far as to say that the orange crop had died or that it had been killed, it did look to me as though it had passed away to a considerable extent.

This sort of visitation, however, doesn't occur often; in fact, it never had occurred before--and the chances are it never will occur again. Next to taxes and the high cost of living, I judge the California climate to be about the most dependable institution we have in this country--yes, and one of the most satisfactory, too. To its climate California is indebted for being the most extravagantly beautiful spot I've seen on this continent. It isn't just beautiful in spots--it is beautiful all over; it isn't beautiful in a sedate, reserved way--there is a prodigal, riotous, abandoned spendthriftiness to its beauty.

I don't know of anything more wonderful than an automobile ride through one of the fruit valleys in the Mission country. In one day's travel--or, at most, two--you can get a taste of all the things that make this farthermost corner of the United States at once so diversified and so individual--sky-piercing mountain and mirage-painted desert; seashore and upland; ranch lands, farm lands and fruit lands; city and town; traces of our oldest civilization and stretches of our newest; wilderness and jungle and landscape garden; the pines of the snows, the familiar growths of the temperate zone, the palms of the tropics; and finally--which is California's own--the Big Trees. All day you may ride and never once will your eye rest upon a picture that is commonplace or trumpery.

Going either North or South, your road lies between mountains. To the eastward, shutting out the deserts from this domain of everlasting summer, are the Sierras--great saw-edged old he-mountains, masculine as bulls or bucks, all rugged and wrinkled, bearded with firs and pines upon their jowls, but bald-headed and hoar with age atop like the Prophets of old. But the mountains of the Coast Range, to the westward, are full-bosomed and maternal, mothering the valleys up to them; and their round-uddered, fecund slopes are covered with softest green. Only when you come closer to them you see that the garments on their breasts are not silky-smooth as they looked at a distance, but shirred and gored, gathered and smocked. I suppose even a lady mountain never gets too old to follow the fashions!

Now you pass an orchard big enough to make a hundred of your average Eastern orchards; and if it be of apples or plums or cherries, and the time be springtime, it is all one vast white bridal bouquet; but if it be of almonds or peaches the whole land, maybe for miles on end, blazes with a pink flame that is the pinkest pink in the world--pinker than the heart of a ripe watermelon; pinker than the inside of a blond cow.

Here is a meadowland of purest, deepest green; and flung across it, like a streak of sunshine playing hooky from Heaven, is a slash of wild yellow poppies. There, upon a hillside, stands a clump of gnarly, dwarfed olives, making you think of Bible times and the Old Testament. Or else it is a great range, where cattle by thousands feed upon the slopes. Or a crested ridge, upon which the gum trees stand up in long aisles, sorrowful and majestic as the funereal groves of the ancient Greeks--that is, provided it was the ancient Greeks who had the funereal groves.

Or, best of all and most striking in its contrasts, you will see a hill all green, with a nap on it like a family album; and right on the top of it an old, crumbly gray mission, its cross gleaming against the skyline; and, down below, a modern town, with red roofs and hipped windows, its houses buried to their eaves in palms and giant rose bushes, and huge climbing geraniums, and all manner of green tropical growths that are Nature's own Christmas trees, with the red-and-yellow dingle-dangles growing upon them. Or perhaps it is a gorge choked with the enormous redwoods, each individual tree with a trunk like the Washington Monument. And, if you are only as lucky as we were, up overhead, across the blue sky, will be drifting a hundred fleecy clouds, one behind the other, like woolly white sheep grazing upon the meadows of the firmament.

Everywhere the colors are splashed on with a barbaric, almost a theatrical, touch. It's a regular backdrop of a country; its scenery looks as though it belonged on a stage--as though it should be painted on a curtain. You almost expect to see a chorus of comic-opera brigands or a bevy of stage milkmaids come trooping out of the wings any minute. Who was the libelous wretch who said that the flowers of California had no perfume and the birds there had no song? Where we passed through tangled woods the odors distilled from the wild flowers by the sun's warmth were often almost suffocating in their sweetness; and in a yellow-tufted bush on the lawn at Coronado I came upon a mocking-bird singing in a way to make his brother minstrel of Mobile or Savannah feel like applying for admission to a school of expression and learning the singing business all over again.


At the end of the valley--top end or bottom end as the case may be--you come to a chain of lesser mountains, dropped down across your path like a trailing wing of the Indians' fabled thunder-bird, vainly trying to shut you out from the next valley. You climb the divide and run through the pass, with a brawling river upon one side and tall cliffs upon the other; and then all of a sudden the hills magically part and you are within sight--almost within touch--of the ocean; for in this favored land the mountains come right down to the sea and the sea comes right up to the mountains. It may be upon a tiny bay that you have emerged, with the meadows sloping straight to tidemark, and out beyond the wild fowl feeding by the kelp beds.

Or perhaps you have come out upon a ragged, rugged headland, crowned belike with a single wind-twisted tree, grotesquely suggesting a frizzly chicken; and away below, straight and sheer, are the rocks rising out of the water like the jaws of a mangle. Down there in that ginlike reef Neptune is forever washing out his shirt in a smother of foamy lather. And he has spilled his bluing pot, too--else how could all the sea be so blue? On the outermost rocks the sea-lions have stretched themselves, looking like so many overgrown slugs; and they lie for hours and sun themselves and bellow--or, at least, I am told they do so on occasion. There was unfortunately no bellowing going on the day I was there.

The unearthly beauty of the whole thing overpowers you. The poet that lives in nearly every human soul rouses within you and you feel like withdrawing to yon dense grove or yon peaked promontory to commune with Nature. But be advised in season. Restrain yourself! Carefully refrain! Do not do so! Because out from under a rock somewhere will crawl a real-estate agent to ask you how you like the climate and take a dollar down as first payment on a fruit ranch, or a suburban lot, or a seaside villa--or something.

Climate did it and he can prove it. Only he doesn't have to prove it--you admit it. I had never seen the Mediterranean when I went West; but I saw the cypresses of Del Monte, and the redwood grove in the canyon just below Harry Leon Wilson's place, down past Carmel-by-the-Sea; and that was sufficient. I had no burning yearning to see Naples and die, as the poet suggested. I felt that I would rather see Monterey Bay again on a bright March day and live!

And for all of this--for fruit, flowers and scenery, for real-estate agents, and for a race of the most persistent boosters under the sun--the climate is responsible. Climate advertised is responsible for the rush of travel from the East that sets in with the coming of winter and lasts until well into the following spring; and climate realized is responsible for the string of tourist hotels that dot the Coast all along from just below San Francisco to the Mexican border.

Both externally and internally the majority of these hotels are singularly alike. Mainly they are rambling frame structures done in a modified Spanish architecture--late Spanish crossed on Early Peoria--with a lobby so large that, loafing there, you feel as though you were in the waiting-room of the Grand Central Terminal, and with a dining room about the size of the state of Rhode Island, and a sun parlor that has windows all round, so as to give its occupants the aspect, when viewed from without, of being inmates of an aquarium; and a gorgeous tea room done in the style of one of the French Louies--Louie the Limit, I guess. There are some notable exceptions to the rule--some of the places have pleasing individualities of their own, but most of them were cut off the same pattern. Likewise the bulk of their winter patrons are cut off the same pattern.

The average Eastern tourist is a funny biped anyhow, and he is at his funniest out in California. Living along the Eastern seaboard are a large number of well-to-do people who harken not to the slogan of See America First, because many of them cannot see America at any price; they can just barely recognize its existence as a suitable place for making money, but no place for spending it. What makes life worth living to them is the fact that Europe is distant only a four-day run by the four-day boat, the same being known as a four-day boat because only four days are required for the run between Daunt's Rock and Ambrose Channel, which is a very convenient arrangement for deep-sea divers and long-distance swimmers desiring to get on at Daunt's Rock and get off in Ambrose Channel, but slightly extending the journey for passengers who are less amphibious by nature.

These people constitute one breed of Eastern tourists. There is the other breed, who are willing to see America provided it is made over to conform with the accepted Eastern model. Those who can afford the expense go to Florida in the winter; but it requires at least a million in small change to feel at home in that setting, and so a good many who haven't quite a million to spare, head for Southern California as the next best spot on the map. Arriving there, they endeavor to reproduce on as exact a scale as possible the life of the ultra fashionable Florida resorts; the result is what a burlesque manager would call a Number Two Palm Beach company playing the Western Wheel.

Up and down the Coast these tourists traipse for months on end, spending a week here and two weeks there, and doing the same things in the same way at each new stopping place. You meet them, part from them, and meet them again at the next stand, until the monotony of it grows maddening; and always they are intently following the routine you saw them following last week or the week before, or the week before that. They have traveled clear across the continent to practice such diversions as they might have had within two hours' ride of Philadelphia or New York; and they are going to practice them, too, or know the reason why.

Of course they are not all constituted this way; I am speaking now of the impression created in California by tourists in bulk. They decline to do the things for which this country is best adapted; they will not see the things for which it is most famous. Few of them take the roughing trips up into the mountains; fewer still visit the desert country. All about them the tremendous engineering contracts that have made this land a commercial Arabian Nights' Entertainment are being carried out--the mighty reclamation schemes; the irrigation projects; the damming up of canyons and the shoveling away of mountains--but your average group of Eastern tourists pass these by with dull and glazed eyes, their souls being bound up in the desire to reach the next hotel on the route with the least possible waste of time, and take up the routine where it was broken off at the last hotel.

They tennis and they golf, and some go horseback riding and some take drives; and at one or two places there is polo in the season. Likewise, in accordance with the rules laid down by the Palm Beach authorities, the women change clothes as often as possible during the course of the day; and in the evening all hands appear in full dress for dinner, the same being very wearing on men and very pleasing to women--that is, all of them do except a few obstinate persons who defy convention and remain comfortable. After dinner some of the younger people dance and some of the older ones play bridge; but the vast majority sit round--and then sit round some more and wonder whether eleven o'clock will ever come so they can go to bed!

A good many take the wrong kind of clothes out there with them. They have read in the advertisements that Southern California is a land of perpetual balm, where flowers bloom the year round; and they pack their trunks with the lightest and thinnest wearing apparel they own, which is a mistake. The natives know better than that. The all-wool sweater is the national garment of the Western Coast--both sexes and all ages go to it unanimously. Experience proves it the ideal thing to wear; for in Southern California in the winter it is never really hot in the sun and it is often exceedingly cool in the shade. Besides, there is a sea wind that blows pretty regularly and which makes a specialty of working through the crannies in a silk shirt or a lingerie blouse. The chilliest, most pallid-looking things I ever saw in my life were a pair of white linen trousers I found in the top tray of my trunk when I reached the extreme lower end of California. I had to cover them under two blankets and a bedspread that night to keep the poor things from freezing stiff.

The medium-weight garments an Easterner wears between seasons are admirably suited for the West Coast in the winter; but the guileless tenderfoot who is making his first trip to California usually doesn't learn this until it is too late. If he is wise he studies out the situation on his arrival, and thereafter takes his overcoat with him when he goes riding and his sweater when he goes walking; but there are many others who will be summer boys and girls though they perish in the attempt.

At Coronado I witnessed a mighty pitiable sight. It was a cool day, cooler than ordinary even, with a stiff wind blowing skeiny shreds of sea fog in off the gray ocean; and a beating rain was falling at frequent intervals. The veranda was full of Easterners trying to look comfortable in summer clothes and not succeeding, while the road in front was dotted with Westerners, comfortable and cozy in their thick sweaters. There emerged upon the wind-swept porch a youth who would have been a sartorial credit to himself on a Florida beach in February or upon a Jersey board-walk in August; but he did not coincide with the atmospheric scheme of things on a rainy March day down in Southern California.


To begin with, he was a spindly and fragile person, with a knobby forehead and a fade-away face. Dressed in close-fitting black and turned sidewise, with his profile to you, he would instantly suggest a neatly rolled umbrella with a plain bone handle. But he was not dressed in black; he was dressed in white--all white, like a bride or a bandaged thumb; white silk shirt; white flannel coat, with white pearl buttons spangled freely over it; white trousers; white Panama hat; white socks; white buckskin shoes, with white rubber soles on them. He was, in short, all white except his face, which was a pinched, wan blue, and his nose, which was a suffused and chilly red. If my pencil had had an eraser on it I'm satisfied I could have backed him up against the wall and rubbed him right out; but he bore up splendidly.

It was plain he felt that he was properly dressed for the time, the place and the occasion; and to him that was ample compensation for his suffering. I heard afterward that he lost three sets of tennis and had a congestive chill--all in the course of the same afternoon.

The unconquerable determination of the Eastern tourist to have Southern California conform to his back-home standards is responsible for the fact that many of the tourist hotels out there are not so typical of the West as they might be--and as in my humble judgment they should be--but are as Eastern as it is possible to make them--Eastern in cuisine, in charges and in their operating schedules. Here, again, there are some notable exceptions.

In the supposedly wilder sections of the West, lying between the Rockies and the Sierras, the situation is different. It is notably different in Arizona and New Mexico in the South, and in Utah, Montana and Wyoming in the North. There the person who serves you for hire is neither your menial nor your superior; whereas in the East he or she is nearly always one or the other, and sometimes both at once. This particular type of Westerner doesn't patronize you; neither does he cringe to you in expectation of a tip. He gives you the best he has in stock, meanwhile retaining his own self-respect and expecting you to do the same. He ennobles and dignifies personal service.

Out on the Coast, however--or at least at several of the big hotels out on the Coast--the system, thanks to Eastern influence, has been changed. The whole scheme is patterned after the accepted New York model. The charges for small services are as exorbitant as in New York, and the iniquities of the tipping system are worked out as amply and as wickedly as in the city where they originated.

Somebody with a taste for statistics figured it out once that if a man owned a three-dollar hat and wore it for two months, lunching every day at a New York cafe, and if he dined four nights a week at a New York restaurant and attended the theater twice a week, his hat at the end of those two months would cost him in tips eighteen dollars and seventy cents! No, on second thought, I guess it was a pair of earmuffs that would have cost him eighteen-seventy.

A hat would have been more.

It would be more in Southern California--I'm sure of that. There the tipping habit is made more expensive by reason of the prevalent spirit of Western generosity. The born Westerner never has got used to dimes and nickels. To him quarters are still chicken-feed and a half dollar is small change. So the tips are just as numerous as in New York and for the same service they are frequently larger.

A lot has been said and written about the marvelous palms of Lower California and a lot more might be said--for they are outstretched everywhere; and if you don't cross them with silver at frequent intervals you would do well to try camping out for a change. Likewise a cursory glance at the prices on some of the menus is calculated to make a New Yorker homesick--they're so familiarly and unreasonably steep. And frequently the dishes you get aren't typical of the country; they are--thanks again be to the Easterner--mostly transplanted imitations of the concoctions of the Broadway and the Fifth Avenue chefs.

There are compensations, though. There are some hotels that are operated on admirably different lines, and there are abundant opportunities for escaping altogether from hotel life and seeing this Land of the Living Backdrop where it is untainted and unspoiled; where the hills are clothed in green and yellow; where little Spanishy looking towns nestle below the Missions, and the mocking-birds sing, and the real-estate boomer leaps from crag to crag, sounding his flute-like note. And don't forget the climate! But that is unnecessary advice. You won't have a chance to forget it--not for a minute you won't!

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