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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsA Son Of The Middle Border - Chapter 23. Coasting Down Mt. Washington
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A Son Of The Middle Border - Chapter 23. Coasting Down Mt. Washington Post by :p00kie Category :Nonfictions Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :2039

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A Son Of The Middle Border - Chapter 23. Coasting Down Mt. Washington

CHAPTER XXIII. Coasting Down Mt. Washington

In spite of all our anxiety, we enjoyed this search for work. The farmers were all so comically inquisitive. A few of them took us for what we were, students out on a vacation. Others though kind enough, seemed lacking in hospitality, from the western point of view, and some were openly suspicious--but the roads, the roads! In the west thoroughfares ran on section lines and were defined by wire fences. Here they curved like Indian trails following bright streams, and the stone walls which bordered them were festooned with vines as in a garden.

That night we lodged in the home of an old farmer, an octogenarian who had never in all his life been twenty miles from his farm. He had never seen Boston, or Portland, but he had been twice to Nashua, returning, however, in time for supper. He, as well as his wife (dear simple soul), looked upon us as next door to educated Indians and entertained us in a flutter of excited hospitality.

We told them of Dakota, of the prairies, describing the wonderful farm machinery, and boasting of the marvellous crops our father had raised in Iowa, and the old people listened in delighted amaze.

They put us to bed at last in a queer high-posted, corded bedstead and I had a feeling that we were taking part in a Colonial play. It was like living a story book. We stared at each other in a stupor of satisfaction. We had never hoped for such luck. To be thrust back abruptly into the very life of our forebears was magical, and the excitement and delight of it kept us whispering together long after we should have been asleep.

This was thirty years ago, and those kindly old souls have long since returned to dust, but their big four-posted bed is doing service, no doubt, in the home of some rich collector. I have forgotten their names but they shall live here in my book as long as its print shall endure.

They seemed sorry to have us go next morning, but as they had nothing for us to do, they could only say, "Good-bye, give our love to Jane, if you see her, she lives in Illinois." Illinois and Dakota were all the same to them!

Again we started forth along the graceful, irregular, elm-shaded roads, which intersected the land in every direction, perfectly happy except when we remembered our empty pockets. We could not get accustomed to the trees and the beauty of the vineclad stone walls. The lanes made _pictures all the time. So did the apple trees and the elms and the bending streams.

About noon of this day we came to a farm of very considerable size and fairly level, on which the hay remained uncut. "Here's our chance," I said to my brother, and going in, boldly accosted the farmer, a youngish man with a bright and pleasant face. "Do you want some skilled help?" I called out.

The farmer admitted that he did, but eyed us as if jokers. Evidently we did not look precisely like workmen to him, but I jolted him by saying, "We are Iowa schoolboys out for a vacation. We were raised on a farm, and know all about haying. If you'll give us a chance we'll make you think you don't know much about harvesting hay."

This amused him. "Come in," he said, "and after dinner we'll see about it."

At dinner we laid ourselves out to impress our host. We told him of the mile-wide fields of the west, and enlarged upon the stoneless prairies of Dakota. We described the broadcast seeders they used in Minnesota and bragged of the amount of hay we could put up, and both of us professed a contempt for two-wheeled carts. In the end we reduced our prospective employer to humbleness. He consulted his wife a moment and then said, "All right, boys, you may take hold."

We stayed with him two weeks and enjoyed every moment of our stay.

"Our expedition is successful," I wrote to my parents.

On Sundays we picked berries or went fishing or tumbled about the lawn. It was all very beautiful and delightfully secure, so that when the time came to part with our pleasant young boss and his bright and cheery wife, we were as sorry as they.

"We must move on," I insisted. "There are other things to see."

After a short stay in Portland we took the train for Bethel, eager to visit the town which our father had described so many times. We had resolved to climb the hills on which he had gathered berries and sit on the "Overset" from which he had gazed upon the landscape. We felt indeed, a certain keen regret that he could not be with us.

At Locks Mills, we met his old playmates, Dennis and Abner Herrick, men bent of form and dim of eye, gnarled and knotted by their battle with the rocks and barren hillsides, and to them we, confident lads, with our tales of smooth and level plow-lands, must have seemed like denizens from some farmers' paradise,--or perhaps they thought us fictionists. I certainly put a powerful emphasis on the pleasant side of western life at that time.

Dennis especially looked upon us with amazement, almost with awe. To think that we, unaided and alone, had wandered so far and dared so much, while he, in all his life, had not been able to visit Boston, was bewildering. This static condition of the population was a constant source of wonder to us. How could people stay all their lives in one place? Must be something the matter with them.--Their ox-teams and tipcarts amused us, their stony fields appalled us, their restricted, parsimonious lives saddened us, and so, not wishing to be a burden, we decided to cut our stay short.

On the afternoon of our last day, Abner took us on a tramp over the country, pointing out the paths "where Dick and I played," tracing the lines of the old farm, which had long since been given over to pasture, and so to the trout brook and home. In return for our "keep" we sang that night, and told stories of the west, and our hosts seemed pleased with the exchange. Shouldering our faithful "grips" next morning, we started for the railway and took the train for Gorham.

Each mile brought us nearer the climax of our trip. We of the plains had longed and dreamed of the peaks. To us the White Mountains were at once the crowning wonder and chief peril of our expedition. They were to be in a very real sense the test of our courage. The iron crest of Mount Washington allured us as a light-house lures sea-birds.

Leaving Gorham on foot, and carrying our inseparable valises, we started westward along the road leading to the peaks, expecting to get lodging at some farm-house, but as we stood aside to let gay coaches pass laden with glittering women and haughty men, we began to feel abused.

We were indeed, quaint objects. Each of us wore a long yellow linen "duster" and each bore a valise on a stick, as an Irishman carries a bundle. We feared neither wind nor rain, but wealth and coaches oppressed us.

Nevertheless we trudged cheerily along, drinking at the beautiful springs beside the road, plucking blackberries for refreshment, lifting our eyes often to the snow-flecked peaks to the west. At noon we stopped at a small cottage to get some milk, and there again met a pathetic lonely old couple. The woman was at least eighty, and very crusty with her visitors, till I began to pet the enormous maltese cat which came purring to our feet. "What a magnificent animal!" I said to Frank.

This softened the old woman's heart. She not only gave us bread and milk but sat down to gossip with us while we ate. She, too, had relatives "out there, somewhere in Iowa" and would hardly let us go, so eager was she to know all about her people. "Surely you must have met them."

As we neared the foot of the great peak we came upon hotels of all sizes but I had not the slightest notion of staying even at the smallest. Having walked twelve miles to the foot of the mountain we now decided to set out for the top, still carrying those precious bags upon our shoulders.

What we expected to do after we got to the summit, I cannot say, for we knew nothing of conditions there and were too tired to imagine--we just kept climbing, sturdily, doggedly, breathing heavily, more with excitement than with labor, for it seemed that we were approaching the moon,--so bleak and high the roadway ran. I had miscalculated sadly. It had looked only a couple of hours' brisk walk from the hotel, but the way lengthened out toward the last in a most disheartening fashion.

"Where will we stay?" queried Frank.

"Oh, we'll find a place somewhere," I answered, but I was far from being as confident as I sounded.

We had been told that it cost five dollars for a night's lodging at the hotel, but I entertained some vague notion that other and cheaper places offered. Perhaps I thought that a little village on the summit presented boarding houses.

"No matter, we're in for it now," I stoutly said. "We'll find a place--we've got to find a place."

It grew cold as we rose, surprisingly, dishearteningly cold and we both realized that to sleep in the open would be to freeze. As the night fell, our clothing, wet with perspiration, became almost as clammy as sheet iron, and we shivered with weakness as well as with frost. The world became each moment more barren, more wind-swept and Frank was almost at his last gasp.

It was long after dark, and we were both trembling with fatigue and hollow with hunger as we came opposite a big barn just at the top of the trail. The door of this shelter stood invitingly open, and creeping into an empty stall we went to sleep on the straw like a couple of homeless dogs. We did not for a moment think of going to the hotel which loomed like a palace a few rods further on.

A couple of hours later I was awakened by the crunch of a boot upon my ankle, followed by an oath of surprise. The stage-driver, coming in from his last trip, was looking down upon me. I could not see his face, but I did note the bright eyes and pricking ears of a noble gray horse standing just behind his master and champing his bit with impatience.

Sleepy, scared and bewildered, I presented my plea with such eloquence that the man put his team in another stall and left us to our straw. "But you get out o' here before the boss sees you," said he, "or there'll be trouble."

"We'll get out before daybreak," I replied heartily.

When I next awoke it was dawn, and my body was so stiff I could hardly move. We had slept cold and our muscles resented it. However, we hurried from the barn. Once safely out of reach of the "boss" we began to leap and dance and shout to the sun as it rose out of the mist, for this was precisely what we had come two thousand miles to see--sunrise on Mount Washington! It chanced, gloriously, that the valleys were filled with a misty sea, breaking soundlessly at our feet and we forgot cold, hunger, poverty, in the wonder of being "above the clouds!"

In course of time our stomachs moderated our transports over the view and I persuaded my brother (who was younger and more delicate in appearance) to approach the kitchen and purchase a handout. Frank being harshly persuaded by his own need, ventured forth and soon came back with several slices of bread and butter and part of a cold chicken, which made the day perfectly satisfactory, and in high spirits we started to descend the western slope of the mountain.

Here we performed the incredible. Our muscles were so sore and weak that as we attempted to walk down the railway track, our knees refused to bear our weight, and while creeping over the ties, groaning and sighing with pain, a bright idea suddenly irradiated my mind. As I studied the iron groove which contained the cogs in the middle of the track, I perceived that its edges were raised a little above the level of the rails and covered with oil. It occurred to me that it might be possible to slide down this track on a plank--if only I had a plank!

I looked to the right. A miracle! There in the ditch lay a plank of exactly the right dimensions. I seized it, I placed it cross-wise of the rails. "All aboard," I called. Frank obeyed. I took my place at the other end, and so with our valises between us, we began to slip slowly, smoothly, and with joyous ease down the shining track! Hoopla! We had taken wing!

We had solved our problem. The experiment was successful. Laughing and shouting with exultation, we swept on. We had but to touch every other tie with our heels in order to control our speed, so we coasted, smoothly, genially.

On we went, mile after mile, slipping down the valley into the vivid sunlight, our eyes on the glorious scenery about us, down, down like a swooping bird. Once we passed above some workmen, who looked up in open-mouthed amazement, and cursed us in voices which seemed far and faint and futile. A little later the superintendent of the water tank warningly shouted, "_Stop that! Get Off!_" but we only laughed at him and swept on, out over a high trestle, where none could follow.

At times our heads grew dizzy with the flicker and glitter of the rocks beneath us and as we rounded dangerous curves of the track, or descended swift slides with almost uncontrollable rapidity, I had some doubts, but we kept our wits, remained upon the rails, and at last spun round the final bend and came to a halt upon a level stretch of track, just above the little station.

There, kicking aside our faithful plank, we took up our valises and with trembling knees and a sense of triumph set off down the valley of the wild Amonoosuc.

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