Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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VI - The Land of Billowing Clouds

NEVER a tawny-beached ocean has the sweetness of the prairie slew. Rippling and blue, with long grass up to its edge, a spot of dancing light set in the miles of rustling wheat, it retains even in July, on an afternoon of glare and brazen locusts, the freshness of a spring morning. A thousand slews, a hundred lakes bordered with rippling barley or tinkling bells of the flax, Claire passed. She had left the occasional groves of oak and poplar and silver birch, and come out on the treeless Great Plains.

She had learned to call the slews "pugholes," and to watch for ducks at twilight. She had learned that about the pugholes flutter choirs of crimson-winged blackbirds; that the ugly brown birds squatting on fence-rails were the divine-voiced meadow larks; that among the humble cowbird citizens of the pastures sometimes flaunted a scarlet tanager or an oriole; and that no rose garden has the quaint and hardy beauty of the Indian paint brushes and rag babies and orange milkweed in the prickly, burnt-over grass between roadside and railway line.

She had learned that what had seemed rudeness in garage men and hotel clerks was often a resentful reflection[67] of her own Eastern attitude that she was necessarily superior to a race she had been trained to call "common people." If she spoke up frankly, they made her one of their own, and gave her companionable aid.

For two days of sunshine and drying mud she followed a road flung straight across flat wheatlands, then curving among low hills. Often there were no fences; she was so intimately in among the grain that the fenders of the car brushed wheat stalks, and she became no stranger, but a part of all this vast-horizoned land. She forgot that she was driving, as she let the car creep on, while she was transported by Armadas of clouds, prairie clouds, wisps of vapor like a ribbed beach, or mounts of cumulus swelling to gold-washed snowy peaks.

The friendliness of the bearing earth gave her a calm that took no heed of passing hours. Even her father, the abstracted man of affairs, nodded to dusty people along the road; to a jolly old man whose bulk rolled and shook in a tiny, rhythmically creaking buggy, to women in the small abrupt towns with their huge red elevators and their long, flat-roofed stores.

Claire had discovered America, and she felt stronger, and all her days were colored with the sun.

She had discovered, too, that she could adventure. No longer was she haunted by the apprehension that had whispered to her as she had left Minneapolis.[68] She knew a thrill when she hailed—as though it were a passing ship—an Illinois car across whose dust-caked back was a banner "Chicago to the Yellowstone." She experienced a new sensation of common humanness when, on a railway paralleling the wagon road for miles, the engineer of a freight waved his hand to her, and tooted the whistle in greeting.

Her father was easily tired, but he drowsed through the early afternoons when a none-too-digestible small-town lunch was as lead within him. Despite the beauty of the land and the joy of pushing on, they both had things to endure.

After lunch, it was sometimes an agony to Claire to keep awake. Her eyes felt greasy from the food, or smarted with the sun-glare. In the still air, after the morning breeze had been burnt out, the heat from the engine was a torment about her feet; and if there was another car ahead, the trail of dust sifted into her throat. Unless there was traffic to keep her awake, she nodded at the wheel; she was merely a part of a machine that ran on without seeming to make any impression on the prairie's endlessness.

Over and over there were the same manipulations: slow for down hill, careful of sand at the bottom, letting her out on a smooth stretch, waving to a lonely farmwife in her small, baked dooryard, slow to pass a hay-wagon, gas for up the next hill, and repeat the round all over again. But she was joyous till noon;[69] and with mid-afternoon a new strength came which, as rose crept above the golden haze of dust, deepened into serene meditation.

And she was finding the one secret of long-distance driving—namely, driving; keeping on, thinking by fifty-mile units, not by the ten-mile stretches of Long Island runs; and not fretting over anything whatever. She seemed charmed; if she had a puncture—why, she put on the spare. If she ran out of gas—why, any passing driver would lend her a gallon. Nothing, it seemed, could halt her level flight across the giant land.

She rarely lost her way. She was guided by the friendly trail signs—those big red R's and L's on fence post and telephone pole, magically telling the way from the Mississippi to the Pacific.

Her father's occasional musing talk kept her from loneliness. He was a good touring companion. Motoring is not the best occasion for epigrams, satire, and the Good One You Got Off at the Lambs' Club last night. Such verbiage on motor trips invariably results in the mysterious finding of the corpse of a strange man, well dressed, hidden beside the road. Claire and her father mumbled, "Good farmhouse—brick," or "Nice view," and smiled, and were for miles as silent as the companionable sky.

She thought of the people she knew, especially of Jeff Saxton. But she could not clearly remember his[70] lean earnest face. Between her and Jeff were sweeping sunny leagues. But she was not lonely. Certainly she was not lonely for a young man with a raincoat, a cat, and an interest in Japan.

No singer after a first concert has felt more triumphant than Claire when she crossed her first state-line; rumbled over the bridge across the Red River into North Dakota. To see Dakota car licenses everywhere, instead of Minnesota, was like the sensation of street signs in a new language. And when she found a good hotel in Fargo and had a real bath, she felt that by her own efforts she had earned the right to enjoy it.

Mr. Boltwood caught her enthusiasm. Dinner was a festival, and in iced tea the peaceful conquistadores drank the toast of the new Spanish Main; and afterward, arm in arm, went chattering to the movies.

In front of the Royal Palace, Pictures, 4 Great Acts Vaudeville 4, was browsing a small, beetle-like, tin-covered car.

"Dad! Look! I'm sure—yes, of course, there's his suitcase—that's the car of that nice boy—don't you remember?—the one that pulled us out of the mud at—I don't remember the name of the place. Apparently he's keeping going. I remember; he's headed for Seattle, too. We'll look for him in the theater. Oh, the darling, there's his cat! What was the funny name he gave her—the Marchioness Montmorency or something?"

[71]Lady Vere de Vere, afraid of Fargo and movie crowds, but trusting in her itinerant castle, the bug, was curled in Milt Daggett's ulster, in the bottom of the car. She twinkled her whiskers at Claire, and purred to a stroking hand.

With the excitement of one trying to find the address of a friend in a strange land Claire looked over the audience when the lights came on before the vaudeville. In the second row she saw Milt's stiffish, rope-colored hair—surprisingly smooth above an astoundingly clean new tan shirt of mercerized silk.

He laughed furiously at the dialogue between Pete-Rosenheim & Larose-Bettina, though it contained the cheese joke, the mother-in-law joke, and the joke about the wife rifling her husband's pockets.

"Our young friend seems to have enviable youthful spirits," commented Mr. Boltwood.

"Now, no superiority! He's probably never seen a real vaudeville show. Wouldn't it be fun to take him to the Winter Garden or the Follies for the first time!... Instead of being taken by Jeff Saxton, and having the humor, oh! so articulately explained!"

The pictures were resumed; the film which, under ten or twelve different titles, Claire had already seen, even though Brooklyn Heights does not devote Saturday evening to the movies. The badman, the sheriff—an aged party with whiskers and boots—the holdup, the sad eyes of the sheriff's daughter—also an aged[72] party, but with a sunbonnet and the most expensive rouge—the crook's reformation, and his violent adherence to law and order; this libel upon the portions of these United States lying west of longitude 101° Claire had seen too often. She dragged her father back to the hotel, sent him to bed, and entered her room—to find a telegram upon the bureau.

She had sent her friends a list of the places at which she would be likely to stop. The message was from Jeff Saxton, in Brooklyn. It brought to her mind the steady shine of his glasses—the most expensive glasses, with the very best curved lenses—as it demanded:

"Received letter about trip surprised anxious will tire you out fatigue prairie roads bad for your father mountain roads dangerous strongly advise go only part way then take train.


She held the telegram, flipping her fingers against one end of it as she debated. She remembered how the wide world had flowed toward her over the hood of the Gomez all day. She wrote in answer:

"Awful perils of road, two punctures, split infinitive, eggs at lunch questionable, but struggle on."

Before she sent it she held council with her father. She sat on the foot of his bed and tried to sound dutiful.[73] "I don't want to do anything that's bad for you, daddy. But isn't it taking your mind away from business?"

"Ye-es, I think it is. Anyway, we'll try it a few days more."

"I fancy we can stand up under the strain and perils. I think we can persuade some of these big farmers to come to the rescue if we encounter any walruses or crocodiles among the wheat. And I have a feeling that if we ever get stuck, our friend of the Teal bug will help us."

"Probably never see him again. He'll skip on ahead of us."

"Of course. We haven't laid an eye on him, along the road. He must have gotten into Fargo long before we did. Now tomorrow I think——"

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