Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XI - Sagebrush Tourists of the Great Highway

SHE had rested for two days in Miles City; had seen the horse-market, with horse-wranglers in chaps; had taken dinner with army people at Fort Keogh, once the bulwark against the Sioux, now nodding over the dry grass on its parade ground.

By the Yellowstone River, past the Crow reservation, Claire had driven on through the Real West, along the Great Highway. The Red Trail and the Yellowstone Trail had joined now and she was one of the new Canterbury Pilgrims. Even Mr. Boltwood caught the trick of looking for licenses, and cried, "There's a Connecticut car!"

To the Easterner, a drive from New York to Cape Cod, over asphalt, is viewed as heroic, but here were cars that had casually started on thousand-mile vacations. She kept pace not only with large cars touring from St. Louis or Detroit to Glacier Park and Yellowstone, but also she found herself companionable with families of workmen, headed for a new town and a new job, and driving because a flivver, bought second-hand and soon to be sold again, was cheaper than trains.

"Sagebrush Tourists" these camping adventurers[120] were called. Claire became used to small cars, with curtain-lights broken, bearing wash-boilers or refrigerators on the back, pasteboard suitcases lashed by rope to the running-board, frying pans and canvas water bottles dangling from top-rods. And once baby's personal laundry was seen flapping on a line across a tonneau!

In each car was what looked like the crowd at a large farm-auction—grandfather, father, mother, a couple of sons and two or three daughters, at least one baby in the arms of each grown-up, all jammed into two seats already filled with trunks and baby-carriages. And they were happy—incredibly happier than the smart people being conveyed in a bored way behind chauffeurs.

The Sagebrush Tourists made camp; covered the hood with a quilt from which the cotton was oozing; brought out the wash-boiler, did a washing, had dinner, sang about the fire; granther and the youngest baby gamboling together, while the limousinvalids, insulated from life by plate glass, preserved by their steady forty an hour from the commonness of seeing anything along the road, looked out at the campers for a second, sniffed, rolled on, wearily wondering whether they would find a good hotel that night—and why the deuce they hadn't come by train.

If Claire Boltwood had been protected by Jeff Saxton or by a chauffeur, she, too, would probably[121] have marveled at cars gray with dust, the unshaved men in fleece-lined duck coats, and the women wind-burnt beneath the boudoir caps they wore as motoring bonnets. But Claire knew now that filling grease-cups does not tend to delicacy of hands; that when you wash with a cake of petrified pink soap and half a pitcher of cold hard water, you never quite get the stain off—you merely get through the dust stratum to the Laurentian grease formation, and mutter, "a nice clean grease doesn't hurt food," and go sleepily down to dinner.

She saw a dozen camping devices unknown to the East: trailers, which by day bobbed along behind the car like coffins on two wheels, but at night opened into tents with beds, an ice-box, a table; tents covering a bed whose head rested on the running-board; beds made-up in the car, with the cushions as mattresses.

The Great Transcontinental Highway was colored not by motors alone. It is true that the Old West of the stories is almost gone; that Billings, Miles City, Bismarck, are more given to Doric banks than to gambling hells. But still are there hints of frontier days. Still trudge the prairie schooners; cowpunchers in chaps still stand at the doors of log cabins—when they are tired of playing the automatic piano; and blanket Indians, Blackfeet and Crows, stare at five-story buildings—when they are not driving modern reapers on their farms.

They all waved to Claire. Telephone linemen, lolling with pipes and climber-strapped legs in big trucks, sang out to her; traction engine crews shouted; and these she found to be her own people. Only once did she lose contentment—when, on the observation platform of a train bound for Seattle, she saw a Britisher in flannels and a monocle, headed perhaps for the Orient. As the train slipped silkenly away, the Gomez seemed slow and clumsy, and the strain of driving intolerable. And that Britisher must be charming—— Then a lonely, tight-haired woman in the doorway of a tar-paper shack waved to her, and in that wistful gesture Claire found friendship.

And sometimes in the "desert" of yet unbroken land she paused by the Great Highway and forgot the passion to keep going——

She sat on a rock, by a river so muddy that it was like yellow milk. The only trees were a bunch of cottonwoods untidily scattering shreds of cotton, and the only other vegetation left in the dead world was dusty green sagebrush with lumps of gray yet pregnant earth between, or a few exquisite green and white flashes of the herb called Snow-on-the-Mountain. The inhabitants were jackrabbits, or American magpies in sharp black and white livery, forever trying to balance their huge tails against the wind, and yelling in low-magpie their opinion of tourists.

She did not desire gardens, then, nor the pettiness[123] of plump terraced hills. She was in the Real West, and it was hers, since she had won to it by her own plodding. Her soul—if she hadn't had one, it would immediately have been provided, by special arrangement, the moment she sat there—sailed with the hawks in the high thin air, and when it came down it sang hallelujahs, because the sagebrush fragrance was more healing than piney woods, because the sharp-bitten edges of the buttes were coral and gold and basalt and turquoise, and because a real person, one Milt Daggett, though she would never see him again, had found her worthy of worship.

She did not often think of Milt; she did not know whether he was ahead of her, or had again dropped behind. When she did recall him, it was with respect quite different from the titillation that dancing men had sometimes aroused, or the impression of manicured agreeableness and efficiency which Jeff Saxton carried about.

She always supplicated the mythical Milt in moments of tight driving. Driving, just the actual getting on, was her purpose in life, and the routine of driving was her order of the day: Morning freshness, rolling up as many miles as possible before lunch, that she might loaf afterward. The invariable two p.m. discovery that her eyes ached, and the donning of huge amber glasses, which gave to her lithe smartness a counterfeit scholarliness. Toward night, the quarter-hour of[124] level sun-glare which prevented her seeing the road. Dusk, and the discovery of how much light there was after all, once she remembered to take off her glasses. The worst quarter-hour when, though the roads were an amethyst rich to the artist, they were also a murkiness exasperating to the driver, yet still too light to be thrown into relief by the lamps. The mystic moment when night clicked tight, and the lamps made a fan of gold, and Claire and her father settled down to plodding content—and no longer had to take the trouble of admiring the scenery!

The morning out of Billings, she wondered why a low cloud so persistently held its shape, and realized that it was a far-off mountain, her first sight of the Rockies. Then she cried out, and wished for Milt to share her exultation. Rather earnestly she said to Mr. Boltwood:

"The mountains must be so wonderful to Mr. Daggett, after spending his life in a cornfield. Poor Milt! I hope——"

"I don't think you need to worry about that young man. I fancy he's quite able to run about by himself, as jolly as a sand-dog. And—— Of course I'm extremely grateful to him for his daily rescue of us from the jaws of death, but he was right; if he had stayed with us, it would have been inconvenient to keep considering him. He isn't accustomed to the comedy of manners——"

[125]"He ought to be. He'd enjoy it so. He's the real American. He has imagination and adaptability. It's a shame: all the petits fours and Bach recitals wasted on Jeff Saxton, when a Milt Dag——"

"Yes, yes, quite so!"

"No, honest! The dear honey-lamb, so ingenious, and really, rather good-looking. But so lonely and gregarious—like a little woolly dog that begs you to come and play; and I slapped him when he patted his paws and gamboled—— It was horrible. I'll never forgive myself. Making him drive on ahead in that nasty, patronizing way—— I feel as if we'd spoiled his holiday. I wonder if he had intended to make the Yellowstone Park trip? He didn't——"

"Yes, yes. Let's forget the young man. Look! How very curious!"

They were crossing a high bridge over a railroad track along which a circus train was bending. Mr. Boltwood offered judicious remarks upon the migratory habits of circuses, and the vision of the Galahad of the Teal bug was thoroughly befogged by parental observations, till Claire returned from youthful romance to being a sensible Boltwood, and decided that after all, Milt was not a lord of the sky-painted mountains.

Before they bent south, at Livingston, Claire had her first mountain driving, and once she had to ford a stream, putting the car at it, watching the water curve[126] up in a lovely silver veil. She felt that she was conquering the hills as she had the prairies.

She pulled up on a plateau to look at her battery. She noted the edge of a brake-band peeping beyond the drum, in a ragged line of fabric and copper wire. Then she knew that she didn't know enough to conquer. "Do you suppose it's dangerous?" she asked her father, who said a lot of comforting things that didn't mean anything.

She thought of Milt. She stopped a passing car. The driver "guessed" that the brake-band was all gone, and that it would be dangerous to continue with it along mountain roads. Claire dustily tramped two miles to a ranch house, and telephoned to the nearest garage, in a town called Saddle Back.

Whenever a motorist has delirium he mutters those lamentable words, "Telephoned to the nearest garage."

She had to wait a tedious hour before she saw a flivver rattling up with the garage man, who wasn't a man at all, but a fourteen-year-old boy. He snorted, "Rats, you didn't need to send for me. Could have made it perfectly safe. Come on."

Never has the greatest boy pianist received such awe as Claire gave to this contemptuous young god, with grease on his peachy cheeks. She did come on. But she rather hoped that she was in great danger. It was humiliating to telephone to a garage for nothing. When she came into the gas-smelling garage in Saddle[127] Back she said appealingly to the man in charge, a serious, lip-puffing person of forty-five, "Was it safe to come in with the brake-band like that?"

"No. Pretty risky. Wa'n't it, Mike?"

The Mike to whom he turned for authority was the same fourteen-year-old boy. He snapped, "Heh? That? Naw! Put in new band. Get busy. Bring me the jack. Hustle up, uncle."

While the older man stood about and vainly tried to impress people who came in and asked questions which invariably had to be referred to his repair boy, the precocious expert stripped the wheel down to something that looked to Claire distressingly like an empty milk-pan. Then the boy didn't seem to know exactly what to do. He scratched his ear a good deal, and thought deeply. The older man could only scratch.

So for two hours Claire and her father experienced that most distressing of motor experiences—waiting, while the afternoon that would have been so good for driving went by them. Every fifteen minutes they came in from sitting on a dry-goods box in front of the garage, and never did the repair appear to be any farther along. The boy seemed to be giving all his time to getting the wrong wrench, and scolding the older man for having hidden the right one.

When she had left Brooklyn Heights, Claire had not expected to have such authoritative knowledge of the Kalifornia Kandy Kitchen, Saddle Back, Montana,[128] across from Tubbs' Garage, that she could tell whether they were selling more Atharva Cigarettes or Polutropons. She prowled about the garage till she knew every pool of dripped water in the tin pail of soft soap in the iron sink.

She was worried by an overheard remark of the boy wonder, "Gosh, we haven't any more of that decent brake lining. Have to use this piece of mush." But when the car was actually done, nothing like a dubious brake could have kept her from the glory of starting. The first miles seemed miracles of ease and speed.

She came through the mountains into Livingston.

Kicking his heels on a fence near town, and fondling a gray cat, sat Milt Daggett, and he yelped at her with earnestness and much noise.

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