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Smartsville to Marysville. Some Reflections on Automobiles and "Hoboes"
Early the next morning I started for Marysville, the last leg in my journey, and a long twenty miles distant. I had been dreading the pull through the Sacramento Valley, having a lively recollection of my experience in the San Joaquin, on leaving Stockton. The day was sultry, making the heat still more oppressive. After leaving the foot-hills for good, I walked ten miles before reaching a tree, or anything that cast a shadow, if you except the telephone poles. For the first time I realized there was danger in walking in such heat, and even contemplated the shade of the telephone poles as a possibility! Fortunately a light breeze sprang up - the fag end of the trade wind - and, though hot, it served to dispel that stagnation of the atmosphere which in sultry weather is so trying to the nervous system. Marysville is nearly one hundred miles due north of Stockton - of course, much farther by rail - and the same arid, treeless, inhospitable belt of country between the cultivated area and the foot-hills apparently extends the whole distance. It is a country to avoid.
About two miles short of Marysville, while enjoying the shade cast by the trees that border the levee of the Feather River, which skirts Marysville to the south, a man in an auto stopped and very kindly offered to give me a lift. I thanked him politely but declined. He seemed amazed. "Why don't you ride when you can?" he asked. "Because I prefer to walk," I answered. This fairly staggered him. The idea of a man preferring to walk, and in such heat, was probably a novel experience, and served to deprive him of further speech. He simply sat and stared and I had passed him some twenty yards before he started his machine.
A sturdy tramp walking in the middle of the road, who had witnessed the scene, shouted as he passed: "Why didn't yer ride wid de guy?" I replied as before, "Because I prefer to walk;" adding for his benefit, "I've no use for autos." Whereupon he threw back his head and burst into peal after peal of such hearty laughter that, from pure contagion, I perforce joined in the chorus. In the days of Fielding and Sam Johnson, this fellow would have been dubbed "a lusty vagabond;" in the slangy parlance of today, he was a "husky hobo," equipped as such, even to the tin can of the comic journals. To him, the humor of a brother tramp refusing a ride - in an autocar, at that - appealed with irresistible force.
To walk in the middle of the road is characteristic of the genuine tramp. There must be some occult reason for this peculiarity, since in a general way, it is far easier going on the margin. Perhaps it is because he commands a better view of either side, with a regard to the possible onslaught of dogs. There is something about a man with a pack on his back that infuriates the average dog, as I have on several occasions found to my annoyance. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his whimsical and altogether delightful "Travels with a Donkey," thus vents his opinion anent the dog question:
"I was much disturbed by the barking of a dog, an animal that I fear more than any wolf. A dog is vastly braver and is, besides, supported by a sense of duty. If you kill a wolf you meet with encouragement and praise, but if you kill a dog, the sacred rights of property and the domestic affections come clamoring around you for redress. At the end of a fagging day, the sharp, cruel note of a dog's bark is in itself a keen annoyance; and to a tramp like myself, he represents the sedentary and respectable world in its most hostile form. There is something of the clergyman or the lawyer about this engaging animal; and if he were not amenable to stones, the boldest man would shrink from traveling a-foot. I respect dogs much in the domestic circle; but on the highway or sleeping afield, I both detest and fear them."
I confess to a feeling of sympathy with the men we so indiscriminately brand with the contemptuous epithet, "hobo." In the first place, the road itself, with its accompanying humors and adventures, forms a mutual and efficacious bond. How little we know of the "Knights of the Road," or the compelling circumstances that turned them adrift upon the world! "All sorts and conditions of men" are represented, from the college professor to the ex-pugilist. I have "hit the ties" in company with a so-called "hobo" who quoted Milton and Shakespeare by the yard, interspersed with exclamations appreciative of his enjoyment of the country through which we were passing. And once when on a tramp along the coast from San Francisco to Monterey, I fell in at Point San Pedro with a professional, who bitterly regretted the coming of the Ocean Shore Railway, then in process of construction. "For years," said he, "I have been in the habit of making this trip at regular intervals, on my way south. I had the road to myself and thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful beauty of the scene; but now this railroad has come with its mushroom towns, and all the charm has gone. Never again for me! This is my last trip!"
I have not the slightest doubt that sheer love of the road - and only a tramp knows what those words mean - is the controlling influence which keeps fifty per cent of the fraternity its willing slaves. What was Senhouse - that most fascinating of Maurice Hewlett's creations - but a tramp? A gentleman tramp, if you please, but still a tramp. What is the reason that Senhouse appeals so strongly to the imagination? Simply because he loved Nature. And in this matter-of-fact period when poetry is dead and even a by-word, the man who loves Nature, if not a poet, at least has poetry in his soul. In a decadent age symbolized by the tango and the problem play, it is at least an encouraging sign for the future that such a character as Senhouse came to the jaded reader of the erotic fiction of the day, as a whiff of sea breeze on a parched plain, and was hailed with corresponding delight.
Of course there are "hoboes" and "hoboes," as in any other profession, but so far as my experience goes, the "hobo" is an idealist. Of the many reasons he has taken to the road, not the least is the freedom from the shackles of convention and the "Gradgrind" methods of an utilitarian and materialistic age. Nor is he a pessimist. Whatever his trouble, the road has eased him of his burden and made him a philosopher.
Thoreau, writing in the middle of the last century, deplores the fact that in his day, as now, but few of his countrymen took any pleasure in walking, and that very rarely one encountered a person with any real appreciation of the beauty of Nature, which if he could but see it, lay at his very door. Speaking for himself and companion in his rambles, he says: "We have felt that we almost alone hereabouts (Concord, Massachusetts) practiced this noble art; though, to tell the truth, at least if their own assertions are to be received, most of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom and independence which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a Walker. Ambulator nascitur non fit. Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me, walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods."
Who is there who walks habitually, who does not know the man who tells you of the walks he "used to take?" You have known him, say a dozen years. During all that time, to your knowledge, his walks have practically been limited by the distance to his office and back from the ferry boat. When you urge him for perhaps the twentieth time, to essay a tramp with you, he will say he would like to very much, but unfortunately so-and-so renders it impossible. And then looking you in the eye, he will tell you how much he enjoyed tramps he took, of twenty or thirty miles - but that was before you knew him! As if a Walker with a big "W," as Thoreau writes the word, would remain satisfied with the memory of walks of twenty years ago!
I had heard of the "Marysville Buttes," as one has heard of Madagascar, but their actual appearance on the landscape came as the greatest surprise of the trip. As I first caught sight of them when within a few miles of Marysville, they gave me a distinct thrill. I could hardly believe my eyes and thought of mirages; for those pointed, isolated peaks rise precipitously from the floor of the Sacramento valley; in fact, their bases are only a mile or two from the river. They have every indication, even to the unscientific eye, of having been upheaved by volcanic action. Perhaps that accounts for the uncanny impression they impart.
A walk of twenty-one or two miles without food, in any kind of weather, is apt to produce an aching void. My first efforts on reaching Marysville were therefore directed to finding the sort of place where I could eat in comfort. The emphasis which Robert Louis Stevenson employs when upon this most important quest would be amusing were it not also a vital problem in your own case. There is nothing humorous per se in hunger or thirst; at any rate, not until both are appeased. With the black coffee and cigar, you can tip your chair at a comfortable angle against the wall, and watching the delicate wreaths of smoke in their spiral upward course, previous to final disintegration, smile at the persistent energy with which an hour ago you systematically worked the town from end to end, anxiously peering in the windows of uninviting restaurants until you finally found that little "hole in the wall" for which you were looking, with the bottle of Tipo Chianti, the succulent chops and the big red tomatoes, in the window. It is always to be found if you have the necessary perseverance. The genial Italian proprietor, with the innate politeness of his countrymen, will not bore you with questions as to where you have come from, whither you are going, or what you are walking for, anyway, etc., etc. He accepts you just as you are - haversack, camera, big stick and all, hanging them without comment on the hook behind your head; while you simply tell him you want a good dinner, the best he can give you, but to include the chops, tomatoes and Tipo Chianti. With a smile and that artistic flip of the napkin under his arm, which only he can achieve, he sets about giving his orders. Later on, after a hot bath, a shave and the luxury of a clean shirt, feeling at peace with the world and refreshed in body and soul, you set out to examine the town in comfort and at your leisure.
In the mining days, Marysville ranked next to San Francisco, Sacramento and possibly Stockton, not only in interest but in actual volume of business transacted. It was the natural outlet for all the foot-hill country tributary to Grass Valley, Nevada City, and Smartsville. There the miners outfitted and there, when they had "made their pile," they began the process - subsequently completed in Sacramento and San Francisco - of reducing it to a negligible quantity. That, of course, is merely a reminiscence, but as the center of one of the most prosperous grain and fruit-raising sections of the Sacramento Valley, Marysville is still a place of considerable importance. The old town is very much in evidence; so much so that, in spite of the numerous modern buildings, the general effect produced is of age, as age is understood in California. I doubt if San Francisco before the fire, or Sacramento today, could show as many substantial, solid buildings dating back to the fifties.