Upton Sinclair

Preview: Issue 1 of 67



The road ran, smooth and flawless, precisely fourteen feet wide, the edges trimmed as if by shears, a ribbon of grey concrete, rolled out over the valley by a giant hand. The ground went in long waves, a slow ascent and then a sudden dip; you climbed, and went swiftly over—but you had no fear, for you knew the magic ribbon would be there, clear of obstructions, unmarred by bump or scar, waiting the passage of inflated rubber wheels revolving seven times a second. The cold wind of morning whistled by, a storm of motion, a humming and roaring with ever-shifting overtones; but you sat snug behind a tilted wind-shield, which slid the gale up over your head. Sometimes you liked to put your hand up, and feel the cold impact; sometimes you would peer around the side of the shield, and let the torrent hit your forehead, and toss your hair about. But for the most part you sat silent and dignified—because that was Dad's way, and Dad's way constituted the ethics of motoring.

Dad wore an overcoat, tan in color, soft and woolly in texture, opulent in cut, double-breasted, with big collar and big lapels and big flaps over the pockets—every place where a tailor could express munificence. The boy's coat had been made by the same tailor, of the same soft, woolly material, with the same big collar and big lapels and big flaps. Dad wore driving gauntlets; and the same shop had had the same kind for boys. Dad wore horn-rimmed spectacles; the boy had never been taken to an oculist, but he had found in a drug-store a pair of amber-colored glasses, having horn rims the same as Dad's. There was no hat on Dad's head, because he believed that wind and sunshine kept your hair from falling out; so the boy also rode with tumbled locks. The only difference between them, apart from size, was that Dad had a big brown cigar, unlighted, in the corner of his mouth; a survival of the rough old days, when he had driven mule-teams and chewed tobacco.

Fifty miles, said the speedometer; that was Dad's rule for open country, and he never varied it, except in wet weather. Grades made no difference; the fraction of an ounce more pressure with his right foot, and the car raced on—up, up, up—until it topped the ridge, and was sailing down into the next little valley, exactly in the centre of the magic grey ribbon of concrete. The car would start to gather speed on the down grade, and Dad would lift the pressure of his foot a trifle, and let the resistance of the engine check the speed. Fifty miles was enough, said Dad; he was a man of order.

Far ahead, over the tops of several waves of ground, another car was coming. A small black speck, it went down out of sight, and came up bigger; the next time it was bigger yet; the next time—it was on the slope above you, rushing at you, faster and faster, a mighty projectile hurled out of a six-foot cannon. Now came a moment to test the nerve of a motorist. The magic ribbon of concrete had no stretching powers. The ground at the sides had been prepared for emergencies, but you could not always be sure how well it had been prepared, and if you went off at fifty miles an hour you would get disagreeable waverings of the wheels; you might find the neatly trimmed concrete raised several inches above the earth at the side of it, forcing you to run along on the earth until you could find a place to swing in again; there might be soft sand, which would swerve you this way and that, or wet clay which would skid you, and put a sudden end to your journey.

So the laws of good driving forbade you to go off the magic ribbon except in extreme emergencies. You were ethically entitled to several inches of margin at the right-hand edge; and the man approaching you was entitled to an equal number of inches; which left a remainder of inches between the two projectiles as they shot by. It sounds risky as one tells it, but the heavens are run on the basis of similar calculations, and while collisions do happen, they leave time enough in between for universes to be formed, and successful careers conducted by men of affairs.

"Whoosh!" went the other projectile, hurtling past; a loud, swift "Whoosh!" with no tapering off at the end. You had a glimpse of another man with horn-rimmed spectacles like yourself, with a similar grip of two hands upon a steering-wheel, and a similar cataleptic fixation of the eyes. You never looked back; for at fifty miles an hour, your business is with the things that lie before you, and the past is past—or shall we say that the passed are passed? Presently would come another car, and again it would be necessary for you to leave the comfortable centre of the concrete ribbon, and content yourself with a precisely estimated one-half minus a certain number of inches. Each time, you were staking your life upon your ability to place your car upon the exact line—and upon the ability and willingness of the unknown other party to do the same. You watched his projectile in the instant of hurtling at you, and if you saw that he was not making the necessary concession, you knew that you were encountering that most dangerous of all two-legged mammalian creatures, the road-hog. Or maybe it was a drunken man, or just a woman—there was no time to find out; you had the thousandth part of a second in which to shift your steering-wheel the tenth part of an inch, and run your right wheels off onto the dirt.

That might happen only once or twice in the course of a day's driving. When it did, Dad had one invariable formula; he would shift the cigar a bit in his mouth and mutter: "Damn fool!" It was the only cuss-word the one-time mule-driver permitted himself in the presence of the boy; and it had no profane significance—it was simply the scientific term for road-hogs, and drunken men, and women driving cars; as well as for loads of hay, and furniture-vans, and big motor-trucks which blocked the road on curves; and for cars with trailers, driving too rapidly, and swinging from side to side; and for Mexicans in tumble-down buggies, who failed to keep out on the dirt where they belonged, but came wabbling onto the concrete—and right while a car was coming in the other direction, so that you had to jam on your foot-brake, and grab the hand-brake, and bring the car to a halt with a squealing and grinding, and worse yet a sliding of tires. If there is anything a motorist considers disgraceful it is to "skid his tires"; and Dad had the conviction that some day there would be a speed law turned inside out—it would be forbidden to drive less than forty miles an hour on state highways, and people who wanted to drive spavined horses to tumble-down buggies would either go cross-lots or stay at home.


A barrier of mountains lay across the road. Far off, they had been blue, with a canopy of fog on top; they lay in tumbled masses, one summit behind another, and more summits peeking over, fainter in color, and mysterious. You knew you had to go up there, and it was interesting to guess where a road might break in. As you came nearer, the great masses changed color—green, or grey, or tawny yellow. No trees grew upon them, but bushes of a hundred shades. They were spotted with rocks, black, white, brown, or red; also with the pale flames of the yucca, a plant which reared a thick stem ten feet or more in the air, and covered it with small flowers in a huge mass, exactly the shape of a candle-flame, but one that never flickered in the wind.

The road began to climb in earnest; it swung around the shoulder of a hill, and there was a sign in red letters: "Guadalupe Grade: Speed limit on curves 15 miles per hour." Dad gave no evidence that he knew how to read, either that sign, or his speedometer. Dad understood that signs were for people who did not know how to drive; for the initiate few the rule was, whatever speed left you on your own half of the highway. In this case the road lay on the right side of the pass; you had the mountain on your right, and hugged it closely as you swung round the turns; the other fellow had the outside edge, and in the cheerful phrase of the time, it was "his funeral."

Another concession Dad made—wherever the bend was to the right, so that the mass of the mountain obstructed the road, he sounded his horn. It was a big, commanding horn, hidden away somewhere under the capacious hood of the car; a horn for a man whose business took him on flying trips over a district big enough for an ancient empire; who had important engagements waiting at the end of his journey, and who went through, day or night, fair weather or foul. The voice of his horn was sharp and military; there was in it no undertone of human kindness. At fifty miles an hour there is no place for such emotions—what you want is for people to get out of the way, and do it quick, and you tell them so. "Whanhnh!" said the horn—a sound you must make through your nose, for the horn was one big nose. A sudden swing of the highway—"Whanhnh!"—and then an elbow jutting out and another swing—"Whanhnh!"—so you went winding up, up, and the rocky walls of Guadalupe Pass resounded to the strange new cry—"Whanhnh! Whanhnh!" The birds looked about in alarm, and the ground-squirrels dived into their sandy entrance-holes, and ranchmen driving rickety Fords down the grade, and tourists coming to Southern California with all their chickens and dogs and babies and mattresses and tin pans tied onto the running-boards—these swung out to the last perilous inch of the highway, and the low, swift roadster sped on: "Whanhnh! Whanhnh!"

Any boy will tell you that this is glorious. Whoopee! you bet! Sailing along up there close to the clouds, with an engine full of power, magically harnessed, subject to the faintest pressure from the ball of your foot. The power of ninety horses—think of that! Suppose you had had ninety horses out there in front of you, forty-five pairs in a long line, galloping around the side of a mountain, wouldn't that make your pulses jump? And this magic ribbon of concrete laid out for you, winding here and there, feeling its way upward with hardly a variation of grade, taking off the shoulder of a mountain, cutting straight through the apex of another, diving into the black belly of a third; twisting, turning, tilting inward on the outside curves, tilting outward on the inside curves, so that you were always balanced, always safe—and with a white-painted line marking the centre, so that you always knew exactly where you had a right to be—what magic had done all this?

Dad had explained it—money had done it. Men of money had said the word, and surveyors and engineers had come, and diggers by the thousand, swarming Mexicans and Indians, bronze of skin, armed with picks and shovels; and great steam shovels with long hanging lobster-claws of steel; derricks with wide swinging arms, scrapers and grading machines, steel drills and blasting men with dynamite, rock-crushers, and concrete mixers that ate sacks of cement by the thousand, and drank water from a flour-stained hose, and had round steel bellies that turned all day with a grinding noise. All these had come, and for a year or two they had toiled, and yard by yard they had unrolled the magic ribbon.

Never since the world began had there been men of power equal to this. And Dad was one of them; he could do things like that, he was on his way to do something like that now. At seven o'clock this evening, in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel at Beach City, a man would be waiting, Ben Skutt, the oil-scout, whom Dad described as his "lease-hound"; he would have a big "proposition" all lined up, and the papers ready for signature. So it was that Dad had a right to have the road clear; that was the meaning of the sharp military voice of the horn, speaking through its nose: "Whanhnh! Whanhnh! Dad is coming! Get out of the way! Whanhnh! Whanhnh!"

The boy sat, eager-eyed, alert; he was seeing the world, in a fashion men had dreamed in the days of Haroun al Raschid—from a magic horse that galloped on top of the clouds, from a magic carpet that went sailing through the air. It was a giant's panorama unrolling itself; new vistas opening at every turn, valleys curving below you, hilltops rising above you, processions of ranges, far as your eye could reach. Now that you were in the heart of the range, you saw that there were trees in the deep gorges, towering old pine trees, gnarled by storms and split by lightning; or clumps of live oaks that made pleasant spaces like English parks. But up on the tops there was only brush, now fresh with the brief spring green; mesquite and sage and other desert plants, that had learned to bloom quickly, while there was water, and then stand the long baking drought. They were spotted with orange-colored patches of dodder, a plant that grew in long threads like corn-silk, weaving a garment on top of the other plants; it killed them—but there were plenty more.

Other hills were all rock, of an endless variety of color. You saw surfaces mottled and spotted like the skins of beasts—tawny leopards, and creatures red and grey or black and white, whose names you did not know. There were hills made of boulders, scattered as if giants had been throwing them in battle; there were blocks piled up, as if the children of giants had grown tired of play. Rocks towered like cathedral arches over the road; through such an arch you swung out into view of a gorge, yawning below, with a stout white barrier to protect you as you made the turn. Out of the clouds overhead a great bird came sailing; his wings collapsed as if he had been shot, and he dived into the abyss. "Was that an eagle?" asked the boy. "Buzzard," answered Dad, who had no romance in him.

Higher and higher they climbed, the engine purring softly, one unvarying note. Underneath the wind-shield were dials and gauges in complicated array: a speedometer with a little red line showing exactly how fast you were going; a clock, and an oil gauge, a gas gauge, an ammeter, and a thermometer that mounted slowly on a long grade like this. All these things were in Dad's consciousness—a still more complicated machine. For, after all, what was ninety horsepower compared with a million dollar power? An engine might break down, but Dad's mind had the efficiency of an eclipse of the sun. They were due at the top of the grade by ten o'clock; and the boy's attitude was that of the old farmer with a new gold watch, who stood on his front-porch in the early morning, remarking, "If that sun don't get over the hill in three minutes, she's late."

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