Not long ago, I found myself stuck on an airplane. A storm had camped over Atlanta and, just as the flight attendants closed the cabin door, news came that our mid-sized plane would be delayed from leaving the gate. All ground crews were confined indoors so nothing was moving.
It was no fault of the airline but the delay was just as real. People shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Some occasionally stood to stretch their legs. There was a steady line of traffic back and forth to the restrooms. Music played, businessmen worked on their laptops, cell phones stayed on, and conversations lingered. Adding to the experience, after we were finally given the green light to leave the gate, the line of incoming and outgoing air traffic was limited to just one runway. Altogether, over a hundred and twenty folks sat on the plane for two and a half hours waiting for the lightning, rain, and our turn to take off. At the moment we finally took flight a sizeable number of those on board showed their appreciation with a spontaneous round of applause.
I thought about that experience as well as the recent news of some becoming upset on flights when a seat was reclined in front of them. In many ways, we've become a spoiled, short-tempered society intolerant of actions falling anywhere short of total comfort and timely service. What a difference between today and American travel of a hundred forty or fifty years ago. During the 1800’s, travelers engaging in long journeys had come to expect tight quarters, unpleasant temperatures, a myriad of traveling personalities, plenty of airborne dust, and extended times necessary for the trip.
Depicting a fate that met many stagecoaches, this old Concord Coach was abandoned and forgotten for years.
An interesting description of stagecoach travel during the nineteenth century is shared in the 1874 book, “The World on Wheels and Other Sketches,” by Benjamin F. Taylor. Below is an excerpt taken from pages 20-21. Along with the word pictures of wheeled travel in the West, Mr. Taylor shares some benefits of those coaching treks. While some of the period phrases and word uses may seem a little strange today, you’ll get the gist of it. Ultimately, the passage holds a point or two that might still prove helpful to travelers in the 21st century. So grab a quick cup of coffee and settle in for a – not so smooth – ride on an early coach…
“…Think of that coach creeping like an insect… five miles to the hour, to and fro between East and West, the only established means of communication! Think of its nine passengers inside, knocked about like unlucky ivories in a dice box… They get in, all strangers; the ladies on the back seat, the man who is sea-sick, by one coach window, the man that chews ‘the weed, it was the devil sowed the seed,’ at the other; somebody going to Congress, somebody going for goods, somebody going to be married. They are all packed in at last like sardines, with perhaps an urchin chucked into some crevice, to make all snug. There are ten sorts of feet, and two of a sort, dovetailed into a queer mosaic upon the coach-floor. The door closes with a bang, the driver fires a ringing shot or two from his whiplash, and away they pitch and lurch. Think of them riding all day, all night, all day again, crushed hats and elbowed ribs, jumping up and bouncing down into each other’s laps every little while with some plunge of the coach; butting at each other in a belligerent way, now and then, as if “Aeries the ram” were the ruling sign for human kind; begging each other’s pardon, laughing at each other’s mishaps, strangers three hours ago, getting to know each other well and like each other heartily, and parting at last with a clasp of the hand and a sigh of regret. I think a fifty-mile battering in a stage-coach used to shake people out of the shell of their crustaceous proprietaries, and make more lifelong friends than a voyage of five thousand miles by rail.”
This original condition M.P. Henderson mud coach was built for rugged western terrain. It’s located at Scotty’s Castle near Death Valley.
Most would agree that we don’t really take time to get to know each other as much anymore. As small as the world has become, being neighbors doesn't always result in being neighborly. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy the study of and travel associated with early wheeled vehicles. It seems that anytime a crowd is gathered in support of these conveyances, it’s easy to come across folks from all walks of life; each coming together on common ground with mutual enthusiastic interests. We find out the world isn't as overwhelmingly negative as it’s so often shown on the news. For the moment, the subject of old wheels brings us closer and, perhaps, a bit better suited for the pace of the world we live in. For those in the early 1870’s, the world was moving just as quick. Transcontinental travel by rail had only recently been completed. Technology was rapidly developing and many of the established ways of life were disappearing. For our ancestors, it carried with it a sense that the world was moving too fast.
As much as yesterday may have seemed to be part of ‘the good ‘ol days,’ we can also benefit from slowing down and sharing our own experiences with others. For my part, I hope you have a good week and, with any luck, we’ll have a chance to get together down the road. I wouldn't even mind sharing a cramped seat on a dusty coach (as long as I could limit it to an hour or so and have a hot shower, a fresh change of clothes, and comfortable car waiting at the end!) All in all, we continue to be blessed to live in a great land with many wonderful people, each enjoying the freedom to look back and the opportunity to move forward.