Biography of a Hasheesh Eater

by Dave Gross

VI. The Heart of the Continent

In 1863 Albert Bierstadt was at the peak of a career that would make him for a time America's top landscape artist. Ludlow was among his supporters, considering Bierstadt's landscapes representative of the best trends in American art of the era, and using his position as art critic at the New York Evening Post to praise the Bierstadt aesthetic.

Albert Bierstadt, who accompanied Ludlow on their trip across the "heart of the continent."

Bierstadt wanted to return West, where on a trip in 1859 he had found scenes for some of his more recently successful and popular paintings. He asked Ludlow to accompany him on a more extensive journey, both as a friend, and, one suspects, a publicist. Ludlow's writings about the trip, published in the New York Evening Post, the San Francisco Golden Era, the Atlantic Monthly and then later compiled into book form, according to one biographer of Bierstadt, "proved to be among the most effective vehicles in firmly establishing Bierstadt as the preeminent artist-interpreter of the western landscape in the 1860s."

The two left Philadelphia by rail, on a ride which would take them eventually to Atchison, Kansas, and which cost them not a cent, thanks to the philanthropy of railroad presidents who fancied themselves patrons of the arts, or perhaps also wanted to be thought of kindly when remembered by Ludlow's pen. In St. Louis, they were met by Rosalie, who had come out for the visit with her cousins. Then in Atchison, with some abruptness, the West started, as the party witnessed a lynching and prepared to board the overland stage.

They camped out for several days on the Kansas river, hunting "on the very flank of the main buffalo herd of North America."

When I remember that I have chased on horseback and slain a brace of giant bulls; that I have helped to hold one of those royal monsters at bay for half an hour while the Artist Bierstadt made a color study of his death charge; beyond all, when I recall the memory of that black moving mass of savage life, reaching without gap to the horizon's edge on every side of me - that main herd only to be counted by hundreds of thousands - I can almost forgive myself the suffering endured later in the Overland trip.
Even before he reached Denver, and before the real suffering of the trip began, the overland stage was wearying. He describes sleep-deprivation dreams that rank in absurdity and aggravation with some of his earlier-described hashish hallucinations:
I, for my part, am so incredibly sleepy and exhausted that when I nod for a minute between jolts, I dream of beds as the traveler dying of thirst dreams of fountains. I am in, oh such a glorious old family bed! with a spring mattrass eight feet square and sheets that seem like the first-quality slumber spread on linen backs in the poor-man's plaster style. Just as it feels the heavenliest, and every nerve is relaxing from the tension of five madly open-eyed nights and days, a chambermaid who seems strangely like the clerk who booked me at Atchison, dressed in woman's clothes, rushes in to say that its all a mistake. The gentleman's bed is not this bed but some other bed, a little matter of ten stories up and six galleries off. I am dragged out and away; I totter half inanimate through interminable corridors; find the bed that is not a mistake and get into it. I am just as near unconsciousness as occurred in bed the first, when a dreadful thump comes at the door, and from a voice outside I discover myself to be what in my waking moments of greatest despondency and self-abasement I never heretofore suspected - a Member of Congress - whose vote is imperatively necessary to pass a bill compelling stages to stop every night and let their passengers sleep eight full hours - a bill which I am still further assured by the voice, will be eternally lost unless I reach the House within ten minutes, as there is now every prospect of a tie, and the Speaker, besides being a man who in childhood used to pull flies legs off, owns fifty shares in the Overland Road. Desperately staggering out of bed in a haste which admits of no additions to my rather airy costume, I wish to seek our national chamber of Legislation - am detained on the way by those thousand dreadful hindrances which belong to nightmare, and finally drag into the house a pair of feet, each one of which seems to have a fifty-six pounder hung to it, just as an Absentee from the Anti-Sleep party enters by the opposite door!
This inability to get even a few moments of rest "rouses all that is Yankee and self-conservative in my nature."
I ask the ostler if he has any spare rope about the stable. Perhaps I look so resolved that he fears I want to hang myself - a proceeding which it is more than likely he has grown familiar with in the case of overland passengers.... He presently returns with about ten yards of line.... I knot these into two very respectable cables, both of which I tie around the roof of the coach, passing the ends through the windows and uniting them above. I roll my overcoat into a pillow and lay it on top, just back of the hinder loop. Through this loop I squeeze my shoulders - fasten them securely to it by a pair of gaskets in the form of shawl straps - insinuate my feet between the foremost loop - lay my head on the coat - and thus trussed to the top of the coach, am ready for an old-fashioned horizontal sleep by the time it starts.
Ludlow's enthusiastic curiosity led him to strike up conversations with people he met from all walks of life, and on the most diverse of subjects. He was especially curious about Indian legends and features of the natural world, from the geography of the valleys he passed through, to the plants along the way, most of which he seemed to know both by scientific name and by one or more common ones. The curiosities of frontier dialect seemed a constant source of interest, and his accounts of the journey are filled with examples of strange diction. One of the stage drivers he quoted as follows:
"When I first came out from Ameriky," said [William] Trotter, (and that's the universal phrase for getting west of the Missouri River) "I found lots o' bad liquor here. It 'curred to me that ef I pitched right in, I might help him to drink it all up shortly. But after tryin' that on a matter o' three year, I found they had kept a gainin' on me and that the folks had a dam sight more of it than I supposed. They kept a bringin' and a bringin' of it on - and finally, when I began to see the turkeys a walkin' round with little green hats on, I reckoned it was time to quit. So I did - and I haint touched liquor this eleven years. Do you know," continued Trotter, fixing on me a gaze of impressive solemnity, "that they haint drunk down to the bottom of that 'ere bad liquor yet?..."
They stayed in Denver for a while, taking excursions into the nearby mountains. Ludlow describes the scene of one of Bierstadt's studies, which would form the basis for his painting "Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie":
Sparkling in fir-sheltered niches upon the bosom of this giant distance, nestled the three lakes, fed with pure molten crystal from the snow crown of the peak - fonts and chalices of holy water resting against the mighty fire-carven wall of God's most glorious out-door Cathedral. Earthquake and Flood - these were the Michael Angelo and Raphael of that wonderful temple, and when we thought through what patient centuries they had wrought, counting each as we reckon a single labor-hour; what giant tools they had wielded, what measureless masses handled - and how the result of wild convulsion had come to be a beauty like the face of the Divine, sweet peace, tenderness, and purity brooding over the very scars of rage and fire, self and its low aims sank utterly out of sight from us, and we were alone with the Omnipotent Love and Power. That glorious roseate mountain stood nameless among the peaks in its virgin vail of snow; so Bierstadt, by right of first portrayal, baptized it after one far away from our sides, but very near and dear to our hearts - a gentle nature who had followed us clear to the verge of our Overland wanderings at Atchison, and parted from us bravely lest she should make our purpose fainter by seeming moved. Henceforth that shining peak is Monte Rosa.
"A Storm in the Rocky Mountains - Mt. Rosalie"
Albert Bierstadt, 1866
On the way through Colorado, the party came upon a petrified forest, giving Ludlow an opening to wax philosophical on a theme he first addressed in The Hasheesh Eater in which he described gazing at patterns of frost on a window-pane finding that "[t]o a certain body of the palm alone is the breath of winter fatal. In the higher zones an incarnation reared of soils and earthy juices perishes and droops away; yet the spirit of the palm is not dead. Wafted away, it collects for itself other materials to dwell in, and crystallizes around itself a form which shall only be beautified and confirmed by that very power which destroys its other embodiment." In the petrified forest, he looked at a stump and wondered:
Though all the once live material of the tree has been replaced by what we call inorganic matter (as if anything could be inorganic in a world which is all one network of systematic relations!) the work has been so gradual, accomplished by such infinitesimal accretions, that the stone tree has obeyed all the laws once vital in the wood.... [T]he tree has a soul which survived immortal after its body was dead, and controlled the new atoms by the same law with which it governed the old ones, marshalling them around it into a nobler body which should express its invisible essence by the same character as of old. There is a great lesson of immortality in petrified trees.
"There is a great lesson of immortality in petrified trees."
V. Rosalie Table of Contents VII. First Impressions of Mormondom

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