Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore fu una giornalista americana che tra il 1889 e il 1890 si cimentò in una gara di velocità attorno al mondo con la ben più celebre Nellie Bly. L'idea era di ripercorrere le tappe definite da Jules Verne nel romanzo "Il giro del mondo in 80 giorni". Il 14 novembre 1889 le due giornaliste partirono da New York: Nellie Bly, sponsorizzata dal quotidiano New York World, partì verso Ovest, mentre Elizabeth Bisland, sponsorizzata dal mensile Cosmopolitan, partì verso Ovest. Idealmente, entrambe le signore fecero meglio di Phileas Fogg: Nellie Bly stabilì il nuovo record rientrando a New York il 25 gennaio 1890, impiegando 72 giorni, 6 ore e 11 minuti per compiere il giro del mondo. La Bisland rientrò qualche giorno dopo, precisamente il 30 gennaio 1890, impiegando dunque 76 giorni.
A Flying Trip around the world
IF, on the 13th of November, 1889, some amateur prophet had foretold that I should spend Christmas Day of that year in the Indian Ocean, I hope I should not by any open and insulting incredulity have added new burdens to the trials of a hard-working soothsayer – I hope I should, with the gentleness due a severe case of aberrated predictiveness, have merely called his attention to that passage in the Koran in which it is written, "The Lord loveth a cheerful liar" – and bid him go in peace. Yet I did spend the 25th day of December steaming through the waters that wash the shores of the Indian Empire, and did do other things equally preposterous, of which I would not have believed myself capable if forewarned of them. I can only claim in excuse that these vagaries were unpremeditated, for the prophets neglected their opportunity and I received no augury.
On the 14th of November of the aforementioned year, I was awakened at eight o'clock as usual by the maid with the breakfast tray – which also contained the morning papers and a neat pile of notes and letters. Among these latter were acceptances of invitations I had sent to half a dozen agreeable folk to come and drink five-o'clock tea with me on the 15th, the usual communications from one's friends on casual subjects; an invitation to dinner; a bill; and a notice from my tailor that I might some time during the day have the final fitting of a gown in process of construction. All as pleasantly commonplace as the most mild-mannered individual could expect or desire.
I read the papers leisurely, made a calm and uneventful toilet, and the very first intimation I received of the coming thunderbolt out of the serene sky of my existence was a hurried and mysterious request, at half-past ten o'clock, that I would come as soon as possible to the office of the magazine of which I was one of the editors. My appetite for mystery at that hour of the day is always lamentably feeble, and it was nearly eleven before I found time to go and investigate this one, although the office in question was only a few minutes' walk from my residence. On arriving, the editor and owner of the magazine asked if I would leave New York that evening for San Francisco and continue from there around the world, endeavoring to complete the journey in some absurdly inadequate space of time.
If my appetite for mystery at that hour is not strong, my appetite at eleven in the morning for even the most excruciatingly funny jokes may be said to actually not exist, and this one, I remember, bored me more than most. But in the course of half an hour I had become convinced that the editor really wished me to make the attempt, and I had earnestly endeavored to convince him that I meant to do nothing of the sort. To begin with, I didn't wish to. In the second place, guests were coming to my house to tea on the following day; thirdly, I was not prepared in the matter of appropriate garments for such an abrupt departure, and lastly, but most weightily, I foresaw the notoriety that an effort to outdo the feat of Jules Verne's hero was likely to bring upon me, and to this notoriety I most earnestly objected. Though for some years I had been more or less connected with journalism, I had appeared in the papers only as the contributor of unsigned articles, and the amount of distress I experienced when I first saw my name in a head line was so far beyond even my anticipations that I then and there registered a vow – Throughout this voyage I had cause to owe much gratitude to journalists for all manner of aid and civility, but I resolved in the future to so endeavor to conduct myself that they would never have reason to put my name in a head line again.
The editor and I having passed the better part of an hour going over this matter, substantial arguments were finally advanced by him which persuaded me to make the experiment of lowering the circumnavigatory record. I then took a cab and drove to my tailor for the appointed fitting and for a vigorous interview in which he was ultimately convinced that I could wear that gown at six o'clock in the evening.
The next few hours were busy ones.
To the masculine mind there appears to be something strangely exhilarating in the thought of a woman being abruptly torn from her home without sufficient time to put her wardrobe in order, and to all the men responsible for this voyage the most delightful feature apparently of the whole affair was the fact that I should be forced to get ready in five hours for a seventy-five days' voyage around the world. – Why this should be so a woman cannot easily divine. It fails utterly to appeal to her sense of humor. It is one of those hopeless warps in the male mind that my sex no longer attempt to comprehend or to straighten, and, finding it incurable, have learned to bear with and ignore it as far as possible.
I finally managed to get all absolute necessaries of travel into a good-sized steamer trunk, a large Gladstone bag and a shawl-strap, but found, by experience, that my progress would have been in no degree retarded, and my comfort and happiness far better served, by carrying a second and larger box with everything I could possibly have required. I managed the trip on two cloth gowns, half a dozen light bodices, and an evening silk, but might quite as well have carried my entire winter and a large part of my summer wardrobe. Happily I took the precaution of carrying plenty of pins and hair-pins. I had had some previous experience with their vicious ways, and well knew that in critical moments in foreign parts they would get up playful little games of hide-and-seek that would tend to undermine my temper, and the only sure preventive was to have geologic layers of them all through the trunk, so that a shaft might be hastily sunk through one's belongings at any moment with a serene certainty of striking rich deposits of both necessities of female existence.
. . . To wake up in the morning to one's usual daily duties and find one's self at night voyaging round the world is an experience calculated to surprise even a mind as composed as that of Pet Marjorie's historically placid fowl; and looking back now over the time of my departure I find that, though to outward seeming I also was
". . . most exceeding ca'm,"
in reality I was practically stupefied with astonishment for at least two days.
I remember thinking rapidly on all manner of subjects; telling myself warningly that it would not do to forget anything or make any mistakes, as they could not be rectified. . . . I remember thinking that my new gown fitted very well, and that, though my face was drawn and white with the excitement and fatigues of the day, my new hat was distinctly becoming. . . . Then there were cabs and hurry – kisses – last directions – the bumping of the box on the stair – a big bunch of pink roses (which I felt was a nice complimentary touch to my travelling ensemble) – everybody talking at once and giving different advice and directions – the glare of lights – the coffin-like smell of a sleeping-car – and I was off for seventy-five days' travel round the globe.
. . . Then no more distinct impressions until Chicago suddenly steps across my twenty-five-thousand-mile path and it is necessary to change cars.
. . . Even this is vague. I remember that through some mistake there was no one there to meet me as had been arranged – that I wandered about a vast, gloomy, and rather empty station in the care of a friendly conductor – that I sat on a high stool at a counter and quenched internal cravings, caused by lack of dinner, with tea and ham; every mouthful regarded with wan interest by the person who officiated in the echoing lunch hall – that the conductor having bidden me a commiserating adieu, I slid away into the night, very homesick, very cross, and haunted by the bitterest suspicions of the happy results of a tea-and-ham dinner.
But with that night's sleep I slept away my stupefaction of amazement, and awoke at daybreak in my right mind, and, pulling up my window curtain, found the sun almost ready to rise.
I have never permitted a vulgar familiarity to dull my keen delight in the ever-varying pageant of the breaking of day; so that, consequently, on the rare occasions when I assist at this function, my pleasure has all the enthusiasm of novelty.
Now the lifted curtain showed me a New Jerusalem. . . . As if to one who should rise to pray at the moment when God gave his great daily fiat of "Let there be light," there should be vouchsafed a white, luminous foreshadowing of that which it hath not entered into the heart of man to understand. . . . Not the strangely narrow and urban vision of Patmos; no streets or walls, but a limitless Land of Pearl!
. . . Soft undulations, full and tender as the bosom of a sleeping mother, rose and fell far beyond the eye's reach, and melted into the sky. No tree or thicket broke the suave outlines, but where the thin silver veins of the streams slipped through the curves of the plain, slim, leafless willows hung, like glistening fringes. . . . In the night a hoar frost had fallen that was to snow as sleep is to death; and the pale reaped fields, the sere meadows, and silent uplands were transfigured by the first gleam of day to a mystery and glory of silver and pearl. As the light grew, nacreous tints of milky blue and rose flushed the argent pallor of the land, and when the yellow disk rolled up over the horizon's edge I travelled for some brief space in a world of intolerable splendor, where innumerable billions of frost crystals flashed back to the sun the reflection of his shining face. Even the engine-driver was moved, I fancy, by this marvellous morning vision, for though we were far from any stopping-place, there suddenly thrilled through the silence a long, keen, triumphant blast, and we trailed as we flew floating golden plumes of steam. . . .
As I passed in my swift circle about the great ball plunging along its planetary paths, many mighty and glorious visions of the coming and passing of light were revealed to me; but none more fair than this with that radiance of youth, whose vast, sweet nature-shadow and simulacrum the dawning is. . . . Eternally renewed, through all ages. . . still, with the white peace of innocence . . . joyous in unwasted strength and untried powers . . . rosy with promise and potentialities, gilding all the commonplaceness of the landscape with golden glamours and fantasies . . . an Eden created out of the hollow void of night, in which to rest for one dewy, enchanted moment of purity and love before the sun with his flaming sword drives us forth to the toil and heat of the day!
. . . In developing my mental Kodak roll after returning, I found that during this period of the journey most of the views are landscapes, seeing that I was afflicted with peculiarly uninteresting fellow-travellers who made poor subjects for snap shots. Across the aisle from me was a pair of ancient little lovers who numbered some hundred or more years between them, I fancy. They had nested long since; all their fledglings were flown, and, left alone together once more, they were on their way to Los Angeles to spend a second honeymoon among the winter orange blossoms: a pretty pale afterglow of love. But though their quaint, antiquated billing and cooing was a pleasing enough thing to watch, it is notorious that even in these second bridal journeys the outsider is very much outside, and I was driven back perforce to my window.
. . . "A perfect day," the record says. . . . More undulant fields clothed in the yellow stubble of the gathered harvest. Here and there black loam broken for winter sowing – a square of jet set in the pale amber – and over all a faint, turquoise sky. . . .
That night we were in Council Bluffs, Omaha, and by chance got passage on the new fast mail-train, which had been put on as an experiment in time across the continent, and was carrying but one sleeper and the General Manager's private car.
The pace was tremendous from the start. . . . We began to climb the Great Divide. Trees and shrubs grew rare and more rare, and finally vanished altogether.
. . . Great gray plains lay all about us, covered thinly with a withered, ashen-colored plant; the bitter results of an unequal struggle for existence, and strangely resembling in miniature the gnarled, writhen cedars that cling to wind-scourged coasts. Settlements were few and far between. Scrawny horses picked up a scant living in the desolate upland meadows; and an occasional yellow cur that came out and barked at us as we went by was the only other form of animal life to be seen. From time to time we passed a dwelling, a square cabin of gray unpainted boards, always tightly closed and the dwellers always absent somewhere on business. The only distinct proof I ever saw of the human habitance of these silent, lonely homes was a tiny pair of butternut trousers fluttering on the clothes-line. The minute American citizen who should have occupied these trousers was invisible, and I greatly fear they were perhaps his only pair.
. . . We climbed and climbed; always at tremendous speed, and always the land growing more desolate, and wildly drear, like the cursed site of some prehistoric Sodom, sown with salt. The air shone with a luminous clearness undreamable in coast countries, and at night the stars were huge and fierce: not the soft-gleaming palpitant planets of tropic nights, but keen and scintillant as swords. . . . There was something hideous and brutal in the doom laid upon this unhappy territory, as of a Prometheus chained on the mountain-tops; its blood dried to dust in its veins, and lifting a scarred face of gray despair to the rainless sky.
From time to time we crossed a feeble, trickling stream; but no verdure marked the course of its waters bitter and fruitless as tears. During the night our way lay through that still more desolate portion of this dry region named, with simple and expressive literalness, the Bad Lands; and here again I saw a most wonderful coming of the light. The moon, wan with the dawn, hung directly in the zenith, and on the eastern rim of the ghostly gray plain, under the quivering jewel of the morning star, burned the first vague flush of day. Slowly a dusky amethyst radiance filled the sapphire bowl of the sky, quenching the stars one by one as it rose, and when the sun showed over the world's edge the cup was brimmed, and the pale moon shone faintly in its depths, like the drowned pearl of the Egyptian queen. There was no eye but mine to see, yet in the midst of unpeopled desolation the majestic ceremonies of the sky were fulfilled with the same slow pomp and splendor as if all the worshippers of the Sun knelt in awed wonder to see the Bridegroom come forth of his chamber.
. . . Our speed through this part of the country was terrible. Five hours away from Ogden we were two hours and a half behind the time set for our arrival there. Some three quarters of a million hung upon our arriving promptly and getting the track clear for ourselves beyond, not to mention many other important considerations that could scarcely be reckoned in figures; for a great government contract for mails would be either lost or won by morning. A certain engineer, whose name was Foley – or words to that effect – was telegraphed to meet us at the next stop. He was a gentleman of Irish extraction who labored under an entire absence of physical timidity, and who remarked with jovial determination, as he climbed into the cab, that he would "get us to Ogden – or hell, on time." Several times during that five hours' ride the betting stood ten to one on the latter goal, and Hades was hot favorite. The grade at this part of the road has a descent of 93 feet in a mile, and the track corkscrewed through gorges and cañons with but small margin between us and destruction. To these considerations Mr. Foley was cheerfully indifferent, and pulling out the throttle he let the engine have her head at the rate of sixty-five miles an hour. The train rocked like a ship at sea, and sleepers held to their berths in terror, the more nervous actually succumbing to mal de mer. The plunge of the engine, that now and again whimpered affrightedly in the darkness, could be felt through the whole train, as one feels beneath one the fierce play of the loins of a runaway horse. From the rear car the tracks were two lines of fire in the night. The telegraph pole reeled backwards from our course and the land fled from under us with horrible nightmare weirdness. The officers of the train became alarmed and ordered speed slackened; but Mr. Foley, consulting his watch, regretted with great firmness that he could not oblige them. One man rolled in an anguish of terror on the floor; and the General Manager, engaged in a late game of whist, regarding the sufferer with sympathetic interest as he took the odd trick with the thirteenth trump, remarked that it was such episodes as this in American life that made us a nation of youthful gray-heads.
We arrived in Ogden on time.
Mr. Foley dismounted with alacrity from his cab, remarked that these night rides were prone to give a man cold, and went in pursuit of an antidote behind a swinging Venetian door on the corner, and we saw him no more.
From here the vast, desolate uplands, 8000 feet high in the keen dry air, showed no further sign of human habitation between the stations, and were ornamented only with the frequent jack rabbit, the occasional coyote, and now and then an arrangement of tepees. Indians crowded about the train at every stop; those of the female sex who were blessed with offspring permitting us to view the living contents of the corded parcels they carried on their backs in exchange for small current coin. The pappoose, I discovered, is the original Baby Bunting. He slumbers with stoical composure in a nest of rabbit skins – presumably those for which "papa went a-hunting" – that line a portable wooden cradle into which he is strapped, and from which, I am told, he rarely emerges during infancy. The girls and boys from six to sixteen I found very pretty, with smooth red skins, glittering teeth and eyes, and black Vandyked locks. Those whom years had overtaken were indescribably wrinkled and parched. Old squaws squatted in the dust huddled in blankets, and were as impassive as ancient worm-eaten idols. A coin dropped into their hands brought a mumble and a glance from their rusted eyes; but indifference did not wound them, neither did the fast train or any of its passengers excite their curiosity – the vagaries of the white man were so numerous that nervous prostration would be a sure consequence of any attempt to interest themselves in his doings, and peace and composure lay only in entirely ignoring him.
All through this country the air had a delicious dry perfume, like the smell of parching vegetation, that was stimulating and wholesome as the resinous incense of pines.
The night before reaching San Francisco we found our first trees again, at a little wayside eating station, where a long row of poplars stood up stiffly in the dusk near our path, and a tiny fountain plashed with an enchanting, cool melodiousness. . . . The air was soft and spring-like and the moist darkness pleasant with a smell as of white clover. It could not, of course, in November, have been really the sweet early flowers of the grass, yet I know nothing else that gives out the same clean, delicate perfume; nor can I guess from what that pure vernal fragrance did arise, that was like the first breath from a promised land after long wandering in a country of wilderness and drought.
Sacramento stopped us for a moment at daylight, and here we found rich, juicy verdure, watery marshes, and the first outer edges of that yellow wave from China which has broken upon the Pacific coasts. Still there were no trees. Only grassy, rounded hills, with white sea-mists trailing among them. A country much like that about Newport, but without that icy breath always in the air of the upper Atlantic coast. There was a certain genial tenderness in this atmosphere that even in the hottest day of August the eastern coast never knows.
. . . At fifteen minutes past nine the nose of the ferry-boat from Oakland touches the San Francisco wharf. We have crossed the continent in four days and twenty hours – thanks to Mr. Foley – and the distance between New York and the Western metropolis is reduced by a whole day. A great achievement! There are crowds of reporters waiting to interview everybody; General Manager, engineer, conductor – even me. We splash cheerfully through the warm rain and oozing mud – the wet season began two days ago – with pleased faces that our tremendous journey is over, walking with free strides and swinging arms because of the long, cramping confinement.
To my eyes, accustomed to the soaring loftiness of New York architecture, this city seems astonishly low. Three or four stories at the most the average is. Because of earthquake they say; but latterly these have almost entirely ceased to occur, as if the land had grown to realize that civilization would not tolerate such impulsive ways, and had gradually abandoned them shamefacedly, as being in extremely bad taste. Consequently a few of the more recent buildings have begun to climb, Babel-like, into the dripping skies.
One gets a remarkable impression of newness here such as a Londoner might on his first landing in New York. Every one tells you, "I have been here a year – six months – three months – three years." One begins to believe that no one was ever born here. All the buildings look new and fresh, and the whole atmosphere of the place is charged with a vigorous, disrespectful sort of youth.
The city, or at least the Spanish part of it, was founded in the year of the Declaration of Independence, but the American town is only forty or fifty years old. The hotel at which I stop was erected in 1875. It is a huge caravansary, built around a square and enclosing a vast asphalted court adorned with palms and ferns. There is an arcade within this court where the typical American hotel frequenter tips back his chair, reads the papers, and smokes. On the outer side of the arcade are shops of every description, so that one may purchase all the ordinary needs of life without leaving one's lodging-place.
I find here that my progress must be arrested for two days, as the arrangements for hurrying the departure of the ship have fallen through; and I do not altogether grieve, for this tremendous pace for thousands of miles across the country has told upon my nerves to an absurd degree, and I wonder, as I shiver with exhaustion and tremble with nameless, undefined apprehensions, how the coming generation that is to travel a hundred and a hundred and fifty miles an hour will bear the strain of it. Some process of adaption to a nerve-destroying environment will take place doubtless, humanity being so elastic in such matters.
Meantime there is some space to investigate this first one of the many great cities I must pass through. The editors of the San Francisco "Examiner," who have shown me every courtesy from the moment of my arrival, invite me to luncheon at the Cliff House, which stands on the very western edge of the continent, upon one of the pillars of the Golden Gate.
There is still a soft, warm rain falling when we start. Roses climb around the porches of the residences and hang heavy-drenched blossoms amid their shining wet leaves, perfuming the damp city streets with delicious garden odors. Should I shut my eyes to the hills I mount and descend, the warmth, the humidity, and the rose odors would make me believe myself in New Orleans again. . . . In that far distant city I might be going on just such an expedition as this to Spanish Fort on the Lakeside. It gives me a sense of nostalgia, not for the people and city I have but just left, but for an earlier home, where I would have found just such carelessly happy geniality as among these witty, good-looking men who regard the delays of a train with amiable indifference, and see their day slip from them with the carelessness of a spendthrift.
The train crawls along the edge of the harbor shut in between the grassy, treeless hills. We wind around their flanks in perilous fashion for some space, for the harbor juts deeply into the land, and as we cling to their steep sides we hear the waves dashing beneath. There is a sudden turn at last, and before us lies spread the Western Ocean! . . . There is a joyous shock of astonishment in the sight. . . . A sense of discovery, of splendid vastness, of a rich new experience seized and dominated. For one keen instant not he who stood
"Silent upon a peak in Darien"
felt a more magnificent dilation of spirit than I.
We lunch, jovially and sumptuously, upon the sea's edge. Already the day is declining as we finish. The rain has ceased, and in the west the curtain of cloud lifts. On a balcony that overhangs the water we watch the sunset. Three great crags stand up sharply two hundred yards away – Seal Rocks – covered with grumbling, barking sea lions, the city's pets, whom the law protects. They look much like fat pigs from this distance. At the last moment the sun flames out gloriously; reddens all the heavens, and gilds a rippling road for me across the waterly world I must traverse. It is a sign of promise, they tell me.
The ride home in the cable car is a curious experience. The streets are of the most astonishing steepness still, though millions have been spend in grading the hills. On each of the cars is a small open space in front where one may sit if one likes and enjoy the sensation of plunging down the most startling inclines and yet see the car stop short at perilous points to allow a traveller to leisurely dismount. The road leads past the famous Nob Hill, where the bonanza kings have their residences – huge wooden palaces of the most rococo designs. It is said that these half-dozen residences cost $9,000,000 to build. James C. Flood's house is of brown stone, the only dwelling of that material in the state, all of the stone having been imported from the East at prodigious expense. One of these palaces – the property of a bonanza relict – is of a curious lead color, which, with its overwhelmingly ornate decorations, gives it an odd resemblance to a gigantic hot-air stove.
There were beautiful public gardens, great public buildings, and many relics of the ancient Spanish domination to be seen in this charming city, but my flight was too rapid to pause for these. That night I saw the quarter known locally as China Town, peeped into some of the huge, splendid theatres and restaurants, and then, at three o'clock the next day, set sail for Japan.
Pseudonimo: B.L.R. Dane
Riferimento geografico: Giro del mondo
Mezzo di trasporto: Diversi
Riferimenti complementari: Bisland E., A Flying Trip Around The World, 1891Marks J., Around the World in 72 Days: The race between Pulitzer's Nellie Bly and Cosmopolitan's Elizabeth Bisland, Gemittarius Press, 1993