Hints for Carriage Travel
First as to horses. There is a common idea that heavy horses are not as good travellers as lighter animals. This does not accord with my experience in really working-horses. For a spurt, or a day or two of hard driving, it may well be that light horses will go faster and come in less worried than heavier animals. But for continuous travelling, with a reasonably heavy load, day after day, taking any and every kind of road, ascending and descending hills and mountains, it is my opinion after long experience that strong, heavy horses are more trustworthy and useful, do their work with less fatigue, and do it better. My black horses, Ned and Jack, now grown old and living in almost inglorious idleness, weigh twelve hundred and fifty each. I have a pair of grays that weigh short twelve hundred each. My carriage with my regular travel load weighs a trifle under fourteen hundred. Either pair of horses will take us along on roads up hill and down at an average gait of five miles to the hour. This is fast enough for one to drive who travels to see everything that is to be seen on both sides of the road. It may happen, after a day of loitering along, that I find myself towards evening eight or ten miles from my proposed resting-place. My horses can do that in an hour, and come in in good order. I seldom average over twenty five miles a day. But, on occasion, I drive forty-five miles a day, without fatigue to these horses. Few light horses can be depended on for such little afternoon spurts, or such extra days, over rough or mountainous roads, on a journey of four or five hundred miles, with three-fourths of a ton behind them.
A comfortable carriage, comfortable for both horses and travellers, is a very rare object in our day. The tendency of late years has been to build carriages to be looked at, or to show off the persons and dresses of the occupants. With this has grown the fashion of building carriages with narrow box seats, into which two persons can crowd side by side only by wedging as they take their seats.
In carriage travel the primary considerations for the vehicle are strength and roominess. Don't save a hundred or two pounds of weight at the expense of strength. Get horses that will draw your load, and don't sacrifice safety and sureness. By sureness, I mean this: that a break-down in a lonesome road, miles from a blacksmith, is an unpleasant accident.
Breadth of beam is what you need to give room. Your running-gear must be of the ordinary gauge in use in the country you travel in, and your carriage-box as wide as possible on that gear. The seats should be so wide that two persons can sit on them with room between them for a book, or a small bag, or any little traps. The front and back seat should be on a level. I generally travel with three in the carriage, one on the back seat, myself and coachman on the front seat. This leaves ample room on the back seat and bottom for books, maps, flowers that we gather, wraps, and the small impedimenta of travel; while a rack behind the carriage holds the trunks, which are not heavy, but with their leverage power balance the weight of two on the front seat and make even springs. It is well that the carriage top be an ordinary extension top, reaching forward over the front seat, which can be thrown completely back and lie on the baggage. In soft October days there is vast delight in riding in the sunshine.
To those who travel for the enjoyments which we desire, it is objectionable to have a carriage door. The side should present no impediment to frequent stepping out and in, and the footsteps should be broad and roughened. You see a flower, a bunch of moss, a stone; innumerable objects along the road-side attract your eye; and you get out scores of times and get in again with your treasure. As the day passes you accumulate a heap of such things that you have examined and talked about after gathering. Towards evening, as you approach your resting-place, out they go on the road-side. Two-thirds of the pleasure and profit of this travel is in thus getting out of the carriage, sometimes for only an instant.
Going up or down hill I often stop, for the reason that I have a brake. I italicize the word because it is so absolutely essential to the comfort and safety of both travellers and horses. It is marvellous that in ordinary hilly country so few persons have brakes on their pleasure carriages, buggies, or business wagons. One can be easily attached to any vehicle by any blacksmith, and will add years to the healthy life of your horses. No trouble is more common with horses than lameness in the fore-legs or shoulders. This comes, in countless instances, from trotting downhill with a load behind. The horse is not free in action. If he were at perfect liberty he would go lightly, set his feet down with instinctive certainty and without pounding. But he has a load, pulling by traces on his fore-shoulders, jerking pulls, now following fast on him, now brought up suddenly by a stone or a water-bar. No horse thus encumbered can trot downhill without constant danger of pounding his fore-feet heavily down, producing a strain in the shoulder, perhaps twisting his leg or ankle when his foot goes down on a stone, or somewhere where he does not mean to put it. So, too, the strain of holding back a heavy load, with the breeching around the thighs, produces the same effects. Of course no one will be guilty of trying northern travel with a light harness and no breechings.
I repeat, for the benefit of all the race of carriage horses, as well as for the benefit of those who own and value horses, that in a hilly country every buggy, wagon, and carriage should be provided with a brake. It is hardly necessary to add that for the pleasure-traveller, who wants to stop anywhere along the road-side, it is indispensable. In western Massachusetts and Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire, a steady uphill grade of two or three miles is a common feature of roads, and it is not uncommon to find a mountain pass where the road is uphill for six, eight, or ten miles. If one desires a glorious ride, let him drive from Westfield in Massachusetts to Norfolk in Connecticut, and learn how to ascend and descend hills for the sake of every variety of scenery. But if he try that country without strong horses, a stout carriage, and a safe brake, he will chance to come to grief, with no help in sight.
Look well to the bolts which attach the pole and hauling-gear to your carriage. Many carriage-builders neglect this. A heavy carriage, with abundant iron-work, warranted strong, will often be found drawn by two small iron bolts in thin rings, both of which are daily wearing weaker. Reinforce iron-work with straps. Iron is poor stuff to depend on; "there's nothing like leather." Have a strong neck-yoke or strong hold-back on the end of your pole. A brake saves danger there, but you cannot be too safe. Don't forego safety for the sake of beauty. Travel to look, not to be looked at.
Don't trust your horses to the attention of hostlers, but when you reach a resting-place, secure their comfort for the night before you secure your own. If you love your horses as I love mine, you will need no such advice. When you start in the morning take a thorough look over your harness and carriage, to see that all is right for the road. Talk a little while with the horses before you start, chat with them once in a while along the road, especially if you happen to be walking uphill beside them or before them, and always make sure to speak with them when the day's work is done.
Cleanliness prevails in north-country inns. In an experience of thousands of miles of travel along New England roads, during many years, my notebook records only three or four instances where I was compelled to write "not clean" of the inn in which I passed the night. Food is abundant everywhere and of the best quality. Good bread, and milk, fresh eggs, fruits, vegetables, preserved or cooked fruits, cake made in great variety — these are found on every table. There has been in former years a universal idea that beefsteak was essential to a traveller's supper and breakfast. Country-killed beef, however good in flavor, is generally very tough and hard. The certainty of the appearance of this tough beefsteak has led me to adopt the custom of saying when I enter an inn, "Don't give us any beef." I recommend the traveller by carriage to follow my example. I have never found in Europe or America finer mutton or lamb than is abundant with us all along our drives. You should carry your own tea and coffee.
The roads are fairly good, but we notice, especially in Vermont, a manifest deterioration from year to year in their character. They are growing poorer, and this is perhaps due to the fact that the towns are growing poorer.
The whole system of road-making by town-tax is bad. It is not to be expected that a poor town, which happens to lie on a route of travel between two or more populous towns, should keep up first-class roads for the use of those who pay nothing towards them. Nor do people with whom road making and repairing is a matter of annual taxation take any personal interest or have any personal pride in their roads. The worst mud holes in roads are frequently in front of good farmhouses. It would take the farmer an hour, with his horses, to fill up such a hole and make a good road by his front door. But that would be doing work which is the town's business to do, and he would get no pay for it; so he lets it alone. If he is drawing a heavy load uphill he chocks his wheels with a stone to rest his horses, and drives on, leaving the stone in the road. To throw it out, and to throw out other stones left by other teamsters, would be doing town work, and he will not do that in his own town, much less in another town.
Do you know what is meant by "working out the road-tax?" Each man's proportion of work is assessed. He has so many days' work to pay. The times of working on roads are fixed by the town officer. Carts, horses, ploughs, etc., are furnished on order, and allowed for at fixed rates. You have seen the deliberate slowness with which day-laborers on railways, or on contract work in city streets, perform their labor. These men are lively and swift compared with the country farmer when working out his road-tax. The gravel-bed is perhaps a half-mile down the road. Four or five men with shovels load a cart there in three minutes, and having loaded it, sit down and smoke and chat a half-hour till it returns empty. Down on the roadway four or five men await the cart, smoking and chatting, dump and spread the dirt or gravel when it comes, taking three minutes for the job, and smoke and chat a half-hour till the cart comes again. If they planted and gathered crops as they make roads, they would starve. It is not because they are lazy or indolent. These are men of might in their own affairs. But they are working out the road-tax, and who ever heard that a man ought to work in payment of a tax as he works for himself?
It is rarely necessary to drive anywhere in Vermont or New Hampshire more than ten or fifteen miles to find a good inn. Whether going north, south, east, or west, it is usually practicable to ride pleasantly in the forenoon for two or three hours, stop at noon to feed the horses and get luncheon, which will be called dinner, drive again two, three, or four hours in the afternoon and strike a comfortable inn for supper and night-lodging. Day's drives can thus be adjusted according to your pleasure. You will linger in pleasant places; you will loiter along some roads; you will change your preconceived route suddenly, at noon, or in the morning, or along the road. Sometimes you will drive only a few miles. At other times you may be induced to press your horses to their extreme ability in order to reach a desired resting-place. But I recommend you to regard your horses and do not give them hard days' works. Let them enjoy the travel as you enjoy it. You may have great confidence in the health and strength of your horses, but do not forget that for horses as for men, travelling, eating in various places, spending nights in various stables, drinking varieties of water, subjected to various weather exposures, all this is very different from home life. Oats vary as much as bread varies. Hay is a very variable food. Men will assure you in October that they have only old oats, and sicken your horses by giving them grain threshed three weeks ago, unless you watch them; and it is by no means easy to tell new oats from old. For comfort and enjoyment an average of twenty-five miles a day is quite enough for you or your horses. If you enjoy the country, with its innumerable beauties, you will often be content with five miles, and constantly desire to remain just where you are.
Finally, don't be in a hurry, and when you start out for the day's drive do not start with the determination to go to a certain place. That is not what you are taking a carriage journey for. You may and will fix on a place as a probable end of your day, but don't go off in the morning with mind set on reaching there as the day's purpose. Loiter along; stroll in the woods; sit awhile on a rock by the side of a lake; stop long on the hilltops and take in the glory of American scenery. If you are an angler, your rod, unjointed but ready with line, leader, and flies, lies fore-and-aft on your carriage seats, and many a brook or pond or lake, in the spring-time, will pay you for a cast. In the autumn your gun lies ready, and partridges crossing the road will tempt you often out of your carriage. You will not get many, but you will have all the excitement, and may now and then carry your supper or breakfast in with you.