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The Pennsylvania, Burlington, and Santa Fe railroads, which carried her from Pennsylvania to Arizona, transported her from one life to another. After changing trains in Chicago, she boarded the Burlington and headed west. As she crossed the Mississippi, she again experienced the tightness in her chest and a bit of the fright she had felt as a child when she was taken to Nebraska at the age of nine.

The West always paralyzed her a little, she wrote, but when she was away from it, she remembered only the tang on the tongue. Though she had lived in the East a long time by , she still had trouble letting herself go with the current when she reached the wide, rolling prairies of Nebraska. She felt like a person who could not swim when dropped into the water.

There were just so many, many miles of the West.

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When she was a child growing up in Nebraska, she had been sure that she would never, get away and that she would die in a cornfield. Now that she had escaped, she no longer had that fear, though she still got attacks of fright. But after a few days in Red Cloud visiting her parents and old friends, she was ready to push on farther west, and she boarded another Burlington train, this time for Denver.

Colorado and the Rocky Mountains were familiar territory for her, as her oldest brother, Roscoe, lived in Wyoming and she had visited him on a number of occasions. Once she left Colorado, however, she was seeing new and exciting country. From Trinidad to Albuquerque the land was utterly splendid, she wrote. The Valley of the Rhone was nothing to it. All the way from Trinidad, Colorado, to Las Vegas, New Mexico, she wrote her good friend Elsie Sergeant, there was a continuous purple mountain that tuned one up. Albuquerque delighted her, though she stayed only a few days before continuing on to Arizona.

There was a strong pull about the place, something Spanish in the air that teased one. She had known Mexicans during her Red Cloud adolescence, but Albuquerque far exceeded her expectations. Such color! The Lord had set the stage splendidly there.

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It was the most beautiful country she had seen anywhere, even more brilliant than the French Riviera. She caught sight of some of the most wonderful Indian villages, each one built close about its church, and there were abandoned villages, too, she marveled, that had been Spanish missions during the time of Queen Elizabeth. She wanted to return later with her brother Douglass for a longer visit. On April 19 she arrived in Winslow, a little desert town on the Santa Fe where Douglass, who worked for the railroad, made his headquarters.

He immediately began showing her about the pueblo towns and taking her to see ancient cliff dwellings nearby. They planned to visit an Indian snake dance and projected a trip to Old Mexico. How splendid this part of the world is, she wrote McClure. But then there was a letdown. Douglass had to go off with his construction crew for three days, leaving Willa alone in his little eggshell of a house with his roommate, a brakeman named Tooker.

Staying alone with Tooker, she wrote, was quite in accord with the proprieties of Winslow, but even Tooker had been off on his run for the past two nights, and then she had no protector except the drunken London cockney whom Douglass had picked up to do his cooking and housekeeping.

He was no protection at all. She did not mind being left alone, however, because Tooker was a great bore.

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  • Life, she thought, was nothing but a poor imitation of art. Tooker was simply encrusted with information gleaned from millions of magazines, and though he was one of nature's noblemen with a square jaw and bold carriage, she did not know how long she could stand either his nobleness or his information.

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    She was doing target practice with a pistol and might let drive at Tooker, she wrote. He never permitted himself an action in one syllable. He "arrived" and he "removed" his hat, and he "reflected" that when the wind blew it "retarded" his train. The cockney Englishman was great fun, but he was reeling drunk all the time and had to be sat upon and sent away.

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    He once had worked in a stable in Paris and spoke a queer kind of fluent French, and when he was the drunkest, he always wept and began reciting the same sentimental verses. When Cather looked about outside, she found that Winslow was an ugly little western town. It had been founded some thirty years before as a division point on the Santa Fe, and there was no one there but railroad people. The only excitement occurred when the trains stopped and passengers got off to eat at the Fred Harvey hotel, La Posada.

    Although the desert was very fine, one had to cross two miles of tin cans and old shoes to get to it. There were bright red sunsets, like brick dust, but the sandstorms were a terror and often stopped the trains. If she had arrived two months earlier, there would have been plenty of excitement, for on Valentine's Day , President Taft in Washington had signed the proclamation admitting Arizona to the Union as the forty-eighth state.

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    For the first time in history movie cameras had photographed a president signing a law, and when the news had been telegraphed to Arizona, there was wild celebrating everywhere. Whistles shrieked at mines, church bells rang, schools and businesses closed, and parades surged through the streets. Even William Jennings Bryan came west to make a two hour speech in the state capital at Phoenix.

    Life was very quiet for the first two weeks. Then things began to happen so fast that she had no time to write letters. She did manage a postcard to Sergeant on May 12, reporting that she had caught step at last and was very happy. She had been on a trip with the local priest, Father Connolly , a friend of Douglass's, who had taken her to visit some of the missions.

    They had talked about the country and the people, and he had filled her full of Spanish and Indian legends. He was the first of many Catholic missionary priests she came to know in the Southwest, and like a sponge she soaked up the land, the people, and the culture for future use. Her letters from this trip west reveal an intoxicating sense of discovery.

    The Southwest became one of the passions of her life. Even more exciting was the appearance one day of four Mexicans who came to serenade her: two section hands, a bartender who played divinely, and a boy of unearthly beauty who sang. The last reminded her of a statue she had seen in Naples of Antinous, who was loved and deified after his death by Emperor Hadrian. This boy was simply Antinous come to life. The Mexican trio returned night after night, and Cather was captivated by the singer, whose name turned out to be Julio pronounced Hulio , she explained to Sergeant.

    Her letters for the next several months were filled with Julio. He was too beautiful to be true and utterly different from anyone she ever had met. He was from Vera Cruz, knew a great many Mexican and Spanish songs, and he was won-der-ful, she wrote Sergeant, as she enclosed the translation she had made of one of his songs. After singing to her nightly, Julio took her off to visit the Painted Desert, and it took her days to get over that expedition.

    Julio was without beginning and without end. He had a personal elegance, the like of which she had never known, and a grace of expression that simply caught one up. He wasn't soft and sunny like an Italian; he was indifferent and opaque.

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    He had the long, strong upper lip seen in Aztec sculpture, somber eyes filled with lots of old trouble, and the pale yellow skin of very old gold and old races. Talking to him was like learning a new language because he spoke so directly. He would drive any number of miles to see flowers or running water, but she could not get him the least bit interested in the ancient cliff dwellers.

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    Why, he said, raising his brows, was she interested in los muertos? We are living. It was fitting to say masses for the dead, but that was the end of it.


    Further attention was a waste of time. But he did tell her one memorable story of ancient times, the tale of an Aztec Cleopatra,"The Forty Lovers of the Queen. Afterwards Sergeant remembered that when someone asked how Mabel Dodge could have married Tony Luhan, an Indian, Cather replied, "How could she help it?