We have all read Kerouac’s “On the Road”. There is a wonderful passage in Part 1 when Kerouac explains:

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes -Awww!”

But, this isn’t about Kerouac. It predates his “On the Road” by about a decade, but it every bit as much about trying to be mad, about trying to live like mad and hitting the road. This is about the life of Charlotte Lewis from Fargo, North Dakota. This is her story of brief escape, in 1937, from her hometown. These were five women in their early twenties trying to break free of their known lives to something new, unknown, and more expansive. Her writing isn’t refined, but it is infectious, fun, and full of euphoria for something beyond the ordinary. 

This photo was included with her road trip journal entries from July 18 - 21 1937.

This photo of Charlotte Lewis was included with her road trip journal entries, July 18 – 21 1937.

As she described it:

In memory of a trip taken July 18th to 21st. Starting on Monday by car [in Fargo, North Dakota] and ending on Thursday by rail and which got as far as Bismarck, North Dakota. Although it was meant to be a coast to coast journey.

Picture of Charlotte Lewis' journal (circa 1937)

Picture of Charlotte Lewis’ journal (circa 1937)

HALFWAY ACROSS THE STATE …

I could not stay so fixed, so rooted. I had to venture, had to roam towards the setting sun I traveled when at last I left my home. In each town we chanced to visit, I was gay, what ere belied … For it was to give space for wandering that the world was made

So [dashes and scribblings]  — — — —- < —— -> —– Wide.

And so we went west! Went west to see the grandeur, to seek adventure -perhaps- and to leave our footprints on the sands of time. Went west the five of us, in a “bug,” sans money, sans equipment, sans anything. It was a half cocked idea all told, and I shall tell you what happened to us.

Left Fargo at 2-o’cock after quite an argument with Mother who forbade my going. Stopped first at Osgood to pick up a few things and next at Chafee to pick up a more.

And then we were out on the prairie speeding past drowsy one horse towns -swaying, chuck full of bushy catkins, tall golden fields of grain, clumps of bushes, lazy winding rivers, sluggish streams and azure lakes. Past pastures and farms and herds of horses, sheep and cattle. And the oder of a new mown hay; the fragrance of fields of alfalfa and sweet clover  -ummmm,

Cruising along I-94 North Dakota heading west.

Cruising along I-94 North Dakota heading west. Aside, see: “Ghost Towns and Abandoned Places of North Dakota: http://www.ghostsofnorthdakota.com/about/

It was great! But was made twice as thrilling because we thought we were being pursued. Thus we drove all afternoon and at dusk struck hills -rolling hills- from which one could gaze deep down into the valley below. On the crest of one of these we had our first view of Valley City -snuggled there in the hollow. Valley City with its myriad of gleaming lights flickering through the gathering twilight. We had supper here and afterwards explored the city.

Valley City -Highway 10 and Highline Railroad Bridge, circa 1930's.

Valley City -Highway 10 and Highline Railroad Bridge, circa 1930’s.

We dozed that night beneath the stars just outside of town on the edge of a wheat field. A solitary blanket we had for a coverlet. Silence lay over the land broken only by the throb of a motor passing on the highway and the low hum of mosquitoes. And such a rest -ah- like fugitives from the dawn, the cloud banks of night were scattering in the east and a pale morning star forecast another sun as we awoke with the dawning. Numb with cold, damp, and hungry as hell we jogged up and down the lane to warm up. Then we piled in the roadster and headed north, due north to Minot through the crisp chill of an early morning. Dew glistening white on the grass. Winding roads stretching back through the fog. Wheat fields laden with moisture.Then the first rosy hues, seemingly painted by an artist’s hand were heralding the approach of the monarch-sun. Mile after mile skimming by. Not a car on the highway.

Suddenly the clouds parted, the sun burst through -gold, pure gold throwing splendor and warmth into a frigid world. Birds voices rose in a melody of song, trilling a greeting. A dog brayed somewhere. A rooster sent a garrulous challenge to the world. A punctured tire forced us to turn back and soon we were in Valley again, searching for a place to wash and eat. Everything was closed, hardly a soul stirring. Here we loitered half the day while waiting to fix the car. Then we started out again. Hardly had we reached the city limits before Marie got sore and jumping out of the car declared her intention of wiring her father for money enough to pay return fare to Fargo. Down the street she tore; her sidekick running after her, while I persuaded the rest to continue the trip then went after them and brought them back into the fold.

We reached Jamestown late that afternoon, but did not stay for fear the cops were posted. Out on the prairie again through clouds of dust and heat that was oppressive. Night was a relief, a night though, filled with the many whisperings of those both known and those unseen things. Cricket chirps near and far; frogs chanting in a nearby marsh. A full moon was slow, rounding into sight to bath the prairie in a silver light. The stars, candles of the night, appeared one at a time. Then, the Bismarck lights showed, just discernible through the distance. There was a prison high on a hill with an armed sentry pacing the walls. Then we arrived on main street which was all a bustle.

At the train depot we were informed that boys were not allowed in the lady’s waiting room which proved that our disguises were convincing since we fooled the ladies. But, again we set out, to the outskirts of town at the edge of the Missouri river to sleep beneath a hay stack. Mosquitoes pestered us throughout the night. Up with dawn, we drove back into town to wash, eat, and look the city over. Suddenly Marie and I became oppressed with the idea that the coppers had us spotted. And we were right.

We sold the car and all took different routes to the railroad track where we decided to catch a westbound freight and get out of Bismarck pronto! Then we dressed once more as boys and sat in the shade waiting for our private train car. Along the track came a man in hiking clothes. I was instantly suspicious of his clothes. They were too immaculate to have traveled far; and he claimed to have come from the coast. Everything is tough he claimed and we had better turn back before it was too late.

Everybody’s feet were cold but mine. I was too anxious to reach Seattle to worry about hard luck. But, then he informed us that the police actually were on our trail. After he had gone, we decided to split again. Marie and I with a few dollars in our pockets were to take the trail and the rest were to follow directly and meet us at Medina that evening. Out on the trail once more we were met by the same wolf in cheap clothing who advised us to kick up some dust clouds because the police wagon just went by. Half a mile farther on, a big car passed us and stopped. Two men got out. They proved to be plain clothed men and they forced us into the car and took us to the police station. Here the head of the department gave us the third degree. I didn’t say any more than was necessary, but Marie babbled incessantly.

We were taken charge of by Anton Beer, justice of the peace, who sent us out to eat, but we could not do more than nibble a few bites. In the meantime, Mr. Beer, who proved to be a real friend, sent a telegram to our parents:

“Mrs. Cora Simonson -wire seven dollars at once by Western Union. Am at police station. Reply yes, or no.” -Laura Lewis

The answer we received in two hours was fourteen dollars and “Come home.” After that, we felt better. We spent most of the afternoon walking about the city and had a good time even though we were trailed by a police officer everywhere we went.

In the evening, Anton gave us enough money to go to a moving picture theatre. We didn’t see much of the picture because my eyelids refused to stay open and Marie was falling into a doze continually. Every once in a while her head would drop with a thump to the back of the seat and she would rouse and say, “God, this is the worst picture I ever saw in my life.” This amused me immensely and I started to laugh and laugh and laugh without being able to stop.

Notable Movies, 1937: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1937_in_film.

Finally, we left the show and went up to Mr. Beer’s office where we spent the night on a row of chairs. Early next morning we went out ate our breakfast; and when Anton arrived, he walked over to the depot and brought our tickets. Tickets that would take us home. Then the train pulled in and we were off … “Going back, going back” moaned the wheels. “Back to Fargo, the black hole of despair. Your adventure over.”

With every mile our hearts sank lower. When at last we arrived, there was Charlotte and Marie’s father waiting for us. Nothing was changed. Fargo was and still is the same. And so, here we are with only the memory of three glorious days spent traveling westward in a bug, sans money, sans equipment, sans anything.

But, I say -“Beware here to-day and gone tomorrow; and the next time I leave, I am gone forever.”

THE END

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8 thoughts on “Charlotte Lewis on the Open Road (circa 1937)

  1. What an incredible story. Makes you clearly recognize how different things are today… the ease of travel that has taken away some of that sense of adventure.

    Makes me wanna sell my car and hop a train to Bismarck.

    • Hi Troy,

      Well put, precisely what I felt about it. I am trying to find out more about what her life was like after her 20’s. To my knowledge, so far, she never moved out west, but hopefully at some point she got passed Bismarck : )

      • Damian…..Will said she made another attempt to get to the west coast and ended up in Wyoming ….married a cowboy and had several children…….that’s what grandpa Bob told Will.

      • Also, she was a favorite of your grandfather ~ she taught him how to play cards whenever she came to the farm to visit with her mother and her sister. Grandpa Bob became a
        really good poker player. Will thinks that Charlotte’s mother had to give her and her sister up for adoption because she couldn’t care for them as a single mother. Lewis may have been the adopted name.

    • Hi Sue,

      Thanks. Did I under-sell the quality of her writing at the beginning? I didn’t mean to (perhaps something to edit). A great story and a better adventure! It was fun to discover. I believe she was my grandfather’s cousin.

  2. What a great story and Charlotte herself such a good writer. Things really were different then, having to dress like men, I’ ll bet her ” reputation” suffered ( according to her mother) Did she go on to write more during her life do we know?
    Thanks for sharing Charlotte’s story.

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