Lummis’s ‘Tramp Across the Continent’

On September 12, 1884, Charles Lummis set out from Cincinnati determined to walk all the way to Los Angeles to take a job as a reporter for the L.A. Times. He had several explanations for his choice in mode of travel. He was concerned that he had gone soft after several years of desk work as a reporter in Chillicothe, Ohio, and he wanted to get back in shape. He also wanted to see his country up close, and get to know its people, something he couldn’t do through the windows of a train car.

Offering a different explanation, he once referred to his “tramp across the continent” as “the longest walk for pure pleasure on record,” a statement that glossed over the many hardships and the tedium he endured on the 3,507-mile trek. He never did openly admit that there was yet another reason: he wanted to make a name for himself.

The trip was a great success in every respect. He was in peak physical condition when he reached Los Angeles on Feb. 1, 1885. He developed an intimate familiarity with the American west, met hundreds of people along the way, and had plenty of pleasures along with the pain. Best of all, Lummis was a national sensation, thanks to the series of colorful newspaper dispatches he filed every week along the way and the book he later wrote about his adventures.

Lummis was publicity conscious from the start, as was apparent in his choice of clothing.  His outfit evolved during the course of his journey, and so did the image he projected.

Here are several excerpts from American Character, a new biography of Charles Lummis, about the odd attire he donned on his tramp:

What struck folks in Chillicothe about Charlie Lummis’s plan to walk all the way to Los Angeles, as much as the audacity of what he intended to do, was the set of clothes he chose for the trip. After some research and thought on the matter, he concluded that the ideal outfit consisted of a white flannel shirt tied at the neck with a blue ribbon, knickerbockers, red knee-high stockings, a wide-brimmed felt hat and low cut Curtis & Wheeler dress shoes. Over it all, he would wear a large, canvas duck coat.

The coat was an obvious choice. It had 23 pockets in all, and it was big enough to serve as a blanket at night, if he got caught without a roof to sleep under before he reached Kansas, where a blanket roll, Winchester rifle and other supplies that he had shipped ahead by rail awaited him. He picked the shoes because they fit him perfectly and were sturdily put together, and he believed that a higher-topped model would coddle his ankles, preventing them from getting as tough as they would need to be to propel him across the continent. As for the knickerbockers, he said he chose them because he didn’t want two extra feet of trouser material flapping loose around his lower legs.

Lummis must have known they would also help attract attention to his tramp. That wouldn’t hurt his stock as a young writer making a name for himself. The publicity about his odd attire might come at some cost to his dignity, but surely he knew that as well. Lummis just didn’t mind if people poked fun at him.

In fact, defying conventions was part of the point, and ridicule came with that territory. In just two years in Chillicothe, he had become a favorite son well known and loved for his eccentricities. People would have been disappointed if Charlie Lummis had set out for California without making some sort of splash.

Publicity photo taken by his Ohio newspaper shortly before he set out on his tramp. Courtesy of Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, N22201.

Lummis made the longest stop on his journey in an enchanting town that captured his heart: Santa Fe, New Mexico. When he left eight days after arriving, he was a new man.

Leaving Santa Fe “was as hard as breaking away from your best girl at 11:45 p.m., when she puts her soft arms around your neck and says, ‘Oh, George, it is real early yet. Please don’t go’,” Lummis wrote. But there were other adventures awaiting him as he headed out of the old New Mexico capital on Dec. 3….

Back on the road after his eight-day respite, Lummis was sporting a new look. He was wearing “a handsome pair of buckskin leggins made for some Apache dude.” He had changed his attire “with all due respect for the knickerbockers,” he assured his readers. In fact, he was still carrying the knickers and reserved the option of donning them once again as soon as he reached the Mojave Desert. But now, even though it was still unseasonably warm in New Mexico, he knew that hard winter weather would hit any time. Crossing over La Veta Pass he knew the knickers simply weren’t up to the challenge of a Western winter. He didn’t care to freeze his kneecaps off in blind allegiance to them. Besides, it was clear from his loving description of the leggings that his fascination with them had quickly displaced his attachment to the knickers.

They were as soft as velvet and skin-tight from the ankle up with a two-foot fringe of thong running down the outside seam of each leg. “I’d just like to walk into Chillicothe with my recent outfit and see the small boys skin over the back fences holding on to their scalps with both hands,” he wrote. More pertinent to his immediate needs, “The wind might just as well try to blow open a burglar-proof safe as to get through these things.”…

Later, a few days west of the Rio Grande, Lummis
spent several hours preparing his strangest clothing accessory yet. He had been itching to kill a coyote for weeks but never got within rifle range of one. In western New Mexico, however, he managed to kill a coyote with poison that he mixed with lard and left outside a section house over night. The next morning, he amazed the railroad workers by “casing” the animal, skinning it in such a way that the hide remained intact. He spent hours gathering enough dry grass in the barren desert to stuff it so that it would dry en route. Then, slinging the animal over his shoulders like a shawl, he continued on his way.tracks

By this point in his tramp, Lummis no longer looked anything like the spiffy fellow with the felt hat and knickers portrayed in the souvenir photo handed out by the Leader. He had decided to forego shaving until he reached Los Angeles, so he had a beard for one of the few times in his life. To cut down on weight, he had traded his 10-pound Winchester rifle for a second Colt revolver so that he now had two of the six-shooters strapped around his waist. He had a skunk pelt dangling from his bedroll, a rattlesnake skin wrapped around the crown of his sombrero, the Apache leggings, and a stuffed coyote around his neck.

As he told it, he looked strange enough to upstage a colorful crowd of celebrants at the Laguna pueblo when he strolled into the village on Christmas day. They were in full-feathered regalia, performing the Corn Dance before an audience of 1,000 Indians, when Lummis walked down the main street and took his place among the spectators to watch for a while. He amused the children by jiggling the coyote while making growling sounds. The people of Laguna must have thought that the “wild man of the plains” had dropped by for a visit, Lummis remarked. Lummis made no mention of the coyote after that. The uncured skin of a dead animal probably emitted a horrific stench after a day or two and was unceremoniously discarded after it served its purpose as a crowd pleaser at the Corn Dance.

Two months later, Lummis reached Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis had sent word to Lummis that he wanted to meet him on the outskirts of town. He suggested a hotel in San Gabriel as a good place to meet. Lummis got there ahead of schedule, so he cleaned up, shaved, had a meal and was “smoking a meditative pipe” when a “portly military looking man” entered, took a good look at the bandaged arm and said, “Mr. Lummis.”

“Yours truly,” Lum replied. It was Col. Harrison Gray Otis.

Otis and Lummis walked together for the final 10 miles to Los Angeles, and the two had a celebratory late night meal at Eckert’s restaurant on Court Street.

Otis wrote about Lummis’s Sunday-evening arrival for the Tuesday edition, Monday being the one day of the week when the Times wasn’t printed. “His garb was not reassuring to the timid,” Otis remarked, ticking off a long list of the odd things Lummis wore or carried in the pockets of his coat. The proprietor of Eckert’s “no doubt thought he was seeing a first class tramp.” Indeed, his outfit was “calculated to excite the curiosity of the police,” Otis joked.

“Mr. Lummis has made a trip that puts him in the first rank of American travelers,” Otis concluded. “It was needless to say that he did not come here for his health, and he could hardly be called a tenderfoot. He has joined the staff of the Times, and has come to stay.”