Dispatches from Quarry Farm: A Tree Named Lewis

Quarry Farm’s only year-round resident, Caretaker Steve Webb, provides us with occasional, not altogether reliable, updates from the premises. To paraphrase the friendly ghost with whom he shares his home, Mr. Webb’s dispatches include eminently plausible fictions, mildly exaggerated truths, and an exhaustless mine of stupendous lies.

The rain froze in a thin black sheet beneath two inches of rapidly-accumulated snow, but that didn’t shake this hearty Northeasterner. I exited the driveway with a confidence that promptly slipped away like four bald tires on a steep icy hillside. I really wish I made that appointment a day earlier—I thought as I slid down Crane road at approximately one mile per hour. My snow tires were to be mounted and balanced tomorrow at nine — they were already in the back of the car ready to go. But that didn’t matter much as I pulled and released my emergency brake, pumped the pedal, down-shifted and up-shifted, cursed and hollered, all with no effect.

In August of 1877 Twain’s sister-in-law, Ida, niece, Julia, and their nursemaid were settling into a carriage for a ride from Quarry Farm into downtown Elmira when their horse got spooked and bolted out the driveway with no one at the reins. Ida’s husband, Charlie Langdon, and Sam ran hatless from the porch in horror as the carriage disappeared in a cloud of dust that hung like a eulogy. The sharp, steep curves ahead would surely be their death.

It’s commonly reported that in the moments preceding a life-threatening experience time slows. An entire life can be recapped in a fraction of a second. Childhood memories flash by: a mother’s song; a candle on a birthday cake that won’t be wished away and the giggling friend bearing witness; the face of a first love; the seagull that eyed your popcorn on a family trip to the beach. Apparently, when you’re sliding toward death at less than two miles per hour the slideshow isn’t just your greatest hits. A quarter mile down the hill I became bored with screaming and decided to choose two appropriate songs to die to—the first one played through in its entirety.

It’s hard to imagine what poor Ida Langdon or the nursemaid must have seen in their mind’s eye as they hurdled towards peril. Did they shriek and scramble to find the reins or did they go stoic so as not to scare little Julia? Either way their hearts must have raced just like the horse’s hooves. With Mr. Clemens and Mr. Langdon so far behind, rescue wasn’t even a speck on the horizon.

I was going at least five miles-per-hour now and my hatchback was sideways. I could look out the window and see the slick, white earth feeding under me like paper into a shredder. I’d considered simply stepping out of the vehicle, but was determined to regain control of the ship. If I only had a broom, I might have run in front of the car sweeping snow away like an Olympic curler. I’d clear a patch and the little Honda might come to a halt. I was approaching the sharpest curve about a half mile down the road from Quarry Farm, and my sense of urgency was rising again as I spun the detached steering wheel, hand over hand, right and left and right again.  

Bouncing and rattling and flying toward the very same curve the three ladies must’ve accepted their fate. There is no way a horse and carriage could make that turn at top speed. With an eighty-foot gorge straight ahead, tragedy was certain.

Then he appeared. From out of the blind curve the mighty John T. Lewis ascended Crane Road like a guardian angel. He acted quickly, swinging his humble chariot sideways across the road and leaping to cease the bridle of the panicked beast. Lewis, a pig farmer that lived and worked at Quarry Farm, who would become one of Mark Twain’s closest friend , was hero to the entire family, as he would remain for the rest of his life.

Where was my John T. Lewis? My situation was getting more slippery. If someone did come around the corner their car would probably just become part of my slow-motion death spiral. It was then that I noticed, like an apparition from the darkness, a clear spot of asphalt. A pine tree big enough and old enough to have witnessed the original incident was looming out over the road like an umbrella that the rain and snow couldn’t penetrate. The shadow was virtually dry, and I slid into that protected space and stopped with a little jerk no more drastic than a speed bump. I inched my car to the side of the road, opened my door to the rural silence, and walked home through the blue muted air of a fresh nighttime snowfall.