The Forest by Stewart Edward White
III. The Jumping-Off Place.
Sometime, no matter how long your journey, you will reach a spot whose psychological effect is so exactly like a dozen others that you will recognize at once its kinship with former experience. Mere physical likeness does not count at all. It may possess a water-front of laths and sawdust, or an outlook over broad, shimmering, heat-baked plains. It may front the impassive fringe of a forest, or it may skirt the calm stretch of a river. But whether of log or mud, stone or unpainted board, its identity becomes at first sight indubitably evident. Were you, by the wave of some beneficent wand, to be transported direct to it from the heart of the city, you could not fail to recognize it. "The jumping-off place!" you would cry ecstatically, and turn with unerring instinct to the Aromatic Shop.
For here is where begins the Long Trail. Whether it will lead you through the forests, or up the hills, or over the plains, or by invisible water paths; whether you will accomplish it on horseback, or in canoe, or by the transportation of your own two legs; whether your companions shall be white or red, or merely the voices of the wilds--these things matter not a particle. In the symbol of this little town you loose your hold on the world of made things, and shift for yourself among the unchanging conditions of nature.
Here the faint forest flavour, the subtle, invisible breath of freedom, stirs faintly across men's conventions. The ordinary affairs of life savour of this tang--a trace of wildness in the domesticated berry. In the dress of the inhabitants is a dash of colour, a carelessness of port; in the manner of their greeting is the clear, steady-eyed taciturnity of the silent places; through the web of their gray talk of ways and means and men's simpler beliefs runs a thread of colour. One hears strange, suggestive words and phrases--arapajo, capote, arroyo, the diamond hitch, cache, butte, coule, muskegs, portage, and a dozen others coined into the tender of daily use. And occasionally, when the expectation is least alert, one encounters suddenly the very symbol of the wilderness itself--a dust-whitened cowboy, an Indian packer with his straight, fillet-confined hair, a voyageur gay in red sash and ornamented moccasins, one of the Company's canoemen, hollow-cheeked from the river--no costumed show exhibit, but fitting naturally into the scene, bringing something of the open space with him--so that in your imagination the little town gradually takes on the colour of mystery which an older community utterly lacks.
But perhaps the strongest of the influences which unite to assure the psychological kinships of the jumping-off places is that of the Aromatic Shop. It is usually a board affair, with a broad high sidewalk shaded by a wooden awning. You enter through a narrow door, and find yourself facing two dusky aisles separated by a narrow division of goods, and flanked by wooden counters. So far it is exactly like the corner store of our rural districts. But in the dimness of these two aisles lurks the spirit of the wilds. There in a row hang fifty pair of smoke-tanned moccasins; in another an equal number of oil-tanned; across the background you can make out snowshoes. The shelves are high with blankets--three-point, four-point--thick and warm for the out-of-doors. Should you care to examine, the storekeeper will hook down from aloft capotes of different degrees of fineness. Fathoms of black tobacco-rope lie coiled in tubs. Tump-lines welter in a tangle of dimness. On a series of little shelves is the ammunition, fascinating in the attraction of mere numbers--44 Winchester, 45 Colt, 40-82, 30-40, 44 S. & W.--they all connote something to the accustomed mind, just as do the numbered street names of New York.
An exploration is always bringing something new to light among the commonplaces of ginghams and working shirts, and canned goods and stationery, and the other thousands of civilized drearinesses to found in every country store. From under the counter you drag out a mink skin or so; from the dark corner an assortment of steel traps. In a loft a birch-bark mokok, fifty pounds heavy with granulated maple sugar, dispenses a faint perfume.
For this is, above all, the Aromatic Shop. A hundred ghosts of odours mingle to produce the spirit of it. The reek of the camp-fires is in its buckskin, of the woods in its birch bark, of the muskegs in its sweet grass, of the open spaces in its peltries, of the evening meal in its coffees and bacons, of the portage trail in the leather of the tump-lines. I am speaking now of the country of which we are to write. The shops of the other jumping-off places are equally aromatic--whether with the leather of saddles, the freshness of ash paddles, or the pungency of marline; and once the smell of them is in your nostrils you cannot but away.
The Aromatic Shop is always kept by the wisest, the most accommodating, the most charming shopkeeper in the world. He has all leisure to give you, and enters into the innermost spirit of your buying. He is of supernal sagacity in regard to supplies and outfits, and if he does not know all about routes, at least he is acquainted with the very man who can tell you everything you want to know. He leans both elbows on the counter, you swing your feet, and together you go over the list, while the Indian stands smoky and silent in the background. "Now, if I was you," says he, "I'd take just a little more pork. You won't be eatin' so much yourself, but these Injuns ain't got no bottom when it comes to sow-belly. And I wouldn't buy all that coffee. You ain't goin' to want much after the first edge is worn off. Tea's the boy." The Indian shoots a few rapid words across the discussion. "He says you'll want some iron shoes to fit on canoe poles for when you come back up-stream," interprets your friend. "I guess that's right. I ain't got none, but th' blacksmith'll fit you out all right. You'll find him just below--never mind, don't you bother, I'll see to all that for you."
The next morning he saunters into view at the river-bank. "Thought I'd see you off," he replies to your expression of surprise at his early rising. "Take care of yourself." And so the last hand-clasp of civilization is extended to you from the little Aromatic Shop.
Occasionally, however, though very rarely, you step to the Long Trail from the streets of a raw modern town. The chance presence of some local industry demanding a large population of workmen, combined with first-class railroad transportation, may plant an electric-lighted, saloon-lined, brick-hoteled city in the middle of the wilderness. Lumber, mines--especially of the baser metals or commercial minerals--fisheries, a terminus of water freightage, may one or all call into existence a community a hundred years in advance of its environment. Then you lose the savour of the jump-off. Nothing can quite take the place of the instant plunge into the wilderness, for you must travel three or four days from such a place before you sense the forest in its vastness, even though deer may eat the cabbages at the edge of town. Occasionally, however, by force of crude contrast to the brick-heated atmosphere, the breath of the woods reaches your cheek, and always you own a very tender feeling for the cause of it.
Dick and myself were caught in such a place. It was an unfinished little town, with brick-fronted stores, arc-lights swaying over fathomless mud, big superintendent's and millowner's houses of bastard architecture in a blatant superiority of hill location, a hotel whose office chairs supported a variety of cheap drummers, and stores screeching in an attempt at metropolitan smartness. We inspected the standpipe and the docks, walked a careless mile of board walk, kicked a dozen pugnacious dogs from our setter, Deuce, and found ourselves at the end of our resources. As a crowd seemed to be gathering about the wooden railway station, we joined it in sheer idleness.
It seemed that an election had taken place the day before, that one Smith had been chosen to the Assembly, and that, though this district had gone anti-Smith, the candidate was expected to stop off an hour on his way to a more westerly point. Consequently the town was on hand to receive him.
The crowd, we soon discovered, was bourgeois in the extreme. Young men from the mill escorted young women from the shops. The young men wore flaring collars three sizes too large; the young women white cotton mitts three sizes too small. The older men spat, and talked through their noses; the women drawled out a monotonous flow of speech concerning the annoyances of domestic life. A gang of uncouth practical jokers, exploding in horse-laughter, skylarked about, jostling rudely. A village band, uniformed solely with cheap carriage-cloth caps, brayed excruciatingly. The reception committee had decorated, with red and white silesia streamers and rosettes, an ordinary side-bar buggy, to which a long rope had been attached, that the great man might be dragged by his fellow-citizens to the public square.
Nobody seemed to be taking the affair too seriously. It was evidently more than half a joke. Anti-Smith was more good-humouredly in evidence than the winning party. Just this touch of buffoonery completed our sense of the farce-comedy character of the situation. The town was tawdry in its preparations--and knew it; but half sincere in its enthusiasm--and knew it. If the crowd had been composed of Americans, we should have anticipated an unhappy time for Smith; but good, loyal Canadians, by the limitations of temperament, could get no further than a spirit of manifest irreverence.
In the shifting of the groups Dick and I became separated, but shortly I made him out worming his way excitedly toward me, his sketch-book open in his hand.
"Come here," he whispered. "There's going to be fun. They're going to open up on old Smith after all."
I followed. The decorated side-bar buggy might be well meant; the village band need not have been interpreted as an ironical compliment; the rest of the celebration might indicate paucity of resource rather than facetious intent; but surely the figure of fun before us could not be otherwise construed than as a deliberate advertising in the face of success of the town's real attitude toward the celebration.
The man was short. He wore a felt hat, so big that it rested on his ears. A gray wool shirt hung below his neck. A cutaway coat miles too large depended below his knees and to the first joints of his fingers. By way of official uniform his legs were incased in an ordinary rough pair of miller's white trousers, on which broad strips of red flannel had been roughly sewn. Everything was wrinkled in the folds of too-bigness. As though to accentuate the note, the man stood very erect, very military, and supported in one hand the staff of an English flag. This figure of fun, this man made from the slop-chest, this caricature of a scarecrow, had been put forth by heavy-handed facetiousness to the post of greatest honour. He was Standard-Bearer to the occasion! Surely subtle irony could go no further.
A sudden movement caused the man to turn. One sleeve of the faded, ridiculous old cutaway was empty. He turned again. From under the ear-flanging hat looked unflinchingly the clear, steady blue eye of the woodsman. And so we knew. This old soldier had come in from the Long Trail to bear again the flag of his country. If his clothes were old and ill-fitting, at least they were his best, and the largeness of the empty sleeve belittled the too-largeness of the other. In all this ribald, laughing, irreverent, commonplace, semi-vicious crowd he was the one note of sincerity. To him this was a real occasion, and the exalted reverence in his eye for the task he was so simply performing was Smith's real triumph--if he could have known it. We understood now, we felt the imminence of the Long Trail. For the first time the little brick, tawdry town gripped our hearts with the well-known thrill of the Jumping-Off Place. Suddenly the great, simple, unashamed wilderness drew near us as with the rush of wings.