The Mountains by Stewart Edward White
XXI. On Going Out
The last few days of your stay in the wilderness you will be consumedly anxious to get out. It does not matter how much of a savage you are, how good a time you are having, or how long you have been away from civilization. Nor does it mean especially that you are glad to leave the wilds. Merely does it come about that you drift unconcernedly on the stream of days until you approach the brink of departure: then irresistibly the current hurries you into haste. The last day of your week's vacation; the last three of your month's or your summer's or your year's outing,--these comprise the hours in which by a mighty but invisible transformation your mind forsakes its savagery, epitomizes again the courses of social evolution, regains the poise and cultivation of the world of men. Before that you have been content; yes, and would have gone on being content for as long as you please until the approach of the limit you have set for your wandering.
In effect this transformation from the state of savagery to the state of civilization is very abrupt. When you leave the towns your clothes and mind are new. Only gradually do they take on the color of their environment; only gradually do the subtle influences of the great forest steal in on your dulled faculties to flow over them in a tide that rises imperceptibly. You glide as gently from the artificial to the natural life as do the forest shadows from night to day. But at the other end the affair is different. There you awake on the appointed morning in complete resumption of your old attitude of mind. The tide of nature has slipped away from you in the night.
Then you arise and do the most wonderful of your wilderness traveling. On those days you look back fondly, of them you boast afterwards in telling what a rapid and enduring voyager you are. The biggest day's journey I ever undertook was in just such a case. We started at four in the morning through a forest of the early spring-time, where the trees were glorious overhead, but the walking ankle deep. On our backs were thirty-pound burdens. We walked steadily until three in the afternoon, by which time we had covered thirty miles and had arrived at what then represented civilization to us. Of the nine who started, two Indians finished an hour ahead; the half breed, Billy, and I staggered in together, encouraging each other by words concerning the bottle of beer we were going to buy; and the five white men never got in at all until after nine o'clock that night. Neither thirty miles, nor thirty pounds, nor ankle- deep slush sounds formidable when considered as abstract and separate propositions.
In your first glimpse of the civilized peoples your appearance in your own eyes will undergo the same instantaneous and tremendous revulsion that has already taken place in your mental sphere. Heretofore you have considered yourself as a decently well appointed gentleman of the woods. Ten to one, in contrast to the voluntary or enforced simplicity of the professional woodsman you have looked on your little luxuries of carved leather hat-band, fancy knife sheath, pearl-handled six-shooter, or khaki breeches as giving you slightly the air of a forest exquisite. But on that depot platform or in presence of that staring group on the steps of the Pullman, you suddenly discover yourself to be nothing less than a disgrace to your bringing up. Nothing could be more evident than the flop of your hat, the faded, dusty appearance of your blue shirt, the beautiful black polish of your khakis, the grime of your knuckles, the three days' beard of your face. If you are a fool, you worry about it. If you are a sensible man, you do not mind;--and you prepare for amusing adventures.
The realization of your external unworthiness, however, brings to your heart the desire for a hot bath in a porcelain tub. You gloat over the thought; and when the dream comes to be a reality, you soak away in as voluptuous a pleasure as ever falls to the lot of man to enjoy. Then you shave, and array yourself minutely and preciously in clean clothes from head to toe, building up a new respectability, and you leave scornfully in a heap your camping garments. They have heretofore seemed clean, but now you would not touch them, no, not even to put them in the soiled-clothes basket, let your feminines rave as they may. And for at least two days you prove an almost childish delight in mere raiment.
But before you can reach this blissful stage you have still to order and enjoy your first civilized dinner. It tastes good, not because your camp dinners have palled on you, but because your transformation demands its proper aliment. Fortunate indeed you are if you step directly to a transcontinental train or into the streets of a modern town. Otherwise the transition through the small-hotel provender is apt to offer too little contrast for the fullest enjoyment. But aboard the dining-car or in the cafe you will gather to yourself such ill-assorted succulence as thick, juicy beefsteaks, and creamed macaroni, and sweet potatoes, and pie, and red wine, and real cigars and other things.
In their acquisition your appearance will tell against you. We were once watched anxiously by a nervous female head waiter who at last mustered up courage enough to inform me that guests were not allowed to eat without coats. We politely pointed out that we possessed no such garments. After a long consultation with the proprietor she told us it was all right for this time, but that we must not do it again. At another place I had to identify myself as a responsible person by showing a picture in a magazine bought for the purpose.
The public never will know how to take you. Most of it treats you as though you were a two-dollar a day laborer; some of the more astute are puzzled. One February I walked out of the North Country on snowshoes and stepped directly into a Canadian Pacific transcontinental train. I was clad in fur cap, vivid blanket coat, corded trousers, German stockings and moccasins; and my only baggage was the pair of snowshoes. It was the season of light travel. A single Englishman touring the world as the crow flies occupied the car. He looked at me so askance that I made an opportunity of talking to him. I should like to read his "Travels" to see what he made out of the riddle. In similar circumstances, and without explanation, I had fun talking French and swapping boulevard reminiscences with a member of a Parisian theatrical troupe making a long jump through northern Wisconsin. And once, at six of the morning, letting myself into my own house with a latch-key, and sitting down to read the paper until the family awoke, I was nearly brained by the butler. He supposed me a belated burglar, and had armed himself with the poker. The most flattering experience of the kind was voiced by a small urchin who plucked at his mother's sleeve: "Look, mamma!" he exclaimed in guarded but jubilant tones, "there's a real Indian!"
Our last camp of this summer was built and broken in the full leisure of at least a three weeks' expectation. We had traveled south from the Golden Trout through the Toowah range. There we had viewed wonders which I cannot expect you to believe in,-- such as a spring of warm water in which you could bathe and from which you could reach to dip up a cup of carbonated water on the right hand, or cast a fly into a trout stream, on the left. At length we entered a high meadow in the shape of a maltese cross, with pine slopes about it, and springs of water welling in little humps of green. There the long pine-needles were extraordinarily thick and the pine- cones exceptionally large. The former we scraped together to the depth of three feet for a bed in the lea of a fallen trunk; the latter we gathered in arm- fuls to pile on the camp-fire. Next morning we rode down a mile or so through the grasses, exclaimed over the thousands of mountain quail buzzing from the creek bottoms, gazed leisurely up at our well- known pines and about at the grateful coolness of our accustomed green meadows and leaves;--and then, as though we had crossed a threshold, we emerged into chaparral, dry loose shale, yucca, Spanish bayonet, heated air and the bleached burned-out furnace-like country of arid California in midsummer. The trail dropped down through sage-brush, just as it always did in the California we had known; the mountains rose with the fur-like dark-olive effect of the coast ranges; the sun beat hot. We had left the enchanted land.
The trail was very steep and very long, and took us finally into the country of dry brown grasses, gray brush, waterless stony ravines, and dust. Others had traveled that trail, headed the other way, and evidently had not liked it. Empty bottles blazed the path. Somebody had sacrificed a pack of playing- cards, which he had stuck on thorns from time to time, each inscribed with a blasphemous comment on the discomforts of such travel. After an apparently interminable interval we crossed an irrigating ditch, where the horses were glad to water, and so came to one of those green flowering lush California villages so startlingly in contrast to their surroundings.
By this it was two o'clock and we had traveled on horseback since four. A variety of circumstances learned at the village made it imperative that both the Tenderfoot and myself should go out without the delay of a single hour. This left Wes to bring the horses home, which was tough on Wes, but he rose nobly to the occasion.
When the dust of our rustling cleared, we found we had acquired a team of wild broncos, a buckboard, an elderly gentleman with a white goatee, two bottles of beer, some crackers and some cheese. With these we hoped to reach the railroad shortly after midnight.
The elevation was five thousand feet, the road dusty and hot, the country uninteresting in sage- brush and alkali and rattlesnakes and general dryness. Constantly we drove, checking off the landmarks in the good old fashion. Our driver had immigrated from Maine the year before, and by some chance had drifted straight to the arid regions. He was vastly disgusted. At every particularly atrocious dust-hole or unlovely cactus strip he spat into space and remarked in tones of bottomless contempt:--
This was evidently intended as a quotation.
Towards sunset we ran up into rounded hills, where we got out at every rise in order to ease the horses, and where we hurried the old gentleman beyond the limits of his Easterner's caution at every descent.
It grew dark. Dimly the road showed gray in the twilight. We did not know how far exactly we were to go, but imagined that sooner or later we would top one of the small ridges to look across one of the broad plateau plains to the lights of our station. You see we had forgotten, in the midst of flatness, that we were still over five thousand feet up. Then the road felt its way between two hills;--and the blackness of night opened below us as well as above, and from some deep and tremendous abyss breathed the winds of space.
It was as dark as a cave, for the moon was yet two hours below the horizon. Somehow the trail turned to the right along that tremendous cliff. We thought we could make out its direction, the dimness of its glimmering; but equally well, after we had looked a moment, we could imagine it one way or another, to right and left. I went ahead to investigate. The trail to left proved to be the faint reflection of a clump of "old man" at least five hundred feet down; that to right was a burned patch sheer against the rise of the cliff. We started on the middle way.
There were turns-in where a continuance straight ahead would require an airship or a coroner; again turns-out where the direct line would telescope you against the state of California. These we could make out by straining our eyes. The horses plunged and snorted; the buckboard leaped. Fire flashed from the impact of steel against rock, momentarily blinding us to what we should see. Always we descended into the velvet blackness of the abyss, the canon walls rising steadily above us shutting out even the dim illumination of the stars. From time to time our driver, desperately scared, jerked out cheering bits of information.
"My eyes ain't what they was. For the Lord's sake keep a-lookin', boys."
"That nigh hoss is deef. There don't seem to be no use saying WHOA to her."
"Them brakes don't hold fer sour peanuts. I been figgerin' on tackin' on a new shoe for a week."
"I never was over this road but onct, and then I was headed th' other way. I was driving of a corpse."
Then, after two hours of it, BING! BANG! SMASH! our tongue collided with a sheer black wall, no blacker than the atmosphere before it. The trail here took a sharp V turn to the left. We had left the face of the precipice and henceforward would descend the bed of the canon. Fortunately our collision had done damage to nothing but our nerves, so we proceeded to do so.
The walls of the crevice rose thousands of feet above us. They seemed to close together, like the sides of a tent, to leave only a narrow pale lucent strip of sky. The trail was quite invisible, and even the sense of its existence was lost when we traversed groves of trees. One of us had to run ahead of the horses, determining its general direction, locating the sharper turns. The rest depended on the instinct of the horses and pure luck.
It was pleasant in the cool of night thus to run down through the blackness, shouting aloud to guide our followers, swinging to the slope, bathed to the soul in mysteries of which we had no time to take cognizance.
By and by we saw a little spark far ahead of us like a star. The smell of fresh wood smoke and stale damp fire came to our nostrils. We gained the star and found it to be a log smouldering; and up the hill other stars red as blood. So we knew that we had crossed the zone of an almost extinct forest fire, and looked on the scattered camp-fires of an army of destruction.
The moon rose. We knew it by touches of white light on peaks infinitely far above us; not at all by the relieving of the heavy velvet blackness in which we moved. After a time, I, running ahead in my turn, became aware of the deep breathing of animals. I stopped short and called a warning. Immediately a voice answered me.
"Come on, straight ahead. They're not on the road."
When within five feet I made out the huge freight wagons in which were lying the teamsters, and very dimly the big freight mules standing tethered to the wheels.
"It's a dark night, friend, and you're out late."
"A dark night," I agreed, and plunged on. Behind me rattled and banged the abused buckboard, snorted the half-wild broncos, groaned the unrepaired brake, softly cursed my companions.
Then at once the abrupt descent ceased. We glided out to the silvered flat, above which sailed the moon.
The hour was seen to be half past one. We had missed our train. Nothing was visible of human habitations. The land was frosted with the moonlight, enchanted by it, etherealized. Behind us, huge and formidable, loomed the black mass of the range we had descended. Before us, thin as smoke in the magic lucence that flooded the world, rose other mountains, very great, lofty as the sky. We could not understand them. The descent we had just accomplished should have landed us on a level plain in which lay our town. But here we found ourselves in a pocket valley entirely surrounded by mountain ranges through which there seemed to be no pass less than five or six thousand feet in height.
We reined in the horses to figure it out.
"I don't see how it can be," said I. "We've certainly come far enough. It would take us four hours at the very least to cross that range, even if the railroad should happen to be on the other side of it."
"I been through here only once," repeated the driver,--"going the other way.--Then I drew a corpse." He spat, and added as an afterthought, "BEAU-ti-ful Cal-if-or-nia!"
We stared at the mountains that hemmed us in. They rose above us sheer and forbidding. In the bright moonlight plainly were to be descried the brush of the foothills, the timber, the fissures, the canons, the granites, and the everlasting snows. Almost we thought to make out a thread of a waterfall high up where the clouds would be if the night had not been clear.
"We got off the trail somewhere," hazarded the Tenderfoot.
"Well, we're on a road, anyway," I pointed out. "It's bound to go somewhere. We might as well give up the railroad and find a place to turn-in."
"It can't be far," encouraged the Tenderfoot; "this valley can't be more than a few miles across."
"Gi dap!" remarked the driver.
We moved forward down the white wagon trail approaching the mountains. And then we were witnesses of the most marvelous transformation. For as we neared them, those impregnable mountains, as though panic-stricken by our advance, shrunk back, dissolved, dwindled, went to pieces. Where had towered ten-thousand-foot peaks, perfect in the regular succession from timber to snow, now were little flat hills on which grew tiny bushes of sage. A passage opened between them. In a hundred yards we had gained the open country, leaving behind us the mighty but unreal necromancies of the moon.
Before us gleamed red and green lights. The mass of houses showed half distinguishable. A feeble glimmer illuminated part of a white sign above the depot. That which remained invisible was evidently the name of the town. That which was revealed was the supplementary information which the Southern Pacific furnishes to its patrons. It read: "Elevation 482 feet." We were definitely out of the mountains.