XXII. The Lure of the Trail

The trail's call depends not at all on your common sense. You know you are a fool for answering it; and yet you go. The comforts of civilization, to put the case on its lowest plane, are not lightly to be renounced: the ease of having your physical labor done for you; the joy of cultivated minds, of theatres, of books, of participation in the world's progress; these you leave behind you. And in exchange you enter a life where there is much long hard work of the hands--work that is really hard and long, so that no man paid to labor would consider it for a moment; you undertake to eat simply, to endure much, to lie on the rack of anxiety; you voluntarily place yourself where cold, wet, hunger, thirst, heat, monotony, danger, and many discomforts will wait upon you daily. A thousand times in the course of a woods life even the stoutest-hearted will tell himself softly--very softly if he is really stout-hearted, so that others may not be annoyed--that if ever the fates permit him to extricate himself he will never venture again.

These times come when long continuance has worn on the spirit. You beat all day to windward against the tide toward what should be but an hour's sail: the sea is high and the spray cold; there are sunken rocks, and food there is none; chill gray evening draws dangerously near, and there is a foot of water in the bilge. You have swallowed your tongue twenty times on the alkali; and the sun is melting hot, and the dust dry and pervasive, and there is no water, and for all your effort the relative distances seem to remain the same for days. You have carried a pack until your every muscle is strung white-hot; the woods are breathless; the black flies swarm persistently and bite until your face is covered with blood. You have struggled through clogging snow until each time you raise your snowshoe you feel as though some one had stabbed a little sharp knife into your groin; it has come to be night; the mercury is away below zero, and with aching fingers you are to prepare a camp which is only an anticipation of many more such camps in the ensuing days. For a week it has rained, so that you, pushing through the dripping brush, are soaked and sodden and comfortless, and the bushes have become horrible to your shrinking goose-flesh. Or you are just plain tired out, not from a single day's fatigue, but from the gradual exhaustion of a long hike. Then in your secret soul you utter these sentiments:--

"You are a fool. This is not fun. There is no real reason why you should do this. If you ever get out of here, you will stick right home where common sense flourishes, my son!"

Then after a time you do get out, and are thankful. But in three months you will have proved in your own experience the following axiom--I should call it the widest truth the wilderness has to teach:--

"In memory the pleasures of a camping trip strengthen with time, and the disagreeables weaken."

I don't care how hard an experience you have had, nor how little of the pleasant has been mingled with it, in three months your general impression of that trip will be good. You will look back on the hard times with a certain fondness of recollection.

I remember one trip I took in the early spring following a long drive on the Pine River. It rained steadily for six days. We were soaked to the skin all the time, ate standing up in the driving downpour, and slept wet. So cold was it that each morning our blankets were so full of frost that they crackled stiffly when we turned out. Dispassionately I can appraise that as about the worst I ever got into. Yet as an impression the Pine River trip seems to me a most enjoyable one.

So after you have been home for a little while the call begins to make itself heard. At first it is very gentle. But little by little a restlessness seizes hold of you. You do not know exactly what is the matter: you are aware merely that your customary life has lost savor, that you are doing things more or less perfunctorily, and that you are a little more irritable than your naturally evil disposition.

And gradually it is borne in on you exactly what is the matter. Then say you to yourself:--

"My son, you know better. You are no tenderfoot. You have had too long an experience to admit of any glamour of indefiniteness about this thing. No use bluffing. You know exactly how hard you will have to work, and how much tribulation you are going to get into, and how hungry and wet and cold and tired and generally frazzled out you are going to be. You've been there enough times so it's pretty clearly impressed on you. You go into this thing with your eyes open. You know what you're in for. You're pretty well off right here, and you'd be a fool to go."

"That's right," says yourself to you. "You're dead right about it, old man. Do you know where we can get another pack-mule?"