Life in the Open Air/Chapter XIII
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Chapter XIII. Up Katahdin
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- Chapter XIII. Up Katahdin.
Next morning, when we awoke, just before the gray of dawn, the sky was clear and scintillating; but there was a white cotton night-cap on the head of Katahdin. As we inspected him, he drew his night-cap down farther, hinting that he did not wish to see the sun that day. When a mountain is thus in the sulks after a storm, it is as well not to disturb him: he will not offer the prize of a view. Experience taught us this: but then experience is only an empiric at the best.
Besides, whether Katahdin were bare-headed or cloud-capped, it would be better to blunder upward than lounge all day in camp and eat Sybaritic dinners. We longed for the nervy climb. We must have it. “Up!” said tingling blood to brain. “Dash through the forest! Grasp the crag, and leap the cleft! Sweet flash forth the streamlets from granite fissures. To breathe the winds that smite the peaks is life.”
As soon as dawn bloomed in the woods we breakfasted, and ferried the river before sunrise. The ascent subdivides itself into five zones. 1. A scantily wooded acclivity, where bears abound. 2. A dense, swampy forest region. 3. Steep, mossy mountain-side, heavily wooded. 4. A belt of dwarf spruces, nearly impenetrable. 6. Ragged rock.
Cancut was our leader to-day. There are by far too many blueberries in the first zone. No one, of course, intends to dally, but the purple beauties tempted, and too often we were seduced. Still such yielding spurred us on to hastier speed, when we looked up after delay and saw the self-denying far ahead.
To write an epic or climb a mountain is merely a dogged thing; the result is more interesting to most than the process. Mountains, being cloud-compellers, are rain-shedders, and the shed water will not always flow with decorous gayety in dell or glen. Sometimes it stays bewildered in a bog, and here the climber must plunge. In the moist places great trees grow, die, fall, rot, and barricade the way with their corpses. Katahdin has to endure all the ills of mountain being, and we had all the usual difficulties to fight through doggedly. When we were clumsy, we tumbled and rose up torn. Still we plodded oh, following a path blazed by the Bostonians, Cancut’s late charge, and we grumblingly thanked them.
Going up, we got higher and drier. The mountain-side became steeper than it could stay, and several land-avalanches, ancient or modern, crossed our path. It would be sad to think that all the eternal hills were crumbling thus, outwardly, unless we knew that they bubble up inwardly as fast. Posterity is thus cared for in regard to the picturesque. Cascading streams also shot by us, carrying light and music. From them we stole refreshment, and did not find the waters mineral and astringent, as Mr. Turner, the first climber, calumniously asserts.
The trees were still large and surprisingly parallel to the mountain wall. Deep soft moss covered whatever was beneath, and sometimes this would yield and let the foot measure a crevice. Perilous pitfalls; but we clambered unharmed. The moss, so rich, deep, soft, and earthily fragrant, was a springy stair-carpet of a steep stairway. And sometimes when the carpet slipped and the state of heels over head seemed imminent, we held to the baluster-trees, as one after wassail clings to the lamp-post.
Even on this minor mountain the law of diminishing vegetation can be studied. The great trees abandoned us, and stayed indolently down in shelter. Next the little wiry trees ceased to be the comrades of our climb. They were no longer to be seen planted upon jutting crags, and, bold as standard-bearers, inciting us to mount higher. Big spruces, knobby with balls of gum, dwindled away into little ugly dwarf spruces, hostile, as dwarfs are said to be always, to human comfort. They grew man-high, and hedged themselves together into a dense thicket. We could not go under, nor over, nor through. To traverse them at all, we must recall the period when we were squirrels or cats, in some former state of being.
Somehow we pierced, as man does ever, whether he owes it to the beast or the man in him. From time to time, when in this struggle we came to an open point of rock, we would remember that we were on high, and turn to assure ourselves that nether earth was where we had left it. We always found it in situ, in belts green, white, and blue, a tricolor of woods, water, and sky. Lakes were there without number, forest without limit. We could not analyze yet, for there was work to do. Also, whenever we paused, there was the old temptation, blueberries. Every outcropping ledge offered store of tonic, ozone-fed blueberries, or of mountain-cranberries, crimson and of concentrated flavor, or of the white snowberry, most delicate of fruits that grow.
As we were creeping over the top of the dwarf wood, Cancut, who was in advance, suddenly disappeared; he seemed to fall through a gap in the spruces, and we heard his voice calling in cavernous tones. We crawled forward and looked over. It was the upper camp of the Bostonians. They had profited by a hole in the rocks, and chopped away the stunted scrubs to enlarge it into a snug artificial abyss. It was snug, and so to the eye is a cell at Sing-Sing. If they were very misshapen Bostonians, they may have succeeded in lying there comfortably. I looked down ten feet into the rough chasm, and I saw, Corpo di Bacco! I saw a cork.
To this station our predecessors had come in an easy day’s walk from the river; here they had tossed through a night, and given a whole day to finish the ascent, returning hither again for a second night. As we purposed to put all this travel within one day, we could not stay and sympathize with the late tenants. A little more squirrel-like skipping and cat-like creeping over the spruces, and we were out among bulky boulders and rough débris on a shoulder of the mountain. Alas! the higher, the more hopeless. Katahdin, as he had taken pains to inform us, meant to wear the veil all day. He was drawing down the white drapery about his throat and letting it fall over his shoulders. Sun and wind struggled mightily with his sulky fit; sunshine rifted off bits of the veil, and wind seized, whirled them away, and, dragging them over the spruces below, tore them to rags. Evidently, if we wished to see the world, we must stop here and survey, before the growing vapor covered all. We climbed to the edge of Cloudland, and stood fronting the semicircle of southward view.
Katahdin’s self is finer than what Katahdin sees. Katahdin is distinct, and its view is indistinct. It is a vague panorama, a mappy, unmethodic maze of water and woods, very roomy, very vast, very simple, — and these are capital qualities, but also quite monotonous. A lover of largeness and scope has the proper emotions stirred, but a lover of variety very soon finds himself counting the lakes. It is a wide view, and it is a proud thing for a man six feet or less high, to feel that he himself, standing on something he himself has climbed, and having Katahdin under his feet a mere convenience, can see all Maine. It does not make Maine less, but the spectator more, and that is a useful moral result. Maine’s face, thus exposed, has almost no features; there are no great mountains visible, none that seem more than green hillocks in the distance. Besides sky, Katahdin’s view contains only the two primal necessities of wood and water. Nowhere have I seen such breadth of solemn forest, gloomy, were it not for the cheerful interruption of many fair lakes, and bright ways of river linking them.
Far away on the southern horizon we detected the heights of Mount Desert, our old familiar haunt. All the northern semicircle was lost to us by the fog. We lost also the view of the mountain itself. All the bleak, lonely, barren, ancient waste of the bare summit was shrouded in cold fog. The impressive gray ruin and Titanic havoc of a granite mountain-top, the heaped boulders, the crumbling crags, the crater-like depression, the long stem reaches of sierra, the dark curving slopes channelled and polished by the storms and fine drifting mists of æons, the downright plunge of precipices, all the savageness of harsh rock, unsoftened by other vegetation than rusty moss and the dull green splashes of lichen, all this was hidden, except when the mist, white and delicate where we stood, but thick and black above, opened whimsically and delusively, as mountain mists will do, and gave us vistas into the upper desolation. After such momentary rifts the mist thickened again, and swooped forward as if to involve our station; but noon sunshine, reverberated from the plains and valleys and lakes below, was our ally; sunshine checked the overcoming mist, and it stayed overhead, an unwelcome parasol, making our August a chilly November. Besides what our eyes lost, our minds lost, unless they had imagination enough to create it, the sentiment of triumph and valiant energy, that the man of body and soul feels upon the windy heights, the highest, whence he looks far and wide, like a master of realms, and knows that the world is his; and they lost the sentiment of solemn joy that the man of soul recognizes as one of the surest intimations of immortality, stirring within him, whenever he is in the unearthly regions, the higher world.
We stayed studying the pleasant solitude and dreamy breadth of Katahdin’s panorama for a long time, and every moment the mystery of the mist above grew more enticing. Pride also was awakened. We turned from sunshine and Cosmos into fog and Chaos. We made ourselves quite miserable for naught. We clambered up into Nowhere, into a great, white, ghostly void. We saw nothing but the rough surfaces we trod. We pressed along crater-like edges, and all below was filled with mist, troubled and rushing upward like the smoke of a volcano. Up we went, — nothing but granite and gray dimness. Where we arrived we know not. It was a top, certainly: that was proved by the fact that there was nothing within sight. We cannot claim that it was the topmost top; Kimchinjinga might have towered within pistol-shot; popgun-shot was our extremest range of vision, except for one instant, when a kind-hearted sunbeam gave us a vanishing glimpse of a white lake and breadth of forest far in the unknown North toward Canada.
When we had thus reached the height of our folly and made nothing by it, we addressed ourselves to the descent, no wiser for our pains. Descent is always harder than ascent, for divine ambitions are stronger and more prevalent than degrading passions. And when Katahdin is befogged, descent is much more perilous than ascent. We edged along very cautiously by remembered landmarks the way we had come, and so, after a dreary march of a mile or so through desolation, issued into welcome sunshine and warmth at our point of departure. When I said “we,” I did not include the gravestone pedler. He, like a sensible fellow, had determined to stay and eat berries rather than breathe fog. While we wasted our time, he had made the most of his. He had cleared Katahdin’s shoulders of fruit, and now, cuddled in a sunny cleft, slept the sleep of the well-fed. His red shirt was a cheerful beacon on our weary way. We took in the landscape with one slow, comprehensive look, and, waking Cancut suddenly, (who sprang to his feet amazed, and cried “Fire!”) we dashed down the mountain-side.
It was long after noon; we were some dozen of miles from camp; we must speed. No glissade was possible, nor plunge such as travellers make down through the ash-heaps of Vesuvius; but, having once worried through the wretched little spruces, mean counterfeits of trees, we could fling ourselves down from mossy step to step, measuring off the distance by successive leaps of a second each, and alighting, sound after each, on moss yielding as a cushion.
On we hastened, retracing our footsteps of the morning across the avalanches of crumbled granite, through the bogs, along the brooks; undelayed by the beauty of sunny glade or shady dell, never stopping to botanize or to classify, we traversed zone after zone, and safely ran the gantlet of the possible bears on the last level. We found lowland Nature still the same; Ayboljockameegus was flowing still; so was Penobscot; no pirate had made way with the birch; we embarked and paddled to camp.
The first thing, when we touched terra firma, was to look back regretfully toward the mountain. Regret changed to wrath, when we perceived its summit all clear and mistless, smiling warmly to the low summer’s sun. The rascal evidently had only waited until we were out of sight in the woods to throw away his night-cap.
One long rainy day had somewhat disgusted us with the old hemlock-covered camp in the glade of the yellow birch, and we were reasonably and not unreasonably morbid after our disappointment with Katahdin. We resolved to decamp. In the last hour of sunlight, floating pleasantly from lovely reach to reach, and view to view, we could choose a spot of bivouac where no home-scenery would recall any sorry fact of the past. We loved this gentle gliding by the tender light of evening over the shadowy river, marking the rhythm of our musical progress by touches of the paddle. We determined, too, that the balance of bodily forces should be preserved: legs had been well stretched over the bogs and boulders; now for the arms.
Never did our sylvan sojourn look so fair as when we quitted it, and seemed to see among the streaming sunbeams in the shadows the Hamadryads of the spot returned, and waving us adieux. We forgot how damp and leaks and puddles had forced themselves upon our intimacy there; we remembered that we were gay, though wet, and there had known the perfection of Ayboljockameegus trout.
As we drifted along the winding river, between the shimmering birches on either bank, Katahdin watched us well. Sometimes he would show the point of his violet gray peak over the woods, and sometimes, at a broad bend of the water, he revealed himself fully, and threw his great image down beside for our nearer view. We began to forgive him, to disbelieve in any personal spite of his, and to recall that he himself, seen thus, was far more precious than any mappy dulness we could have seen from his summit. One great upright pyramid like this was worth a continent of grovelling acres.
Sunset came, and with it we landed at a point below a lake-like stretch of the river, where the charms of a neighbor and a distant view of the mountain combined. Cancut the Unwearied roofed with boughs an old frame for drying moose-hides, while Iglesias sketched, and I worshipped Katahdin. Has my reader heard enough of it, — a hillock only six thousand feet high? We are soon to drift away, and owe it here as kindly a farewell as it gave us in that radiant twilight by the river.
From our point of view we raked the long stern front tending westward. Just before sunset, from beneath a belt of clouds evanescing over the summit, an inconceivably tender, brilliant glow of rosy violet mantled downward, filling all the valley. Then the violet purpled richer and richer, and darkened slowly to solemn blue, that blended with the gloom of the pines and shadowy channelled gorges down the steep. The peak was still in sunlight, and suddenly, half-way down, a band of roseate clouds, twining and changing like a choir of Bacchantes, soared around the western edge and hung poised above the unillumined forests at the mountain-base; light as air they came and went and faded away, ghostly, after their work of momentary beauty was done. One slight maple, prematurely ripened to crimson and heralding the pomp of autumn, repeated the bright cloud-color amid the vivid verdure of a little island, and its image wavering in the water sent the flame floating nearly to our feet.
Such are the transcendent moments of Nature, unseen and disbelieved by the untaught. The poetic soul lays hold of every such tender pageant of beauty and keeps it forever. Iglesias, having an additional method of preservation, did not fail to pencil rapidly the wondrous scene. When he had finished his dashing sketch of this glory, so transitory, he peppered the whole with cabalistic cipher, which only he could interpret into beauty.
Cancut’s camp-fire now began to overpower the faint glimmers of twilight. The single-minded Cancut, little distracted by emotions, had heaped together logs enough to heat any mansion for a winter. The warmth was welcome, and the great flame, with its bright looks of familiar comradery, and its talk like the complex murmur of a throng, made a fourth in our party by no means terrible, as some other incorporeal visitors might have been. Fire was not only a talker, but an important actor: Fire cooked for us our evening chocolate; Fire held the candlestick, while we, without much ceremony of undressing, disposed ourselves upon our spruce-twig couch; and Fire watched over our slumbers, crouching now as if some stealthy step were approaching, now lifting up its head and peering across the river into some recess where the water gleamed and rustled under dark shadows, and now sending far and wide over the stream and the clearing and into every cleft of the forest a penetrating illumination, a blaze of light, death to all treacherous ambush. So Fire watched while we slept, and when safety came with the earliest gray of morning, it, too, covered itself with ashes and slept.