Travels Without a Donkey

In the summer of 1932, eighteen year-old Barbara Follett and her “semi-platonic” friend Nickerson Rogers quit New York City and headed to Maine with the plan of following (or semi-following) the nascent Appalachian Trail from its northern terminus at Katahdin as far south as they could get before winter set in. To make matters tricky, the AT had not yet been cut in Maine, so bush-whacking and guesswork were in order. Travels Without a Donkey recounts their adventures from Katahdin to Lake Umbagog on the New Hampshire border. They then continued their walk over the White Mountains and down Vermont’s Long Trail to western Massachusetts. They had been planning to hitch-hike to Tennessee to continue their journey along the AT, but something changed their minds and they sailed to Majorca instead, spending the winter of 1932 and most of 1933 exploring southern Europe.

Barbara camping on the Appalachian Trail, summer of 1932, photo by Nickerson Rogers

“It’s spring,” Nick said.

In the very shadow of New York’s skyline, one solitary white crocus had blossomed in a scrawny patch of grass.

“What shall we do about it?” he demanded.

“What does anybody in New York do about it? Grin and bear it.”

“Come on, Bar–show a spark of life, old gal. I’m getting out of here this summer.”

“But — ”

“Getting out. Leaving the office. Going into the north woods. Mountains. It’s spring, child!”

I looked at him to make sure he was serious. In these depressed times, one didn’t leave good jobs in order to run away to the north woods. His brown eyes sparkled. But then, they always did. He was the one person in New York whose eyes always sparkled.

“All right — I wish you joy.”

He fished in various pockets and finally produced a little square of white metal, with a monogram and the words: “Appalachian Trail – Maine to Georgia.”

“That’s what I’m going to do,” he explained. “I haven’t had a walk for ages. Well, I’m going to have a real one now.”

“Not from Maine to Georgia!”

“Why not? It’s only two thousand miles or so.”

“It’ll take all summer.”

“Can you think of a pleasanter way to spend the summer?”

I looked at the solitary white crocus in the scrawny patch of grass. “No,” I said. “I can’t.”

Over lunch that day, he told me about this Appalachian Trail. It is a footpath, starting at Katahdin, that grand old mountain in Maine, and ending at Mount Oglethorpe way down in Georgia, after having crossed the highest and handsomest country of all the states between. Now, owing to the diligence and energy of walking clubs in various parts of the country, only a few miles of trail remains to be broken. But two years ago, when Nick told me about it over our luncheon, a large part of the trail, especially in Maine, was still theory–a dream, an ambition. Where it had become an actuality, it was marked with metal squares like the one he had shown me.

Quite a grand project, it sounded. I just sat staring and smiling, while he talked.

“Bar,” he began again, “I think I’d like you in shorts.”

“Shorts!”

“With your hair cut, flying in the wind–your swell red hair.”

“Cut my hair!”

“Your freckles are out-of-doorsy. You belong out-doors.”

“I haven’t got freckles,” I protested.

“Yes you have–very swell ones.”

“I know I belong out-doors,” I agreed. “I get mountain-fever. Got it now–something awful. I want to climb Wildcat.”

“We will,” he said happily. “I didn’t want to walk all the way to Georgia alone, anyway.”

“Are you asking me to come with you?”

“Of course! What else?”

“But I can’t — ”

“Nonsense. We start up north the first of July. You give ’em notice.”

“But, Nicky — ”

“‘But’ isn’t worthy of you, Bar. Not in spring.”

*
*     *

Some friends had a camp on a New Hampshire lake. It was there that Nick met me, promptly on the first of July. He was sunburned and smiling, comfortable in old clothes. Without stopping a minute, he deposited me and my pack in a borrowed canoe.

We paddled vigorously into the sunlit late–magic to someone parched from too much New York. After a while I saw white beach ahead of us, and the green canoe scraped sand gently.

A small green island. A pine dipping graceful branches over a flat boulder that stood half in the rippling lake, half on land. A tiny stone fireplace on top of the boulder. Golden rippled reflections wavered on the sand at the lake’s edge; silver ones shimmered on the under sides of the pine branches. The world smelt of sun, and bay leaves, and pine-needles. The brightness was almost unreal. The sun wrapped us in gleaming shawls of warmth.

We drew the canoe up. Nick parted the bay-bushes and revealed a little path, hardly more than would be made by a rabbit. Five or six yards back, on a knoll screened with bushes, was our house–a brown tent, not more than six feet square.

“This is it,” Nick announced. “This is home.”

I wanted nothing so much as to swim, although I soon found that muscles that had been in the city for two years had forgotten some of their rhythms. Then I sat, dripping, on the big boulder, long hair cascading down my back. I felt very white in this summer-time world where the human body ought to be brown.

Nick brandished a pair of scissors. “Off with it!”

I put up my arms in self-defense. “No — no!”

“Yes! Absolutely! You can’t walk two thousand miles with that yard of hair, child. It’ll get wound up in the blackberries. It’ll collect whole hay-ricks. Bats will nest in it.”

“But, Nicky, I like my hair. And I don’t object to bats.”

“I like it, too. But I don’t like what you do to it–tying your face to the back of your neck with it. I want to see it wave in the wind. That’s really why I married you. And anyway, you can grow it again.”

I wavered. “It would be more comfortable, of course …”

Snip!

“Don’t, Nicky — !”

“Too late now. Got to go on with it.”

Snip! Snip!

The air was full of flying fragments. Reddish fluff covered the boulder. A great weight was vanishing from my head. What hair I had left began to stand on end in the joy of its freedom. For the first time in years, it was waving in the wind.

*
*     *

September 22, 1924 – Letter to Mr. Oberg (unfinished draft)

 

[Appears to be a draft of an unfinished letter]

Still from Sunapee
September 22, 1924

Dearest Mr. Oberg:

I believe now you have now written to me twice, with no letters from me in between, but I have had many other things I really ought to do, that I have had no time to write letters.

Now, as concerning the mysterious key you sent me. I don’t really believe that it did belong to the ogre’s castle. You see, there ought to be a great strong brass key for that a flexible little thing like that wouldn’t cover an eighth of the lock. But I do think it belonged to something very mysterious–perhaps, to one of the many thousands of side-doors to fairyland.

Several days ago Daddy and I started out with our big khaki tent, the canoe on a trailer, and provisions, to scout out the first grounds of a long trip we intended to take later this year. We started out with the idea of putting in with the canoe at Ossipee River, a river flowing out of the lake, a little way. But upon enquiries, we found that we could put in at the Bear Camp River, a medium river flowing from the town of West Ossipee into the same Ossipee Lake that we had intended to put in at before. So we left the old bus and the trailer at a house in West Ossipee, loaded the canoe, and put in under the bridge at West Ossipee. And right then and there I experienced a sensation that none but those who have been on a river know anything about. The rushing current with its treacherous snags and quicksands, together with the folds made by the current in the gold sand, all hold an enchanted fascination for one.
    
Before that, on the way up, before we had passed Winnepesaukee, there was a good few of a fairly large section of it, though, of course, nothing more than a little cove in proportion to the gigantic whole. And, across that section were parts of the magnificent Sandwich Range. Before that, I thought I knew what mountains were like, but my wildest imaginations never equaled what then lay before me. Oh, I never saw anything so awe-inspiring as what I then saw.

But to turn to the river again. We made late camp that evening on an island in the river, made an island because the high water from the big rain made a sort of back-channel around it. That night we slept there, and we made friends at the farm-house upon asking for good water for drinking, for we didn’t like to use the river-water because, after all it comes from West Ossipee and, inevitably more or less garbage gets into it. The next morning we paddled the rest of the river, down to Ossipee Lake, a huge one, with very few noticeable coves, really almost round. There we had dinner on a nice beach. That afternoon we headed for the spot where we judged by the map The Narrows were. The Narrows would have been the beginning of the Ossipee River, except for a dam a few miles down it which over-flows it on to the rather swampy ground there there, making a regular water-labyrinth, cut up with coves, peninsulas, and islands. There were only nine or ten houses on it so we named it Lake Solitude. That night we camped on one of the several islands in Lake Solitude. The next morning we paddled down to Effingham falls, where the dam was, and back to the island where we had left our things in Solitude, where we were held up by a shower, and so we stayed there and played games and chattered until next morning, the only place in the whole trip where we slept twice.

[end of draft]