You really needn’t feel so ashamed of yourself in the matter of correspondence, since you surely didn’t owe me much of a letter, judging by my last two or three!
You are right when you surmise that I have been rushed and busy—more so than ever, since the beginning of 1932. My life is getting almost crowded, in fact. The job, of course, takes eight hours a day straight out, and everything else has to be jammed into the fringes. Since I can’t satisfy mind, soul, or body with the job, I have to jam into the fringes almost as much as another person would put into an entire day.
You want TALK. Well, I’ll try my best, and as there are a few more news items now than usual, maybe I can fill the bill a bit.
First, Helen’s book is getting to that thrilling point. She has received proof of the illustrations—great illustrations they are, looking like very clever woodcuts—and Macmillan has done a surprisingly good job of the reproductions. But since she will doubtless tell you all about this herself, maybe I’d better concentrate on other things.
The more important thing I have to contribute is that Lost Island creepeth onward, in spite of God and the Devil (represented by various personages, of course!). In fact, I’ve gotten to that delectable point where there remains only about a chapter and a half—or possibly two chapters and a half—to be written. That will complete the first draft. Then to sail into a good thorough revision, editing, chopping, piecing, cross-hatching, weaving, repairing, tearing, rending, boiling, steaming, and general subjection to energy. I think I can have it in Mr. Saxton’s hands—willing or unwilling hands—by June 1 at the latest. That’s what I’m aiming for, anyhow. And I still have faith in the old thing, which is quite a point, you know.
When all this energy is accomplished, I’m going to bat out about three copies, of which two will be passed around among a few individuals. You are going to be one of the fortunate (?) recipients. I shall want your criticism—I mean, if you are willing, and want to give it—rigorous and stern and unsparing. There will be four or five other people, who will probably all contradict each other. Then it will fall to my lot to Think It Over, and do some more pounding. Among these selected critics, I’m going to pick out at least two entirely impersonal ones. For instance, a Professor of English at Dartmouth whom I encountered last summer.
After that job is all completely finished, and the black spring binder reposes under Mr. Saxton’s nose, I’m going to sail into another job I have in mind—not such a lovely job, but an even more important one, because my entire existence rests upon it. It will the introductory material for another book—a book about an adventure I think I shall have this summer. Woods and mountains. A. D. R., I’m going to tell you about it, and you must rise to the occasion, because I’m terrifically excited over the whole thing.
I’ve gotten together a party of four congenial brave souls—of which I am one (I hope)—and we may add two more members. Then, starting about the middle of July, we’re going to Maine—Ktaadn—Thoreau’s country—and from there we’re going down the Appalachian trail, two thousand miles, Maine to Georgia, camping out, and carrying upon our sturdy backs the necessities of life. It will take between three and four months, and be the greatest release imaginable.
Well, I’ve even higher ambitions than that. I’m not just going to take money out of the bank, leaving a hole, to indulge my pleasure. I’m going to struggle to make the thing pay for itself, and the only way I know how to do that is to write about it. And as I said I’ve some ideas for the introductory materials which can be put into words before ever the adventure takes place. And that’s what I’m going to do after Lost Island is carefully finished. All four of us are very much together on this. We’re going to cooperate to the nth degree, and I think that among us all we’ll succeed. You couldn’t imagine a more congenial party. We are getting together this spring for house-parties at intervals, during which we paw over hundreds of maps, draw up provision lists, talk, laugh, anticipate, and in general have a grand time.
The party consists of an amiable lad with occasional unsuspected depths whom I met last summer when H. and I were living in the Vermont cabin; a pal of his, who has a remarkably good head on young shoulders; and a girl who is really a grand scout, with whom I get along quite beautifully. In fact, we all get along with each other beautifully. No friction anywhere, as far as we have been able to discover. There may be two others aded to the Grand Expedition, as I said; and we would like of course to have an elderly leader, than whom no finer could be imagined than Meservey of Hanover—only I’m afraid Meservey of Hanover is tied up.
Well, that’s the general idea. It may crash completely. Nothing is certain about it. But we’re all hoping, and pulling together. We’re all slightly rebels against civilization, and we want to go out into the woods and sweat honestly and shiver honestly and satisfy our souls by looking at mountains, smelling pine trees, and feeling the sky and the earth.
We went up to Bear Mountain this last week-end, for the Appalachian Trail strikes through there, and we explored ten or fifteen miles of that section of it. It gave us a tremendous thrill. I can’t tell you what it meant to our world-weary souls to have our feet on that narrow, bumpy, winding footpath that goes clear from Maine to Georgia, marked out by little silver monograms on the trees, which change to yellow-painted arrows over rocks and ledges. Over Easter we’re all gathering the clan again, for another expedition somewhere. These short trips help us to get personally adjusted and strengthen the congeniality still more. It also helps to give us an idea of what we need by way of food and clothes, and also puts us in training, more or less.
It will be a terrific trip, of course. There will be times when we’ll probably be cold and wet and uncomfortable and grumpy. But we’re ready for that—almost covet it in fact. Pitting one’s strength and personality against the wilds—the greatest sort of opportunity on earth…. Well, there it is. My room is plastered with trail maps even now!
All this time I haven’t so much as mentioned A., have I? Well, I’ve had him in the back of my mind—in reserve, so to speak. Luckily, the C. S. Holmes job holds. I guess he’ll be going north again next summer—the third time. There really isn’t anything else to do, with conditions as they are all over the world, especially along the waterfront. His life is odd and stern—verging on tragic, at times. He feels that now and then, and has down-spells, during which I am hard put to it to be cheerful and cheering. I am pretty sure, though, that next fall we shall actually be together, and discuss everything from moths to meteors, including money and mice and merriment and misery and—but that almost exhausts the m’s I can think of at this Moment. That discussion will doubtless decide a good many points about this universe and the nature thereof. Right now he is a little sad, and alternates between letters about the futility of life with humorous epistles about politics in Seattle and other things.
As for being eighteen—well, I don’t think there is anything especially momentous about that. It doesn’t thrill me a bit.
Your mention of spring makes my mouth water. There hasn’t been much around these parts. In fact, Bear Mountain was covered with snow last week-end, and there was driving mist and it was pretty dern cold. However, one can’t stop the seasons, so I have hopes.
I’m so glad to hear the good news about Elizabeth. What an ordeal—or rather, what a series of ordeals—she has plowed through. Phoebe is apparently still toeing the mark, with her nose much to the grindstone. Darn these grindstones—I mean, damn them. And so B. R. is actually going west in the summer—actually, this time? He west, A. north, I Appalachian Trail. Funny world, isn’t it?
You know, I’m ashamed of myself, but it took me several seconds of puzzle to figure out “Miller.” Then I remembered. Wonderful creature that he was! Supercilious, spruce, disdainful creature!
Thanks for letting me see the two pictures of you and P. in the desert. I return them herewith. They are sweet.
TALK? Will these pages do at all? If it’s egocentric talk you were looking for, I should think maybe this would be slight over-dose! On the other hand, you are so devoted and the lapse has been so long, that maybe it will be endurable this time. You know, I’m still hoping to see you sometime. I have a philosophy of life—one which has been evolving for many years, but which has suffered interruptions and repressions and smashes. Now it has taken root again—or, rather, I realize that its root are not dead, but just beginning to be powerful. If it grows and thrives and survives the vile climate of trouble and difficulty and set-back, it may take me to almost any part of the old earth where I want to go. What is this philosophy, you ask? Well, I’m testing it warily, leaning on it cautiously, exploring it tenderly, thinking about it profoundly; and if I come to the conclusion that it’s any good, I’ll tell you sometime. Not until it has proved itself a little, though. I’ve lost faith in a number of things—or, rather, I’ve withdrawn from them the crushing weight of my faith. My philosophy aims now to stand upright. Tree-like….
I expect the next year to decide a number of important points. Beginning this summer. I think this summer will tell me a good deal. Being in the woods, standing on mountain-peaks—time to meditate and dram and get a perspective on life. There is nothing more soul-cleansing than to stand on a mountain, when you are inclined to feel hopelessly sure that the world is 99 100ths mankind, and see that vast tracts of it are blankets of forest and trees, after all! Mountains affect inward matters in the same way—reassure one about inward things in the same way as they do the visible things. So I expect to find out several things during the Appalachian Trail expedition—assuming and praying that it works.
Then, coming back from that to this—the complete contrast, the need for instantaneous adaption, and the fresh perspective on this—these things are also going to tell me a good deal. I mean, I shall be ready then to make certain decisions, about philosophy and about life.
Then I’ll remedy the inner workings of the universe!
Dartmouth Outing Club Moosilauke Summit Camp [New Hampshire] October 4, 1932
I have so much catching up to do that I’m not even going to try! Someday, though, I’ll tell you the things that have been happening—the curious, joyous upheavals my life has undergone, and the gipsy-like ways I’ve been living, and so on.
Right now my object is the transmissal of the enclosed letter to W. F. (which I should be glad to have you read if you care to). It may be that you have no idea whatever of his whereabouts. In that case, merely destroy it, as circumstances are not opportune for writing to him through Helen. If you can get the letter to him in any way, and if he answers it, I want the answer to come through you, as I don’t want just yet to give him the address which I’ll give you at the end of this.
All this sounds terribly complicated and mysterious, doesn’t it? But you see, I’ve jumped many hurdles of late, and want to be cautious. I’ve jumped the whole structure of what life was before: I’ve jumped the job, jumped my love, jumped parental dependence, jumped civilization—made a pretty clean break—and am happier than for years and years. I’ve a new, and I think a better, structure of life, though time alone can tell that!
How are you and yours? I long to know, fear to ask. It has been so long since we’ve been in touch! Write me a word at this address, and then I’ll tell more about everything.
Love as ever, Barbara
Address mail to:
Mr. Nick Rogers ℅ H. D. Crosse 834 DeGraw Avenue Newark, N. J.
℅ Howard Crosse 834 DeGraw Avenue Newark, New Jersey [undated, but ca. mid-late October, 1932]
You wanted to hear from me promptly—right away, return air mail and all that. But, you see, in the rather odd kind of life I’m living right now, such things can’t be done. When your letter was forwarded to me, I was—well, where was I, anyway? Williamstown Mass., I guess—just in from a week’s stretch of Green Mountains. The next day we pulled out, hitch-hiking. I’m in New York now, at the apartment, but only till about tomorrow. Then I light out again.
Now I’m in Brookline, Mass., clearing up a few earthly details before sailing for a little island off the coast of Spain—if you can believe that! No wonder you are puzzled. The reason I didn’t try to go into any sort of detail in my first letter was that I wanted—well, to sort of feel around first, if you see what I mean.
However, before I go any further with this, I want to tell you how tremendously I was pleased with your news, which is at least as exciting as mine, only in a different way. That is, the good heart sings for you. Oh, how I hope nothing will go wrong this time! And then to hear that E. and M. have had no more devastating catastrophes, and that Phoebe is fairly happy, and that you yourself are surviving so well, head above water and all.
I don’t enjoy going into terrific detail about myself, by mail. It seems so rather brazen and cold-blooded. And I’ve been writing fewer letters than ever. But to put it briefly, New York irked me past endurance, and I had an opportunity to quit it all. I thought about it pretty hard for a while, and then decided that in spite of certain complications, “obligations,” and whatnot, I would chase them to the four winds and take my chance. So I did. I and a comrade escaped to the Maine woods (Katahdin, in fact) and then started off tramping south down the footpath that runs intermittently all the way from Maine to Georgia—the Appalachian Trail. It was a tremendous summer. There were mountains and forests, rivers and fields, sunlight and starlight, fir boughs and birds singing. But it was not only a summer. It will go on.
Those are the brief facts—which, of course, are not a satisfactory offering. You see how hopeless it is to give you a good idea of what it’s all about, and why. Besides, it’s all based on such subtle intangible things—except the boat to Spain, which is fairly tangible. I’ve tossed a lot of things to the winds, of course. I mean, I’m gradually getting to be a fairly “shady” character, but it’s worth it. When it isn’t worth it any more, I’ll change it some how. There’s always a way out, if you have courage—there was even a way out of New York!
Sometime my devious paths will lead me to you. I know that. Then there can be a real discussion, and real understanding. Right now i’m living in kind of a golden ethereal mist, and I haven’t typewritten for a long time, either! So I’m handicapped, more or less. Besides, the things I want to say are too new. They are still seething and surging around in my heart, but they haven’t been able yet to take their shape and wings and fly into the sun. It’s all pretty experimental, anyway. This I know—life is better than I thought. It can continue being good, if one only knows how. I’m trying to learn. I am learning, a little.
Helen has both backed me up and condemned me. Of course, it’s hard on her. A very subtle and complex question of ethics is involved—whether ’twere better etc. I’ve found this out—you can’t arrange your life so that everyone is satisfied, including yourself—unless you are a very uninteresting person. And the break had to come. I’m not claiming I’m right (how foolish it is for anyone ever to claim that he’s right about anything!), and God knows I may end up in an awful mess. Still, all I can do is follow the best I know—take the greenest and most verdurous trail that I can see. If it ends in a desert or a swamp, maybe I can go back and try another one. And that makes a cosmic adventure of if all.
We sail within a couple of weeks, probably. This was quite unexpected and out of the blue—we meant to go to Florida for the winter! I think you would like this person who has been constantly with me since the first of July, and intermittently for about a year before that.
Anyway, maybe I’ll drop you a few lines from Majorca or Minorca or somewhere!
With much love, and the best of luck to you.
[postscript in pencil]
Thanks for transmitting that letter. I’m glad I wrote it, whether he answers or not.
Your good letter came yesterday, and needless to say I’m tickled to hear that you aren’t sitting in the fig-tree, that you are all alive and well, and that the Wolf is house broken (Oh, most admirable phrase!)
I am sitting at a little table on the sidewalk, waiting for a train to France, which leaves in an hour and a half. Beside me sit a knapsack and a small suitcase—our total luggage.
You are absolutely right, my dear, in resenting my not having taken you more into confidence. Try to believe that it wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to tell you all about it, as that I was all up in the air myself, not sure just what was happening and not knowing where to start or what to say in any event. It is bewildering to completely change one’s life all in a minute. Do forgive me.
In brief, here is the story: I met this “mysterious figure N. Rogers” summer before last, when H. and I were living in that little cabin in Vermont. Then he showed up again that winter in New York, and we became good friends. He helped me through some trying times. We liked mountains—laid plans for getting away together the following summer. It was with him that I took that trip down the Appalachian Trail through Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. It was all so good that I decided to stick to it. In August I wrote Bingham, giving up my job. This—all this—is a continuation of that adventure.
That is very brief. It doesn’t tell you anything about the delicious little island in the middle of a New Hampshire lake that we camped out on for two weeks in a tiny brown tent. It doesn’t say anything about the things we have been doing in Mallorca (which we just left last night), such as living in a cave out on the coast and swimming in magic blue-green water. And it doesn’t say a word about the mysterious figure himself. Well, that’s difficult. A picture may help a little. I just know that I have never “hit it off” so well with anyone or known a more congenial comrade. We’ve been together day and night for upwards of a year now, and no prospects of splitting up. Sometime we’re going out to explore the great North-West; and we’ll come to see you, if you’ll have us.
It all happened like a shot, you see. I was sorry to do this to E. A., but when crises arise things change. Besides, I think that was drawing to a close; and this was obviously right because it was so damn natural. I believe in nature. We have to follow the best thing we know—the thing that is at the time best.
Helen writes that she expects to come over, with Sabra, in June. We shall join up with her somewhere, and I shall help her with another book. As for my book, Lost Island, I haven’t ditched it at all. I finished it about a year ago, and I suppose it is now wearily going the rounds of publishers’ desks under Helen’s guidance. I still think it’s a pretty good book. I haven’t written much since—a little short stuff.
But, writing or no writing, I’ve been living pretty hard, which is what I want to do. Last summer, that tremendous succession of mountains down the backbone of New England. Then, the business of sailing from New York. A rather dull winter in Mallorca, when it rained all the time, and we sat around Spanishly in cafés and read. Then, a good walking trip around part of the island, with a borrowed blanket. Living in a cave, making friends with carabineros (the coast guards—good fellows, all of them), eating with them in their huts, warming ourselves at night around their little fires and learning Spanish from them; swimming along great sweeps of beach, exploring Moorish watch towers about a thousand years old, sailing on several exciting cruises on a small sloop owned by an interesting chap. Now we are bound for France and Germany to tramp some more this summer. We are poor as church mice, of course, but progressively browner and happier as time goes on.
Grenoble, May 7
The train arrived. We took about five different ones before we were through, and eventually landed here, under a line of mountains—sharp white peaks, with blue shadows. I imagine we shall be here about a week, then go on afoot over Switzerland and part of Germany.
That’s about all of it.
Thanks for the news about W. F.—not that there is much one could dignify by the name of news! I do want to look him up again sometime—be it Maine or California. That is another of the thousand-odd things we’ll do when we get back. We shall probably establish ourselves in a shack in the woods somewhere and explore from it. I like Civilization less and less.
Your letter was good to have. Do it again when you feel like it! (The same address holds good—we have no other yet.)
Much love to the “family.” I think they’re grand, all of them!
In the summer of 1931, Barbara, Nick Rogers, and two friends spent some time camping and exploring the Katahdin area of Maine. Later, Barbara wrote about her relationship with the great mountain in an unpublished story entitled Rocks.
Transcribing Rocks was a moving experience for me. I’ve climbed Katahdin three times and remember many of the landmarks Barbara describes: Chimney Pond, The Chimney, The Monument, Pamola Peak, and, of course, Knife-Edge, one of the more exhilarating 1.1 miles of trail I’ve walked. Here’s a taste of what it’s like, with thanks to YouTube user roh92cp:
This was the “Knife-Edge” of Mount Katahdin. It was a ragged edge of rock suspended in a space of clouds.
I was trying to climb backwards down a bristling hump, and the foothold I had got up by seemed to have vanished. I felt for it helplessly with one foot. I couldn’t see below, because the rocks were in the way. There seemed nothing to do. I clung, trembling a little. All around, great swift drops into space that swirled with mist. Everything was wet–grasses and hardy vines were pearled with small drops; so were my hair and eyelashes.
I took a chance, and jumped, backwards, for a narrow ledge below. Then the mountain and I came together in a clash. I bounced over a grassy shelf, and whirled through the air. “Nothing matters now,” I thought. A fleeting, heroic second… I up-ended ridiculously on hands and knees, clinging to a thick tuft of grass. Well! It wasn’t a sheer drop, after all. Vaguely disappointing–life would have to go on, then. My face was cut and my nose bleeding. I got up slowly and laughed, because it had been drilled into me that it was good sportsmanship to laugh when such things happened. The faces of my three comrades were horror-struck and rather absurd.
The mountain changed after that. I was afraid of it. Afraid to step over a fissure from one rock to another, to worm around on narrow ledges, or walk cautiously down smooth steep inclines. All the way down Pamola Peak back to camp, I was frightened. Mist swirled. Rocks, rocks–peaked, rounded, rough, smooth, edgy–gray rocks and mist and a malevolent mountain…
The next day it rained. The gaunt, sheer walls that towered over Chimney Pond and surrounded it on three sides, were covered with a network of silver waterfalls. The pond rose and rose. Everybody’s butter and bacon, placed carefully in the brook to keep cool, were swept away. The shelter roof leaked. I glanced up at those rock walls that went up sheer and were lost in the clouds, and knew that I should always be afraid of them, unless somehow I could contrive to slip away from everyone and go exploring, quietly and alone…
There was a hunk of chocolate in my pocket, and that was all the equipment I needed. We had bailed out the shelter, and hung our sleeping-bags in the sun.
“I think I’ll run down to Basin Pond and pick a pail of blueberries,” I said.
But what I really did was double back through the woods behind the shelter, and join the trail toward Saddle Slide, feeling half-gleeful, half-afraid.
The upper end of that trail, the slide itself, is grueling. It is very steep, and the footing is a specially pernicious kind of loose sandy stuff. It rolls out from under you. You slide back. It buries you to the ankles. The whole mountain is a running river of gravel. You stand in it and wonder when it will stop. You bend your back and struggle on, sometimes on hands and feet. It is heart-breaking, but short. You gain the brim quickly, and step over on to level solid plateau that forms almost a right angle with the slide. There you are, panting, glad to see that the mountain is still there.
I stood in sunlight on the brim, with the wind blowing through my hair. Katahdin was spread out before me and around me. Below was the great North Basin, scooped out of the mountain; Chimney Pond and the camp lay in the bottom of it. Across this gulf loomed the gray shoulder of Pamola, eastern pillar of the semicircular wall. The jagged line of the Knife-Edge, really more of a saw-edge, joined Pamola to the rocky and wild Monument, highest peak of all. On this western side where I was standing, the mountain spread out monstrously–an ocean of gray-green plateaus, undulating, rising to an occasional dome or rocky point, dipping off into gulfs and ravines, or unexplored basins with ponds shining in their depths. Grassy stuff in springy tufts grew on these plateaus; also small shrubs and vines, such as mountain cranberries, so hardy that the berries survive the first snows; black crow-berries; curiously flavored mountain blueberries. Small bright flowers in sheltered places. Acres of knee-high and waist-high scrub fir, almost impossible to make way through. It spreads its branches flat, growing horizontally–in places you can walk on it as on a springy carpet.
Vast, lonely old mountain, it reared up, 5200 feet high, over low smooth hills, shallow valleys, soft furry forests of blue and green–a country riddled silver with twisted lakes and ponds and rivers. I stood on the rim of of it, and looked over it, and it was mine.
Slowly I followed the faint trail toward the North Peak. At Caribou Spring, I kneeled on damp sphagnum moss to drink. And I thought of Dinny, back in the shelter at Chimney Pond. We had drunk together out of this spring, she kneeling on one side of it and I on the other, red head and brown head in the center; John had come frisking up and dropped down between us, impishly grinning. “Room for another caribou?” he asked. Red head, brown head, gold head… But this time I was alone; and half expected, looking up, to see a caribou’s brown ghost staring at me with soft eyes…
Again the space of mountain prairie with its green swoops into ravines. The trails on this northern part of the mountain were faint and hard to follow–no more than lines of small and infrequent cairns strung out over long slopes. Sometimes you could see one squatting on top of a big rock against the skyline, hundreds of feet ahead. If mist should come up thick, you could lose yourself on these great wide plateaus as easily as if you were far at sea. I had a vision of wandering listlessly through miles of quivering grass and flat fir, finding only a wet sky and this gray-green waste, coming now and then to the crumbly edge of a prodigious unknown ravine choked with mist, on the wrong side of the mountain. I would lie on the edge of it and gaze down. Somewhere below, through the swirling masses of cloud, I would hear the voice of a great waterfall…
Above the expansive vagueness of these plateaus, the grim old Monument loomed, built of the jagged gray rocks I was afraid of… Always I had known mountains, not always in friendly mood. I had been lost in a sleet storm after dark with a failing flashlight on the peak of Liberty, wind howling like a mad wolf; I had been bound for a week by snow and fog in the old house on Moosilaukee. A long succession of mountain adventures, one mountain following another down the skyline like great blue billows. I had cast about in vain to find the meaning of their beauty and strange power: the storm of feeling with which they could shake me; the longing for them which sometimes fevered me; the completeness of the satisfaction they gave.
But this one–this isolated, untamed old mountain–why was it so dispiriting? Was it because of the tales I had heard–of guides coming back to camp insane with fear, of people lost, caught on exposed places in savage weather–of people hurt, killed, on sheer headwalls? Or was it because of the wilderness of forest and swamp in which the mountain stands, where wildcats prowl?
I would come to terms with this mountain. Those rocks must be explored–tranquilly, easily. They were grim and formidable, but maybe one could make friends with them.
Past the top of the Saddle Slide trail again, up the well-marked trail to the Monument. I felt secret exultation, because, in spite of awe and fear, here I was, a very, very small thing, quite alone, scrambling toward the peak of this old Jinx of a mountain.
Quiet gray rocks … Why should anyone be afraid of quiet gray rocks?
Three men were coming down the peak, far above. Presently we met. They looked surprised. One of them had a coil of rope over his shoulder. They had crawled up the “Chimney” that morning. We discussed the weather; passed on; were lost from sight among–rocks.
“I went up the Chimney, too,” I said aloud …
* * *
I had been frightened almost cruelly. It was the first time I had been hitched up in a rope party, or done anything that could be called “rock-climbing.” The Chimney is a steep and narrow channel, a cleft that goes straight up, starting a little above Chimney Pond, and ends in a gulch between Pamola Peak and the Knife-Edge. This cleft has been blocked in places by enormous “chokestones,” which have to be got over, or under, or through, or around.
The four of us had roped up, for the “fun” of it and for practice, near the bottom, before there was any danger. We scrambled over big rocks and up ledges, trying to keep out of waterfalls. Sometimes we looked up at the chimerical steepness and narrowness of the passageway filled with mist–a crude rock passageway that had no summit–that merely was lost in clouds. And after some time we could see the dark shape of the first chokestone, looming and menacing, pinioned treacherously between the two walls of the gorge.
John was the most capable one of us: later on it appeared that he was the only capable one of us. He knew about rocks; was at home with a rope around his middle. He took the lead, and after a good deal of clumsiness and some anxious moments, we all managed to get over the first of the barriers. Then up the rocks again, in the mist. In this sort of climbing you use not only feet and hands, but knees, elbows, shoulders. The going got harder, and the healthy cold brook which tumbled down the gorge did not help. We were slower and slower. Every step was a problem to be puzzled out. And then the second chokestone intruded itself, a massive black wall almost over our heads–the end of the world–surely there could be nothing above that but mist! We looked back down; the way we had come dipped off and was as completely lost in clouds as the way above. We were on the precarious edge of everything concrete.
John, surprisingly, clung to a faith that there was really something beyond, and he began to figure out ways and means of getting to it. He was in favor of a desperate, improbable passage through the grim body of that chokestone and cut through a fissure at the top. There was a crude landing-place–a sort of shallow cave–part way up the side, and the brook ran through that. We began to straggle up to this gloomy ledge, only one of us moving at a time; but there was no room when we got there–no rest–nothing for it but to struggle on through the rock. It looked very nasty, the next bit of climbing–up and around a wet black corner to an even more uncomfortable little cave, above the first one and completely out of sight. No room there, either; so I, who came last, had to wait at the first landing, while the rest of them took breath and considered matters. I was jammed in against damp rocks, and after a while became aware that I was also crouching in a waterfall–a small one, but very cold.
It was lonely. The others were scrambling about. I had nothing for company except an end of rope. I waited–continued to sit in the waterfall, because there was nowhere else. It wasn’t very comfortable. It was dripping down the back of my neck. Devilishly lonely. I was frightened, too. It was a precarious position, what with the waterfall, and the narrowness and slight downward angle of the ledge. If I so much as moved a toe, showers of loose pebbles and dirt went cavorting off down the mountain-side–bouncing and rattling and echoing disconsolately–farther and farther away until they were swallowed and hushed in the mist-filled gorge. Life was very cold and wet.
I waited. Sometimes they communicated from above. I couldn’t hear very well, because they tended all to talk at once. But it seemed that they were having a dickens of a time. There would be silence, consultation, then desperate scrambles and showers of pebbles. They might have been in another world. I began to wonder if I should ever get off that ledge, or if I should presently fall off into the long steep gorge. I was stiff with cold by now; and that climb up to the next cave wasn’t at all appealing. You had to swing outward, abandoning everything of any solidity, and wriggle up a slippery-looking tube of rock. The longer I waited, the worse it looked. Even at the end of a rope…
Even the rope was gone now. They needed the whole length of it up there. From the scraps of talk that came down to me, I realized that John had got out of the fissure at the top, and was trying to get Dinny out. Nick was crouching in a corner; she would “take off” from his shoulders, and then scramble desperately, while John held the rope from above, to make progress up a sheet of rock that not only was just about vertical, but also wet. And she couldn’t quite make it. She would slide back and try again.
I shivered. Their comments and exclamations were anything but reassuring, and I didn’t at all like the sound of the things that were happening to Dinny. I continued to balance in the waterfall on the edge of nothing, without even a rope for company, and tried to philosophize. The world was coming to an end, but there was chocolate in my jacket. I munched and felt better. Chocolate was good even when the world was coming to an end.
My turn at last. A miracle had happened: Dinny was out. They slid the rope back to me–an anxious job, since it had to come around a corner, and I had to lean outward precariously to reach it–and then all three began calling instructions and encouragements at once. I asked them to say it over again, one at a time.
Nick’s voice came out of the little cave above. “Tie a bowline! Your life depends on it.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll be glad to get out of this waterfall.” But it was very hard to move. I was stiff, and anyway moving hardly seemed advisable. The mountain continued to slide out from beneath me.
“Are you O.K.?” asked Nick. His voice did not sound right.
“Oh, sure,” I said, “only this here mountain’s coming to pieces under me. I can’t remember how to tie a bowline.”
“Rabbit comes out of his hole, runs around a tree–back in hole,” he reminded me.
I sat in the waterfall and thought it out quietly. “All right,” I said at last. “Keep that rope good and tight, Nick, but for God’s sake don’t pull me. I want to come up under my own power, you understand.”
He said: “Be careful. I can’t stand much strain–things are pretty rickety up here.”
“Nicky,” said I, “isn’t there anything firm and strong and solid left in life?”
“Let’s hope the rope is,” he said.
I clenched my teeth, and got off that horrible little ledge. Braced on the rope, I got a kind of foothold–lost it–got something with my hands–rested a minute. “All right up there?” I queried.
“Yup. You’ve got a knee-hold a wee bit higher up.”
So I had. Knees and elbows. I suspended myself between the walls of the little dark passageway. The next crack was right above. Nick sat huddled in it, braced on nothing much. I rested again, heaved, and was up. And then I saw that I wasn’t a bit better off than before, except that here there was no waterfall.
There’s nothing amusing to tell about that next bit of climbing. Obviously, I got out at last through the fissure–mostly by dint of John’s hauling me out by brute force. He hauled and I scrabbled like mad; but there were moments when I simply dangled in space by the arm-pits. The thing I was supposed to be climbing rose practically parallel to my helpless body, and offered not so much as a small fret or notch to grab it by. When finally I was out of there, standing on top of that beast of a chokestone, I discovered that I was rather banged up. Both knees and elbows were raw, and I was conscious of minor scrapes and bruises by the dozen. I shivered a little, and listened with a half-smile to Nick tying himself into the rope, humming to reassure himself. His voice was quavering badly.
After that progress was more possible, although there were bad times as we squeezed along too narrow ledges, or shinned over slippery ridges, always with the mist blowing down cold from the Knife-Edge into our faces. Finally we passed underneath the last chokestone, which, suspended high between the walls of the gully, formed a sinister bridge. It was our gateway of triumph. The grade was a little less steep now–“rolling over”–the sky was close, full of its scudding mist…
We had climbed over that first bristling hump of the Knife-Edge, to see what it was like. It was very fierce and narrow. The sky was a blank of mist. The depths were a blank of mist. We walked on a narrow ragged edge of rock suspended in a space of clouds.
Back again over the first hump, into the gully below Pamola. And then–the lost foothold, the second or two of clinging, the little scrambling jump–and the falling, striking a ledge, and falling, falling ….
* * *
I awoke with a start out of this racking daydream. I was picking my way in leisurely fashion over jumbled rocks. By now I had nearly reached the top of the Monument, and suddenly I knew that all the fear and trouble were ended. I was alone with the mountain, and the rocks were essentially friendly rocks. Mist was drifting in–not solidly, but in preliminary wisps and fragments.
I stood surrounded by wind on the Monument itself, and looked out over a Maine dappled with clouds. Lakes were a quick gleam of silver in distant sunlight between wraiths of mist. Patches of sunlight strayed about the mountain–alighted on Pamola, went out, touched the little camp in the gulf, reappeared fleetingly over northern plateaus. In places the jagged line of the Knife-Edge, very sharp and black, pierced the gray sinuous fragments of mist, looming above a restless obscure space. The drops into that abyss, with the spruces and firs in its depths–fuzzy little toy trees–were almost sheer, from Hamlin Ridge in the north clear around the huge circle to Pamola. Between the long slant of the Ridge, and the grim tower of the peak, was the only gateway to Chimney Pond–the only break in that stern wall. All this I saw brokenly between quiet clouds.
To walk from here down on to the Knife-Edge was like venturing out along the top edge of a gigantic jagged wall. The saying that in some places the Knife-Edge is so narrow that you can straddle it as if it were some mythical horse, is no exaggeration. On one side, the gulf of the North Basin, you can distinctly see pebble-like things that are big boulders at the bottom of Chimney Pond. On the other side, the vastness of Maine.
I munched my chocolate, there on the Monument, and felt and smelt of the wind, not very strong. And so I slipped along quietly on the Knife-Edge trail. I knew now that these rocks were not going to hurt me. The clouds were companionable, too. They wandered in, white and pearly gray, from the southeast, slipped through the jags of the Knife-Edge, and drifted off, unscratched, untorn, into the great basin. They came quietly, swiftly, not very dense, with breaks between them. They made the world infinitely more beautiful by keeping it half-secret. Looking southward, there would be a glimpse of tender purple hills, or the soft blues and greens of far-reaching forest, of a wonderful velvety texture, like a rich Persian rug on the floor of the earth. Then white curtains. Once a small, swift break showed me, between ephemeral pale streamers, a wide lake, burnished gold in a flood of sunlight. It was more a dream than reality–coveted glimpses in a rare and magical crystal.
Sometimes a gray cataract of cloud would stream across the jag I was on; then the wings of blue sky, and all light and shadow and color would be lost; it would be cold for a moment, and wet, and gray, and this cloud seemed to fill the whole world. Again, a cloud would sail through just ahead of me, leaving me on a pedestal in a clear pool of sky, with wetness and grayness and coldness streaming transitorily past, almost within reach.
I wasn’t afraid. Only, when I came to the top of the Chimney, where the Knife-Edge dips into that sharp hollow under Pamola, where I had fallen, I worried a little. I thought, what a devil of a nuisance it would be if I should pull that stunt again and really get smashed up, now that there was no one to rescue me! I came to the brink of the thing–the bristling hump–and looked over; and there was no doubt that it was bad–just as bad as before. I looked some more; and all of a sudden discovered another way to get down–an easy way around a corner and down a grassy crevice. I laughed aloud happily.
Pamola was smothered in mist. However, I picked the right trail from several unmarked ones that diverge at the summit; and none of the great tumbled chaotic boulders, the narrow ledges, the difficult corners, the dark holes, seemed inimical. Quite a long way down I came into scrubby woods, where birches were growing at slants and angles and curves; some started horizontally, then suddenly changed their minds and grew upright. They were good things to hold on to. Farther down came ledges with rich deep moss covering them and spilling over the edges. Its greenness was striking after the gray pinnacles of a higher, more fantastic world.
This mountain and I had known a special and wondrous kindred solitude; and it was a culmination, a gigantic summing-up, of all adventure. There was no more haunting terror of gray rocks… Exultant, I went to find the rest of the crowd. I was awhirl with things I wanted to say. I wanted to describe the peaks and clouds, gold lakes shining through the fingers of white…
Laughter–high-pitched voices–the crackle of a supper fire–the warm sleepy smell of cocoa brewing…
“Hi there, old bean! Get many?”
“Blueberries, of course!”
“Oh, that… No, I–sort of forgot…”
They looked at me silently; then laughed, as though going to Basin Pond for blueberries, and then forgetting to pick any, was just what they expected from anyone so scatterbrained.