Travels Without a Donkey

We sat peacefully in the sunshine, then, and did some organizing of equipment. For instance, the tent needed a mosquito curtain. There were almost bound to be a few malevolent bugs somewhere between Maine and Georgia.

The tent itself, of the Baker type, was ideal for our purpose. It could be rolled up small enough to fit across the top of the pack; it weighed only a trifle over six pounds. The flap was the whole front side of the tent. In fine weather you could throw this back over the roof and out of the way–there you were, wide open to the skies. In rainy weather, you could stretch it horizontally six feet above the ground, so that you had a protected front yard, in which a fire could be built and kept dry. The simplest house in the world! And what more did anyone need, in the summer time?

The rest of our outfit was correspondingly simple. Two very light-weight sleeping-bags, adequate for summer weather; a light but man-sized ax; the minimum cooking-kit; some food bags to hold such things as flour, sugar, cereal, cocoa; a very few clothes…

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A marvellous stillness pervaded the air. Even the breeze was basking in the sun; and the lake stretched itself, cat-like, content, almost purring. It sparkled with brightness that had been melting into it all day. Waves continued to sigh in rhythm–a sleepy stirring at the dazzling threshold of sand.

“When do we start, Nicky? To tell the truth, I could stay right here very happily all summer.”

“Well, my hunch would be to stay here till we get you toughened up a bit, and the worst of the sunburn over. Swim–tear around–muscles working again. Say a couple of weeks. Then Katahdin–how about it? I admit I want to get to Katahdin.”

“Swell.”

“And in the mean time,” he went on, “we can experiment with cooking. We’ve got some things to learn, too: how to cram the most nutrition into the least space and weight; whether it’s worth while to carry powdered eggs; how much sugar to allow per day–things like that.”

“Why don’t we study up on the nutrition that grows wild?” I suggested. “Mushrooms, for instance. And there must be all kinds of stuff that would make swell spinach. I read somewhere that you can eat cat-tail roots. Cat-tail salad–that’s a delightful thought!”

“The only thing that worries me,” he said, “is whether we can carry on our backs even the minimum junk. What would you think of getting a donkey? Not an expensive one–a sort of second-hand one, you understand. He’d be companionable, and useful, and no trouble to keep, in the summer.”

“Can’t you see us?” I chuckled. “We might write a story about it. ‘With a Donkey from Maine to Georgia’–something on that line.”

D’you think he’d last that far? What’s the average mileage of a donkey–second-hand?”

“Couldn’t say.”

We were quiet, while a small gray sandpiper, with an edging of white dots around his wings, went quaintly teetering down the beach.

“Another thought,” I said. “And this one doesn’t belong to the nutrition department, or the transportation department. It’s more the philosophy of the thing.”

“I’m all ears.”

“I think we want to forget about Georgia. After all, Georgia will stay put. What we want to do is explore the country. Not stick too rigidly to this Appalachian Trail, if we happen to feel like wandering off the edges of it.”

“Right,” he agreed. “We aren’t out to make records or cover lots of ground. We can get to Georgia next summer–or the next; in fact, we don’t ever have to get there, when you come right down to it.”

“Getting to Georgia is a nice idea,” I said. “But the real aim of the expedition is to stay out-doors and try our best not to take the city with us, but–well, Kipling put it pretty well–‘melt in the landscape.’”

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Boy Scout parties may intrude into the lordly calm of Katahdin’s Great Basin, where Chimney Pond lies shining; but even they cannot really harm the aloof mystery of the mountain–they can only scratch it slightly. The country is not nearly so wild as when Thoreau explored it, or when Indians gazed at the mountain from far off with trembling reverence and fear–still, it is wild. Bear and moose and big cat prowl about in it; there are long wildernesses of tangled, untracked swamp and forest; some of the trails on the mountain itself are faint and unmarked; and one still has to walk a good seven or eight miles to get in to Chimney Pond.

This Great Basin, except for one break, is encircled by a straight-sided wall of mountain, from Pamola Peak on the east clear around through south and west to the long downward slant of Hamlin Ridge on the north. Straight above the Pond the jagged Knife-Edge looms, top edge of the wall, joining Pamola to the Monument, highest of Katahdin’s peaks. The headwall is gray, with patches of dark green where the most warped and stubborn little firs in the world cling. After a rain, this whole great headwall will be laced by a network of slender silver waterfalls.

For a week or so Nick and I had lived in one of the shelters at Chimney Pond. We had listened to the stories of Roy Dudley, who has been “guidin'” and running that camp for years. He is personally acquainted with an arrogant devil-spirit, Pamola, who boasts wings and claws, and guards a darksome lair in a secluded cave high on the storm-swept peak which bears his name. This old fellow causes Roy Dudley plenty of trouble. He resents intrusion into his lofty solitudes, and from time to time he hurls enormous windfalls in tangles across carefully cleared trails. He no longer can turn Roy round and round and get him mixed up in the fog; but he persists in gorging himself on bull moose every now and then, and sometimes comes late at night humbly begging for bicarbonate of soda. Another curious habit of his is that of sailing about Chimney Pond by moonlight on a raft of crowbars.

Roy knows a few likely stories, too. While he tells these and the others, Mrs. Dudley sits by the stove, deftly knitting thick red and gray socks. Her curly white hair falls to her shoulders; her girlish face is browned; and her eyes are clear bright blue. Every now and then she smiles ever so little; then you must be on the look-out: Roy is “stringing” you….

We had climbed Pamola Peak, making our way cautiously over and around great boulders. We had crept across the Knife-Edge, in places so narrow you can straddle it. One one side, a sheer drop into Chimney Pond; on the other, a sheer drop into tangled Maine wilderness. Surrounded by wind, we had stood on the Monument itself, and far and wide the country was dappled with ponds and clouds, hard to tell apart. And we had ventured into the wild Northwest Basin, battling fierce underbrush, sliding down steep banks, and finally taking a very short swim in the coldest little pond in the world.

But now it was time to shoulder our packs, say goodbye to Katahdin and the Dudleys, and start our tramp toward–Georgia! Down the Appalachian Trail which here in Maine existed only in theory and as a dream.

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