Travels Without a Donkey

Since it was raining and we pretty tired, we decided to be snooty tonight and sleep in town. A large white farmhouse announced rooms, and we went inquiring. An old farmer, very thin and tall, with scant gray hair and blue eyes, came to the door and asked us in. Yes, they had rooms. He called in a quavery voice: “Hattie! Hattie! Here’s some boys wants a room for the night.” We went into a warm, deliciously warm kitchen, and there was Hattie, with her white hair piled high on her head, and her inquisitive, half-startled smile. All this, the warmth and homeliness of the kitchen, the vague scents of hay and of apples, and the two old folks, were the essence of one part of New England, just as quiet woods and hills were the essence of another part.

Hattie was very much interested in what we were doing. She wanted to know the details of our life out-of-doors. Her voice was gentle, a little cracked and weary, but there was a ring of wisdom and understanding in it.

“I see,” she said, “you just go where you want to, sleep when you want to…”

Gaily she mocked her husband because he had taken me for a boy. “Why, I could tell right away you warn’t no boy,” she said.

The old man wanted to know where we had come from; and when we told him about our trip through from Indian Pond, he shook his head cynically and murmured: “Aye, a bit o’ fussy doon, that! Real fussy doon.” We wanted his advice, as that of one to whom all this country was an open book, on the best way of getting up Dead River. He had logged hereabouts all his life. He pawed over our maps, marked them for us obligingly, but it was plain he felt scorn for these civilized trappings.

“You folks got a lot o’ maps,” he half protested. And then he admitted grudgingly: “Most of ’em’s pretty near right, too.”

*    *

There was scarcely any “fussy doon” at all along Dead River. A little shadow-flecked road; a deserted lumber camp the first night; next day the little road again. At noon we took a bath in a swirling rocky pool, along with some very young trout. The second night we camped beside a basin deep enough to swim in. The current was about as swift as we were, and we laughed at the sensation of swimming vigorously and staying in the same place, like fish that poise on flickering fins, heads upstream. The river slid under our naked bellies.

Dead River Dam, at about noon the third day. We ate lunch, and surveyed the country with mistrust. Above the dam were six long miles of deadwater, with frightful tangled marsh on each side.

“What did old Kennedy say we should do here?”

“He said we could find a trail over those hills–but that seems pretty roundabout. I think I’ve got a better idea.”

“Another of your inspirations?”

He pointed to a curious object on the muddy bank: three logs nailed together with a plank across them at each end, lashed with rotten rope. “Remains of a raft,” he observed. “We’ll fix it up and paddle up this confounded deadwater!”

We looked around, and gathered together some more planks and a few rusty spikes; and with these unpromising materials Nick contrived a very creditable raft. His performance was so deft and rapid that it had a touch of the black arts, and I eyed the craft with some suspicion.

“Handsome creature. What’ll we call her?”

“‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,'” he chanted, “‘Rowing home to haven… ‘”

“But she can’t be a quinquireme,” I protested, “with two paddles.”

“Never mind–that’s what we’ll call her. Make us feel as if we had lots of power aboard.”

We stood around and admired the quinquireme for a while; then put the duffle aboard, got aboard ourselves–she wabbled–and shoved off from the bank–she wabbled–paddling hard with some planks.

“She wabbles,” I protested.

“Never mind about that,” said Nick. “Paddle. See ‘f we can make her move.”

We couldn’t. “We’ll wear ourselves out before we get her any six miles,” I mourned.

“Maybe poles would work better. We could get some traction on the bottom then.”

Poles did work better. The bank, grayish mud, sloped off steep, so we were able to keep close to it without getting stuck too often. I stood forrad, Nick aft, and we pulled and shoved strenuously; but no matter how hard we labored, the quinquireme would not be hurried. Come nightfall we were still far from the end of the deadwater, so there was nothing for it but to camp. We picked a place where the bank was fairly high–a little above the swamp level.

“Sing me to sleep, lullaby of the — mosquitoes,” Nick intoned drowsily, as vagrant airplanes howled outside the black netting. “Lord, I’m weary.”

“Maybe it would have been less strenuous to go round over the hills, after all,” I suggested.

“But not so much fun.”

“Course not.”

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