Home  

Chapter I

Introductions All Around

From "The Catskills" (1918)
By T. Morris Longstreth

The principal, grand, and conclusive thaw had come late in March. There had been previous slight relentings of the cold, occasional dribblings from noontime icicles; but winter, usually so intermittent with us, had stuck to being winter for weeks at a time until Greenland's iciest mountains and our less pretentious suburb had much in common.

At last, however, the snows were ebbing away. The wealth of whiteness that the north wind had spent his months in amassing was being squandered by the spendthrift south in a few days. First the deep ruts ran with water, and soon the entire roads. The broad fields grew noisy with dark lines of widening torrent. Houses that one day stood beside a lake the next stood in it; and from humid dawn till hazy eve an adolescent sun brooded upon an emerging world. It was a beautiful representation of Genesis in rehearsal.

The Widening Torrent

The Widening Torrent

 
And after Genesis came Exodus. The abandon of mounting spring had kindled in me a longing for outdoors and the open road altogether incompatible with the rigors of professional hours. No youngster in our school had computed more exactly than had I the interval between the moment in question and vacation; between the acute present and an abstract future.

Outdoors the glint of yellowing willows and the encouragement of the song-sparrow were daily growing stronger. But they were confronted indoors by a calendar and a Committee of Education.

"Come out and be human," sang the songsparrow.

"Stay in and be educated," shouted the Committee of Education.

In this chorus of competitive invitation the Committee would have drowned out the bird if the quiet hand of chance had not given a signal: a band of itinerant measles came to visit in our vicinity.

If it be so that our personality is betrayed by our prayers, then mine are not for publication. For they came true. The measles -- I hoped they would be light cases - did not abate their duty; nor did the Board of Health. In the first flush of spring, before the last drifts had vanished from the lee of hedges and before the maple-sap would have started in the mountains, we were furloughed. We became as free as song-sparrows. In a twinkling of the imagination the dim blue ranges of my day-dreams changed to the tangible dirt of the road beneath my feet. Once unmoored, it had taken me little time to get under way. A train, a trolley, a ferry; and the first of April was leading me forth from the Hudson-washed city of Kingston to tramp for a full month (measles permitting) through the mountains that banked ahead of me against the western sky. I had stout shoes on my feet and a stout knapsack on my back, and my head was filled with visions of broiled trout. Nothing else, except possibly the hot-cakes, mattered. To be sure, I was alone, which is not the best estate for highwaying; but even that condition could not damp my spirits as I struck out through the mud of the late merry month of March.

March had gone out like a ewe-lamb, and so had I. Had I not listened to the farewells of friends and to their prophetic qualms! All winter memory had been filling my eyes with pictures of shadowy gorges and winding woodways, with a full meal at the end of every proper period. The friends reminded me that those pictures were illusion, that spring is a sodden equinox and corn meal monotonous. Do not despise the dangers of setting out a month ahead of convention! As I listened I was almost persuaded to go back on those beneficent measles. There was a dash of truth in what they said. It is quite true that there is no walker who has not longed sometime for wheels, no vagabond who would not at times trade all his liberty for the discomforts of home. Every seeker has of ton criticized the curiosity that led him forth. But he who would find must also seek. On that eventful morning of brilliant skies and buoyant airs, the rhythm of the road made me as forgetful of farewells as is the new-risen soul in Paradise of the burial service. In an hour I had left the little city and the Hudson well behind.

I doubt whether the approach to the Elysian Fields can be more quietly beautiful than was that elm-lined road along which my pilgrimage led. To the west and to the north mountains rose perpendicularly from the plain. The plain was bare, the mountains snow-covered, and distance endowed them with living color, a faint mother-of-gentian blue. They rose in conscious dignity. Apparently they were not concerned with making an impression by pinnacles or ragged edges; they coveted no cheap splendors. They had taken time to be perfect, established, beautiful.

Despite the clearness of the air, the mountains grew visibly nearer with every mile, always a comforting observation to any one used to the coquettish qualities of Western distances. The general ranges disclosed their more richly tinted valleys. The gray of the leafless forest was darkened here and there with patches of conifer. Climbing a little hill beside the road, I came upon my first surprise of a surprising day. At my feet there shone a mountain lake, ice-green and without apparent end, where there had never been a lake bef ore. On earlier visits to the Catskills I had ridden through the lowlands where now sparkled and flared these unexpected ice-floes. Yet the setting was perfect, the lake fitted into its scene as magically as does Derwentwater. Along one edge the silver gleam of water liberated itself from the frozen glare of aged ice and danced in the sun. For miles back into the mountain-land the body of the lake extended, with bays winding between the hillocks on either side. Was the world still under creation's spell, I wondered? Then I remembered that it was the great new Reservoir. But in remembering the beauty of it grew no less.

My itinerary was unplanned. There was still a week before trout might legally accept the fly. I had thought of wandering about the mountains prospecting for rich pools. But now there was a decision to be made. Yonder beckoned the ancient bills; here invited a new lake, to which-? At such moments of decision the tiniest of considerations may switch one of the contending molecules from pro to con and one's destiny be changed eternally. The consideration in this case was ordinary enough. An automobile of the universal type stopped at the roadside.

At first the mere stopping of the car, inasmuch as I did not care to ride, had no apparent bearing upon my future. But presently the youth who had been diverting himself beneath the hood called to me, and my attention was withdrawn from the impersonal attraction of the Ashokan Reservoir to the personal ones of the driver. Since I had been alone for nearly two hours, I was quite ready to speak with my kind. But with this young fellow it was business first, and that without conversation. He said merely:

"If you'll hold that I'll crank her."

I held it and she was cranked. But she still sulked. Force was, as usual, of no avail with the female of the species. I ventured a pleasantry to that effect, but it fell upon ears primed only for the purring of the motor. So I put down my pack until he should ask me to do something else. There was something about the boy that put one in a mood to oblige him, and I was rather surprised at the car's obstinacy. He now set about engaging earnestly with the diversities of its interior. I had nothing to do but observe him.

He was obviously strong. If there is any series of motions better calculated to exhibit natural endurance than an automobile crank in process of revolution, it has never been revealed to me. With the sun now in its zenith, I watched his exertions with admiration. He neither began to melt and exude away as the unfit would have done; nor did he explode in sound as the mentally ungoverned might; nor did he even persist in performing the same deadly orbit as a merely stubborn ox would do. Between every few revolutions he got his wind by reckoning up the as yet untried combinations possible to the machinery.

When he stood erect I saw that, despite his strength, he was not so very tall or powerfully built. He was about the age, I judged, at which I should have been teaching him Cicero. But I doubted whether be had ever heard either of Marcus Tullius or of his tongue. The buoyant health written over him did not speak of still hunts through dead phraseologies. There was grease on his cheek and dirt on his clothes, which were neither new nor patched. "Good American blood," I remember thinking at the time. With an idleness born of the drenching sun, I watched him, sometimes holding things as requested, but never to any purpose.

"She'll come around all right, " he said spittin., through the wheel. "It's what I get for trying to do without the --" He mentioned one of the internal necessities, the use of which he had questioned. As the car was plainly subnormal without it, I suggested that he let me help him put it back. But his inventiveness was not to be so easily placated.

"Just you wait," he exclaimed, "and we'll have her going without it. That is, if you have the time."

"I have four weeks," I replied, without much enthusiasm. He looked at me then -for the first time, I believe - and smiled, though ever so little. His eyes were fairly wide-set, and in them I fancied that I saw the man. It decided me upon staying. Looking back across vistas of conversations, jokes, journeyings, and mild adventure, it is hard to untangle Brute Vreeland, my friend, from the original stranger. But I am fairly certain that the beginning of our interest in each other dated from that glance - amused, slightly curious, but altogether amicable. "Here's a city fellow I don't quite follow," be probably said to himself. "A real man's worth more than a range of mountains," I was thinking at the same time. Then, quite unaware of each other's thought, we turned to the business in hand.

There were a great many more permutations of valves and things before the next cranking, and the despair that I customarily feel at the sight of a car in negative motion was held in check only by the boy's own faith in ultimate success. At last the miracle occurred. The distraught vehicle gave a gurgle, gave another, came to life. In we got, off we flew. And then, having no more machinery to engage him, he began to investigate me:

"Walking far?"

I estimated that it wouldn't be over four hundred miles in the month.

"Four hundred miles! What in the deuce for?"

"Fun and fish and freedom."

"This is a good enough sort of freedom for me," he said, patting the steering-wheel. "In a car you aren't tied to your feet and so many miles a day. You can go on and on. "

"And if you walk you aren't tied to a car and you can't go on and on, " I replied. "That Is the great advantage. The walker lives in the present, the motorist in the future - that is, if he lives. Walking is-"

"Yes, I ought to know," grinned Vreeland; "I only got this car yesterday. I've lived all my life in sight of that set of mountains, and I've never been up one of them yet. I've often intended to, but they are always there, kind of too handy. Maybe I'll get back in them now. They say the roads are peach."

The narrow ribbon of macadam along one edge of which we took the curves was certainly peach.

It was indeed flawless. We were already almost under the eaves of the mountain, and the village of Woodstock lay snug and neat before ore us. Quite before I thought twice, I said, "You'd better come with me." I was sorry the instant after, for it was sheer impulse. I didn't want anybody, just then, to dictate the roads. Consequently I was relieved when he replied:

"I'd do it with you, but I haven't been home for a good while. I work down Kingston way, in a garage. Business is kind of slack now and I got a week off. We're putting in a bath-room home. If it wasn't for that I'd get you to show me how to walk."

"There's nothing like it, " I said faintly.

He stopped the car where a lane ran up to a white cottage surrounded by sugar maples which appeared to be giving sap with considerable vim. I declined his invitation to dinner, yet lifted my knapsack from the car with real regret. Instinct is sounder than reason, just as expletive is more sincere than formal speech. Although no word of moment had passed between us, I felt as if I were depriving myself of a potential comrade. Heartiness was in his handshake; and although I tried to tell myself, when I had resumed my walk, that the country people are all alike, it did not succeed. I knew that I had left one who was not quite "all alike." If he had not snapped the golden cord of education off too soon- My train of sentiment was snapped by a blast from an outrageous horn beneath my very ear. I reacted sideways to the roadside with great agility.

"She can steal up pretty quiet for this kind of a car, can't she?" It was my friend again, leaning out of his Ford and smiling at the broad jump I had made. If he had not smiled I could have shot him. But at him, beaming, I could not glower back.

"Does it still go?" he asked, suddenly turned shy. "What you said about me walking with you? "

"Certainly," I was surprised into saying. "What decided you?"

"Measles. My sister's got them."

No wonder that he wondered at my mirth. His coming back had irritated me. But the reason was so funny that I felt irritation, dismay, everything vanishing in laughter. His astonishment made it even funnier.

"It's queer ma takes it so hard, he said after a while, "if it's as funny as all that."

I told him, with some effort, what the benevolent germs had already done for me. l also took occasion to paint for him pictures of roughing it so vivid that nothing might surprise him unfavorably on the trip, if he still felt in the mood for going.

"It's exploring that I'd like," he suggested, when I had done my best.

Remembering his mechanisms, I believed him. So I told him what clothes to have his mother throw out the window for him, and set the hour for the morrow's departure. Then I turned again toward Woodstock, richer by one traveling companion, genus homo, species American, but variety unknown. The adventure had begun, and it was but little past noon.

 

Back to the Index | Next Chapter

 

 


Home
Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery