As we came back, the light yet lingered on the top of Slide Mountain.
"The last that parleys with the setting sun,"
said I, quoting Wordsworth.
"That line is almost Shakespearean," said my companion.
"It suggests that great hand at least, though it has not the
grit and virility of the more primitive bard. What triumph and fresh
morning power in Shakespeare's lines that will occur to us at sunrise to-morrow!-
"And jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
Or in this:-
"Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovran eye.
There is savage, perennial beauty there, the quality that Wordsworth
and nearly all the modern poets lack."
"But Wordsworth is the poet of the mountains," said I,
"and of lonely peaks. True, he does not express the power and
aboriginal grace there is in them, nor toy with them and pluck them
up by the hair of their heads, as Shakespeare does. There is
something in Peakamoose yonder, as we see it from this point, cutting
the blue vault with its dark, serrated edge, not in the bard of
Grasmere; but he expresses the feeling of loneliness and
insignificance that the cultivated man has in the presence of
mountains, and the burden of solemn emotion they give rise to. Then
there is something much more wild and merciless, much more remote
from human interests and ends, in our long, high, wooded ranges than
is expressed by the peaks and scarred groups of the lake country of
Britain. These mountains we behold and cross are not
picturesque,-they are wild and inhuman as the sea. In them you are in
a maze, in a weltering world of woods; you can see neither the earth
nor the sky, but a confusion of the growth and decay of centuries,
and must traverse them by your compass or your science of
woodcraft,-a rift through the trees giving one a glimpse of the
opposite range or of the valley beneath, and he is more at sea than
ever; one does not know his own farm or settlement when framed in
these mountain treetops; all look alike unfamiliar."
Not the least of the charm of camping out is your camp-fire at night.
What an artist! What pictures are boldly thrown or faintly outlined
upon the canvas of the night! Every object, every attitude of your
companion is striking and memorable. You see effects and groups every
moment that you would give money to be able to carry away with you in
enduring form. How the shadows leap, and skulk, and hover about!
Light and darkness are in perpetual tilt and warfare, with first the
one unhorsed, then the other. The friendly and cheering fire, what
acquaintance we make with it! We had almost forgotten there was such
an element, we had so long known only its dark offspring, heat. Now
we see the wild beauty uncaged and note its manner and temper. How
surely it creates its own draught and sets the currents going, as
force and enthusiasm always will! It carves itself a chimney out of
the fluid and houseless air. A friend, a ministering angel, in
subjection; a fiend, a fury, a monster, ready to devour the world, if
ungoverned. By day it burrows in the ashes and sleeps; at night it
comes forth and sits upon its throne of rude logs, and rules the
camp, a sovereign queen.
Near camp stood a tall, ragged yellow birch, its partially cast-off
bark hanging in crisp sheets or dense rolls.
"That tree needs the barber," we said, "and shall have
a call from him to-night."
So after dark I touched a match into it, and we saw the flames creep
up and wax in fury until the whole tree and its main branches stood
wrapped in a sheet of roaring flame. It was a wild and striking
spectacle, and must have advertised our camp to every nocturnal
creature in the forest.
What does the camper think about when lounging around the fire at
night? Not much,-of the sport of the day, of the big fish he lost and
might have saved, of the distant settlement, of to-morrow's plans. An
owl hoots off in the mountain and he thinks of him; if a wolf were to
howl or a panther to scream, he would think of him the rest of the
night. As it is, things flicker and hover through his mind, and he
hardly knows whether it is the past or the present that possesses
him. Certain it is, he feels the hush and solitude of the great
forest, and, whether he will or not, all his musings are in some way
cast upon that huge background of the night. Unless he is an old
camper-out, there will be an undercurrent of dread or half fear. My
companion said he could not help but feel all the time that there
ought to be a sentinel out there pacing up and down. One seems to
require less sleep in the woods, as if the ground and the untempered
air rested and refreshed him sooner. The balsam and the hemlock heal
his aches very quickly. If one is awakened often during the night, as
he invariably is, he does not feel that sediment of sleep in his mind
next day that he does when the same interruption occurs at some; the
boughs have drawn it all out of him.
And it is wonderful how rarely any of the housed and tender white
man's colds or influenzas come through these open doors and windows
of the woods. It is our partial isolation from Nature that is
dangerous; throw yourself unreservedly upon her and she rarely
If one takes anything to the woods to read, he seldom reads it; it
does not taste good with such primitive air.
There are very few camp poems that I know of, poems that would be at
home with one on such an expedition; there is plenty that is weird
and spectral, as in Poe, but little that is woody and wild as this
scene is. I recall a Canadian poem by the late C. D. Shanly-the only
one, I believe, the author ever wrote-that fits well the distended
pupil of the mind's eye about the camp-fire at night. It was printed
many years ago in the "Atlantic Monthly," and is called
"The Walker of the Snow;" it begins thus:-
"'speed on, speed on, good master;
The camp lies far away;
We must cross the haunted valley
Before the close of day."
"That has a Canadian sound," said Aaron; "give us more
"How the snow-blight came upon me
I will tell you as we go,-
The blight of the shadow hunter
Who walks the midnight snow.
And so on. The intent seems to be to personify the fearful cold that
overtakes and benumbs the traveler in the great Canadian forests in
winter. This stanza brings out the silence or desolation of the scene
very effectively,-a scene without sound or motion:-
"'save the wailing of the moose-bird
With a plaintive note and low;
And the skating of the red leaf
Upon the frozen snow.
"The rest of the poem runs thus:-
"And said I, Though dark is falling,
And far the camp must be,
Yet my heart it would be lightsome
If I had but company.
"And then I sang and shouted,
Keeping measure as I sped,
To the harp-twang of the snow-shoe
As it sprang beneath my tread.
"Nor far into the valley
Had I dipped upon my way,
When a dusky figure joined me
In a capuchin of gray,
"Bending upon the snow-shoes
With a long and limber stride;
And I hailed the dusky stranger,
As we traveled side by side.
"But no token of communion
Gave he by word or look,
And the fear-chill fell upon me
At the crossing of the brook.
"For I saw by the sickly moonlight,
As I followed, bending low,
That the walking of the stranger
Left no foot-marks on the snow.
"Then the fear-chill gathered oer me,
Like a shroud around me cast,
As I sank upon the snow-drift
Where the shadow hunter passed.
"And the otter-trappers found me,
Before the break of day,
With my dark hair blanched and whitened
As the snow in which I lay.
"But they spoke not as they raised me;
For they knew that in the night
I had seen the shadow hunter
And had withered in his sight.
"'Sancta Maria speed us!
The sun is fallen low:
Before us lies the valley
Of the Walker of the Snow!"
"Ah!" exclaimed my companion. "Let us pile on more of
those dry birch-logs; I feel both the fear-chill and the cold-chill
creeping over me. How far is it to the valley of the Neversink?"
"About three or four hours march, the man said."
"I hope we have no haunted valleys to cross?"
"None," said I, "but we pass an old log cabin about
which there hangs a ghostly superstition. At is certain hour in the
night, during the time the bark is loose on the hemlock, a female
form is said to steal from it and grope its way into the wilderness.
The tradition runs that her lover, who was a bark-peeler and wielded
the spud, was killed by his rival, who felled a tree upon him while
they were at work. The girl, who helped her mother cook for the
hands, was crazed by the shock, and that night stole forth into the
woods and was never seen or heard of more. There are old hunters who
aver that her cry may still be heard at night at the head of the
valley whenever a tree falls in the stillness of the forest."
"Well, I heard a tree fall not ten minutes ago," said
Aaron; "a distant, rushing sound with a subdued crash at the end
of it, and the only answering cry I heard was the shrill voice of the
screech owl off yonder against the mountain. But maybe it was not an
owl," said he after a moment; "let us help the legend along
by believing it was the voice of the lost maiden."
"By the way," continued he, "do you remember the
pretty creature we saw seven years ago in the shanty on the West
Branch, who was really helping her mother cook for the hands, a slip
of a girl twelve or thirteen years old, with eyes as beautiful and
bewitching as the waters that flowed by her cabin? I was wrapped in
admiration till she spoke; then how the spell was broken! Such a
voice! It was like the sound of pots and pans when you expected to
hear a lute."
The next day we bade farewell to the Rondout, and set out to cross
the mountain to the east branch of the Neversink.
"We shall find tame waters compared with these, I fear,-a
shriveled stream brawling along over loose stones, with few pools or
Our course was along the trail of the bark-men who had pursued the
doomed hemlock to the last tree at the head of the valley. As we
passed along, a red steer stepped out of the bushes into the road
ahead of us, where the sunshine fell full upon him, and, with a
half-scared, beautiful look, begged alms of salt. We passed the
Haunted Shanty; but both it and the legend about it looked very tame
at ten o'clock in the morning. After the road had faded out, we took
to the bed of the stream to avoid the gauntlet of the underbrush,
skipping up the mountain from boulder to boulder. Up and up we went,
with frequent pauses and copious quaffing of the cold water. My
soldier declared a "haunted valley" would be a godsend;
anything but endless dragging of one's self up such an Alpine
stairway. The winter wren, common all through the woods, peeped and
scolded at us as we sat blowing near the summit, and the oven-bird,
not quite sure as to what manner of creatures we were, hopped down a
limb to within a few feet of us and had a good look, then darted off
into the woods, to tell the news. I also noted the Canada warbler,
the chestnut-sided warbler, and the black-throated blue-back,-the
latter most abundant of all. Up these mountain brooks, too, goes the
belted kingfisher, swooping around through the woods when he spies
the fisherman, then wheeling into the open space of the stream and
literally making a "blue streak" down under the branches.
At last the stream which had been our guide was lost under the rocks,
and before long the top was gained. These mountains are horse-shaped.
There is always a broad, smooth back, more or less depressed, which
the hunter aims to bestride; rising rapidly from this is pretty sure
to be a rough, curving ridge that carries the forest up to some
highest peak. We were lucky in hitting the saddle, but we could see a
little to the south the sharp, steep neck of the steed sweeping up
toward the sky with an erect mane of balsam fir.
These mountains are steed-like in other respects: any timid and
vacillating course with them is sure to get you into trouble. One
must strike out boldly, and not be disturbed by the curveting and
shying; the valley you want lies squarely behind them, but farther
off than you think, and if you do not go for it resolutely, you will
get bewildered and the mountain will play you a trick.
I may say that Aaron and I kept a tight rein and a good pace till we
struck a water-course on the other side, and that we clattered down
it with no want of decision till it emptied into a larger stream
which we knew must be the East Branch. An abandoned fishpole lay on
the stones, marking the farthest point reached by some fisherman.
According to our reckoning, we were five of six miles above the
settlement, with a good depth of primitive woods all about us.
We kept on down the stream, now and then pausing at a likely place to
take some trout for dinner, and with an eye out for a good
camping-ground. Many of the trout were full of ripe spawn, and a few
had spawned, the season with them being a little later than on the
stream we had left, perhaps because the water was less cold. Neither
had the creek here any such eventful and startling career. It led,
indeed, quite a humdrum sort of life under the roots and fallen
treetops and among the loose stones. At rare intervals it beamed upon
us from some still reach or dark cover, and won from us our best
attention in return.
The day was quite spent before we had pitched our air-woven tent and
prepared our dinner, and we gathered boughs for our bed in the
gloaming. Breakfast had to be caught in the morning and was not
served early, so that it was nine o'clock before we were in motion. A
little bird, the red-eyed vireo, warbled most cheerily in the trees
above our camp, and, as Aaron said, "gave us a good
send-off." We kept down the stream, following the inevitable
My companion had refused to look at another "dividing ridge"
that had neither path nor way, and henceforth I must keep to the
open road or travel alone. Two hours tramp brought us to an old
clearing with some rude, tumble-down log buildings that many years
before had been occupied by the bark and lumber men. The prospect for
trout was so good in the stream hereabouts, and the scene so peaceful
and inviting, shone upon by the dreamy August sun, that we concluded
to tarry here until the next day. It was a page of pioneer history
opened to quite unexpectedly. A dim footpath led us a few yards to a
superb spring, in which a trout from the near creek had taken up his
abode. We took possession of what had been a shingle-shop, attracted
by its huge fireplace. We floored it with balsam boughs, hung its
walls with our "traps," and sent the smoke curling again
from its disused chimney.
The most musical and startling sound we heard in the woods greeted
our ears that evening about sundown as we sat on a log in front of
our quarters,-the sound of slow, measured pounding in the valley
below us. We did not know how near we were to human habitations, and
the report of the lumberman's mallet, like the hammering of a great
woodpecker, was music to the ear and news to the mind. The air was
still and dense, and the silence such as alone broods over these
little openings in the primitive woods. My soldier started as if he
had heard a signal-gun. The sound, coming so far through the forest,
sweeping over those great wind-harps of trees, became wild and
legendary, though probably made by a lumberman driving a wedge or
working about his mill.
We expected a friendly visit from porcupines that night, as we saw
where they had freshly gnawed all about us; hence, when a red
squirrel came and looked in upon us very early in the morning and
awoke us by his snickering and giggling, my comrade cried out,
"There is your porcupig." How the frisking red rogue seemed
to enjoy what he had found! He looked in at the door and snickered,
then in at the window, then peeked down from between the rafters and
cachinnated till his sides must have ached; then struck an attitude
upon the chimney, and fairly squealed with mirth and ridicule. In
fact, he grew so obstreperous, and so disturbed our repose, that we
had to "shoo" him away with one of our boots. He declared
most plainly that he had never before seen so preposterous a figure
as we cut lying there in the corner of that old shanty.
The morning boded rain, the week to which we had limited ourselves
drew near its close, and we concluded to finish our holiday worthily
by a good square tramp to the railroad station, twenty-three miles
distant, as it proved. Two miles brought us to stumpy fields, and to
the house of the upper inhabitant. They told us there was a short cut
across the mountain, but my soldier shook his head.
"Better twenty miles of Europe," said he, getting Tennyson
a little mixed, "than one of Cathay, or Slide Mountain either."
Drops of the much-needed rain began to come down, and I hesitated in
front of the woodshed.
"Sprinkling weather always comes to some bad end," said
Aaron, with a reminiscence of an old couplet in his mind, and so it
proved, for it did not get beyond a sprinkle, and the sun shone out
In the next woods I picked up from the middle of the road the tail
and one hind leg of one of our native rats, the first I had ever seen
except in a museum. An owl or fox had doubtless left it the night
before. It was evident the fragments had once formed part of a very
elegant and slender creature. The fur that remained (for it was not
hair) was tipped with red. My reader doubtless knows that the common
rat is an importation, and that there is a native American rat,
usually found much farther south than the locality of which I am
writing, that lives in the woods,-a sylvan rat, very wild and
nocturnal in his habits, and seldom seen even by hunters or woodmen.
Its eyes are large and fine, and its form slender. It looks like only
a far-off undegenerate cousin of the filthy creature that has come to
us from the long-peopled Old World. Some creature ran between my feet
and the fire toward morning, the last night we slept in the woods,
and I have little doubt it was one of these wood-rats.