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mine are not for publication.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
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:
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
"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.