"Do You Get Out Very Often?"
by LOUISE DICKINSON RICH
AS A matter of fact, there’s really no point in our going Outside, since for three months of the year the Outside comes in here, in the form of guests at what we commonly call the Hotel, but which is Captain Coburn’s fishing camp at Middle Dam. That’s two miles away from us, and that’s a good distance for it to be. We can see the Outsiders whenever we want to, but they don’t cramp our style. If I want to wear shorts, which is an error no one over eighteen should commit in public, — some under eighteen shouldn’t, either, — I can do so. I can also run my household as badly as I please, and our house guests can sun-bathe in the altogether without let or hindrance. It’s ideal.
The Outsiders who frequent Coburn’s are known, of course, as sports — even the fat lady who comes here against her will, because if she doesn’t spend two weeks in summer here with her husband, he won’t spend two weeks in Florida in the winter with her. She’s quite a gal. She’s down but she isn’t out. She’d much rather be home in the suburbs, but since she can’t be, she does her best to bring the suburbs along with her to the woods. She wears spike heels and flowing lavender chiffon draperies, and gives bridge parties every afternoon, at which she serves the nearest a fishing-camp chef can come to a dainty fruit salad. She herself supplies the cut-up marshmallow and maraschino cherries to top off this dish. She gives cute prizes. I find her very tiresome at close range, but at a distance I rather admire her spirit. And, to be honest, she’s just as much interested in maintaining this distance as I am. She finds me impossible, too.
One thing about living in the backwoods: You Meet Such Interesting People! Or else you meet so few, and have so much more time to talk with them, that they seem interesting. Maybe everybody is interesting, if you get a chance to hash things over with them while they’re in their old clothes and have their mental hair down. I met a woman on the dam the other day. She was sitting in the sun, knitting, while her husband fished. If I had met her at a tea, she would have been wearing a rather dowdy beige lace, a harassed expression, and an unbecoming hat, and we would never have got beyond “How do you do?” because I would have been feeling inadequate and lacking in chic, too. As it was, we covered everything, finally getting around to methods of coping with insomnia.
I’m not an expert, being the kind that seldom remembers hitting the bed; but I advanced my formula. Lying awake in the dark, I plan a trip. It’s usually to the West Indies. I start at the very beginning, and go shopping. I buy everything, from toothpaste to the exclusive little model that’s going to knock them dead at the captain’s dinner. Then I buy the very smartest luggage, and pack. Actually I have yet to stay awake long enough to get myself aboard.
Her method promises even more entertainment. She starts from the present and moves backward in time, remembering every dress she ever owned and the most important thing that happened to her while she was wearing each one. She says a lot of things come back to her that she had completely forgotten.
I can believe it. I gave the idea a trial spin while I was washing dishes. I remembered dresses I wouldn’t be found dead in now. That black evening gown of 1930, for instance, with a hemline above my knees in front and down to the floor in back, forming a sort of showcase for my legs, which were modishly clad in very light stockings. (Why some of my friends didn’t tell me!) I broke my ankle while wearing that dress, which probably served me right.
Then there was a dress — about the only one I can still contemplate without writhing — made of men’s heavy silk shirting, striped ivory-color. (Ralph says how can a solid color be striped, but that means alternate dull and shiny stripes.) It was softly tailored and becoming and lucky, as some dresses are lucky. I first brought my golf score dowm into the eighties while I was wearing it.
When I get more time, I’m going to play this dress game some more. I still don’t know the name of the woman who told me about it, but I owe her a vote of thanks. I collect one-handed means of entertainment. They come in handy in the woods.
One of my favorite sports is Mrs. Smith. (I’ll just call her that.) She does what she wants to do and doesn’t care what anybody thinks about it. She has two hideously expensive, very beautiful, and very dumb wolfhounds which she brings to the woods for their health. They are so extremely thoroughbred that the sense of smell has been dropped somewhere down the pedigree, and if they ran into the woods and got lost they would never be able to find their way back again. So Mrs. Smith hires a guide to walk them up and down the Carry Road, on leashes. For these outings they wear blankets, one royal blue and one royal purple, and they look very patrician and noble as they pace proudly along. It’s too bad that the guide always has such a shamefaced and hangdog air. It rather ruins the effect.
Mrs. Smith was the one who bought the Millers’ bull calf. She saw it when it was three days old, and fell in love with it. I don’t blame her. Calves are swoet — all eyes and long wobbly legs. She couldn’t bear to think of its being killed, so she bought it for three dollars, the price of its equivalent in veal. She took it out on the boat (it was seasick), and home to Westchester County in her car (it was carsick), and put it in her stables along with her show horses for a mascot. Its hoofs were polished daily, and its red coat curried, and it was a thing of beauty and a joy to the beholder.
Came horse-show time, with the grooms too busy getting their entries spruced up to keep an eye on the calf, which was supposed, anyhow, to be harmless. He got bored and started looking around for some fun. His investigations brought him to the central aisle of the stable — which probably has a correct name, but not being horse-wise I don’t know what it is. The view consisted of the marvelously groomed rumps of half a dozen thoroughbreds, each culminating in a braided and tied tail. He took an experimental nibble. Either he liked the taste of horsehair or, like a teething baby, he found here balm for sore gums. The upshot was that before he was discovered he had sucked and chewed the tail off every horse in the row, thus automatically scratching the Smith entries in the show. It was too bad; but I like to think he really had more fun signing his death warrant than is usually the case.
There are a few things sports do that make me mad, such as wearing smoked glasses the first time I meet them. I hate to talk to strangers in dark glasses. I can see the quirk of the mouth, but without the corroborative evidence of the eyes I can’t tell whether it’s a friendly quirk or a cynical one. I feel like snarling, “Take those damn things off, so I can tell what’s going on behind them.”
It doesn’t make me mad, though, to have them patronize and laugh at us quaint natives. They don’t know it, but we’re laughing and patronizing right straight back. They think our clothes are just too picturesque and amusing; and we think beach pajamas a hundred miles from a beach, and waders worn for boat fishing, and shorts and halters in black-fly season are amusing. Their delight in our naïveté can’t exceed our delight in their gullibility. They ask us what makes the lake look streaked. All right, that’s a silly question. Any fool should know it’s the wind. So all right, it calls for a silly answer, and we have one all ready, because that’s a stock question. “Oh, that’s where the sled tracks cross the ice in winter,” we say, and they usually believe us.
Pete and Ira Brown and I had a lot of fun with a whole porchful of sports one evening. Pete and Ira are two old guides, friends of mine. They were sitting outside the hotel with a dozen fishermen when Ralph and I arrived for the mail.
Pete said, “Hi, Louise. Been to B Pond lately?”
I said, “Yup. Gerrish and I went over Saturday.”
“Catch any fish?”
“Nope. I don’t think there are any fish over there.”
Ira stated flatly, “You don’t fish the right place. There are plenty of fish there.”
“Well, I fished everywhere, so I must have been in the right place part of the time.”
Ira squinted at me through a cloud of cigarette smoke. His eye had a warning gleam. “Bet you didn’t fish under the island. ”
The silence on the porch was electric. Every eye was turned out over the lake, but every ear was cocked in our direction. I had to play this right.
“Why, no,” I said uncertainly. “I forgot all about under the island.”
Ira looked relieved. “That’s where the fish are, this time of year. In them caverns. Last time I was over, I camped overnight on the island. Couldn’t hardly get a wink of sleep from the racket they was making, feeding off the roots of the grass. You try there next time.”
I couldn’t take it any longer. I couldn’t stand the bland expressions on the Brown brothers’ faces, and the puzzled credulity on the sports’. I said hastily, “Thanks, I will,” and went inside.
Luckily for our sanity, the deer-hunting season furnishes a distraction around freezeup time. Of course, everyone in here goes hunting. It isn’t sport with us, though. We want and need the deer meat. (Only snobs and city people say venison, I early learned.) Hunting is a business with us. There are plenty of deer. In the summer, when it’s against the law to shoot them, they stand around the yard underfoot in romantic, negligent poses, fairly screaming to have their pictures taken. They come into the flower garden at night, and with great discrimination eat the blossoms off all the more difficult flowers to raise, turning up their delicate noses at such common fodder as zinnias and nasturtiums. In the dead of winter, when their natural foods are buried deep under the snow, they drift into the clearing to eat hay or excelsior or cardboard boxes out of the dump, or anything else they can find.
We couldn’t shoot them then even if the law allowed us to; they are too gaunt and pathetic — “too poor,” as they say up here. Anyhow they wouldn’t be fit to eat. They’ve already been driven to browsing on cedar, with the result that they taste like furniture polish. During the hunting season, when they are fat and sleek and it’s legal to kill them, every deer in the country remembers a man he has to see about a horse back in the thick growth on the highest ridges. It’s uncanny. Ralph figures that by the time he has caught up with one and shot it and dragged it out, estimating his time at the current local wage of thirty-five cents an hour and taking into account expenditure of shoe leather, ammunition, and wear and tear on clothes, but with no charge for loss of temper, the meat comes to about ten dollars a pound. He doesn’t like deer meat, anyhow, so probably his figures are padded. He says he’d rather eat an old goat and be done with it. So he goes out only when I drive him out, almost at the point of his own gun.
Larry Parsons was in the same frame of mind one year. We were up there one afternoon when he came in from hunting. He’d been out all day, and he was a rig. His shirt was torn, his face was scratched, and frozen mud caked his boots and pants. He told us in no uncertain terms that that was definitely that. He didn’t give a damn if he never shot another deer. For all of him, every unspeakable deer in the State of Maine could go climb a tree. He had been over at Black Cat, got into a swamp, crawled through blowdown for two miles or more, and when he went to eat his lunch he found it gone from his back pocket. So he was through. He’d eat potatoes and salt if he had to. He’d eat nothing, if it came to that. But never again, so help him Hannah, would he step foot out of the house after a deer.
At this point Ralph, who had been listening with the look of sympathy we all learn to assume to cover up the fact that we are inwardly estimating just how soon it will be safe to broach the subject of deer hunting again, squeaked and pointed out the back window. In the middle of the clothes yard stood an eight-point buck. Larry shattered every existing record in oath breaking. The kitchen floor smoked as he crossed it. He missed the first shot, and the buck obligingly turned broadside. He couldn’t miss the second time. It must have been a feebleminded buck. From the eugenic viewpoint, it was undoubtedly better for the race that he didn’t live to propagate his kind.
The real excitement of the deer-hunting season isn’t hunting deer, though. It’s hunting deer hunters. It’s always the same, every year. Any night that Ralph comes in at sunset and says, “It’s going to turn cold tonight; we’d better get in some extra fireplace wood,” I know what’s going to happen. We go out into the lovely still dusk for the wood, but I can’t really appreciate the black silhouettes the pines on the western ridge make against the orange and apple-green sky, nor the wreaths of steam that begin to rise from the river as the temperature of the air drops below that of the water. I’m too busy wondering how soon the telephone will start ringing.
It usually starts just at full dusk. It may be the Millers calling, or Cliff Wiggin, or the Browm Farm, but it all amounts to the same thing. “Say, you ain’t seen anything of a couple of hunters, have you? Yeah, they’re stayin’ here. Went out this morning and they’d ought to have been back an hour ago. Well, sort of keep your ears open for signals, will you, and call me up if you hear anything.”
We’ll hear something, all right. Just after we’ve decided that, thank God, they’re lost in some other neck of the woods and aren’t our responsibility, and have changed into slippers for a quiet evening in the home, Kyak will look interestedly out of the window and indulge in a short “Woof.” We’ll go out onto the porch to listen. Sure enough, faint and far away will come the sound of three grouped shots, the universal woods signal of distress.
Ralph groans, gets his gun, fires the two answering shots that mean, “O.K. I hear you. Now, for the love of Mike, stay where you are and keep on signaling,” and starts pulling on his gum boots again. I go to the telephone to report that the missing “have been spoken.” Ralph collects his compass, a lantern, his gun with lots of cartridges for signaling, and sets forth into the night.
If lost hunters would only stay put, they’d be fairly easy to find. But they rarely do. If they’re inexperienced enough to lose themselves in the first place, they’re inexperienced enough to get panicky. The thing to do, once you know you are lost, is to find a good, safe place to build a little fire, build it, fire the three shots, light a cigarette, and sit down and wait. If the shots aren’t answered, wait awhile till you are sure it’s late enough for searchers to be out looking for you, and shoot again. If you’ve plenty of shells with you, continue to do so every five minutes; if not, space your volleys further apart or until you hear someone shooting for you. But before you have used up all your cartridges, resign yourself to a night in the open and make the best of it. They’ll be looking for you in the morning — you don’t have to worry about that. They’ll come shooting, and you’ll answer with the cartridges you’ve carefully saved, and before ten o’clock you’ll be back in camp eating bacon and eggs and drinking hot coffee.
This is such a sane and easy program to follow, but no lost hunter that we ever encountered ever followed it. They all do the same thing. They start traveling as fast as they can, usually in the wrong direction and always in circles. A hunter over on B Pond ridge went running through the woods at top speed, smacked into a tree, and knocked himself cold. It’s better, even if harder, just to sit down and wait.
The procedure for finding lost hunters is always the same. First comes a period of swearing at anyone dumb enough not to get himself out of the woods before dark. (This phase runs concurrently with the assembling of paraphernalia.) Because we live so near the river, the next thing that Ralph does, when he has to go out hunter hunting, is walk up the road to where it’s quiet, so that he can hear the shots as plainly as possible and determine their direction by compass. Then he fires two answering shots and starts off in that direction and keeps on walking until he hears some more shots. He rechecks his direction, finds that the lost one has wandered four points to the northeast, say, corrects his course, fires two more shots, hoping that they will toll the quarry in his direction, and keeps on walking. This may continue for an hour or it may continue most of the night. The first time it happened it was fairly exciting, but after years of it, it has become a nuisance.
In the meanwhile I have kept the teakettle boiling so that when Ralph gets home, complete with hunter, they can have something hot to drink before going to bed. My inclination, after half a dozen experiences, is to go hastily to bed as soon as I see their lantern up the road, and let them get their own lunch. Six times is enough to hear the same old story, and it always is the same old story.
I love some of the sports. I used to love old Dr. Aldrich, who came up yearly to fish and play poker. He liked to fish, but he also liked his comfort. There’s nothing very cozy about sitting on a hard cold rock, surrounded by a cloud of black flies and mosquitoes, so Dr. Aldrich didn’t do it. Every evening he’d go down to Harbeck, a good pool just below Middle Dam, weighed down with impedimenta. First he inflated an air cushion, a process which left him purple of face and bulging of eye, arranged it on a rock, and arranged himself on it. Then he tucked a steamer rug carefully around his legs and placed a Flit gun beside him, its handle, like that of Lady Macbeth’s dagger, to his hand. Then he was ready to fish. He’d work out fifteen or twenty feet of line and make a dozen casts. Suddenly he’d reel in furiously, lay down his rod, and snatch up the Flit gun. A fog of insecticide all but obscured him, and the black-fly corpses fell like rain. Then down with the gun and up with the rod, until dark. I used to walk clear up to Harbeck of an evening, to watch Dr. Aldrich fish. It was worth the effort.
Something else that is worth the effort once — and it is an effort is the National Championship White Water Races held here on the Fourth of July. I’m not awfully sure they are worth tagging along after more than once. After all, one guy getting dumped into the river is much like another guy getting dumped into the river, and this is one sport that is as hard on the spectators as on the entrants. Harder, maybe. All that can happen to a contestant is getting wet, getting bruised on rocks, and getting drowned. All these things can happen to the spectators, and in addition they can get bug-bitten, heel-blistered, scratched, sunstruck, exhausted, and lost. So I do my racewatching from my own front porch, knitting and dispensing food and drink to those of our friends who drop in in passing.
The reason that these races are held on the Rapid River is that the flow of water can be regulated here. A flood or a drought doesn’t matter. Renny Miller can just raise or lower a gate in the dam. And the river, while actually not navigable, is so nearly so that there is always the sporting hope that by some combination of luck and skill someone might get through in a canoe. Most of the races are not canoe races, though. They are run in fold-boats, which are exactly what the name suggests — light little collapsible boats built like kayaks. The frames are made of short pieces of wood with metal sockets on the ends and can be fitted together into the skeleton of a boat. Over this is drawn a rubberized canvas cover, which comes up over the bow and stern, leaving a cockpit for the operator, who sits flat on the bottom, on a couple of slats, and wields a double-bladed paddle. A rubber apron buttons tight about his waist. With this apron it is impossible to swamp the boat. It draws so little water that it can slide over submerged ledges, and the construction is so flexible that it bounces off rocks instead of cracking up on them. So it is comparatively easy to run the river in a fold-boat. But only comparatively, you understand. I don’t want to try.
What fascinates me is not the races themselves, although they are exciting, what with spills, hairbreadth escapes, and near-drownings. The real interest lies for me in what I will call the White Water Crowd. Travis Hoke, a friend of ours, is always talking about the various crowds — the Wedding Crowd, for example, college classmates who make a lifework of attending each others’ weddings, and whose conversation is filled with references of how stinko dear old Pinko got at Blinko’s bachelor dinner. Or the Doggy Crowd, with their dead-serious discussions of that little bitch of the Squire’s, Faux Pas, by Social Climber out of Emily Post.
Me, I adore the White Water Crowd. All day long they slide down the river in their little boats, looking grim and desperate, and stagger back to Coburn’s, battered and exhausted, to start all over again. They talk about haystacks when they mean swells, and about amazingly clever bow-work, and about Skowhegan Guide’s Models, and they talk about nothing else. Tense and distraught, they come into the yard and ask to borrow some inner-tube patches and rubber cement, so that they can mend their boats in time for the next race. They’re so deadly earnest about the whole thing.
They don’t even slip into something loose and relax in the evening. Oh my, no! When it gets too dark to risk life and limb on the river any longer, they trail back to Coburn’s, take off their football helmets, life preservers, and sodden shorts and sneakers, — regulation river-running costume, — paint their wounds with iodine, and assemble in the lobby of the main lodge to look at each other’s river-running movies. The movies are very good, actually. I like to look at them, too. But most of all I like to sit in the dark with all these hearty souls sprawled around me on the floor — and I am sorry to say that I can never believe that floor-sprawling is anything but a pose; I have tried it, and it is not comfortable; but it looks well in the flickering firelight, and is in good magazine-story tradition — and hear them talk.
“That’s Pussy on the Housatonic,” someone will say of a fast-moving streak on the film. “Remember? That’s the first time Pussy was ever in a fold-boat.”
“Sure. But Pussy was always a good canoeman,”
“Where is old Pussy now?”
“Pussy? Oh, Pussy’s out on the Great Snake in Idaho, trying to make a record. Heartbroken not to be here, of course, but when this thing came up —”
“Ooooh, look! Ace, there’s you. Look, Ace! I told you you were putting too much beef in your back-water. See what I mean now? See how your bow weaves and — Oh! Hey, can’t we have that run over again? I want to show Ace —”
It all adds up to lunacy. And the lovely lunatic pay-off is that they do all this for a little bronze medal with a picture of a man in a fold-boat on the front and the date, place, and occasion engraved on the back; and I, who never wet a foot or scraped a knee, I, with my wrong attitude, get one, too. I get one because Ralph was helpful about carrying them and their boats repeatedly from the finish back to the start in his cars. So when the Presentation of Medals came along, and they had one left over, they gave it to him, ceremoniously, to show their appreciation; which was very nice of them. And he came home to where I was sitting and reading, and pitched it into my lap, saying, “Here, Mama. Here’s something to add to that charm bracelet you’ve been claiming you’re going to collect.” Rubies wouldn’t have pleased me more. I like a dash of irony in my dish.
Nobody ever asks me, “Is this life you are living worth while?” That’s a question that I ask myself, occasionally.
I ask it when I get up on a twenty below zero morning to find the kitchen stove in one of its sullen moods. Smoke oozes from every crack, but the top won’t heat enough to melt the ice in the teakettle. A cup of hot coffee is a long way in the future. I bang the oven door and the stovepipe falls down, raining buckets of soot over everything, including the butter that I have put on the stove shelf to warm to a spreadable consistency. Smoke pours out of the down chimney in clouds, and I have to open the door and all the windows, or suffocate. My eyes smart and run water, and my hands and feet slowly and painfully turn to ice, and the answer is “No! Nothing is worth this!”
I ask it when, at the end of a long, hot summer, everyone in Middle Dam has used up his entire ice supply, and I want a glass of ice water. I can’t have it. Moreover, the meat is going to spoil unless I do something about it at once, and the butter is unattractively liquid, and the lettuce has wilted, and the tomato aspic that I made this morning isn’t going to set. I think of tall, frosted glasses, and salads that are crisp and noisy under the fork, and lemon sherbet, and decide I’d swap the whole north woods for one properly refrigerated meal.
I ask it when Rufus, all snowy and rosy, comes in from a day with his lumberjack pals and croons lovingly, “Mummy nice old son of a bitch.” I ask it when I’ve got the lunch dishes done and the kitchen tidy and am all set for an hour’s leisurely reading before going swimming, and a whole hungry gang drops in. Anywhere else, we could drive to the nearest hot-dog stand, but here I have to start from scratch and throw together another complete meal. I ask it when I look at the hands of Coburn’s women guests and then at my own, with their short nails, calloused palms, and the burns from the oven door across the backs. The answer is always “No. It’s not worth it.”
“Is it worth while?” is not a question that I think to ask myself when I am out in the middle of B Pond, watching the gulls inscribe their white scrolls against the sky. I don’t ask it when I see a deer drinking at Long Pool, or hear a loon laugh, or when I compare Rufus with other children of his age and discover that he is two inches taller and five pounds heavier than most of them, and that he doesn’t enter rooms with a piercing shriek of “It’s Superman!” I don’t ask it when I get a check for a story, or find that my $1,98 mail order bathing suit looks much nicer than the $15.00 model I saw on a woman up at the hotel — or does it only seem that way because I’m browner and thinner and can swim better than that woman? I don’t ask it when friends have such a good time with us that they hate to leave as much as we hate to see them go; or when we all sit on the porch in the evening with our feet on the rail, and watch the tide of the dusk rise from the valleys up the hills and across the sky. The stars come out one by one, and the moon swings up above Pondy Dam, changing the river to a road of restless gold. It isn’t a moment to be asking questions. It’s a moment to enjoy.
So, after all, why should we bother to go Outside? There would be only one reason: to see our friends; and our friends come here instead. We have swell friends, as I suppose everyone has, and we’d much rather see them here, undiluted by people we don’t like, than Outside. So if they are willing to put up with my offhand meals for the sake of lounging around in their oldest clothes and being free to do and say what they please; if they are willing to swap their own good beds for our not-so-good ones plus a lot of excellent scenery and fishing; if they want to take the long, involved trip in with nothing much at the end except us and the assurance that they are very much more than welcome, why that’s the way we want it, too. And that’s the way we have it.
Once in a while the river gets to sounding like the wake of a steamer, and then I think maybe I’d like to go somewhere on a boat. I’ve only been on boats a little — one trip to Europe, long ago — and I love boats. But where in the world could I go today? Where is there peace and quiet and contentment? Where — except here.