Excerpts from 29
The front yard is no place for an outhouse. What had inspired my great-great grandfather John Rowe to build the
shack of oblation mere paces from the front stoop of his hunting cabin is beyond comprehension. The outhouse sat in a place of pride, visible from the windows of the camp under a massive white pine on a knoll in the clearing’s edge. Upon mornings when John took his daily constitutional with the L.L. Bean catalog, his bony legs could be seen through a gap in the door, which hung crooked on its one and a half functional hinges. At Camp 29, the privy was somehow a centerpiece.
For John’s grandson, my own Gramp, moving the shack to its proper place behind the cabin was the first order of
business upon coming into his inheritance. He tore the ramshackle outdoor toilet down and filled the hole with lime and gravel and dirt, erecting a new repository off behind the camp a few yards. In all my life, Gramp had only one bad thing to say about Camp 29, that he had hated that front yard outhouse.
Fall is when the real business of 29 commences. Bird season opens October one and deer season the first of
November. This is the time when every weekend is spent at camp; if you can spare a week or two, spare it now. This is when the woods are becoming still with anticipation and the wind has a sharpness to it. Geese stopover in the Horseshoe before moving south and the squirrels begin storing food for winter. The deer and moose are in rut and bucks and bulls wander widely in search of mates and challengers. Distant gunshots ring out now and again and you wish them all luck, the men and the beasts.
The changing of the leaves induces a spirit of reverence; you are here to watch the yearly death of the forest. The
colors are vibrant but fleeting, and the soft autumn rain drives nearly all the leaves to ground by November. The evergreens are salient now, as are the regal trunks of trees whose nakedness accentuates their foundational beauty. The black alder, the rough beech, and the smooth elm flaunt their bark, stunning in the juxtaposition with emptiness.
The restless weather and artistic surroundings call for long walks, firearm optional, sweater encouraged, and blaze
orange required. When your hands and nose begin to smart from a late afternoon breeze, it is time to return to the fire and baked bean supper waiting at camp.
Sundown sneaks up on you, and it is dark before you are ready, so you stay up playing cribbage or gin rummy. Then
you curl up in your bunk and fall asleep listening to partridge drumming in the woods and dreaming of apple pie for breakfast. When you walk out the door the next morning, there are fresh moose tracks in the yard. Autumn is a fleeting pilgrim like the beast that passed you by in the night. And you slept on anyhow.
The camp that I came to know as 29 was once simply a Maine logging camp. When you walk through the immediate
neighborhood of the cabin you can see the signs. There are old stone walls from the little horse barn. Here is the well they dug to serve the horses and kitchen. All about the forest, under moss and ferns and fallen spruce, are scattered bits and bobs of the wrack and wreckage of an old workplace, an axe head here, a file there.
John Rowe came upon the site sometime when he was working the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad, just over the ridge
from the camp. Glass insulators from the wires he hung along the track now hang on the camp walls, remembering those days. That was when the railroad bed had tracks, and John would pump his pushcart up and down repairing the electric and telegraph wires. That was when woodsmen like Bert Hussey cut birch and poplar to make spools for the American Thread mills in Lakeview and later Milo. The camp remembers those days though the lives that lived them have gone.
I almost killed my grandfather when I was seven. Not on purpose, of course, but it nearly happened. We were walking
the camp road for partridge, Gramp leading the way and my brother Eli following me, all orange and camouflage-bedecked and silent as the grave. I clutched the youth .410 at the ready for a target to present itself.
I remember the great drumming and the flash of gray on the right and two shots echoing in the wet autumn wood. I
don’t remember pulling the trigger. But I had, and I had directed my shot directly over Gramp’s shoulder. He told me he got the bird, and to go find it, and I passed the smoking gun to Eli and crashed into the bush. I realized then what I had done.
I entered a trance even as I found the warm body and the feathers strewn hither and yon under a beech. I knew what
had just happened. I knew I had almost taken the life more precious to me than my own. And I wondered then: what would have become of Eli and I, if my shot had found its mark? How would we get home? Who would come down the secreted path to the camp and find two little boys huddled over the cold form of an old man with birdshot in his brain?
Where would I hide?
Gramp took the bird from my hands and smiled down at me. I knew he didn’t know about our almost accident. I
knew Eli didn’t know, with the hot gun in his hands and the look of awe in his eyes. But I knew.
As long as I can remember, there has been a logbook on the table at Camp 29. It sits beside the wine bottle full of
lamp oil and a wick that Aunt Trudy made for Gramp. In it is the chronicle of the place, the comings and goings of the camp and it’s denizens. When we would pack up the packbaskets at the close of a weekend, Gramp would take a moment to write out what we had done and what we had seen. He took an old pen and dabbed it with his tongue and recorded where we walked, what we ate, and anything else of import. Then he’d skim back through the notebook, appearing to idly peruse the past until the Sunday sunlight would catch a glimmer in his eye, then he’d stop and shut the book. He’d stand, gather the last of the things, and shoulder his pack and gun, looking over the place one more time before locking the door. Then he’d say to us:
“Your father never stayed up here with me. I’m not sure why.”
If you walk towards the well and take a right at the crossroads where normally you would go straight on, you will find
a little-used road that leads down through a beaver bog. At the other end of that bog, the road climbs up to a low ridge. At the top of this ridge, running along its spine, is the old Pine Road. In its heyday, the Pine Road was a home to the tallest trees in that part of the forest, great white pines that towered over the spruce and maple and birch below. At their feet were boulders covered in moss, tossed hither and yon by the last glacier that passed that way.
The Pine Road was John Rowe’s favorite place to hunt deer. He and Gramp would walk up to the ridge and start out in
one direction or another until John found a spot he liked to sit. There, he would pull out his thermos and his lunch pail from the railroad and have a cup of tea and an apple and maybe a bacon sandwich. Then he’d lay his lever action gun off to his side and sit on that boulder and breathe in the scent of the pines. He would look around at the giant trees’ regal gray trunks and the un-presumptuous green of their needles, the golden sunbeams sparking between them to ground. Gramp sat beside him and wondered why he would sit there so long; they never saw a deer on the Pine Road.
After awhile, John would get back up and stroll back down the path the way they’d come. When the boys asked if
they’d seen anything, Gramp would say no, and John would nod, knowing that he had seen exactly what he intended.
Gramp once took my father to Herb Dunham’s camp at Barnard to stay a weekend. Dad was feeling just under the
weather, but not enough to stop him from hunting. My mother told Gramp to watch that my father was comfortable, and Gramp obliged. The greatest single thing to ensure my father’s comfort was food, so Gramp brought up two great big Del Monico steaks, baking potatoes, rolls, and green beans. My father himself brought up two huge moose steaks from Uncle Nick. Together, they netted four partridges that afternoon, so all told, they had a supper fit for kings awaiting them at camp.
Gramp cooked up the partridge breasts in bacon fat, a Northwoods aperitif equal only to deer heart or beaver tail. He
then cooked up the beefsteaks and the potatoes and the beans and the rolls, after which he was sated. My father was not, and he cooked up both of the moose steaks before holding his belly and giving voice to his growing regret. Gramp, not wanting him to be uncomfortable and knowing that he was taken with a mild cold, proceeded to crank the wood stove up and up to its fiery peak of heat output, a practice he was (and is) well-known to repeat, common cold or no. Gramp, congestion free and from gluttony unbothered lay out to sleep with a wry look to my father, who by now was groaning in the sweltering camp.
It was the middle of the night when Gramp awoke to a great crash and thunder of wood and metal. He rubbed his
eyes and peered from the kitchen window into the yard, lit by a full November moon. There, in the middle of the dooryard lay a metal camp bed with no blanket, thrown out the door, my father on top sleeping as peacefully as you like.
And the snow began to fall.