Have you ever met anyone who claimed a book had changed his life? Aside from intense college girls who'd read The Fountainhead, I mean. I've heard of instances, but never actually met anyone--except myself. Thinking it over, I realize that such a change cannot be an unheralded stroke, a sudden and complete redirection; there must be a predisposition, an obscure undercurrent. In my case, there was a desire to be off by myself in the wilds. At the age of seven I built my first hut under a tall old apple tree on a lot where a house had once stood, and sat in its low doorway watching snow fall with great satisfaction. I was an outdoor boy; on Saturdays when my friends went to the movies, I went "exploring" in the overgrown lots in my neighborhood, climbing trees, catching grasshoppers and toads, digging worms for fishing in the park pond. So it cannot have been chance alone when, at the age of ten, I took Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail (1849) down from the shelf: the cover, a painting of an Indian encampment, beckoned. Since a healthy outdoor boy's daylight hours cannot be taken up with books, most of it I read by flashlight under the covers at night. It took me a long time, the better part of a year, although I was a very good reader, because I was fascinated by the crowding details of Parkman's driving, circumstantial narrative of his progress along the Oregon Trail in the summer of 1896 to his meeting with the Oglalla Sioux in the Black Hills. Here's the first page:
Last spring, 1846, was a busy season in the city of St. Louis. Not only were emigrants from every part of the country preparing for the journey to Oregon and California, but an unusual number of traders were making ready their wagons and outfits for Santa Fe. Many of the emigrants, especially of those bound for California, were persons of wealth and standing. The hotels were crowded, and the gunsmiths and saddlers were kept constantly at work in providing arms and equipments for the different parties of travelers. Almost every day steamboats were leaving the levee and passing up the Missouri, crowded with passengers on their way to the frontier.
In one of these, the Radnor, since snagged and lost, my friend and relative, Quincy A. Shaw, and myself, left St. Louis on the twenty-eighth of April, on a tour of curiosity and amusement to the Rocky Mountains. The boat was loaded until the water broke alternately over her guards. Her upper-deck was covered with large wagons of a peculiar form, for the Santa Fe trade, and her hold was crammed with goods for the same destination. There were also the equipments, and provisions of a party of Oregon emigrants, a band of mules and horses, piles of saddles and harness, and a multitude of nondescript articles, indispensable on the prairies. Almost hidden in this medley one might have seen a small French cart, of the sort very appropriately called a "mule-killer," beyond the frontiers, and not far distant a tent, together, with a miscellaneous assortment of boxes and barrels. The whole equipage was far from prepossessing in its appearance; yet, such as it was, it was destined to a long and arduous journey, on which the persevering reader will accompany it.
All those strange people and things--gunsmiths, wagons, boxes and barrels, emigrants--how I pored over each one, imagining its appearance, passing it before me in my mind's eye, savoring everything. What a book for an outdoor boy! It gave me a dream. As soon as I was grownup, I would go to the Black Hills, build a cabin, and be a prospector. I got some pamphlets on placer mining from the Government Printing Office and now, instead of aimless doodling in my school books when I was bored, I drew up cabin plans. My future was set.
Then in the spring of 1947, when I was thirteen, we moved from the city to a farmhouse in the countryside, and there I read the second transforming book, which refocused the change wrought by Parkman. Waiting my turn in the barbershop in the small country town, I was leafing through Fur, Fish, and Game when I saw an ad for "Deep-river Jim's Wilderness Trail Book," and that night I sent my fifty cents to the Boston address--consciously and deliberately. The book was published in the '30s (I have the 1945 reprint) by the Open Road Pioneers' Club, itself founded in 1927 by The Open Road for Boys magazine (of which I had never heard and know nothing to this day), and it was a loose organization, to put it mildly. There were neither rules nor dues, you could form a chapter or just be a Lone Pioneer, and the requirements were unexceptionable.
The chief requirements of membership are that the boys and the men who join must have an interest in outdoor life, a desire to develop their ability to use and enjoy the land and water trails, and an eagerness to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers who, in blazing the way and in founding our country, lived on intimate terms with nature.
The Club is patriotic, non-political, non-sectarian open to all boys and men of good character. Its object is to make better, healthier, happier citizens by providing a program of activities that will give each member an understanding of nature and a lasting love for outdoor life.
This is the Code: "to meet each obstacle physical, mental, or moral--face to face and overcome it," and this the Motto: "Be sure you're right--then go ahead." It seemed sensible when I was thirteen. Today I smile at its naive audacity--but it still seems sensible. I sent in thirty cents to get the membership certificate and "gold and blue felt sweater emblem" (the profile of a hunter in buckskins and coonskin cap). To gain Pioneer honors, for instance, to become a Trailsman, the first step up, I need pass only ten tests selected from twenty-six. Here are some:
Go on four overnight hikes. Take proper care of yourself and your equipment.
Build a campfire, using only one match and no paper.
Keep it going for one hour, then put it out. On every attempt to pass this test fresh materials must be used.
Name and describe, giving habits, five varieties or species of wild animals you have personally observed in their wild state, making a record when and where seen.
Describe five varieties of fish you have personally observed. Of these five, catch, clean and cook (do it all yourself) not less than two varieties.
Build a lean-to and sleep out in it at least one night.
Cook four of the following dishes outdoors: hunter's stew, vegetable soup (made from raw vegetables), omelet, flapjacks, hash, steaks, fried fish.
Write a paper of not less than 300 words giving a short history of the United States flag; its origin; the significance of its stars and stripes; and the proper forms of respect due it.
Demonstrate the proper use of an axe in felling timber.
I could have become a Trailsman right away, but I was not interested in the club; I was a loner, and it was the book I cared about.
Fifty-eight years after I bought it, I turn it now in my hands, its paper covers taped and re-taped, its pages worn and stained, and I am amazed at the useful information packed into its 300 pages. I used it last week to identify tracks in the snow behind the barn. What's even more amazing is that the book is consistently interesting; the information is conveyed painlessly by a simple, direct, intimate style, as if the writer were talking to the reader, a deliberate and effective strategy. The editor who passed as Deep-river Jim was folksy, but not obnoxiously corny.
Well, there's no sense in pushing on any further; we wouldn't be able to reach camp tonight, anyhow. I wouldn't say that spending a night under the winter stars without blankets is something we'd do from choice, but I reckon we can make ourselves and the dog comfortable enough so's we can get a few hours' sleep anyway. Trouble was, I didn't figure that bobcat would give us such a long chase. But seeing as you got a right prime hide out of it and I got the fun of watching old Ginger work--as pretty job of trailing by a hound as I ever saw--well, I'm, not grumbling about a night in the open. We have our belt axes, dry matches and some left-over grub, so we ought to make out pretty fair.
The book is organized by months, and each chapter of twenty pages or so, nicely illustrated with small drawings, treats several subjects in turn, as in January: A Winter's Night in the Woods, Black Bear, Ice Fishing, Smelt, Porcupines, Winter Rabbiting, Caught in the Mountains, How to Build a Small Fire, A Camp Lantern, Recipes of the Month (one of my favorite sections): A Trapper's Cold Weather Dish, Griddle Cakes, Onion Chowder, Woodsman's Coffee, Hashed Brown Potatoes, Fried Rabbit.
What the book did was to bring the Parkman dream down to my level and place and time. Deep-river Jim's world was not a hundred years in the past, nor far off in the Black Hills, and I could be part of it just by going out in the fields and woods around the farmhouse (locate the North star; name and describe ten wild birds you have observed; collect, identify, and mount fifteen varieties of insects). There was nothing distant about Deep-river Jim, far from it, and in my eyes there was nothing fantastic about what went on in his world; the dream became real. Soon I became a hunter, and in time I would live in the woods and at last build log cabins (I'm just finishing my fourth).
There was another dimension to the books which affected me: they made me feel part of a long line of men, a succession of pioneers, frontiersmen, of men whose qualities added up to what I thought of as an American. It was a limited view, of course, but I'm very glad I started on such a firm, if narrow, ground. No matter what foolishness I would involve myself in, I never lost that grainy sense of my American self.
For conservatives, it's all too easy to contrast the ethos of the Open Road Pioneers' Club with what goes on today: the Boy Scouts are sued because they won't admit homosexuals; between joggers and hikers and Greens the great outdoors is a preserve for yuppie narcissists; the flag is burned; a boys club today would be forced to admit girls; any kid who followed the book's directions for Woodsman's Coffee and burned his tongue would sue Deep-river Jim for everything but his suspender buttons, and so on. The world of childhood, we are told, is now no more than a "demographic" for cunning marketers. This is nothing new; it has all been noted, again and again, in recent years. In fact, that may be part of our problem, that we take pleasure in hearing about the latest outrages; we enjoy our indignation, our assertion of righteousness, and isn't that true sometimes of conservative publications, stuck in a negative rut, as if griping to each other would get us anywhere?
We should be thinking positively, as the code says--meet each obstacle face to face and overcome it. Thinking of the present instance, it is nonsense to think all children have been corrupted; there are plenty of kids who have dreams as unfashionable as mine was, and it should be our privilege to help them by creating a decent culture to replace the failed, crumbling liberal culture. We all have a stake in this, and we can all play a part, if only by demanding of our leaders and communicators and editors, et al., positive visions of which we can be proud. Remember the Motto: Be sure you're right--then go ahead!
Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail and The Conspiracy of Pontiac are in one volume of the Library of America. His great, seven-volume opus, France and England in North America is available in two volumes. Narrative history at its best. For an account of significant Western events in 1846, with sidelights on Parkman and his adventures, see the excellent The Year of Decision: 1846 by Bernard De Voto.
If readers know anything about the Open Road for Boys magazine, please write to me. *
"The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are." --C. S. Lewis