Story type: Essay
My readers were promised an account of Spaniard’s Cave on Nipple-Top Mountain in the Adirondacks, if such a cave exists, and could be found. There is none but negative evidence that this is a mere cave of the imagination, the void fancy of a vacant hour; but it is the duty of the historian to present the negative testimony of a fruitless expedition in search of it, made last summer. I beg leave to offer this in the simple language befitting all sincere exploits of a geographical character.
The summit of Nipple-Top Mountain has been trodden by few white men of good character: it is in the heart of a hirsute wilderness; it is itself a rough and unsocial pile of granite nearly five thousand feet high, bristling with a stunted and unpleasant growth of firs and balsams, and there is no earthly reason why a person should go there. Therefore we went. In the party of three there was, of course, a chaplain. The guide was Old Mountain Phelps, who had made the ascent once before, but not from the northwest side, the direction from which we approached it. The enthusiasm of this philosopher has grown with his years, and outlived his endurance: we carried our own knapsacks and supplies, therefore, and drew upon him for nothing but moral reflections and a general knowledge of the wilderness. Our first day’s route was through the Gill-brook woods and up one of its branches to the head of Caribou Pass, which separates Nipple Top from Colvin.
It was about the first of September; no rain had fallen for several weeks, and this heart of the forest was as dry as tinder; a lighted match dropped anywhere would start a conflagration. This dryness has its advantages: the walking is improved; the long heat has expressed all the spicy odors of the cedars and balsams, and the woods are filled with a soothing fragrance; the waters of the streams, though scant and clear, are cold as ice; the common forest chill is gone from the air. The afternoon was bright; there was a feeling of exultation and adventure in stepping off into the open but pathless forest; the great stems of deciduous trees were mottled with patches of sunlight, which brought out upon the variegated barks and mosses of the old trunks a thousand shifting hues. There is nothing like a primeval wood for color on a sunny day. The shades of green and brown are infinite; the dull red of the hemlock bark glows in the sun, the russet of the changing moose-bush becomes brilliant; there are silvery openings here and there; and everywhere the columns rise up to the canopy of tender green which supports the intense blue sky and holds up a part of it from falling through in fragments to the floor of the forest. Decorators can learn here how Nature dares to put blue and green in juxtaposition: she has evidently the secret of harmonizing all the colors.
The way, as we ascended, was not all through open woods; dense masses of firs were encountered, jagged spurs were to be crossed, and the going became at length so slow and toilsome that we took to the rocky bed of a stream, where bowlders and flumes and cascades offered us sufficient variety. The deeper we penetrated, the greater the sense of savageness and solitude; in the silence of these hidden places one seems to approach the beginning of things. We emerged from the defile into an open basin, formed by the curved side of the mountain, and stood silent before a waterfall coming down out of the sky in the centre of the curve. I do not know anything exactly like this fall, which some poetical explorer has named the Fairy-Ladder Falls. It appears to have a height of something like a hundred and fifty feet, and the water falls obliquely across the face of the cliff from left to right in short steps, which in the moonlight might seem like a veritable ladder for fairies. Our impression of its height was confirmed by climbing the very steep slope at its side some three or four hundred feet. At the top we found the stream flowing over a broad bed of rock, like a street in the wilderness, slanting up still towards the sky, and bordered by low firs and balsams, and bowlders completely covered with moss. It was above the world and open to the sky.
On account of the tindery condition of the woods we made our fire on the natural pavement, and selected a smooth place for our bed near by on the flat rock, with a pool of limpid water at the foot. This granite couch we covered with the dry and springy moss, which we stripped off in heavy fleeces a foot thick from the bowlders. First, however, we fed upon the fruit that was offered us. Over these hills of moss ran an exquisite vine with a tiny, ovate, green leaf, bearing small, delicate berries, oblong and white as wax, having a faint flavor of wintergreen and the slightest acid taste, the very essence of the wilderness; fairy food, no doubt, and too refined for palates accustomed to coarser viands. There must exist somewhere sinless women who could eat these berries without being reminded of the lost purity and delicacy of the primeval senses. Every year I doubt not this stainless berry ripens here, and is unplucked by any knight of the Holy Grail who is worthy to eat it, and keeps alive, in the prodigality of nature, the tradition of the unperverted conditions of taste before the fall. We ate these berries, I am bound to say, with a sense of guilty enjoyment, as if they had been a sort of shew-bread of the wilderness, though I cannot answer for the chaplain, who is by virtue of his office a little nearer to these mysteries of nature than I. This plant belongs to the heath family, and is first cousin to the blueberry and cranberry. It is commonly called the creeping snowberry, but I like better its official title of chiogenes,–the snow-born.
Our mossy resting-place was named the Bridal Chamber Camp, in the enthusiasm of the hour, after darkness fell upon the woods and the stars came out. We were two thousand five hundred feet above the common world. We lay, as it were, on a shelf in the sky, with a basin of illimitable forests below us and dim mountain-passes-in the far horizon.
And as we lay there courting sleep which the blinking stars refused to shower down, our philosopher discoursed to us of the principle of fire, which he holds, with the ancients, to be an independent element that comes and goes in a mysterious manner, as we see flame spring up and vanish, and is in some way vital and indestructible, and has a mysterious relation to the source of all things. “That flame,” he says, “you have put out, but where has it gone?” We could not say, nor whether it is anything like the spirit of a man which is here for a little hour, and then vanishes away. Our own philosophy of the correlation of forces found no sort of favor at that elevation, and we went to sleep leaving the principle of fire in the apostolic category of “any other creature.”
At daylight we were astir; and, having pressed the principle of fire into our service to make a pot of tea, we carefully extinguished it or sent it into another place, and addressed ourselves to the climb of some thing over two thousand feet. The arduous labor of scaling an Alpine peak has a compensating glory; but the dead lift of our bodies up Nipple Top had no stimulus of this sort. It is simply hard work, for which the strained muscles only get the approbation of the individual conscience that drives them to the task. The pleasure of such an ascent is difficult to explain on the spot, and I suspect consists not so much in positive enjoyment as in the delight the mind experiences in tyrannizing over the body. I do not object to the elevation of this mountain, nor to the uncommonly steep grade by which it attains it, but only to the other obstacles thrown in the way of the climber. All the slopes of Nipple Top are hirsute and jagged to the last degree. Granite ledges interpose; granite bowlders seem to have been dumped over the sides with no more attempt at arrangement than in a rip-rap wall; the slashes and windfalls of a century present here and there an almost impenetrable chevalier des arbres; and the steep sides bristle with a mass of thick balsams, with dead, protruding spikes, as unyielding as iron stakes. The mountain has had its own way forever, and is as untamed as a wolf; or rather the elements, the frightful tempests, the frosts, the heavy snows, the coaxing sun, and the avalanches have had their way with it until its surface is in hopeless confusion. We made our way very slowly; and it was ten o’clock before we reached what appeared to be the summit, a ridge deeply covered with moss, low balsams, and blueberry-bushes.
I say, appeared to be; for we stood in thick fog or in the heart of clouds which limited our dim view to a radius of twenty feet. It was a warm and cheerful fog, stirred by little wind, but moving, shifting, and boiling as by its own volatile nature, rolling up black from below and dancing in silvery splendor overhead As a fog it could not have been improved; as a medium for viewing the landscape it was a failure and we lay down upon the Sybarite couch of moss, as in a Russian bath, to await revelations.
We waited two hours without change, except an occasional hopeful lightness in the fog above, and at last the appearance for a moment of the spectral sun. Only for an instant was this luminous promise vouchsafed. But we watched in intense excitement. There it was again; and this time the fog was so thin overhead that we caught sight of a patch of blue sky a yard square, across which the curtain was instantly drawn. A little wind was stirring, and the fog boiled up from the valley caldrons thicker than ever. But the spell was broken. In a moment more Old Phelps was shouting, “The sun!” and before we could gain our feet there was a patch of sky overhead as big as a farm. “See! quick!” The old man was dancing like a lunatic. There was a rift in the vapor at our feet, down, down, three thousand feet into the forest abyss, and lo! lifting out of it yonder the tawny side of Dix,–the vision of a second, snatched away in the rolling fog. The play had just begun. Before we could turn, there was the gorge of Caribou Pass, savage and dark, visible to the bottom. The opening shut as suddenly; and then, looking over the clouds, miles away we saw the peaceful farms of the Au Sable Valley, and in a moment more the plateau of North Elba and the sentinel mountains about the grave of John Brown. These glimpses were as fleeting as thought, and instantly we were again isolated in the sea of mist. The expectation of these sudden strokes of sublimity kept us exultingly on the alert; and yet it was a blow of surprise when the curtain was swiftly withdrawn on the west, and the long ridge of Colvin, seemingly within a stone’s throw, heaved up like an island out of the ocean, and was the next moment ingulfed. We waited longer for Dix to show its shapely peak and its glistening sides of rock gashed by avalanches. The fantastic clouds, torn and streaming, hurried up from the south in haste as if to a witch’s rendezvous, hiding and disclosing the great summit in their flight. The mist boiled up from the valley, whirled over the summit where we stood, and plunged again into the depths. Objects were forming and disappearing, shifting and dancing, now in sun and now gone in fog, and in the elemental whirl we felt that we were “assisting” in an original process of creation. The sun strove, and his very striving called up new vapors; the wind rent away the clouds, and brought new masses to surge about us; and the spectacle to right and left, above and below, changed with incredible swiftness. Such glory of abyss and summit, of color and form and transformation, is seldom granted to mortal eyes. For an hour we watched it until our vast mountain was revealed in all its bulk, its long spurs, its abysses and its savagery, and the great basins of wilderness with their shining lakes, and the giant peaks of the region, were one by one disclosed, and hidden and again tranquil in the sunshine.
Where was the cave? There was ample surface in which to look for it. If we could have flitted about, like the hawks that came circling round, over the steep slopes, the long spurs, the jagged precipices, I have no doubt we should have found it. But moving about on this mountain is not a holiday pastime; and we were chiefly anxious to discover a practicable mode of descent into the great wilderness basin on the south, which we must traverse that afternoon before reaching the hospitable shanty on Mud Pond. It was enough for us to have discovered the general whereabouts of the Spanish Cave, and we left the fixing of its exact position to future explorers.
The spur we chose for our escape looked smooth in the distance; but we found it bristling with obstructions, dead balsams set thickly together, slashes of fallen timber, and every manner of woody chaos; and when at length we swung and tumbled off the ledge to the general slope, we exchanged only for more disagreeable going. The slope for a couple of thousand feet was steep enough; but it was formed of granite rocks all moss-covered, so that the footing could not be determined, and at short intervals we nearly went out of sight in holes under the treacherous carpeting. Add to this that stems of great trees were laid longitudinally and transversely and criss-cross over and among the rocks, and the reader can see that a good deal of work needs to be done to make this a practicable highway for anything but a squirrel….
We had had no water since our daylight breakfast: our lunch on the mountain had been moistened only by the fog. Our thirst began to be that of Tantalus, because we could hear the water running deep down among the rocks, but we could not come at it. The imagination drank the living stream, and we realized anew what delusive food the imagination furnishes in an actual strait. A good deal of the crime of this world, I am convinced, is the direct result of the unlicensed play of the imagination in adverse circumstances. This reflection had nothing to do with our actual situation; for we added to our imagination patience, and to our patience long-suffering, and probably all the Christian virtues would have been developed in us if the descent had been long enough. Before we reached the bottom of Caribou Pass, the water burst out from the rocks in a clear stream that was as cold as ice. Shortly after, we struck the roaring brook that issues from the Pass to the south. It is a stream full of character, not navigable even for trout in the upper part, but a succession of falls, cascades, flumes, and pools that would delight an artist. It is not an easy bed for anything except water to descend; and before we reached the level reaches, where the stream flows with a murmurous noise through open woods, one of our party began to show signs of exhaustion.
This was Old Phelps, whose appetite had failed the day before,–his imagination being in better working order than his stomach: he had eaten little that day, and his legs became so groggy that he was obliged to rest at short intervals. Here was a situation! The afternoon was wearing away. We had six or seven miles of unknown wilderness to traverse, a portion of it swampy, in which a progress of more than a mile an hour is difficult, and the condition of the guide compelled even a slower march. What should we do in that lonesome solitude if the guide became disabled? We couldn’t carry him out; could we find our own way out to get assistance? The guide himself had never been there before; and although he knew the general direction of our point of egress, and was entirely adequate to extricate himself from any position in the woods, his knowledge was of that occult sort possessed by woodsmen which it is impossible to communicate. Our object was to strike a trail that led from the Au Sable Pond, the other side of the mountain-range, to an inlet on Mud Pond. We knew that if we traveled southwestward far enough we must strike that trail, but how far? No one could tell. If we reached that trail, and found a boat at the inlet, there would be only a row of a couple of miles to the house at the foot of the lake. If no boat was there, then we must circle the lake three or four miles farther through a cedar-swamp, with no trail in particular. The prospect was not pleasing. We were short of supplies, for we had not expected to pass that night in the woods. The pleasure of the excursion began to develop itself.
We stumbled on in the general direction marked out, through a forest that began to seem endless as hour after hour passed, compelled as we were to make long detours over the ridges of the foothills to avoid the swamp, which sent out from the border of the lake long tongues into the firm ground. The guide became more ill at every step, and needed frequent halts and long rests. Food he could not eat; and tea, water, and even brandy he rejected. Again and again the old philosopher, enfeebled by excessive exertion and illness, would collapse in a heap on the ground, an almost comical picture of despair, while we stood and waited the waning of the day, and peered forward in vain for any sign of an open country. At every brook we encountered, we suggested a halt for the night, while it was still light enough to select a camping-place, but the plucky old man wouldn’t hear of it: the trail might be only a quarter of a mile ahead, and we crawled on again at a snail’s pace. His honor as a guide seemed to be at stake; and, besides, he confessed to a notion that his end was near, and he didn’t want to die like a dog in the woods. And yet, if this was his last journey, it seemed not an inappropriate ending for the old woodsman to lie down and give up the ghost in the midst of the untamed forest and the solemn silences he felt most at home in. There is a popular theory, held by civilians, that a soldier likes to die in battle. I suppose it is as true that a woodsman would like to “pass in his chips,”–the figure seems to be inevitable, struck down by illness and exposure, in the forest solitude, with heaven in sight and a tree-root for his pillow.
The guide seemed really to fear that, if we did not get out of the woods that night, he would never go out; and, yielding to his dogged resolution, we kept on in search of the trail, although the gathering of dusk over the ground warned us that we might easily cross the trail without recognizing it. We were traveling by the light in the upper sky, and by the forms of the tree-stems, which every moment grew dimmer. At last the end came. We had just felt our way over what seemed to be a little run of water, when the old man sunk down, remarking, “I might as well die here as anywhere,” and was silent.
Suddenly night fell like a blanket on us. We could neither see the guide nor each other. We became at once conscious that miles of night on all sides shut us in. The sky was clouded over: there wasn’t a gleam of light to show us where to step. Our first thought was to build a fire, which would drive back the thick darkness into the woods, and boil some water for our tea. But it was too dark to use the axe. We scraped together leaves and twigs to make a blaze, and, as this failed, such dead sticks as we could find by groping about. The fire was only a temporary affair, but it sufficed to boil a can of water. The water we obtained by feeling about the stones of the little run for an opening big enough to dip our cup in. The supper to be prepared was fortunately simple. It consisted of a decoction of tea and other leaves which had got into the pail, and a part of a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread which has been carried in a knapsack for a couple of days, bruised and handled and hacked at with a hunting-knife, becomes an uninteresting object. But we ate of it with thankfulness, washed it down with hot fluid, and bitterly thought of the morrow. Would our old friend survive the night? Would he be in any condition to travel in the morning? How were we to get out with him or without him?
The old man lay silent in the bushes out of sight, and desired only to be let alone. We tried to tempt him with the offer of a piece of toast: it was no temptation. Tea we thought would revive him: he refused it. A drink of brandy would certainly quicken his life: he couldn’t touch it. We were at the end of our resources. He seemed to think that if he were at home, and could get a bit of fried bacon, or a piece of pie, he should be all right. We knew no more how to doctor him than if he had been a sick bear. He withdrew within himself, rolled himself up, so to speak, in his primitive habits, and waited for the healing power of nature. Before our feeble fire disappeared, we smoothed a level place near it for Phelps to lie on, and got him over to it. But it didn’t suit: it was too open. In fact, at the moment some drops of rain fell. Rain was quite outside of our program for the night. But the guide had an instinct about it; and, while we were groping about some yards distant for a place where we could lie down, he crawled away into the darkness, and curled himself up amid the roots of a gigantic pine, very much as a bear would do, I suppose, with his back against the trunk, and there passed the night comparatively dry and comfortable; but of this we knew nothing till morning, and had to trust to the assurance of a voice out of the darkness that he was all right.
Our own bed where we spread our blankets was excellent in one respect,–there was no danger of tumbling out of it. At first the rain pattered gently on the leaves overhead, and we congratulated ourselves on the snugness of our situation. There was something cheerful about this free life. We contrasted our condition with that of tired invalids who were tossing on downy beds, and wooing sleep in vain. Nothing was so wholesome and invigorating as this bivouac in the forest. But, somehow, sleep did not come. The rain had ceased to patter, and began to fall with a steady determination, a sort of soak, soak, all about us. In fact, it roared on the rubber blanket, and beat in our faces. The wind began to stir a little, and there was a moaning on high. Not contented with dripping, the rain was driven into our faces. Another suspicious circumstance was noticed. Little rills of water got established along the sides under the blankets, cold, undeniable streams, that interfered with drowsiness. Pools of water settled on the bed; and the chaplain had a habit of moving suddenly, and letting a quart or two inside, and down my neck. It began to be evident that we and our bed were probably the wettest objects in the woods. The rubber was an excellent catch-all. There was no trouble about ventilation, but we found that we had established our quarters without any provision for drainage. There was not exactly a wild tempest abroad; but there was a degree of liveliness in the thrashing limbs and the creaking of the tree-branches which rubbed against each other, and the pouring rain increased in volume and power of penetration. Sleep was quite out of the question, with so much to distract our attention. In fine, our misery became so perfect that we both broke out into loud and sarcastic laughter over the absurdity of our situation. We had subjected ourselves to all this forlornness simply for pleasure. Whether Old Phelps was still in existence, we couldn’t tell: we could get no response from him. With daylight, if he continued ill and could not move, our situation would be little improved. Our supplies were gone, we lay in a pond, a deluge of water was pouring down on us. This was summer recreation. The whole thing was so excessively absurd that we laughed again, louder than ever. We had plenty of this sort of amusement. Suddenly through the night we heard a sort of reply that started us bolt upright. This was a prolonged squawk. It was like the voice of no beast or bird with which we were familiar. At first it was distant; but it rapidly approached, tearing through the night and apparently through the tree-tops, like the harsh cry of a web-footed bird with a snarl in it; in fact, as I said, a squawk. It came close to us, and then turned, and as rapidly as it came fled away through the forest, and we lost the unearthly noise far up the mountain-slope.
“What was that, Phelps?” we cried out. But no response came; and we wondered if his spirit had been rent away, or if some evil genius had sought it, and then, baffled by his serene and philosophic spirit, had shot off into the void in rage and disappointment.
The night had no other adventure. The moon at length coming up behind the clouds lent a spectral aspect to the forest, and deceived us for a time into the notion that day was at hand; but the rain never ceased, and we lay wishful and waiting, with no item of solid misery wanting that we could conceive.
Day was slow a-coming, and didn’t amount to much when it came, so heavy were the clouds; but the rain slackened. We crawled out of our water-cure “pack,” and sought the guide. To our infinite relief he announced himself not only alive, but in a going condition. I looked at my watch. It had stopped at five o’clock. I poured the water out of it, and shook it; but, not being constructed on the hydraulic principle, it refused to go. Some hours later we encountered a huntsman, from whom I procured some gun-grease; with this I filled the watch, and heated it in by the fire. This is a most effectual way of treating a delicate Genevan timepiece.
The light disclosed fully the suspected fact that our bed had been made in a slight depression: the under rubber blanket spread in this had prevented the rain from soaking into the ground, and we had been lying in what was in fact a well-contrived bathtub. While Old Phelps was pulling himself together, and we were wringing some gallons of water out of our blankets, we questioned the old man about the “squawk,” and what bird was possessed of such a voice. It was not a bird at all, he said, but a cat, the black-cat of the woods, larger than the domestic animal, and an ugly customer, who is fond of fish, and carries a pelt that is worth two or three dollars in the market. Occasionally he blunders into a sable-trap; and he is altogether hateful in his ways, and has the most uncultivated voice that is heard in the woods. We shall remember him as one of the least pleasant phantoms of that cheerful night when we lay in the storm, fearing any moment the advent to one of us of the grimmest messenger.
We rolled up and shouldered our wet belongings, and, before the shades had yet lifted from the saturated bushes, pursued our march. It was a relief to be again in motion, although our progress was slow, and it was a question every rod whether the guide could go on. We had the day before us; but if we did not find a boat at the inlet a day might not suffice, in the weak condition of the guide, to extricate us from our ridiculous position. There was nothing heroic in it; we had no object: it was merely, as it must appear by this time, a pleasure excursion, and we might be lost or perish in it without reward and with little sympathy. We had something like a hour and a half of stumbling through the swamp when suddenly we stood in the little trail! Slight as it was, it appeared to us a very Broadway to Paradise if broad ways ever lead thither. Phelps hailed it and sank down in it like one reprieved from death. But the boat? Leaving him, we quickly ran a quarter of a mile down to the inlet. The boat was there. Our shout to the guide would have roused him out of a death-slumber. He came down the trail with the agility of an aged deer: never was so glad a sound in his ear, he said, as that shout. It was in a very jubilant mood that we emptied the boat of water, pushed off, shipped the clumsy oars, and bent to the two-mile row through the black waters of the winding, desolate channel, and over the lake, whose dark waves were tossed a little in the morning breeze. The trunks of dead trees stand about this lake, and all its shores are ragged with ghastly drift-wood; but it was open to the sky, and although the heavy clouds still obscured all the mountain-ranges we had a sense of escape and freedom that almost made the melancholy scene lovely.
How lightly past hardship sits upon us! All the misery of the night vanished, as if it had not been, in the shelter of the log cabin at Mud Pond, with dry clothes that fitted us as the skin of the bear fits him in the spring, a noble breakfast, a toasting fire, solicitude about our comfort, judicious sympathy with our suffering, and willingness to hear the now growing tale of our adventure. Then came, in a day of absolute idleness, while the showers came and went, and the mountains appeared and disappeared in sun and storm, that perfect physical enjoyment which consists in a feeling of strength without any inclination to use it, and in a delicious languor which is too enjoyable to be surrendered to sleep.