Saturday, August 30, 2014

Call of the Wild: Through Glacier Park and Tenting To-night by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The lure of the high places is in your blood.  The call of the mountains is a real call.  The veneer, after all, is so thin.  Throw off the impedimenta of civilization, the telephones, the silly conventions, the lies that pass for truth.  Go out to the West.  Ride slowly, not to startle the wild things.  Throw out your chest and breathe; look across green valleys to wild peaks where mountain sheep stand impassive on the edge of space.  Let the summer rains fall on your upturned face and wash away the memory of all that is false and petty and cruel.  Then the mountains will get you.  You will go back.  The call is a real call.

Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote those words in Through Glacier Park, first published in 1916.  Those of you who are aficionados of vintage mystery literature may not readily associate Rinehart with the high, thin, bracing air of Montana's Rocky Mountains.  "Isn't she the one who wrote The Bat and The Circular Staircase?" you ask.  Yes, she is.  The author of more than fifty books--including the classic mystery The Door, which is said to have inspired the phrase "the butler did it"--Rinehart was also an intrepid adventurer and prolific journalist.  She traveled to the front-line trenches of World War I Belgium and, in 1916 and 1918 (Tenting To-night), she wrote about her visit to Montana's crown jewel, Glacier, which was still in its first decade of national parkhood.

She traveled on horseback with a party of 42 others, some of them city slickers--the sort, she wrote, who "must have fresh cream in its coffee, and its steak rare, and puts its hair up in curlers at night, and likes to talk gossip in great empty places"--and others who were "cowboys in chaps and jingling spurs; timorous women, who eyed rather askance the blue and purple mountains back of the hotel; automobile tourists, partly curious and partly envious; the inevitable photographer, for whom we lined up in a semicircle, each one trying to look as if starting off on such a trip was one of the easiest things we did; and over all the bright sun, a breeze from the mountains, and a sense of such exhilaration as only altitude and the West can bring."  Artist Charles M. Russell was also along for the ride, famously spinning yarns around the campfire each night.

The 1915 party
Through Glacier Park is, like the very air of the park, bracing and exhilarating in its descriptions of high-mountain meadows, plashing streams, and diamond-sharp peaks.  It is, on occasion, also very funny:
There is only one thing to do if a bear takes a sudden dislike to one. It is useless to climb or to run. Go toward it and try kindness. Ask about the children, in a carefully restrained tone. Make the Indian sign that you are a friend. If you have a sandwich about you, proffer it. Then, while the bear is staring at you in amazement, turn and walk quietly away.

Upper Two Medicine Lake
Rinehart opens the first chapter of Through Glacier Park with these paragraphs:
      This is about a three-hundred mile trip across the Rocky Mountains on horseback with Howard Eaton. It is about fishing, and cool nights around a camp-fire, and long days on the trail. It is about a party of all sorts, from everywhere, of men and women, old and young, experienced folk and novices, who had yielded to a desire to belong to the sportsmen of the road. And it is by way of being advice also. Your true convert must always preach.
      If you are normal and philosophical; if you love your country; if you like bacon, or will eat it anyhow; if you are willing to learn how little you count in the eternal scheme of things; if you are prepared, for the first day or two, to be able to locate every muscle in your body and a few extra ones that seem to have crept in and are crowding, go ride in the Rocky Mountains and save your soul.
Dawson Pass
This Labor Day weekend, my wife and I hope to find some Glacier Park salvation.  For the last six months, we have been diligently laboring--me at my full-time Day Job, she almost single-handedly running The Backyard Bungalow here in Butte, Montana--and we've really only had one proper day off each week: Sunday, which is too often consumed with mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, or rearranging the furniture at The Backyard Bungalow.  It's time we heeded Glacier Park's call.

I'll be heading north with Rinehart's two books in hand.  Because we're limited to one all-too-brief day of hiking along what Rinehart called "trails of a beauty to make you gasp," we won't exactly retrace her steps (or, more accurately, hoofbeats); but we hope to find that same refreshing call of the high places.

Cities call–I have heard them. But there is no voice in all the world so insistent to me as the wordless call of the Rockies. I shall go back. Those who go once always hope to go back. The lure of the great free spaces is in their blood.

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