Chapter 11: Vignettes of Travel
The Mowat family was a restless one - or at least my father was a restless one. Mother would have been content to stay quietly in almost any of the places that were temporarily home to us, but Father always yearned for far horizons.
During the Saskatoon period of our lives we traveled widely, from Churchill on Hudson Bay, to Vancouver on the Pacific shores. We traveled the hard way, too, for a librarian is always underpaid. However, the lessons I learned from the vicissitudes of those journeys have stood me in good stead on my own travels, for writers too are always underpaid.
In examining my memories of those excursions I am struck by the way Mutt looms so large in all of them. There was our journey to the Pacific, for example. Looking back on it now, I can recall a string of vignettes in each of which Mutt was the center of attention - while for the rest, there is nothing but an amorphous blur.
We began that journey on the June day in 1934 when I finished my last school examination paper. I still possess a snapshot taken of us as we pulled away down River Road, and when I look at it I am appalled at the manner in which we burdened Eardlie. None of your pregnant glass-and-chrome showcases of today could have carried that load for a single mile. Eardlie could do so only because he was the ultimate result of five thousand years of human striving to devise the perfect vehicle. For there is no doubt at all but that the Model A stands at the apex of the evolution of the wheel. And it is a matter of sorrow to me - as it should be to all men - that this magnificent climax should have been followed by the rapid and terrible degeneration of the automotive species into the effete mechanical incubi which batten off human flesh on every highway of the world today.
The load that Eardlie shouldered when he set bravely forth to carry us across far mountains to the sea almost defies belief. There was a large umbrella tent tied to the spare tire; there was Concepcion supported high above us on a flimsy rack; there were three folding wooden cots lashed to the front mudguards; on the right-hand running board (an invaluable invention, long since sacrificed to the obesity of the modern car) were two wooden crates of books - most of them about the sea; on the other running board were two trunk-suitcases, a fivegallon gasoline can, and a spare spare-tire. In addition, there were the canoe masts, sails, and leeboards; Father's Newfoundland-pattern oilskins and sou'wester; a sextant; a schooner's binnacle compass; Mother's household implements, including pots and pans and a huge gunny sack containing shreds of cloth for use in making hooked rugs; and, not least, a canvas bag containing my gopher traps, .22 rifle, and other essential equipment.
As Eardlie arched his back under the strain and carried us out of the city past the town slough, where the ducks were already hatching their young, we would have done justice to Steinbeck's descriptions of the dispossessed.
Mutt enjoyed traveling by car, but he was an unquiet passenger. He suffered from the delusion, common to dogs and small boys, that when he was looking out the right-hand side, he was probably the dog who wouldn't be missing something far more interesting on the left-hand side. In addition, he could never be quite sure whether he preferred the front seat - and looking forward - or the rumble seat - and looking backward. Mutt started out up front with Mother and Father, while I had the rumble seat; but we had not gone five miles before he and Mother were at odds with one another. They both wanted the outside berth, and whichever one was temporarily denied it would growl and mutter and push, until he or she gained his or her ends.
Before we had been driving for an hour Mother lost her patience and Mutt was exiled to the rumble seat.
Riding in the rumble did strange things to him, and I have a theory that his metabolism was disturbed by the enforced intake of air under pressure from the slip stream, so that he became oxygen drunk. He would grow wild-eyed and, although not normally a drooling dog, he would begin to salivate. Frequently he would stand up with his front feet on the back of Mother's neck, and he would drool on her until, driven to extremes, she would poke him sharply on the chin, whereupon he would mutter, and come back to drool on me.
But his favorite position, when he became really full of oxygen, was to extrude himself gradually over one of the rear mudguards until there was nothing of him remaining in the car except his hind feet and his tail. Here he would balance precariously, his nose thrust far out into the slip stream and his large ears fluttering in the breeze. The prairie roads were indescribably dusty, and his nose and eyes would soon become so clogged that he would be almost blind, and incapable of smelling a dead cow at twenty paces. He did not seem to mind, but like a misshapen and misplaced figurehead he would thrust farther outward until he passed the point of balance. Then only my firm grip on his tail could prevent disaster, and on one occasion, when my grip relaxed a little, he became air-borne for a moment or so before crashing to the road behind us.
When this happened we thought we had lost him forever. By the time Father got the car stopped, Mutt was a hundred yards in the rear, spread-eagled in the center of the road, and screaming pitifully. Father assumed the worst, and concluded that the only thing to do was to put the poor beast out of his misery at once. He leaped out of the car and ran to a blacksmith's shop that stood by the roadside, and in a few minutes returned waving the blacksmith's old revolver.
He was too late. While he had been out of sight, Mutt had spotted a pair of heifers staring at him over the fence, and had hastily picked himself up to give vociferous chase.
Although he suffered no lasting injuries from this mishap, there was one minor consequence that allowed me to make a place for myself in the family annals by subsequently reporting that "Mutt was so scared he went to the bathroom in his pants."
Because of the dust we three human travelers were equipped with motorcyclists' goggles. Father decided one evening that this was favoritism, and that Mutt should have the same protection. We were then entering the outskirts of a place called Elbow, a typical prairie village with an unpaved main street as wide as the average Ontario farm, and with two rows of plank-fronted buildings facing each other distantly across this arid expanse. The drugstore was the only place still open when we arrived.
Father, Mutt, and I entered the shop together, and when an aged clerk appeared from the back premises, my father asked him for driving goggles. The old fellow searched for a long time and finally brought us three pairs that had been designed and manufactured in the first years of the automobile era. They seemed to be serviceable and without more ado Father began trying them on Mutt.
Happening to glance up while this was going on, I met the clerk's gaze. He was transfixed. His leathered face had sagged like a wet chamois cloth and his tobacco-stained stubs seemed ready to fall from his receding lower jaw. Father missed this preliminary display, but he was treated to an even better show a moment later when he got briskly to his feet, holding the second pair of goggles.
"These will do. How much are they?" he asked. And then suddenly remembering that he had forgotten to pack his shaving kit before leaving Saskatoon, he added, "We'll want a shaving brush, soap, and a safety razor too."
The old man had retreated behind his counter. He looked as if he was going to begin weeping. He pawed the air with one emaciated hand for several seconds before he spoke.
"Oh, Gawd!" he wailed - and it was a real prayer. "Don't you tell me that dawg shaves, too!"
We had to improvise a special harness for the goggles because of the unusual shape of Mutt's head, but they fitted him tolerably well, and he was pleased with them. When they were not in use we would push them up on the lift of his brow, but in a few days he had learned how to do this for himself, and he could pull them down again over his eyes in time of need. Apart from the effect they had on unimaginative passers-by, Mutt's goggles were an unqualified success. However, they did not give him protection for his nose and one day he met a bee at forty miles an hour. The left side of Mutt's already bulbous nose swelled hugely. This did not inconvenience him too severely, for he simply moved to the other side of the car. But luck was against him and he soon collided with another bee, or perhaps it was a wasp this time. The total effect of the two stings was bizarre. With his goggles down, Mutt now looked like a cross between a hammerhead shark and a deep-sea diver.
Our second night on the western road was spent at Swift River in southern Saskatchewan. Swift River was almost the center of the dust-bowl country and it had a lean and hungry look. We were very hot, very dusty, and very tired when we drove into its northern outskirts and began searching for the municipal tourist camp - for in those times there were no motels, and the only alternative to a tent of one's own was a tiny cubicle in a crematorium that bore the sardonic title of "hotel."
Swift River was proud of its municipal tourist camp, which was located in a brave but pathetic attempt at a park, near the banks of an artificial slough.
We set about pitching the tent, which was a patented affair and not easily mastered. Soon a policeman came along and eyed us suspiciously, as if convinced that we were undesirable vagrants masquerading as bona fide tourists. He became quite grumpy when called upon to help with the tent.
We were all in a taut temper when we finally crawled into our blankets that night. It did not ease our mood that the night's rest was fragmentary due to the influx of clouds of mosquitoes from the nearby slough, and due also to the sad moanings of a pair of emaciated elk who lived in a nearby wild-life enclosure.
We tossed and muttered in the hot and crowded tent, and were not disposed to rise with the dawn. We were still abed, still partly comatose, when voices near at hand brought us unwillingly back to the new day.
The voices were feminine, spinsterish, and indignant. I was too drugged with fatigue to catch the gist of the conversation at first, but I was sufficiently conscious to hear Father's sudden grunt of anger, and Mother's whispered attempts to soothe him. Things seemed interesting enough to warrant waking fully, so I sat up in bed and gave the voices my attention.
The dialogue went like this:
From outside: "It's a shame - that's what it is. A regular public nuisance! I can't imagine what the officials are thinking of to allow it."
Mutterings from Father, who seemed to know what this was all about: "Old harridans! Who the devil do they think they are?"
Mother, soothingly: " Now, Angus!"
Outside again: "What a perfectly poisonous smell. . . . Do you think it really is a dog?"
At this my father jerked convulsively, and I remembered that Mutt had abandoned the dubious comforts of the tent in the early dawn and had walked all over me, seeking the doorway. I began to share my father's annoyance. No stranger had the right to speak of Mutt in terms like these. And they were growing worse.
"It looks like a dog - but how it stinks!" the disembodied and waspish voice continued. "Phew! Whoever owns it should be put in jail."
This was more than Father could bear. His bellow shook the tent.
" I own that dog," he cried, "and what do you intend to do about it?"
He had already begun to stumble about, looking for his clothes, when one of the voices responded in a manner that unhinged him completely.
"Well!" it said scathingly. "Why don't you bury it - or is that too much to expect from - from drifters!"
It was at this point that Father burst out of the tent, clad only in his pajama tops, and so angry that he was incoherent. Wordless he may have been, but his tone of voice was sufficient to send the two bird watchers - for that is what they were - skittering to their car. They vanished with a clash of gears, leaving us alone with the unhappy elk - and with a dog.
It was not Mutt. It was a strange dog, and it floated belly up in a backwater of the slough not more than twenty feet away. It had been dead a long, long time.
Mother was triumphant. "There, you see?" she told my father. "You never look before you leap." She was undeniably right, for if Father had looked we would have been spared the half hour that followed when the grumpy policeman returned and demanded that we haul our dog out of the slough and bury it at once. He was really more truculent than grumpy, and he did not have a sympathetic ear for our attempts at explanation. It would perhaps have been easier to convince him that the whole affair was a misunderstanding had Mutt been present, but Mutt had gone off in the early dawn to examine the quality of Swift River's garbage cans, and he did not return until Eardlie stood packed and ready to flee. Mutt never understood why Father was so short with him for the rest of the day.
The remainder of our journey through the prairies passed without undue excitement, and this was well, for it was a time of mounting fatigue, and of tempers strained by days of heat, by the long pall of dust, and by the yellowed desert of the drying plains. The poplar bluffs were few and far between, and their parched leaves rustled stiffly with the sound of death. The sloughs were dry, their white beds glittering in the destroying heat. Here and there a tiny puddle of muck still lingered in a roadside ditch, and these potholes had become death traps for innumerable little families of ducks. Botulism throve in the stagnant slime, and the ducks died in their thousands, and their bodies did not rot, but dried as mummies dry.
It was a grim passage, and we drove Eardlie hard, heedless of his steadily boiling radiator and his laboring engine. And then one morning there was a change. The sky that had been dust hazed for so long grew clear and sweet. Ahead of us, hung between land and air, we saw the first blue shadows of the distant mountains.
We camped early that night and we were in high spirits at our escape from drought and desert. When the little gasoline stove had hissed into life and Mother was preparing supper, Mutt and I went off to explore this new and living land. Magpies rose ahead of us, their long tails iridescent in the setting sun. Pipits climbed the crests of the high clouds and sang their intense little songs. Prairie chickens rose chuckling out of a green pasture that lay behind a trim white farmhouse. We walked back to the tent through a poplar bluff whose leaves flickered and whispered as live leaves should.
We crossed through most of Alberta the next day, and by evening were climbing the foothills. It had been a day for Mutt to remember. Never had he suspected that cows existed anywhere in such vast numbers. The size of the herds bewildered him so much that he lost all heart for the chase. He was so overwhelmed (and so greatly outnumbered) that he stayed in the car even when we stopped for lunch. In the evening we made our camp near a little roadside stand that sold gasoline and soda pop, and here Mutt tried to recover his self-respect by pursuing a very small, very lonely little cow that lived behind the garage. His cup of woe was filled to overflowing when the little cow turned out to be a billy goat - Mutt's first - and retaliated by chasing him back to the tent, and then attempting to follow him inside.
We began the passage of the mountains in the morning, and we chose the northern route, which at that time was no easy path even for a Model A. The roads were narrow, precipitous, and gravel surfaced. There were no guard rails, and periodically we would find ourselves staring over the edge of a great gorge while Eardlie's wheels kicked gravel down into the echoing abyss.
We seemed to undergo a strange shrinking process as the mountains grew higher and more massive. I felt that we were no more than four microorganisms, dwarfed almost to the vanishing point. The mountains frightened me, because I knew them as the last of the Terrible Things - the immutable survivors that alone remained unaltered by the human termites who have scarred the face of half a world.
Mutt too was humbled at first, and he showed his awe of the mountains in an odd way. He refused to use them for mundane purposes, and since there was nowhere else to cock a leg, except against a mountain, he was in agony for a time. Fortunately for him his awe was transitory. It was eventually replaced by the urge to climb, for the desire to seek high places had always been his, and it had taken him first to the top of fences, then up ladders, and finally high into the trees. Now he saw that it could take him to the clouds, and he was no dog to miss an opportunity.
We lost Mutt, and two days from our itinerary, when he set out on his own to reach the peaks of the Three Sisters. We never knew for certain if he achieved his goal, but when he arrived back at our impatient camp, his paw pads were worn almost to the flesh and he had a cocky air about him as of one who has stood upon a pinnacle and gazed across the world.
This mountain-climbing passion was an infernal nuisance to the rest of us, for he would sneak away whenever we stopped, and would appear high on the face of some sheer cliff, working his way steadily upward, and deaf to our commands that he return at once.
One day we paused for a drink of spring water near the face of a forbidding cliff, and of course Mutt was unable to resist the challenge. We did not notice that he was gone until a large American limousine drew up alongside us and from it four handsome women and two well-fed men emerged. They were all equipped with movie cameras and binoculars, and some of them began staring at the cliff with their glasses, while the rest leveled their cameras. The whirr of the machines brought me over to see what this was all about. I asked one of the women.
"Hush, sonny," she replied in a heavy whisper, "there's a real live mountain goat up there!" And with that she too raised her camera and pressed the button.
I spent a long time looking for that goat. I could see Mutt clearly enough, some three hundred feet up the cliffside; but no goat. I supposed that Mutt was on the goat's trail, and it irked me that I was blind while these strangers were possessed of such keen eyes.
After some ten minutes of intent photography the Americans loaded themselves back into the limousine and drove away, engaging in much congratulatory backslapping at their good luck as they went.
I had caught on by then. That night we discussed the anomaly of a piebald mountain goat with long black ears, and I am afraid we laughed outrageously. Yet in point of fact no genuine mountain goat could have given a more inspired demonstration of mountaineering techniques than could Mutt.
Leaving the mountains temporarily, we descended into the Okanagan valley, where we hoped to see a fabulous monster called the Ogo Pogo that dwells in Lake Okanagan. The monster proved reluctant, so we solaced ourselves by gorging on the magnificent fruits for which the valley is famous, and for which we had often yearned during the prairie years. To our surprise - for he could still surprise us on occasion - Mutt shared our appetites, and for three days he ate nothing at all but fruit.
He preferred peaches, muskmelon, and cherries, but cherries were his undoubted favorites. At first he had trouble with the pits, but he soon perfected a rather disgusting trick of squirting them out between his front teeth, and as a result we had to insist that he point himself away from us and the car whenever he was eating cherries.
I shall never forget the baleful quality of the look directed at Mutt by a passenger on the little ferry in which we crossed the Okanagan River. Perhaps the look was justified. Certainly Mutt was a quaint spectacle as he sat in the rumble seat, his goggles pushed far up on his forehead, eating cherries out of a six-quart basket.
After each cherry he would raise his muzzle, point it overside, and nonchalantly spit the pit into the green waters of the river.
Excerpted from The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Farley Mowat. This edition now in stores. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.