Plenty of entertaining statements are attributed to Orsen “Old Mountain” Phelps, the over-commercialized Betty Crocker of Adirondack Mountain guides.
I don’t know exactly who Phelps was, but after 30-plus years in the journalism business, I recognize the type: He wanted to be a lot of things, and was pretty good at it, but lost something of his identity in the process. His Swiss Army Knife approach to life led him down paths not just as a guide, but as a writer, scientist, geographer and philosopher-at-large.
The one thing he seemed pretty clear on, and I can relate, is that he did not want to go through life as a manual laborer. He cut trails, sure, but in Phelps’ world this was no more work than writing is to me.
Phelps was no intellect, but neither was he the semi-literate hayseed he passed himself of as when trying to land a guiding gig. I always fantasize that Phelps talked like Sir Kenneth Clarke when he was at home, but broke into a full hillbilly rag on the job, ladling in heaping helpings of dagnabbits and conswarnits to impress the clientele.
My favorite quotes from Phelps are drawn from the times that you can see his dual personas crossing paths. He would, allegedly, kick a citified débutante in the skirt if she were spending too much of the hike ignoring the surroundings, instead tittering about boys, fashion or high society.
“Young ladies,” Phelps would say, “There is a time and a place for such worldly chatter, but whilst thou are here I do wish you would take a moment to appreciate the natural grandeur, lest I be driven to terminate our contract forthwith.”
He didn’t put it quite that way, of course. If he had, we wouldn’t remember him today. Instead he concluded to “run them off of my mounting,” a phrase that has weathered the ages, while the more elegant phraseology of the masses has blown away with the dust. Phelps was dumb like a fox.
Another fascinating anecdote involves the great guide’s determination to locate his party’s camp in the deep forest rather than in a clearing with a splendid view of the Great Range. The reason? “Gothics ain’t the kinder scenery you want to hog down all at once,” Phelps explained.
I’ve spent way too much time wondering if Phelps had a point, when I could have been doing more useful things, like bathing the cat. Do we lose our sense of awe at natural wonders that we pass everyday on our way to work?
I don’t think so, but I do worry about it. I fully understand that there are poor souls on this planet who are worried about getting enough to eat, so my concerns are of the selfish, first-world- problem variety. But for decades I’ve been visiting the Adirondack Park maybe three times a year, and have always been able to count on being blown away by each new passing vista.
Now, as I transition into becoming a full-time resident, I hope I don’t start hogging down the scenery like a dog gulping down a decaying sub that he found in the ditch with such speed that he does not have time to relish the flavor.
The farmhouse we are renovating in Jay has a fine, comfortable and obviously well-used front porch, perfect for sitting on a rainy morning as I am doing now. But the elements of the view consist of 1. Nondescript lawn w/gravel drive; 2. Paved road; 3. Utility pole (the nonaesthetic kind); 4. Roadbank.
Out back is a scintillating view of the mountains and the Ausable River, where the sunsets are like hand-spun streaks of fire. But that apparently is not what entertained our forbearers.
Likewise, my brother rescued an old house on the water with a million-dollar view of Lake Champlain. The former owner drove a milk truck, and he boarded up the windows facing the lake as protection from the wind and relaxed on the front porch watching with interest the rolling sheetmetal fresh from the Detroit assembly lines.
I like cars, but I’ll never be that interested in watching the roads. And I feel certain I’ll never lose the glow I feel when gazing at Whiteface across a green and golden meadow on the drive into Wilmington.
But Phelps-the- philosopher’s warning is real. He tells us to guard against complacency, to respect our surroundings and to be mindful of our natural blessings. Approaching the matter in such fashion, I do hope to savor every natural cathedral for the rest of my days and not spend them blankly staring at the road.
Photo: Orsen “Old Mountain” Phelps by Seneca Ray Stoddard (1888).