Thursday, November 10, 2011
The Hermit's Compass
Years ago when I lived in Oregon, I was care taking a 300-acre farm west of Portland. The rent was free and I got a little money at the end of the year for planting crops around the duck hunting lakes. I had chickens, ducks, turkeys and goats, as well as a huge vegetable garden.
But for my bread and butter (Beer money), I loaded up my old farm truck and drove into town to do small landscaping jobs and yard clean-ups.
One of my customers was an old guy named Walt who lived in a house overlooking the river. Walt's son was a tugboat captain and he checked me out after work one day; it's something any son would do to look after a father who was over 80 years-old. We sat in Walt's cool basement on a summer afternoon and had crackers, salami and Beer. I guess I checked out OK.
Walt liked to visit and talk on the days I worked for him. His dining room table had guns stacked on it, including a lever-action 45.70 rifle that used huge cartridges. One day Walt pulled out an old photo album, and I mean these pictures were from the 1930's if not earlier. One was of Walt, his best friend and a beautiful young girl climbing Mount Hood. They were dressed in wool pants and coats and were using the old "alpenstocks" instead of ice axes. They didn't have a car, they had walked around thirty miles from Portland to climb the mountain. From the way Walt talked, I could tell he had been in love with that girl, the kind of love that was never to be complete and never to be forgotten.
Walt had lived somewhere in southeast Portland, which would have been very undeveloped at the time. He used to walk into the rugged foothills of the cascades all the time, something kids these days couldn't imagine.
One time, Walt said, he was in the forest and not quite sure where he was. He came upon a large apple orchard and saw a small cabin in the distance. It was getting late in the day and he figured he didn't have enough daylight to hike back out. With much trepidation, he approached the cabin.
Sure enough, there was an old hermit that lived there. The guy probably hadn't seen another human in months. They talked a bit and reasoned that it would be OK for Walt to spend the night and hike back out the next day.
The cabin was very small and smokey from the cook stove. Walt said the hermit had a barrel of salted meat and prepared a stew for both of them to eat. There was small talk, the stew wasn't bad and Walt was grateful to have a place to stay.
After the meal, the hermit asked him if he knew what it was he ate, and Walt couldn't guess - deer meat, pork?
No, the hermit said, and took Walt over to a ladder that led up to the loft in the cabin. They both climbed the ladder into the dark loft and Walt suddenly found out what kind of meat they had eaten: the edge of each wall was lined with bear skulls. Each bear skull had a single bullet-hole in the forehead. Walt remembered that the hermit had a substantial apple orchard around the cabin. Each fall, when the apples were ripe, the bears would come out of the mountains and try to raid the apple orchard. The enticing fruit became the Bear's demise, and the hermit's dinner.
Before Walt left the next morning, the hermit gave him a useful gift; a "hermit's compass".
The compass was made of a magnetized hacksaw blade with another pointer blade attached at an angle. It was hung from a string and the main blade pointed to magnetic north; the smaller pointer was to compensate to true north.
And so on one hot summer afternoon, while Walt and I sat in his cool basement eating crackers, salami and Beer, he told me this story and gave me the hermit's compass pictured above.