From Broadway to the Bush
"Get out of town," the Manhattan doctor told the Morenuses. Now they wouldn’t trade their Sioux Lookout cabin for Radio City
THE BENCH was getting hard. I looked at my watch. Quarter past three. I’d been sitting there in the whispering silences of the hospital corridor since midnight. How long did it take to perform an emergency operation on a perforated ulcer? I’d obtained the best surgeon-specialist in New York, noted for the brilliance of his quick efficient work. But three hours and 15 minutes! Maybe he’d run into trouble. Maybe he couldn’t save her!
I looked at my watch again—that badge of my profession I wore on my wrist. It was a stop watch, a cruelly clever instrument of inexorable time.
My wife and I had been stop-watch slaves in New York for more than 10 years, I as writerdirector of network programs, she as one of the more popular actresses who suffer daily in serials before the microphones.
The big red hand of the studio clock had bound us until we were accountable to it for every one of its measured minutes. Its gifts were liberal, but the cost was great in ruined digestions, tired bodies, and nerves as taut as piano wires. Something had to snap. It had been Nan . . .
The door of the hospital elevator slid open. Flanked by internes and nurses, still in their operating room caps and gauze masks, a tall rubberwheeled stretcher cart slowly passed me.
The only color in the moving white was the splash of golden-red hair on the pillow. I had one short glimpse of her face, eyes closed in merciful anaesthetized sleep. But she was alive! My wife was alive. I looked at my watch. Three-thirty.
“She’s all through, Dick.” The doctor looked at me steadily. “Yes,” he went on, “she’s through with radio. No more stage work, no more making motion pictures, no more metropolitan living. Oh, she’ll be all right, she’ll be perfectly healthy,” he added quickly, “but her nerves won’t be able to take any more of that stuff. My advice is that you get her out into the country . . . on a farm perhaps.” The country. I’d visited a farm once. For about a week. That was the closest I’d ever come to rural life. The memories I’d brought away of a quagmired barnyard were packed away in the aroma of manure piles. When the doctor mentioned a farm, I visioned bent backs, gnarled hands and hard work. I had no objection to work, but our living was bound up in advertising and radio sponsors and set in concrete. If it depended upon me to till the soil, and wrest our living from the good earth, I was sure we’d die of slow starvation, and be buried in mortgages.
You’ve always liked the outdoors, Dick, and it’s Nan’s salvation to live away from the city,” said the specialist. “So you might just as well make up your mind to it.”
The outdoors. That was different. Both Nan and I liked the bush. Each summer we’d taken leave
for a month and hied ourselves to Canada’s bush country to fish and to hunt, and in the utter serenity of primitively peaceful surroundings regain perspectives otherwise warped by the other 48 weeks of the year spent in the phantasmal world of entertainment.
But for two people instinctively gregarious, so dependent upon contacts with other human beings for livelihood, to cut loose to carve a year-round existence out of the wilderness presented at best certain rugged aspects. My tourist instincts rose to the challenge, but the heavy weight of being practical held them down.
During Nan’s convalescence we conned and pro’d the future. We shelved the thought of a farm, although for a brief couple of days we did toss around the idea of raising ducks on Long Island, or chickens in Jersey, only to have them lost in the maps of Canada which were forever getting in our way. We investigated roadside filling stations, and even tourist cabin setups along highways, but these brought us right back to maps, and by far the most intriguing we had were those of the back bush country of northern Ontario.
Finally we decided; bush life it was to be. But
Eight or nine years experience in visiting the easily accessible well-populated tourist section was at once red-pencilled. If we were going into the bush to live, we’d go all the way.
On the map we found a road running north. We traced it until it stopped where it met the northern swing of the Canadian National Railways at a pinprick of a town—Sioux Lookout, Ont. Here, then, was what we were looking for. This would be our starting point. No motor road to the north. No railroad to the north. Nothing to the north but wilderness. The town could furnish a source of supply for food and such other needs as we might require.
So the doctor’s prescription called for quiet and seclusion, and he wanted us to get into the outdoors, did he? All right, then. We’d show him. We’d go to the last outpost, and jump off from there.
In the fall of 1939 we began writing letters. The difficulty at first was to find anyone to write to. But by starting at Winnipeg and working east through Kenora and Dryden, we
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From Broadway To the Bush
Nan and I held quite a ceremony the day the registered deed arrived by mail and we found ourselves actually possessed of land duly granted by the King. That was when we started burning bridges—the contacts with the advertising agencies, and recording companies, and the film companies
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succeeded in locating a young man in Sioux Lookout, the pinprick of a town we had found on the map, who not only answered our mail promptly, but who seemed thoroughly to enjoy the writing contact with “Americans.” He particularly liked answering questions. By the time we had finished we had an Indian’s-eye picture of the land and water for miles around Not only that, but he had located an island for us.
There are probably millions of islands in the bush country. Our energetic young informant, however, by this time fully aware of our wants, had located one with buildings on it. It was 14 miles by water beyond Sioux Lookout.
We bought it, sight unseen—a sevenacre island in the wilderness, complete with a log cabin, storehouse, icehouse, two canoes and two outboard motors of questionable vintage and worth. Our front yard was trackless bush, and what most people call civilization began about 500 miles south of our back door.
with which we had worked. The most spectacular conflagration took place when I quit my job as executive staff writer with the NBC, and we watched the security of a steady pay cheque go up in smoke. In the embers lay my experience of over 10 years active affiliation with the networks, and the end of Nan’s successful career as an actress.
Then we scraped among the ashes to determine what we had left. There was precious little. Living in New York came high. Nan’s fancy surgical needlework had been done by an expensive authority on such interior decorating. We were practically broke.
We spent our last days getting rid of everything we owned that would be of no practical use in a land of coal-oil lamps and wood stoves. On our last evening in town we were partied, and had to listen to the headshaking commiseration of our friends.
The next morning at daybreak we loaded suitcases, boxes, typewriter and a cocker spaniel into the car and headed north. It was the first day of May, 1940.
Five days and 2,000 miles later we came to a stop before the Hollywood Café, Sioux Lookout. We had literally reached the end of the road. Just a block farther on some sturdy settler was still carving the town limits out of the wilderness with an axe. It was lunchtime, and we ate under the questioning gaze of Indians and bushmen. The license tag on our car was a giveaway. We were obviously “those crazy Americans” who had bought the island and were moving here to live. Everyone,
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we were to learn, within a radius of 100 miles knew of our transaction, to the minutest detail.
The Indians stared in stony silence, broken now and then by a single falsetto-whispered word, “Mis-qua-nequat.” That was the first time we heard the name by which ,Nan would be known among Indians throughout the bush. “Mis-qua-ne-quat,” Hair like the setting sun. We didn’t know then what it meant, but it sounded rather nice.
After lunch we set out to find our correspondent, only to learn that two days before he had left for a job in a B. C. lumber camp.
It took most of the afternoon for us to find someone who agreed to guide us to our island. Before leaving town, our last contact with the outside world, we stocked up with provisions at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s store.
Our first sight of the island was a teardrop of green against the turquoise of the water. As we neared it we saw it was peopled with stately red pine, balsam and cedar. And, as if acting sentinel on the point, stood a pair of towering Norways, regal in their majesty. The cabin, about 100 feet inland from shore, nestled in a protecting stand of birch. I suddenly felt very small and humble in this overwhelming greatness of the wilderness.
Lots to Do
Then we saw the challenge that faced us—the work to be done, the repairs to be made. Roofs had to be fixed, chinking replaced, doors and windows refitted where the thaws and freezes of years had sagged the casements. But the logwork had been careful and expert, and our buildings were in unexpectedly good condition. Nan as yet had said nothing, but I felt she mirrored my feelings that whatever the shape of things were then, our home in the bush would be what we made it.
It was just six o’clock when the last of our supplies, cases and bundles had been deposited on the shore of our island, and our ferryman, pocketing his fee, had shoved off for the mainland. We were home, alone in the wilderness. And green? We blended perfectly into the shadowy backdrop of pine and cedar.
We’re now into our sixth year in the bush. It has taken us most of these past five years to learn how to live. When we started we had no one to teach us, no one to show us the easy ways or the short cuts, or even the right way to do things. We had to learn our lessons from the bitter results of making mistakes, and being careful not to repeat the same mistake.
When we first arrived we were armed with only that superficial knowledge gained from a few pleasant weeks each summer spent under the watchful practiced eye of a thoroughly good bushman ... a guide. We knew how to build a campfire, make a camp, handle a canoe, catch fish, shoot, and the other little niceties attendant upon tourist holidays in the out of doors. We knew what made our bushman a good guide, but we knew not one of the things that made our guide a good bushman.
Quite suddenly we were confronted with the chilling fact that we knew next to nothing about what we were attempting to do. We began to realize how totally unprepared we were for the ! business of living in the woods. We were 100% theoretical.
Three miles down the lake from our home was a permanent Indian village of four or five families. They were our nearest neighbors. In the other direction, four miles, a small fur trade
post maintained a general store catering to trappers. We had the choice of two routes to town. One, entirely by water, was 14 miles. Tha other was a short cut crossing three miles of water, then five miles by trail through the bush.
How completely we were on our own became apparent when for weeks at a time not a soul passed our island save now and then a canoeload of Indians going to or from the post. And they, neither by word nor sign, showed that they were even aware of our existence. But we’d asked for it. And we had it.
Ail during that first year the typewriter stayed in its case and wrote not a single commercial word. The first two or three months were spent in repairing, remaking, redoing, patching, fixing up, and putting into shape. The island was a tangled mass of windfalls. It took another three months to clear this, to pile the wood for winter use, and to get rid of the brush.
Ready for the First Frost
By October we thought we had things in pretty good shape. The roofs no bnger leaked. Blankets were all mended. Mattresses were patched where generations of field mice had removed the filling to make their own comfortable living quarters. The canees floated, with only here and there a bit of seepage through some of the leaks still uncaught. Doors worked, windows opened and shut, and even the outboard motors were made to run, after a certain amount of coaxing and wheedling.
Nan and I felt we had achieved a major project. Our camp was “tight,” there was winter wood on the woodpile, and we were feeling just a little smug and secure about the whole thing. It was all the more remarkable to us that we had accomplished what we had, since my knowledge of mechanics had been confined to a high-school term in shop practice, and this had been my first experience with any device of the carpenter’s trade.
Up to our arrival the hardest work Nan had done was to hold a script in soft well-manicured hands and stand before a microphone, or swelter under the blaze of klieg lights before a camera. But by that October sore and painful blisters had developed into work - toughened calluses. Muscles began to take being under skin which had exchanged its milky city pallor for the silken gloss of inner health. One day I caught her staring at her hands. She looked up.
“Remember those commercials I used to do where I told the ladies their hands could have a different look in just 12 days? Look what a couple of months this bush beauty treatment has done to mine.”
There was a fresh patch of bandage to cover another burn from the balky
“Thinking about New York?” I asked.
“Mm-hm,” she nodded, “the subway, the automat, Times Square, Radio City . . . and people. And how crazy we were to have wasted so much time down there.”
“But don’t you mind all this hard work?”
“This isn’t half as bad as trying to get a part on Broadway, or auditioning for a new radio show. That’s work. This is the bush, and I love it. This is fun. Now come on, we’ll just have time to get in the last of that red pine we sawed up. That mallard I shot’s in the oven. We’re having it for supper, and can you get that on 6th Avenue?”
What a gal!
As far as an outing was concerned, that first season was something of a loss. Each of us had visualized lazy
days in a canoe, casting for bass, I pickerel, or trolling deep for a succulent j lake trout, and long cool evenings in the ! screened comfort of our porch, feeling somewhat superior and a little sorry for our friends grubbing away their lives in the city. Our fishing was confined to quick forays onto the lake to catch enough for a meal. Our evenings, until dark, and many times until after, and by the light of a lantern, represented j just so many more precious moments to j he spent in hauling, sawing and chop¡ ping wood, and in the other bits of j repair and upkeep left yet to be done by the too short hours of the day. So that summer went.
The first chill of October saw us ready to face winter in the north. That was when we relaxed. That was when we learned that in the north you can never relax. Nature turned upon us the moment we stopped to rest. Take things easy in her wilderness, would we? I
The storm lasted less than an hour, but we were reminded to this day of the chaos it left. Just outside my window I can see the stump of a huge white pine which was levelled across our roof. Except for the strong ridgepole of spruce, the cabin would surely have been crushed. The roof was pierced in a dozen places.
In all more than 100 trees were twisted and torn from their roots. Our canoes were found floating, bottom side up, 100 yards from shore. There were no friends or neighbors we could call on for temporary shelter. There was no one to ask for aid. So we set about it by ourselves.
Our first problem was to retrieve our sole means of transportation, the canoes, j The water was icy. Then came more of the eternal task of the bush, clearing. By freeze-up, in November, we were j once again ready. But this time, having gained the utmost respect for the latent power of the bush, we were alert and watchful.
Then, as coquettish as a maid, Nature showed us her full charm, and led us gently into the breath-taking beauty of her most gorgeous season in the north . . . winter. In the deep cold of the early winter nights we listened, in the secure warmth of our cabin, to the thunderous booming and whining of the lake as it succumbed to the freeze. We awoke in the mornings to air hung with the crystals of frozen vapor. We heard the riflelike snapping of sap freezing in trees. We heard the silence, silence as vivid as any symphony. In its cadence we felt suspended in limitless space beyond the measured reaches of time.
That first winter was cold but we j were ready for it in dress, fuel and temperament. Our winter deer in, j butchered and hanging frozen, kept us ; in meat. Our winter staples had been | brought over by canoe on the last trip before freeze-up. That winter we learned the mile-consuming rhythm of the snowshoe trail, after enduring the excruciating muscular pain of the first long trail hike. From then on it was a j joy to be alive in this land of unspoiled ; white and evergreen under a cerulean dome of frosted sky.
One day Nan came back from a snowshoe hike with a strange Indian in tow. j How she had wheedled him into the white man’s camp is still a mystery. He was probably cold and thirsty. She pointed to a chair by the stove and pushed cup after cup of steaming tea at him. I’d never thought her ability as an actress would be of value in the bush, but by pantomime and sign she cajoled him into showing her how to | set a snare. From that time on her , snare line augmented our venison fare I
with delicious rabbit potpie, and stew. That was the winter we learned to make bannock and to bake bread. And that was the winter we learned what 64 degrees below zero feels like.
Spring literally burst into being. One day the ice hung heavy and black and treacherously honeycombed across the water, then, under the warmth ,of the spring sun, it was gone. There were no heroics or violent theatrics. It merely disappeared, and there was movement. The water rolled and tossed like an unleashed thing. The birch and poplar showed tenderly green against the deeper backdrop of fir. Songbirds arrived and vied jealously in riotous Hashes of color for favored nesting spots. And once again the north was miraculously alive.
Then a strange thing took place, strange to us, at least, after having been through seven months of winter without a single visitor, save Nan’s pet Indian. Now prospectors, trappers, lumberjacks, bushmen of every sort and description began to stop by the island for a chat. They’d offer a bit of advice about this or that over a cup of tea. They’d discuss the winter and tell their experiences in exchange for a laugh over ours.
Then it suddenly dawned upon us. We had been accepted! We were one of them. They had been watching to see what would happen, and we had come through the first year on our own. We were at last truly of the bush. We were natives!
It would be nice to say that our lives now have assumed the pattern of a regular routine. But there is never routine in the bush.
Making a Living
After the first year the typewriter was unlimbered, a certain number of hours each day had to be put in on the keyboard.
Long experience of writing in the States had made our radio contacts not too difficult to maintain, and after convincing our markets that our mail service could meet their dead lines we turned our thoughts scriptwise once again.
Many times during the years since, we have discussed the diminishing probability of returning to metropolitan living. And each time the arguments in its favor become weaker and weaker.
We feel we’ve earned our right in the bush. We have been given and accepted the friendship and respect of those who know and love the north country. And we have grown to love it with them, its hardships, its rigors, and its bountiful goodness and beauty.
We have given of ourselves in struggle and toil and hard work. We have suffered discouragement and ofttimes heartbreaking disappointments. There will always be these so long as we live in the bush. But the reward is rich. We live in peace and beauty. We have the security of knowing that what we have we accomplished through our own efforts.
And we have the incalculable benefaction of health. That was a smart doctor who filled out Nan’s prescription and we feel we are the wiser, and richer, for having taken it. And better yet, we have put the stop watch away. We’re no longer fettered by lifeconsuming split-second timing. For now we do as the other natives. We measure time according to the four seasons of the year. And we find this tempo perfect.
We’ve talked of returning to New York for a visit, this fall perhaps. But then there’s the winter meat to get in. Nan will get her own deer, and skin it herself. Her snowshoes need fixing, so she’ll weave a new babiche from pliant
hide. Her canoe needs a patch before being stored for the winter. This she’ll want to see to herself. Then she’ll want to help get in the wood, and to rechink the cabin.
“When will we go back?” I asked Nan. j
She said: “My moccasins are soft on my feet when I walk in the woods. I’d miss my canoe. My dog team would be lonesome if I should leave them. I have more freedom than anyone else in the world. And where else is there i anything so beautiful. Go back? Go back to what? I have nothing to go back to. I’m where I belong now. I’m home!”