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- Over Prairie Trails - 6/28 -


air seems to be pretty well condensed as dew It is only in the hollows of the ground that it remains suspended in this curious way. I cannot, so far, say whether it is due to the fact that where radiation is largely thrown back upon the walls of the hollow, the fall in temperature at first is very much slower than in the open, thus enabling the moisture to remain in suspension; or whether the hollows serve as collecting reservoirs for the cold air from the surrounding territory--the air carrying the already condensed moisture with it; or whether, lastly, it is simply due to a greater saturation of the atmosphere in these cavities, consequent upon the greater approach of their bottom to the level of the ground water. I have seen a "waterfall" of this mist overflow from a dent in the edge of ground that contained a pool. That seems to argue for an origin similar to that of a spring; as if strongly moisture-laden air welled up from underground, condensing its steam as it got chilled. It is these strange phenomena that are familiar, too, in the northern plains of Europe which must have given rise to the belief in elves and other weird creations of the brain--"the earth has bubbles as the water has"--not half as weird, though, as some realities are in the land which I love.

Now this great, memorable fog of that November Friday shared the nature of the mist pools of the north in as much as to a certain extent it refused to mingle with the drier and slightly warmer air into which it travelled. It was different from them in as much as it fairly dripped and oozed with a very palpable wetness. Just how it displaced the air in its path, is something which I cannot with certainty say. Was it formed as a low layer somewhere over the lake and slowly pushed along by a gentle, imperceptible, fan-shaped current of air? Fan-shaped, I say; for, as we shall see, it travelled simultaneously south and north; and I must infer that in exactly the same way it travelled west. Or was it formed originally like a tremendous column which flattened out by and by, through its own greater gravity slowly displacing the lighter air in the lower strata? I do not know, but I am inclined to accept the latter explanation. I do know that it travelled at the rate of about six miles an hour; and its coming was observed somewhat in detail by two other observers besides myself--two people who lived twenty-five miles apart, one to the north, one to the south of where I hit it. Neither one was as much interested in things meteorological as I am, but both were struck by the unusual density of the fog, and while one saw it coming from the north, the other one saw it approaching from the south.

I have no doubt that at last it began to mingle with the clearer air and to thin out; in fact, I have good testimony to that effect. And early next morning it was blown by a wind like an ordinary fog-cloud all over Portage Plains.

I also know that further north, at my home, for instance, it had the smell of the smoke which could not have proceeded from anywhere but the marsh; and the marsh lay to the south of it. That seemed to prove that actually the mist was spreading from a common centre in at least two directions. These points, which I gathered later, strongly confirmed my own observations, which will be set down further on. It must, then, have been formed as a layer of a very considerable height, to be able to spread over so many square miles.

As I said, I was reminded of those mist pools in the north when I approached the cliff of the fog, especially of that "waterfall" of mist of which I spoke. But besides the difference in composition--the fog, as we shall see, was not homogeneous, this being the cause of its wetness--there was another important point of distinction. For, while the mist of the pools is of the whitest white, this fog showed from the outside and in the mass--the single wreaths seemed white enough--rather the colour of that "wet, unbleached linen" of which Burroughs speaks in connection with rain-clouds.

Now, as soon as I was well engulfed in the fog, I had a few surprises. I could no longer see the road ahead; I could not see the fence along which I had been driving; I saw the horses' rumps, but I did not see their heads. I bent forward over the dashboard: I could not even see the ground below It was a series of negatives. I stopped the horses. I listened--then looked at my watch. The stillness of the grave enveloped me. It was a little past five o'clock. The silence was oppressive--the misty impenetrability of the atmosphere was appalling. I do not say "darkness," for as yet it was not really dark. I could still see the dial of my watch clearly enough to read the time. But darkness was falling fast--"falling," for it seemed to come from above: mostly it rises--from out of the shadows under the trees--advancing, fighting back the powers of light above.

One of the horses, I think it was Peter, coughed. It was plain they felt chilly. I thought of my lights and started with stiffening fingers to fumble at the valves of my gas tank. When reaching into my trouser pockets for matches, I was struck with the astonishing degree to which my furs had been soaked in these few minutes. As for wetness, the fog was like a sponge. At last, kneeling in the buggy box, I got things ready. I smelt the gas escaping from the burner of my bicycle lantern and heard it hissing in the headlight. The problem arose of how to light a match. I tried various places--without success. Even the seat of my trousers proved disappointing. I got a sizzling and sputtering flame, it is true, but it went out before I could apply it to the gas. The water began to drip from the backs of my hands. It was no rain because it did not fall. It merely floated along; but the droplets, though smaller, were infinitely more numerous than in a rain--there were more of them in a given space. At last I lifted the seat cushion under which I had a tool box filled with ropes, leather straps and all manner of things that I might ever be in need of during my nights in the open. There I found a dry spot where to strike the needed match. I got the bicycle lantern started. It burned quite well, and I rather admired it: unreasoningly I seemed to have expected that it would not burn in so strange an atmosphere. So I carefully rolled a sheet of letter paper into a fairly tight roll, working with my back to the fog and under the shelter of my big raccoon coat. I took a flame from the bicycle light and sheltered and nursed it along till I thought it would stand the drizzle. Then I turned and thrust the improvised torch into the bulky reflector case of the searchlight. The result was startling. A flame eighteen inches high leaped up with a crackling and hissing sound.

The horses bolted, and the buggy jumped. I was lucky, for inertia carried me right back on the seat, and as soon as I had the lines in my hands again, I felt that the horses did not really mean it. I do not think we had gone more than two or three hundred yards before the team was under control. I stopped and adjusted the overturned valves. When I succeeded, I found to my disappointment that the heat of that first flame had partly spoiled the reflector. Still, my range of vision now extended to the belly-band in the horses' harness. The light that used to show me the road for about fifty feet in front of the horses' heads gave a short truncated cone of great luminosity, which was interesting and looked reassuring; but it failed to reach the ground, for it was so adjusted that the focus of the converging light rays lay ahead and not below. Before, therefore, the point of greatest luminosity was reached, the light was completely absorbed by the fog.

I got out of the buggy, went to the horses' heads and patted their noses which were dripping with wetness. But now that I faced the headlight, I could see it though I had failed to see the horses' heads when seated behind it. This, too, was quite reassuring, for it meant that the horses probably could see the ground even though I did not.

But where was I? I soon found out that we had shot off the trail. And to which side? I looked at my watch again. Already the incident had cost me half an hour. It was really dark by now, even outside the fog, for there was no moon. I tried out how far I could get away from the buggy without losing sight of the light. It was only a very few steps, not more than a dozen. I tried to visualize where I had been when I struck the fog. And fortunately my habit of observing the smallest details, even, if only subconsciously, helped me out. I concluded that the horses had bolted straight ahead, thus missing an s-shaped curve to the right.

At this moment I heard Peter paw the ground impatiently; so I quickly returned to the horses, for I did not relish the idea of being left alone. There was an air of impatience and nervousness about both of them.

I took my bicycle lantern and reached for the lines. Then, standing clear of the buggy, I turned the horses at right angles, to the north, as I imagined it to be. When we started, I walked alongside the team through dripping underbrush and held the lantern with my free hand close down to the ground.

Two or three times I stopped during the next half hour, trying, since we still did not strike the trail, to reason out a different course. I was now wet through and through up to my knees; and I had repeatedly run into willow-clumps, which did not tend to make me any drier either. At last I became convinced that in bolting the horses must have swerved a little to the south, so that in starting up again we had struck a tangent to the big bend north, just beyond Bell's farm. If that was the case, we should have to make another turn to the right in order to strike the road again, for at best we were then simply going parallel to it. The trouble was that I had nothing to tell me the directions, not even a tree the bark or moss of which might have vouchsafed information. Suddenly I had an inspiration. Yes, the fog was coming from the northeast! So, by observing the drift of the droplets I could find at least an approximate meridian line. I went to the


Over Prairie Trails - 6/28

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