Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1145
In the summer of 1960, Edward Hoagland and his wife lived in Hazelton, British Columbia, a remote village on the Skeena River, where Hoagland heard stories of an even more isolated town named Telegraph Creek. Telegraph Creek originated one hundred years earlier, when a plan to string telegraph wire from New York to London the long way required outposts along the route. The line was hung as far as Telegraph Creek when the transatlantic cable connected New York and London the short way; thus, spools of unused wire were left to rust, and the population of Telegraph Creek shrunk to native Indians and the various gold hunters and white explorers who fancied living on game and produce. The century-old Telegraph Creek Hoagland pondered in Hazelton promised a wealth of lore and glimpses of mountain men (“stories which hadn’t worn threadbare with handling”) were it only possible to arrive there. No one in Hazelton could accommodate the journalist, however, as the passage overland was more demanding than even the local blusterers could manage, and Hoagland returned to New York unsatisfied.
Despite correspondence from guides familiar with Telegraph Creek which discouraged the avid writer from visiting, Hoagland returned to British Columbia in 1966, divorced and lonely but eager to confirm his intuition that going into the area around Telegraph Creek would be tantamount to stepping into the previous century. Notes from the Century Before, a travel journal of more than three hundred pages, is the book he wrested from the inhabitants, human and animal, and the magnificent landscape. Although Hoagland labels himself a rhapsodist, and although he devotes sections of the journal to the visual wonders, the book concentrates on describing the men who live in the wilderness and the stories they had to tell: “I would be talking to the doers themselves, the men whom no one pays any attention to until they are dead, who give the mountains their names and who pick the passes that become the freeways.”
The journal begins with an entry for June 2, 1966, the day Hoagland left New York, and concludes with an entry for August 3. After two weeks in Telegraph Creek, he traveled to other remote corners of British Columbia. Entries characteristically feature physical impressions of the men and women Hoagland meets. Dan McPhee, who settled in the West in 1904, “looks like a canny grandpa from Tobacco Road—long nose, floppy hat, black shirt . . . and when he tells a joke, he seems to swallow it, like a shot of whiskey.” Another Telegraph Creek citizen, Mr. Wriglesworth, “looks like the prophet who walks in front of a migrating people carrying a staff, and as though his face were younger underneath the skin than outside.” Entries also focus on the means these pioneers have found to thrive in this land without supermarkets. Wriglesworth’s staples include grouse, salmon (slimed “with brine strong enough to blacken a potato”), black bear, mountain goat, moose, snowshoe rabbits, beaver, and a wealth of vegetables from cabbage to squash. Methods of trapping animals are discussed at length, and story after story is recorded of self-sufficient inventiveness by the mountain men. Typical of dozens is a method used by Jim Morgan, an aging explorer, who as a young man enticed wolves to approach him by flopping around on a frozen lake as if wounded.
Since the book is a journal, meditation on the place he is visiting occurs at random. Hoagland often remarks on the Indians’ condition, and how their way of living contrasts with the whites. Hoagland finds the Indians of Eddontenajon, a village to the east of Telegraph Creek, susceptible to the white man’s gift of liquor and their community a mess as a result. In a town such as Caribou Hide, however, the Indian’s traditional life-style survives. Left to themselves, without the welfare checks distributed to the alcoholic Indians of Eddontenajon, the Indians remain Indians. Yet they also suffer periodically from starvation, a condition the white explorers find inexcusable given the wealth of game available to any hunter.
Hoagland also records descriptions of the animals. Game, he contends, is more essential than stunning scenery. Watching a caribou swim across a lake, he writes, “She was a pretty bleached tan with two-pronged antlers in velvet, and she splashed in the shallows like a filly, muzzling the bugs off her rear.” A sighting of a wolf takes up two pages of diary space, as if his view might be the last:And their heads are large to contain their mouths, which are both hands and mouths. Their eyes are fixed in a Mongol slant to avoid being bitten. Nobody born nowadays will see a wild wolf. They are an epitome; one keeps count because they are so exceptional a glimpse.
Along with the eighty-year-old pioneers, their anecdotes, the Indians, the vast landscape, and the game, Hoagland writes of introspective moments. He feels guilty about the scavenging methods of professional journalism, and though most interlocutors speak freely and surrender their lore, some ask to be paid. His inability to stay married to a woman he loved exasperates him. He frankly admits the differences between himself and the pioneers. While admiring their stamina and indifference to the harshness of isolation, he is not tempted by their life-style. Though he has found sustained intimacy with women in civilization hard to manage, he is not inclined to withdraw. When he is concussed and bedridden after an automobile wreck in the woods, and flown to a hospital in Hazelton, he surrenders gratefully to the blandishments of the nurses: “Back to the world of women! Suddenly it was all women. It’s not that there aren’t any women in the bush; it’s that they’re so muffled up.”
After recovering, Hoagland explores the region north of Telegraph Creek, including another town he wanted to visit for its possible historic significance—a “gold town” called Atlin. During the Gold Rush, Atlin had thrived. When Hoagland arrives he finds 160 old souls living just below the Yukon on a mixture of memories and alcohol: “Needless to say, I love this town. Atlin has the blue lake, the Swiss view and the swish-swash historical hurrah of the Rush, but it isn’t niched into a worn river bluff like Telegraph Creek.”
Hoagland’s journal concludes with his departure from Atlin. The book’s final chapter describes his few days in Victoria, before leaving for New York, where he hunts down and interviews one last aged adventurer, E.C. Lamarque, who led mapping expeditions during the 1930’s in northern British Columbia. To Hoagland’s astonishment, Lamarque gives him a ten-foot sheet of paper containing his original sketches for a map of a passage Lamarque loved the most of any place he had explored. Hoagland flies east the next day mumbling again and again to the wilderness, “I love thee. Love to thee. I love thee.”
Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 65
Gardner, Harvey. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXIV (January 8, 1969), p. 16.
Grant, Annette. Review in Newsweek. LXXIII (January 2, 1969), p. 94.
Hoagland, Edward. “Slouching Toward Wadi Dhar: Edward Hoagland Motors Through the Mountains of Yemen and Lives to Tell About It,” in Interview Magazine. XVIII (May, 1988), p. 96.
Updike, John. “Journeyers,” in Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, 1983.
Wolff, Geoffrey. Introduction to The Edward Hoagland Reader, 1979.
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