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A Fresh Perspective – I

(See also A Fresh Perspective – II.)

For years merchant trains had passed through the town by the falls on their way to the great north-south trade route to the west. The terrain was terrible, but alternate routes were even worse. One could go two or three days journey southward, past the end of the gorge below the falls, then cross the river, and head up on the southern side, but that took even more time and the road above the falls wasn’t any better on that side than on this one.

This is a work of fiction. All persons, places, and things are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance of anything or anyone in the story to anything or anyone in the real world is coincidental.
Copyright © 2012,
Henry E. Neufeld.

Then had come the bad news. Several towns to the east had gotten together and were clearing and improving the road that bypassed the end of the gorge. They were blasting passages through the rocky hills. They were building a bridge across the river past the end of the gorge. They were building a road that avoided the river entirely. Put simply, they were making it possible for wagon trains to cut several days off their passage and avoid the long treck up the mountain to the town by the falls. The distance was greater, but the time was substantially less!

The elders of the town by the falls were downcast. Almost all of the income for people in the town, and for miles around, came from the trade traffic. There were porters to make the climb up the mountain, caravan guards, blacksmiths, and all the workers required to clothe and feed them. So they hired an engineer to estimate the cost of blasting a road up the mountain and then improving the road by the river. If they could do this, the route through the town was much shorter, and they could bring the caravan traffic back.

But the engineer told them that the cost would be much too great. Not even if everyone in the town donated their labor could the cost be brought down to something the town could afford. The resulting road would be hard to navigate, with nothing but tight switchback turns. It would even be dangerous.

The elders argued for hours. They discussed where they could get loans. They wondered if there was a way to bring goods up to the town that would cost less than building a road. Some people thought one could contrive a way to bring wagons up to the town with a contraption of pulleys and ropes, but the elders dismissed that immediately. Who would ever think of doing such a thing?

Then one man, bearded and dressed in animal skins, tried to get their attention. He first tried clearing his throat, but nobody listened. Then he waved his arms, but nobody noticed. Then he said “excuse me” while he waved his arms. People nearby said, “Shhh!” but nobody paid any further attention to him. Finally he jumped up, waved his arms, and yelled, “Hey! Excuse me!”

Then one of the elders said impatiently, “Yes? What do you want?”

“I have an idea,” said the wild looking man.

“Who are you?” asked the senior elder.

“I’m Embo, a hunter and hunting guide,” said the wild man.

“And what qualifies you to have an idea about our road? We have consulted all the best experts.”

“I grew up in these woods,” said Embo. I have guided hundreds of hunting parties upstream and downstream, and far afield in the mountains to the north. I know these mountains.”

“Knowing these mountains doesn’t qualify you to build roads,” said the engineer.

“I’ve never heard of you,” said one of the elders.

“He doesn’t look respectable,” said another elder to the person beside him, in a voice he thought was quiet.

“I know these mountains,” said Embo again.

There was murmuring amongst the elders and the audience, but the head elder waved his arm and silenced them. “We have been arguing for hours and we have not found any solution. It won’t hurt us to hear this … um … man’s idea.”

“To the north perhaps a day’s journey, there is a gap in the cliffs. It leads up onto the plateau a few miles west of the village. One could build a road through it, and it would join the river road.”

“That is why hunting guides shouldn’t pretend to be engineers,” said the engineer. “The passage up to the town is only the minor part of the problem. Building an adequate road along the river presents a much greater problem.”

“Yes,” said the senior elder. “What do you say to that?” But he asked his question in a tone that expected an answer. You see, none of the elders knew about the gap in the cliffs. They were only interested in what was in the town and in the caravan traffic. Why bother with gaps in cliffs?

“Well,” said Embo, “I was coming to that. Everybody knows [they didn’t, but why bring that up?] that another day or so westward along the river the current slows enough as it crosses the plateau so that one can navigate it with boats or small barges. . . .”

“There’s another reason that hunting guides should not pretend to be engineers. How are these boats to get far enough above the falls so that they can be used safely?” The engineer crossed his arms over his chest and gave Embo a challenging look.

“I was getting to that,” said Embo. “I have frequently moved hunting parties up the river by simply having horses pull the boat along by walking on the current road. While the road is rough on wagon wheels, the horses can handle it quite well.”

The engineer opened his mouth to speak, but Embo held up his hand. “Before you tell me this is another reason why a hunting guide should not presume to be an engineer, let me tell you that I have seen this sort of thing elsewhere, and that it would probably be best to have the boats hauled by oxen. The path will have to be improved, but not nearly as much as you are proposing. The resulting travel time will be days shorter than it is on the new road, and the wear and tear on the carts will be much lower.”

The engineer opened his mouth and shut it several times. He wanted to object, but he had already thought of some improvements that might be made to the plan, and there was a commission at stake.

“I see you are just now beginning to get the idea,” said Embo. “Perhaps that is why engineers should not presume to be hunting guides!”

(This story was written for, and has been submitted to the One Word at a Time blog carnival on the word “Fresh.”)


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  1. Too bad the engineer was not a hunting guide instead.
    The engineer was only thinking of his commission.
    The committee usually does not desire suggestions from the floor!

  2. Hmm. Lots of good thinking going on here. What’s funny? When the description began, I was “seeing” the Columbia River from The Dalles to Portland with some side pictures. Much happened with the wagon trains, side cliffs, and stretches of the river. And engineers are so stuffy… I can say that with a grin, b/c my husband would have been an electrical engineer if he hadn’t changed majors in college to computer for the AF ROTC scholarship. [HE WOULD NEVER HAVE ACTED LIKE THAT!! He’s too sweet.]

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