“Pahster Tracks” is the fourth chapter in The Gaytheist Gospel Hour‘s seven part series “On Wisconsin.”
A picnic table is set up behind the Nature Center, and it is outfitted for some serious crafting: buckets of water, plastic cups and spoons, a bag of plaster of paris, dozens of pre-cut sheets of wax paper—all of it in regimented clusters atop a plastic table cloth. The business of the day here is the manufacture of plaster cast animal tracks, but what is really being created here is a brand new word for the Midwestern camping lexicon.
The Nature Center employee who presides over the activity is a woman in her late-middle age. She wears an official-looking green polo with the Nature Center logo embroidered like a badge over her heart. The polo makes it easy to see her as a productive retiree or a go-getter grandma, but the effect is ruined by her photosensitive glasses, which have malfunctioned to complete darkness in the shade of the overhanging canopy. The glasses lend her an odd, subversive anonymity, like an incognito hipster or possibly a criminal.
As she rallies the junior campers to the table, it’s apparent she has a speech impediment. Her L’s evaporate and take wing as W’s, a phonological phenomenon known as a “gliding of the liquids”. Strains of Elmer Fudd weave within her words, but the junior campers are either too young or too well-brought up to find it outwardly amusing. Nonetheless, she affects a compensatory verbal dodge that omits the problematic L altogether and replaces it with elegant-sounding vowel sounds. Employed completely at random, this strategy renders her speech an element of the exotic, like a foreign accent that can’t quite be placed.
She tells the junior campers it is time to make “pahster tracks”. This puzzling term is given the reception reserved for sour notes: cocked ears, squiggled eyebrows, crooked mouths. She pays no mind as she sets the supplies before the junior campers with a brusque officiousness. “Who would like to make a pahster track?”
The junior campers, being too young or too well-brought-up to do anything else, adopt the term within the time span of a bemused blink.
“We’re making pahster tracks!” they call to their parents, standing on the sidelines.
“What are pahster tracks?” ask the newcomers to the picnic table.
“This! It’s a pahster track!” is the response.
The dialogue cycle renews itself at least 4 times in twenty minutes, reinforcing the term with each utterance. As it gains momentum, it gains meaning. The junior campers push plastic animal paws into pale puddles of plaster to make Pahster Tracks.
The linguistic secret agent, cleverly disguised in her Nature Center polo, smiles behind her defective shades. In this moment, she is surrounded by dozens of fellow exiles, all of whom are speaking her language. And the stage is set for a possible future in which grandparents pass on their memories to their grandchildren in the made-up language of the American camping experience: the delicious s’mores, the pesky no-see-ums, and the intriguing pahster tracks.