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Bits of Travel at Home (1878) by Helen Hunt Jackson


They do not dawn like days elsewhere. How should they, seeing that the sun has been long up before he looks over into Ah-wah-ne? They burst, they flash, they begin like a trumpet peal. One moment it is morning twilight. The swaying torrent of the Great Fall looks dim at the edges, and the pines and firs, high in the air by its side, look black. The next moment it is broad day. The Fall shines like molten silver under the streaming sunlight, and the firs and pines are changed in a twinkling from black to green. This miracle of dayspring was the first sight I saw in Ah-wah-ne. I was but half awake. From my pillow I looked out on the upper half of the Great Fall. An oval of gray sky; white foam pouring from it, and falling into a bed of black fir-tops; waving branches of near trees just beyond my window,—these were all I saw. Boom! boom! boom! sounded the mysterious violoncello accompaniment, measuring and making rhythmical the roar of the Fall. Suddenly, as suddenly as a light-house flashes its first beam seaward, came a great blaze of yellow light from the east, making the water dazzling bright, and throwing out into relief every green spire fir or pine on the precipice. With the sudden flood of light seemed to come a sudden flood of louder sound. I sprang to the window in wonder, which was not without a vague terror; but in that very second the transformation was past, the quiet look of full day had settled on all things. Almost I doubted the vision I had seen. It was simply broad daylight; that was all. The air was full of fleecy-winged seeds from Balm of Gilead trees. They went slowly, sinking and rising, but steadily to the north, like a snowy flock following an invisible shepherd. As they passed, they seemed to spin fine silken lines athwart the Fall; and they came so fast and thick they hindered my seeing. There was a strange sweetness of peace and promise in their presence. The Great Fall so loud, so vast: they so small, so still. Three thousand feet from my window-sill up to the top of the wall over which the torrent of waters fell; within my hand’s reach, the current, silent, irresistible, unmeasured, on which centuries of forest were gliding into place.

This was the first beginning of my first day in Ah-wah-ne. Two hours later was the second beginning of the same day. It is odd how much bustle there can be in Ah-wah-ne. Sit on the hotelward piazza of Hutchings’s River Cottage from seven till nine, and no moment goes by empty. The little clearing is dusty; the sun beats down; people crossing from house to house, zigzag, to get into shade of the oaks or into dust an inch or so less deep. On every piazza sit groups ready to set out on excursions, and waiting for their guides to bring up the horses and mules. Under the trees, beyond the hotel, is a long line of the unfortunate beasts, saddled hap-hazard and tied to the fence, waiting the evil that may betide them. They have been saddled since four or five o’clock; perhaps they will stand there till three. Now and then a man comes riding over the bridge, driving in a few more, which he has just caught. Poor things! They miscalculated distances, and did not run away quite far enough in the night. Sometimes a wiry, weather-beaten old guide dashes round and round the clearing (I think I will call it plaza, since I do not know what name the Ah-wah-ne-chee had for little clearings)—dashes round the plaza, trying to break in a vicious mule or mustang. Sometimes the mustang gets the better; sometimes the guide. Then comes the laundry wagon, tilting up and down on its two big wheels, stopping at everybody’s door for clothes for the laundry. It is painted bright blue, and, being the only thing seen going about on wheels in Ah-wah-ne, looks marvellously queer.

Then comes along an Indian woman, with a pappoose on her back. Half naked, dirty beyond words, her stiff, vicious-looking hair falling around her forehead like fringed eaves, her soulless eyes darting quick glances to right and left, in search of a possible charity, she strides through the plaza, and disappears among the thickets and bowlders. She belongs to a colony which has camped half a mile below. They will dance a hideous dance for a few pennies. They are descendants of Tenaya, no doubt; but Tenaya would scorn them to-day.

Next comes a party of riders from one of the hotels below. They all sit straight, and try to prick their horses into a quicker gait, as they pass Hutchings’s piazzas. Some of the women are dressed in bloomers, and ride astride. One can hardly believe one’s eyes looking at them. They who have had strength of mind and body to persevere in learning to ride in this way say it is far easier and safer. But it would still remain a question whether there are not evils more to be disliked than fatigue and tumbling from one’s horse? We wonder vaguely where these riders can be going. The high granite walls appear to shut in upon all sides. There seems no way for any thing but water to get in, and no way for any thing at all to get out. One forgets the trail by which he himself came down, and listens doubtingly to the mention of others leading up on other places in the wall. Once in, once down in this magic abyss, which men have chosen to call a valley, all the rest of the world seems incredible, unreal, and unattainable. But the riders ride on, and are soon out of sight among the oaks and willows which shade the meadow beyond the hotel. They are going to Lake Ah-wi-yah, known now, thanks to some American importer of looking-glasses, as Mirror Lake. If they reach the lake early enough, they will see a water surface, two acres in extent, so smooth, so clear that the whole of the South Dome will be reflected in it. Across the lake, even to the roots of the sedges and white violets, reaches the pale picture of the majestic granite mountain, over four thousand feet high. The Ah-wah-ne-chee lived chiefly on acorns and wore wild beasts’ skins; but there were poets among them who named this benignant gray stone mountain, for ever gazing calmly into the lake, “Tis-sa-ack,” “Goddess of the Valley.”

As this party disappears on the left, another winds slowly off on the right,—people going away from Ah-wah-ne. Every morning these are to be seen, and “Saddle-train for Gentry’s will start at half-past six” is posted on the hotel walls. But the train rarely leaves at half-past six. There are obstacles in the way. As I have before said, there are the horses to be caught. But this is not the greatest obstacle. There is breakfast to be eaten (I was on the point of saying “caught “). Mealtime at Hutchings’s is a species of secular pass-over: breakfast is a freebooting foray, lunch a quieter foraging excursion, dinner a picnic. As soon as one learns the order or disorder of the thing, one can get on; but it is droll to watch the newly arrived or the obstinately fastidious traveller, sitting in blank astonishment at the absence of most which he expects to find in a dining-room. Mr. Hutchings is an enthusiast, a dreamer, a visionary. He loved Ah-wah-ne well enough years ago to make his home in its uninhabited solitude, and find in its grand silences all the companionship he needed. He loves it well enough to-day to feel all the instinct of loving hospitality in his welcome to every traveller who has journeyed to find it by reason of the fame of its beauty. All this is plainly to be seen in his mobile, artistic face, and in the affectionate ring of every word that he speaks of the Valley.

But landlords are not made of such stuff as this. Artistic sensibility and enthusiasm do not help a man to order dinner. Mr. Hutchings has been for some time seeking a business partner, to relieve him of the practical cares of the hotel. When he finds the right person for this position, and is thus left at leisure himself to be the host of Ah-wah-ne, and not of a house, Ah-wah-ne will gain a most eloquent interpreter and travellers thither will fare better.

When the morning saddle-train is fairly off and the last excursion party has ridden away a lull settles down on the little plaza. A few horses are still left standing at the tethering-posts. They are the lamest and laziest and feeblest,—the refuse ones, that no guide takes unless he must. Poor things, their heads sink lower and lower, their tails shrink, and their legs shorten, the longer they stand. They do not move a muscle for hours, except to shift the burden of their lifeless weight slowly from one leg to another.

In this after-breakfast lull of our first Ah-wah-ne day we met John Murphy, guide. We had set our affections upon the ruddy face of Sol White, who had brought us into the Valley, and we had tried hard to press him into our service for the whole of our stay. But Mr. Hutchings was inexorable. Sol White could not be spared from the saddle-train.

“Then, Mr. White,” said we, confidentially, “tell us who of all the guides you think we should like best.”

“I reckon you’d like John Murphy. He’s settled consid’able; but there ain’t no better guide in the Valley. He knows every inch on’t. I reckon he’s just the sort o’ man you folks ’d take to.”

When John Murphy walked slowly toward us, as we sat on the piazza, I understood what the word “settled” had meant. Upon every inch of the tall, almost gaunt, frame was set the indefinable stamp of years of frontier life. No firmness was lost from the fibre, no elasticity from the action; but the firmness and the elasticity were as unlike those of a young man as the young man’s would be unlike the boy’s. To Sol White, no doubt, Murphy seemed old. As he came nearer, I saw that he was the very man whose face had so strongly impressed me at Gentry’s, the day before, when, on overhearing my proposition to have the horses fed, he had muttered: “’Tain’t no kindness to ’em. The sooner they die the better.” It was an uncommon face; it was at once hard and tender, sad and droll, shrewd and simple. The eyes looked strangely younger than the weather-beaten cheeks and lined temples, and the voice was low and deep-toned.

“I did calkalate to give up guidin’,” said Murphy. “I wa’n’t goin’ out again with anybody.”

“Why so?” said we.

“Because I can’t have anythin’’s I think it ought to be. I won’t put folks on some o’ these horses. An’ I can’t stand it to be goin’ about with folks an’ see ’m so dissatisfied all the time, an’ blamin’ me, too, for what ain’t no fault o’ mine.”

“But, Mr. Murphy,” we pleaded, “we will not be dissatisfied with any thing; and, if we are, we won’t blame you. Do be our guide. We shall stay a week, and we want you to be with us every day.”

“Well, I did tell Mr. Hutchings I was done guidin’. But I’ll stick to you ’s long ’s you stay. But it’s the last guidin’ I shall do till things is fixed very different. You’ll be the last, sure.”

So John Murphy became our guide. How well we learned to know the pathetic, twinkling face before we parted from it. How familiar to our eyes became the queer brown-gingham Garibaldi, a little too short, which seemed in Murphy’s esteem to be suited to all weathers.

After dinner we set out for the Pohono Fall. Not even the frequent hearing from the lips of companions of its other name—“The Bridal Veil “—could banish from my thoughts the sweet vowel cadences by which the Ah-wah-ne-chee had called it. Pohono was an evil spirit. His breath was a fatal wind, sweeping over this precipice and swaying the Fall. The Ah-wah-ne-chee hurried past it in fear, and would never sleep within sound of its waters. They believed, also, that the voices of its drowned victims were continually to be heard calling, through the roar and the foam: “Shun Pohono!”

Perhaps Pohono had cast an evil eye upon me this day, not knowing how reverently I was drawing near. Surely, nobody in the party had fuller faith in the legend of his wickedness and his power. But I was not permitted to reach his shrine that afternoon. Why I did not keep on is a secret between the mule, John Murphy, and me. I will not tell it. When at last I said: “Mr. Murphy, I must get off this minute. I will wait here by the road till you come back,” he replied seriously: “Well, I didn’t much think you could.” But his face expressed the regret which his reticence did not utter. And, as he tied that mule to a low branch of a live oak, I heard some kicks on ribs and an unflattering epithet.

“Won’t ye be skeared?” said Murphy, as he remounted his horse. “Ye hain’t no occasion to be; but I dunno but yell be lonesome.”

Lonesome! They were almost my best hours in Ah-wah-ne. As the last voice and hoof-fall died away in the distance, and the little cloud of dust settled slowly down on the brakes, an indescribable delight took possession of me. The silence seemed more than silence; it seemed to quiver without sound. just as the warm air shimmered without stir along all the outlines of the rocky walls. On my left hand rose the granite watch-tower Loya (Sentinel Rock), on my right the colossal buttress Tutocanula (El Capitan). The Cathedral, the Spires, the Three Brothers, all were in full sight. Wherever I stood, the mountain walls seemed to shut close around me in a circle. I said to myself, again and again: “Only between three and four thousand feet high.” But the figures had lost their meaning. All sense of estimated distance was swallowed up, obliterated by the feeling of what seemed to be immeasurable height. It is said by some that the eye does not recognize differences of magnitude beyond a certain limit; that, for instance, a fall three thousand feet high does not look much higher than one fifteen hundred feet. This seems a safe proposition. Who can either prove or disprove it? But it would be hard to make one looking up to the dim upper edge of the wall of Ah-wah-ne believe that the grandeur does not gain, infinitely gain, by each height to which it mounts.

The road was sandy, and ran through forests of oaks and pines, which stretched to the base of the Valley walls on either hand. The ground was covered in some places with a dense growth of brakes; then came bare and sandy stretches, strewn with drift-wood by the spring freshets of the Merced, which was close at hand on the right. I walked down to its very edge, and tried to look up from thence to the top of El Capitan, which rose abruptly from the further bank. To do this, it is necessary to throw the head back, almost as if to look at a ceiling, so vertical is that grand wall. Its surface was of a sharp, dark gray, with black and white markings, so curiously blended they looked almost like giant hieroglyphs. In an earlier and stronger light afterward I saw El Capitan, of a pale pearl gray, hardly darker than the soft ashes of a wood-fire, and the hieroglyphs all melted away into indistinct tintings of brown and yellowish white.

Presently I heard axe-strokes in the distance,—two axes alternating with each other in rhythmic precision. After a time I walked toward them. Suddenly they stopped, and in that instant began a loud crash, which seemed to come rapidly nearer and nearer me. I could see nothing, but I involuntarily stepped back. The noise came nearer, but grew fainter. Then came the heavy thud on the ground; the tree had fallen. I could just distinguish the quivering top of it between the trees, a little way off. The crashing noise, which had seemed to journey toward me so inexplicably, was the noise of the breaking branches of other trees, past which it fell. I went close to it. Two woodsmen were sitting on the ground by it, and looked up in undisguised astonishment at the sight of me. The tree still trembled and vibrated along its whole length. Drops of water, like tears, were trickling out fast from its under side,— water which had been stored away for the summer in the cistern fissures of its rough bark. It was a pine, and nearly two hundred feet high; the circling rings which had kept record of its birthdays showed clear on the yellow disk, as on a dial-plate.

“How old was it?” said I. The men bent over and counted in silence.

“Well-nigh on to four hundred years it must hev ben,” said they.

“And how long have you been cutting it down?”

A quick gleam passed over their faces. They had caught my feeling before I had put it in words.

Well, about two hours, or mebbe three,” replied one of them, glancing up at the sun.

“Only think of that!” I said. “Four hundred years growing, and cut down in three hours.”

“I vow, I never thought o’ that before, Jim. Did you?” said the youngest of the two.

“No, dunno’s I did,” replied Jim, hacking meditatively at the stump and looking down.

It was near sunset when the party came back from Pohono’s Fall. I had spent the last hour sitting on an old oak log, in front of the majestic stone face of “Tu-tock-ah-nu-lah.” Three thousand feet up in the air, cut on an inaccessible peak, serene, sad, majestic, there it Jives. It does not vanish on a slight change of position by the observer, as do other stone faces, sculptured by Nature’s hand on mountain-walls. It seems to turn and gaze after you, whether you go up or down the Valley. It is watchful. It is the face of the first chieftain who ruled the Children of the Sun who lived in Ah-wah-ne. He loved Tis-sa-ack, the goddess, whose face, as I have said, is reflected each morning in Lake Ah-wi-yah. When she flew away, the down from her wings floated over the lake, and, sinking to the ground, sprang up in white violets, which blossom to this day on the shores of Ah-wi-yah. Tu-tock-ah-nu-lah left his kingdom and roved the earth in pursuit of his love. But, that his people might not forget him, he carved his face on this rock.

“Oh! has not the time seemed long to you?” exclaimed everybody, in sympathizing tones, as the party rode up. Murphy looked observantly into my face, a twinkle came into his eye, and, as he mounted me once more on that mule, he said, in a low tone:

“I reckon ye like bein’ alone; don’t yer?”

“Yes, Mr. Murphy,” said I. “As well as if I were a woman of the Ah-wah-ne-chee.”

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