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Next: Ah-wah-ne DaysContentsPrevious: Way to Ah-wah-ne

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


Falstaff’s men could find their proper mount at Gentry’s when the saddle train comes up from Ah-wah-ne. Ten, twenty, thirty, horses, mustangs, mules, rusty black, dingy white, streaked red; ungroomed, unfed, untrained; harmless only because they are feeble from hunger; sure to keep on, if their strength holds out, to the end of the journey, simply because their one instinct is to escape somewhere; saddled with saddles of all possible shapes, sizes, colors, and dilapidation; bridled with halters, likely enough, or with clumsy Mexican bits, big enough to curb a mastodon, or not bridled at all if they are to carry luggage; gaunt-ribbed, swollen-jointed, knock-kneed, piteous-eyed beasts,—surely, nobody ever saw out of John Leech’s pictures so sorry horseflesh. You stand on the piazza, at Gentry’s, and watch the procession come slowly up. Nose after nose comes into sight, followed by reluctant, stumbling fore-feet; so slow they climb it seems to take a good while before you see the whole of any one horse.

They stop long before they reach the piazza, thinking that their riders may as well get off a minute or two sooner. The guides whack their haunches and push them up to the steps, and the Ah-wah-ne pilgrims slip or spring from their saddles with sighs of relief.

You, who were longing for these to come out, that you might go in, look on with dismay. On all sides you hear ejaculations from the people waiting. “I’ll never go on that horse;” “nor on that;” “that poor creature will never live to go down again.” Everybody gazes intently toward the crest of the hill, over which the pathetic file is still coming. Everybody hopes to see a horse better than these. But there is not a pin’s choice between them, when they are all there. Wherever their riders leave them, there they stand, stock-still, till they are pushed or dragged away. Heads down, tails limp, legs out, abject, pitiable things,—you feel as if cruelty personified could not have the heart to lay a feather’s weight on their backs.

With the timid reverence natural in the mind of one going toward Ah-wah-ne for one coming from it, you approach the newly arrived and ask concerning these horses. Your pity and horror deepen when you are told that the poor creatures are never fed, never sheltered. They are worked all day without food, often being out from six in the morning until six at night, carrying people over steep, stony trails; then they are turned loose to shift for themselves in the meadows all night. By four or five o’clock in the morning the guides are out scouring the meadows to drive them in again. And so their days go on. There was but one alleviation to this narrative. It was the statement that every morning a good many horses cannot be found. They trot all night to find fields out of reach of their tormentors, or they swim off to little islands in the Merced and hide. Mr. Hutchings has lost seventy horses in this way since last year. When we were told these things, we said:—

“Very well. The horses that carry us down the wall of Ah-wah-ne shall be fed. We will not go down until afternoon, and they shall have all the barley they can eat between now and then.”

Sol White, a ruddy-faced man, whom we had chosen for our guide as soon as we saw him laugh, assented with a comic shrug of his shoulders to this Quixotic humanity, and led off the astonished horses to the stable. But another guide who stood by—a tall, thin man, whose deep-lined face looked like that of a Scottish Covenanter —said, half sadly, half gruffly:—

“’Taint any kindness to ’em. The sooner they die the better.”

We watched the rest of the saddle-train off,—the fat women on the little saddles, and the tall men on the short mules, and the eager children on horses that wouldn’t budge, and the pack-mule going ahead, under a mountain of everybody’s valises. Each one disappeared down the steep trail so suddenly it seemed as if he had pitched down headforemost; the last view of each tail and pair of hind-legs showing them in the air.

Ah! the comfort of that five hours’ rest at Gentry’s. If all travellers to Ah-wah-ne rested thus at the entrance of the Valley, we should hear less of the fatigues of the journey. After three hours of the severest jolting in a stage, to undertake three hours more of horseback riding is a serious mistake for any but the strong. The bread or the barley of our charity to the poor horses came back to us tenfold, and that speedily.

The pleasant little sitting-room, with its bright carpet and lace curtains and melodeon; the bedrooms, clean as clean could be and with two beds in each; the neat dining-room and good dinner; the log cabin for a linen closet; the running spring water; the smiling faces and prompt kindliness of the landlord and his wife,— what a marvel it was to find all these in this new clearing in a pine forest of the Sierra Country, seven thousand feet above the sea!

And better than the barley for the starved horses, and better than five hours’ rest, and the dinner, and the faces of Mr. and Mrs. Kenny, was it that we entered Ah-wah-ne in the late afternoon, when the impertinent noon lights had passed and shadows went before us and journeyed by our side.

We set out at three o’clock. Our first sensations were not agreeable. We had seen how steep it looked when horse and rider disappeared over that hill-crest. It felt steeper. To an unaccustomed rider it is not pleasant to sit on a horse whose heels are much higher than his head. One’s first impulse is to clutch, to brace, to cling, and to guide the horse. But there is neither comfort nor safety till you leave off doing so. With a perfectly loose rein and every muscle relaxed, sitting as you would sit in a rocking-chair, leaning back when the horse rocks down, leaning forward when he rocks up, and forgetting him altogether, riding down precipices is as comfortable and safe as riding on ‘a turnpike. I do not say that it is altogether easy in the outset to follow these simple directions. But, if you are wise, it soon becomes so, and you look with impatient pity on the obstinacy of women who persist in grasping pommels, and sitting so stark stiff that it seems as if a sudden lurch of the horse must inevitably send them off, before or behind.

The first two miles and a half of the path down the wall of Ah-wah-ne are steep,—so steep that it is best not to try to say how steep. It is a narrow path, zig-zagging down on ledges, among bowlders, through thickets. It is dusty and stony; it comes out suddenly on opens, from which you look over and down thousands, yes, thousands of feet; it plunges into tangles of trees, where a rider must lay his head on the horse’s neck to get through, for oaks and pines and firs grow on this precipice; high ceanothus bushes, fragrant with blossom, make wall-like sides to the path, and bend in as if trying to arch it. In some places the rocks are bright with flowers and ferns, which look as if they were holding on for dear life and climbing up: they project so nearly at right angles from the steep surfaces. With almost every step we get a new view,—more depth, more valley, more wall, more towering rock. The small cleared spaces in the valley are vivid light green; they seem sunken like emerald-paved wells among the masses of dark firs and pines, whose tops lie solid and black below us. The opposite wall of the valley looks steeper than the wall we are descending. It seems within stone’s throw, or as if we might call across; it is less than a half-mile distant. Its top seems far higher than the point from which we set out; for it lies in full sunshine, and we are in shadow. One waterfall after another comes into view, streaming over its edge like smooth silver bands. The guide calls out their names: “Inspiration Fall,” “Bridal Veil Fall.” The words seem singularly meaningless, face to face with the falls. How do men dare to name things so confidently? The luggage mule, who is ahead, keeps clambering out of the path, in search of something to eat. We come upon him sometimes apparently standing bolt upright on his hind-legs, he is feeding on so sharp a slope We all halt, while the guide spurs his horse up the rocks and drives the mule down again. We are almost grateful that the mule makes us laugh, for Ah-wah-ne overawes us. It takes an hour to reach the bottom of the wall, As we near it, the opposite wall appears to lift and grow and stretch, till the sky seems pushed higher. Our trail lies along the bank of the river, on sandy stretches of low meadow, shaded by oaks and willows and bordered by alders. Occasionally we come to fields of bowlders and stones, which have broken and rolled down from the walls above; then we pass through green bits of grass-grown land, threaded by little streams, which we ford; then we ride through great groves of pines and firs, two and three hundred feet high. These feel dark and damp, though the ground is sandy, for it is long past sunset here; but the gray spires and domes and pinnacles of the eastern wall of the valley are still bright in sunlight. The luggage mule trots off and disappears. After vain efforts to combine the two duties of looking after him and looking after us, Sol White finally gallops away, exclaiming:—

“That pesky mule’ll swim the river with your baggage, an’ not be heard of for days, if I don’t keep close up to him. You can’t miss your way. There ain’t but this one trail up the valley, an’ its only five miles to Hutchings’s.”

What miles they were. Mile by mile the grand rocks, whose shapes and names we already knew, rose up on either hand: The Cathedral Rocks, The Spires, El Capitan, The Three Brothers, The Sentinel. Already the twilight wrapped the western wall. The front of El Capitan looked black; but its upper edge was lined with light, as sometimes a dark cloud will be when the sun is shining behind. The eastern wall was carved and wrought into gigantic forms, which in the lessening light grew more and more fantastic and weird every moment. Bars and beams of sunlight fell, quivered, and vanished on summit after summit, as we passed. At last we heard the sound of waters ahead to the left. Soon we saw the white line, indistinct, waving, ghostly, coming down apparently from the clouds, for it was too dark to see distinctly the lip of a fall two thousand and seven hundred feet up in the air. This was the great Yosemite Fall. Its sound is unlike that of any other fall I have seen. It is not so loud as one would expect, and it is not continuous or even in tone. Listening to it intently, one hears strange rhythmic emphases of undertone on a much lower key. They are grand. They are like the notes of a gigantic violoncello,— booming, surging, filling full and rounding out the harmony of supernatural music. Sometimes they have an impatient and crashing twist, as if the bow escaped the player’s hand; sometimes, for an hour, they are regular and alike, as the beats of a metronome. Men have said that these sounds are made by rocks thundering down under the water. They may be. I would rather not know.

For the last mile before reaching Hutchings’s Hotel, the trail is little more than a sandy path, winding in and among huge granite bowlders, under and around oak and pine trees, and over and through little runs and pools, when the Merced River is high. It ends abruptly, in a rough and dusty place, partly cleared of bowlders, partly cleared of trees. Here are four buildings, which stand apparently where they happened to, between the rocks and trees. Three of these make up Hutchings’s Hotel. Two of them are cottages, used only for lodgings. One of these is called “The Cottage by the River,” and stands closer than is safe to the banks of the Merced; the other is called “The Cottage in the Rocks,” and seems half barricaded by granite bowlders. “Oh, Mr. Hutchings!” we exclaimed. Put us in the ‘Cottage by the River.’ We cannot be happy anywhere else.”

There are no such rooms in Ah-wah-ne as the rooms on the river-side of this little house. This is the back side; and those who wish to see the coming and going of people, the setting-off of saddle-trains, the driving up and down of the laundry wagon, would better take rooms on the front. But he who would like to open his eyes every morning on the full shining of the great Yosemite Fall; to lie in bed, and from his very pillow watch it sway to right and left under moonlight beams, which seem like wands arresting or hastening the motion; to look down into the amber and green Merced, which caresses his very door-sill; to listen at all hours to the grand violoncello tones of the mysterious waters,—let him ask, as we did, for back bedrooms in the Cottage by the River.

But if he is disconcerted by the fact that his bedroom floor is of rough pine boards, and his bedroom walls of thin laths, covered with unbleached cotton; that he has neither chair, nor table, nor pitcher; that his washbowl is a shallow tin pan, and that all the water he wants he must dip in a tin pint from a barrel out in the hall; that his bed is a sack stuffed with ferns, his one window has no curtain and his door no key,—let him leave Ah-wah-ne the next day.

Not that there are not tables and chairs and wash-bowls and pitchers and keys in Hutchings’s Hotel; and not that you cannot, by a judicious system of “jumping” and coaxing and feeing, very soon collect these useful articles, and lock them up in your room, and live decently and with sufficient comfort for weeks in the muslin-walled bedroom; but the soul which in its first hours in Ah-wah-ne can be hindered or interrupted by sense of lack or loss on account of its body’s being poorly lodged will never thrive in Ah-wah-ne air. It has come to the wrong place of all places in the world, and the sooner it takes itself and body away the better for it and for Ah-wah-ne.

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