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


Only one day’s ride; but a ride so vivid with characteristic color, so picturesque, so pathetic in panoramic narratiye that I think there can hardly be in all California any other one day’s journey more essentially Californian.

Big Oak Flat is a little mining town, about sixty miles from Stockton. In going from Ah-wah-ne to the Calaveras Big Trees, we slept there; but it looked so desolate, so apart, that I never thought of its having any relation to the rest of the world—even to the points of compass—and I remember it only as the spot where this vivid day’s ride began.

First down-hill—down, down, through a canyon whose sides were made of bare overlapping hills, grass-grown, and fringed and barred with low bushes. At the bottom ran a stream; on all sides were old mining-sluices, little green vine-yards, piles of broken quartz rock. Then the road ran through the bed of Moccasin Creek. The Creek had shrunk, and was licking along abjectly in the sand on the right; and we rattled and jolted over its pebbly channel. The low hills in the distance were oddly shaped, like cones and triangles, and seemed to be joined and fitted like pieces in a puzzle, to be taken apart. Red chasms and crevices marked their sides; tottering old stone chimneys and blackened hearthstones showed where cabins had been; solid squares of shining green vineyard and orchard, mixed, surrounded the cabins of to-day.

Then we came to Keith’s Fruit Garden, a bit of color worth painting. A low cabin-like house, white and set behind white palings. At the gate tall branching oleanders, rosy with blossoms; from the gate to the door a dark fig-tree grove; a broad piazza, wreathed with honeysuckles from eaves to sill, with hanging baskets made of strung acorns and holding green vines, and bird-cages holding linnets and gold-finches; on the piazza a table, set with fruit,—pears, figs, apricots, plums, apples; and this was only the 29th of June. Last year’s wine, too, in bottles, with red roses printed on the labels; and above the table, nailed to the wall of the house, a cheap colored print of somebody,—Ceres, or Flora, or Pomona,—crowned with flowers and bearing in her hands a salver of prodigious fruit. A running spring on one side the house; and on the other a glistening yellow bed of straw, alive with downy, trembling, peeping chickens, just out of the shell. On both sides and behind, stretching away so that you peered down into its alleys, lay the vineyard, shaded dark by alternating rows of fig, of peach, of apricot, of plum, of almond trees. Last, not least, and everywhere at once, a blue-eyed maid child, a little older, perhaps, than the linnets, and the goldfinches, which she said she had had “always.” Then more cabins, more vineyards, and a foaming river on our left, the earth all red wherever it lay open, and little yellow streams running about like lost babies; great piles of crushed quartz rock here and there, and rough skeleton mills, with the huge round wheels, which had broken it up. The hills grew more yellow, the country grew more bald and bare and sterile. Deserted cabins, with vines running riot, and sluices, dry and rusty tin pans, left out in the sun, told their half of the story of the barren tract. Now we climbed again, slowly, steadily, up to a broad plateau, called Table Mountain. Here were huge oaks, all tremulous at top with mistletoe, but seamed and seared below like old fossils. Wheat-fields came into sight in the distance, and their pale yellow looked cooler and whole-somer than the orange-tinted streams and the red earth. In lonely places were twos and threes of ragged, hopeless Chinamen, bent double over the old worn-out gullies and hollows, shaking the thin sands and peering and groping after a penny’s worth of gold. They looked like galvanized mummies, working out some spell which could bode no good to anybody. Now and then a house and now and then a cross-road made the solitudes seem less remote, and gave a strange, sudden reminder of civilization and humanity. But in a moment we had plunged again into thickets and tangles of pines and manzanita; then out upon desolate, frightful, stony fields, where crowds of limestone rocks reared themselves up like hobgoblins and gnomes. And so, before noon, we came to Sonora.

Sonora’s main street is narrow, and walled thick with green locust-trees. The buildings are chiefly half shop and half house, excepting those which are all saloon. They are wooden and low and of uneven heights; the shop fronts are wide open, being made of two huge doors. This gives the street the look of an arbor of cluttered and miscellaneous wares. In the centre of the busiest part of the street, we came upon hydraulic mining in one of the cellars, the hose playing away as for a fire, and the yellow bank crumbling and melting into the sluices.

“What is this?” said we.

“Oh! the man that lived there found gold in his cellar. So he moved off his house and went to mining, and he’s taken out $10,000 already,” replied the Street.

“But are you all living over gold mines?”

“Shouldn’t wonder. But mining isn’t such lively work as it used to be. It’s dull times in Sonora now. Twenty-dollar pieces used to chink on this street from morning to night.” And the Street sighed.

Next to Sonora comes Columbia, only four miles off. I think there is not in sight on either hand of that four miles of road, a half-acre of land which is not tunnelled, trenched, scooped, torn to pieces, and turned bottom side up by mining. The wildest confusion of bowlders ever seen on a mountain-top looks like the orderly precision of a cabinet by side of these deserted mining claims. The rocks are worn and fretted by the old action of water into ghastly and grotesque shapes, which add an element of weird horror to the picture. They look like giant skeletons, like idols, like petrified monsters, which might come to life and hold hideous carnival in their burial-place. A little way out of Sonora stands a small church, on a high hill, surrounded by a graveyard. The land on one side of it has been mined away, until the hill is left standing like a seashore cliff, steep, abrupt, many feet above the yawning, rocky chasms below. The little paling of the graveyard and the white gravestones nearest it look as if at any minute they might topple off, by the caving in of the bank,— the greed of gold has so grudged even to the dead the few inches they need.

Columbia houses are like cabins, bowered in vines and flowers; and Columbia’s streets literally run with gold. As we drove through, on this 29th of June, we saw dozens of small boys panning out gold in the little streams which ran close to their fathers’ gates.

“For Fourth of July?” called we.

“Yes, to see the circus,” shouted the infant gold-seekers.

“How much can you get a day?” I said.

He got twenty-five cents yesterday,” said a wistful little fellow, pointing to the great man of their exchange.

A little further on we met a squad of the dismal Chinamen again, walking with their shovels, pans, and pickaxes slung in a clattering bundle on their backs.

After Columbia came a gentler and greener country, woods again, and a glorious canyon, down which we zigzagged and whirled round ox-bow bends, and came to the swift, coffee-colored Stanislaus River at bottom. Over this, in a swinging ferry-boat, made fast to an iron cable, and then up the other side of the canyon. The hills were covered densely with the low greasewood bushes, which, now that the white flowers were fallen, had taken on a most exquisite tint of brilliant yellow-brown. Once out of the canyon, we bore away across stretch after stretch of wilderness again. Woods, woods, woods, or else bare rocky fields; now and then a dismal little village, which once had a hope of gold, but now has lost it, and found nothing else in its stead. Pitiful faces meet you at each turn in these luckless little mining towns,—faces of women hardened and weary and lifeless; faces of little children sick and without joy; faces of men dull, inert, discouraged, and brutal. It is hard to fancy what will become of them.

As we drove up to the inn at “Murphy’s,” I could have fancied myself in some little Italian village. The square stone walls were gray, and in spots grimed with mould; the windows were sunk deep, like embrasures, and heavy black shutters flapped and creaked. Bright green locust-trees shaded it, hens and chickens were running about, and the padrona and several servants stood on the doorstep, smiling. Murphy’s one narrow, long street is picturesquely dismal,—old wooden sidewalks, loose, broken in in places, with grass growing up in the holes; deserted houses, with the ridge-pole sinking low in the middle and the chimney-bricks lying strewn about; unused warerooms, with iron shutters on the outside, barred tight and crossbarred by cobwebs; back yards and front yards, here and there, all gullied and piled with heaps of rock, where gold used to be. One we found surrounded by a high fence, the gate tight locked with a padlock, and the pickaxes and pans lying where they were dropped at sunset. This within stone’s throw of an apple-stand and a meeting-house. Just beyond the street limits, in all directions, are fields of mining claims,—some deserted, some still being worked. The rocks are hollowed and scooped, and thrown up in even wilder and more fantastic shapes than those we had seen before. By moonlight they were terrible. A few years ago Murphy’s was alert and gay. Gold came free, and no man stopped to ask how soon the rocky treasure-house would be empty. To-day Murphy’s would hardly exist except that it is on one of the routes to the Calaveras Big Trees, and most of the Big Tree pilgrims by this route sleep two nights at Murphy’s.

For this we too had come to Murphy’s. And for this we too rose at five in the morning, and set out to climb four hours up-hill. Twenty-three hundred feet we were to rise in sixteen miles. In what good faith we did it. And how sharp set were we, mile by mile, for the first sight of the first Big Tree. On either side forests stretched, almost unbroken for much of the way. Scarcely a sign of human habitation is to be seen along the road. We grew impatient, in spite of ourselves, and weary of the monotonous aisles of pines. At last we came out on higher ground; distant mountains were revealed,—the Coast Range in the west and to the north and east the shining snow-points of the high Sierras.

“Almost there now,” said the driver; and as he spoke we saw the gleam of the white house among the trees. Looking eagerly to right, to left, we sprang out on the piazza. Trees on all hands, majestic, straight, but just such trees as we had been living with for weeks, it seemed to us. What did it mean? “Where are the Big Trees?” we exclaimed to bystanders. Bystanders looked astounded. We seemed such pigmies, I suppose, and our question so hugely impudent.

“There are a few of them,” curtly replied some one, with a dignified wave of his hand to the left.

We looked, we gazed; earnestly, honestly. We said no more, but we walked off at a brisk pace to the giants nearer at hand. We followed a sandy road, which wound in and out among the trees. Pine shingles, with names of great and little men printed on them, were nailed to the trunks,—history, poetry, politics, press, and pulpit, all jumbled together. Bryant, and Grant, and Clay, and Cobden; Henry Ward Beecher and Uncle Tom; Dr. Kane and James King, Esq.,—whoever he may be,—Vermont and Florence Nightingale and Elihu Burritt. Could any thing be droller than for such trees, after their centuries of royal solitude, to find themselves with labels of pine shingle tacked to their sides, calling them by the names of these men of a day? Perhaps, except for the shingles, the trees might sooner have seemed big; but it took long to forget those. The would-be poetical names were worst of all.

“Mother of the Forest” (set down on the catalogue as being “without bark”), “Three Graces,” and “Beauty of the Forest,”—these were the names that stirred most fury in our souls. It seems strange that neither satire nor resentment has taken shape in this matter. Many hearts must have been touched to the quick by the sight of the poor trees, by the spectacle of might so dishonored.

But, in spite of the shingles, the trees were grand. The inevitable underestimate at first sight wears off, and the reaction from it is intense. When it takes twenty-four steps to climb up a ladder set against the side of a fallen tree, and your head swims a little as you reach the top, with nothing to hold on by; when you sit in a pavilion built on and only just enclosing a tree-stump over nine yards in diameter, on which thirty-two people have danced at a time; when you walk into a fallen tree, which is half-buried in earth, and walk on and on under its curving roof, and see apertures in it so high above your head that you cannot reach the grasses which have taken root in the crumbling bark around their edges; when, as you walk here, you see, a hundred feet away, a tall man coming toward you, he also finding the brown ceilinged chamber high enough; when you see a horse, carrying a rider, gallop through the same mysterious archway, wonder does not long delay; and when, later, walking on and on in the forest, you find many trees as large in circumference as these standing bright and full-leaved from two to three hundred and twenty-five feet high, wonder becomes akin to veneration.

But many things in Nature move us more than size; wonder, even tinged with veneration, is shorter-lived than tenderness. The most vivid memory I brought away from the Calaveras Grove is of a tiny little striped squirrel, which had fallen from its nest, high up in one of the largest trees. The little thing could not have been many days old; its eyes were scarcely open and it could not crawl. It lay on the ground, uttering the most piteous cries. We waited and watched a long time, hoping that the mother might come to its help. Then we made a soft bed of leaves and moss in a deep cleft of one of the roots, and hid it from sight. After we had made the circuit of the grove, we returned to this tree, hoping that the little creature would either have died or have been found by its parents. It still lay there, moaning; but the moans were feebler. It was strangely hard to come away, and leave the helpless dying thing; but I think it could not have lived long, and I never think of it without remembering a good word said somewhere in our Bible about that feeble folk, the conies, for whom the Lord cares.

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