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


By boat from San Francisco to Vallejo. By cars from Vallejo to Calistoga. By stage from Calistoga to the Geysers. This was the guide-book formula. It was to take an afternoon and a forenoon, and the night between was to be spent at Calistoga. But nothing was said in the advertisement about the loveliness of the sunset in the Golden Gated Bay, on which we were to sail to Vallejo. It was not mentioned that Mount Tamalpais would be yellow in mist on our left, and Mount Diablo purple in mist on our right, and that all the San Pablo shore would seem gently floating up and down, and back and forth, as we passed, like the edge of some enchanted country, on which no man might land; that the fortified islands in the bay would be so strangely touched and lit up by the level beams of the sinking sun that their bastions and towers would only seem as still further token of an enchanted country; and that, when, after an hour and a half of this, we reached the opening of the Napa Valley, we should be carried into the heart of the very kingdom of Ceres herself,— and on a festival year too, it seemed to us, as we looked out of the car-windows, and saw yellow grain and green vines stretching miles away on either hand, and interrupted at last only by a mountain wall, too high for the grain and vines to climb. “Surely, there can be no such other valley as this in California?” we said. “Oh, yes! much finer valleys than this,” replied a statistical traveller at our side. “This is a small affair. Very pretty, very pretty. But the San Joaquin Valley is fifty miles wide and three hundred miles long! Contains eighteen million acres of land!” he added, maliciously, seeing our wide-open eyes.

Since that day we have journeyed in the San Joaquin Valley; have looked off over its boundless yellow seas of wheat; have come upon distant vista views of it, where it looks so like one great ocean line that no stranger would ever dream of its being land; but not all its vastness and richness can dim or dwarf the picture of beautiful, glowing, smiling Napa. The mountain ranges on each side of Napa Valley are green to the tops; but clear-cut against the sky, as if they were of bare rock. There is not a waste field, a barren spot in it. Tall oak trees, which spread and droop like elms, stand in all the vineyards and wheat-fields. It seems impossible to believe that they have not been grouped and placed; but they have simply been left where they were found. Each man has set his house in a park, and each village stands in a wooded domain.

It was dark when we reached Calistoga. “Free carriage for the Calistoga Springs Hotel,” resounded all along the platform from an invisible point in the distance. It was only partly visible when we reached it and clambered in, and the road was not visible at all. Neither was the hotel fully visible when we were asked to enter it. It was the oddest, most twinkling of little starry spots; low, ambushed in trees, with a wide stoop thatched with great hemlock boughs, from which hung a lantern here and there. “No rooms in the hotel,” the landlord said. This did not seem so strange to us next morning, when we learned that there were but two sleeping-rooms in it. “But he had reserved rooms for us in a cottage.”

Out into the darkness, following a small boy, carrying two candles and a handful of matches, we went. The path wound and was narrow. Heavy odors of roses and honeysuckles came up on each side. If we stepped off to right or left, we were in soft grass. We passed dim shapes of pavilions and summer-houses and arbors. At last the boy swung open a little gate, and stepped up on the piazza of a house, whose door stood open. Striking a match on the heel of his boot, he lit our candles, and threw open the doors of our sleeping-rooms—two tiny closets, holding one bed, one window, one chair, one washstand. There were two more such closets opposite ours. These four made the cottage! No keys, no bolts! “How shall we get any thing we want? Is there any servant in this house?” said we.

The boy looked amazed. We were evidently new to the ways of California watering-places. “What would you like?” he said.” I’ll bring it to you.”

Thus pressed, we discovered that we really did not want any thing, except hot water; but it seemed eminently probable that we should want at least a dozen things as soon as the boy had vanished in the thick darkness, and we had no visible or invisible means of communication with him. In a few moments came another boy, guiding two more groping travellers into this dusky retreat. The doors were shut, all was still, save the delighted mosquitoes, to whom we were given over. It was a novel situation. How far were we from the hotel? Who were our opposite neighbors? No door could be fastened. Our one window must be open. or we should smother; but it seemed to be only two feet from the piazza floor and only one from the foot of our beds. However, as there was nothing else to be done, we went to sleep; and in the morning we only laughed at our fears. Eighteen of these picturesque little cottages stood in one circle around the hotel. The winding path, which had seemed so long in the darkness, was only a few rods long. Everybody was within sound of everybody else, and the cottages and the summer-houses and the arbors and the pavilions were all in full blossom —roses and honeysuckles and geraniums. It was simply a cluster of bed-rooms in a garden. The wide hemlock-thatched stoop of the hotel looked even more picturesque by daylight than it had done the night before. Why does it not enter into the heads of all land-lords to do this thing? Then, when the summer heats are over, the hemlock boughs can be burnt up, the rough sapling pillars of the stoop taken down, and the sun let into the rooms. The dining-room of this little hotel was also very picturesque. The tables were small and arranged in two rows. High up over each table was swung an odd banner-like thing, made of strips of gay paper, with fringes of blue, red, yellow, green, and pink. All of these were connected together by a wire, and the whole affair could be moved by a cord in the kitchen, and swung slowly back and forth above the tables, to keep off flies and make a cool breeze. When it was in motion it made a very gay stir, like a fluttering of paroquets’ wings.

The “Great Foss” stood in the door-way, and the Great Foss’s horses stood outside; six of them harnessed to a three-seated open wagon. Who is the Great Foss? Ah! that is the question which pressed upon our minds when friends said and friends wrote and friends reiterated: “Be sure and drive with Foss. That is the great thing, after all, in the trip to the Geysers.” All our cross-questioning failed to elicit any thing in regard to this modern Jehu, except the fact that he was in the habit of driving six horses at full gallop around a right-angled corner, and not upsetting his wagon. This seemed to us an equivocal recommendation of a driver on a very dangerous road. Nevertheless, we humbly entreated that we might take our full share of the delicious risk of broken legs and necks, and be able to come away saying that we too had gone at full gallop around right-angled corners of narrow roads, with the “daring champion reinsman of the world,” as an enthusiastic writer has called Mr. Foss. With meek thankfulness we took our seats on the middle seat, the posts of greatest honor and danger, on the front seat, having been secured many days in advance, by telegraph, from a distant part of California. Such is the notoriety of Mr. Foss’s driving, and so inexplicable are the desires of the human heart. But we soon forgot our disappointment as we drove out into the fresh morning beauty of the valley,—the same park-like fields of grain and grass and oak trees on each hand, and the beautiful mountain, St. Helen’s, just rising above the gray mists. Soon the valley narrowed; the hills were covered with lower growths: no more oaks; farm-houses were wider apart. All things showed that we were drawing near the wilds. In solitary spots we came upon high posts with one cross arm, on which swung a mail-bag. With one dexterous stroke, and without reining up his horses, Mr. Foss would seize it,. and send the exchange-bag whirling through the air. Then we would wheel suddenly into some farmyard; the six horses would gallop at full speed round a track in shape of a figure eight, and come to a sudden halt, like circus horses; then, while the horses were drinking water, all the men in the two wagons would disappear in the farm-house, at a mysterious signal from Foss. We knew what it meant only too well. This perpetual wayside tippling is one of the worst of California’s bad habits. The extent of it would be simply incredible, except on actual observation.

Soon we begin to climb. The valley has disappeared. We are shut in by hills. We are toiling up hills. From each ascent we gain we can see only hills. All the fertile beauty has gone. Only low pines, manzanita, and greasewood bushes are to be seen. But the greasewood is in full white flower, and looks like a heath; and the ground is gay with low flowers—the Columbine, Pink Clarkia, by the rod; a Claytonia, with a tiny white star-shaped blossom, growing in great mats: a low Iris, yellow and white; Snap Dragons, yellow and blue, —all these, and many others which we do not know, make the stony and dusty ground bright. It is a marvel on what they are living; but they look content. Great thickets of the “California Lilac,” purple and white, wave along the sides of the road, and as far up as we can see on the hillsides. It is pathetic to find it called “Lilac.” I wonder if homesick miners did not name it so because the odor has a slight resemblance to that of the New England lilac. But its fine, feathery flower looks more like a clethra than like a lilac; and it has a long botanical name, which I forget. Ten miles of this long, winding climb, and we are at the summit of the mountain ridge, which we must cross to reach the Geyser Canyon.

From this summit is to be had what the guide-books call “one of the grandest views which the globe affords.” I confess to an unconquerable indifference to this type of view. They seem to me singularly alike in all countries; just about so much sharp mountain-top that you can see, and just about so much more that you can’t see, on account of mist; just about so much shining line of river or sea, and just about so much of pale blue at the horizon, which might be river, or sea, or mountain, or Chinese wall, or any thing else in or out of the universe, for all you can discover.

There is, of course, the one great suggestion and stimulus of unmeasured, almost immeasurable distance. This is good for conceit. Estimates are apt to adjust themselves in an hour of solitude on a mountain peak. But I think that true delight, true realization of the gracious, tender, unutterable beauty of earth and all created things are to be found in outlooks from lower points— vistas which shut more than they show, sweet and unexpected revealings in level places and valleys, secrets of near woods, and glories of every-day paths.

All this I said to myself as we whizzed down the other side of the mountain. I use the word “whizzed” without any forgetfulness of the fact that it is usually applied only to bullets and arrows. I have never journeyed on either of those vehicles, but I would unhesitatingly recommend one or other of them for the descent of this Pluton Canyon. The road is simply a succession of oxbows or letter S’s in shape laid along the precipitous wall of the canyon. The turns are so sharp that you often lose sight of the leaders and of the heads of the chain-horses. The road is so narrow that in many places the outer wheels seem to be absolutely in line with the sheer wall below, and in no place does there seem to be more than six inches margin. Instead of a firm outer edge of stone, such as ought to support a road like this, there are many places where the road seems to be only a bank of gravel, which at every revolution of wheels on it shakes and sends down crumbling particles into the abyss below. Down this road, round these corners, on these rattling rims of gravel-banks we dashed at a run—two wagons full of mortal souls.

One thousand, two thousand feet below us, on our right hand, ran the Pluton River, over a rocky bed. Tall pines and firs and enormous boulders filled up the abyss, so that it looked black and terrible. If a bolt, a strap, a spoke had given way, as we turned one of those corners, wagons, people, all would have spun out into the air, as a child’s top spins off when it first leaves the string. It was perilous; it was reckless. But no sober sense can keep sober in such a descent; it is only the afterthought which takes note of the foolhardiness. At the time we held our breaths, with quite as much delight as terror. Tops of trees were below our feet one minute, above our heads the next, and the next gone, left behind, and more trees dancing up in their places. Gigantic rocks, and gnarled roots, and fallen trees covered with moss, and trickling streams, and foaming cascades, and waving bushes of white blossoms, and great spaces of pink and scarlet and yellow flowers beneath, all seemed to be flying up the hill as fast as we were flying down. High on our left rose a wall, whose top we often could not see—sometimes solid rock, with tiny ferns and flowers clinging in crevices; sometimes a heavily-wooded bank, with the roots of its great trees projecting, bare, and threatening to fall. I have forgotten how few minutes we were in reaching the bottom of the canyon. I only remember that it was a matter of boast that the descent had been made in so short a time; and the fact that this can be a point of pride with drivers, that this kind of road can be looked on as a race-course, is more significant than any comment or any statistics of speed. Is there any other country except America where such a road and such driving would be permitted? In the famous Ampezzo Pass, in Italy, the road has to wind around a dolomite mountain nine thousand feet high, the Antelao. Three times the road crosses the walled front of that mountain. From the lowest road you can look up to the two above, and they look like mere lines on the rocky surface. From the uppermost road you look down straight into the valley below, and see no sign of the roads by which you have climbed, so sheer is the wall. But this road is at all points wide enough for two carriages to pass at full speed; and its outer edge is a thick wall of masonry and stone, at least a foot wide.

There is a little meadow in the bottom of the Pluton Canyon. It is just big enough to hold a small hotel and half a vegetable garden; the other half of the vegetable garden runs up hill in terraces. There is a little stable too. and a bit of white paling and one arched gateway, with the sign “To Geysers,” and another with, “To Steam Bath;” and the whole thing looks so much as if it had set itself down there in spite of the canyon that it is as droll as it is picturesque. On the opposite side of the canyon is a great bare rift,—another small canyon splitting the side of the great one. It is bare and rocky and burnt looking; and steam curls up and down and out of it, and floats off in thin, weird shapes over the tall pine forests beyond.

It was just noon when we tumbled into the Pluton Canyon and landed at the Geysers’ Hotel. There were a great many too many people, and nobody could be comfortable; by way of making things more uncomfortable still, the Dutch landlord ordered everybody to walk up the Geyser Canyon immediately after lunch.

One o’clock, a blazing sun overhead, bare, blistering rocks everywhere, and a boiling tea-kettle under foot at every step! We, having been forewarned that the time to see the Geysers in perfection is early in the morning, utterly refused to go. Dutch landlord was indignant. “But the guide is going, now. It is the time I send him up.”

“But it is too hot, and we are tired; and there is much more steam when it is cooler. We will go this afternoon, or early in the morning.”

“But I have not twenty-five servants to send when each one likes. I do not know you can have guide this evening, and there is not time to go after five o’clock.”

“Very well. We simply shall not go now. We can return without seeing the Geysers at all, if you refuse us a guide.”

Meekly the poor, tired throng filed out through the gateway, under the scorching sun. Only we two remained. How we laughed at the Dutchman’s cross face, as he struck off into his vegatable garden! Climbing up terrace after terrace, and then one fence, we found a grassy bank, where we lay the whole afternoon, under shade of an oak, and watched the shapes of the hot steam curling and writhing up from the opposite canyon. A superb crested pheasant came and sat on a low bough, in full sight of us, and dressed his neck feathers, and called to somebody he knew. We picked twelve different kinds of wild flowers within a rod or two of our oak, and then we went down in the cool of the early twilight.

“We would like to go up to the Geysers in the morning. Will you send a guide up with us at half-past five?” said we.

“Yes,” growled the Dutchman.

“Be so good as to have us called at quarter before five.”

“Ugh! “replied the Dutchman. At five we luckily waked up ourselves. At quarter-past five came a surly knock at the door.

“We are up,” called we.

“Ugh!” said the Dutchman.

At half-past five we had just seated ourselves in the dining-room, when the Dutchman appeared.

“Time to start. Guide is waiting.

“But we must have something to eat. You did not call us at quarter to five, as you promised.”

“Nobody is called at the Geysers before quarter-past five. One quarter-hour is enough for anybody to dress.”

“It is impossible to dress in quarter of an hour.”

“Then you should not haf come to the Geysers. It is military rule at Geysers.”

Somebody speaks somewhere of before-breakfast courage. There is a before-breakfast temper too, I suppose, which is a good deal harder to keep than any other sort. What we said at this crisis in the conversation I would rather not tell; but the Dutchman said only “Ugh!” and, of course, a person who confines himself to that ejaculation can easily have the last word in any quarrel: there soon seems to remain so little to be said in reply to it. Even at this distance, however, there is satisfaction in saying of that Dutchman that he was the only ill-tempered, uncivil landlord we found in California, and that he keeps as bad a house as I ever found anywhere. But our little guide had a sunny face, the dew sparkled on every leaf as we set out, and in five minutes we were ashamed of ourselves for having had any feeling except pity for the poor cross man. The path led at once down into shady hollows, and across a stream at bottom of the Pluton Canyon; then out and up the other side, and in a few minutes we were at the entrance of the Geyser Canyon. What had looked to us the day before, from our hillside, like little more than a narrow rift in the opposite side of the valley proved to be a canyon of considerable width, with sharp sides twelve or fourteen hundred feet high.

It looked as if it had been built up of old refuse matter from foundries; as if for centuries men had sifted ashes and thrown out clinkers and bad coal and waste stones and junk and every conceivable sort of scorched metallic thing into this chasm; and as if several apothecaries’ shops had burnt down there too, for there was a new color and worse odor at every other step. And the little guide, striking his cane or fingers into bank after bank, kept bringing forth crumbs and powders, and offering them to us to taste or smell, with “Here is pure alum;” “Here is epsom salts;” “Here is sulphur;” “Here is cinnabar;” “Here is soda;” till we felt as if we were in the wholesale drug-shop of the universe. Meantime, he skipped along from rock to rock like a chamois; and we followed on as best we might, through the hot steam, which came up hissing and fizzing out of every hole and from beneath every stone. A brook of hot water running swiftly over and among rocks; pools and cauldrons of hot water boiling and bubbling by dozens all around; black openings, most fearful of all, where no water can be seen, but from which roaring jets of steam come out,—this is the bottom of the Geyser Canyon. It is half a mile long, and up it, in it, back and forth across it, you go. You think you will plant your stick on the ground to steady yourself for a spring from one hot stone to another, and down goes your stick,—down, down into soft, smoking, sulphurous, gravelly sand, so far and so suddenly that you almost fall on your face. You draw the stick up and out, and a small column of hot steam follows it. Next you make a misstep, and involuntarily catch hold of a projecting point of rock with one hand. You let go as if it were fire itself. It does not absolutely blister you; but it is too hot to hold. Your foot slips an eighth of an inch out of the guide’s footsteps, which you are following as carefully as if life and death depended on it, and you go in over shoes in water so hot that you scream and think you are scalded. You are not; but, if you had slipped a few inches further to right or to left, you would have been, for on each side inky-black water is boiling so that it bubbles aloud. All this while, besides the hissing and fizzing of the steam and boiling and bubbling of the water which you see, there is a deep violoncello undertone of boiling and bubbling and hissing and fizzing of, water and steam which you do not see, which are deep down under your feet,—deep down to right of you, deep down to left of you,—making the very canyon itself throb and quiver. How thick the crust may be nobody knows. That it can be thick at all seems improbable when, prick it where you may, with ever so slender a stick, the hot steam rushes out.

“Why did it not all cave in yesterday?” and “Why does it not cave in this minute?” and “Oh! it will surely cave in to-morrow!” you exclaim, as you take your last leap out of it, and look back from a firm green bank above. There can be no uncannier place in this world, unless it be a volcano crater; and one does not in the least resent finding it sealed, signed, and stamped with the name of Satan. “Devil’s Gristmill,” “Devil’s Inkstand,” “Devil’s Pulpit,” “Devil’s Apothecary Shop,” “Devil’s Tea-kettle’ were among the names which the guide shouted back to us as he perched on some especially high rock or squatted over some particularly horrible hole.

It was bewildering to pass, by almost a single step, from scorching ashes, nauseous stenches, and blinding steam, into tangled and shady woods, fragrant with spice wood and bright with flowers, and to hear the guide calling out, in advance: “This is the Lover’s Seat,” the “Lover’s Retreat.” But so we returned to the hotel by a winding path over the upper slopes of the Pluton Canyon. As we struck down to its lower level, we came upon a few trickling streams of the same hot, sulphurous water. Yellow Gherardias were growing close on their edge, and the flowers were far larger and of a deeper tint than those which grew away from the water.

“We have enjoyed our visit to the Geysers very much. It is a most wonderful sight!” said we to the landlord. We were sorry for having quarrelled with him. “Ugh!” said the Dutchman.

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