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


It is put down on the maps as Santa Cruz; but why should I not speak my own language? No one of the old Padres who named the meadows and hills of this sweetest of seaside places could have lingered more tenderly on the sound of the soft “Santa” than I over the good and stronger word “Holy.” And to none of them did it seem a fitter spot for a mission than it does to me. The old adobe buildings which the Padres built are crumbled and gone, and no man knows where the Padres sleep; but the communion of saints is never banished from an air it has once filled. Sacred for ever and everywhere on earth are the places whose first founders and builders were men who went simply to carry the news of their Christ and who sought no personal gain. Holy Cross Village is by the Pacific Sea, —close by the sea, a hundred miles or so to the south if you go from San Francisco. You can get there in a day. But it is better to take longer. It always is better to take longer going anywhere,—ways are so sure to be nicer than any places you set out to reach. The way to Holy Cross Village is delightful, if you go by San Jose and Santa Clara. First, an hour in the cars, running southward through the Santa Clara Valley,— parks and rich men’s houses, wheat and oats, and windmills by dozens; then, just at sunset, San Jose, another of the sacred old mission towns. It lies low, between two mountain ranges. It is shady and straight and full of flowers. There are public gardens, with round tables under the trees, with little ponds, and boats, and targets, and jumping-boards, where it is evident that men and women frolic daily, after un-American fashion. There is a Chinese quarter; which is, in fact, only five steps from the main street, but is in atmosphere five thousand miles away. At the end of its one narrow lane stands a Joss House,—small, white, high, double-gabled in roof; a dolphin, tail up, for a steeple; a gigantic lady-bug and a lobster on the ridge-pole; square patches of bright colors, interspersed with cabalistic inscriptions, like an album missionary bedquilt, on the wall; steep stairs, climbing up outside the house; and a door opening into an airless little chapel, where a huge tureen full of the ashes of burnt prayers stands on a low altar. The prayers, rolled up in the shape of slender cigarettes, are stuck like lamp-lighters in a vase close by. In a small, windowless alcove at the end of the chapel we found the priest, sitting on the edge of his bed, scraping opium. The furniture of his bedroom consisted—besides the wickerwork bedstead, which had a thin roll of bedding at: its head—of a teapot, two teacups, and a pipe. This was all. He looked happy. There are three fine public schoolhouses in San Jose, a handsome building for a normal school, and the most wonderful weeping-willows in the world. These are on General Negley’s ground. Four of them make together a great dome of green, through which little light penetrates, into which you drive, and find yourself walled in on all sides by quivering, drooping willow wreaths, which, although they bend from a point some sixty or seventy feet up in the air, still trail on the ground. All this and more you will find out about San Jose before the sun sets, and then you will sleep at the Auzerais House, which is so good that one must be forgiven for calling it by name.

Early the next morning, a top seat on the stage for Santa Cruz: three miles to Santa Clara,—three miles on an absolutely straight, absolutely level road, walled with willows and poplars on each side. The old Padres set these out; most enduring of all memorials, most indisputable title-deed to the right of gratitude from generations.

From Santa Clara, twelve miles out to the Coast Range of mountains; twelve miles across the Santa Clara Valley. This road is also perfectly level; in the dust and heat of summer, intolerable; on the day we crossed it, clear and pleasant, and golden, too, as the wake of a cloud in a smooth yellow sky, for the whole valley was waving with yellow mustard. What the ox-eye daisy is to New England, the wild mustard is to these saints’ valleys in California. But the mustard has and keeps right of way, as no plant could on the sparser New England soil. Literally acre after acre it covers, so that no spike nor spire of any other thing can lift its head. In full flower, it is gorgeous beyond words to describe or beyond color to paint. The petals are so small, and the flower swings on so fine and thread-like a stem, and the plant grows so rank and high, that the effect is of floating masses of golden globules in the air, as you look off through it, bringing the eye near and to its level; or, as you look down on it from a distance, it is a yellow surface, too undulating for gold, too solid for sea. There are wheat fields in the Santa Clara Valley, and farms with fruit-trees; but I recall the valley only as one long level of blazing, floating, yellow bloom.

The Coast Range Mountains rise gently from the valley; but the road enters abruptly upon them, and the change from the open sun and the vivid yellow of the valley to the shifting shadows of hills and the glistening darkness of redwood and madrone trees is very sharp. The road is like all the mountain roads in California,— dizzy, dangerous, delicious; flowers and ferns and vines and shrubs tangled to the very edges; towering trees above and towering trees below; a rocky wall close on one hand and a wooded abyss close on the other, and racing horses pulling you through between. “It is magnificent, but it is not driving.” We stop for a bad dinner at a shanty house, which is walled and thatched with roses; and we make occasional stops to water at lonely little settlements, where the hills have broken apart and away from each other just. enough to let a field or two lie and tempt a few souls up into their living grave. At all such spots the wistful, eager, homesick look on some of the faces wrung my heart. “Be you from the east?” said one man, as he brought out the water for the horses. He had a weak, tremulous, disappointed face. The pale blue eyes had lost all purpose, if they ever had it. “Oh, yes!” said we gayly. “From the other edge of the continent.” And then we waited for the usual reply. Well I wonder if you know my uncle, Mr. ——. He lives in New York.” But no. “I thought so,” was all the man said; but there was something indescribably pathetic in the emphasis and the falling inflection. Early in the afternoon we came out on a divide, a narrow ridge, wooded less thickly, and giving us glimpses of the ocean in the distance. When we reach the end of the seaward slope of this, we shall have crossed the Coast Range, and shall find our Holy Cross Village. A few miles this side of it, the driver says:—

“Now we’re coming to the Hotel de Redwood. There it is.”

And he points with his whip. All that can be seen on either hand is the same unbroken forest of majestic redwoods and pines and madrones through which we have been driving for miles.

“Get out, gentlemen, and take a drink,” calls a feeble voice from a ragged man, taking the near leader by the head. “I am the proprietor of the Hotel de Redwood.”

Then we see a small white sign nailed to the bark of one of the biggest trees: “Hotel de Redwood.” The door is in the other side of the tree, furthest from the road. That is the reason we didn’t see it; this is the kind of thing a moderate tree can be used for in this country of sizes too big to sort. It is not a hotel in which one would sleep, to be sure; but it is a hotel big enough for eight or ten people to stand at once in front of its little counter, where are for sale the ever-present and innumerable drinks of the country. One hollow tree for bar-room, one for shop, one for library, one for museum, one for bedroom of the proprietor—five hollow trees make the Hotel de Redwood. The library consists of six volumes; the museum of a live hairless South American dog, a dead California lion, and the head of a bear. The bedroom—I would rather not speak of the bedroom. I think the lion used to sleep in it, and the proprietor killed him for his bed.

“Can’t you take me into town?” said the proprietor, looking wistfully at the driver.

“Yes, yes, Mr. Baker. Jump up. It’s a light load to-day; but you must bring your violin, and play for us.”

So the poor vagabond fellow sprang merrily up on the top of the stage; and we drove into the village to the tune of “The Traveller from Arkansas.”

The village lies close to the sea. There are houses from which you can throw a stone to the beach. Then, a little higher up, is the business street, where shops and offices and one or two quaint, small inns, with pots of flowers all along their balconies, are set thick together, and contrive to look much wider awake than they are; then rise sudden, sharp terraces,—marking old water-levels, no doubt,—up which one ought to go by staircases, but up which one does climb wearily by winding roads and paths. On these terraces are the homes of Santa Cruz. Not a fine house, not a large house among them; but not a house without a garden, and hardly a house without such fuchsias, geraniums, and roses as would make a show to be sought after in any other country than this. Is it worth while, I wonder, to say to people who keep a couple of scarlet geraniums carefully in pots in their window, that in this village scarlet geraniums live out of doors all the year round, grow by dozens along fences, like currant-bushes, and stick out between the slats, great bits, and branches, that anybody may pick; that they stand plentifully at corners of houses, running up, like old lilac-trees, to the second-story windows; that a fuchsia will grow all over a piazza, and a white rosebush cover a small cottage,— walls, eaves, roof,—till nothing but the chimney is left in sight, coming out of a round bank of white and green?

Believe it who can, that has not seen it! In Holy Cross Village, to-day, are many scarlet geraniums and fuchsias and rose-bushes, of all colors, that can “witness if I lie.”

Walking half a mile back—no, quarter of a mile back—from these terraces, you come to soft, round hills, with openings of meadow-stretches, fertile and rich as the prairie. Many of these are wooded heavily with redwoods and pines, madrones and buckeye. Through these woods wind delicious roads, rising out of damp, shadowy fern-and-flower-filled hollows, to broad, breezy openings, from which the sea is in full sight, and across which the delicious wind sweeps straight up from Monterey, or over from the mountains the other side of the bay.

Walking down from the terraces seaward, and then southward, you find marshy meadows, green and brown, through which the road-track is hardly defined. Flowers grow on each side, as bright and many as on the prairie. Presently, the road comes to an abrupt end, in a little grassy spot, divided only by a low, brushwood fence from a half-moon-shaped beach of white sand, between two high cliffs. The furthest cliff has a natural arch in it, many feet high, through which the sea beyond shows a half-circle of blue, set in yellowish white, looking like a great gate of sapphire, swinging slowly to and fro in an arched gateway of ivory. The nearer cliff is covered with curious plants of the cactus species, with yellow blossoms and red; and the rocks seem to be of a chalky nature, brilliantly veined with black and yellow and pale pink. At the base of the cliff, the same bright-veined rocks stretch out, in irregular and broken floors. As the high tide comes up over these, all the depressions are kept filled with water, and make beautiful aquaria, in which live limpets and muscles and anemones. Fine and rare seaweeds are strewn around their rims, and wave from their sides deep down in the water. The line of white surf breaks perpetually beyond, coming or going,—always a surf; retreating always with a kneeling face, turned to the cliff, as is the law of stately surfs on all seas, leaving the king’s presence of their shores.

To go back to the village by another way, you strike across the marshy meadows, following for two miles or more a soft, grassy road, through flowers; then ascending a high plateau, on which are farms and here and there lime-kilns, with blazing fires, and glistening, white rock piled up by their sides. You are high up above the village, now; but woods shut it out of sight. You pass it,—go two miles beyond it; then turn, and come down to it by a wooded road on the steep side of a little canyon, through which a small river makes to the sea. A wild azalea grows in masses on this road,—azalea, whose flowers are white and pink and yellow all together. Down in the bottom of the canyon is a little green meadow oasis, where there are a few white houses and a powder-mill. The river turns, to make room for it, in such a sudden and exquisite curve that you think it is carrying it on one arm, as a woman carries a baby. As you come out of the woods, the broad sea flashes suddenly into full sight; and the village shows in shining bits here and there, like something the sea might have broken and thrown up. You see now that the terraces are not so high as they seem; and the village has little threads of lanes and streets, fringing off into the meadows in all directions. It is sunset: all Nature rings the Angelus; and you say in your heart, “God bless the village!”

“Mrs. Pope’s” is a little house, where lucky strangers stay. It consists of three cottages and a quarter. In two of the cottages, the guests lodge, and take their meals in the cottage and a quarter. The furthest cottage of lodgings is an old one. It is, or ought to be, called the “Cottage of the Cloth of Gold Rose;” for, on one of its walls, grows a cloth of gold rose-tree (not bush),—a tree whose trunk lies flat against the side of the house, and reaches up to the eaves before it condescends to branch at all. Then it sends out arms to the right and to the left, and hides the whole length of the eaves, from corner to corner, with leaves and roses. The cottage is very low. The boughs and sprays hang half way to the ground. You can pick as many Cloth of Gold roses every day as you like; and nobody will miss them. The next cottage is new. It has only four rooms, a back door, a front door, a roof, and a little bit of piazza. From it, you go over a pine-plank path—a few seconds’ walk—to the dining-room, in the “cottage and a quarter.” From the piazza, you look into flower-beds, through which the path leads up from the gate to the house. Rose-bushes, six and seven feet high; roses, of all colors, and of the rarest kinds; heliotropes, geraniums, pinks: a huge datura in the centre, with blossoms ten inches long; an abutilon, high as the evergreen trees by its side, and so sturdy that the tame blackbird who scolds in the garden, early and late, for somebody to come and give him bread, can sit on the topmost boughs of it.

The “quarter” is two rooms, joined to the cottage by a little glass-fronted chamber, in which ferns are to grow. The outside door opens into the parlor, which is a low room, with an open fire-place, where, in spite of the Cloth of Gold roses, a wood fire will be blazing on andirons, night and morning, in July. There is a piano, a chintz-covered lounge, fantastic shell-work, and cone-work brackets in the corners, a low centre-lamp swung by a chain from the ceiling, and, on the round-table under it, the last “Old and New.” Sixteen copies of “Old and New” are taken in Holy Cross Village. This is the result of the leaven left there by that brave, strong, but one ideaed woman, Eliza Farnham.

The farm on which she and her beloved friend, Georgia Bruce, toiled like men, and sowed and reaped and builded with their own hands, lies little more than a mile away from the town. Mrs. Farnham’s house was burnt down, a short time ago; but another has been built on the same spot, and a son of “Tom”—who will be so well remembered by all who have read Mrs. Farnham’s account of her California life—lives in it now, with his mother. The house stands in a lovely spot, on high ground, from which meadows slope gently to the sea-level, and then stretch away miles to the beach. When that adventurous woman broke ground for her house, no other house was in sight, except the Mission Building, and the little shanty in which she lived while her own house was going up. Now the Mission is used for a stable. The northern outskirts of the village lie in full sight, between her farm and the sea; and, to reach the sight of her house, you must pass a thickly wooded cemetery, in which there are many headstones. On the day that we were there, men were tossing hay in the beautiful, curving meadow hollows just before the house,— the same meadow where Mrs. Farnham sowed the first wheat which was sowed in Santa Cruz, and where Georgia Bruce spent whole days in planting potatoes. The air was almost heavy with the fragrance from the fresh hay, and from the thickets of azalea on the cemetery banks. The distant sea glittered like a burnished shield, to which the mountains on the other side of the bay were set like an opal rim. Hardship and struggle seem monstrous in such an atmosphere. There must have been an air of mockery to those toiling pioneers in the very smile of this transcendently lovely Nature. To want bread, to need shelter in such realms of luxuriance and warmth; to suffer, to die under such skies,— the heart resents and rejects the very thought with passionate disbelief. But such thoughts, such recollections, such struggle, are, after all, the needed shadow to a too vivid sun. Holy Cross Village is blessed of both,—blessed in its sparkling sea, its rainless sky, its limitless blossom; blessed also in the memory of Eliza Farnham, and the presence to-day of Georgia Bruce Kirby.

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