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Next: My Day in the WildernessContentsPrevious: Big Oak Flat

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


A lake six thousand feet above the sea, thirty miles long, sixteen miles wide, surrounded by mountains from which no summer melts all the snow, walled round the edges by firs and pines, set at the rim in a Mosaic of polished pebbles and brilliant flowers,— is not that a lake to be loved? And I have not yet said a word of its water, which is so blue that it seems impossible it should not stain, and so clear that one can see fishes swimming more than a hundred feet below his boat, and so cold that ice would not cool it. For its water alone it could be well loved, if it lay in a desert. It has had some hard fortune in way of names. A German once named it Lake Bompland, and a militia general named it, after a governor, Lake Bigler. But ten years ago, by some marvellous, good luck (I wish we knew whom to thank for it), it was rechristened by the old Indian name, Tahoe, pronounced by the Indians Tah-oo, and meaning “Big Water.”

To find Lake Tahoe, one must journey on the Overland Railroad six days west from New York or one day east from San Francisco, and leave the cars at Truckee. Truckee is as odd as its name. It looks so much as it sounds that one wonders if it could have been named beforehand. Truckee has one street. It is a broad, rocky, dusty field. The railroad track runs through it, so close to the houses on one side that you step from the cars to the hotel piazza. From the railroad side to the other plank, walks are laid at intervals: but there is no road, no semblance of a road, up and down the field. Enormous bowlders lie here and there, and you drive around them. Poor Truckee has had no time to blast rock on its highway, for it has been three times burnt out in nine months. Opposite the hotel is a long line of low wooden shops, with a row of slender evergreen trees in front,—trees cut down and stuck into the ground, not planted. Beyond these comes the Chinese quarter,—another long row of low, huddled, rickety wooden buildings, half of them black from the smoke of the fires, and all of them swarming with shiny-faced Chinese children. Newly cleared hill-slopes, hideous with blackened stumps, come down to the very backs of the houses. Truckee sells timber, and cuts down the nearest first. If anybody had had sense, the near slopes would have been left covered with trees, and Truckee would have had comfort and beauty; but now it is stripped, shelterless, dusty, as if it had been set down in a rocky Sahara.

Blackberries and strawberries and apricots and peaches and pears and apples can be bought on the sidewalk in Truckee early in July. You will be invited to an Indian-corn dance, too, if you can read the Indian language; for you will meet the invitations on all the corners. They are painted in red and white and black on the foreheads and cheekbones of Indian men and women. We supposed, at first, in our ignorance, that this was the usual style of promenade paint on the noble savage of these latitudes; but it was explained to us that it was their method of circulating the news and extending the invitations of a great Festival, the corn-dance, which was to take place a few weeks later. What a delicious device of taciturnity. There they stood,— men, women, wrapped in blankets, proud, impassive, speechless,—looking at each other, and us, and the street, their sharp, fathomless eyes gleaming out from among the glistening scarlet and white hieroglyphics on their faces. “Request the pleasure of,” etc., looks uncommonly queer done in Indian red over an eyebrow. But one needs to think before calling it silly or barbarous. It has its merits: no words lost, for one thing; economical, too, for another; and no replies expected, best of all,—though one could not be sure, perhaps, of this last. I do not know that a few days later the whole tribe might not have been seen painted in new colors and shapes, to signify their intended absence or presence.

The road from Truckee to Lake Tahoe lies along the bank of the Truckee River, a small stream, which comes foaming and roaring down from the High Sierras, in a swift fashion for a carrier of wood. But wood it carries—all it can lift and spin and whirl—every day; and in many places we saw it choked full of the black, shiny logs, and groups of men (“log-drivers”), up to their waists in the water, trying to separate them and hurry them along. We saw also a “log-shoot,” which is a fine sight of a sunny morning,—a yellow, glistening line from the top of the mountain straight to the river’s edge. This line is made of two split logs, laid lengthwise, close, smooth side up. Down this, logs are sent sliding into the river. Before the log is half way down the planks beneath it are smoking, blue and fast, from the friction. Sometimes they take fire. As the log hits the river-edge, it often somersaults twice, and leaps with such force that the water is thrown up in a sparkling sheaf higher than the tops of the trees. Four or five times over, taking less than half a minute a time, we saw this swift, craunching slide, pale smoke-wreath, and glittering water-spout.

And then we came to a foundling asylum for trout. We went in, and the proprietor set all the infants fighting for food at once, to amuse us. Their dormitories were cool and well ventilated, certainly, consisting of a series of unroofed tanks: and the chopped liver on which they are fed must have been of the very best quality, for they scrambled for it faster than beggars ever scrambled for pennies. The youngest of all were put in shallow covered boxes, with gravelled bottoms and only a little water. Those that were but four days old were droll. There were millions of them in a box. They looked like white currants, with two black beads for eyes and a needle-point for tail. The man said they would be trout presently and weigh two or three pounds apiece. It seemed unlikelier than any thing I ever heard.

You are three hours going from Truckee to Lake Tahoe, and it is so steadily up hill that you begin to wonder long before you get there why the lake does not run over and down. At last you turn a sharp corner, and there lies the lake, only a few rods off. What color you see it depends on the hour and the day. It has its own calendars—its spring-times and winters, its dawns and darknesses—incalculable by almanacs.

It is apt to begin by gray, early in the morning; then the mountains around it look like pale onyx and the sky, too, is gray. Then it changes to clouded sapphire, and the mountains change with it also to a pale, opaque blue; then to brilliant, translucent, glittering sapphire, when the right sort of sun reaches just the right height. And, when there is this peculiar translucent sapphire blue in the water then the mountains are of opal tints, shifting and changing, as if heat were at work in their centres.

Then, if at sunset the mountains take on rose or ruby tints, the water becomes like a sea of pink pearl molten together with silver; and as the twilight wind cools it it changes to blue, to green, to steel-gray, to black. This is merely one of its calendars of color; one which I happened to write down on a day when, lying all day by a second-story window, I saw no interval of foreground at all,—only the sky arching down to the lake, and the lake reaching, as it seemed. up to my window-sill. I felt as one might who sailed in a hollow globe of sapphire or floated in a soap-bubble.

There are two tiny steamboats on Lake Tahoe. Every morning one lies at the little wharf opposite the hotel, and rings its miniature bell and whistles its gentle whistle; but it will wait while the head waiter puts up more lunch, or the bridegroom runs back for the forgotten shawl. The twenty or thirty people who are going off in her all know this, and nobody hurries. There are several small villages on the shore of the lake; there are some Hot Springs; there is Cornelian Beach, where tiny red and yellow cornelians can be picked up by handfuls; there is Emerald Bay, where are sharp cliffs many hundred feet high, and water of a miraculous green color. It takes all day to go anywhere and come back in one of these boats, for the engines are only of one tea-kettle power. In fact, as the little craft puffs and wriggles out from shore, it looks as if it had the Quangle Wangle for steersman, and as if Lionel and his companions might come back on the rhinoceros’s back. The row-boats are better; and, if you take a row-boat, Fred is the man to row you. Everybody at Lake Tahoe knows Fred. He it was who rowed us out to one Sunday service we shall not forget. It was four o’clock in the afternoon. Summer afternoons on Lake Tahoe are warm till sunset—never has the mercury been known to rise above 75 degrees in this magic air; and it rarely, during July and August, falls below 62 degrees. The delight and the stimulus of this steady, clear, crisp air, snow-cooled, sun-warmed, water-fed, cannot be told. Day after day of warm sunlight, such as only rainless skies can show; and night after night of the sleep which only cool nights can give: almost it seems to me that miracles of cure might be wrought on these shores.

The Lake Tahoe House (one of the very best in all California) stands in a small clearing on the shore of the lake. A minute-and-a-half’s walk, chiefly down-stairs, and you are at the water’s edge. For a few rods up and down the lake the trees are felled; there are also four or five small houses; but, once past these, you glide instantly into shadow of the firs and pines, and can believe that you are the first to sail by. On this Sunday we rowed to the south, keeping close into the shore. Two miles below the hotel we had seen a picturesque lumber-mill, standing in another small clearing, which from the lake looked like a flower-garden, so gay was it with solid reds and blues.

Searching for this, we rowed slowly along,—now coming so near the shore that we could reach the brakes and mosses, now striking out far into the lake to go around a fallen tree, which walled our path as effectually as if we had been on foot in the woods. As we drew near the mill, and saw the gay colors more distinctly, we looked at each other in speechless wonder. We had seen fields yellow with the eschscholtzia, and spots so blue with blue-larkspur that we had taken them for ponds; but never had we seen such radiance of color as this. Spaces six feet, ten feet, twelve feet square, set thick with the scarlet-painted cups growing and flowering in such fulness it hardly looked like itself, and fully justified its common name in California,—“Painter’s Brush.” Mingling with this, also, in great solid spaces, a light blue forget-me-not, flowering in full heads; two other blue flowers grew in great profusion all about; one grew in low clumps. The flowers were set on the stem like the foxglove flowers, but three rows thick, making a wide spike, which on its front gleamed like a row of blue steel tube-mouths, so deep was the color, so lustrous the surface. What would we have given to have known or to have been able to find out the name of this superb flower. The other blue flower was like a snap-dragon and grew on slenderer stems. Then there was a royal pennyroyal, with white flowers in heads like clovers; and a graceful branching plant, full of small trumpet-shaped blossoms, of a vivid cherry red. We gathered them not by handfuls or by bunches, but by armfuls, and staggered back into the boat, literally loaded down.

Then we said to Fred:—

“Now, row us back to that thicker part of the wood where we saw those fine green ferns.”

Jumping out to get the ferns, and going a few steps into the wood, we came upon a still more wonderful spot. The water of the Lake had made up in the spring into a small hollow among the bushes; this was now left green as a river meadow. It was not more than ten or twelve feet either way, and the grass in the centre was wet and rank. On its outer edges grew red lilies, scarlet columbines, high green brakes, and willows; but these were not its glory. Tall, stately, white as Annunciation lilies, there stood forty or fifty spikes of a flower we had never seen. It was from two to five feet high. The blossoms were small, resembling syringa blossoms, but set thick on long, tasselling stems, as corn blossoms are; and these again massed thick around the central stern, making a branching, drooping, and yet erect and stately spike, not unlike the spike of the flower of the Indian corn, except that it was much thicker and more solid. It was the most regal flower I ever saw growing. Among these were growing many lower spikes of a tiny white flower like our lady’s-tresses. But even these spikes of this tiny flower were at least two inches in circumference at the bottom, tapering up to the top exquisitely.

Again loaded with sheaves, we climbed back into the boat. Fred looked on wonderingly. There was no room to step, to sit. He never carried such multitudes before.

“Now, row out, Fred, into the middle of the lake,” we said, as we sank down.

By this time the sunsetting had begun. The sky and the mountains and the water were all turning rose-pink; and we came shooting anon in the midst of the rose-color, bringing our fiery reds and stately white. We set the tall snowy spikes upright along the sides of the boat; great nodding yellow disks, too, of the elecampane and the vermillion bells of columbine. Then we made one huge bouquet of the scarlet-painted cups and the blue forget-me-nots; one of the red trumpet flower and the white pennyroyal, with a solid base of the mysterious dark blue flowers; one of the white lady’s-tresses, with the red trumpets; and one of the stately white spikes, with branching ferns. Then, setting these up as royal passengers, we lay down humbly at their feet, and, with our heads low, looked off over the rose-colored waters. Much I doubt if so gorgeous a pageant will ever float again on that water.

The next day we rowed early in the morning. Fred had assured us that in a still morning one could see the bottom of the lake where it was one hundred and fifteen feet deep. We doubted, but longed to believe. The water was like glass. We rowed out toward the centre of the lake. The snow-covered mountains on the further side were reflected in long, white, shimmering columns on the purple surface of the water.

“Thirty,” “fifty,” “sixty,” “one hundred feet deep,” Fred called out from time to time as he rowed steadily on. And we, hanging half out of the boat, exclaimed with irrepressible wonder at the golden-brown world below, into which we were gazing. We could see the bottom of the lake as clearly as we could see the bottom of the boat. It was a dusty field, with huge bowlders, covered with a soft brown growth, which made them look like gigantic sponges. Then would come great ledges of rock; then dark hollows, unfathomably deep.

“I shpect if she be dry she be shust like these mountains,” said Fred,—” all canyons and pig beaks.”

And in a moment more: “Here it ish one hunder fifteen feet clear,” he called out triumphantly, and lifted his oars.

Not a stone was indistinct. We could count small ones. It seemed as if we could touch them with ease; and, swift as an arrow, apparently within our hand’s reach, went by a shining trout.

“How far down was he, Fred?” we called.

“Ach! Don’t know. Maype fifty feet,” said Fred. The trout were an old story to him.

But it was when we turned to row back that the full wonder of such a transparent sea was revealed to us. The sun was behind us. As we looked over the bows, we could see the shadow of our boat, of our heads, of the moving oars, all distinct on the soft brown bottom of the lake. This shadow lay off to the left, a little ahead, gliding as we glided, pausing as we paused; then, directly ahead, gliding as we glided, pausing as we paused, went another double, equally distinct, but dark and shimmering on the surface. This was the reflection. Over the edges of this phantom boat we seemed to be leaning with even more eagerness than over the edges of the one below. It was an uncanny sight. To have two shadows would have been too much for even Peter Schlemihl. It added much to the unreality of the sight that every round stone, every small object on the bottom was surrounded by a narrow line of rainbow. These gave a fantastic gayety to the soft amber-brown realm, and, beautiful as they made it, made it also seem more supernatural.

“You pe shust in time,” called Fred. “In two minute you not see nothing. There vill pe vint.”

Sure enough. Already the ripple was in sight, coming rapidly toward us from the north. The air stirred faintly, our glass sea quivered and broke noiselessly under us, and the phantom boat below disappeared.

As we rowed on the shallower water, nearing the shore, where we could still see the bottom distinctly, the effects of the sunlight on it were exquisite. It lay in lapping and interlacing circles and ovals of yellow, and the surface ripples were reflected there in larger lines. The reflection of the oars in the water on each side of us looked like golden snakes, swimming fast alongside, and the beautiful rainbow lines still edged every object on the bottom,—even an old shoe and the ace of diamonds, which were the last things I saw on the bottom of Lake Tahoe. “Not so inappropriate, either,” said we, “ugly as they are. For the old shoe meant good luck, and diamonds are trumps all the world over.”

Next: My Day in the WildernessContentsPrevious: Big Oak Flat

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