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


Standing one evening in the little clearing before Hutchings’s Hotel, and looking up three thousand feet in the air, to the upper edge-of Ah-wah-ne’s southern wall, I saw a small point of bright light. It looked as a star might which had fallen and caught in a tree. While I was looking at it, Murphy passed by; and, in answer to my eager question what the light could be, he replied:—

“That’s folks camping out on Glacier Point. That’s where I’m going to take you to-morrow.”

“Take us there!” I exclaimed. I realized for the first time how I had been overawed by Ah-wah-ne. If Murphy had said to me that “folks were camping out” in the Little Dipper, which lay calm and bright and apparently little further off on the sky, I should have accepted the statement as readily. Murphy laughed.

“Why, ’tain’t much higher than ’twas where you came down from Gentry’s. I’m goin’ to take you more’n a thousand feet higher’n that, too. That ain’t three quarters o’ the way up to Sentinel Dome.”

The shining point held my eyes spell-hound. I watched it late into the evening. Once I thought I detected a slight flicker in it; but with that exception it looked no more like a watch-fire than did the other countless outpost watch-fires in the sky above it.

The Ah-wah-ne-chee had an odd name for this jutting point. They called it Er-na-ting Law-oo-too, or Bear-skin. But there was evidently a man or woman among them who loved musical sounds, and rebelled against these uncouth words; for another name has come down which is melody itself,—“Patillima.” Nobody knows what it means; but I think it means “Picture of the Emerald Meadow.” Does it not sound as if it might? It does when you are looking over its dizzy edge down into the radiant Ah-wah-ne.

We set out at half-past six in the morning. One cannot grow used to the splendor of Ah-wah-ne morning; it is the dew and glitter and awaking of dawn, filled, flushed, and overflowed with the light and the warmth of noon. One fears, at first, that the noon will arrive arid, lifeless, and beggared. But the miracle is as long as the day. Until the sun drops out of sight the marvellous shining and balm and zest of the air last. We rode westward down the Valley. On our left hand rose the wall; daylight made it look only the more inaccessible. We rode on and on, past the lower hotels,—Black’s and Leydig’s.

“Oh! we would rather stay at the upper end of the Valley, even if Hutchings had nothing but acorns to eat!” we exclaimed, as we more and more lost sight of the Great Fall, and looked at the dreary sand-fields in which the other hotels stand.

“But how far behind we are leaving Glacier Point, Mr. Murphy!” said we. “It must be a mile back.” “Yes,” said Murphy, his eyes twinkling. “The trail begins a mile ’n a half west. Ye hev’ to work round considerable on sech a wall ’s that to git up.”

At the entrance of the trail we found a small toll-house, kept by a far-seeing Irishman, named Macaulay, who built the trail. It cost $3,000 and it took eleven months of steady, hard labor to build it, though it is only six or seven miles long. But it is a marvellous piece of work. It is broad, smooth, and well protected on the outer edge, in all dangerous places, by large rocks; so that, although it is far the steepest trail out of the Valley, zigzagging back and forth on a sheer granite wall, one rides up it with little alarm or giddiness, and with such a sense of gratitude to the builder that the dollar’s toll seems too small. Looking off on the Valley side, however, requires nerve. You can see, usually, one terrace below you,—the one from which you have just turned, at an acute angle, into the one on which you are. Sometimes you can just see round the last bend of the one next below, and see a horse’s head slowly climbing up. But this is the most. Below that, only tops of trees and empty space, out, out, down, down, to the very bottom of Ah-wah-ne. It is incredible while you see it. You seem to be ascending on a series of narrow shelves, swung like book-shelves, one above another, but from earth to sky. You gain a few feet at each turn; but you double and double the length of the face of the wall, more times than you can count, with each turn. The bottom of the valley looks further and further away, and yet the sky looks no nearer.

On this day a large party was coming up just below us. Looking down on the long line of horses, winding and turning at slow pace, one could think of nothing but a circus suddenly tilted up, and the manoeuvres going on just the same on the wall.

In this party was one man never to be forgotten. He belonged to that class of healthy, irrepressible, loud-voiced travellers whom no grandeur can awe, no sentiment silence. Malicious fate had set him on a horse named January. January was lazy and slow of foot. Feeling along the path, echoing among the rocks, rising, sinking, doing every thing a voice can do, except die away, went the stentorian cry of that man:—

“Git up, Jenuerry! Git up, Jenuerry!”

At first we laughed at it. Then we looked grave. Then we set our teeth. Then we sinned with our tongues as we spoke one with another concerning that man. All the way from the bottom of the wall to the top he shouted, and gave no rest. The self-satisfied, jubilant hilarity of his tone was indescribably exasperating. Another sentence which we heard from his lips, however, had something so redeeming in it, that I treasured it. It was as we reached the summit of Glacier Point.

“The most romantic mind can here find enough of the picturesque to satisfy its wildest desires.” So saying, he wheeled his horse and trotted off, the whole party following swiftly, saying to their guide: “Come on, Guide! We’ve gazed enough.” They had been on the Point perhaps five minutes.

“I do hate to see folks do that way,” muttered Murphy, looking contemptuously after them.

“Git up, Jenuerry!” “Git up, Jenuerry!” came faintly back from the depths of the wood, as the party plunged off to the left, on the trail to Clark’s.

Three weeks later, by one of those deliciously improbable coincidences which fate itself must chuckle over when it brings them about, it happened that we saw this irrepressible, loud-voiced traveller again.

It was at night, on the Central Pacific Railroad, between Lake Donner and Truckee. We had been standing on the platform of the car for half an hour, watching the gleaming lights from the lake, where the Indians were fishing by torchlight. When we returned to our seat, we found it occupied by a sleeping man, whose head rested comfortably on our bags and bundles. It was the rider of January. As gently and gravely as we could, we roused him, and reclaimed our seat. I hope it is counted unto us for righteousness that we resisted the impulse to wake him by the cry, “Git up, Jenuerry!”

Standing on Glacier Point, we saw why the Ah-wah-ne-chee had called it Er-na-ting Law-oo-too. Its shape is not unlike that of a stretched bearskin, the head making the extreme point of the plateau. But we did not spend most of our time on Glacier Point standing. We spent it crouched between high rocks, or lying flat on our breasts, peering over the edge, drinking in the loveliness of this marvellous miniature picture of Ah-wah-ne. Its green was as vivid as ever. Its river and its lake shone like crystals; but its towering trees looked no higher than mosses. Great spaces of forest looked a hand’s-breadth wide. Mr. Tamon’s fruit orchard, four acres square, and containing five hundred trees, made merely a tiny dark spot in the glowing green meadow. No living thing, man or beast, could be distinguished from that height. The few buildings seemed hardly separate from the gray rocks among which they stood. There was no motion, no sound. Vivid, bright, beautiful, like the sudden picture shown by a wizard’s spell of some supernatural land, there the Valley lay. We knew that we had come from it; we knew that we should return to it; but not even this knowledge could make it seem real that we were on a level with the top of the Great Fall on the opposite side of the Valley,—could make the Great Fall look any less as if it came from the sky. We, also, seemed to be on a field of sky. To-wi-he and Pi-wy-ack were in full sight, looking, in the radiant distance, not so much like foaming waterfalls as like broad molten silver bands, by which the dark spaces of forest might be linked together and welded to the granite mountains.

But grander than the falls and more wonderful than all the other mountain walls, was the great South Dome, Tis-sa-ack. Seen from this point, its expression is so significant that even its stupendous size is partially forgotten. When half of Tis-sa-ack fell, the northeast front was left a sheer, straight granite surface, nearly six thousand feet high. The top is still rounded. No human foot has ever trod it or ever will. The longer I looked at it, this day, the more its contour assumed the likeness of a colossal visor, closed. But this peculiar expression is seen from no other point. Therefore, I think that it was here on Patillima that the Ah-wah-ne-chee first crowned it “Goddess of the Valley,” and first wove the legend of the mysterious maiden, with yellow hair and blue eyes, who sat upon its crest and won the love of Tu-tock-ah-nu-lah, and then disappeared for ever, leaving Tis-sa-ack to guard her memory and her secret together.

“I hate to hurry ye,” said Murphy, after we had been a half an hour here; “but, if we’re goin’ to the top of Sentinel Dome, we must rely be goin’. We hain’t got none too much time now.”

A few more minutes he gave us, touched by our entreaties; but then he sternly followed us about from rock to rock with our horses, and compelled us to mount. The trail led down into the woods again, along a little brook-course, over beds of ferns, among which blue for-get-me-nots waved as they wave on the shores of the Alban Lake. The magic Valley, the colossal domes, the radiant infinite distances, all had disappeared in the twinkling of an eye. It might be any other sweet forest out of Ah-wah-ne through which we were quietly riding. Just as I was thinking how wonderful the transition seemed, and how hard it was to realize that we were really three thousand feet high and riding on the rim of Ah-wah-ne, Murphy cantered up by my side, and said, in a low tone:—

“Ye wouldn’t think now, would ye, when ye’re in these woods, that ye was jest on the edge of the Valley?” Was there any shade of feeling, any point of beauty which this silent and half-grim old guide did not know?

“I always think it’s a real rest after the Pint to get in here,” he continued; “an’ it kind o’ prepares ye for the Dome.”

“An’ here’s a first-rate place to eat your lunch,” he added, stopping under a big pine, whose scraggy roots thrust out like wharves into the brook. The poor, hungry horses eyed our gingerbread, and nibbled disconsolately at bushes they did not like. There was not a blade of grass. We fed them with all that we could spare, and they took the crumbs from our hands gratefully as dogs. Oh! the pitifulness of the Ah-wah-ne horses. It is hard to bear the sight of it.

When we left the woods, we struck out into open, rocky fields. There was hardly a vestige of a trail, to our inexperienced eyes; but Murphy rode on, turning to the right and to the left, and as we followed him we could see that on either hand of our way the rocks and stones and pebbles and sand looked even less like a road than those under our feet. Before us rose Loya, the bald, gray dome, the sentinel; on its top one low pine tree, and on the side nearest us a big belt of snow.

“Ye’ll have to walk up the rest of the way,” said Murphy. “This snow won’t bear the horses.”

I jumped from my horse just in the edge of the first snow-drift; and I alighted on beds of tiny, low flowers, growing like those I had seen at the top of the Nevada Fall, in thick mats, but with even smaller blossoms, all of a delicate pink color. The snow-drifts bore us, and in some spots the crust crackled under our feet as it does in the New England winter. Yet the air was soft and balmy, and almost at the top of the Dome I picked one little yellow pansy. The pine-tree was low, and so bent it seemed to have crouched in terror. One long, gnarled branch grew out for many feet to the south; but on the north side all was bare and scarred. We looked at the snow-drifts, at the tiny flowers, at the tree, all before we looked off at the Sierras. Only by glimpses at first could we bear the grandeur of the sight. We were one thousand feet above the highest fall in Ah-wah-ne. Ah-wah-ne itself—shrunk to a narrow abyss, with vivid gleams of green and silver at its bottom— was only a near line in the vast distance on which we looked. Little Ah-wah-ne was an emerald spot, walled by bare granite masses. Mountains seemed piled on mountains; and yet, beyond them and between them, we could see the great valley stretches of the San Joaquin and the Sacramento, and to the west a dim blue line, which marked the Golden Gate. Looking north-ward across the Valley, we could see Mount Hoffman, eleven thousand feet high, covered with snow; and the gigantic North Dome, seeming almost to nestle under its shadow. Only one thing except the far Sierras was higher than we. That was the eternally sealed mask of Tis-sa-ack.

The Sierra Nevada, in its immortal white, lay only thirty miles away, every peak sharp-cut, on the intense blue of the cloudless sky. Beyond Ah-wah-ne we saw, coming from the north, the slender thread of white which makes Ah-wah-ne’s Great Fall. It seemed somehow to be the one thing which linked it with the human world, proved it real, and made it safe.

“You folks ought to go round the whole Valley and camp out,” said Murphy, who had watched us more and more approvingly. “It wouldn’t take more than two weeks, and there’s lots of places you’d like as well’s you do this.”

“Mr. Murphy, do you believe that you are speaking truth?” said we, severely.

Murphy’s eyes smiled a little, but he said no more. He liked our loyalty to Loya.

On our way down, we stopped for a few moments to rest on Union Point, half way between Glacier Point and the Valley. Here we found an Irishman living in a sort of pine-plank wigwam, from the top of which waved the United States flag. In a low tree, on the very edge of the precipice, I saw a small bunch of flowers. “Oh! somebody has lost a bouquet,” I exclaimed. But, when I tried to take it from the crotch in the branch, I found it was firmly wedged in and confined by a twig bent across the opening. The Irishman came running up, and, handing it to me, with a broad smile on his ugly red face, said:—

“It was me tied it up. I thought some leddy ’d be comin’ along that ’d like it.”

“I will keep it always, in memory of Union Point and you,” exclaimed I.

Alas! long before I reached the bottom of that dizzy wall it had fallen from my belt. But, nevertheless, it is true that I keep it still in memory of Union Point and the lonely, chivalrous Irish gentleman who lives there and looks down into Ah-wah-ne.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management