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


[Editor’s note: The correct Ahwahneechee name for Vernal Fall is Yan-o-pah. Pi-wy-ack refers to Tenaya Lake and was mistakenly transfered as the name for Vernal Fall. Bunnell, Discovery of the Yosemite (1880), p. 207.dea]

In the language of the Ah-wah-ne-chee, who always spoke truth, “Pi-wy-ack” means “white water” or “shower of shining crystals,” and “Yo-wi-he” means “the twisting” or “the meandering.” These were the names of the two great falls by which the Merced (River of Mercy) leaps into Ah-wah-ne. Then came the white men, liars; they called the upper fall “Nevada,” and the lower one “Vernal;” and the lies prevailed; being, as lies are apt to be, easier said than the truth.

Ah-wah-ne guides tell you. that you can see both these falls in one day, leaving Hutchings;s early in the morning and returning late in the afternoon. This is true, if the verb to see means simply to look at. John Murphy defined it better:

“Now, I’ll tell you the way to see them two falls,” he said. You jest make your calkerlations to stay over night to Snow’s an’ you’ll re’ly see ’em. There don’t nobody see a thing that jest rides up to it, an’ turns round an’ rides away. It’s jest the greatest place for moonlight, up on that Nevada Fall, you ever see.”

Sol White was right. John Murphy was “jest the sort o’ person” we “folks would take to.” How much of Ah-wah-ne we should have lost or have but half known except for him!

So we set out for Pi-wy-ack in the early afternoon. We too rode through the mysterious opening in the line of tethering posts, where we had watched party after party disappear, just beyond the hotel. Right into an oak and willow wood, right into a swamp, right into an overflow of the Merced River itself rode Murphy. His white horse, was up to the saddle-girths in water. It plunged and seemed to stumble. Murphy glanced quietly over his shoulder at us.

“Keep right behind me, and there’s no danger. Don’t bear to the left. It’s ten foot deep just off there.”

It was good generalship to make us concentrate our attention on the one point of keeping close in his steps. No doubt we could have ridden as safely a little to the left; but we should have been twice as frightened at the place we were in if we had not been occupied in trying to avoid a worse one. It was an ugly slough,— water ten feet deep on the left; the current running quite fast; the horses stumbling over the hidden rocks; and close on the right a confusion of high rocks, up which no horse could possibly clamber. But it only lasted a minute or two, and nobody fell in; and then we came out at once on the meadows. Ah! the beauty of the eastern meadow land of Ah-wah-ne, shaded by oaks and pines, and spruces and maples, in groves, without underbrush; threaded by little streams, which zigzag capriciously among thickets of alders and white azalea; and between, white shining bars and stretches of sand, like miniature beeches. They lose themselves in each other or in the Merced; or stop of a sudden, as if changing their mind. You leap them, you ford them, you indulge your horse in sipping them, one after another, just for the pleasure of it. They seem almost a relief sometimes from the grandeur of the lofty walls on every side. So, also, do the flowers, with which great spaces here and there are bright,—red lilies and yellow, deep blue larkspur, rose-colored everlasting, columbine, wild roses, and yellow honeysuckles, besides many others which do not grow out of Ah-wah-ne. After looking up at the terrible To-coy-ae and Tis-sa-ack, bald granite domes four and five thousand feet high, after following the line of overlapping arches and columns and peaks of stone; high up in the air on either hand as far as you can see, seeming to tower and grow, and threaten to topple under your very gaze,—there is a sense of protection in the neighborhood of an azalea, a new comradeship with a daisy. They have summered and wintered in Ah-wah-ne, and are not afraid.

Two miles of this meadow, and then the Valley ends, or, rather, branches into three, so narrow that they are called canyons. As we came near this point, the great walls seemed to have wheeled and opened. All the familiar summits looked new and strange, and new summits, almost grander, came into view. Our path lay up the canyon down which the Merced comes. The noise of its coming soon grew loud. The path winds close along its edge. Out of Ah-wah-ne, we should not call it a path. Steep, narrow, full of bowlders, between which your horse turns and twists at such sharp angles you sway to right and left dizzily, under low-hanging boughs, between bushes which catch you on either side, up and up and up it leads; and the Merced on the left leaps and foams and roars, louder and louder, mile by mile. Now we caught glimpses of its white foam between the dark pines; then it would plunge into still darker depths, and be out of sight for a time. As we came out upon open points here and there, and looked back, we could see no valley behind, no valley anywhere, only peaks and chasms and walls. Except for the green tops of the trees, struggling up among them or clinging to their sides, the sight would have been desolate. Yet it was among those peaks and chasms that we had seen the azaleas. Up from those abysses we had climbed, and still were to climb; for we seemed hardly midway. Far up on the right, so far up that the pine-trees looked like bushes on an almost vertical wall, Murphy pointed out to us a dark line. That, he said, was our path.

“But we shall have to wait at Lady Franklin’s Rock,” he said, “until the party that went up this morning gets down. There ain’t no passing on that trail when I’m guidin’,—at least, not if I can help it.”

Just as he said this, we turned a corner, and came suddenly in sight of Pi-wy-ack. The Ah-wah-ne-chee spoke well. Three hundred and fifty feet of “white water,” “shining crystals,” there it was, with solid walls of glittering fir and pine on either hand. Lady Franklin —bless her loyal woman’s heart—was carried in a litter up to this point, and rested on the broad flat rock which bears her name.

But Pi-wy-ack could not have been so beautiful when she saw it as on this day; for now the water was so high that the rock was wet, and the thick moss with which it is covered glistened as with dew. As we sat waiting, we heard the crackling of branches, and presently there came toward us four figures, bending low, running, parting the wet bushes above their heads, leaping from stone to stone. They were black and shiny. They looked like some novel specimen of upright seal or walrus; but they were men and women. They had come down under the spray of Pi-wy-ack. As they threw off the India-rubber wraps, and, sputtering and splashing, stamped on the ground, water dripped from them. But their eyes flashed with delight. They seemed almost to have brought the rainbows from the Fall along with them. The rest of their party, feebler or more timorous, were coming on horseback by the trail; it was for them we were to wait. It seemed long, for we were impatient, the passion for climbing deepens so fast and the lure of a mountain summit ahead is so magnetic. As soon as they came, we pushed breathlessly on, turning around a sharp corner of the rock-wall, and losing sight of Pi-wy-ack at once. Now the real climbing began. We smiled to think we had called it steep, lower down in the canyon. The trail zigzagged up precipice after precipice; it bent at as sharp angles as a ship’s course, tacking in a gale. At each corner the horses stopped to breathe; and, if we had the nerve to look off and over, we looked down on the tops of the heads of the riders coining close behind us, on the very next bend below. They seemed winding in a stately dance. Further down one could hardly bear to look. The chasms into which we had looked before seemed to be merged in one gigantic abyss, the bottom of which was made of sharp mountain peaks and granite needles and ridges. We welcomed every shade of tree or shelter of rock which seemed to stand between us and the edge of this fathomless space; and yet the sense of grandeur was so great that it left little room for terror. We were drawing near to peaks higher than those we had left behind. Hundreds or, for aught we could feel, thousands of feet below us thundered the river. On the further side of it rose up Mah-tah, a perpendicular rock-mountain, two thousand feet above the top of the fall we were climbing to reach. What patriot first called this peak “Cap of Liberty” considerate history forgets.

As we approached the head of the canyon, we came out on fields of piled bowlders and low bushes. The trail was now literally a trail,—nothing but great, dusty hoof-tracks between these bowlders; and, as there rarely seemed any especial reason for following them, each horse picked his way much as he liked. To this I owe it that my first view of the Yo-wi-he Fall was so sudden that the whiteness of it blinded me for a second, as lightning does. For some minutes I had been absorbed in an ignoble contest with my horse. I had not observed that the roar of the Fall sounded louder. I looked up unexpectant, and the avalanche of dazzling foam flashed full before me. It is nearly twice as high as Pi-wy-ack and of much statelier movement. About midway—say three hundred feet from the top—the water falls against a projecting ledge. This twists and turns and throws out the upper half of the Fall in narrow, waving separate lengths, which look like myriads of gigantic Roman candles, made of snow-flakes, as they fall, fall, fall, perpetually, in front of the main body of water, that continues still unbroken, though it spreads suddenly out into a silvery sheet one hundred and thirty feet wide, and has a distinct swaying motion, as of a supple grace, which yielded way a little for courtesy, and not of need. Again we said of the Ah-wah-ne-chee: “How well they told the truth!” It had not seemed before-hand as if “Yo-wi-he,” “The Meandering,” could be a good name for a grand waterfall. As near the base of the Fall as the Fall will let it stand—in fact, so near that in some winds half the piazza is drenched with spray—stands Mr. Snow’s little inn, “La Casa Nevada.”

How we thanked Murphy for having brought us to sleep there.

“And now about the moon, Mr. Murphy. When will it be up?”

Murphy looked confused.

“Well, ye see I hain’t been keepin’ much run on her lately, an’ the fact is, I’d forgot, when I spoke to you about seein’ the Falls, how late she is. There won’t be no moonlight here to-night till nigh one o’clock.”

“Never mind. We’ll sleep till one, and then get up and see the moonlight.”

Nobody can be sure, after a half-day’s horseback riding in Ah-wah-ne, of waking up at the hour they resolve upon. It was long after one o’clock that night when three shapeless figures, rolled up in Mrs. Snow’s bed-blankets and comforters, went stumbling about in that trackless waste of bowlders, looking for the moon. The ground was black, the bowlders were black, the bushes were black. Blacker still loomed up the pine and fir-forests on either hand; and, above them, actually glistening like walls of black crystal, towered the granite peaks. The moon had shone her little hour in the canyon and gone on. A faint light in the dark sky to the south, outlining more distinctly the jagged summits and serrated forest tops, told that she was still shining the other side. The Fall showed ghastly whitish gray; the rapids all the way down from the base of the Fall to the bridge gleamed, but did not look white; the stars shone piercingly; and the silence was terrible, in spite of the roar of the water. We felt our way about; we lost the path again and again, and hardly dared to move, for fear of falling headlong down some precipice. The air was sharply cold, but the bed-blankets and comforters were very inconvenient. At last somebody said to somebody: “Don’t you think we are fools?” And then we groped our way back to bed.

The next morning we climbed to the top of the Fall. Since the Fall is only seven hundred feet high, why it need be a four hours’ climb up and down one side of it is not evident. But the path is steep,—partly through woods of fir, cedar, and maple; partly over sandy and rocky cliffs, where the trail is close to the edge and is full of sharp-cornered bits of granite, broken so fine it looks like gray loaf-sugar and is uncommonly hard to the feet. All the way up are wonderful glimpses of the Fall. Seen from the side, the long, slender shafts of foam look more like snowy Roman candles than ever. And, as you can often look between them and the main sheet of the Fall, it is easy to fancy them thrown off by invisible pyrotechnists (aquatechnists?) under the rocks. The swaying of the great avalanche to the right is also more clearly seen; and the stream on the left, which from below had looked merely like a stray thread of the Fall, proves to be almost another river, itself leaping and falling in cascades of such beauty one might well have climbed up for their sake alone. As we sank down breathless on the rocks at the top of the Fall, Murphy said:—

“Now you must keep on and take a look into the Little Yosemite Valley. It is only a few steps.”

There was, then, a miniature Ah-wah-ne. We wondered and pressed on. The “few steps” were half or three-quarters of a mile along the river’s sandy and rocky bank, through live oak and manzinita bushes and over mats of tiny low flowers, growing as thickly as our moss pinks. They were purple and blue and yellow and white, and I never saw one of them anywhere else, —not even anywhere else in Ah-wah-ne. They were almost too tiny to pick. They shrivelled and became nothing in one’s fingers, and they seemed to have little root, coming off the dry rock surface at a touch; but they made solid masses of color under our feet.

Little Ah-wah-ne is like Ah-wah-ne the greater,—a brilliant emerald meadow, with the Merced running through it, shut in on the east and the west by buttressed and pinnacled walls, from two to three thousand feet high, and belted here and there by dark fir forests. It also has its stately pleasure domes, and streams run fast and free down its sides. It is two thousand feet higher than Ah-wah-ne, and will be as well known and loved some day.

From the top of the square granite rock off which the Merced leaps in the Pi-wy-ack Fall runs a narrow stair-caseway down to the bottom of the canyon. It is a staircase, and not a ladder; for the steps are not rounds, and there is a railing to cling to. But it feels like a ladder, and most persons can get down easier by going backward. You land at the mouth of a shallow cave, whose whole roof is fringed with the dainty maiden’s-hair fern. There is only a narrow rocky rim between you and the mad river, which is foaming down the canyon. On each side the stone walls rise almost vertically and are thickly wooded with firs and cedars. There you are, you and the river, together at the bottom of this crevice. It is easy to see what would become of you if the river were suddenly to crowd a little. Every pine, every cedar, every moss is glistening. The bowlders are black, they are so wet. You can look only a little way down the canyon, for the spray rises in clouds, which lap and roll and spread like steam. Going a few steps into it, and looking back to the Fall, you see that just at the upper edge it is emerald green, for a hand’s-breadth, perhaps,—no more; then it breaks all at once, in an instant, into millions of distinct drops, sparkling, whirling, round as dew-drops, falling in perpetual shower. Ah! the Ah-wah-ne-chee. And ah! the miracle of water at its freest. Why should some water be stately and some be frolicful? Yo-wi-he leaps from as sharp an edge as Pi-wy-ack; but Yo-wi-he is full of majestic dignity, and Pi-wy-ack is radiant with fun.

Perhaps Pi-wy-ack gets clearer sight of its own rainbows. No need here to travel for the magic rainbow end, where the money lies. It follows you, it trips you up, it tangles itself around your feet. As I first walked back toward the Fall, after going as far out in the spray as I dared, I accidentally slipped on a rolling stone. I looked down quickly, to find a firmer footing; and I looked down upon a broad band of the most brilliant rainbow. I exclaimed at the sight; but, as I exclaimed, the rainbow slipped to the left, then as I advanced it slowly retreated, as if luring me to the Fall. Suddenly as it came it vanished, on the surface of a wet bowlder. A step or two back into the spray, and it danced under my feet; a step or two forward, and it was gone.

“These ain’t any thing,” said Murphy. “The place where you get the rainbows is down there,” pointing into what looked like the mouth of a steaming cauldron, some rods down the canyon.

Through this we must go if we walked down to Lady Franklin’s Rock. Remembering the choked breath and dripping hair of the people we had seen the day before, we hesitated; but, remembering also the joy which flashed in their eyes. we longed.

“It’s pretty bad now,” said Murphy, reflectively. “Dunno’s I’ve ever taken anybody through when the river was higher. But you’re pretty sure-footed. I guess you’d git along well enough. An’ ye won’t never be sorry ye did it. I can tell ye that.”

Never, indeed! Only sorry that I cannot remember it more vividly. Leaping from stone to stone, poising on slippery logs under water, clinging to Murphy’s hand as to a life-preserver, blinded, choked, stifled, drenched, down into that canyon, through that steaming spray, we went. It was impossible to keep one’s eyes open wide for more than half a second at a time. The spray drove and pelted. making great gusts of wind by its own weight as it fell. It seemed to whirl round and round, and wrap us. as if trying to draw us down into the black depths. It was desperately uncomfortable, and dangerous, no doubt. But what of that? We were taken into the heart of a carnival of light. Rainbows rioted everywhere, and we were crowding and jostling through as we could. The air was full of them, the ground danced with them, they climbed and chased and tumbled mockingly over our heads and shoulders, and across our faces. I nearly lost my footing, laughing at one, made chiefly of blue and purple, which flitted across Murphy’s left eyebrow. They wheeled and broke into bits and flew; they swung and revolved and twined. When I looked at them in the air, I could think of nothing but a gigantic loom, on which threads of rainbow were being shuttled and woven with magic swiftness. When I looked down into the confusion of dark bowlders and pools under our feet, I could think of nothing but gigantic mill-hoppers spinning round, and grinding up purple and blue and yellow and green and red. I held out my hand and caught the threads in the loom,—stopped them, turned them, snapped them. I leaned down and dipped into the purple and blue and yellow and green and red, and lifted them in the hollow of my palm. I do not think anybody could have come nearer to the secrets of rainbows if he had sat in the sky and watched, the first one made.

There was nobody waiting at the Rock to laugh at us as we also came, running, bending over, parting the wet bushes over our heads, panting, stamping, dripping, and looking like upright seals or walruses.

“Oh, Mr. Murphy, how thankful we are to you for making us come down that way!” we exclaimed. “I told ye ye wouldn’t never be sorry if ye did,” replied Murphy, shaking out the wet India-rubber coats and rolling them up in a bundle, which looked more like a seal than we had.

The east meadow land of Ah-wah-ne looked lovelier than ever as we rode slowly back through it at sunset. Long shadows linked tree to tree in the groves; the little brooks reflected bits of crimson cloud and yellow sky; the azalea blossoms seemed to expand, like white wings, in the dimmer light; and the primroses were all shut.

Just before we reached Hutchings’s we passed a tent, where an adventurous party of pleasure-seekers were camping out. A small boy, with his head and the greater part of his face tied up in a blue veil, was piling brush on a large bonfire, close to the door of the tent.

“To keep off the black flies?” called I, as I rode by.

“Yes, and skeeters, too,” said he, lifting up roguish eyes, reddened by the smoke.

“Oh, dear!” said I, “do you like camping out?”

“Yes, indeed,” shouted he. “It’s splendid. We killed six rattlesnakes yesterday!”

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