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


“Mr. Murphy,” said I, “do you believe that the Evil Spirit of the Bridal Veil Fall would let me come near enough to see it, this afternoon?”

Murphy stared at me for a moment in real alarm, thinking I had lost my senses. Then he broke into one of the few laughs I ever heard from his lips, and made a reply which must have seemed to a bystander singularly irrelevant.

“That pesky mule hain’t been seen since that afternoon. I reckon he’s swum the river, and as like ’s not he won’t never be heard from again. ’Tain’t no great loss, nuther; though I dunno but he did ’s well ’s any on ’em for a pack mule. I allers did hate mules,” continued Murphy. “I never could see no sense in ’em; an’ I reckon you don’t ever want to see another.”

And Murphy’s eyes glistened mischievously at the reminiscence of the untimely end of my trip to Pohono.

Why the Ah-wah-ne-chee should have given this sad name to the most beautiful fall in their valley, and have associated with it such gloomy legends and superstitions, it is not easy to conceive. The stream which makes the Fall rises in a small lake, on which there is said to be a perpetual strong wind; and there is a tradition that once an old woman who was gathering seeds just above the Fall, fell into the stream and was carried over the precipice. But these facts are not sufficient to account for the terror which the Indians felt at approaching the Fall. They always hurried by at the top of their speed; nothing would induce them to sleep near it; and even to point toward it, as they journeyed up or down the Valley was considered certain death. The air of Ah-wah-ne is so much rarer and more stimulating than other air, life seems there so much less a thing of the accredited five senses than anywhere else, that such legends and superstitions take hold on the imagination in spite of one. I confess that, as I rode toward Pohono that afternoon, I could not for one moment forget that we were doing what an Ah-wah-ne-chee would not have done for his life; and, musical as is the word Pohono, is it all a fancy that it sounds as if it might be the name of a malignant and treacherous spirit?

To reach Pohono from Hutchings’s, you follow the trail down the Valley for some six miles westward. Much of the way it is on the bank of the Merced, which at times spreads out foaming and shallow, and. then narrows again into a deep, dark, resistless-looking current. In these narrow depths the Merced has most exquisite spaces tinted with amber and malachite, shaded up to black. As it glides swiftly along, the serrated tops of the firs and pines are reflected in these shining surfaces like spear-points and plumes of ranks of soldiery in the shield and bosses of a leader flashing by. And above and before the serrated spear-points and plumes stand, silent, massive, impregnable for ever, the high buttresses of rock.

The last two miles of the way lay near the southern wall of the Valley, through wild lands, almost like jungles, —firs and cedars and maples and Balm of Gilead and dog-wood and alders growing densely; and on each hand and as far as we could see thickets of white azalea, Ah-wah-ne azalea,—not azalea as New England knows it, in gaunt, straggling bushes, bare-stemmed nearly to the top and with flowers set somewhat scantily on the spreading ends of branches,—but azalea in thickets, in banks which would be solidly leafy and green from bottom to top if they were not solidly snowy, but which are so snowy that only little points and tips of green are left in sight. The blossoms are very large, tinted in the centre with pale yellow and sometimes veined with rose-pink; and I have had branches on which these royal flowers were set in bunches two hand’s-breadths broad, like great flattened snowballs.

Our first sight of the Fall was at a moment when the wind, or the breath of Pohono, was lifting its whole fleecy mass and swinging it to the west. “Can it be water?” we exclaimed. It looked like a fluttering cloud, driven before the wind and clinging to the rock. But in a second it swayed back again, with an undulating motion no cloud could show. And yet the fleecy, filmy grace of its shape seemed too ethereal for water, and the sound seemed. for some inexplicable reason, to come from a point much further to the left. But, in looking up at it from the base,—and that is looking up nine hundred feet,—all wonder at its fine-spun, gossamer fleeciness is swallowed up in wonder at its zone of rainbow. At some hours of the day, and when the spray is very heavy, there are five or six of these rainbow belts arching across it, sinking and rising and swaying to right and left with it.

But I shall never believe that this effect can be so beautiful as that we saw produced by one broad, brilliant rainbow,—a perfect semicircle,—its apex in the centre of the Fall and its bases reaching to our very feet. We sat on a high bowlder, some rods away from the Fall; and yet, when a sudden gust of wind blew the spray toward us, we were wet as in a shower. The bright, broad zone of color, arching, and yet seeming to belt and confine the flowing lengths of fleecy white,— expanding and spanning them still when they seemed to seek to be free,—deepening, flashing with brighter color, like renewed jewels, and clasping closer when they seemed to sink and yield,—there was an infinite tenderness of triumphant passion, of mingled compliance and compulsion, surrender and conquest, in the whole expression of the movement of the two, as they swung and swayed and shone and melted together in the radiant air. Almost one felt as if he knew more than he should, in watching them; as if, perchance, they believed themselves alone. As the sun sunk lower, the rainbow zone rose higher and higher and grew narrower and fainter. The parting grew near. I would not have seen it. As we rode slowly home, in the early twilight, the pinnacles and spires and towers of rock on the southern side of the Valley were changed by shadows into fantastic shapes.

The serene and majestic face of Tu-tock-ah-nu-la alone looked unaltered. Neither light nor shade can change the benignant, watchful look on its grand and clear-cut features. Just beyond it a rounded peak took suddenly the shape of a man’s head, in a pointed monkish cowl. As we rode on, it slowly changed to the outline of a Bedouin, half wrapped in a cloak and riding a gigantic camel. The long neck of the camel and the folds of the cloak were perfect and a sharp ledge line, lower down, gleamed like a spear, poised low in the rider’s hand. The weird effect of such phantom shapes as these, when seen three thousand feet up in the air and of such great size, cannot be imagined. A little further on, a colossal cat-like face suddenly looked out from the sky. The mouth grinned and the ears were erect. It was rather the face of a tiger than of a cat, and yet it had no fierceness of expression. In a moment it was gone, and we could see that the left ear had been a pine tree. No doubt the tree was two hundred feet high, but it did not seem in the least out of proportion as an ear on the gigantic head.

Behind this head, in the far southeast, we could see clouds rest, six thousand feet above us. Its top was still rosy pink with the sunset glow, which had so long left the Valley; and below the pink lay a broad snow-belt, silver white.

As Murphy lifted me from my horse, he looked at me closely, and said, with a little hesitation of manner:

“Feel a little stiff, don’t ye?”

Pride rebelled at the suggestion; but candor conquered, and I replied:

“Yes, Mr. Murphy. I must own that I do. So many hours on horseback is a pretty severe thing to one unaccustomed to riding.”

“I only wonder the ladies stand it so well’s they do,” said Murphy courteously, detecting, I have no doubt, my foolish pride. “But, if you was to take a good long hot-bath to-night, you’d feel as good as new tomorrow.”

“A long hot-bath,” exclaimed I, remembering the shallow milk-pan which served me for wash-bowl. “Are any corners of the Merced heated?”

“Yes,” replied Murphy, with perfect gravity. “A good deal of the Merced is kept hot all the time.”

It was my turn to stare now. Murphy twinkled, but did not speak till I said:

“What do you mean, Mr. Murphy?”

“Jest what I say,” he replied, slowly, enjoying my bewilderment. “There’s a good deal of the Merced kept hot all the time in the bath-tubs in Mr. Smith’s saloon. And, what’s more, you won’t find any nicer bath-rooms anywhere, not even in San Francisco.”

This sounded incredible. The fourth of the three buildings in the little plaza was a long, low, dark-brown house, with a piazza on two sides, which I knew was called saloon, and at which, for that reason, I had looked without interest. But I was soon to discover that it was one of the wonders of Ah-wah-ne.

This long, low, dark-brown house, called the “Cosmopolitan Saloon” and kept by a Mr. Smith, consists of nine rooms. A billiard-room, where are two fine billiard-tables; a reading-room, where are the California newspapers, and a long writing-table, with stationery ready to one’s hand; a small sitting-room, furnished with sofas and comfortable easy-chairs, and intended exclusively for the use of ladies; and five small bath-rooms, perfectly appointed in all respects and kept with the most marvellous neatness. A small store-room at the end completes the list of the rooms.

The bath-tubs shine; the floors of the bath-rooms are carpeted; Turkish towels hang on the racks; soaps, bottles of cologne, and bay rum are kept in each room; a pincushion stands under each glass, and on the pincushion are not only pins, but scissors, needles, thread, and buttons of several kinds. Has anybody ever seen public bath-rooms of this order? And Mr. Smith mentions, apologetically, that the button-hooks for which he has sent have not yet arrived.

A tall and portly black man, with that fine polish of civility of which the well-trained African servant is the only master on this continent, attends to every requirement of Mr. Smith’s customers, and exhibits the establishment many times a day, with most pardonable pride.

To have seen the slates of those billiard tables coming down the wall of Ah-wah-ne on the backs of mules must have been an amazing spectacle. As we looked at their great mahogany frames, it seemed more and more impossible every moment. But to all our exclamations Mr. Smith replied, with great quietness, that there was no difficulty in bringing any thing whatever into Ah-wah-ne, and that he intended to bring a piano next year. A mule can carry six hundred pounds weight of any thing which can be strapped on his back; and, once strapped firmly on his back, the load will be carried with far less jolt and jar than on wheels. Poor mule! The very Wandering Jew of burden and misery among beasts. From sea to sea, from continent to continent, the spell of his evil destiny stretches. Cairo or Ah-wah-ne, it is all one to him. But I think that never even in Cairo could have been seen a mule of which so little was to be seen as of the one which came down the Ah-wah-ne precipices under Mr. Smith’s billiard-tables.

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