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Next: Descent into Ah-wah-neContentsPrevious: San Francisco

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


Ah-wah-ne! Does not the name vindicate itself at first sight and sound? Shall we ever forgive the Dr. Bunnell, who, not content with volunteer duty in killing off Indians in the great Merced River Valley, must needs name it the Yo-sem-i-te, and who adds to his account of his fighting campaigns the following na´ve paragraph?

“It is acknowledged that Ah-wah-ne is the old Indian name for the valley, and that Ah-wah-ne-chee is the name of the original occupants; but, as this was discovered by the writer long after he had named the valley, and as it was the wish of every volunteer with whom he conversed that the name Yo-semite be retained, he said very little about it. He will only say, in conclusion, that the principal facts are before the public, and that it is for them to decide whether they will retain the name Yo-semite or have some other.”

It is easy to do and impossible to undo this species of mischief. No concerted action of “the public,” no legislation of repentant authorities, will ever give back to the valley its own melodious name; but I think its true lovers will for ever call it Ah-wah-ne. The name seems to have in its very sound the same subtle blending of solemnity, tenderness, and ineffable joy with which the valley’s atmosphere is, filled. Ahwahne! Blessed Ahwahne!

I look back with remorse upon the days we spent in resolving to go. Philistines poured warnings into our ears. I shudder to think how nearly they attained their end. At the very last, it was only lack of courage which drove us on; it seemed easier to endure any thing than to confess that we had been afraid. O Philistines who warned, be warned in turn. Pray that ye never meet us again.

Early on a Monday, the 17th of June, we set out. The Oaklands ferry-boat was crowded. Groups of people, evidently bound on the long overland journey; and other groups bound, like ourselves, for the Valley. Everybody was discussing routes with everybody else. Each was sure that he was going the only good way. We were happiest, not being committed to any fixed programme, and having left it to be decided on the road whether we should go first to the Big Trees or to the Valley. Behind us sat a woman whose lead we almost resolved to follow, for the sake of seeing the effect her toilet would produce on landscapes. She wore a fiery scarlet cashmere gown, the overskirt profusely trimmed with black lace and scarlet satin, the underskirt trimmed high with the same scarlet satin. A black lace jacket, a point-lace collar and sleeves, and a costly gold chain. A black velvet hat, with a huge white pearl buckle and ostrich plume, completed this extraordinary costume. Gloves were omitted. The woman had beauty of a strong, coarse type. She laughed loud and showed white teeth. She also spat in the aisle or from the window, like a man. Such sights as this are by no means uncommon in California. One never wearies of watching or ceases to wonder at the clothes and the bearing of the women. Just behind this woman sat another, wearing an embroidered white pique and a fur collar. At one of the first stations entered a third, dressed in a long, trailing black silk, bordered around the bottom with broad black velvet. Her hands and arms were bare, and she carried a coarse sacking bag, half as big as herself, tied up at the mouth with a dirty rope.

Agents for hotels in Stockton, and for different routes to the Yosemite, went up and down in the cars. It was pitiful to see pusillanimous and will-less persons swaying like reeds in the breeze of their noisy statements.

The great San Joaquin wheat valley stretched away, on each side of the railway track, further than we could look. Except for the oaks rising out of the wheat, it might have been taken, under the gently stirring wind, for a sunlit sea.

Here and there went rolling along the mysterious steam-threshers; huge red wagon-like things, with towers and fans and a sharp clatter, doing by a single puff of steam the work of many men’s arms, finishing in a single hour the work of many days. Here and there, also, we saw a narrow road through the wheat. The crowded, slender, waving columns walled it so high that a man on horseback looked like a man riding in a forest, and could not see over the tops of the grain.

A bad, a very bad dinner at a town named Peters; a change of cars at Stockton,—from the Central Pacific to the Copperopolis Railroad; a change from cars to stage at Burnet; and, before the middle of the afternoon, we had really set our faces toward Ah-wah-ne. The road lay at first through a fertile country, great parks, shaded by oaks, and sown with wheat; then through barer and less beautiful lands, stony and uncultivated, but picturesque and almost weird from the cropping out of sharp, vertical slate ledges, in all directions; then into still barer and stonier tracts of old mining-fields. These are dismal beyond description. The earth has been torn up with pick-axes, and gullied by forced streams; the rocks have been blasted and quarried and piled in confusion; no green thing grows for acres; the dull yellow of the earth and the black and white and gray of the heaped stones give a coloring like that of volcanic ruins; and the shapes into which many of the softer stones have been worn by the action of water are so like the shapes of bones that it adds another element of horror to the picture. Again and again we saw spots which looked as if graveyards full of buried monsters had been broken open, and the skeletons strewn about.

We were to sleep at Chinese Camp. The name was not attractive; and the town looked less so as we approached it. A narrow, huddled street of low and dingy houses, set closely together as a city; a thick, hedge-like row of dwarfed locust-trees stood on each side, making it dark and damp; many of the buildings were of stone, with huge, studded iron shutters to both doors and windows of the first story; but stone and iron were alike cobwebbed and dusty, as if enemies had long since ceased to attack. At the door of the hotel, a surprise awaited us. A middle-aged man, with a finely cut, sensitive face, and the bearing and the speech of a gentleman, came forward to receive us. It was the landlord,—the Count Solinsky, a Polish exile. His story is only the story of thousands of the pioneers of ’49. Glowing hopes, bitter disappointments, experiment after experiment, failure after failure; at last, the keeper of a little tavern and the agent of an express company, he had settled down, no longer looking for fortune and success. There was something very pathetic in the quiet dignity with which he filled the uncongenial place, accepted the inevitable burden. His little daughter, twelve years old, had on her beautiful face a wistful look,—the stamp of unconscious exile. “What will be the child’s fate!” I said to myself, as I watched her arranging with idle, lingering fingers a few bright, wild flowers in an old pitcher. Who knows? There is promise of great beauty in her face and figure. Not the least of the exiled Count’s griefs must be the anticipation of her future, in this wild, rough land. Perhaps she may yet live to be the landlady of the inn, and so perpetuate the cleanliness and good service which to-day make it memorable in the journey to Ah-wah-ne. “I have not much I can give,” said the Count, with the fine instinct of hospitality; [“]but, if all come clean on, I know that is the most. I know what is most when one will travel.”

It was only six o’clock, when we set out, the next morning. White mists were curling up from all the hollows in the hills, and the air was frosty: but, in an hour, the hot sun had driven the mists away; and the marvellous, cloudless blue of the rainless sky stretched again above us. This is a perpetual wonder to the traveller in California in spring,—day after day of such radiant weather: it seems like living on a fairy planet, where the atmosphere is made of sunshine, and rain is impossible.

Old mining-fields still lay along our road, dismal and ghastly,—sluices and gulches and pits and shelving banks, toppling masses of excavated rock, and piles of gravel and stones. Here and there a vineyard or fruit orchard, in some hollow or on some hillside, gave us a keen thrill of delight by its glistening green, and its suggestion of something to eat or drink besides the scorching gold. We passed a settlement of Digger Indians, too loathsome to be looked at. We crossed a swift river in a creaking rope ferry. We climbed up the side of a canyon, two thousand feet deep, with a foaming river at bottom. And then we came to Garrote No. 1.

“Why No. 1?”

“Because there is Garrote No. 2, three miles further along.” It would seem as if one so hideous name might suffice to a district.

“And why do we not hurry on?” added we, being informed that we were to wait in Garrote No. 1 for two hours and a half. Replies were unsatisfactory. But only too well did we answer the question for ourselves at bedtime. Then we discovered that the whole programme of the route had been arranged by the stage company, with a view to the single end of compelling travellers to sleep one more night on the way. (Here let me forewarn all persons going by the Big Oak Flat route to the Yosemite, that there is not the slightest need of spending more than one night between Burnet and Gentry’s,—Gentry’s being the house at the entrance of the Valley. They should insist on spending the second night at Gentry’s.)

However, ill winds blow good. This one blew to us the good of a sight of the hydraulic mining, such as we could not easily have seen elsewhere. The proprietor of the Treadwell Mine chanced to be in town, and, hearing of our desire to see the mine, took us to it. It lay, not far off our road, eight miles ahead. How we dashed over the ground, in a light buggy, behind two fast horses! It seemed like flying or ballooning, after our jolting in the heavy stage. It was not much more than a semblance of a road into which we turned off from the highway, at end of the eight miles. It led through fields, across morasses, up sharp, stony hillsides, through gaps in fences. A mile from the public road, we passed a small cabin, covered with white roses. Only the chimney and one corner of the ridgepole peeped out. We could not even see the windows. No one had lived in it for a year; and, in that short time, the roses had buried it. The well, also, was covered in the same way with pink roses. It was strange to see the look of desolation which even roses could have, left all alone.

Just beyond the rose-buried cabin, we came suddenly in sight of the mine. It looked like an acre or two of sand-quarry, or more like dozens of great, yellow clay cellars, with their partition-walls broken down irregularly, in places. It was spanned by a shining stream of water, arching high in the air, and making a noise like a small waterfall. This stream came from a huge, black nozzle on the right side of the excavation, and played with its full force, or like a jet from a fire-engine, into the cliff-like side of the opposite bank. It was a part of the Tuolomne River; and it had journeyed miles and miles through pipes to come to do this work. As it leaped through the air, it was white and pure, and flashed in the sun. After breaking against the yellow clay-bank, it fell turbid and thick, in masses of gamboge-colored foam, into narrow wooden sluices. These led off, slanting, for many rods across the yellow cellars, down a narrow wooded valley, and then through a sharp ravine, into the river again. At intervals in these sluices were set boxes, with wired sides and pebbled bottoms. Into these is put that unerring constable, quick-silver, which arrests, by its magic power, every grain of the precious gold. As we walked along on the rough bank, by side of the sluices, the rattle and rumble of the pebbles under the torrent seemed a sort of weird, defiant chorus.

“Over and over and over,
And give up the gold,
The gold, the gold;
And over and over and over,
Untold, untold, untold!”—

I fancied it saying. There certainly was, in the sound made by the rolling over of the pebbles on the wooden surfaces, a strange predominance of that vowel-sound of O.

High up on the bank, opposite the spot upon which the stream played, was the superintendent’s house. It was only a one-storied shanty, papered with pictorial newspapers, and floored with planed pine; but terraces, with little patches of garden, led up to it; and the whole scene, from the verandah, was one which might well have contented an artist to stay there for days. The high, yellow cliff opposite, with evergreen trees on top; the stirring arch of water, perpetually bridging the space between and undermining the cliff,—sometimes a large part of the front edge falling at once, like an avalanche; the foaming streams down the sluices; the dark ravine; the sunny sky; the inexpressible look of remoteness and loneliness over all; the utter silence, save for the thud of the water against the bank, and the rumble of the pebbly torrents over the wooden pavements,—altogether, it was a vivid picture, not to be forgotten.

The sweet face of the superintendent’s wife was also not to be forgotten,—the sharp-cut, keen-visioned, sensitive-nerved New England face, with the repressed wistfulness born of long, solitary days in lonely places. When we said, in the flush of our enthusiastic delight at the picturesqueness of the scene, and at the exquisite neatness and order of the little home:—

“O Mrs. ——! would you not take us to board?” she sighed, as she answered:—

“Well, I don’t know what you’d do with yourselves, after you got here. It’s very pretty to look at once; but it’s terrible still here, all but that water. An’ sometimes I get listenin’ to that till it seems to me it sounds louder and louder every minute, till it’s as loud as thunder.”

What genius could have invented a better analysis of the effect produced upon the mind by dwelling on a single sensation, under such circumstances?

We found the stage waiting for us at the point where we had left the public road. The passengers’ impatience at our short delay had been assuaged by the pleasure of killing a large rattlesnake, whose rattles were triumphantly displayed to us, in token of what we had missed.

Now we began to climb and to enter upon forests,— pines and firs and cedars. It seemed as if the whole world had become forest, we could see off so far through ‘ the vistas between the tall, straight, branchless trunks. The great sugar-pines were from one hundred to two hundred and twenty feet high, and their lowest branches were sixty to eighty feet from the ground. The cedars and firs and yellow pines were not much shorter. The grandeur of these innumerable colonnades cannot be conceived. It can hardly be realized, even while they are majestically opening, receding, closing, in your very sight. Sometimes a sunbeam will strike on a point so many rods away, down one of these dark aisles, that it is impossible to believe it sunlight at all. Sometimes, through a break in the tree-tops, will gleam snowy peaks of Sierras, hundreds of miles away; but the path to their summits will seem to lead straight through these columns of vivid green. Perspective becomes transfiguration, miracle when it deals with such distance, such color, and such giant size. It would not have astonished me at any moment, as I gazed reverently out into these measureless cloisters, to have seen beings of Titanic stature moving slowly along, chanting service and swinging incense in some supernatural worship.

The transition from such grandeur, such delight as this to the grovelling misery of a night at Hogdin’s (g soft, but not by rights) cannot be described. Except for a sense of duty to posterity, one ought never to allude to such places as Hogdin’s,—that is, if there are any such places as Hogdin’s, which I question. It was only half-past 5 o’clock when we arrived. The two shanties of which Hogdin’s consists were already filled. Unhappy men and women, sitting on log steps, with their knees drawn up, glared at us savagely, as brigands might. They were wretched enough before. Now we had come, what would be done? How many to a room would it make? And wherewithal were we to be fed?

Only fifteen miles further was the comfortable little hotel kept by Mr. Gentry, at the entrance of the Valley. Would entreaties, would bribes, induce the driver to take us on? No. Entreaties and bribes, even large bribes, are unavailing. Mr. Hogdin has purchased an interest in the stage company, and no stage-driver dares carry passengers past Mr. Hogdin’s house. Three, four, five in a room; some on floors, without even a blanket. A few pampered ones, women, with tin pans for wash-bowls and one towel for six hands. The rest, men, with one tin basin in an open shed, and if they had any towel or not I do not know. That was a night at Hogdin’s.

Food? Yes. Junks of beef floating in bowls of fat, junks of ham ditto, beans ditto, potatoes as hard as bullets, corn-bread steaming with saleratus, doughnuts ditto, hot biscuits ditto; the whole set out in indescribable confusion and dirt, in a narrow, unventilated room, dimly lit by two reeking kerosene lamps. Even brave and travelled souls could not help being appalled at the situation. Not in the wildest and most poverty-stricken little town in Italy could such discomfort be encountered. However, nobody dies of starvation for lack of one supper and one breakfast. Anybody can lie awake in a shed all of one night, and go without washing his face one morning; and, except for the barefaced imposition of the unnecessary night at Hogdin’s, we could have laughed heartily at it the next day.

There was something uncommonly droll in the energetic promptness and loudness with which the landlady roused all her guests at half-past four in the morning.

“You don’t suppose we were asleep, do you?” called out somebody, whose sense of humor had not been entirely extinguished by hunger and no bed.

It is seven miles from Hogdin’s to the highest point on the road. This is seven thousand feet above the sea. It is the summit of the ridge which separates the Merced River from the Tuolomne. The Tuolomne we have seen; it is behind us now. The Merced is in the valley we seek. Already we feel a sense of the nearness of grander glories than we have seen. Vast spaces open on either hand. We look off over great tracks of tree-tops; huge rocks are piled up around us in wild, almost terrible confusion; the horizon line before us, and to the right and to the left is of serrated, glistening snow-peaks. The Sierras seem closing in upon us. The road descends sharply from the summit. We have almost a grateful feeling of protection in plunging again into the forests, and escaping from the wide outlook of the bleak, stony ridge. Down hill, seven more miles, to Gentry’s. The road is steep, zig-zag, rough; the horses go at full speed; the three hours have seemed like but one, when we dash up in the sunny little clearing in front of “Gentry’s.” Tall pines wall the clearing on three sides; the third is open. Looking that way, we see blue mountain tops and infinite distance. way, it Ah-wah-ne? It looks as the Ancaufthal, in the Austrian Tyrol, might in some magic summer which had melted off all the snow. We run to the furthermost edge of the precipitous hill and bend out eagerly to look into its depths.

But it is not Ah-wah-ne. Ah-wah-ne makes no such half revelation of itself. Ah-wah-ne is behind and below the dark sugar-pines on the left; and there fastened to the posts, sound aleep, stand Hutchings’s mules, ready to carry us down its wall.

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