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HOME LETTERS—CALIFORNIAN POSTS TWENTY YEARS AGO—HAPPY DAYS IN THE VALLEY—THE NOBLE SAVAGE—CAMPERS—RATTLESNAKES—NATIONAL PARKS.
June 24, 1878.
Dearest Nell,—At long last my huge budget of letters, which have been for months accumulating in Honolulu, has reached me—sixty in all—most of them posted from Fiji or Australia. I wonder if you actually realise that since the day I left Nasova,1 nine months ago, not one letter of any sort or kind had reached me! If so, you can perhaps understand the hungry welcome with which I hailed the monster packet.
[1Government House, Fiji.]
Yet even now, this is evidently only an instalment, as the latest home letter bears date Jan. 2d; so I suppose you had then tried some other address. I have now written to Auckland and Sydney, in case others may be lying there.
Meanwhile, as there is a good deal of reading in sixty long foreign letters, I have been well supplied for once. The parcel came by the evening coach, and I read till I could see no more—my eyes ached so. So I began again at dawn, and then took them with me to a lovely nook by the river, where I sat undisturbed the whole day, reading them over and over, and even now have not half digested them. I tried to read systematically (as some old gentlemen in India read the ‘Times,’ beginning with the oldest, and taking one a-day till the next mail comes in!), so I filed each lot of letters, and read them in order; it seemed almost like having a series of talks. Now, however, I look forward to receiving letters direct from England a very few days hence.
July 1, 1878.
To-day’s post brought me the first letter I have received direct from you. It did seem strangely delightful to receive one only a month old. I carried it off to read in the luxurious solitude of my favourite “Forest Sanctuary”—an enchanting nook, where several huge grey boulders, moss-grown and fringed with ferns, lie in a little grassy glade, encircled by groups of solemn pines, and with an undergrowth of most fragrant yellow azaleas, dear to the busy buzzing bees, whose droning blends with the murmur of unseen waters, in “sweet and slumbrous melody,”—most soothing and captivating. Half the charm of this lovely sanctuary lies in the selfish delight of calling it my own. I doubt if any one else in the valley has discovered it; indeed it is but one of ten thousand corners, equally sheltered and lovely, which few travellers allow themselves time to enjoy; and the inhabitants of the valley are all absorbed in the care of these eager sight-seers—only anxious to enable them to rush from one mountain-top to another with the requisite speed—so no one questions my right as sole proprietor of this fairy dell.
Of course, with coaches running regularly to the valley, the daily mail comes and goes, if not like clockwork, still sufficiently so for all practical purposes; and the sorting of the bag is a momentary interest, when every one crowds round to see what may fall to their lot in the distribution.
This morning, while waiting for the coach, an old Californian miner gave me a vivid description of the postal service as he remembered it twenty years ago; not in these—then undiscovered—mountain regions, but on the great plains, where the Pacific railroad now runs so smoothly.
In those days a heavily laden waggon starting from the eastern States took six months to cross the great continent, and emigrants travelled in large companies for security; so it was reckoned a tall feat when a party of keen, hard-riding, fearless men, resolved to carry letters from the shores of the Atlantic to those of the Pacific in fourteen days, and carried out their promise in the teeth of all difficulties. A company was formed, known as the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express. Almost the entire distance from ocean to ocean was divided into runs of sixty miles each, and at all such points rude log-huts were erected as stations for the Pony Express. Here the most experienced scouts and trappers—men noted for their horsemanship and courage—were placed in charge of strong swift ponies, selected, like their riders, for their powers of endurance and general hardiness. They were a cross between the stout sure-footed Indian pony and the swift American horse.
Perilous lives these men led, in constant danger of attack by highway robbers or wild Indians; but the wages paid by the Company were sufficient to secure a staff of determined men, hard as nails, and accustomed to face danger and death without shrinking. Twelve hundred dollars, equal to £240, was the monthly wage of an Express rider.
Of course under such circumstances postage was high—the charge for a quarter-ounce letter being five dollars in gold, equal to one sovereign. The total weight carried was ten pounds. As a commercial speculation the experiment proved a failure; and after running steadily for two years, the Express Company was found to have lost 200,000 dollars, at which period it collapsed, leaving no trace of its existence save a few ruinous log-huts. The telegraph being then completed, its continuance was no longer deemed necessary.
On the east, the railway was already constructed as far as St Joseph, which consequently was the first pony-station on the New York side. The vast expanse of prairie and mountain lying between St Joseph and San Francisco had to be traversed in 240 hours, which was reckoned “good time,”—and no mistake about it, the distance being fully 2000 miles.
Once a-week a messenger started from either shore of the great continent. Spurring his steed to its utmost capacity, he galloped over hill and dale for sixty miles at a stretch, till he reached his destination, where the next Express man was waiting, ready to start without the delay of one moment, the incomer not waiting even to dismount, but tossing the precious letter-bag to its next guardian. Then man and beast enjoyed a well-earned rest, till the arrival of the messenger from the other direction, when they started on the return journey.
So marvellously punctual was the mail service, that the last man generally delivered up his charge within a few moments of the time fixed, notwithstanding all the troublous chances it might have encountered on its journey of 2000 miles of what might truly be called a “great, lonely land.”
The general post, with heavier bags, reached California viâ the Isthmus of Panama—to which point steamers ran twice a-month from New York and San Francisco. From one city to the other was a whole month’s journey. The arrival of the eastern mail was the signal for wild excitement in San Francisco. Merchants eager for their business letters, and miners longing for a word from home, rushed to the post-office the moment the gun was fired to announce that the steamer was in harbour, each eager to take up a position as near as possible to the post-office window. In a few moments a line was formed, perhaps literally half a mile long, of anxious letter-seekers, and late arrivals knew that hours might elapse before they could hope to get near the window.
Then a sort of auction commenced, and men who had rushed in and secured good places in the front of the line (often without the smallest expectation of a letter, but simply as a speculation) sold their position to the highest bidder. £5, £10, £20 were sometimes paid down by eager men, flush of gold, rather than wait five or six hours for the letters they longed for, but which, too often, were expected in vain; and grievous was the disappointment with which at last they turned away. Some were even so anxious that they took up a post at the window hours before the steamer arrived—even waiting through the night—and after all, were compelled to abandon their position and go in search of needful food. Perhaps at that very moment the firing of the mail-gun called them back, to find a long line rapidly forming, at the end of which they had to take their places, with the prospect of again waiting for hours.
What a different scene from the San Francisco of to-day—the busy, bustling, vast city, with its intricate postal service, and daily mountains of mail-bags, brought from, and despatched to, all corners of the earth by railways, steamers, and sailing ships!
Do you remember my telling you of a cosy little cottage which forms one of the “suburbs” of this hotel? It has been tenanted nearly all the summer by two pleasant sisters with very nice children. They live near San Francisco, and come here almost every year; and being both splendid horsewomen, have explored every accessible point for miles round. A young half-Spanish guide is specially devoted to their service, and escorts them on the most perilous rides.
We very soon became great friends, though my work generally keeps me in or very near the valley. But on their days of rest, they condescend to pleasant idling with me on lower levels.
I have also had some delightful expeditions with the sister of one of the great bankers of San Francisco, who, with her family has been staying here for some time. One morning we started at break of day, and walked to the Mirror Lake before sunrise,—a walk at all times exquisite, but doubly so now that the meadows are so richly strewn with flowers of every hue.
The valley affords a considerable variety of soil. In some parts it seems entirely composed of powdered granite bearing a scanty crop of low grass; while in other places there are tracts of deep sand, where the common bracken grows abundantly and rankly. A considerable portion of the meadows lies on a rich peaty soil, where coarse grasses and sedges luxuriate. Then, again, on our morning walk we passed by a small farm-steading, and corn-fields ready for the harvest,—a pleasant site for a home. Happily, however, little cultivation is allowed on this grand National Park.
Indeed there is a corner of danger lest, in the praise-worthy determination to preserve the valley from all ruthless “improvers,” and leave it wholly to nature, it may become an unmanageable wilderness. So long as the Indians had it to themselves, their frequent fires kept down the underwood, which is now growing up everywhere in such dense thickets, that soon all the finest views will be altogether hidden, and a regiment of wood-cutters will be required to clear them. Already many beautiful views which enchanted me in the early spring are quite lost, since the scrub has come into leaf; and of course every year will increase this evil.
We had made arrangements to have our food and sketching-gear carried to the lake by a carriage which brought a party of poor hurried tourists to see the sunrise, waken the echoes, and then instantly depart, leaving us to spend a long day in that delightfully secluded spot. We kindled a camp-fire, at which my companions cooked first a capital breakfast, and then an equally excellent luncheon, with strawberries and cream for dessert, while I secured a drawing of the little willow-fringed lake in its deep granite setting.
The strawberries and cream were provided by a gentle, graceful girl, by name Ida Howard, a true child of the valley, the lady of this little rock-girt lake, on the brink of which her father has built his nest, rears his nestlings, and lets boats to tourists. The girl always attracts me as a pleasant type of a Californian maiden, energetic and unselfish—relieving her mother of most household cares, devoted to a troop of younger brothers and sisters, coaxing them to prepare their school tasks, feeding them, starting them in time, mending their clothes, caring for the horses and cattle, and withal, finding time to carry on her own studies unaided, and intensely interested in working at Euclid and Algebra! These still waters run deep!
In the afternoon we explored the narrow pine-clad Tenaya Canyon, till we came to a muddy pool, glorified by the golden cups of yellow water-lilies. It lies at the base of Cloud’s Rest, which sweeps upward from this forest-belt in 6000 feet of smooth granite slabs, glacier-polished, and overlying one another as if artificially built.
Returning, we lingered beside the lakelet till the purple shades of evening had enfolded the base of the great hills, while (towering perpendicularly above us) the vertical face of the Split Dome, and the more distant summit of Cloud’s Rest, glowed crimson in the red fire of the setting sun; and the lonely pool which had so faithfully mirrored its rising glory, still gave back flush for flush, and shade for shade, like a rare friend, sympathetic in every changing mood.
Then in the clear beautiful twilight we turned our faces westward, and made our way home through thickets of lupines, and azaleas, and tall fern—crossing rocky streams, and passing by groups of Indian bark-huts, whose inmates were roasting strips of bear’s flesh at their camp-fires.
We passed by another camp as well, where a party from San Francisco are spending their vacation in glorious gipsy freedom, their tents pitched beneath the shelter of some grand old pines. They, too, were busily preparing their supper, having just returned from their various expeditions. One had been fishing, and brought back a basket full of lovely trout; another was a geologist; a third an artist. Each had found a paradise after his own heart.
Presently we too reached our haven of rest, and had our full share of trout, just caught by the Indians.
We voted this day such a success, that we determined on a similar expedition in the opposite direction; and having got an old man with a cart to carry our cooking and sketching materials to a given point, we started for the base of the great El Capitan, that massive crag, upwards of 3000 feet in height, of which I told you on the day we arrived here. Only by walking along the base of such a crag as this, or the Sentinel, can you begin to realise its stupendous bulk. You see it just in front of you, and think you will soon walk past it, but you go on and on, and scarcely seem to change your own position. Then you begin to understand that El Capitan is a rock-wall nearly two miles long, and three-quarters of a mile high,—a vast square-cut block like polished ivory.
From a little distance you suppose this rock-face to be vertical, but on a closer approach you perceive that along the summit runs a ledge 500 feet thick, and projecting 100 feet,—proving how, in that awful internal landslip which formed the valley, the huge granite mass must have been rent, and slidden down from beneath this ledge.
You also gain an impression of size by attempting to scale the piles of tumbled fragments which lie heaped along its base. You think they are insignificant slopes at the foot of the crag, but a few minutes of hard and exhausting climbing among those huge irregular blocks of rugged rock soon undeceives you. You find, too, that what appeared to be mere shrubs growing among the débris are actually stately oaks and ilex,1 here called live oak; and that the pines, which seemed no bigger than average Scotch spruces, are pitch-pines and Douglas spruces, fully 200 feet in height.
[1Quercus vaccinifolia, Q. chrysolepis.]
And oh! how delicious is the dewy steam rising from the resinous needles of pines, and firs, and cedars, in the warm morning rays, and the aromatic scent of the California laurel,2 with its glossy evergreen leaves!
We came to lovely reaches, where the river—no longer in flood, but flowing clear and transparent over a bed of glittering pebbles—winds in and out among groups of tall larches and pines, and where the sunlight trickles through the tremulous foliage of alders and willows which fringe its banks. There are places, too, where the eddying flood has left a thick deposit of soft white sand, and where stranded timber and great roots now lie bleaching in the sun.
We passed on through rank green grasses, so thickly enamelled with flowers, that the whole seemed as a misty, sunlit cloud of blossom. In the midst of these Elysian fields, we came suddenly on a small Indian camp—a party so newly arrived from Mono Lake that they had not even built the accustomed bark-huts, and a few boughs formed their only shelter. A wild-faced squaw looked up, startled by our approach; but an offering of sugar-plums and apples to her children, and small coin to herself, had a soothing influence, and she gave me a lump of deer’s fat with which to grease my boots—a very useful offering. On a tree beside her hung a wicker ark, containing a solemn, black-haired imp, really rather a pretty specimen of papoose, its head protected by the usual sunshade.
I am sorry to be obliged to confess that whatever dignity the American Indians may have possessed before they became familiar with their white brethren, those I have seen do not retain one vestige of the noble savage. Indeed, dirt and bad smells are the prominent characteristics of every party of Indians I have yet met. As to the graceful and romantic Indian maids of poetic novelists, I have not seen a girl with the smallest pretension to good looks; but even did such exist, “What,” as some one remarked, “is beauty without soap?” And soap is a cosmétique unknown to these grimy faces.
Occasionally—but very rarely—it may occur to an Indian to wash his or her face and hands in the nearest stream, but nothing further in the way of bathing is ever dreamt of; and as a general rule, a woman’s already filthy dress, or a man’s leggings, form a convenient towel on which to rub, unwashed, the dirtiest hands that ever were seen—hands that have probably been recently plunged in the entrails of some newly killed animal, in search of dainty morsels to be swallowed raw, (not that this quest involves much selection, for no sort of offal comes amiss to an Indian palate!)
In their general antipathy to personal ablutions, the Utes resemble a certain Scottish bailie, who combated a proposed expenditure on baths and wash-houses for the poor of a great northern city, and crowned his own testimony as to their superfluity by the emphatic statement—“I thank God that water has not touched my body these thirty years!” The Utes, however, have devised a primitive form of Turkish bath, which they find very efficacious in sickness. They construct a skeleton framework of wooden poles, which they cover with fur robes and blankets to prevent the escape of hot vapour. In the centre of this impromptu tent they dig a hole in the ground a couple of feet in depth, and fill it with hot stones roasted in a neighbouring fire. A seat is arranged above this pit, on which the patient takes his place, and pours a bucket of cold water upon the hot stones. The steam thus generated acts as a beneficial vapour-bath.
As regards the washing of clothes, such a practice is said to be wholly unknown. Even the man who has acquired a civilised shirt never dreams of renewing its beauty by soap and water. By only wearing it on high days and holidays, he contrives to make it last many years; but in its latter days it can scarcely be considered a desirable garment! No dowager’s old lace can compare with it for richness of tone. It is couleur Isabelle with a vengeance!
Though I am assured that this personal uncleanliness is common to the whole race, it would of course be unfair to judge of American Indians in general by the specimens I have seen, all of whom belong to the Diggers and Pahutes, two of the most miserable and degraded tribes. To do so would be somewhat akin to evolving imaginary Austrians and Russians from a slight acquaintance with the poorest of the Irish peasantry! Among the multitudinous tribes scattered over this vast continent, there are men of all sorts and sizes—true men and false, and dwarfs and giants; and their speech is as varied as are their customs, every tribe having a language of its own, known only to its members.
In truth, this curse of Babel would weigh heavily on the great Indian nation, were it not for a silent language of signs, which is used by all alike, and is the medium of communication between all Indians of different tribes. It is frequently used even in family parties, or while on the march, or on hunting expeditions, or at other times when silence is deemed desirable. To the initiated it is as clear and rapid a means of communication as any in use in our deaf and dumb asylums—indeed more rapid, as certain signs are used to express whole phrases and symbolise ideas. The whole body is enlisted, and by its twistings and turnings affords a much more varied dictionary than we can extract from our finger alphabet. The few white men who have been admitted to terms of perfect intimacy with Indians, tell us that if a stranger could steal unawares near an Indian camp, he might well marvel at the occasional bursts of laughter, while not a human voice was to be heard; yet each individual gathered round the campfire is all the while drinking in some very interesting story, related by one of their number in the sign language.
According to official estimates, the Indians of the United States, who two hundred years ago numbered upwards of 2,000,000, are now reduced to 300,000. Even this comparatively small number forms a serious item in a country which treats them not as citizens, subject to the laws of the State, and under their protection, but as independent races.
No less than 180 distinct tribes are recognised as dwelling in the United States territory, without counting those of Alaska. Many of these tribes are subdivided into a large number of branches. Thus the Apaches of Arizona and New Mexico are divided into sixteen great families, varying in numbers from 100 to 2000. In Minnesota and Wisconsin there are nineteen distinct families of Chippewas, numbering about 23,000. The Cherokees and Chocktaws number respectively 17,000 and 16,000.
The Shoshones of Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada are subdivided into twelve great families. The Utes, who are found in Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico, count no less than sixty-two tribal divisions. Of these, thirty-one are known as Pai Utes, are distinguished by such simple little names as Timpa-shau-wagot-sits, Ichu-ar-rum-pats, Un-kapa-ru-kuiats, and so on. Of the great warlike tribe of Sioux, twenty-four bands, numbering from 200 to 6000, roam over Wyoming, Dakota, and Montana. By the way, I am told that “Sioux” is only an uncomplimentary nickname, abhorrent to these warlike Indians, whose true name is Dakotah.
Without going farther than the Eastern Sierras and the Rocky Mountains, we find Assiniboins, Black Feet, Sansarks, Unkpapas, Yauktonaise, and Sissapapas (the last five being divisions of the great Dakotah nation), Piegans, Flat Heads, Blood Indians, Crees, &c.; while a little to the north roam the Shoshones, Snakes, Bannacks, Gros Ventres, Peu d’Oreilles, and Nez Percés; above all, the stalwart Crow Indians of the Yellowstone—and when you speak of the Yellowstone, you speak of a stream which has an independent course of 1300 miles ere its waters join those of the great Missouri. So you can readily understand that the Mountain Crows and the River Crows can form two very distinct communities. They are a race averaging considerably over six feet. Six-feet-four or-five inches is nothing uncommon in this family of giants, who still wear buffalo-robes and curiously embroidered garments, and live in tall conical tents, covered with buffalo-skins neatly fastened together, and (so far as lies in their power) keep up the customs of their ancestors.
The said tall conical tents, or rather houses, are formed of a framework of fir poles, planted in a wide circle at the base, and meeting at the top, where an opening allows for the escape of smoke from the fire, which is always in the middle of the lodge. The Crows keep their houses clean, and divide them into separate rooms by screens of wickerwork radiating from the fire to the outer wall. They pack pretty close, however, as several whole families contrive to stow themselves away in one tepee—i.e., dwelling.
These circular houses are planted in one large circle, forming a perfect camp, within which the beasts are driven at night. The house of the chief is marked by a shield hung on a spear, stuck outside the door. Sometimes the creature which the chief reverences as his totem or sacred beast, is represented on the shield, as on a knight’s escutcheon; or, if it is a tamable being—such as an eagle, a hawk, or a jay—a living specimen is trained to perch thereon.
Every young “Crow,” on arriving at man’s estate, observes certain prolonged periods of vigil and fasting, and the first living creature of earth, air, or water on which his eyes rest during this spiritualised condition, is thenceforth recognised by him as the embodiment of his guardian spirit—the totem which he is bound to honour and protect to his life’s end.1
[1On totem or etu worship in the Pacific, Egypt, and ancient Britain, see ‘A Lady’s Cruise in a French Man-of-War.’ C.F. Gordon Cumming. Vol. i. pp. 226-228, 242-247; vol. ii. pp. 61, 194.]
One point in Crow etiquette which at once commends itself to the Celtic Highlander, as to all other faithful observers of the “Deisul,” is the invariable custom of sending the calumet round the whole family circle in the correct sunwise course, just as a Briton naturally sends round the bottles after dinner.
The pipe is first presented to the chief, who blows a votive whiff north, sout, east, west, heavenward, and earthward; after which, he inhales one deep breath for his own comfort, and hands the pipe to the man on his left hand, who sends it round to the next, and so on till it has completed its circuit, always following the course of the sun.
Farther south, but still dwelling in the vast Sierras, are such tribes as the warlike Navajos and Apaches, who keep up a ceaseless guerilla warfare with the prospector and settlers in Arizona and Mexico, descending from their unknown strongholds, in the wildest mountain-ranges, to harry the rich cultivated lands, burning and massacring the pale-faces.
Very different from these (though also inhabiting the Sierras in Arizona and Mexico, on the tributaries of the great Colorado river) are the Moquis and Pueblo, and other semi-civilised tribes, whom some believe to be descendants of the once luxurious proud old Aztecs, and who are said still to watch day by day for the triumphant second advent of Montezuma. In their poverty and debasement they still cherish some traditions of their ancestors,—they worship the rising sun, they reverently tend the sacred fire, which is kept ever burning in their villages; and, to some extent, the tradition of old serpent-worship is still embodied in the form of a living rattlesnake, which receives a certain amount of homage, not unmingled with dread.
I do not know whether these dirty Diggers and Pah-utes have any such distinctive customs. The fact is, that they and their wigwams are so unfragrant that none of us care to make any attempt to study them at close quarters, though we all admit the scenic value of their bark-huts and the curling film of blue smoke, to give a point of interest to the landscape.
We lighted our own camp-fire in a sheltered nook of a flowery meadow, and spent hours watching the prismatic lights encircling the Pohono Falls with a jewelled girdle like myriads of opals. We had scrambled far up the trail when first we caught a glimpse of this vision of beauty; then, as the sun sank behind us, and the rainbow floated upward out of our sight, we rapidly descended the trail—now lying in deep shade—and so kept it in sight till our shadow had crept up the opposite crags, and the last gleams of radiant colour rose to heaven on the tremulous spray-cloud, and so vanished from our sight.
It was a dream of ethereal loveliness—an embodied hymn of praise.
Then came the amber light of sunset, and the fiery glow on the pale granite crags, while the shadows changed to a deep purple, and the tall pines wore a darker and more velvety green.
Very early this morning I wandered up the valley to see the last of a cheery camping-party, who have for some time made their home beneath a large group of trees, on a tiny natural meadow of greenest grass, beside the beautiful River of Mercy.
I found them breaking up camp preparatory to a start for higher levels. It was a most picturesque scene. The ladies and children were busily washing up the breakfast things, and packing the pots and pans, the kettles, knives and forks, in great panniers, as mule-burdens; while the gentlemen were taking down the tents, and packing them in the smallest possible compass. Bales of blankets and pillows were all the bedding required, and sundry necessary changes of raiment stowed away in light valises, all of which were shortly piled on the long-suffering mules, and tied on with long cords, till it became matter for wonder how any animals could possibly climb steep trails bearing such bulky burdens. But here, as elsewhere, mules are noted for their strength and endurance, and are far more serviceable for mountain work than horses. You cannot buy a good pack-mule under £ 30 (150 dollars), whereas a very fair pack-pony may be worth a third of that price.
The mules are strong, sinewy little beasts, wonderfully sagacious as a rule, though some are obstinately stupid, and the drivers of a mule-train find that their dumb friends have individual characteristics as strongly marked as any human being, and many a troublesome hour they have in persuading and guiding them in the right way. The persuasion is all of the gentlest and kindest sort, for these mountain men are very good indeed to their beasts, though I am told that they find a safety-valve for mental irritation in the tallest swearing of which the Anglo-Saxon tongue is capable.
This morning, and indeed every morning, some of the mules that had fared sumptuously on succulent meadow-grasses, objected strongly (and not without good reason) to the severe course of compression they were compelled to undergo, while bulky packs were being securely roped on their unwilling backs by the united efforts of two strong men—one on each side—with one foot firmly planted against the poor brute’s ribs, while they hauled at the ropes with might and main.
First of all, the aparejos (a stuffed cover which takes the place of the old-fashioned wooden pack-saddles) had to be girthed on (sinch is the word for girth here), during which process the mules fidgeted, and fretted, and twisted in dire discomfort; but when it came to the roping, they kicked with such right good will, that two of them contrived to kick themselves free of their burdens, and indulged in a comfortable and derisive roll on the grass, while the luckless packers collected their scattered goods (luckily, experience had taught them to keep at a safe distance from what is here known as “the business end” of a mule—namely, its heels; also, to possess no crockery, only tin); then, with exemplary patience, they recommenced their somewhat dangerous task.
At last everything was safely packed, and the procession started.
The last smouldering embers of the camp-fire were stamped out, the riding-horses were standing beneath the trees, all ready saddled and bridled, and in another minute the riders were up and away, cantering cheering along the river-bank, till they vanished among the tall cedars. Later in the day I watched them slowly ascending a zigzag trail on a distant hillside; they moved in single file, a long line of dark atoms, suggesting a procession of ants. And tonight I saw a faint glimmer of light in a far-away pine-forest, and I knew that there the little tents were pitched, and that pleasant voices were singing in chorus, as they gathered round the bright log-fire. It reminded me of our happy camp-life in the glorious Himalayas, and made me more than half wish that I had joined these gipsies of the Sierras! If only there were fewer rattlesnakes!
I have not told you much about these, though they are an ever-present reality, and we need to tread carefully, lest what appears to be only a fallen stick should prove a deadly foe. Sometimes, as I sit alone sketching, I hear a slight rustle like that of a withered leaf. It may prove to be only an innocent mouse, but sometimes it is the rattle of the hateful snake, in whose favour I must say, that he invariably tries to glide away as fast as he can, the moment he sees his human fellow-creature.
Sometimes I arrest his flight by throwing at him a small cone or bit of gravel, taking good care never to get too near—that is to say, within springing distance. The snakes I see are generally about a yard in length, so they could spring about six feet. Allow eight feet for safety, and then flick the gravel. The snake instantly stops, curls himself up tight, and prepares for action, offensive and defensive. Rearing his ugly flat head to about a foot from the ground, he slowly moves it to and fro, keenly watching the movements of the enemy; and thus he remains on guard till the foe passes on her way—at least this foe does so, for I confess that a certain latent fear combines with my natural antipathy for killing any creature larger than a cockroach, which last is a work of necessity and self-defence. So no rattlesnake has had to wear mourning for any relation slain by me. Mr David, however, killed one, and deprived it of its jacket and its rattle, which now hangs outside my window—not a very fragrant adornment! I do think the snakes get the worst of it, for I cannot hear that any one has ever been bitten in this neighbourhood, whereas few days pass without several being killed by parties out with the guides, who bring back their rattles as trophies. The rattle varies from one, to two and a half inches in length, by half an inch wide. It consists of several semi-transparent plates, like bits of gristle, one of which is added every year, so that a patriarchal snake may have ten or twelve links.
I cannot understand why there should be so many more here than in the Rocky Mountains, where one observant sportsman tells me that he has never seen any. And another, who lived in the mountains for eighteen months, only saw one, which had wriggled itself up to a height of 10,000 feet.
I am sure that you now quite sympathise with me in considering the rattlesnakes a drawback to camping-out, though people who come from the plains say that those we have here, are too few to be worth considering!
I am told that it is really a safeguard to lay a rough horsehair-rope on the grass right round your tent, as the rough ends of the hair are unpleasant to the snake, which turns aside to avoid gliding over it. The precaution is sufficiently simple to be worth trying.
Of course we could not have such a Paradise without a serpent; and that it is a true garden of delight, is beyond question.
It really is a comfort to know that no selfish individuals will ever be able by any process of purchase or law of might, to appropriate any part of this grand valley to the exclusion of their neighbours, or as a means of extorting money at every turn. Happily the United States Government (warned by the results of having allowed the Falls of Niagara to become private proverty) determined that certain districts, discovered in various parts of the States, and noted for their exceeding beauty, should, by Act of Congress, be appropriated for evermore “for public use, resort, and recreation, and be inalienable for all time.”
Of the districts thus set apart, the Mariposa Big-Tree Grove and the Yō-semité Valley were voted by the Central Government as a gift to the State of California—a gift which was formally accepted by the State Congress, with conditions for the perpetual preservation of these unrivalled wonders of nature in their virgin beauty. So the Yō-semité National Park is the heritage of the people, who, one and all, are at liberty to pitch their camp here, and enjoy themselves to their hearts’ content, provided they abstain from doing any manner of damage to tree or rock.
Everything in America is done on a large scale. It is a great country, and so it requires great parks. These are, consequently, marked out with a good sweeping hand. The San Luis Park covers 18,000 square miles; the North Park, in Colorado, has an area of 2000 square miles; the Middle Park, likewise in Colorado, covers 3000 square miles; and even little Estes Park is twelve miles in length!
The same wise provision has reserved the whole marvellous volcanic district of the Upper Yellowstone in the Rocky Mountains, forming a national park in the north-western part of Wyoming as large as the whole of Yorkshire.
This Yellowstone Park is about sixty-five miles in length by fifty-five in width; consequently it has an area of 3575 square miles—a region of vast pine-forests, interspersed with hundreds of dormant volcanic cones and craters, and thousands of boiling springs and fountains of infinitely varied colour and chemical quality.
It has been estimated that “the Park” contains fully 5000 hot springs, of which about fifty are active geysers, throwing up fountains of varying height, some exceeding 200 feet. All these deposit various substances in endless variety.
Within the limits of this mighty Park lie the sources of five great rivers—namely, the Yellowstone, Madison, and Gardiner rivers, which, uniting with others, and receiving new names in the course of their long journey, eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico; while the Green River (which is a branch of the Colorado) and the Snake River (source of the Columbia River) flow to the Gulf of California.
The Yellowstone River flows right through a lake of the same name, which covers an area of 300 square miles, and lies at an altitude of 7788 feet above the sea. The river descends thence with two falls, which, though only 140 and 360 feet in depth, are truly magnificent. It then rushes downward through the Grand Canyon, and for a distance of twenty miles flows through a ravine of barely 500 feet in width, and between rock-walls of about 1000 feet in perpendicular height!
Here mountains of every conceivable grotesque form and strange colour are thrown together in indescribable confusion: huge buttresses, columns, cones of scoriæ wildly irregular crags, sometimes massed, sometimes towering alone, occasionally assuming strangely symmetrical form, suggestive of mighty fortifications; weird, burnt, crumbling hills, traversed by awful chasms and dark gloomy canyons—some pink, some grey or black, others of a fiery red or yellow, but all bare and barren,—only a few cacti, or stunted juniper, contriving to exist in sheltered crevices, or some kindly coarse grasses, which clothe the flat summits.
After passing through many miles of this strange country by tracks winding along tortuous valleys, and crossing deep ravines and great mountain-ridges, you come to a district where the hillsides are terraced with series of the loveliest natural baths, formed by the deposit of silica and kindred substances, greatly resembling those we visited in the north of New Zealand, where we revelled in cool baths at the level of the lake, and then, as we rose from one terrace to another, found a succession of exquisite pools, varying in depth and increasing in temperature as we neared the beautiful geyser at the summit.
In New Zealand that marvellous region is jealously guarded by the Maories, but this Wonderland of the Yellowstone is the property of every American; and though the Indians may roam here as of yore, it will doubtless ere long become the great sanitarium of the Northern Continent—a health-giving region, reserved by a wise Government for the good of all its people.
Yō-semité also claims to be health-giving, not by reason of medicinal waters, but of the purest, most exhilarating atmosphere, and every condition that heart can desire for the enjoyment of out-of-door life. And well do the Californians know how to appreciate it! Every year hundreds of busy business men allow themselves a spell of real gipsy life, so as not to waste one hour of their hardly earned holiday. They make up congenial parties, either purely domestic or happily selected, and packing themselves and their camping-gear on riding and pack horses, with one or two light waggons to carry supplies, they start either for the valley or one of the Big-Tree groves, and, carefully avoiding all hotels, they pitch their tents wherever they feel inclined, in some verdant glade, where the horses may find sweet pasture, while the gipsies kindle their camp-fires, and catch trout in the clear stream, which is certain to flow somewhere near.
Many ladies with their children, start on these prolonged picnics, with or without a “help,” fully prepared to rough it, making sport of all difficulties; and these gather up stores of health and strength to carry back to their homes in great cities. Of course the climate favours such a life to an unusual degree, as for fully six months in the year camping-out is really enjoyable, and a wet day is quite a startling event.
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