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Note and PrefaceIndexChapter II

Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada
by Clarence King

The western margin of this continent is built of a succession of mountain chains folded in broad corrugations, like waves of stone upon whose seaward base beat the mild, small breakers of the Pacific.

By far the grandest of all these ranges is the Sierra Nevada, a long and massive uplift lying between the arid deserts of the Great Basin and the Californian exuberance of grain-field and orchard; its eastern slope, a defiant wall of rock plunging abruptly down to the plain; the western, a long, grand sweep, well watered and overgrown with cool, stately forests; its crest a line of sharp, snowy peaks springing into the sky and catching the alpenglow long after the sun has set for all the rest of America.

The Sierras have a structure and a physical character which are individual and unique. To Professor Whitney and his corps of the Geological Survey of California is due the honor of first gaining a scientific knowledge of the form, plan, and physical conditions of the Sierras. How many thousands of miles, how many toilsome climbs, we made, and what measure of patience came to be expended, cannot be told; but the general harvest is gathered in, and already a volume of great interest (the forerunner of others) has been published.

The ancient history of the Sierras goes back to a period when the Atlantic and Pacific were one ocean, in whose depths great accumulations of sand and powdered stone were gathering and being spread out in level strata.

It is not easy to assign the age in which these submarine strata were begun, nor exactly the boundaries of the embryo continents from whose shores the primeval breakers ground away sand and gravel enough to form such incredibly thick deposits.

It appears most likely that the Sierra region was submerged from the earliest Palæozoic, or perhaps even the Azoic, age. Slowly the deep ocean valley filled up, until, in the late Triassic period, the uppermost tables were in water shallow enough to drift the sands and clays into wave and ripple ridges. With what immeasurable patience, what infinite deliberation, has nature amassed the materials for these mountains! Age succeeded age; form after form of animal and plant life perished in the unfolding of the great plan of development, while the suspended sands of that primeval sea sank slowly down and were stretched in level plains upon the floor of stone.

Early in the Jurassic period an impressive and far-reaching movement of the earth’s crust took place, during which the bed of the ocean rose in crumpled waves towering high in the air and forming the mountain framework of the Western United States. This system of upheavals reached as far east as Middle Wyoming and stretched from Mexico probably into Alaska. Its numerous ridges and chains, having a general northwest trend, were crowded together in one broad zone whose western and most lofty member is the Sierra Nevada. During all of the Cretaceous period, and a part of the Tertiary, the Pacific beat upon its seaward foot-hills, tearing to pieces the rocks, crumbling and grinding the shores, and, drifting the powdered stone and pebbles beneath its waves, scattered them again in layers. This submarine table-land fringed the whole base of the range and extended westward an unknown distance under the sea. To this perpetual sea-wearing of the Sierra Nevada base was added the detritus made by the cutting out of cañons, which in great volumes continually poured into the Pacific, and was arranged upon its bottom by currents.

In the late Tertiary period a chapter of very remarkable events occurred. For a second time the evenly laid beds of the sea-bottom were crumpled by the shrinking of the earth. The ocean flowed back into deeper and narrower limits, and, fronting the Sierra Nevada, appeared the present system of Coast Ranges. The intermediate depression, or sea-trough as I like to call it, is the valley of California, and is therefore a more recent continental feature than the Sierra Nevada. At once then from the folded rocks of the Coast Ranges, from the Sierra summits and the inland plateaus, and from numberless vents caused by the fierce dynamical action, there poured out a general deluge of melted rock. From the bottom of the sea sprang up those fountains of lava whose cooled material forms many of the islands of the Pacific, and all along the coast of America, like a system of answering beacons, blazed up volcanic chimneys. The rent mountains glowed with out-pourings of molten stone. Sheets of lava poured down the slopes of the Sierra, covering an immense proportion of its surface, only the high granite and metamorphic peaks reaching above the deluge. Rivers and lakes floated up in a cloud of steam and were gone forever. The misty sky of these volcanic days glowed with innumerable lurid reflections, and at intervals along the crest of the range great cones arose, blackening the sky with their plumes of mineral smoke. At length, having exhausted themselves, the volcanoes burned lower and lower, and at last by far the greater number went out altogether. With a tendency to extremes which “development” geologists would hesitate to admit, nature passed under the dominion of ice and snow.

The vast amount of ocean water which had been vaporized floated over the land, condensed upon hill-tops, chilled the lavas, and finally buried beneath an icy covering all the higher parts of the mountain system. According to well-known laws, the over-burdened summits unloaded themselves by a system of glaciers. The whole Sierra crest was one pile of snow, from whose base crawled out the ice-rivers, wearing their bodies into the rock, sculpturing as they went the forms of valleys, and brightening the surface of their tracks by the friction of stones and sand which were bedded, armor-like, in their nether surface. Having made their way down the slope of the Sierra, they met a lowland temperature of sufficient warmth to arrest and waste them. At last, from causes which are too intricate to be discussed at present, they shrank slowly back into the higher summit fastnesses, and there gradually perished, leaving only a crest of snow. The ice melted, and upon the whole plateau, little by little, a thin layer of soil accumulated, and, replacing the snow, there sprang up a forest of pines, whose shadows fall pleasantly to-day over rocks which were once torrents of lava and across the burnished pathways of ice. Rivers, pure and sparkling, thread the bottom of these gigantic glacier valleys. The volcanoes are extinct, and the whole theatre of this impressive geological drama is now the most glorious and beautiful region of America.

As the characters of the Zauberflöte passed safely through the trial of fire and the desperate ordeal of water, so, through the terror of volcanic fires and the chilling empire of ice, has the great Sierra come into the present age of tranquil grandeur.

Five distinct periods divide the history of the range. First, the slow gathering of marine sediment within the early ocean during which incalculable ages were consumed. Second, in the early Jurassic period this level sea-floor came suddenly to be lifted into the air and crumpled in folds, through whose yawning fissures and ruptured axes outpoured wide zones of granite. Third, the volcanic age of fire and steam. Fourth, the glacial period, when the Sierras were one broad field of snow, with huge dragons of ice crawling down its slopes, and wearing their armor into the rocks. Fifth, the present condition, which the following chapters will describe, albeit in a desultory and inadequate manner.

From latitude 35° to latitude 39° 30’ the Sierra lifts a continuous chain, the profile culminating in several groups of peaks separated by deeply depressed curves or sharp notches, the summits varying from eight to fifteen thousand feet, seven to twelve thousand being the common range of passes. Near its southern extremity, in San Bernardino County, the range is cleft to the base with magnificent gateways opening through into the desert. From Walker’s Pass for two hundred miles northward the sky line is more uniformly elevated; the passes averaging nine thousand feet high, the actual summit a chain of peaks from thirteen to fifteen thousand feet. This serrated snow and granite outline of the Sierra Nevada, projected against the cold, clear blue, is the blade of white teeth which suggested its Spanish name.

Northward still the range gradually sinks; high peaks covered with perpetual snow are rarer and rarer. Its summit rolls on in broken, forest-covered ridges, now and then overlooked by a solitary pile of metamorphic or irruptive rock. At length, in Northern California, where it breaks down in a compressed medley of ridges, and open, level expanses of plain, the axis is maintained by a line of extinct volcanoes standing above the lowland in isolated positions. The most lofty of these, Mount Shasta, is a cone of lava fourteen thousand four hundred and forty feet high, its broad base girdled with noble forests, which give way at eight thousand feet to a cap of glaciers and snow.

Beyond this to the northward the extension of the range is quite difficult to definitely assign, for, geologically speaking, the Sierra Nevada system occupies a broad area in Oregon, consisting of several prominent mountain groups, while in a physical sense the chain ceases with Shasta; the Cascades, which are the apparent topographical continuation, being a tertiary structure formed chiefly of lavas which have been outpoured long subsequent to the main upheaval of the Sierra.

It is not easy to point out the actual southern limit either, because where the mountain mass descends into the Colorado desert it comes in contact with a number of lesser groups of hills, which ramify in many directions, all losing themselves beneath the tertiary and quartenary beds of the desert.

For four hundred miles the Sierras are a definite ridge, broad and high, and having the form of a seawave. Buttresses of sombre-hued rock, jutting at intervals from a steep wall, form the abrupt eastern slopes; irregular forests, in scattered growth, huddle together near the snow. The lower declivities are barren spurs, sinking into the sterile flats of the Great Basin.

Long ridges of comparatively gentle outline characterize the western side, but this sloping table is scored from summit to base by a system of parallel transverse cañons, distant from one another often less than twenty-five miles. They are ordinarily two or three thousand feet deep, falling at times in sheer, smooth-fronted cliffs, again in sweeping curves like the hull of a ship, again in rugged, V-shaped gorges, or with irregular, hilly flanks opening at last through gateways of low, rounded foot-hills out upon the horizontal plain of the San Joaquin and Sacramento.

Every cañon carries a river, derived from constant melting of the perpetual snow, which threads its way down the mountain—a feeble type of those vast icestreams and torrents that formerly discharged the summit accumulation of ice and snow while carving the cañons out from solid rock. Nowhere on the continent of America is there more positive evidence of the cutting power of rapid streams than in these very cañons. Although much is due to this cause, the most impressive passages of the Sierra valleys are actual ruptures of the rock; either the engulfment of masses of great size, as Professor Whitney supposes in explanation of the peculiar form of the Yosemite, or a splitting asunder in yawning cracks. From the summits down half the distance to the plains, the cañons are also carved out in broad, round curves by glacial action. The summit-gorges themselves are altogether the result of frost and ice. Here, even yet, may be studied the mode of blocking out mountain peaks; the cracks riven by unequal contraction and expansion of the rock; the slow leverage of ice, the storm, the avalanche.

The western descent, facing a moisture-laden, aërial current from the Pacific, condenses on its higher portions a great amount of water, which has piled upon the summits in the form of snow, and is absorbed upon the upper plateau by an exuberant growth of forest. This prevalent wind, which during most undisturbed periods blows continuously from the ocean, strikes first upon the western slope of the Coast Range, and there discharges, both as fog and rain, a very great sum of moisture; but, being ever reinforced, it blows over their crest, and, hurrying eastward, strikes the Sierras at about four thousand feet above sea-level. Below this line the foothills are oppressed by an habitual dryness, which produces a rusty olive tone throughout nearly all the large conspicuous vegetation, scorches the red soil, and, during the long summer, overlays the whole region with a cloud of dust.

Dull and monotonous in color, there are, however, certain elements of picturesqueness in this lower zone. Its oak-clad hills wander out into the great, plain-like coast promontories, enclosing yellow or, in spring-time, green bays of prairie. The hill-forms are rounded, or stretch in long, longitudinal ridges, broken across by the river cañons. Above this zone of red earth, softly modelled undulations, and dull, grayish groves, with a chain of mining towns, dotted ranches and vineyards, rise the swelling middle heights of the Sierras, a broad, billowy plateau cut by sharp, sudden cañons, and sweeping up, with its dark, superb growth of coniferous forest to the feet of the summit-peaks.

For a breadth of forty miles, all along the chain, is spread this continuous belt of pines. From Walker’s Pass to Sitka one may ride through an unbroken forest, and will find its character and aspect vary constantly in strict accordance with the laws of altitude and moisture, each of the several species of coniferous trees taking its position with an almost mathematical precision. Where low gaps in the Coast Range give free access to the western wind, there the forest sweeps downward and encamps upon the foot-hills, and, continuing northward, it advances toward the coast, securing for itself over this whole distance about the same physical conditions; so that a tree which finds itself at home on the shore of Puget’s Sound, in the latitude of Middle California has climbed the Sierras to a height of six thousand feet, finding there its normal requirements of damp, cool air. As if to economize the whole surface of the Sierra, the forest is mainly made up of twelve species of coniferæ, each having its own definitely circumscribed limits of temperature, and yet being able successively to occupy the whole middle Sierra up to the foot of the perpetual snow. The average range in altitude of each species is about twenty-five hundred feet, so that you pass imperceptibly from the zone of one species into that of the next. Frequently three or four are commingled, their varied habit, characteristic foliage, and richly colored trunks uniting to make the most stately of forests.

In the centre of the coniferous belt is assembled the most remarkable family of trees. Those which approach the perpetual snow are imperfect, gnarled, storm-bent; full of character and suggestion, but lacking the symmetry, the rich, living green, and the great size of their lower neighbors. In the other extreme of the pine-belt, growing side by side with foothill oaks, is an equally imperfect species, which, although attaining a very great size, still has the air of an abnormal tree. The conditions of drought on the one hand, and rigorous storms on the other, injure and blast alike, while the more verdant centre, furnishing the finest conditions, produces a forest whose profusion and grandeur fill the traveller with the liveliest admiration.

Toward the south the growth of the forest is more open and grove-like, the individual trees becoming proportionally larger and reaching their highest development. Northward its density increases, to the injury of individual pines, until the branches finally interlock, and at last on the shores of British Columbia the trunks are so densely assembled that a dead tree is held in its upright position by the arms of its fellows.

At the one extremity are magnificent purple shafts ornamented with an exquisitely delicate drapery of pale golden and dark blue green; at the other the slender spars stand crowded together like the fringe of masts girdling a prosperous port. The one is a great, continuous grove, on whose sunny openings are innumerable brilliant parterres; the other is a dismal thicket, a sort of gigantic canebrake, void of beauty, dark, impenetrable, save by the avenues of streams, where one may float for days between sombre walls of forest. From one to the other of these extremes is an imperceptible transition; only in the passage of hundreds of miles does the forest seem to thicken northward, or the majesty of the single trees appear to be impaired by their struggle for room.

Near the centre is the perfection of forest. At the south are the finest specimen trees, at the north the densest accumulations of timber. In riding throughout this whole region and watching the same species from the glorious ideal life of the south gradually dwarfed toward the north, until it becomes a mere wand; or in climbing from the scattered, drought-scourged pines of the foot-hills up through the zone of finest vegetation to those summit crags, where, struggling against the power of tempest and frost, only a few of the bravest trees succeed in clinging to the rocks and to life,—one sees with novel effect the inexorable sway which climatic conditions hold over the kingdom of trees.

Looking down from the summit, the forest is a closely woven vesture, which has fallen over the body of the range, clinging closely to its form, sinking into the deep cañons, covering the hill-tops with even velvety folds, and only lost here and there where a bold mass of rock gives it no foothold, or where around the margin of the mountain lakes bits of alpine meadow lie open to the sun.

Along its upper limit the forest zone grows thin and irregular; black shafts of alpine pines and firs clustering on sheltered slopes, or climbing in disordered processions up broken and rocky faces. Higher, the last gnarled forms are passed, and beyond stretches the rank of silent, white peaks, a region of rock and ice lifted above the limit of life.

In the north, domes and cones of volcanic formation are the summit, but for about three hundred miles in the south it is a succession of sharp granite aiguilles and crags. Prevalent among the granitic forms are singularly perfect conoidal domes, whose symmetrical figures, were it not for their immense size, would impress one as having an artificial finish.

The alpine gorges are usually wide and open, leading into amphitheatres, whose walls are either rock or drifts of never-melting snow. The sculpture of the summit is very evidently glacial. Beside the ordinary phenomena of polished rocks and moraines, the larger general forms are clearly the work of frost and ice; and, although this ice-period is only feebly represented to-day, yet the frequent avalanches of winter and freshly scored mountain flanks are constant suggestions of the past.

Strikingly contrasted are the two countries bordering the Sierra on either side. Along the western base is the plain of California, an elliptical basin four hundred and fifty miles long by sixty-five broad; level, fertile, well watered, half tropically warmed; checkered with farms of grain, ranches of cattle, orchard and vineyard, and homes of commonplace opulence, towns of bustling thrift. Rivers flow over it, bordered by lines of oaks which seem characterless or gone to sleep, when compared with the vitality, the spring, and attitude of the same species higher up on the foot-hills. It is a region of great industrial future within a narrow range, but quite without charms for the student of science. It has a certain impressive breadth when seen from some overlooking eminence, or when in early spring its brilliant carpet of flowers lies as a foreground over which the dark pine-land and white crest of the Sierra loom indistinctly.

From the Mexican frontier up into Oregon, a strip of actual desert lies under the east slope of the great chain, and stretches eastward sometimes as far as five hundred miles, varied by successions of bare, white ground, effervescing under the hot sun with alkaline salts, plains covered by the low, ashy-hued sage-plant, high, barren, rocky ranges, which are folds of metamorphic rocks, and piled-up lavas of bright red or yellow colors; all over-arched by a sky which is at one time of a hot, metallic brilliancy, and again the tenderest of evanescent purple or pearl.

Utterly opposed are the two aspects of the Sierras from these east and west approaches. I remember how stern and strong the chain looked to me when I first saw it from the Colorado desert.

It was in early May, 1866. My companion, Mr. James Terry Gardiner, and I got into the saddle on the bank of the Colorado River, and headed westward over the road from La Paz to San Bernardino. My mount was a tough, magnanimous sort of mule, who at all times did his very best; that of my friend, and animal still hardier, but altogether wanting in moral attributes. He developed a singular antipathy for my mule, and utterly refused to march within a quarter of a mile of me; so that over a wearying route of three hundred miles we were obliged to travel just beyond the reach of a shout. Hour after hour, plodding along at a dog-trot, we pursued our solitary way without the spice of companionship, and altogether deprived of the melodramatic satisfaction of loneliness.

Far ahead of us a white line traced across the barren plain marked our road. It seemed to lead to nowhere, except onward over more and more arid reaches of desert. Rolling hills of crude color and low, gloomy contour rose above the general level. Here and there the eye was arrested by a towering crag, or an elevated, rocky mountain group, whose naked sides sank down into the desert, unrelieved by the shade of a solitary tree. The whole aspect of nature was dull in color, and gloomy with an allpervading silence of death. Although the summer had not fairly opened, a torrid sun beat down with cruel severity, blinding the eye with its brilliance, and inducing a painful slow fever. The very plants, scorched to a crisp, were ready, at the first blast of a sirocco, to be whirled away and ground to dust. Certain bare zones lay swept clean of the last dry stems across our path, marking the track of whirlwinds. Water was only found at intervals of sixty or seventy miles, and, when reached, was more of an aggravation than a pleasure,—bitter, turbid, and scarce; we rode for it all day, and berated it all night, only to leave it at sunrise with a secret fear that we might fare worse next time.

About noon on the third day of our march, having reached the borders of the Chabazon Valley, we emerged from a rough, rocky gateway in the mountains, and I paused while my companion made up his quarter of a mile, that we might hold council and determine our course, for the water question was becoming serious; springs which looked cool and seductive on our maps proving to be dried up and obsolete upon the ground.

A fresh mule and a lively man get along, to be sure, well enough; but after all it is at best with perfunctory tolerance on both sides, a sort of diplomatic interchange of argument, the man suggesting with bridle, or mildly admonishing with spurs; but when the high contracting parties get tired, the entente cordiale goes to pieces, and actual hostilities open, in which I never knew a man to come out the better.

I had noticed a shambling uncertainty during the last half-hour’s trot, and those invariable indicators, “John’s” long, furry ears, either lopped diagonally down on one side, or lay back with ill omen upon his neck.

Gardiner reached me in a few minutes, and we dismounted to rest the tired mules, and to scan the landscape before us. We were on the margin of a great basin whose gently shelving rim sank from our feet to a perfectly level plain, which stretched southward as far as the eye could reach, bounded by a dim, level horizon, like the sea, but walled in to the west, at a distance of about forty miles, by the high, frowning wall of the Sierras. This plain was a level floor, as white as marble, and into it the rocky spurs from our own mountain range descended like promontories into the sea. Wide, deeply indented white bays wound in and out among the foot-hills, and, traced upon the barren slopes of this rocky coast, was marked, at a considerable elevation above the plain, the shore-line of an ancient sea,—a white stain defining its former margin as clearly as if the water had but just receded. On the dim, distant base of the Sierras the same primeval beach could be seen. This water-mark, the level, white valley, and the utter absence upon its surface of any vegetation, gave a strange and weird aspect to the country, as if a vast tide had but just ebbed, and the brilliant, scorching sun had hurriedly dried up its last traces of moisture.

In the indistinct glare of the southern horizon, it needed but slight aid from the imagination to see a lifting and tumbling of billows, as if the old tide were coming; but they were only shudderings of heat. As we sat there surveying this unusual scene, the white expanse became suddenly transformed into a placid blue sea, along whose rippling shores were the white blocks of roofs, groups of spire-crowned villages, and cool stretches of green grove. A soft, vapory atmosphere hung over this sea; shadows, purple and blue, floated slowly across it, producing the most enchanting effect of light and color. The dreamy richness of the tropics, the serene sapphire sky of the desert, and the cool, purple distance of mountains, were grouped as by miracle. It was as if Nature were about to repay us an hundred-fold for the lie she had given the topographers and their maps.

In a moment the illusion vanished. It was gone, leaving the white desert unrelieved by a shadow; a blaze of white light falling full on the plain; the sun-struck air reeling in whirlwind columns, white with the dust of the desert, up, up, and vanishing into the sky. Waves of heat rolled like billows across the valley, the old shores became indistinct, the whole lowland unreal. Shades of misty blue crossed over it and disappeared. Lakes with ragged shores gleamed out, reflecting the sky, and in a moment disappeared.

The bewildering effect of this natural magic, and perhaps the feverish thirst, produced the impression of a dream, which might have taken fatal possession of us but for the importunate braying of Gardiner’s mule, whose piteous discords (for he made three noises at once) banished all hallucination, and brought us gently back from the mysterious spectacle to the practical question of water. We had but one canteen of that precious elixir left; the elixir in this case being composed of one part pure water, one part sand, one part alum, one part saleratus, with liberal traces of Colorado mud, representing a very disgusting taste, and very great range of geological formations.

To search for the mountain springs laid down upon our maps was probably to find them dry, and afforded us little more inducement than to chase the mirages. The only well-known water was at an oasis somewhere on the margin of the Chabazon, and should, if the information was correct, have been in sight from our resting-place.

We eagerly scanned the distance, but were unable, among the phantom lakes and the ever-changing illusions of the desert, to fix upon any probable point. Indian trails led out in all directions, and our only clew to the right path was far in the northwest, where, looming against the sky, stood two conspicuous mountain piles lifted above the general wall of the Sierra, their bases rooted in the desert, and their precipitous fronts rising boldly on each side of an open gateway. The two summits, high above the magical stratum of desert air, were sharply defined and singularly distinct in all the details of rock-form and snow-field. From their position we knew them to be walls of the San Gorgonio Pass, and through this gateway lay our road.

After brief deliberation we chose what seemed to be the most beaten road leading in that direction, and I mounted my mule and started, leaving my friend patiently seated in his saddle waiting for the afflatus of his mule to take effect. Thus we rode down into the desert, and hour after hour travelled silently on, straining our eyes forward to a spot of green which we hoped might mark our oasis.

So incredulous had I become that I prided myself upon having penetrated the flimsy disguise of an unusually deceptive mirage, and philosophized, to a considerable extent, upon the superiority of my reason over the instinct of the mule, whose quickened pace and nervous manner showed him to be, as I thought, a dupe.

Whenever there comes to be a clearly defined mental issue between man and mule, the stubborness of the latter is the expression of an adamantine moral resolve, founded in eternal right. The man is invariably wrong. Thus on this occasion, as at a thousand other times, I was obliged to own up worsted, and I drummed for a while with Spanish spurs upon the ribs of my conqueror, that being my habitual mode of covering my retreat.

It was the oasis, and not the mirage. John lifted up his voice, now many days hushed, and gave out spasmodic gusts of barytone, which were as dry and harsh as if he had drunk mirages only.

The heart of Gardiner’s mule relented. Of his own accord he galloped up to my side, and, for the first time together, we rode forward to the margin of the oasis. Under the palms we hastily threw off our saddles and allowed the parched brutes to drink their fill. We lay down in the grass, drank, bathed our faces, and played in the water like children. We picketed our mules knee-deep in the freshest of grass, and, unpacking our saddle-bags, sent up a smoke to heaven, and achieved that most precious solace of the desert traveller, a pot of tea.

By and by we plunged into the pool, which was perhaps thirty feet long, and deep enough to give us a pleasant swim. The water being almost blood-warm, we absorbed it in every pore, dilated like sponges, and came out refreshed.

It is well worth having one’s juices broiled out by a desert sun just to experience the renewal of life from a mild parboil. That About’s “Man with the Broken Ear,” under this same aqueous renovation, was ready to fall in love with his granddaughter, no longer appears to me odd. Our oasis spread out its disc of delicate green, sharply defined upon the enamel-like desert which stretched away for leagues, simple, unbroken, pathetic. Near the eastern edge of this garden, whose whole surface covered hardly more than an acre, rose two palms, interlocking their cool, dark foliage over the pool of pure water. A low, deserted cabin with wide, overhanging, flat roof, which had long ago been thatched with palm-leaves, stood close by the trees.

With its isolation, its strange, warm fountain, its charming vegetation varied with grasses, trailing water-plants, bright parterres in which were minute flowers of turquoise blue, pale gold, mauve, and rose, and its two graceful palms, this oasis evoked a strange sentiment. I have never felt such a sense of absolute and remote seclusion; the hot, trackless plain and distant groups of mountain shut it away from all the world. Its humid and fragrant air hung over us in delicious contrast with the oven-breath through which we had ridden. Weary little birds alighted, panting, and drank and drank again, without showing the least fear of us. Wild doves fluttering down bathed in the pool and fed about among our mules.

After straining over one hundred and fifty miles of silent desert, hearing no sound but the shoes of our mules grating upon hot sand, after the white glare, and that fever-thirst which comes from drinking alkali-water, it was a deep pleasure to lie under the palms and look up at their slow-moving green fans, and hear in those shaded recesses the mild, sweet twittering of our traveller-friends, the birds, who stayed, like ourselves, overcome with the languor of perfect repose.

Declining rapidly toward the west, the sun warned us to renew our journey. Several hours’ rest and frequent deep draughts of water, added to the feast of succulent grass, filled out and rejuvenated our saddle-animals. John was far less an anatomical specimen than when I unsaddled him, and Gardiner’s mule came up to be bridled with so mollified a demeanor that it occurred to us as just possible he might forget his trick of lagging behind; but with the old tenacity of purpose he planted his forefeet, and waited till I was well out on the desert.

As I rode I watched the western prospect. Completely bounding the basin in that direction rose the gigantic wall of the Sierra, its serrated line sharply profiled against the evening sky. This dark barrier became more and more shadowed, so that the old shore line and the lowland, where mountain and plain joined, were lost. The desert melted in the distance into the shadowed masses of the Sierra, which, looming higher and higher, seemed to rise as the sun went down. Scattered snow-fields shone along its crest; each peak and notch, every column of rock and detail of outline, were black and sharp.

On either side of the San Gorgonio stood its two guardian peaks, San Bernardino and San Jacinto, capped with rosy snow, and the pass itself, warm with western light, opened hopefully before us. For a moment the sun rested upon the Sierra crest, and then, slowly sinking, suffered eclipse by its ragged, black profile. Through the slow hours of darkening twilight a strange, ashy gloom overspread the desert. The forms of the distant mountain chains behind us, and the old shore line upon the Sierra base, stared at us with a strange, weird distinctness. At last all was gray and vague, except the black silhouette of the Sierras cut upon a band of golden heaven.

We at length reached their foot and, turning northward, rode parallel with the base toward the San Gorgonio. In the moonless night huge, rocky buttresses of the range loomed before us, their feet plunging into the pale desert floor. High upon their fronts, perhaps five hundred feet above us, was dimly traceable the white line of ancient shore. Over drifted hills of sand and hard alkaline clay we rode along the bottom of that primitive sea. Between the spurs deep mountain alcoves, stretching back into the heart of the range, opened grand and shadowy; far at their head, over crests of ridge and peak, loomed the planet Jupiter.

A long, wearisome ride of forty hours brought us to the open San Gorgonio Pass. Already scattered beds of flowers tinted the austere face of the desert; tufts of pale grass grew about the stones, and tall stems of yucca bore up their magnificent bunches of bluish flowers. Upon all the heights overhanging the road gnarled, struggling cedars grasp the rock, and stretch themselves with frantic effort to catch a breath of the fresh Pacific vapor. It is instructive to observe the difference between those which lean out into the vitalizing wind of the pass, and the fated few whose position exposes them to the dry air of the desert. Vigor, soundness, nerve to stand on the edge of sheer walls, flexibility, sap, fulness of green foliage, are in the one; a shroud of dull olive-leaves scantily cover the thin, straggling, bayonet-like boughs of the others; they are rigid, shrunken, split to the heart, pitiful. We were glad to forget them as we turned a last buttress and ascended the gentle acclivity of the pass.

Before us opened a broad gateway six or seven miles from wall to wall, in which a mere swell of green land rises to divide the desert and Pacific slopes. Flanking the pass along its northern side stands Mount San Bernardino, its granite framework crowded up above the beds of more recent rock about its base, bearing aloft tattered fragments of pine forest, the summit piercing through a marbling of perpetual snow, up to the height of ten thousand feet. Fronting it on the opposite wall rises its compeer, San Jacinto, a dark crag of lava, whose flanks are cracked, riven, and waterworn into innumerable ravines, each catching a share of the drainage from the snow-cap, and glistening with a hundred small water-falls.

Numerous brooks unite to form two rivers, one running down the green slope among ranches and gardens into the blooming valley of San Bernardino, the other pouring eastward, shrinking as it flows out upon the hot sands, till, in a few miles, the unslakable desert has drunk it dry.

There are but few points in America where such extremes of physical condition meet. What contrasts, what opposed sentiments, the two views awakened! Spread out below us lay the desert, stark and glaring, its rigid hill-chains lying in disordered grouping, in attitudes of the dead. The bare hills are cut out with sharp gorges, and over their stone skeletons scanty earth clings in folds, like shrunken flesh; they are emaciated corses of once noble ranges now lifeless, outstretched as in a long sleep. Ghastly colors define them from the ashen plain in which their feet are buried. Far in the south were a procession of whirlwind columns slowly moving across the desert in spectral dimness. A white light beat down, dispelling the last trace of shadow, and above hung the burnished shield of hard, pitiless sky.

Sinking to the west from our feet the gentle golden-green glacis sloped away, flanked by rolling hills covered with a fresh, vernal carpet of grass, and relieved by scattered groves of dark oak-trees. Upon the distant valley were checkered fields of grass and grain just tinged with the first ripening yellow. The bounding Coast Ranges lay in the cool shadow of a bank of mist which drifted in from the Pacific, covering their heights. Flocks of bright clouds floated across the sky, whose blue was palpitating with light, and seemed to rise with infinite perspective. Tranquillity, abundance, the slow, beautiful unfolding of plant life, dark, shadowed spots to rest our tired eyes upon, the shade of giant oaks to lie down under, while listening to brooks, contralto larks, and the soft, distant lowing of cattle.

I have given the outlines of aspect along our ride across the Chabazon, omitting many amusing incidents and some genre pictures of rare interest among the Kaweah Indians, as I wished simply to illustrate the relations of the Sierra with the country bordering its east base,—the barrier looming above a desert.

In Nevada and California, farther north, this wall rises more grandly, but its face rests upon a modified form of desert plains of less extent than the Colorado, and usually covered with sage-plants and other brushy compositae of equally pitiful appearance. Large lakes of complicated saline waters are dotted under the Sierra shadow, the ancient terraces built upon foot-hill and outlying volcanic ranges indicating their former expansion into inland seas; and farther north still, where plains extend east of Mount Shasta, level sheets of lava form the country, and open, black, rocky channels, for the numerous branches of the Sacramento and Klamath.

Approaching the Sierras anywhere from the west, one will perceive a totally different topographical and climatic condition. From the Coast Range peaks especially one obtains an extended and impressive prospect. I had fallen behind the party one May evening of our march across Pacheco’s Pass, partly because some wind-bent oaks trailing almost horizontally over the wild-oat surface of the hills, and marking, as a living record, the prevalent west wind, had arrested me and called out compass and note-book; and because there had fallen to my lot an incorrigibly deliberate mustang to whom I had abandoned myself to be carried along at his own pace, comforted withal that I should get in too late to have any hand in the cooking of supper. We reached the crest, the mustang coming to a conspicuous and unwarrantable halt; I yielded, however, and sat still in the saddle, looking out to the east.

Brown foot-hills, purple over their lower slopes with “fil-a-ree” blossoms, descended steeply to the plain of California, a great, inland, prairie sea, extending for five hundred miles, mountain-locked, between the Sierras and coast hills, and now a broad, arabesque surface of colors. Miles of orange-colored flowers, cloudings of green and white, reaches of violet which looked like the shadow of a passing cloud, wandering in natural patterns over and through each other, sunny and intense along near our range, fading in the distance into pale, bluish-pearl tones, and divided by long, dimly seen rivers, whose margins were edged by belts of bright emerald green. Beyond rose three hundred miles of Sierra half lost in light and cloud and mist, the summit in places sharply seen against a pale, beryl sky, and again buried in warm, rolling clouds. It was a mass of strong light, soft, fathomless shadows, and dark regions of forest. However, the three belts upon its front were tolerably clear. Dusky foot-hills rose over the plain with a coppery gold tone, suggesting the line of mining towns planted in its rusty ravines,—a suggestion I was glad to repel, and look higher into that cool, solemn realm where the pines stand, green-roofed, in infinite colonnade. Lifted above the bustling industry of the plains and the melodramatic mining theatre of the foot-hills, it has a grand, silent life of its own, refreshing to contemplate even from a hundred miles away.

While I looked the sun descended; shadows climbed the Sierras, casting a gloom over foot-hill and pine, until at last only the snow summits, reflecting the evening light, glowed like red lamps along the mountain wall for hundreds of miles. The rest of the Sierra became invisible. The snow burned for a moment in the violet sky, and at last went out.

Note and PrefaceIndexChapter II

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