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Visalia is the name of a small town embowered in oaks upon the Tulare Plain in Middle California, where we made our camp one May evening of 1864.
Professor Whitney, our chief, the State Geologist, had sent us out for a summer’s campaign in the High Sierras, under the lead of Professor William H. Brewer, who was more sceptical than I as to the result of the mission.
Several times during the previous winter Mr. Hoffman and I, while on duty at the Mariposa gold-mines, had climbed to the top of Mount Bullion, and gained, in those clear January days, a distinct view of the High Sierra, ranging from the Mount Lyell group many miles south to a vast pile of white peaks, which, from our estimate, should lie near the heads of the King’s and Kaweah rivers. Of their great height I was fully persuaded; and Professor Whitney, on the strength of these few observations, commissioned us to explore and survey the new Alps.
We numbered five in camp:—Professor Brewer; Mr. Charles F. Hoffman, chief topographer; Mr. James T. Gardiner, assistant surveyor; myself, assistant geologist; and our man-of-all-work, to whom science already owes its debts.
When we got together our outfit of mules and equipments of all kinds, Brewer was going to reengage, as general aid, a certain Dane, Jan Hoesch, who, besides being a faultless mule-packer, was a rapid and successful financier, having twice, when the field-purse was low and remittances delayed, enriched us by what he called “dealing bottom stock” in his little evening games with the honest miners. Not ungrateful for that, I, however, detested the fellow with great cordiality.
“If I don’t take him, will you be responsible for packing mules and for daily bread?” said Brewer to me, the morning of our departure from Oakland. “I will.” “Then we’ll take your man Cotter; only, when the pack-saddles roll under the mules’ bellies, I shall light my pipe and go botanizing. Sabe?”
So my friend, Richard Cotter, came into the service, and the accomplished but filthy Jan opened a poker and rum shop on one of the San Francisco wharves, where he still mixes drinks and puts up jobs of “bottom stock.” Secretly I longed for him as we came down the Pacheco Pass, the packs having loosened with provoking frequency. The animals of our small exploring party were upon a footing of easy social equality with us. All were excellent except mine. The choice of Hobson (whom I take to have been the youngest member of some company) falling naturally to me, I came to be possessed of the only hopeless animal in the band. Old Slum, a dignified roan mustang of a certain age, with the decorum of years and a conspicuous economy of force retained not a few of the affectations of youth, such as snorting theatrically and shying, though with absolute safety to the rider, Professor Brewer. Hoffman’s mount was a young half-breed, full of fire and gentleness. The mare Bess, my friend Gardiner’s pet, was a light-bay creature, as full of spring and perception as her sex and species may be. A rare mule, Cate, carried Cotter. Nell and Jim, two old geological mules, branded with Mexican hieroglyphics from head to tail, were bearers of the loads.
My Buckskin was incorrigibly bad. To begin with, his anatomy was desultory and incoherent, the maximum of physical effort bringing about a slow, shambling gait quite unendurable. He was further cursed with a brain wanting the elements of logic, as evinced by such non sequiturs as shying insanely at wisps of hay, and stampeding beyond control when I tried to tie him to a load of grain. My sole amusement with Buckskin grew out of a psychological peculiarity of his, namely, the unusual slowness with which waves of sensation were propelled inward toward the brain from remote parts of his periphery. A dig of the spurs administered in the flank passed unnoticed for a period of time varying from twelve to thirteen seconds, till the protoplasm of the brain received the percussive wave; then, with a suddenness which I never wholly got over, he would dash into a trot, nearly tripping himself up with his own astonishment.
A stroke of good fortune completed our outfit and my happiness by bringing to Visalia a Spaniard who was under some manner of financial cloud. His horse was offered for sale, and quickly bought for me by Professor Brewer. We named him Kaweah, after the river and its Indian tribe. He was young, strong, fleet, elegant, a pattern of fine modelling in every part of his bay body and fine black legs; every way good, only fearfully wild, with a blaze of quick electric light in his dark eye.
Shortly after sunrise one fresh morning we made a point of putting the packs on very securely, and, getting into our saddles, rode out toward the Sierras.
The group of farms surrounding Visalia is gathered within a belt through which several natural, and many more artificial, channels of the Kaweah flow. Groves of large, dark-foliaged oaks follow this irrigated zone; the roads, nearly always in shadow, are flanked by small ranch-houses, fenced in with rank jungles of weeds and rows of decrepit pickets.
There is about these fresh ruins, these specimens of modern decay, an air of social decomposition not pleasant to perceive. Freshly built houses, still untinted by time, left in rickety disorder, half-finished windows, gates broken down or unhinged, and a kind of sullen neglect staring everywhere. What more can I say of the people than that they are chiefly immigrants who subsist upon pork?
Rare exceptions of comfort and thrift shine out sometimes, with neat dooryards, well-repaired dwellings, and civilized-looking children. In these I never saw the mother of the family sitting cross-legged, smoking a corncob pipe, nor the father loafing about with a fiddle or shot-gun.
Our backs were now turned to this farm-belt, the road leading us out upon the open plain in our first full sight of the Sierras.
Grand and cool swelled up the forest; sharp and rugged rose the wave of white peaks, their vast fields of snow rolling over the summit in broad, shining masses.
Sunshine, exuberant vegetation, brilliant plant life, occupied our attention hour after hour until the middle of the second day. At last, after climbing a long, weary ascent, we rode out of the dazzling light of the foot-hills into a region of dense woodland, the road winding through avenues of pines so tall that the late evening light only came down to us in scattered rays. Under the deep shade of these trees we found an air pure and gratefully cool. Passing from the glare of the open country into the dusky forest, one seems to enter a door and ride into a vast covered hall. The whole sensation is of being roofed and enclosed. You are never tired of gazing down long vistas, where, in stately groups, stand tall shafts of pine. Columns they are, each with its own characteristic tinting and finish, yet all standing together with the air of relationship and harmony. Feathery branches, trimmed with living green, wave through the upper air, opening broken glimpses of the far blue, and catching on their polished surfaces reflections of the sun. Broad streams of light pour in, gilding purple trunks and falling in bright pathways along an undulating floor. Here and there are wide, open spaces, around which the trees group themselves in majestic ranks.
Our eyes often ranged upward, the long shafts leading the vision up to green, lighted spires, and on to the clouds. All that is dark and cool and grave in color, the beauty of blue umbrageous distance, all the sudden brilliance of strong local lights tinted upon green boughs or red and fluted shafts, surround us in ever-changing combination as we ride along these winding roadways of the Sierra.
We had marched a few hours over high, rolling, wooded ridges, when in the late afternoon we reached the brow of an eminence and began to descend. Looking over the tops of the trees beneath us, we saw a mountain basin fifteen hundred feet deep surrounded by a rim of pine-covered hills. An even, unbroken wood covered these sweeping slopes down to the very bottom, and in the midst, open to the sun, lay a circular green meadow, about a mile in diameter.
As we descended, side wood-tracks, marked by the deep ruts of timber wagons, joined our road on either side, and in the course of an hour we reached the basin and saw the distant roofs of Thomas’s Saw-Mill Ranch. We crossed the level disc of meadow, fording a clear, cold mountain stream, flowing, as the best brooks do, over clean, white granite sand, and near the northern margin of the valley, upon a slight eminence, in the edge of a magnificent forest, pitched our camp.
The hills to the westward already cast down a sombre shadow, which fell over the eastern hills and across the meadow, dividing the basin half in golden and half in azure green. The tall young grass was living with purple and white flowers. This exquisite carpet sweeps up over the bases of the hills in green undulations, and strays far into the forest in irregular fields. A little brooklet passed close by our camp and flowed down the smooth green glacis which led from our little eminence to the meadow. Above us towered pines two hundred and fifty feet high, their straight, fluted trunks smooth and without a branch for a hundred feet. Above that, and on to the very tops, the green branches stretched out and interwove, until they spread a broad, leafy canopy from column to column.
Professor Brewer determined to make this camp a home for the week during which we were to explore and study all about the neighborhood. We were on a great granite spur, sixty miles from east to west by twenty miles wide, which lies between the Kaweah and King’s River cañons. Rising in bold sweeps from the plain, this ridge joins the Sierra summit in the midst of a high group. Experience had taught us that the cañons are impassable by animals for any great distance; so the plan of campaign was to find a way up over the rocky crest of the spur as far as mules could go.
In the little excursions from this camp, which were made usually on horseback, we became acquainted with the forest, and got a good knowledge of the topography of a considerable region. On the heights above King’s Cañon are some singularly fine assemblies of trees. Cotter and I had ridden all one morning northeast from camp under the shadowy roof of forest, catching but occasional glimpses out over the plateau, until at last we emerged upon the bare surface of a ridge of granite, and came to the brink of a sharp precipice. Rocky crags lifted just east of us. The hour devoted to climbing them proved well spent.
A single little family of alpine firs growing in a niche in the granite surface, and partly sheltered by a rock, made the only shadow, and just shielded us from the intense light as we lay down by their roots. North and south, as far as the eye could reach, heaved the broad, green waves of plateau, swelling and merging through endless modulation of slope and form.
Conspicuous upon the horizon, about due east of us, was a tall, pyramidal mass of granite, trimmed with buttresses which radiated down from its crest, each one ornamented with fantastic spires of rock. Between the buttresses lay stripes of snow, banding the pale granite peak from crown to base. Upon the north side it fell off, grandly precipitous, into the deep upper cañon of King’s River. This gorge, after uniting a number of immense rocky amphitheatres, is carved deeply into the granite two and three thousand feet. In a slightly curved line from the summit it cuts westward through the plateau, its walls, for the most part, descending in sharp, bare slopes, or lines of ragged débris, the resting-place of processions of pines. We ourselves were upon the brink of the south wall; three thousand feet below us lay the valley, a narrow, winding ribbon of green, in which, here and there, gleamed still reaches of the river. Wherever the bottom widened to a quarter or half a mile, green meadows and extensive groves occupied the level region. Upon every niche and crevice of the walls, up and down sweeping curves of easier descent, were grouped black companies of trees.
The behavior of the forest is observed most interestingly from these elevated points above the general face of the table-land. All over the gentle undulations of the more level country sweeps an unbroken covering of trees. Reaching the edge of the cañon precipices, they stand out in bold groups upon the brink, and climb all over the more ragged and broken surfaces of granite. Only the most smooth and abrupt precipices are bare. Here and there a little shelf of a foot or two in width, cracked into the face of the bluff, gives foothold to a family of pines, who twist their roots into its crevices and thrive. With no soil from which the roots may drink up moisture and absorb the slowly dissolved mineral particles, they live by breathing alone, moist vapors from the river below and the elements of the atmosphere affording them the substance of life.
I believe no one can study from an elevated lookout the length and depth of one of these great Sierra cañons without asking himself some profound geological questions. Your eyes range along one or the other wall. The average descent is immensely steep. Here and there side ravines break down the rim in deep, lateral gorges. Again, the wall advances in sharp, salient precipices, rising two or three thousand feet, sheer and naked, with all the air of a recent fracture. At times the two walls approach each other, standing in perpendicular gateways. Toward the summits the cañon grows, perhaps, a little broader, and more and more prominent lateral ravines open into it, until at last it receives the snow drainage of the summit, which descends through broad, rounded amphitheatres, separated from each other by sharp, castellated snow-clad ridges.
Looking down the course of the river, vertical precipices are seen to be less and less frequent, the walls inclining to each other more and more gently, until they roll out on the north and south in round, wooded ridges. Solid, massive granite forms the material throughout its whole length. If you study the topography upon the plateaus above one of these cañons, you will see that the ridges upon one side are reproduced in the other, as if the outlines of wavy table-land topography had been determined before the great cañon was made.
It is not easy to propose a solution for this peculiar structure. I think, however, it is safe to say that actual rending asunder of the mountain mass determined the main outlines. Upon no other theory can we account for those blank walls. Where, in the upper course of the cañon, they descend in a smooth, ship-like curve, and the rocks bear upon their curved sides the markings and striations of glaciers, it is easy to see that those terrible ice-engines gradually modified their form; and toward the foot-hills the forces of aqueous erosion are clearly indicated in the rounded forms and broad undulations of the two banks.
Looking back from our isolated crag in the direction of our morning’s ride, we saw the green hills break down into the basin of Thomas’s Mill, but the disc of meadow lay too deep to be seen. Forests, dense and unbroken, grew to the base of our cliff. The southern sunlight reflected from its polished foliage gave to this whole sea of spiry tops a peculiar golden green, through which we looked down among giant red and purple trunks upon beds of bright mountain flowers. As the afternoon lengthened, the summit rank of peaks glowed warmer and warmer under inclined rays. The granite flushed with rosy brightness between the fields of glittering golden snow. A mild, pearly haziness came gradually to obscure the ordinary cold-blue sky, and, settling into cañon depths, and among the vast, open corridors of the summit, veiled the savage sharpness of their details.
I lay several hours sketching the outlines of the summit, studying out the systems of alpine drainage, and getting acquainted with the long chain of peaks, that I might afterward know them from other points of view. I became convinced from the great apparent elevation and the wide fields of snow that we had not formerly deceived ourselves as to their great height. Warned at length by the deepening shadow in the King’s Cañon, by the heightened glow suffusing the peaks, and the deep purple tone of the level expanse of forest, all forerunners of twilight, we quitted our eyrie, crept carefully down over half-balanced blocks of débris to the horses, and, mounting, were soon headed homeward, in what seemed, by contrast, to be almost a nocturnal darkness.
Wherever the ground opened level before us we gave our horses the rein, and went at a free gallop through the forest; the animals realized that they were going home, and pressed forward with the greatest spirit. A good-sized log across our route seemed to be an object of special amusement to Kaweah, who seized the bits in his teeth, and, dancing up, crouched, and cleared it with a mighty bound, in a manner that was indeed inspiring, yet left one with the impression that once was enough of that sort of thing. Fearing some manner of hostilities with him, I did my very best to quiet Kaweah, and by the end of an hour had gotten him down to a sensible, serious walk. I noticed that he insisted upon following his tracks of the morning’s march, and was not contented unless I let him go on the old side of every tree. Thus I became so thoroughly convinced of his faculty to follow the morning’s trail that I yielded all control of him, giving myself up to the enjoyment of the dimly lighted wood.
As the sun at last set, the shadow deepened into an impressive gloom; mighty trunks, rising into that dark region of interlocking boughs, only vaguely defined themselves against the twilight sky. We could no longer see our tracks, and the confused rolling topography looked alike whichever way we turned. Kaweah strode on in his confident way, and I was at last confirmed as to his sagacity by passing one after another the objects we had noted in the morning. Thus for a couple of hours we rode in the darkness. At length the rising moon poured down through broken tents of foliage its uncertain silvery light, which had the effect of deepening all the shadows, and lighting up in the strangest manner little local points. Here and there ahead of us the lighted trees rose like pillars of an ancient temple. The forest, which an hour before overpowered us with a sense of its dark enclosure, opened on in distant avenues as far as the eye could reach. As we rode through denser or more open passages the moon sailed into clear, violet sky, or was obscured again by the sharply traced crests of the pines. Ravines, dark and unfathomable, yawned before us, their flanks half in shadow, half in weird, uncertain light. Blocks of white granite gleamed here and there in contrast with the general depth of shade. At last, descending a hill, there shone before us a red light; the horses plunged forward at a gallop, and in a moment we were in camp. After this ride we supped, relishing our mountain fare, and then lay down upon blankets before a camp-fire for the mountaineer’s short evening. One keeps awake under stimulus of the sparkling, frosty air for awhile, and then turns in for the night, sleeping till daybreak with a light, sound sleep.
The charm of this forest life, in spite of its scientific interest, and the constant succession of exquisite, highly colored scenes, would string one’s feelings up to a high though monotonous key, were it not for the half-droll, half-pathetic genre picturesqueness which the Digger Indians introduce. Upon every stream and on all the finer camp-grounds throughout the whole forest are found these families of Indians who migrate up here during the hot weather, fishing, hunting, gathering pine-nuts, and lying off with that peculiar, bummerish ease, which, associated with natural mock dignity, throws about them a singular, and not infrequently deep interest.
I never forget certain bright June sunrises when I have seen the Indian paterfamilias gather together his little tribe and address them in the heroic style concerning the vital importance of the grasshopper crop, and the reverence due to the Giver of manzanita berries. You come upon them as you travel the trails, proud-stepping “braves” leading the way, unhampered and free, followed by troops of submissive squaws loaded down with immense packages and baskets. Their death and burial customs, too, have elements of weird, romantic interest.
I remember one morning when I was awakened before dawn by wild, unearthly shrieks ringing through the forest and coming back again in plaintive echoes from the hills all about. Beyond description wild, these wails of violent grief followed each other with regular cadence, dying away in long, despairing sobs. With a marvellous regularity they recurred, never varying the simple refrain. My curiosity was aroused so far as to get me out of my blankets, and, after a hurried bath in an icy stream, I joined my mountaineer acquaintance, Jerry, who was en route to the rancheria, “to see,” as he expressed it, “them tar-heads howl.” It seems my friend Buck, the Indian chief, had the night before lost his wife, Sally the Old, and the shouts came from professional mourners hired by her family to prepare the body and do up the necessary amount of grief. Old widows and superannuated wives who have out-lived other forms of usefulness gladly enter this singular profession. They cut their hair short, and, with each new death, plaster on a fresh cap of pitch and ashes, daub the face with spots of tar, and, in general, array themselves as funeral experts.
The rancheria was astir when we arrived. It was a mere group of half a dozen smoky hovels, built of pine bark propped upon cones of poles, and arranged in a semi-circle within the edge of the forest, fronting on a brook and meadow. Jerry and I leaned our backs against a large tree, and watched the group.
Buck’s shanty was deserted, the body of his wife lying outside upon a blanket, being prepared by two of these funeral hags. Buck himself was quietly stuffing his stomach with a breakfast of venison and acorns, which were handed him at brief intervals by several sympathizing squaws.
Turning to Jerry with a countenance of stolid seriousness, he laconically remarked, “My woman she die! Very bad. To-night, sundown” (pointing to the sun), “she burn up.” Meanwhile the tarheads rolled Sally the Old over and over, all the while alternately howling the same dismal phrase. Indian relatives and friends, having the general air of animated rag-bags, arrived occasionally, and sat down in silence at a fire a little removed from the other Diggers, never once saluting them.
As we walked back to our camp, I remarked on the stolid, cruel expression of Buck’s face, but Jerry, to my surprise, bade me not judge too hastily. He went on to explain that Indians have just as deep and tender attachments, just as much good sense, and, to wind up with, “as much human into ‘em, as we edicated white folks.”
His own squaw had instilled this into Jerry’s naturally sentimental and credulous heart, so I refrained from expressing my convictions concerning Indians, which, I own, were formerly tinged with the most sanguinary Caucasian prejudice.
Jerry came for me by appointment just before sunset, and we walked leisurely across the meadow, and under lengthening pine shadows, to the rancheria. No one was stirring. Buck and the two vicarious mourners sat in his lodge door, uttering low, half-audible groans. In the opening before the line of huts a low pile of dry logs had been carefully laid, upon which, outstretched, and wrapped in a red blanket, lay the dead form of Sally the Old, her face covered in careful folds. Upon her heart were a grass-woven water-bowl and her last pappoose basket.
Just as the sun sank to the horizon, one tar-head stepped out in front of the funeral pile, lifted up both hands, and gazed steadily and silently at the sun. She might have been five minutes in this statuesque position, her face full of strange, half-animal intensity of expression, her eyes glittering, the whole hard figure glowing with a deep bronze reflection. Suddenly she sprang back with the old wild shriek, seized a brand from one of the camp-fires, and lighted the funeral heap, when all the Indians came out, and grouped themselves in the little knots around it. Sally the Old’s children clung about an old mummy of a squaw, who squatted upon the ground and rocked her body to and fro, making a low cry as of an animal in pain. All the Indians looked serious; a group, who Jerry said were relatives, seemed stupefied with grief. Upon a few faces falling tears glistened in the light of the fire, which now shot up red tongues high in the air, lighting up with weird distinctness every feature of the whole group. Flames slowly lapped over, consuming the blanket, and caught the willow pappoose basket. When Buck saw this the tears streamed from his eyes; he waved his hands eloquently, looking up to heaven, and uttered heart-broken sobs. The pappoose basket crackled for a moment, flashed into a blaze, and was gone. The two old women yelled their sharp death-cry, dancing, posturing, gesticulating toward the fire, and in slow, measured chorus all the Indians intoned in pathetic measure, “Himalaya! Himalaya!” looking first at the mound of fire and then out upon the fading sunset.
It was all indescribably strange: monarch pines standing in solemn ranks far back into the dusky heart of the forest, glowing and brightening with pulsating reflections of firelight; the ring of Indians, crouching, standing fixed like graven images, or swaying mechanically to and fro; each tattered scarlet and white rag of their utterly squalid garments, every expression of barbaric grief or dull stolidity, being brought strongly out by the red, flaming fire.
Buck watched with wet eyes that slow-consuming fire burn to ashes the body of his wife of many years, the mother of his group of poor, frightened children. Not a stoical savage, but a despairing husband, stood before us. I felt him to be human. The body at last sank into a bed of flames which shot up higher than ever with fountains of sparks, and sucked together, hiding the remains forever from view. At this Buck sprang to the front and threw himself at the fire; but the two old women seized each a hand and dragged him back to his children, when he fell into a fit of stupor.
As we walked home Jerry was quick to ask, “Didn’t I tell you Injuns has feelings inside of ‘em?” I answered promptly that I was convinced; and long after, as I lay awake through many night-hours listening to that shrill death-wail, I felt as if any policy toward the Indians based upon the assumption of their being brutes or devils was nothing short of a blot on this Christian century.
My sleep was light, and sunrise found me dressed, still listening, as under a kind of spell, to the mourners, who, though evidently exhausted, at brief intervals uttered the cry. Alone, and filled with serious reflections, I strolled over to the rancheria, finding every one there up and about his morning duties.
The tar-heads, withdrawn some distance into the forest, sat leaning against a stump, chatting and grinning together, now and then screeching by turns.
I asked Revenue Stamp, a good-natured, middle-aged Indian, where Buck was. He pointed to his hut, and replied, with an affable smile, “He whiskey drunk.” “And who,” I inquired, “is that fat girl with him?” “Last night he take her; new squaw,” was the answer. I could hardly believe, but it was the actual truth; and I went back to camp an enlightened but disillusioned man. I left that day, and never had an opportunity to “free my mind” to Jerry. Since then I guardedly avoid all discussion of the “Indian question.” When interrogated, I dodge, or protest ignorance; when pressed, I have been known to turn the subject; or, if driven to the wall, I usually confess my opinion that the Quakers will have to work a great reformation in the Indian before he is really fit to be exterminated.
The mill-people and Indians told us of a wonderful group of big trees (Sequoia gigantea), and about one particular tree of unequalled size. We found them easily, after a ride of a few miles in a northerly direction from our camp, upon a wide, flat-topped spur, where they grew, as is their habit elsewhere, in company with several other coniferous species, all grouped socially together, heightening each other’s beauty by contrasts of form and color.
In a rather open glade, where the ground was for the most part green with herbage, and conspicuously starred with upland flowers, stood the largest shaft we observed. A fire had formerly burned off a small segment of its base, not enough, however, to injure the symmetrical appearance. It was a slowly tapering, regularly round column of about forty feet in diameter at the base, and rising two hundred and seventy-four feet, adorned with a few huge branches, which start horizontally from the trunk, but quickly turn down and spray out. The bark, thick but not rough, is scored up and down at considerable intervals with deep, smooth grooves, and is of brightest cinnamon color, mottled in purple and yellow.
That which impresses one most after its vast bulk the grand, pillar-like stateliness, is the thin and inconspicuous foliage, which feathers out delicately on the boughs like a mere mist of pale apple-green. It would seem nothing when compared with the immense volume of tree for which it must do the ordinary respirative duty; but doubtless the bark performs a large share of this, its papery lamination and porous structure fitting it eminently for that purpose.
Near this “King of the Mountains” grew three other trees; one a sugar-pine (Pinus Lambertiana) of about eight feet in diameter, and hardly less than three hundred feet high (although we did not measure it, estimating simply by comparison of its rise above the Sequoia, whose height was quite accurately determined). For a hundred and fifty feet the pine was branchless, and as round as if turned, delicate bluish-purple in hue, and marked with a net-work of scorings. The branches, in nearly level poise, grew long and slenderly out from the shaft, well covered with dark yellow-green needles. The two remaining trees were firs (Picea grandis), which sprang from a common root, dividing slightly, as they rose, a mass of feathery branches, whose load of polished blue-green foliage, for the most part, hid the dark wood-brown trunk. Grace, exquisite, spire-like, taper boughs, whose plumes of green float lightly upon the air, elasticity and symmetry are its characteristics.
In all directions this family continue grouping themselves, always with attractive originality. There is something memorable in the harmonious yet positive colors of this sort of forest. First, the foliage and trunk of each separate tree contrasts finely,—cinnamon and golden apple-green in the Sequoia, dark purple and yellowish-green for the pine, deep wood-color and bluish-green of fir.
The sky, which at this elevation of six thousand feet is deep, pure blue and often cloudless, is seen through the tracery of boughs and tree-tops, which cast downward fine and filmy shadows across the glowing trunks. Altogether, it is a wonderful setting for the Sequoia.
A mountain, a fossil from deepest geological horizon, a ruin of human art, carry us back into the perspective of centuries with a force that has become, perhaps, a little conventional. No imperishableness of moutain-peak or of fragment of human work, broken pillar or sand-worn image half lifted over pathetic desert,—none of these link the past and to-day with anything like the power of these monuments of living antiquity, trees that began to grow before the Christian era, and, full of hale vitality and green old age, still bid fair to grow broad and high for centuries to come. Who shall predict the limits of this unexampled life? There is nothing which indicates suffering or degeneracy in the Sequoia as a species. I find pathological hints that several other far younger species in the same forest are gradually giving up their struggle for existence. That singular species Pinus Sabiniana appears to me to suffer death-pains from foot-hill extremes of temperature and dryness, and notably from ravenous parasites of the mistletoe type. At the other extreme the Pinus flexilis has about half given up the fight against cold and storms. Its young are dwarfed or huddled in thickets, with such mode of growth that they may never make trees of full stature; while higher up, standing among bare rocks and fields of ice, far above all living trees, are the stark, white skeletons of noble dead specimens, their blanched forms rigid and defiant, preserved from decay by a marvellous hardness of fibre, and only wasted by the cutting of storm-driven crystals of snow. Still the Sequoia maintains perfect health.
It is, then, the vast respiring power, the atmosphere, the bland, regular climate, which give such long life, and not any richness or abundance of food received from the soil.
If one loves to gather the material for travellers’ stories, he may find here and there a hollow fallen trunk through whose heart he may ride for many feet without bowing the head. But if he love the tree for its own grand nature, he may lie in silence upon the soft forest floor, in shadow or sunny warmth, if he please, and spend many days in wonder, gazing upon majestic shafts, following their gold and purple flutings from broad, firmly planted base up and on through the few huge branches and among the pale clouds of filmy green traced in open network upon the deep blue of the sky.
Groups of this ancient race grow along the middle heights of the Sierra for almost two hundred miles, marking a line of groves through the forest of lesser trees, still retaining their power of reproduction, ripening cones with regularity, whose seed germinates, springs up, and grows with apparently as great vital power as the descendants of younger conifers. Nor are these their only remarkable characteristics. They possess hardly any roots at all. Several in each grove have been blown down, and lie slowly decomposing. They are found usually to have rested upon the ground with a few short, pedestal-like feet penetrating the earth for a little way.
Too soon for my pleasure, the time came when we must turn our backs upon these stately groves and push up toward the snow. Our route lay eastward, between the King’s and Kaweah rivers, rising as we marched; the vegetation, as well as the barometer, accurately measuring the change.
We reached our camp on the Big Meadow plateau on the 22nd of June, and that night the thermometer fell to 20° above zero. This cold was followed by a chilly, overcast morning, and about ten o’clock an old-fashioned snowstorm set in. Wind howled fiercely through the trees, coming down from the mountains in terribly powerful gusts. The green, flower-colored meadow was soon buried under snow; and we explorers, who had no tent, hid ourselves under piles of brush, and on the lee side of hospitable stones. Our scant supply of blankets was a poor defence against such inclemency; so we crawled out and made a huge camp-fire, around which we sat for the rest of the day. During the afternoon we were visited. A couple of hunters, with their rifles over their shoulders, seeing the smoke of our camp-fire, followed it through the woods and joined our circle. They were typical mountaineers,—outcasts from society, discontented with the world, comforting themselves in the solitude of nature by the occasional excitement of a bear-fight. One was a half-breed Cherokee, rather over six feet high, powerfully built, and picturesquely dressed in buckskin breeches and green jacket; a sort of Trovatore hat completed his costume, and gave him an animated appearance. The other was unmistakably a Pike-Countian, who had dangled into a pair of butternut jeans. His greasy flannel shirt was pinned together with thorns in lieu of buttons, and his hat fastened back in the same way, having lost its stiffness by continual wetting. The Cherokee had a long, manly stride, and the Pike a rickety sort of shuffle. His anatomy was bad, his physical condition worse, and I think he added to that a sort of pride in his own awkwardness. Seeming to have a principle of suspension somewhere about his shoulders, which maintained his head at about the right elevation above the ground, he kept up a good rate in walking without apparently making an effort. His body swayed with a peculiar, corkscrew motion, and his long Mississippi rifle waved to and fro through the air.
We all noticed the utter contrast between them as these two men approached our fire. The hunter’s taciturnity is a well-known rôle, but they had evidently lived so long an isolated life that they were too glad of any company to play it unfailingly; so it was they who opened the conversation. We found that they were now camped only a half-mile from us, were hunting for deer-skins, and had already accumulated a very large number. They offered us plenty of venison, and were greatly interested in our proposed journeys into the high mountains. From them we learned that they had themselves penetrated farther than any others, and had only given up the exploration after wandering fruitlessly among the cañons for a month. They told us that not even Indians had crossed the Sierras to the east, and that if we did succeed in reaching this summit we would certainly be the first. We learned from them, also, that a mile to the northward was a great herd of cattle in charge of a party of Mexicans. Fleeing before the continued drought of the plains, all the cattle-men of California drove the remains of their starved herds either to the coast or to the High Sierras, and grazed upon the summer pastures, descending in the autumn, and living upon the dry foot-hill grasses, until, under the influence of winter rains, the plains again clothe themselves with pasturage.
The following morning, having received a present of two deer from the hunters, we packed our animals and started eastward, passing, after a few minutes’ ride, the encampment of the Spaniards. About four thousand cattle roamed over the plateau, and were only looked after once or twice a week. The four Spaniards divided their time between drinking coffee and playing cards. They were engaged in the latter amusement when we passed them; and although we halted and tried to get some information, they only answered us in monosyllables, and continued their game.
To the eastward the plateau rose toward the high mountains in immense, granite steps. We rode pleasantly through the forest over these level tables, and climbed with difficulty the rugged, rock-strewn fronts, each successive step bringing us nearer the mountains, and giving us a far-reaching view. Here and there the granite rose through the forest in broad, smooth domes; and many times we were obliged to climb these rocky slopes at the peril of our animals’ lives. After several days of marching and countermarching, we gave up the attempt to push farther in a southeast direction, and turned north, toward the great cañon of King’s River, which we hoped might lead us up to the Snow Group.
Reaching the brink of this gorge, we observed, about half-way down the slope, and standing at equal levels on both flanks, singular embankments—shelves a thousand feet in width—built at a height of fifteen hundred feet above the valley bottom, their smooth, evenly graded summits rising higher and higher to the eastward on the cañon-wall until they joined the snow. They were evidently the lateral moraines of a vast, extinct glacier, and that opposite us seemed to offer an easy ride into the heart of the mountains. With great difficulty we descended the long slope, through chaparral and forest, reaching, at length, the level, smooth glacier bottom. Here, threading its way through alternate groves and meadows, was the King’s River—a stream not over thirty feet in width, but rushing with all the force of a torrent. Its icy temperature was very refreshing after our weary climb down the wall. By a series of long zigzags we succeeded in leading our animals up the flank to the top of the north moraine, and here we found ourselves upon a forest-covered causeway, almost as smooth as a railroad embankment. Its fluted crest enclosed three separate pathways, each a hundred feet wide, divided from one another by roughly laid trains of rocks, showing it evidently to be a compound moraine. As we ascended toward the mountains, the causeway was more and more isolated from the cliff, until the depression between them widened to half a mile, and to at least five hundred feet deep.
Throughout nearly a whole day we rode comfortably along at a gentle grade, reaching at evening the region of the snow, where, among innumerable huge granite blocks, we threaded our way in search of a camp-ground. The mountain amphitheatre which gave rise to the King’s River opened to the east, a broad valley, into which we at length climbed; and, among scattered groves of alpine pines, and on patches of meadow, rode eastward till twilight, watching the high pyramidal peak which lay directly at the head of the gorge. By sunset we had gone as far as we could take the animals, and, in full view of our goal, camped for the night.
The form of the mountain at the head of our ravine was purely Gothic. A thousand upspringing spires and pinnacles pierce the sky in every direction, the cliffs and mountain-ridges are everywhere ornamented with countless needle-like turrets. Crowning the wall to the south of our camp were series of these jagged forms standing out against the sky like a procession of colossal statues. Whichever way we turned we were met by some extraordinary fulness of detail. Every mass seemed to have the highest possible ornamental finish. Along the lower flanks of the walls, tall, straight pines, the last of the forest, were relieved against the cliffs, and the same slender forms, although carved in granite, surmounted every ridge and peak.
Through this wide zone of forest we had now passed, and from its perpetual shadow had come out among the few black groves of fir into a brilliant alpine sunshine. The light, although surprisingly lively, was of a purity and refinement quite different from the strong glare of the plains.
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