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Delightful oaks cast protecting shadows over our camp on the 1st of June, 1866. Just beyond a little cook-fire where Hoover was preparing his mind and pan for an omelet stood Mrs. Fremont’s Mariposa cottage, with doors and windows wide open, still keeping up its air of hospitable invitation, though now deserted and fallen into decay. A little farther on, through an opening, a few clustered roofs and chimneys of the Bear Valley village showed their distant red-brown tint among heavy masses of green. Eastward swelled up a great ridge, upon whose grassy slopes were rough, serpentine outcrops,—groups of pines, and oak-groves with pale green foliage and clean white bark. Under the roots of this famous Mount Bullion have been mined those gold veins whose treasure enriched so few, whose promise allured so many.
As I altogether distrust my ability to speak of this region without sooner or later alluding to a certain discovery of some scientific value which I once made here, I deem it wise frankly to tell the story and discharge my mind of it at once, and if possible forever.
In the winter of 1863 I came to Bear Valley as the sole occupant of a stage-coach. The Sierras were quite cloud-hidden, and desolation such as drought has never before or since been able to make reigned in dreary monotony over all the plains from Stockton to Hornitas.
Ordinarily solitude is with me only a happy synonym for content; but throughout that ride I was preyed upon by self-reproach, and in an aggravated manner. The paleontologist of our survey [Editor’s note: William M. Gabb], my senior in rank and experience, had just said of me, rather in sorrow than in unkindness, yet with unwonted severity, “I believe that fellow had rather sit on a peak all day, and stare at those snow-mountains, than find a fossil in the metamorphic Sierra”; and, in spite of me, all that weary ride his judgment rang in my ear.
Can it be? I asked myself; has a student of geology so far forgotten his devotion to science? Am I really fallen to the level of a mere nature-lover? Later, when evening approached, and our wheels began to rumble over upturned edges of Sierra slate, every jolt seemed aimed at me, every thin, sharp outcrop appeared risen up to preach a sermon on my friend’s text.
I re-dedicated myself to geology, and was framing a resolution to delve for that greatly important but missing link of evidence, the fossil which should clear up an old unsolved riddle of upheaval age, when over to eastward a fervid, crimson light smote the vapor-bank and cleared a bright pathway through to the peaks, and on to a pale sea-green sky. Through this gateway of rolling gold and red cloud the summits seemed infinitely high and far, their stone and snow hung in the sky with lucent delicacy of hue, brilliant as gems yet soft as air,—a mosaic of amethyst and opal transfigured with passionate light, as gloriously above words as beyond art. Obsolete shell-fishes in the metamorphic were promptly forgotten, and during those lingering moments, while peak after peak flushed and faded back into recesses of the heavens, I forgot what paleontological unworthiness was loading me down, becoming finally quite jolly of heart. But for many days thereafter I did search and hope, leaving no stone unturned, and usually going so far as to break them open. Indeed, my third hammer and I were losing temper together, when one noon I was tired and sat down to rest and lunch in the bottom of Hell’s Hollow, a cañon whose profound uninterestingness is quite beyond portrayal. Shut in by great, monotonous slopes and innumerable spurs, each the exact fac-simile of the other; with no distance, no faintest suggestion of a snow-peak, only a lofty chaparral ridge sweeping around, cutting off all eastern lookout; with a few disordered bowlders tumbled pell-mell into the bed of a feeble brooklet of bitter water, —it seemed to me the place of places for a fossil. Here was nadir, the snow-capped zenith of my heart banished even from sight. A swallow of tepid alkaline water, with which I crowned the frugal and appropriate lunch, burned my throat, and completed the misery of the occasion.
Jagged outcrops of slate cut through vulgar gold-dirt at my feet. Picking up my hammer to turn homeward, I noticed in the rock an object about the size and shape of a small cigar. It was the fossil, the object for which science had searched and yearned and despaired! There he reclined comfortably upon his side, half-bedded in luxuriously fine-grained argillaceous material,—a plump, pampered belemnites (if it is belemnites), whom the terrible ordeal of metamorphism had spared. I knelt and observed the radiating structure as well as the characteristic central cavity, and assured myself it was beyond doubt he. The age of the gold-belt was discovered! I was at pains to chip my victim out whole, and when he chose to break in two was easily consoled, reflecting that he would do as well gummed together.
I knew this mollusk perfectly by sight, could remember how he looked on half a dozen plates of fossils, but I failed exactly to recollect his name. It troubled me that I could come so near uttering without ever precisely hitting upon it. In ten or fifteen minutes I judged it full time for my joy to begin.
Down the perspective of years I could see before me spectacled wise men of some scientific society, and one who pronounced my obituary, ending thus: “In summing up the character and labors of this fallen follower of science, let it never be forgotten that he discovered the belemnites;” and perhaps, I mused, they will put over me a slab of fossil raindrops, those eternally embalmed tears of nature.
But all this came and went without the longed-for elation. There was no doubt I was not so happy as I thought I should be.
Once in after years I met an aged German paleontologist, fresh from his fatherland, where through threescore years and ten his soul had fattened on Solenhofen limestone and effete shells from many and wid-spread strata.
We were introduced.
“Ach!” he said, with a kindle of enthusiasm, “I have pleasure you to meet, when it is you which the cephalopoda discovered has.”
Then turning to one who enacted the part of Ganymede, he remarked, “Zwei lager.”
Now, with freed mind, I should say something of the foot-hills about our camp as they looked in June. Once before, the reader may remember, I pictured their autumn garb.
It has become a fixed habit with me to climb Mount Bullion whenever I get a chance. My winter Sundays were many times spent there in a peace and repose which Bear Valley village did not afford; for that hamlet gave itself up, after the Saturday night’s sleep, to a day of hellish jocularity. The town passed through a period of horse-racing, noisy, quarrelsome drinking, and disorderly service of Satan; then an hour in which the Spaniard loved and “treated” the “Americano.” Later the Americano kicked the “dammned Greaser” out of town. Manly forms slept serenely under steps, and the few “gentlemen of the old school” steadied themselves against the bar-room door-posts, and in ingenious language told of the good old pandemonium of 1849.
Thus Mount Bullion came to mean for me a Sabbath retreat over which heaven arched pure and blue, silent hours (marked by the slow sun) passing sacredly by in presence of nature and of God.
So now in June I climbed on a Sunday morning to my old retreat, found the same stone seat, with leaning oak-tree back, and wide, low canopy of boughs. A little down to the left, welling among tufts of grass and waving tulips, is the spring which Mrs. Fremont found for her camp-ground. North and south for miles extends our ridge in gently rising or falling outline, its top broadly round, and for the most part an open oak-grove with grass carpet and mountain flowers in wayward loveliness of growth. West, you overlook a wide panorama. Oak and pine mottled foot-hills, with rusty groundwork and cloudings of green, wander down in rolling lines to the ripe plain; beyond are plains, then coast ranges, rising in peaks, or curved down in passes, through which gray banks of fog drift in and vanish before the hot air of the plains. East, the Sierra slope is rent and gashed in a wilderness of cañons, yawning deep and savage. Miles of chaparral tangle in dense growth over walls and spurs, covering with kindly olive-green the staring red of riven mountain-side and gashed earth. Beyond this swells up the more refined plateau and hill country made of granite and trimmed with pine, bold domes rising above the green cover; and there the sharp, terrible front of El Capitan, guarding Yosemite and looking down into its purple gulf. Beyond, again, are the peaks, and among them one looms sharpest. It is that Obelisk from which the great storm drove Cotter and me in 1864. We were now bound to push there as soon as grass should grow among the upper cañons.
The air around my Sunday mountain in June is dry, bland, and fragrant; a full sunlight ripens it to a perfect temperature, giving you at once stimulus and rest. You sleep in it without fear of dew, and no excess of hot or cold breaks up the even flow of balmy delight. You see the wild tulips open, and watch wind-ripples course over slopes of thick-standing grass-blades. Birds, so rare on plains or pine-hills, here sing you their fullest, and enjoy with you the soft, white light, or come to see you in your chosen shadow and bathe in your spring.
Mountain oaks, less wonderful than great, straight pines, but altogether domestic in their generous way of reaching out low, long boughs, roofing in spots of shade, are the only trees on the Pacific slope which seem to me at all allied to men; and these quiet foot-hill summits, these islands of modest, lovely verdure floating in an ocean of sunlight, lifted enough above San Joaquin plains to reach pure, high air and thrill your blood and brain with mountain oxygen, are yet far enough below the rugged wildness of pine and ice and rock to leave you in peace, and not forever challenge you to combat. They are almost the only places in the Sierras impressing me as rightly fitted for human company. I cannot find in wholesale vineyards and ranches dotted along the Sierra foot anything which savors of the eternal indigenous perfume of home. They are scenes of speculation and thrift, of immense enterprise and comfort, with no end of fences and square miles of grain, with here and there astounding specimens of modern upholstery, to say nothing of pianos with elaborate legs and always discordant keys; but they never comfort the soul with that air of sacred household reserve, of simple human poetry, which elsewhere greets you under plainer roofs, and broods over your days and nights familiarly.
Here on these still summits the oaks lock their arms and gather in groves around open slopes of natural park, and you are at home. A cottage or a castle would seem in keeping, nor would the savage gorges and snow-capped Sierras overcome the sober kindliness of these affectionate trees. It is almost as hard now, as I write, to turn my back on Mount Bullion and descend to camp again, as it was that afternoon in 1866.
Evening and supper were at hand, Hoover having achieved a repast of rabbit-pie, with salad from the Italian garden near at hand. It added no little to my peace that two obese squaws from the neighboring rancheria had come and squatted in silence on either side of our camp-fire, adding their statuesque sobriety and fire-flushed bronze to the dusky, druidical scene.
To be welcomed at White and Hatch’s next evening was reward for our dusty ride, and over the next day’s familiar trail we hurried to Clark’s, there again finding friends who took us by the hand. Another day’s end found us within the Yosemite, and there for a week we walked and rode, studied and looked, revisiting all our old points, lingering hours here and half-days there, to complete within our minds the conception of this place. My chief has written so fully in his charming Yosemite book of all main facts and details that I would not, if I could, rehearse them here.
What sentiment, what idea, does this wonder-valley leave upon the earnest observer? What impression does it leave upon his heart?
From some up-surging crag upon its brink you look out over wide expanse of granite swells, upon whose solid surface the firs climb and cluster, and afar on the sky line only darken together in one deep green cover. Upward heave the eastern ridges; above them looms a white rank of peaks. Into this plateau is rent a chasm; the fresh-splintered granite falls down, down, thousands of feet in sheer, blank faces or giant crags broken in cleft and stair, gorge and bluff, down till they sink under that winding ribbon of park with its flash of river among sunlit grass, its darkness, where, within shadows of jutting wall, cloud-like gather the pine companies, or, in summer opening, stand oak and cottonwood, casting together their lengthening shadow over meadow and pool. The falls, like torrents of snow, pour in white lines over purple precipice, or, as the wind wills, float and drift in vanishing film of airy lacework.
Two leading ideas are wrought here with a force hardly to be seen elsewhere. First, the titanic power, the awful stress, which has rent this solid table-land of granite in twain; secondly, the magical faculty displayed by vegetation in redeeming the aspect of wreck and masking a vast geological tragedy behind draperies of fresh and living green. I can never cease marvelling how all this terrible crush and sundering is made fair, even lovely, by meadow, by wandering groves, and by those climbing files of pine which thread every gorge and camp in armies over every brink; nor can I ever banish from memory another gorge and fall, that of the Shoshone in Idaho, a sketch of which may help the reader to see more vividly those peculiarities of color and sentiment that make Yosemite so unique.
The Snake or Lewis’s Fork of the Columbia River drains an oval basin, the extent of whose longer axis measures about four hundred miles westward from the base of the Rocky Mountains across Idaho and into the middle of Oregon, and whose breadth, in the direction of the meridian, averages about seventy miles. Irregular chains of mountains bound it in every direction, piling up in a few places to an elevation of nine thousand feet. The surface of this basin is unbroken by any considerable peak. Here and there, knobs, belonging to the earlier geological formations, rise above its level; and, in a few instances, dome-like mounds of volcanic rock are lifted from the expanse. It has an inclination from east to west, and a quite perceptible sag along the middle line.
In general outline the geology of the region is simple. Its bounding ranges were chiefly blocked out at the period of Jurassic upheaval, when the Sierra Nevada and Wahsatch Mountains were folded. Masses of upheaved granite, with overlying slates and limestones, form the main materials of the cordon of surrounding hills. During the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods the entire basin, from the Rocky Mountains to the Blue Mountains of Oregon, was a fresh-water lake, on whose bottom was deposited a curious succession of sand and clay beds, including, near the surface, a layer of white, infusorial silica. At the exposures of these rocks in the cañon-walls of the present drainage system are found ample evidences of the kind of life which flourished in the lake itself and lived upon its borders. Savage fishes, of the garpike type, and vast numbers of cyprinoids, together with mollusks, are among the prominent water-fossils. Enough relics of the land vegetation remain to indicate a flora of a sub-tropical climate; and among the land-fossils are numerous bones of elephant, camel, horse, elk, and deer.
The savant to whose tender mercies these disjecta membra have been committed, finds in the molluscan life the most recent types yet discovered in the American Tertiaries,—forms closely allied to existing Asiatic species. How and wherefore this lake dried up, and gave place to the present barren wilderness of sand and sage, is one of those profound conundrums of nature yet unguessed by geologists. From being a wide and beautiful expanse of water, edged by winding mountain-shores, with forest-clad slopes containing a fauna whose remains are now charming those light-minded fellows, the paleontologists, the scene has entirely changed, and a monotonous, blank desert spreads itself as far as the eye can reach. Only here and there, near the snowy mountain-tops, a bit of cool green contrasts refreshingly with the sterile uniformity of the plain. During the period of desiccation, perhaps in a measure accounting for it, a general flood of lava poured down from the mountains and deluged nearly the whole Snake Basin. The chief sources of this lava lay at the eastern edge, where subsequent erosion has failed to level several commanding groups of volcanic peaks. The three buttes and three tetons mark centres of flow. Remarkable features of the volcanic period were the sheets of basaltic lava which closed the eruptive era, and in thin, continuous layers overspread the plain for three hundred miles. The earlier flows extended farthest to the west. The ragged, broken terminations of the later sheets recede successively eastward, in a broad, gradual stairway; so that the present topography of the basin is a gently inclined field of basaltic lava, sinking to the west, and finally, by a series of terraced steps, descending to the level of lacustrine sand-rocks which mark the bottom of the ancient lake, and cover the plain westward into Oregon.
The head-waters of the Snake River, gathering snow-drainage from a considerable portion of the Rocky Mountains, find their way through a series of upland valleys to the eastern margin of the Snake plain, and there gathering in one main stream flow westward, occupying a gradually deepening cañon; a narrow, dark gorge, water-worn through the thin sheets of basalt, cutting down as it proceeds to the westward, until, in longitude 114° 20’, it has worn seven hundred feet into the lava. Several tributaries flowing through similar though less profound cañons join the Snake both north and south. From the days of Lewis, for whom this Snake or Shoshone River was originally named, up to the present day, rumors have been current of cataracts in the Snake cañon. It is curious to observe that all the earlier accounts estimate their height as six hundred feet, which is exactly the figure given by the first Jesuit observers of Niagara. That erratic amateur Indian, Catlin, actually visited these falls; and his account of them, while it entirely fails to give an adequate idea of their formation and grandeur, is nevertheless, in the main, truthful. Since the mining development of Idaho, several parties have visited and examined the Shoshone.
In October, 1868, with a small detachment of the United States Geological Survey of the 40th Parallel, the writer crossed Goose Creek Mountains, in northern Utah, and descended by the old Fort Boise road to the level of the Snake plain. A gray, opaque haze hung close to the ground, and shut out all distance. The monotony of sage-desert was overpowering. We would have given anything for a good outlook; but for three days the mist continued, and we were forced to amuse ourselves by chasing occasional antelopes.
The evening we camped on Rock Creek was signalized by a fierce wind from the northeast. It was a dry storm, which continued with tremendous fury through the night, dying away at daybreak, leaving the heavens brilliantly clear. We were breakfasting when the sun rose, and shortly afterward, mounting into the saddle, headed toward the cañon of the Shoshone. The air was cold and clear. The remotest mountain-peaks upon the horizon could be distinctly seen, and the forlorn details of their brown slopes stared at us as through a vacuum. A few miles in front the smooth surface of the plain was broken by a ragged, zigzag line of black, which marked the edge of the farther wall of the Snake cañon. A dull, throbbing sound greeted us. Its pulsations were deep, and seemed to proceed from the ground beneath our feet.
Leaving the cavalry to bring up the wagon, my two friends and I galloped on, and were quickly upon the edge of the cañon-wall. We looked down into a broad, circular excavation, three quarters of a mile in diameter, and nearly seven hundred feet deep. East and north, over the edges of the cañon, we looked across miles and miles of the Snake plain, far on to the blue boundary mountains. The wall of the gorge opposite us, like the cliff at our feet, sank in perpendicular bluffs nearly to the level of the river, the broad excavation being covered by rough piles of black lava and rounded domes of trachyte rock. We saw an horizon as level as the sea; a circling wall, whose sharp edges were here and there battlemented in huge, fortress-like masses; a broad river, smooth and unruffled, flowing quietly into the middle of the scene, and then plunging into a labyrinth of rocks, tumbling over a precipice two hundred feet high, and moving westward in a still, deep current, to disappear behind a black promontory. It was a strange, savage scene: a monotony of pale blue sky, olive and gray stretches of desert, frowning walls of jetty lava, deep beryl-green of river-stretches, reflecting, here and there, the intense solemnity of the cliffs, and in the centre a dazzling sheet of foam. In the early morning light the shadows of the cliffs were cast over half the basin, defining themselves in sharp outline here and there on the river. Upon the foam of the cataract one point of the rock cast a cobalt-blue shadow. Where the river flowed round the western promontory, it was wholly in shadow, and of a deep sea-green. A scanty growth of coniferous trees fringed the brink of the lower cliffs, overhanging the river. Dead barrenness is the whole sentiment of the scene. The mere suggestion of trees clinging here and there along the walls serves rather to heighten than to relieve the forbidding gloom of the place. Nor does the flashing whiteness, where the river tears itself among the rocky islands, or rolls in spray down the cliff, brighten the aspect. In contrast with its brilliancy, the rocks seem darker and more wild.
The descent of four hundred feet from our standpoint to the level of the river above the falls has to be made by a narrow, winding path, among rough ledges of lava. We were obliged to leave our wagon at the summit, and pack down the camp equipment and photographic apparatus upon carefully led mules. By midday we were comfortably camped on the margin of the left bank, just above the brink of the falls. My tent was pitched upon the edge of a cliff, directly overhanging the rapids. From my door I looked over the cataract, and, whenever the veil of mist was blown aside, could see for a mile down the river. The lower half of the cañon is excavated in a gray, porphyritic trachyte. It is over this material that the Snake falls. Above the brink the whole breadth of the river is broken by a dozen small trachyte islands, which the water has carved into fantastic forms, rounding some into low domes, sharpening others into mere pillars, and now and then wearing out deep caves. At the very brink of the fall a few twisted evergreens cling with their roots to the rock, and lean over the abyss of foam with something of that air of fatal fascination which is apt to take possession of men.
In plan the fall recurves up stream in a deep horseshoe, resembling the outline of Niagara. The total breadth is about seven hundred feet, and the greatest height of the single fall about one hundred and ninety. Among the islands above the brink are several beautiful cascades, where portions of the river pour over in lace-like forms. The whole mass of cataract is one ever-varying sheet of spray. In the early spring, when swollen by the rapidly melted snows, the river pours over with something like the grand volume of Niagara, but at the time of my visit it was wholly white foam. Here and there along the brink the underlying rock shows through, and among the islands shallow, green pools disclose the form of the underlying trachyte. Numberless rough shelves break the fall, but the volume is so great that they are only discovered by the glancing outward of the foam.
The river below the falls is very deep. The right bank sinks into the water in a clear, sharp precipice, but on the left side a narrow, pebbly beach extends along the foot of the cliff. From the top of the wall, at a point a quarter of a mile below the falls, a stream has gradually worn a little stairway: thick growths of evergreens have huddled together in this ravine.
By careful climbing we descended to the level of the river. The trachytes are very curiously worn in vertical forms. Here and there an obelisk, either wholly or half detached from the cañon-wall, juts out like a buttress. Farther down, these projecting masses stand like a row of columns upon the left bank. Above them, a solid capping of black lava reaches out to the edge, and overhangs the river in abrupt, black precipices. Wherever large fields of basalt have overflowed an earlier rock, and erosion has afterward laid it bare, there is found a strong tendency to fracture in vertical lines. The immense expansion of the upper surface from heat seems to cause deep fissures in the mass.
Under the influence of the cool shadow of cliffs and pine, and constant percolating of surface-waters, a rare fertility is developed in the ravines opening upon the cañon shore. A luxuriance of ferns and mosses, an almost tropical wealth of green leaves and velvety carpeting, line the banks. There are no rocks at the base of the fall. The sheet of foam plunges almost vertically into a dark, beryl-green, lake-like expanse of the river. Immense volumes of foam roll up from the cataract-base, and, whirling about in the eddying winds, rise often a thousand feet in the air. When the wind blows down the cañon a gray mist obscures the river for half a mile; and when, as is usually the case in the afternoon, the breezes blow eastward, the foam-cloud curls over the brink of the fall, and hangs like a veil over the upper river. On what conditions depends the height to which the foam-cloud rises from the base of the fall it is apparently impossible to determine. Without the slightest wind, the cloud of spray often rises several hundred feet above the cañon-wall, and again, with apparently the same conditions of river and atmosphere, it hardly reaches the brink. Incessant roar, reinforced by a thousand echoes, fills the cañon. Out of this monotone, from time to time, rise strange, wild sounds, and now and then may be heard a slow, measured beat, not unlike the recurring fall of breakers. From the white front of the cataract the eye constantly wanders up to the black, frowning parapet of lava. Angular bastions rise sharply from the general level of the wall, and here and there isolated blocks, profiling upon their sky line, strikingly recall barbette batteries. To goad one’s imagination up to the point of perpetually seeing resemblances of everything else in the forms of rocks is the most vulgar vice of travellers. To refuse to see the architectural suggestions upon the Snake cañon, however, is to administer a flat snub to one’s fancy. The whole edge of the cañon is deeply cleft in vertical crevasses. The actual brink is usually formed of irregular blocks and prisms of lava, poised upon their ends in an unstable equilibrium, ready to be tumbled over at the first leverage of the frost. Hardly an hour passes without the sudden boom of one of those rock-masses falling upon the ragged débris piles below.
Night is the true time to appreciate the full force of the scene. I lay and watched it many hours. The broken rim of the basin profiled itself upon a mass of drifting clouds where torn openings revealed gleams of pale moonlight and bits of remote sky trembling with misty stars. Intervals of light and blank darkness hurriedly followed each other. For a moment the black gorge would be crowded with forms. Tall cliffs, ramparts of lava, the rugged outlines of islands huddled together on the cataract’s brink, faintly luminous foam breaking over black rapids, the swift, white leap of the river, and a ghostly, formless mist through which the cañon-walls and far reach of the lower river were veiled and unveiled again and again. A moment of this strange picture, and then a rush of black shadow, when nothing could be seen but the breaks in the clouds, the basin-rim, and a vague, white centre in the general darkness.
After sleeping on the nightmarish brink of the falls, it was no small satisfaction to climb out of this Dantean gulf and find myself once more upon a pleasantly prosaic foreground of sage. Nothing more effectually banishes a melotragic state of the mind than the obtrusive ugliness and abominable smell of this plant. From my feet a hundred miles of it stretched eastward. A half-hour’s walk took me out of sight of the cañon, and as the wind blew westward, only occasional indistinct pulsations of the fall could be heard. The sky was bright and cloudless, and arched in cheerful vacancy over the meaningless disk of the desert.
I walked for an hour, following an old Indian trail which occasionally approached within seeing distance of the river, and then, apparently quite satisfied, diverged again into the desert. When about four miles from the Shoshone, it bent abruptly to the north, and led to the cañon edge. Here again the narrow gorge widened into a broad theatre, surrounded, as before, by black, vertical walls, and crowded over its whole surface by rude piles and ridges of volcanic rock. The river entered it from the east through a magnificent gateway of basalt, and, having reached the middle, flowed on either side of a low, rocky island, and plunged in two falls into a deep green basin. A very singular ridge of the basalt projected like an arm almost across the river, enclosing within its semi-circle a bowl three hundred feet in diameter and two hundred feet deep. Within this the water was of the same peculiar berylgreen, dappled here and there by masses of foam which swam around and around with a spiral tendency toward the centre. To the left of the island half the river plunged off an overhanging lip, and fell about one hundred and fifty feet, the whole volume reaching the surface of the basin many feet from the wall. The other half has worn away the edge, and descends in a tumbling cascade at an angle of about forty-five degrees. The river at this point has not yet worn through the fields of basaltic lava which form the upper four hundred feet of the plain. Between the two falls it cuts through the remaining beds of basalt, and has eroded its channel a hundred feet into underlying porphyritic trachyte. The trachyte erodes far more easily than the basalt, and its resultant forms are quite unlike those of the black lava. The trachyte islands and walls are excavated here and there in deep caves, leaving island masses in the forms of mounds and towers. In general, spherical outlines predominate, while the erosion of the basalt results always in sharp, perpendicular cliffs, with a steeply inclined talus of ragged débris.
The cliffs around the upper cataract are inferior to those of the Shoshone. While the level of the upper plain remains nearly the same, the river constantly deepens the channel in its westward course. In returning from the upper fall, I attempted to climb along the very edge of the cliff, in order to study carefully the habits of the basalt; but I found myself in a labyrinth of side crevasses which were cut into the plain from a hundred to a thousand feet back from the main wall. These recesses were usually in the form of an amphitheatre, with black walls two hundred feet high, and a bottom filled with immense fragments of basalt rudely piled together.
By dint of hard climbing I reached the actual brink in a few places, and saw the same general features each time: the cañon successively widening and narrowing, its walls here and there approaching each other and standing like pillars of a gateway; the river alternately flowing along smooth, placid reaches of level, and rushing swiftly down rocky cascades. Here and there along the cliff are disclosed mouths of black caverns, where the lava seems to have been blown up in the form of a great blister, as if the original flow had poured over some pool of water, and, converted into steam by contact with the hot rock, had been blown up bubble-like by its immense expansion.
I continued my excursions along the cañon west of the Shoshone. About a mile below the fall a very fine promontory juts sharply out and projects nearly to the middle of the cañon. Climbing with difficulty along its toppling crest, I reached a point which I found composed of immense, angular fragments piled up in dangerous poise. Eastward, the battlemented rocks around the falls limited the view; but westward I could see down long reaches of river, where islands of trachyte rose above white cascades. A peculiar and fine effect is noticeable upon the river during all the midday. The shadow of the southern cliff is cast down here and there, completely darkening the river, but often defining itself upon the water. The contrast between the rich, gem-like green of the sunlit portions and the deep violet shadow of the cliff is of extreme beauty. The Snake River, deriving its volume wholly from the melting of the mountain snows, is a direct gauge of the annual advance of the sun. In June and July it is a tremendous torrent, carrying a full half of the Columbia. From the middle of July it constantly shrinks, reaching its minimum in midwinter. At the lowest, it is a river equal to the Sacramento or Connecticut.
After ten days devoted to walking around the neighborhood and studying the falls and rocks, we climbed to our wagon, and rested for a farewell look at the gorge. It was with great relief that we breathed the free air of the plain, and turned from the rocky cañon where darkness, and roar, and perpetual cliffs had bounded our senses, and headed southward, across the noiseless plain. Far ahead rose a lofty, blue barrier, a mountain-wall, marbled upon its summit by flecks of perpetual snow. A deep notch in its profile opened a gateway. Toward this, for leagues ahead of us, a white thread in the gray desert marked the winding our our road. Those sensitively organized creatures, the mules, thrilled with relief at their escape from the cañons, pressed forward with a vigor that utterly silenced the customary poppings of the whip, and expurgated the language of the driver from his usual breaking of the Third Commandment.
The three great falls of America—Niagara, Shoshone, and Yosemite—all, happily, bearing Indian names, are as characteristically different as possible. There seems little left for a cataract to express.
Niagara rolls forward with something like the inexorable sway of a natural law. It is force, power; forever banishing before its irresistible rush all ideas of restraint.
No sheltering pine or mountain distance of uppiled Sierras guards the approach to the Shoshone. You ride upon a waste,—the pale earth stretched in desolation. Suddenly you stand upon a brink, as if the earth had yawned. Black walls flank the abyss. Deep in the bed a great river fights its way through labyrinths of blackened ruins, and plunges in foaming whiteness over a cliff of lava. You turn from the brink as from a frightful glimpse of the Inferno, and when you have gone a mile the earth seems to have closed again; every trace of cañon has vanished, and the stillness of the desert reigns.
As you stand at the base of those cool walls of granite that rise to the clouds from the green floor of Yosemite, a beautiful park, carpeted with verdure, expands from your feet. Vast and stately pines band with their shadows the sunny reaches of the pure Merced. An arch of blue bridges over from cliff to cliff. From the far summit of a wall of pearly granite, over stains of purple and yellow,—leaping, as it were, from the very cloud,—falls a silver scarf, light, lace-like, graceful, luminous, swayed by the wind. The cliffs’ repose is undisturbed by the silvery fall, whose endlessly varying forms of wind-tossed spray lend an element of life to what would otherwise be masses of inanimate stone. The Yosemite is a grace. It is an adornment. It is a ray of light on the solid front of the precipice.
From Yosemite our course was bent toward the Merced Obelisk. An afternoon in early July brought us to camp in the self-same spot where Cotter and I had bivouacked in the storm more than two years before. I remembered the crash and wail of those two dreary nights, the thunderous fulness of tempest beating upon cliffs, and the stealthy, silent snow-burial; and perhaps to the memory of that bitter experience was added the contrasting force of to-day’s beauty.
A warm afternoon sun poured through cloudless skies into one rocky amphitheatre. The little alpine meadow and full, arrowy brook were flanked upon either side by broad, rounded masses of granite, and margined by groups of vigorous upland trees: firs for the most part, but watched over here and there by towering pines and great, aged junipers whose massive red trunks seemed welded to the very stone.
It was altogether exhilarating; even Little Billy, the gray horse, found it so, and devoted more time to practical jokes upon thick-headed mules than to the rich and tempting verdure; nor did the high, cool air banish from his tender heart a glowing Platonic affection for our brown mare Sally.
To the ripened charms of middle age Sally united something more than the memory of youth; she was remarkably plump and well-preserved; her figure firm and elastic, and she did not hesitate to display it with many little arts. In presence of her favored Billy she drew deep sighs, and had quite an irresistible fashion of turning sadly aside and moving away among trees alone, as if she had no one to love her-a wile never failing to bring him to her side and elicit such attention as smoothing her mane or even a pressure of lips upon her brow. And woe to the emotional mule who ventured to cross our little meadow just to feel for a moment the soft comfort of her presence. With the bitterness of a rejected suit he always bore away shoe-prints of jealous Billy.
He led her quietly down to the brook, and never drank a drop until the mare was done; then they paid a call at camp, nosing about among the kettles with familiar freedom, nibbling playfully at dishtowel and coffee-pot, and when we threw sticks at them trotted off as closely as if they had been harnessed together. In quiet, moonlit hours, before I went to bed, I saw them still side by side, her head leaning over his withers; Billy at qui vive staring dramatically with pointed ears into forest depths, a true and watchful guardian.
A little reconnoitring had shown us the most direct way to the Obelisk, whose sharp summit looked from the moraine to west of us as grand and alluring as we had ever thought it.
There was in our hope of scaling this point something more than mere desire to master a difficult peak. It was a station of great topographical value, the apex of many triangles, and, more than all, would command a grander view of the Merced region than any other summit.
July eleventh, about five o’clock in the afternoon, Gardiner and I strapped packs upon our shoulders. My friend’s load consisted of the Temple transit, his blanket, and a great tin cup; mine was made up of field-glass, compass, level, blanket, and provisions for both, besides the barometer, which, as usual, I slung over one shoulder.
For the first time that year we found ourselves slowly zigzagging to and fro, following a grade with that peculiarly deliberate gait to which mountaineering experience very soon confines one. Black firs and thick-clustered pines covered in clumps all the lower slope, but, ascending, we came more and more into open ground, walking on glacial débris among trains of huge bowlders and occasional thickets of slender, delicate young trees. Emerging finally into open granite country, we came full in sight of our goal, whose great western precipice rose sheer and solid above us.
From the south base of the Obelisk a sharp mural ridge curves east, surrounding an amphitheatre whose sloping, rugged sides were picturesquely mottled in snow and stone. From the summit of this ridge we knew we should look over into the upper Merced basin, a great, billowy, granite depression lying between the Merced group and Mount Lyell; the birthplace of all those ice rivers and deep-cañoned torrents which join in the Little Yosemite and form the river Merced. Toward this we pressed, hurrying rapidly, as the sun declined, in hopes of making our point before darkness should obscure the terra incognita beyond.
It put us at our best to hasten over the rough, rudely piled blocks and up cracks among solid bluffs of granite, but with the sun fully half an hour high we reached the Obelisk foot and looked from our ridge-top eastward into the new land.
From our feet granite and ice in steep, roof-like curves fell abruptly down to the Merced Cañon brink, and beyond, over the great gulf, rose terraces and ridges of sculptured stone, dressed with snowfield, one above another, up to the eastern rank of peaks whose sharp, solid forms were still in full light.
From below, it is always a most interesting feature of the mountaineer’s daily life to watch fading sunlight upon the summit-rocks and snow. There is something peculiarly charming in the deep carmine flush and in the pale gradations of violet and cool blue-purple into which it successively fades. We were now in the very midst of this alpine glow. Our rocky amphitheatre, opening directly to the sun, was crowded full of this pure, red light; snowfields warmed to deepest rose, gnarled stems of dead pines were dark vermilion, the rocks yellow, and the vast body of the Obelisk at our left one spire of gold piercing the sapphire zenith. Eastward, far below us, the Illilluette basin lay in a peculiarly mild haze, its deep carpet of forest warmed into faint bronze, and the bare domes and rounded, granite ridges which everywhere rise above the trees were yellow, of a soft, creamy tint. Farther down, every foothill was perceptibly reddened under the level beams. Sunlight reflecting from every object shot up to us, enriching the brightness of our amphitheatre.
We drank and breathed the light, its mellow warmth permeating every fibre. We spread our blankets under the lee of an overhanging rock, sheltered from the keen east wind, and in full view of the broad western horizon.
After a short half-hour of this wonderful light the sun rested for an instant upon the Coast ranges, and sank, leaving our mountains suddenly dead, as if the very breath of life had ebbed away, cold, gray shadows covering their rigid bodies, and pale sheets of snow half shrouding their forms.
For a full hour after the sun went down we did little else than study the western sky, watching with greatest interest a wonderful permanence and singular gradation of lingering light. Over two hundred miles of horizon a low stratum of pure orange covered the sky for seven or eight degrees; above that another narrow band of beryl-green, and then the cool, dark evening blue.
I always notice, whenever one gets a very wide view of remote horizon from some lofty mountaintop, the sky loses its high domed appearance, the gradations reaching but a few degrees upward from the earth, creating the general form of an inverted saucer. The orange and beryl bands occupied only about fifteen degrees in altitude, but swept around nearly from north to south. It was as if a wonderfully transparent and brilliant rainbow had been stretched along the sky line. At eleven the colors were still perceptible, and at midnight, when I rose to observe the thermometer, they were gone, but a low faint zone of light still lingered.
At gray dawn we were up and cooking our rasher of bacon, and soon had shouldered our instruments and started for the top.
The Obelisk is flattened, and expands its base into two sharp, serrated ridges, which form its north and south edges. The broad faces turned to the east and west are solid and utterly inaccessible, the latter being almost vertical, the former quite too steep to climb. We started, therefore, to work our way up the south edge, and, having crossed a little ravine from whose head we could look down eastward upon steep thousand-foot névé, and westward along the forest-covered ridge up which we had clambered, began in good earnest to mount rough blocks of granite.
The edge here is made of immense, broken rocks poised on each other in delicate balance, vast masses threatening to topple over at a touch. This blade has from a distance a considerably smooth and even appearance, but we found it composed of pinnacles often a hundred feet high, separated from the main top by a deep, vertical cleft. More than once, after struggling to the top of one of these pinnacles, we were obliged to climb down the same way in order to avoid the notches. Finally, when we had reached the brink of a vertical cul-de-sac, the edge no longer afforded us even a foothold. There were left but the smooth, impossible western face and the treacherous, cracked front of the eastern precipice. We were driven out upon the latter, and here forced to climb with the very greatest care, one of us always in advance making sure of his foothold, the other passing up instruments by hand, and then cautiously following.
In this way we spent nearly a full hour going from crack to crack, clinging by the least protruding masses of stone, now and then looking over our shoulders at the wreck of granite, the slopes of ice, and frozen lake thousands of feet below, and then upward to gather courage from the bold, red spike which still rose grandly above us.
At last we struggled up to what we had all along believed the summit, and found ourselves only on a minor turret, the great needle still a hundred feet above. From rock to rock and crevice to crevice we made our way up a fractured edge until within fifty feet of the top, and here its sharp angle rose smooth and vertical, the eastern precipice carved in a flat face upon the one side, the western broken by a smoothly curved recess like the corner of a room. No human being could scale the edge. An arctic bluebird fluttered along the eastern slope in vain quest of a foothold, and alighted, panting, at our feet. One step more and we stood together on a little, detached pinnacle, where, by steadying ourselves against the sharp, vertical Obelisk edge, we could rest, although the keen sense of steepness below was not altogether pleasing.
About seven feet across the open head of a cul-de-sac (a mere recess in the west face) was a vertical crack riven into the granite not more than three feet wide, but as much as eight feet deep; in it were wedged a few loose bowlders; below, it opened out into space. At the head of this crack a rough crevice led up to the summit.
Summoning nerve, I knew I could make the leap, but the life and death question was whether the débris would give way under my weight, and leave me struggling in the smooth recess, sure to fall and be dashed to atoms.
Two years we had longed to climb that peak, and now, within a few yards of the summit, no weak-heartedness could stop us. I thought, should the débris give way, by a very quick turn and powerful spring I could regain our rock in safety.
There was no discussion, but, planting my foot on the brink, I sprang, my side brushing the rough, projecting crag. While in the air I looked down, and a picture stamped itself on my brain never to be forgotten. The débris crumbled and moved. I clutched both sides of the cleft, relieving all possible weight from my feet. The rocks wedged themselves again, and I was safe.
It was a delicate feat of balancing for us to bridge that chasm with a transit and pass it across; the view it afforded down the abyss was calculated to make a man cool and steady.
Barometer and knapsack were next passed over. I placed them all at the crevice head, and flattened myself against the rock to make room for Gardiner. I shall never forget the look in his eye as he caught a glimpse of the abyss in his leap. It gave me such a chill as no amount of danger, or even death, coming to myself could ever give. The débris grated under his weight an instant and wedged themselves again.
We sprang up on the rocks like chamois, and stood on the top shouting for joy.
Our summit was four feet across, not large enough for the transit instrument and both of us; so I, whose duties were geological, descended to a niche a few feet lower and sat down to my writing.
The sense of a๋rial isolation was thrilling. Away below, rocks, ridges, crags, and fields of ice swell up in jostling confusion to make a base from which springs the spire of stone 11,600 feet high. On all sides I could look right down at the narrow pedestal. Eastward great ranks of peaks, culminating in Mount Lyell, were in full, clear view; all streams and cañons tributary to the Merced were beneath us in map-like distinctness. Afar to the west lay the rolling plateau gashed with cañons; there the white line of Yosemite Fall; and beyond, half submerged in warm haze, my Sunday mountain.
The same little arctic bluebird came again and perched close by me, pouring out his sweet, simple song with a gayety and freedom which wholly charmed me.
During our four hours’ stay the thought that we must make that leap again gradually intruded itself, and whether writing or studying the country I could not altogether free myself from its pressure.
It was a relief when we packed up and descended to the horrible cleft to actually meet our danger. We had now an unreliable footing to spring from, and a mere block of rock to balance us after the jump.
We sprang strongly, struck firmly, and were safe. We worked patiently down the east face, wound among blocks and pinnacles of the lower descent, and hurried through moraines to camp, well pleased that the Obelisk had not vanquished us.
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