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A Vacation among the Sierras (1962),
by Thomas Starr King

Letter One

SAN FRANCISCO, October, 1860.

Dear Transcript: I sit down to write you a long account of a short vacation. But when I tell you that the mammoth trees, the Frémont gold estate, and the Yo-Semite valley and cataracts, are among the objects to which the nine runaway days introduced me, you will see that I have a tolerable excuse for prolixity in the record, even if I fail to interest your readers through the tameness of the report.

The season for pleasure-travelling in California is very short. In the winter, when it is the most delightful in San Francisco, the roads of the interior are so muddy or worn with rains, that travelling in the stages is decidedly the reverse of luxurious, and all the mountain passes are packed with snow. In midsummer and early autumn, the roads are nearly knee-deep with dust; the sun rays seem to fall through a lens upon you; and the land looks parched as though it lay under a curse of perpetual barrenness. From the first of May to the middle of June the conditions are favorable. The roads are neither muddy nor dusty; the hill-sides are green and spotted with bloom; the air is not that of a furnace; the oaks bend their tasselled arches over young grass or grain; the snow has been dislodged from all but the supreme summits of the Sierras, and thence it feeds quietly the waterfalls near the passes, which, in midsummer, are dry. Whoever would enjoy a journey into the interior, must not let this golden season slip.

I was severely disappointed, therefore, when I found that it would not be in my power to leave San Francisco during May or June, for the Yo-Semite valley among the Southern Sierras. Two or three descriptions which I had read of the wonders of this pass, particularly Mr. Greeley’s report of it; a painting of one of its waterfalls that was once on exhibition in an Art-Collection in Boston; and the eloquent adjectives and ejaculations of some friends here, who intimated with the genuine California extravagance, that whoever had not seen the Yo-Semite, had gone no further than the Court of the Gentiles in the great natural temple of sublimity, made me eager to seize the first opportunity of standing in the shadow of its cliffs, and within “earshot” of its tremendous cataracts. 73 When I found that June must pass without yielding me the privilege, and foresaw that I could not visit the distant valley before the latter part of July, I supposed that I must either relinquish the project for the year, or see the scenery divested of all its cascade draperies, and at the expense of a journey through barrenness, and torrid heats, and smothering dust.

But the summer in California, this year, has been a season—so everybody tells us—of “exceptional weather.” The rains held on late. June was damp and cold. Overcoats were not uncomfortable during that month in Sacramento. Parties that left for the Yo-Semite in May were nearly buried by snow storms. 74 On the first of July the flowers on the long and moderate slopes of the mountains, which usually have withered by the middle of June, were only beginning to interweave their color with the thin grasses; and the snow was still heavy on the peaks that crown the ridge. The middle of July, therefore, was practically as early for setting out on such a journey as the last of May is in ordinary seasons. People complain here that the climate is changing, and that as New England people get control of the reins of influence and power—as schools multiply and churches increase, and temperance societies spring up, and better stock is introduced, and cows get milked, and literary associations germinate, and gambling hells and drink shops are pushed from prominence into shadow—the climate is becoming Yankee-ized—more variable, more chilly and more damp in the summer months, as the moral forces grow more steady and fruitful. The State can certainly bear more moisture in summer without damage to the soil. It can evidently bear more of the genuine New England spirit without detriment to its moral status and its hopes of prosperity. And if more sleet and less dust in early summer are the inevitable accompaniment of better farming and more schools, let us hope that every year will be as propitious as this one has been for a July vacation visit to the Yo-Semite walls.

Not only were the summer heats tardy, but in the very middle of July, on the night before I was to start on the trip, there was rain in California;—not a shower, but a long, bounteous rain of many hours, and extending over the whole State, from the Oregon line to the vineyards of Los Angeles, from the mountains that dip toward Utah to the seaward slopes of the Pacific range. 75 Such a baptism was hardly less than a miracle to the astonished citizens here. The oldest inhabitant could remember nothing like it. Our party did not confidently believe that the clouds were conjured to lay the dust for us along the tedious track of the stage in the interior, and to freshen the foliage and flowers which our horseback journey was to introduce to us, and to fill for our joy the fountains of the far-off cascades. But how could we help reflecting on the fact that no such elaborate preparation, breaking the long customs of barometer and winds, had ever before been made for any party of midsummer tourists? The burden of proof that it was not a special providence is on any sceptical opponent. Such a rain was never known before in the State, and such a party as ours never started before from San Francisco to traverse the State. It came just when it could serve us best. It ceased just when our convenience demanded. It poured just freely enough to make the conditions of a successful visit perfect. Until such a marvel occurs again, and we are not specially interested in its dust-laying beneficence, have we not the logic on the side of our lurking faith that we were intentionally favored by the spirits that preside over the clouds, and that usually look for months without pity on the parching counties between the Golden Gate and the crest of the Cordilleras?

The Yo-Semite valley, or pass through the Sierra range, lies on the Easterly borders of the county of Mariposa. It is two hundred and fifty miles from San Francisco. The first half of this distance is travelled by steamboat through the upper portion of the beautiful bay, and by the San Joaquin river (pronounced San Ho-a-keen) to Stockton, one of the larger and most thriving towns of the interior. Going to Stockton, however, has a peculiar and unpleasant significance, as a phrase in this neighborhood. The only insane asylum of the State is there. Alas! it has no lack of inmates, and is not likely to have any of its rooms empty for some time to come. Life is so fast or intense among us, that candidates for its wards multiply at a rate which it is not pleasant to contemplate; and the saying that a man is “on the way to Stockton” means that he is spending his nervous capital at a rate that will soon dissolve the copartnership of Reason and Will. If more persons would go to the Yo-Semite, fewer would “go to Stockton” Less working, more work; less grasping, more gain; less speed in living, more life; less waste of constitutional capital, more, a hundred fold more, return in dividends of manly growth, contentment, and joy in existence; —this is what the business men of every leading American city, especially of San Francisco, need to learn as the law of the mental world, certain and inflexible as the multiplication table. This is what the frequent knocks for admission to the asylum that towers over Stockton are trying to emphasize to the California scramblers—mostly from our Northern States—who are overtasking their muscles for a speedy fortune, with which they are to go East again to be miserable.

It was a very sane party—little likely to be sent on physicians’ tickets to the Stockton asylum—that took their seats on the stage for Coulterville, at six in the morning, after leaving the steamer “Cornelia” The distance to Coulterville is over seventy miles; the fare eleven dollars each seat. We were to make the distance over a steadily rising road—many miles of it true mountain climbing—before dark. Leaving the town, and striking out into a level prairie, mostly unfenced, and soon upon an immense district of rolling prairie, with the foot-hills of the Sierras but a few miles ahead, we had as favorable a view as one can ever have of the inland California landscape in mid-summer. The stage was easy, the breeze cheering, the roads free from dust. But the vast expanse, or the mighty swells of barrenness,—how can the eye take any comfort in it? Green trees over a universal desert! What right had the trees to be so green and thrifty? How can June maintain itself in those branches so near the boundless November on the ground? It takes a long time for an eye accustomed to the combinations of summer hues in New England to get adjusted to this harsh discord of green and grey, as harsh at first as if one should drive into a land where the trees are all of ash-color, and the fields that nourish them carpeted with luxuriant grass. Quite frequently we saw cows lying dead on the dry mounds. The first thought was that they had starved. But the driver told us that all the desolate looking fields yielded still good nourishment to the cattle, and that the creatures had killed themselves in the spring by eating green wheat and over-drinking of water. The land certainly looked as though nothing could live there except horses that had been educated to feed on shavings.

One of our passengers told us that the landscape was very like what one sees for days in crossing the plains on the overland mail route. The frequent and immense mule trains which do the commerce between the highest mountain towns and the river depots, gave a rough and flavorsome wildness to the scene. Huge wagons, often two or three lashed together, were pulled by a string of twelve or fourteen mules, which the drivers inspirited with the most preposterous whips. Often I saw a whip over a stalwart wagoner’s shoulder which would be a good load for ordinary city muscles. The drivers take great pride in the length and weight of their whips, and acquire singular skill in cracking them with both hands from the wagon-wheel over the ears of any one of the fourteen mules that is disposed to shirk duty. There are about forty thousand of these faithful, tough, patient creatures in the State; and we must have seen a large percentage of them pulling the huge store-houses that supply the highlands, during our forenoon ride to Knight’s Ferry, on the first slope of the mountains. Though generally quite cheap, the best specimens fetch very high prices. There is one mule team in Stockton, eight in number, seventeen and a half hands high, that cost six thousand dollars.

We dined at twelve o’clock in Knight’s Ferry, and were served at dessert with apple pie made from large fresh apples which were ripe before the first of July. I write this late in October in San Francisco, with recollections of strawberries today at breakfast and dinner, raised within the city limits in the open air. And in “apple-pie order” we crossed the Stanislaus river and set out for “the Crimea” and the “Kentucky Ranche” our next prominent stopping place. 76 The Stanislaus river and the Tuolumne which we crossed in the afternoon, as well as the Calaveras, lose themselves in the sand in midsummer, before reaching the San Joaquin,—though they are powerful streams.

The last eleven miles of the ride to Coulterville were over a road which is a sign of the enormous amount of labor that has been performed in California during the last eight years. It led up, up and up, by frightful precipices, over desolate mountain sides, till we began to believe that Coulterville was on the apex of the monarch of the Sierras. What was our surprise to find that after gaining the ridge, the road dipped toward an unbroken wilderness beyond. Where were we going? We were beyond the outskirts of civilization. No hut, no clearing, no miner’s camp, no stray cow or mule was visible. Before us, in the after-sunset glow, towered, a few miles off, the higher bulwarks of the great mountain range. Night was settling on the intervening ravine. It was like driving down the southeastern sides of Mt. Franklin or Monroe into those gaping gorges of the Coös wilderness, expecting to find a continuous path and a welcome. We had a treasure-box of Wells, Fargo & Co., on board, and a messenger with a double-barrelled rifle to guard it; as the stage had been robbed a week or two before of eleven thousand dollars, and that very day, a single wagon had been stopped, and the driver relieved of his ready cash. 77 But down we went at a fearful rate into the hollow, and before nine o’clock brought up in a pleasant village in a mountain bowl quite similar to that where old Abel Crawford lived in the Saco valley. This was Coulterville. It has over six hundred inhabitants, and offers to travellers an excellent hotel. 78 There are rich quartz mines in the neighborhood, which accounts for the good road and the tempting organized hospitality. We jumped from the stage into the office of the hotel, which is also the post-office, and found it crowded with miners and the fat-cheeked Chinese waiting for letters and newspapers. How the clerk makes out the Mongolian chirography and alphabet belongs to the mysteries of education. In spite of hostile laws and hate, the constant pressure of social injustice, these yellow Orientals pour steadily into every valley and byway of the State, and thrive on the leavings “tailings” as they call them here—of the Saxon miners. They are the best patrons of the stages; and the proprietors take a very exalted Pauline view of the equal rights of all races, and the necessity of encouraging their ingress into the State.

I had not been ten minutes in the hotel before an invitation was extended to me, in due form, to remain and lecture, either on “Substance and Show” or Temperance. 79 But all business on the Yo-Semite trip, was respectfully declined. I slept soundly in a well furnished chamber, under a counterpane covered with pictures of the most rampant dogs. How we were mounted the next morning, and what road we took for the wonderful valley, and how long we were on the way, and what we saw—really, friend Transcript, I’m afraid your readers are doomed to half a dozen letters signed


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