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


Letter Three
A VACATION AMONG THE SIERRAS—NO. 3

SAN FRANCISCO, NOVEMBER, 1860.

Dear Transcript: I have often debated with myself what occupation I should seek, if I should, some day, be disabled by bronchitis. Our horseback ride from Col. Frémont’s cottage in Bear Valley to the town of Mariposa added another string to my bow of possibilities. At what a gait we put the road behind us in the sultry noon,—your correspondent and our portly capitalist from San Francisco! We distanced the other members of the party an hour in twelve miles. My horse was a four-legged churn, when kept on a moderate trot; but I discovered that he rode as easy as a rocking-chair if put to a John Gilpin gallop; or to such a pace as the cadets at West Point show you when the drill officer gives the word, “as skirmishers, charge!” I verily believe that one or two of the miles we made in less than two minutes each, (California truth is different from Eastern truth, —so deduct from the story by adding to the time if you see fit,) and I enjoyed the rush so thoroughly, that I intend to seek employment as a Pony Express rider through the country of the Pah-Utes and Shoshonees, if my throat, which begins to be unruly, breaks down. But I have decided, in that case, to wear trousers with straps.

You will not err, friend Transcript, if you imagine that it was hot, ob and sub-jectively hot, when we slackened speed and trotted at a respectable rate into the streets of Mariposa, in search of a hotel. The same showy, white-painted ten-footers, with square fronts extending above the ridge-pole, which we had noticed in other villages, lined the street here. One sign I enjoyed especially, as I rode along. You must not charge anything for the advertisement. It was “Mme. Cavasso, milliner, Modista.” Would you be likely to see such a sign in Milan, N. H., or on Jefferson Hill, or in a Vermont village under the shadow of Mansfield Mountain? Think of “Modista” millinery just at the foot of the western slope of the Sierras, an arrowshot from the billowy wilderness which catches the sun’s last amber from the Pacific, and where the “Grizzly” roams undisturbed! But some of the five hundred inhabitants are able to pay handsomely for fancy goods á la mode. The quartz veins in the neighborhood, though they do not pay so steadily as some, have rich “pockets.” There is a small vein running through the town only about two feet thick, and very snakey in its winding. Not many months ago, three men working in this vein about sixty feet below the surface, struck a “pocket” from which they took in six days twenty-six thousand dollars. I think we should soon see the “Modista” signs in Jefferson and Shelbume, if there were comers in the geological cellar of those villages where a farmer could “pick” fifteen hundred dollars a day in solid cash. Yet there are few that grow permanently rich from these capricious bounties. The names of the men who opened this Mariposa vein are Mock & Searle. And “Mock” is a very suggestive word to California capitalists, thus far, who have indulged hopes of speedy and easy wealth from quartz-leads.

How delightful was the shadow, and the coolness, and the sofa in the little “Union Hotel” in Mariposa during the hottest hours of a July afternoon! If I do look to the possibility of becoming a Pony Express-man, I suppose that I may confess to an aching in every muscle and ligament of the body, when I dismounted from my twenty-two miles ride from Coulterville, as intense as if all the powers of suffering in the frame had been turned on at once. But Mariposa, besides the “modista” shop, supports a warm bath establishment, for the refreshment of which, re-tasted in memory as I write, I invoke the blessing of a perpetual line of “pockets” in every ledge that runs in ribbands from their hills.

The landlord of the hotel was a Portuguese from Pico, near Fayal. As Pico, which rises nearly 8000 feet from the mid-Atlantic, was the first mountain I ever saw, when I visited Fayal in 1848, we soon fell into sympathy. 86 The landlady was from England. The hotel seemed to be composed of four or five wooden cottages, with one brick, iron-shuttered fire-proof addition, where the good woman told me she kept “all the valuables.” There I alone of all the party was put for the night, whether becaues she discerned that I was a valuable, or more in danger of fire than the others of the party, I could not decide. But one of our companions could not help overhearing a conversation through the thin partition of his room which explained this peculiar case. They had discovered that I was a lecturer; and then the landlady recollected having heard me speak often in England, and enumerated the cities which I had enlightened! Now, where’s the use of going to England, if you get treated just as well as if you had made the voyage, and save your reputation besides? Our listening companion, however, took delight in telling me that they confessed I didn’t look like a lecturer, and that they should have much sooner suspected “the good looking, dignified gentleman” of wearing your correspondent’s initials.

We all slept powerfully, and were on hand and on horseback at six in the morning for a thirty miles’ ride to “Clarke’s,” where we diverge from the Yo-Semite trail to visit the “Big Trees” five miles out of our way. The sky was deep blue and cloudless and it was already oppressive, when we mounted. “You’ll have a nice ‘lope (meaning gallop) to Clarke’s” said a Mariposa acquaintance, as we started; “it ‘aint going to be hot today.” “Why” said I, “it’s hot now, and the day will certainly be a scorcher, by noon.” “No” said our friend, “You may depend it won’t be above ninety today.” “What do you call hot in this neighborhood?” “A hundred and ten; ninety’s moderate.” Such I believe is the fact in that region. We didn’t waste much thought on the heat, however. We knew that we should have no clouds, and were sure it wouldn’t rain; and so we turned our horses’ heads away from the last village toward the mountain walls and wilds with jubilant spirits. There were no more settlements between us and Utah.

How shall I tell or hint the surprises of beauty, the difference of charm during the seven or eight hours of this ride to Clarke’s? Soon we left the county road for a rough wagon road, and after a few miles of this struck into a simple bridle trail which led over spurs of the great hills, away from all squatters’ huts, away from all mining camps and prospectings, away from all ravage of axes, into the solitudes of the glorious wilderness. De Quincey tells us that the supreme charm in nature for him would be the sense of a vast and trackless forest. That which we entered stretches hundreds of miles north and south. East and west, it heaves into tremendous swells and subsides in mighty troughs of green. Range after range is covered by its squadrons, till the parallel lines of the snow-sprinkled rocks of the sovereign heights break through to crown it, and to cover with shadow its retreating waves on the Eastern slope, when these desolate spires catch the rose flush from a Pacific sunset. De Quincey’s spirit could find no region on this globe so attractive as a haunt, if it retains its earthly sympathies.

Perhaps, however, there is too much beauty mingled with the vastness and majesty of the Sierra forests, to suit the sombre imagination of the great Essayist. For the pervading impression, as we rode along, was that of beauty, and the influence a continual cheer. Now and then we gained some height from which we could look off upon the companion hills and spurs, southward and west. They were long and heavy. We could not quote as applicable to these outlooks the passage from Young Bulwer, in “Lucile,—”

“Then he lifted his eyes and saw round him unfurled
In one moment of splendor the leagues of dark trees,
And the long rocky line of the wild Pyrenees.”

The dark trees were visible by the league, but all the aspect of the Sierras, until you reach the ridge from which the topmost turrets stood, are dull. Their forms are ponderous, their rolls whale-like, but with no fins to crown their heavings. We cannot even quote of their armies of pine, the superb lines of Keats—

“Far, far around shall those dark-clustered trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains, steep by steep.”

They are not “wild ridged,” and they do not rise “steep by steep” They roll in tremendous ground swells, and their immense trenches and surging heights are covered with such evergreens as cannot be paralleled probably on the globe. Mr. Greeley said to me on the morning I left New York, “You are going to a divine country, and there is nothing on the earth equal in beauty to the pines of the Sierras.” As to the adjective “divine,” there may be doubts; as to the eulogy on the evergreens, I believe that the eminent Tribune of the people is not far out of the way.

But whenever the distance views were denied us, and we were shut in by the immediate surrounding forest, it was difficult to believe that we were in the aboriginal wilderness. For miles we would ride up a gentle slope, undisturbed by stones, upon which it would seem that thousands of dollars had been spent in clearing the underbrush, and giving the flowers a field to sport and revel. It was late in July; the fields around San Francisco and the bay looked as though they were strewn with ashes: but here the acclivities of the mountains, under the shadow of the evergreens, bloomed with ruby and saffron, with violet and orange. Ruskin teaches us to call the pines “Sword-builders"; truly, we found the saying of Mohammed verified— “Paradise is under the shadow of swords.”

Yet the flowers were obliged to yield in charm to the sugar-pines of that glorious region. I suppose that in three hours we saw ten thousand which were more than two hundred feet high. In the mountain districts of New Hampshire it is very rare to find a hemlock or fir more than three feet in diameter. Time and again we dismounted and put our measuring line around columns, fit to uphold an entablature of Phidias, that were twenty-eight and thirty feet in girth, supporting their topmost spray nearly three hundred feet above us. Trees of eighteen and twenty feet circumference could have been counted by hundreds. And they stood apart, with ample room to show their symmetry, and generous enough to let the glad light kindle the flowers around their feet. Every five minutes at least, we came in sight of a sugar-pine so marvellous in grace that we were obliged to stop and pay obeisance to its stately and consummate beauty.

I wonder if such trees grow in Greece. They enabled me to understand one element of the Greek mythology which I could never sympathize with before. I mean the faith in Hamadryades, the nymphs that vivify and inhabit trees. One of the Homeric hymns describes them:

                        Straight pines,
Or oaks high-headed, spring with them upon
The earth man-feeding, soon as they are born;
Trees fair and flourishing; on the high hills
Lofty they stand; the deathless sacred grove
Men call them, and with iron never cut.
But when the fate of death is drawing near,
First wither on the earth the beauteous trees,
The bark around them wastes, the branches fall,
And the Nymph’s soul at the same moment leaves
The sun’s fair light.

Now, think of imagining the life of an oak as a feminine spirit! What an Amazon the creature must be,—anything but a nymph! It should be a masculine energy, some burly, double-fisted genius, a Hercules of sprites, that personifies the knotted and angular strength of an oak. How, either, can we conceive the tough-fibred ash as inhabited by and created from an elegant forest belle? And a grove of stately and solemn pines,—is it by a natural play of the imagination that we fill them with damsel properties? Do they not look rather like a council of swarthy Brahmins, in their dark energy of delicate life, and what Mr. Ruskin calls their “monotony of enchanted pride?”

But these sugar pines of the Sierras, however bulky, do seem to be filled from root to topmost feather with feminine vitality. It would afflict the imagination to associate any form or type of masculine energy with them. Such lightness in their spring! Such exquisite grace in the double curve of their wide-stretching branches! Such fascinating proportion and poise in their outflow from the stem! The cones they bear are often twelve or fifteen inches in length, and singularly lovely in shape. Think now of one of these queens of the wilderness, two hundred and fifty feet in height, with branches of correspondent rhythm, wrought in curves which contain the utmost spirit that will blend with tenderest grace, and each branch, up to the crowning twigs, holding out, as if with taper fingers, a pair of drooping cones! A thousand such we saw during our morning ride. One such tree conspicuously placed in the Saco valley would be the mother of at least fifty poems a year. I forgot that we were on the way to the colossal trees. Why hurry from the Muses to see the Titans? I forgot the Yo-Semite; and should have been content and overjoyed to learn that our journey was to stretch out a week longer, if the trail was to be adorned with these exquisite forms. While gazing at them, the Greek myth was no mystery. There was no sense of imprisoned or fettered energy. The grace was that of a posture in a dance. We should not have been surprised at any moment, in looking at one of these perfect pines, to see the soul of the tree step out a sunny and joyous nymph, beautiful as Hebe.

We reached Clarke’s—a little log house and canvas tent on a meadow in the wilderness—at one o’clock. 87 Here we were to dine, and from this resting place diverge to see the “Big Trees,” which are five miles from his camp. As we rode up to this rough shelter, the first object I saw among the majestic evergreens, was Henry Ward Beecher in a wild forest costume. So it seemed at the first glance, and the more I looked at him the more striking was the likeness. It was not Mr. Clarke, but a pig driver, who was staying in the tent with him for a few days. I thought at once of Mr. Hale’s charming story in the Atlantic, “My Double and how he Undid me.” 88 If the Brooklyn autocrat is anxious to engage a “Double” let him apply to me, and I will start off for the Sierras and this man. No one could mistake the compound in that countenance of noble heartedness, impudence and fun (I am speaking of the pig driver, not of the divine). We engaged him at once to pilot us to the Big Trees, and during all the excursion we called him, not by his own name, but “Beecher.“ 89

Mr. Clarke we found a very intelligent man, living alone in the wilderness. To my amazement he knew me. He was born under the shadow of Monadnoc, and has two brothers, I soon learned, who are Unitarian ministers. One of our witty friends in Boston, whenever he has occasion to speak of any man who is worth half a million or so, always says, sotto voce and in parenthesis, “he isn’t to be despised for that, you know.” That’s what I said to myself when I learned about Mr. Clarke’s brotherhood. I could easily have heard tidings that would have pained me more. But “The Big Trees!” Patience, friend Transcript; you wouldn’t, surely, have me bore you any longer now. No, another letter.

K.


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