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


Letter Five
A VACATION AMONG THE SIERRAS—NO. 5

SAN FRANCISCO, December, 1860.

THE APPROACH TO THE YO-SEMITE

Dear Transcript: It was just sunset when we reached again Clarke’s hospitable cabin, on the meadow at the foot of the ridge which is crowned by those Olympian cedars. The day had been hot, for it was mid-July; but the air grew cool at a very rapid rate after the sunshine burned off from the plumes of the firs, two hundred feet tall, that stood as grenadiers around the green little intervale. We needed all the overcoats and blankets that our pack-mule would disburse from his liberal bale, to keep us warm in the bunks beneath our roof of cotton cloth. Just before going to bed, as we sat around a camp fire in the gloom, two foot-travelers arrived with the tidings that the bodies of two men had been found, a few miles off, who had been recently murdered and chopped in pieces by a party of Chowchilla Indians. Perhaps it was the effect of this not oversoothing intelligence, perhaps it was the excitement of the superb scenery that had been crowded into the day, possibly it was due in part to our host’s hot biscuits at supper, that I waked in strange terror about midnight, with the feeling that a huge grizzly was pawing away the hired blue blankets packed over my breast, and growling his hot breath on my face. The night-mare—or, more strictly speaking, the night-bear—was so vivid and terrible, that it was like miraculous deliverance literally from the jaws of death, when I found that the only sign of animal life near my bunk was the snarling of a large wolf-dog, back of the tent, which Clarke was cuffing about the ears, and ordering to “shut up.”

No more grizzlies that night, goblin or real. At four we were up from our couches, and before six were mounted for the Yo-Semite,—just as the sunshine was beginning to slip down the file of dark, slim and stately evergreens that stand sentinel on the western bound of the lovely meadow in the heart of the wilderness. We all shook hands cordially with Clarke, each adding a hearty “God bless you!” to the formal “good bye” and, with the sincere hope that we might again enjoy the hospitality of his “tented field,” crossed the south fork of the Merced, and struck cheerily into the lonely mountain trail. 97 It was not long before we found a pretty rough and steep ascent before us, in fact an irregular and jagged stairway, not much more civilized in aspect than the Cone of Mount Washington. Nowhere on our track before, had we encountered any slope, or eminence, where the skin had been worn away from the bones of the mountains. And at this first difficult steep we came very near a disaster that would have spoiled all our pleasure.

A California horse of the old Spanish stock never becomes thoroughly civilized. He may be ever so well broken, and seem completely meek and docile; he may be worn down and nearly worn out in an omnibus or a dray,—but he carries a drop of savage and untameable blood in his heart that will sometimes make him vicious and insane in a moment, after years of good behavior. It is, therefore, always “dangerous to be safe” with one of them, especially on a wild mountain path. Our horses had plodded along with us so patiently and faithfully, for two days over all the swells and ridges of the wilderness, that we had no thought of peril from their untrustiness, and rode on generally a mile or two ahead of the pack-mule and guides. But when we were half way up this dangerous rocky slope, the beast that carried the oldest member of the party, our genial and excellent “Silver Grey” companion, became suddenly enraged and ungovernable. He reared, jumped stiff-legged, shook himself, kicked and whirled as though he was suddenly possessed by a demon. Our friend was a capital horseman;—but on a jagged steep of fifty degrees with an insane brute under him, a circus-rider could not keep his seat; and before any of us could dismount, our companion was thrown among the sharp-edged rocks, and the beast rushed down the cliff, plunging and kicking in utter fury. The guides behind managed to stop him and save him from dashing his brains out, while we gathered around our prostrate friend. There were severe wounds on his hand, arm, and cheek, and a large swelling from a blow very near the temple. We feared that his back was broken, or that he was seriously injured internally. As he lay pale, bruised and faint on the desolate slope, we felt sure, for some minutes, that the joy of our excursion was ended; and that we should have the sad, difficult duty of returning over the horseback path, forty miles, with the lifeless or the suffering body of our companion, to Mariposa.

As soon as he could speak after the first faintness, we asked him if he were suffering in the back or limbs. I shall never forget the pathos of the answer. His voice has a singularly plaintive and delicate quality and cadence. He lay among the rocks with his face pale and bloody, with his eyes still closed, and only able to speak a few words in a very feeble tone. And he said, very gently and slowly,—"I think no bone is broken; but it would have been a slight matter if I had broken my neck, for I am a bachelor, without a relative on earth to mourn my death.” It was an unspeakable relief to us to find, on lifting our companion, that his limbs and back were uninjured. We had great need of plaster and bandages for the flesh wounds, and we found that the thoughtful wife of one of our members had supplied a package of just the essentials in case of such an accident. We dressed the wounds of our companion, with most emphatic and cordial eulogies on all excellent and “motherly” women, such as her whose hand was thus stretched two hundred and fifty miles from her kind heart, to supply our pressing want in the wilderness. And to our joy, we found that in less than an hour strength had returned to our friend, so that we could start. He insisted on riding the horse that had thrown him, and the beast during all the remainder of the journey was as gentle as a lap-dog. But fifty times since my return, the scene has come back fresh—the most vivid picture of the excursion—of that pale face and grey head pillowed possibly for their last breath on those lonely rocks, and of the words that broke from a greater loneliness of the heart.

The trees on the path were again an undrainable feast, and the sugar pines, as before, were supreme in size and beauty. In size some of them were Goliaths,—measuring from twenty to thirty-two feet in girth; but in symmetry and grace the most stalwart were Apollos. Now and then we saw a very large one whose straight stem for a hundred feet seemed to have been bored with an auger, till the bark was honeycombed with holes. These were the savings-banks of the woodpeckers. In each of these holes a nut or acorn is deposited for winter stores by the prudent birds. I saw some trees that were prepared each for thousands of these deposits, and it was vexing enough to learn that the lazy, good for nothing, Digger Indians often rob one of these stately magazines, just after the birds have stocked it with an autumn store. This is literally being fed by the Providence that supplies the “fowls of the air.” But many a Californian, if the question were up between the Diggers and the woodpeckers, would not hesitate in deciding the point of the “more value” in favor of the plundered birds.

The higher we rose on the flank of the mountains, the nobler the average of these sugar pines seemed to be. In science I believe they are the Pinus lambertiana. They find their perfection about five thousand feet on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada chain. From San Bernardino to Oregon, more than five hundred miles, they stripe the majestic wall with their beauty, looking down a mile upon the plains, and overhung nearly two miles above by the brilliant desolation of perpetual snow. If one is not responsive to the poetry of their mass and symmetry, he may be interested in knowing that they furnish timber equal to any other tree in the world. The grain is so straight that thousands of houses in California are weather-boarded with shingles from them, which are simply split without any other expense or work.

The flowers, too, continued as luxuriant and various as on the previous days. And the youngest member of our party, a supple youth of sixteen, kept us well supplied with each variety without the trouble or delay of dismounting. He would put spurs to his California nag, strike off to the right or left of the trail among the scattered evergreens, gallop through a bank of flowers, and gather a lupine, or a mariposa, which is the butterfly-flower, or a little short-stemmed scarlet beauty, by leaning over the side of the horse and holding on by the heel. Sometimes he would dip a cup of water from a shallow brook, with his horse at full speed. In this way we had circus-exercises in the forest, connected with the outgush of as cheery a disposition and the constant exhibition of as graceful a courtesy from this admirable youth, as ever distinguished a young knight in the forests of Normandy.

After four hours of this moderate climbing through the glorious woods, we began to be on the watch, for some signs of the rocks that wall in the Yo-Semite Valley. We had reached a level plateau with here and there a large patch of pretty treacherous marsh, bounded by thicker growths of smaller trees—mostly balsam-firs. Through occasional openings we caught glimpses of barren walls of rock spiring into peaks whose roughnesses were white with snow. I supposed that we had yet to climb a thousand feet or more in order to reach the top of the rampart down whose side we were to descend into the valley. But we rode on and on, and yet saw no line ahead of a rocky acclivity. Our guides from Coulterville had never been over this Mariposa trail; and after half an hour of such level travelling, I began to feel almost sure that we had missed the track, and ought to return in search of some diverging path. Just when I had become certain of a mistake, and was about to call a council of war, we passed out from among the stripling trees, and found ourselves,—where, think you, reader? On the edge of a trench in the Sierras, four thousand feet deep and six or eight miles long! Imagine yourself on a horseback tour in search of the White Mountain Notch, and suddenly riding out from a thicket of young birches upon the edge of the wall of Mt. Webster, looking down upon the Saco and the Willey House.

But there you would look down upon a curving line, meeting or flowing into a curve from Mt. Willey that faces it. We came to a precipice of sheer rock, which is twenty-seven hundred feet deep. Immediately opposite, about a mile across, a portion of that northerly wall stands up thirty-eight hundred feet high. And it does not abate a jot from the perpendicular. It is clean, naked granite. A plummet could be dropped straight from its pediment to its base. On our southerly side the wall rises gradually in height to the right hand or east of us, and in some portions rears a tower or spire sixteen hundred feet higher than where we emerged from the forest; and the great dome of smooth, unspotted rock, eight miles distant from us by air-line on this southerly wall, lacks a few yards only, by measurement, of five thousand feet above the stream that winds beneath it. But it is everywhere abrupt and sheer.

How can I express the awe and joy that were blended and continually struggling with each other, during the half hour in the hot noon that we remained on the edge of the abyss where the grandeurs of the Yo-Semite were first revealed to us? The whole trench is seven or eight miles long, as we have said, between the highest walls. But the ramparts curve so much that we could not see more than half that length on the east. At our left, on the west, we could follow the course of the beautiful Merced for a dozen miles, as it flowed down from its grim prison, between the gradually dwindling ramparts. No, let me take back both words, the “prison” and the “grim.” It ought to look so, but it does not. 98 There was a grave cheerfulness in the general aspect of the tremendous furrow, in spite of the bareness of the scraped walls, and the desolation enthroned upon the lofty summit springing three thousand feet higher into the bleak air from the most northerly portion of the opposite battlement.

I had read in a volume of travels among the highest Himalayas of the singularly blue tone of the cliffs and rocks. This was very striking in the first sight of the Yo-Semite. There was a delicate and most charming blue tint spread over the walls and heights. Look steadily at a cliff and it would wear a deathly ash color; but this spirited azure hue was a lambent light, vivifying it to the general glance. Then at the bottom we looked, not upon desolation, but upon the loveliest meadows skirted by stately trees and veined by a river as large as the Connecticut at Bellows Falls. On the ramparts opposite, streams were plunging with headlong fury to the Valley. To our eyes, however, there was no fury:

“But like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause did seem.”

There was the murmur of a heavy waterfall beneath us. A slight change in our position showed us a sudden sag of the rock line on our southerly wall, and there, fifteen hundred feet below us, was the head of a cataract which took one plunge of nearly a thousand feet before its spray was shattered on the rocks. 99 The scene was sublime, but it was not lonely, desolate or sombre, as I had expected. And all the angularity and hardness of line in the ramparts was soothed by some indefinable, mystic grace. I was not surprised, therefore, to learn that this spot where this magnificence bursts on the vision is named “Inspiration Point.”

At the close of this long letter, the reader, of course, will ask to be excused from descending on horseback into the valley on the steep bridle path. I must leave him on “Inspiration Point.” And I will take the liberty to leave with him a little California-born rhetoric in honor of the view from this eminence. I quote from a recent report to the State Agricultural Society. The italics are mine. “We will not attempt any description of the thing as a whole. The thing is there away up in the Sierras; and all we have to say is that he who has threaded the streets of Nineveh and Herculaneum, scaled the Alps, and counted the stars from the top of Egypt’s pyramids, measured the Parthenon, and watched the setting sun from the dome of St. Peter’s, looked into the mouth of Vesuvius, and taken the key-note of his morning song from the thunder of Niagara, and has not seen the Yo-Semite, is like the Queen of Sheba before her visit to King Solomon—the half has not been told him.” Shall I attempt to improve on that? No, verily.

K.


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