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

Letter Six

SAN FRANCISCO, December, 1860.


Dear Transcript: The Yo-Semite valley is a pass about ten miles long, which, at its eastern extremity, splits into three narrower notches, each of which extends several miles, winding by the wildest paths into the heart of the Sierra Nevada chain. For seven miles of the main valley, which varies in width from three quarters of a mile to a mile and a half, the walls are from two thousand to nearly five thousand feet above the road, and are nearly perpendicular. The valley is of such irregular width, and bends so much and often so abruptly, that there is great variety and frequent surprise in the forms and combinations of the overhanging rocks, as one rides along the bank of the stream. The patches of luxuriant meadow with their dazzling green, and the grouping of the superb firs, two hundred feet high, that skirt them, and that shoot above the stout and graceful oaks and sycamores, through which the horse path winds, are delightful rests of sweetness and beauty amid the threatening awfulness,—like the threads and Rashes of melody that relieve the towering masses of Beethoven’s harmony. The ninth Symphony is the Yo-Semite of music. The Merced, which flows through the main aisle we are speaking of, is a noble stream a hundred feet wide and ten feet deep. It is formed chiefly of the streams that leap and rush through the narrower notches above referred to, and it is swollen also by the bounty of the marvellous waterfalls that pour down the ramparts of the wider valley. The sublime poetry of Habakkuk. is needed to describe the impression and perhaps the geology of these mighty fissures: “Thou didst cleave the earth with rivers.”

Now let us descend from “Inspiration Point” by a very steep trail to the level of the Merced, and ride up between the cliffs to such rude hospitality as the isolation of the region may afford. If our readers don’t like the title, “Inspiration Point” they are welcome to the Indian name of that perch, on the Mariposa trail, Open-eta-noo-ah. I would tell them what it means, if I knew. The first portion of it, “Open” is certainly appropriate, as we look down into the granite-lined abyss.

At the foot of the break-neck declivity of nearly three thousand feet by which we reach the banks of the Merced, we are six miles from the hotel, and every rod of the ride awakens wonder, awe and a solemn joy. First, we come within the sound of a sweet and steady thunder which seems to pour from heights at our right hand. The trees allow only glimpses of the wall, but not the cause of the continuous music. Soon we cross a fair sized rivulet that flows merrily athwart the trail; then another, and another, and another, each of them large enough for a quartz-mill stream. Again and again we meet and ford them. There are a dozen such, and soon in a wider opening among the trees we see the parent stream. But it is no prosaic water. It is a gush of splendor, a column of concentrated light from heaven. Of course, we turn our horses’ heads straight toward it. Soon we dismount, and clamber over the boulders and debris around which its dishevelled strands are briskly leaping. The rich bass deepens as we rise, and before long we are in a cloud of spray that mounts

                and thence again
Returns in an unceasing shower, which round
With its unemptied cloud of gentle rain,
Is an eternal April to the ground,
Making it all one emerald.

Not a very “gentle” rain, however, as our soaked clothes soon attested. I did not stay long amid the glories of the flashing iridescence, for I wished to stand by the wall itself and look up. So I pushed ahead through the blowing rainbows, and soon reached the smooth-faced rampart. I was entirely safe now from the spray, which fell forty feet in front upon the boulders, and I could look up steadily, with no mist in the eyes except what the wonder of the picture stimulated. I am not going to describe it. The ponderous and the sentimental adjectives shall be undisturbed in my Worcester’s Dictionary, which has come to me “around the Horn.” The wall is here about a thousand feet high, for a distance of an eighth of a mile. It sags in the centre, and there, eight hundred feet over my head, was the curve of the cataract, as it pours from the level stream for its unbroken descent of a sixth of a mile. Not a single projection from the wall, or bulge in it, is there to fret or mar the majesty and freedom of the current. It was probably fifteen feet wide where it started its descent; it kept its curve and a concentrated life for some three hundred feet; and then gravitation got hold of it, shook it apart, and made it tumble headlong through the air for five hundred feet more, scattering millions of pearls, and whole sheets of filmy mist, to be smitten with splendor by the sun.

This cascade is called “The Bridal Veil.” A worse name might be given to it. In fact a worse name was given to it; for I find that in 1856 it was christened “Falls of Louise” by some explorers, in honor of “the first lady of our party that entered the valley.” Thank Heaven, the cataract wouldn’t stand this nonsense; and it seemed to me to be Pleading with us to have the “Bridal Veil” folly thrown aside, that it might be known forever by its Indian baptism, “Pohono.” As I think of it, I lose quickly the impression of the widening of its watery trail before it struck the rocks to strike thunder from them; I do not dwell, either, on the fascinations of its evermelting and renewing tracery, nor on the brilliance of the Iris-banners that are dyed into its leaping mists and flying shreds; I can recall for my supreme delight only the curve of the tide more than eight hundred feet aloft where it starts off from the precipice, and the transparency of its “vitreous brink” with the edge now and then veiled with a little curling, dusty vapor when the wind blew hard against it, but generally tinged with a faint apple-green lustre. Thus, before we had been twenty minutes in the Yo-Semite valley, we were at the foot of a fall as high and more beautiful than the celebrated Staubach, the highest in Europe. 100

Still we have five miles of horseback riding to the hotel. Is there such a ride possible in any other part of the planet? Nowhere among the Alps, in no pass of the Andes, and in no cañon of the mighty Oregon range, is there such stupendous rock-scenery as the traveller now lifts his eyes to. The Sierra Nevada has very few peaks that make the impression which fourteen thousand feet of height ought to leave on the mind. But it may challenge any portion of the globe, except the awful gorges of the Himalaya through which the gloomy Sutlej pours, to rival the savageness and sublimity of these bluffs and spires. The Saguenay river shores are the best suggestion of the rocky sides of the Yo-Semite valley; but their grandest headlands are not half so high as portions of these battlements. Drain the black tide of the Saguenay from its bed, and cover the bottom of the chasm thus revealed with brilliant meadows and groves two hundred feet high, and Canada could show a twin Yo-Semite.

After leaving the nook in which the Pohono tumbles, we found ourselves soon under a cliff twice as high. We were obliged to turn our heads back, to see its crest, two thousand feet of sheer height above us. The first view was so terrible that I supposed this must be the most striking scenery in all the valley, and I was greatly astonished at learning the absolute measurement of the precipice. Opposite this cliff, on the left or northerly bank of the river, stood the sublime rock called “El Capitan” or the Chieftain—a Spanish rendering of the Indian name “Tu-toch-ah-nu-lah” a sachem of one of the early tribes. This wonderful piece of natural masonry stands at an angle with the valley, presenting a sharp edge and two sides in one view. And how high, think you? 3,817 feet! 101 Can’t we honestly put an exclamation point there? Remember, too, that it stands straight. There is no easy curve line as in the sides of the White Mountain Notch—to a picture of which I lift my eyes as I write in my library. In fact, the monstrous mass beetles a little. You can stand on the summit and drop a plumb-line to the base. I called it just now a piece of natural masonry; but the word is inaccurate. The immense escarpment has no crack or mark of stratification. There is no vegetation growing anywhere on it, for there is no patch of soil on either front, and no break where soil can lodge and a shrub can grow. It is one block of naked granite, pushed up from below to give us a sample of the cellar-pavement of our California counties, and to show us what it is that our earthquakes joggle. But on one face the wall is weather stained, or lichen-stained with rich cream-colored patches; on the other face it is ashy grey. A more majestic object than this rock I expect never to see on this planet. Great is granite, and the Yo-Semite is its prophet!

We ride along a little further on the right bank of the river, and find another portion of the wall over our heads on the right hand, from which two immense obelisks are upreared. They are called “The Sisters!” 102 Bah! One is named Udola, the other Tululah,—not Indian namings, but white men’s sentimental nonsense. These “Sisters” with soft liquid titles, look down upon you from an altitude of thirty-five hundred feet, and occasionally send their respects to the meadow in a flake or two of a thousand tons, dropping perpendicularly more than half a mile! Miss Udola will excuse us for not tarrying long in the neighborhood of her charities. Another mile, and we are under the shadow of “The Sentinel” Look up to that “pinnacled silence!” There is a height greater than the twin obelisks last left, and even overlooking by five hundred feet the wall “El Capitan” on the left bank below. How charmingly the frosts have gnawed and ravaged its upper edges! We drive close to the base, hold our heads back at a right angle with the back-bone, and gaze long at the delicate points and lines of those splinters in the zenith. The highest of those needles is 4347 feet over our heads. 103 Reader, do you appreciate that height? Probably you have been in “The Glen” among the White Mountains, and you remember the sharp peak of Mt. Adams, whose pyramid is so symmetrical, seen from the porch of the Glen House. But on that porch you stand at least three miles from the Centre of the mountain’s base. Imagine Mt. Adams cloven by Omnipotence from that apex to its lowest stone, so that you could ride on horseback within a few rods of the smooth wall, and look up from plinth to crown! That summit is not quite forty-three hundred feet above the Glen; and you can now judge what it is to turn your eye to the dim turrets of “The Sentinel” in Yo-Semite.

The wall opposite the Sentinel has a height at one point of 4480 feet. 104 The valley is about a mile wide. If the two sides could be pried from their foundations and tipped toward each other, they could not fall. They would meet and support each other, and convert the valley into a mighty cave, with a roofing more than three-quarters of a mile high. In fact, early in the Summer afternoon, the opposite wall is in gloom, and throws its immense shadow athwart the meadows beneath, robbing them of four hours of sunshine which the fields under the Sentinel enjoy. These shadows divide our attention with the continuous line of rampart under which we ride still three miles before reaching our goal. And the hotel is not the end of the valley or its wonders. Still beyond, as we catch sight of it, are two immense domes of bare and glistening granite. How high are they? What is the measure of that Southerly one which the declining sun is sheathing with impalpable gold? If it were 23 feet higher it would be 5000 feet! I look for an earthquake to make it stand on tiptoe yet, and add the requisite amount to the present 4967 feet which the surveyors allow to it. 105 But as it stands, it is three hundred feet taller than Mt. Washington, from the points nearest its base, and the side of St. Peter’s is not more perpendicular than the wall which it crowns. But as we approach the hotel and turn toward the opposite bank of the river, what is that

Which ever sounds and shines,
A pillar of white light upon the wall
Of purple cliffs aloof descried?

That, reader, is the highest waterfall in the world, the Yo-Semite cataract, 2500 feet in its plunge, dashing from a break or depression in a Cliff 3200 feet sheer! 106 Of course, we must not commence a description of it here. It won’t run dry—at least the memory of it will not—before another letter can be written. With its music in our ears we will go into the Shanty-Hotel, and ask for rooms, and water, and a meal. The hotel is a two story institution about fifty feet long, and fifteen feet deep. The front is clap-boarded; the back wall is common cotton cloth. The hall upstairs is not finished off into chambers, but has spaces of eight feet square divided by cotton screens, within which beds without sheets are laid upon the bare floor. There are two rooms below which have beds on posts, and furniture for ladies. But what care we for rooms and furniture, when the windows are open, and we look out upon that opposite wall and the marvellous cascade, whose glorious music floods the air? 107

“Mr. Peck, can you give us a broiled chicken, some bread and butter, and a cup of tea with fresh milk or cream?” Clover grows six feet tall on the Yo-Semite meadows, but landlord Peck replies: “Gentlemen, I have no milk, for I do not keep a cow. There is no butter in the house, and chickens were never seen here.” What, O Transcript, do you think our meal consisted of? Stewed oysters and lobster! I hold up my pen and make oath. Among those wilds of the Sierras we had on the table oysters and lobster from New York, with a bottle of Boston pickles. And the shellfish were cooked for us by a Chinaman! The crustacea finding their way from the Atlantic, and the cook from the Pacific, to that magnificent glen—so lately the undisturbed camp of the grizzlies—is it not a sign of the union which California is destined yet to celebrate between the remotest East and West?


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