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Next: Till-Hill to Lake BensonContentsPrevious: Yosemite Valley to Hetch-Hetchy

Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


Six o’clock next morning found us climbing the steep trail out of the Hetch-Hetchy, at a point about opposite where we had entered it. The upper end of the valley lay in the early sunlight that streamed between the eastern peaks, while the whole lower half was eclipsed in the vast shadow of Kolana. A heavy dew lay grey on the meadows, and the river ran green in the sunshine and steely dark in the shade. On the opposite wall the pinnacles of the pines already shimmered in light of a smoky hotness. I looked over to where Oom Paul’s camp should be for the smoke of his morning bacon, but I fear he is no early riser.

A climb of some two thousand feet in a distance of not much over a mile brought us to the top of the ascent. Early as it was the sun was scorching, and we congratulated ourselves on having broken the back of the day’s travelling while we were fresh. We now entered a cool forest of cedar and yellow pine, with here and there a sugar pine rising in conspicuous majesty. Squirrels and blue-jays made a lively stir. Little pools of clear water lay in grassy hollows, reflecting the white and blue of the sky. Purple godetias flocked in every sunny opening, and tall lilies and larkspurs glowed in the shade of the forest aisles.

A few miles of easy travelling brought us to another meadow golden with flowers. Here dwelt in past times one Miguel, a Mexican who has been translated by the cartographers of the Geological Survey into the clan of the McGills. Traces of his occupancy remain in a rail-fence that wanders in an irresolute manner about the meadow, the old cedar rails whitening like bones in the sun, or submerged a fathom deep in idle herbage. Each of these meadows seems more delightful than the last. Sequestered in deep forest and hushed eternally by its murmur, they are heavenly places of birds and flowers, bits of original paradise. The little brooks that water them ring carillons of tinkling melody as they wind through shady tunnels of carex and bending grasses. At morning and evening and on moonlit nights the deer come, no longer even at the trouble of leaping the fences, to regale on mint and lettuce that has descended through many generations from the old settler’s vegetable-garden. All day the robins and the meadow-larks repeat their canticles from the last remaining fence-posts, and squirrels and chipmunks scamper along the sagging rails, appreciating the convenience of a literal railway.

A turn of the trail brought us sooner than we had expected in view of Lake Eleanor. This is a handsome sheet of water, a mile and a half long and half as wide, with timbered mountains sweeping down to the shore at all points except the southwest, where Eleanor Creek flows out of the lake through meadows brilliantly green. On the northern side fine cliffs fall sheer to the water, rising at the eastern end to a conspicuous white dome. The lake was very still, and the reflection of the dark cliffs perfect, except when the blue was broken for a moment by wandering flaws of wind. In the middle a black speck that was creeping about warned us that we were not to be entirely alone.

A steep descent led us to the lake level, near where a small meadow bordered by a creek offered a good camping-place. Here retribution overtook Jack, who by this time had earned the hearty ill-will of us all. Leaving the trail in his usual offensive fashion, he was trying to push through an opening of the brush near the edge of the lake, where the ground was more boggy than he supposed. In a moment he was up to his belly in black mire. Field ran forward to hold him by his halter-rope, and Bodie, laying hold of his tail with one hand, gave him a terrific rope-ending with the other. The jack, half sunk in slimy ooze, could do nothing to retaliate, though he was frantic with passion and actually bit himself in his impotent rage.

Not the least of our guide’s accomplishments was the lightning rapidity with which he could throw a meal together. The moment we reached our camp-ground he would have the pack off the animal that carried the cooking tackle, and within five minutes a fire would be burning and batter mixed for flapjacks. Almost before Field and I had the other animals unloaded Bodie would be hailing us that the grub was getting cold.

Bread needed but little longer time, though he was rigorous with himself in this matter, and would criticise his product severely for the least shortcoming. The new Dutch-oven, primarily intended for the baking of bread, came to fulfil many uses: now it became the vehicle of a “mulligan”; anon it would hold our potatoes or coffee. I once happened to refer to it as the sine qua non, having regard to its varied uses. The term took Bodie’s fancy mightily; it became then and thenceforth the “sinkienon”; and I have no doubt it is the sinkienon to-day, to the perplexity of other travellers under his convoy.

Its shape, a portly spheroid supported upon three Falstaffian legs, made the sinkienon something of a problem in packing. By experience we found that it travelled best seated on the top of one of the packs, securely lashed to keep it in place. In this position it resembled some stout captive, or Begum, in a how-dah. It was always the last to be lifted up, and the first to be lifted down; and when Jack or Clementine ran amuck our first anxiety was ever for its safety. In the afternoon heavy clouds gathered in the east, enhancing the solitary beauty of the scene. All the natural colors of the landscape seemed to be withdrawn, leaving only black, white, and a full chord of greys. Leaden masses of vapor drooped over the lake, and lay furled along the line of the black cliffs on the opposite shore. Far in the east a line of ragged, spiky peaks stood high up in the sky, lighted now and then for a moment by the westering sun through cloud rents of gloomy glory. A group of aspens on a low point were reflected on the dark surface of the lake as if drawn in Chinese white, and the heavy water moved uneasily under the massed lily pads near the shore. Everything promised a storm; but no storm came, and I relieved the disappointment by a swim in water of a delightful temperature, with a charmed stillness in the air, and the ripples flowing away from me as I swam in shining curves of black and white.

Among a clump of tall pines on the shore we found two soldiers camped. The mystery of the boat we had seen was explained when we found the old dug-out canoe in which these peaceful sons of Mars went fishing, or paddled serenely about upholding the majesty of the law. Half-a-dozen times a day they rowed across an arm of the lake to fill their buckets at an ice-cold spring. They are happy warriors whose lot it is to serve their country so.

My plans as to our route were not very definitely laid down. The intention was simply to strike easterly from this point, keeping north of the Tuolumne River, crossing the crest of the Sierra by one of the two or three passes that I knew to be practicable, refitting at Mono Lake, and returning by one of the passes farther to the south. In conversation with the soldiers we learned that the wildest part of the region, and therefore the most attractive, lay up in the direction of the Matterhorn peaks to the northeast. I had not provided myself with maps of that part of the Sierra which lies north of the “Yosemite” and “Mount Lyell” quadrangles of the Geological Survey, nor had Bodie, as it happened, traversed this part of the mountains. But he had no doubt of being able to find a way through to the east, by his knowledge of the general topography of the range.

The name of the Matterhorn peaks had a highly desirable sound. We pored for an hour by candlelight over the soldiers’ maps, and decided that we must see the country that answered to such a name. The next morning was clear and sparkling. Early ducks were breakfasting among the water-lilies, and the lake was still sleeping in the shadow of the eastern mountains, when we took the back-trail up to the summit. The roar of falls on Eleanor Creek, a mile away, reached us clearly on the still air. The brush was drenched in dew, and under a genial sun poured out its most pungent essences, and all the wayside blossoms had that divine freshness that flowers wear in early morning, as if they were newly brought from heavenly conservatories. There grows about here a giant kind of forget-me-not, with stems eighteen inches high and flowers three quarters of an inch across, a forget-me-not of the forget-me-nots, not to be forgotten.

At the head of the divide we found our new trail bearing away to the northeast, near where it crosses a rushing stream called Frog Creek. Looking back to the west we bade a second farewell to the lake, now showing an oval disk of gleaming blue among folds of dark forested mountains. Far beyond, a glimmering haze lay over the arid valley of the San Joaquin, and a wavy band of neutral -tint just indicated the outlines of the Coast Range. It was an ideal painter’s landscape.

On the north exposure of the mountain-sides around us magnificent firs stood like a picked regiment, every individual tall, straight, and handsome: the southward-facing slopes carried a mixed forest of yellow pine, sugar pine, and cedar, with stray outposts of the tamaracks. A waving sea of fern flowed over all the forest floor, interspersed with tall spikes of blue lupine and yellow and red columbine. These two dwellers in the greenwood grow nearly always in company and seem to have a conscious affinity. Lupine is a jaunty kind of lad, careless and bold; columbine is pretty and rustic, but a bit of a rogue, too, in her way; the lightest dancer with the neatest ankle in all the forest. They make a gallant pair, of the true order of lovers in Arcady.

Fording the creek, where ouzels were out-singing the singing water, a long descent brought us to Laurel Lake, a small round sheet of water, not one tenth the size of Eleanor, delightfully gentle and secluded. Around the margin grew a rich belt of flowering shrubs. Azaleas bloomed in billowy masses, and scented the air with their hot-house fragrance. Beyond the ring of verdure the firs and pines were ranked thickly on all the slopes, and the little lake shone like a turquoise in its double setting. To the north a ridge of bare granite rose above the timber, glistening hardly less white than the summer clouds that were beginning to appear above it.

The sight of that barren mountain made me restless. There is something in me, and no doubt in many of us, that longs ungovernably toward the wild and savage in Nature. It awoke now, and called to me a hundred-fold louder than these scented shades; and after a few minutes’ rest we pushed on toward Vernon Lake. We had been told that there was a practicable cut-off by making east across country; but I have seldom found it pay to attempt to break new country of this kind with pack-animals, and we took the back-trail to the forks. From here the new trail continued north and east through fine forest, where many of the sugar pines measured from seven to eight feet in diameter near the base.

While Field returned to Laurel Lake to recover one of his cameras that had been left behind, I abandoned myself to the deep charm of the forest, here mainly of firs. It is in the fir-woods that the fullest peace and calm in Nature abide. The silence is superb. It is not the empty, aching silence of deserts and mountain summits, but a silence that is thoughtful, comprehensible, and companionable. Ever and anon there rings for a moment through the dim, still aisles the cadence of the “organ-bird,”—I know not what else to call it,— full of an indescribable poignancy that is like a pang of memory, or the exquisite remembrance of lost delight. A phrase, no more, but always of that haunting sweetness; now here, now there. The spirit of some sorrowful, wild nymph is in that bird.

The trail now trended more northerly, entering a rough and rocky country with a more open forest. There was an unusual amount of fallen timber, and presently we came upon a recent windfall which completely obscured the trail. We made wide detours, only to encounter everywhere prostrate trunks whose shattered arms stretched up as if they appealed to heaven against the outrage of their destruction. One by one the scattered members of the party trickled through the huge obstruction. Jack, whom I convoyed, did himself credit for once by feats of surpassing agility, and making no account of his load (which, you may be sure, was not the lightest), leaped breast-high trunks almost gaily.

We emerged at different points, and after repairing damages cast about for our trail. It had vanished from the face of the earth as if it had never been. At length we discovered faint traces of what might have been an antediluvian trail, and following it arrived at a pretty meadow beside which stood a decrepit cabin. This we recognized as Beehive,—a cryptic designation to which nothing about the place offered any clue.

A hundred yards beyond the cabin the faint track we had followed petered out once more. There is something exceedingly annoying in this behavior on the part of a trail. Half an hour of the most careful search left us entirely at fault; and hungry and disgusted we gave up the puzzle and went into camp beside the cabin. We had breakfasted before five o’clock and it was then two in the afternoon.

By some peculiarity of land contour the wind attains here a specially powerful sweep. While we were eating lunch a sudden gust overturned a tall tree close by. It fell with a resounding crash that gave us a respectful admiration for the wilduproar that must reign here when winter storms are raging, and infected me, at least, with a deep desire to witness such a Homeric combat. In our sunny, pacific valleys we know only one side of our mother’s nature: we never see her in severity of snow, nor in her sudden passions and relentings, and we lose much thereby.

The reaction in our feelings that came with fulness of bread left us resigned to the breaking of our plans which had contemplated camping that night at Vernon Lake. It was necessary, however, to find our trail, and leaving Bodie to the passive industry of cooking beans, Field and I walked up the meadow to survey for the actual location of the missing lake. Its distance from Beehive had been reported by the soldiers at Eleanor as one mile. Bodie, who had fallen into a mood of pessimism, declared that we should find it six; but I had already observed that our good guide held in scorn any opinion of the military that touched upon his own province. He was wont, indeed, to roundly assert that soldiers in the mountains always got lost if they ventured half a mile away from camp.

On the farther side of the meadow we met our lost trail, and followed it for two miles through a long swale of marshy ground where myriads of white and blue violets and purple cyclamens were rejoicing in the spring, which at this elevation was in full celebration now in mid-July. The Sierra spring is six or eight months long: one might almost say, indeed, in the words of the hymn, “There everlasting spring abides.” Beginning in February or March, when the foothills blaze with the red gold of eschscholtzias, one might follow the spring upward, witnessing from week to week and meadow to meadow the perpetual miracle. All through the months when the lowlands lie parched and gasping, and the evening diversions of the city householder are reduced to the watering of his lawn, the green-gowned goddess is climbing the caņons and benches of the mountains. Resting here and there beside snow-banks and ice-fountains, she waves her wand over the sleeping flowery hosts and draws them up from under their green counterpane. And when September draws to a close, and farmers in the valley begin to scan the heavens for signs of early rains, still around the high alpine lakes, themselves like azure flowers, she is waking violets, cyclamens, and castilleias, when winter rushes upon her and smothers her under sudden snows.

Reaching the summit of a gentle ridge we looked expectingly for our lake, but in vain. Deep caņons rifted a wilder country than we had hitherto seen. In one of them the lake must lie, but to-morrow must settle in which. We returned to camp, and I could see that our report gave Bodie a sardonic pleasure, as corroborating his assertion of the soldiers’ lack of trail-craft.

Mosquitoes descended upon us in swarms while we ate our supper. They also follow the spring, and here they were in the full zest of the joy of life. Three smudges and the same number of pipes, all working industriously, hardly abated their ardor, and we could but sit and endure while we waited for them to succumb to the chill of the falling temperature. The animals, neglecting the excellent pasturage of the meadow, came and stood with us in the lee of the smudges, gazing at us with glistening eyes. Our favorite, Jenny, with superior strategy, would invite the tormentors to settle freely upon her; then kneeling quietly down she would suddenly but carefully roll over upon them, and arise gloriously besmeared with the blood of the slain.

Upon the trunk of a pine close to our camp I noticed some peculiar marks, partly obliterated by the growth of the bark. They did not look like letters, yet had evidently been cut by the hand of man. As I was going over to examine them I found near the tree two or three heavy flat stones, and guessed that I had chanced upon the grave of some old backwoodsman. A simple dignity invests such a place of sepulchre akin to that of the field where the great triad of Israelitish patriarchs were buried. How much better than the vulgar haberdashery of undertakers are the healthy tassels of kindly pine that wave and sigh over the remains of this nameless squatter.

By six o’clock next morning we were again on the move, passing up the long meadow among groves of twisted aspens that were even now only half upright after their burial under the snows of the previous winter. (Bodie’s abbreviated name for these trees was “quaking ass,”—so it sounded,—and when I first heard him use the term I imagined that he was making some reference to the jack.) Crossing a low divide the trail passed out on to expanses of barren granite, polished to a glassy surface by glacial action. The animals went nervously clattering and sliding over the glistening rock, from which the sun was reflected with painful intensity. A few twisted junipers grasped the crevices and grew into weird conformations that seemed to express equally the pangs of hunger and the pains of savage storms.

As we rounded a shoulder of mountain, suddenly our lake was before us; a true Sierra lake, lying open and cold in a cup of granite. Its altitude is sixty-six hundred feet, only a few hundred feet higher than Laurel Lake; but it is of a very different character. The bare granite drops unbroken to the water on the east; around the west a fringe of trees finds a footing; and at the northern end is a strip of vivid meadow, where should have been our bivouac last night. At the upper end of the lake an antique raft was moored, built of a few logs chained together, the work of some bygone fishermen who would not be denied of the mighty trout that lounge about the deep middle of the water.

This all looked inviting enough, but it was much too early to think of camping; and, moreover, I knew that lakes by scores and hundreds lay before us; strung like beads along every caņon; sunk like secrets in every dark belt of forest; smiling frankly open on high granite plateaus and under eaves of perpetual snow. So, leaving the lake at the south end, and crossing a wild little creek that scours and swirls away over polished rock at cascade speed, we climbed by zigzags over a barren mountain to the east. A magnificent view opened from the ridge to the south and west, the great cliffs of the Hetch-Hetchy rising clear and bold in middle distance, with the forest ocean beyond rolling away and away into blue infinitude.

Here our trail plunged again into heavy timber. These abrupt and frequent transitions are a peculiarity of the Sierra, dreamy forest and explicit granite alternating continually, and both alike painted with cheerful meadows and gardens and ribbons of flowers. In this case, however, the long descent brought us to a tedious region of brush, through which we toiled for hours under a sun that beat down upon us in dizzying blasts of heat. Far below we could see a green and pleasant valley, and winding through it a gleaming creek; but the trail seemed to threaten to pass it by, keeping obstinately along the southward-facing mountain-side. At length a sudden steep descent took us down to the level, and we guessed that we had chanced upon the Till-till, a small valley lying above and to the northeast of the Hetch-Hetchy, corresponding in a way to the position of the Little Yosemite with regard to the Yosemite Valley.

The usual abandoned cabin proclaimed some departed settler. By preference I always avoid the neighborhood of these cheerless objects, with their purlieus of mouldering gunny-sacks and rusty cans, and crossing the creek we came to a halt under a handsome cedar beneath which lay the shed antlers of a deer.

The day being Saturday we made preparations for a two-nights’ camp. The principal difference lay in our setting up a rough tent by simply running one of the lash-ropes between a couple of trees and throwing the largest pack-canvas across it, anchoring the sides with rocks or pegs, as convenient. This tent was really only a ceremonious adjunct, of no particular use, but erected in deference to a convention as signifying unlimited ease and comparative permanence.

On this occasion, however, it served a real purpose. Clouds had been gathering all the morning in the north, and thunder rumbled at intervals. Towards evening the storm broke suddenly, while we were employed over the weekly clothes-washing For an hour deluges of rain and hail fell alternately, while we sat in patriarchal wise in the door of our tent, or made sallies in turn to sustain the sputtering fire under the sinkienon. Later, when the mosquito hordes arose in unusual vigor, we lighted a virulent smudge at the windward opening of the tent, and sat looking out at the lee end, reeking and weeping together in the pungent smoke.

The Till-till is a camping-place of unusual attractiveness. It is an enclosed valley of the richest verdure, sown with flowers and planted with a charming variety of trees. All around are timbered mountains, sweeping up on the north to a castle-like summit of crags. On this high peak the thunder-storm delivered its main assault, and it was a fine spectacle to watch the dark gathering of the clouds about it, and to see the glittering spears of lightning leap and quiver against its majestic cliffs. A long promontory of glacial-polished rock divides the valley lengthwise, and rooted in its crannies I found a quaint collection of dwarfed pines and junipers, as wild of shape and aged of look as if they might themselves have been ground under primeval glaciers; six inches of knotted stem to six feet of sinewy root. About the meadow stand delicate aspens and stately pines, and knee-high cyclamens form fairy groves among the tall reeds and grasses. The river abounds with trout, and even the grass of the marshes shivers with wriggling fish. I suppose that to rigorous sportsmen such abundance would be contemptible, but as for us, we fished and ate with no qualms of that sort.

By sunset the storm had passed, and the clouds broke into masses of ragged gold and swept gorgeously away like a procession of kings. Then a timid little moon came up above the southern wall, pouring down her silvery peace upon rain-laden grass and glistening rock and river, a symbol of the meekness that inherits the earth.

I awoke during the night, and lay for a long time watching with admiration too deep for that word the cloudy panorama of the skies. The moon was full and yellow, and the light about her, combining with the intense depth of the open spaces of the heavens, made her seem to be sunk as in a well, dark and clear, from whence her light streamed down with a steady, concentrated effulgence. Vast wings of cloud, feathered with little plumy sprays, rose to beyond the zenith, and against their lower edges the ranks of pine and fir on the high mountain ridge were etched in sooty blackness. The world was very still, as if the operations of Nature were for a time suspended, pausing to fulfil the solemn beauty to the uttermost.

I remember that I had at the time, and have had on similar occasions, a vivid impression of having been purposely awakened; and I sometimes wonder whether there may not be in circumstances of unusual beauty or impressiveness an actual force or presence, which in some mysterious manner passes the locked gates of the senses, and, laying upon us its thrilling hand, wakes us that we may not miss the unearthly pageant. Bodie, however, had a simpler explanation of my wakefulness. He “guessed there was a rock sticking into me.”

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