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Next: Gem Lake to Little YosemiteContentsPrevious: Lake Tenaya to Mono Lake

Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


CHAPTER XVIII
THE HIGH SIERRA: MONO TO GEM LAKE

Physiology and psychology meet in the borderland of dreams, and the onion is a potent and treacherous vegetable. All night I walked precipices, ‘scaped hair-breadth ‘scapes, and glissaded down league-long slopes of pineapple sherbet into sardine-populated lakes; and when the sun rose sudden and red above the low Nevada mountains, I fortified myself behind my knees and slowly returned to myself. I remembered having once been awake and seen the narrow waning moon swimming low down, like an ancient galley-boat, in the early morning sky, while a band of horses galloped and thundered around me, neighing wildly over some nocturnal excitement. I remembered, too, that I had had a had headache. But a dip in the creek changed all that; and with shining morning faces we presented ourselves at the breakfast-table, ready for fresh imprudences.

During the morning Bodie and I drove over to the store at the lake to lay in fresh supplies for the days to come. One meets out-of-the-way characters, naturally, in out-of out-of-the-way places. As we ploughed along the dusty road we came up with a wagon and team driven, as it appeared from the rear, by a stout, grey-haired woman, wearing a man’s soft felt hat. Her knot of greasy hair wagged with the wag of the conveyance upon a villainously dirty yellow neck-wrapper, and her broad back somehow expressed an ignominious and abominable complacency. As we passed the wagon we found that the driver was a man, with a swarthy, clean-shaven countenance of the fakir type. The swarthiness was principally the result of dirt, and I use the term clean-shaven as applying to the manner of shaving, and having no reference to real cleanliness.

A hundred yards ahead we passed another wagon, driven by an older man, less completely obnoxious, perhaps, in feature and person, but of a truculent and bullying aspect. The two “outfits” seemed to bear a sneaking relation, though there was nothing that could be said actually to indicate any connection between them.

I found that the sentiments of repugnance aroused in me by the men were strongly shared by Bodie. On my asking for a diagnosis, he unhesitatingly classified them as “wagon-tramps,” a profession whose name was new to me, but of whom he averred the existence of a large fraternity, well organized for purposes of mutual aid and protection in the practice of their calling. This consists in thieving in the grand larceny manner. Where your foot-tramp ventures to pick up a bridle, the wagon variety boldly steals the horse: where the smaller rascal demands the housewife’s pies and coffee, this comparative degree appropriates half-a-dozen sacks of barley from the barn.

“The woods is full of them,” Bodie poetically complained. “Along about March or April, spring anyway, these skates start out with their wagons. They just keep moving along, moving along, beating their way; always fat and hearty, never paying for nothing they can steal, and that’s pretty near everything they want. See that dirty, long-haired blatherskite behind there: ever see a feller of that pattern farm? keep store? work honest with his hands? No, sir, not with that hair and hide. Say, them cattle ought to be roped on sight and the hose turned on ’em, or the crick, and the hair clipped off ’em way down to their teeth. And I’d like to handle the shears, I would.” Thus honest Bodie; and I fully agreed, though with a reservation as to the last article.

It was a weird yet fascinating land through which we drove. Mono Lake and the region surrounding it are unique within the United States. Here, at an elevation of sixty-four hundred feet, is a body of water eighty or ninety square miles in extent, highly mineralized with the alkalines, borax and soda. Many streams from the mountains pour into it great quantities of pure fresh water, but without mitigating in any degree its peculiar quality. It is a veritable Dead Sea. No fish nor reptile inhabits it, nor does any wandering bird or animal come to its margin to drink its bitter waters. The shores are whitened with alkaline incrustations, and the branches and twigs of dead trees that rise above the surface are petrified to the semblance of bone.

The lake was anciently of much larger extent, and the old shore-lines are still plainly marked upon the higher ground, the highest one that is clearly distinguishable being nearly seven hundred feet above the present level of the water. Two islands and a number of islets lie out in the middle of the lake. The largest, Paoha or Herman Island, is about two miles long by one and a half wide. It is largely made up of volcanic ashes, and hot water and steam issue from a number of vents at the southern end of the island, hard by where rises a spring of fresh cold water. The smaller island is purely volcanic, of black basalt, with a crater of three hundred feet height.

On the principal island indications of oil have recently been found, and the inevitable derrick is already in evidence, with millionaires, diamonds, Paris, and divorce courts looming in the mental background.

It did not enhance for me the attractiveness either of the lake itself or of the Indians of the locality to learn that these latter subsist in part upon the larvae of a fly which breeds in this blighted water. The larva are washed up at a certain season on the shore in such quantities as to form, I am told, heaps and windrows two or three feet in height. Lo, the omnivorous, has discovered a weird gusto in this unholy edible, which he dries in the plentiful sun and then grinds to a powder which he denominates cuchaba, and mingles with his flour of acorns and other heterogeneous aliment.

To the south of the lake stands the range of dead volcanoes, grey and menacing, their sides covered with powdery ashes mixed with pumice and obsidian. Even these forbidding slopes some varieties of plants, and even trees, contrive to inhabit. The highest of the volcanic peaks rises twenty-seven hundred feet above the plain. Facing them on the west rise in strongest contrast the splendid peaks of the Sierra, laced with joyful streams, spangled with lakes, and glorious with forests: life against death; water against fire; beauty for ashes.

The road was deep in sand, merging into interminable wastes of sage and greasewood brush. Rabbits and doves abounded. Here and there lay huge isolated tufae, covered with ugly blisters, knobs, and corrugations. One of them that was near a settler’s cabin had been ingeniously converted into a storage-room, or it might even be called a house, for it was nearly as big as the cabin. The inside had been hollowed out and a door fitted to the aperture. It resembled an enormous mouldy chocolate-cream, and would have been a handsome dwelling for Diogenes.

On the hillsides grew scattered trees, mostly a new variety of pine, the monophylla, single-leafed, or Orion pine, from which the Indians gather great crops of those small edible nuts which I have observed in fruit-stores waiting long for purchasers. It is a useful-looking, bushy little tree, thickly foliaged with greyish-green needles. The cones are small and compact, and by no means generous in appearance; but they are filled with large seeds which form almost the staff of life of the Indians of the region.

The post-office for this locality bears the appropriate name of Crater. I was expecting to receive letters there, and found Uncle Sam established in a rather pitiable little shack of a house, the only one for a mile or more in every direction. He was a genial soul, however, and discoursed with us in friendly wise, while he sorted out my mail, upon such matters as should be of universal interest: as, the price alfalfa hay was fetching over to the San Joaquin; and, had Bodie “heerd how was Jedge Dickerman’s bay mare as had cut herself to slithers on a ba’b-wire fence down to Bishop? “Further, he opined that Mono must look good to us after what he called, with a probably unconscious Biblical allusion, “them etarnal mountins.” In this Arcadian post-office one mails one’s letters in the bureau drawer, and from the excitement aroused by my request for a five-cent stamp I gather that they are regarded as philatelic rarities of high finance.

There are one or two little settlements along the lake-side, situated naturally at the points where streams from the mountains enter the lake. These hamlets are quite idyllic spots, riotously verdant, with neat houses and every appearance of modest prosperity. Thickets of wild rose six feet high, and heavy crops of alfalfa, clover, and timothy give proof of the magical effect of water upon this otherwise dreary desert. Yet to me there seemed always something menacing in the neighborhood of that blue, sinister lake, like the inscrutable smile of a poisoner. By the roadside an Indian woman was sitting, surrounded by children, dogs, pots, gunny-sacks, and ashes. To my enquiry whether she had baskets for sale she replied briefly, “No makeum basket,” and closed the incipient transaction.

While we attended to our business at the store, which is also a saloon, there entered our two supposed wagon-tramps, bearing demijohns and other accoutrements proper to bibulous travellers. These and themselves they proceeded with a businesslike air to fill with strong liquors, and after haunting the “stoop” for a few minutes in a furtive manner, climbed into their respective rigs and passed upon their way. I did not grieve that ours lay in the opposite direction.

Next morning I awoke at half-past three, and lay luxuriously smelling the morning scents and watching the dawn. I might have been in Syria or Egypt. A long narrow line of burning desert red ran along the low east, shading suddenly into the ultra-blue of the night sky, hardly yet lightening to the day. The moon and the morning-star shone together, clear and earnest, with a few other stars of the greatest magnitude still beaming in the zenith. It was almost theatrically scenic, but for the heavenly largeness and purity of the air, and the low cool blowing of the dawn-wind. I saw the Pyramids, and the Sphinx, and the Flight into Egypt. Then I got up and reversed my bedding, and lay down again to revel in the phantasmagoria of the high mountain wall to the west, turning from night dimness to shadowy grey, then flushing and burning to red, redder and yet redder, as the level arrows of the sun began to stream between the peaks of the distant Nevada ranges. And when the flashing disk came soaring up, and turned his shrivelling rays upon our bivouac, I sighed to think of that long, toilsome climb back to the High Sierra levels, which lay before us.

Leaving the hospitable Farringtons with kindly farewells, and little dreaming how soon and how strangely the charming young daughter of the house, whose brightness and gaiety bloomed like a rare flower in that sequestered spot, was to be summoned away, we took the road to the south. It passed at first through a long valley meadow, with the living snowy mountains on one hand and the dead grey ones on the other. Behind lay Mono Lake, flickering mirage-like under the desert sun. Swallows, most beloved of birds, skimmed joyously over the pastures, and meadow-larks bubbled and blackbirds chirruped from every fence-rail.

After a mile or so we left the road for a trail that struck more westerly, and were soon skirting the grey, sage-covered foothills. Then the pines met us, their long picket-lines thrown bravely out far into the enemy’s country. Parker Peak and Mount Wood, straight ahead, towered up magnificently, solidly snow-covered for half their height. These mountains form a noble gateway to Parker Pass, the next pass to the southward of the one by which we had crossed the range.

A handsome stream, Rush Creek, came pouring down, clear and arrowy. We were to keep it company for some days, and excellent company it proved to be. I do not know a more attractive stream in the Sierra. Even here on the lower levels it flowed full and strong and whole-hearted, and I wished that its fate had been rather to sink away into the desert sand than to merge and stifle in that dreary lake.

Crossing a slight rise we came unexpectedly upon Grant Lake, lying unlakelike among rolling, sage-covered hills, but with fine snow-clad mountains beyond to the south and west. A little square cabin stands by the shore, half lost among the tangle of brush and boulders. The door was open, and I went inside. There were tokens of recent habitation in the new ashes on the hearth, though furniture there was none except two plank shelves attached to the wall. The fireplace was a quaint concern, built of slabs of rock set between natural rough posts of wood. The little habitation might have been transplanted bodily from the plains of Languedoc.

The lake shades off at its southern end into a wide swamp of tules, bordered by a meadow of waving

RUSH CREEK AND THE CREST OF THE SIERRA
[click to enlarge]
RUSH CREEK AND THE CREST OF THE SIERRA
grasses mixed with wild roses, iris, and many other lowers. A solitary sandhill-crane stood among the _winkling shallows of the lake-end, philosophically waiting, secure that his own should come to him. The crane seems to be a bird of admirable patience and quite gigantic leisure.

Grant Lake is altogether a pleasing and peaceful spot, with a quiet, unexciting beauty of its own. Passing down the meadow where a bunch of portly cattle were grazing, or, having grazed, were considering the possibility of grazing again, the trail wound among sandy flats where grew myriads of the thistle-poppy (Argemone), mixed with the common low-growing thistle. The creek accompanied us in a friendly manner, running with a smooth, swift flow between banks lined with quiet willows and whispering aspens. As we began to rise more steeply the sage-brush ended, unregretted, and the pines received us once more into their illustrious kingdom.

Conversation flagged somewhat. I think that in my own case this was due to a feeling of regret that we were now inward-bound, complicated possibly with a slight indigestion. Bodie’s voice reached me occasionally, rebuking Jack, who insisted upon marching alongside instead of in the trail, and some twenty feet away, as if he were an officer. This preference resulted frequently in his encountering some impediment which his obstinacy would not brook to evade but urged him to push through, with disastrous effects upon his pack. When the barrier was plainly impassable his habit was to turn round three times, as if he worked on a pivot, and then stand looking at us with a coldly indifferent air which implied, “I don’t care; you’ve got to get me out; and I’m going to do it again, too.”

A grove of unusually large aspens merged suddenly into pines and junipers as the trail entered a narrow cañon, with rugged mountains closing around us. After a mile or two the cañon opened to another irised meadow where a cascade foamed down a side-cañon; and half a mile farther we could see the whole river pouring wildly down the western mountain-side in a broad scarf to enter Silver Lake.

This lake lies under a fine craggy mountain, whose steep gullies were laced with snow almost to the water. It appears to be visited by a good many people from this eastern side, being easily accessible (it lies at seventy-two hundred feet of elevation), and a notable fishing ground. At the lower end were two or three tents, and on the lake was a boat from which two anglers were industriously casting. We sought a camp-ground at the upper end, and with some difficulty found a few square yards of level on the river-bank above the lake and close to the foot of the fall, which provided an eloquent background of sound for the meditations which an early camp and inspiring surroundings invited.

The mountains were sombre, rugged, and finely turreted. On the eastern side of the lake they plunged in precipices almost to the water’s edge; to south and west they were equally imposing and rose in cliffs of uncompromising verticality for three thousand feet.

While Field photographed and Bodie succumbed to a siesta, I fished the stream with good success. The trout rose well to both fly and spoon, and were of good size and mettle. Bodie had recounted to me legends of trout of two feet length and over, and that such magnificoes do navigate the deep, still waters of this lake I see no reason to doubt. Moreover, the flesh of these trout is salmon-red, as becomes a lordlier race, and is of surpassing flavor, as we all agreed at breakfast next morning.

When I returned to camp I found it pervaded by a novel and grateful odor which proceeded from the sinkienon. I cautiously raised the lid, and beheld a semi-liquid conglomerate of ruddy or saffron hue, such as I have seen in the unlawful flesh-pots of wandering Egyptians. It was a “mulligan,” long-expected, come at last; and as we ate we blessed once more the kindly hostess of Farrington’s, and came and came again.

When we turned in, a south wind was blowing strongly, with a scent of rain in it, whereat I somewhat rejoiced. Thus far the whole trip had been made in sunny weather except for two or three spasmodic thunder-showers; and I longed for a day or two of storm, or at least of cloud, so that wild scenery might receive the enhancement of wild weather.

I awoke to a glorious cloudy morning. Lowering vapors were lighted redly on their fringes by a sun that struggled to raise an excited countenance above the opposite wall of mountains. Hardly an hour ahead of him the little thin moon was slipping through the wrack as if she thought herself pursued. Evening primroses, like other moons, gazed mildly down at me as I lay and watched the changes of the sky reflected in the smooth-flowing river six feet away. The wind had ceased, and even the aspens stirred not a leaf.

By seven o’clock we were on the trail. It led at first up the steep face of the western mountain, among junipers and open brushwood, and close beside the fall. The lake lay leaden grey among the gloomy hills, and rain was already falling from the eastern clouds. The wind had risen again, and boomed softly in our ears, mingling with the rush and roar of the fall. It was a morning full of half-tone poetry and clear but not acute sensations. I wonder whether I am singular in finding myself, as I always do, ten times as much alive on a soft grey day, or even on a hard grey one, as on a sunny blue one. If, I thought, I were a poet, or a painter, now, now I could do great work.

And then came the blessed rain, driving down, driving down. Ah, welcome, welcome! O wild, free spirit of my beloved Cumberland mountains, I feel thee near! O friends, long departed, with whom I knew them, ye are near, too! Now, see, far off the sun is pouring down a grey-gold flood of light upon some lonely lake,—I see it by an inward sense; nay, I am there. How still it is, and holy: the vision of a vision.

We rounded the head of the fall in a wild amphitheatre of castled cliffs that poured off into vast slopes of screes. A few junipers huddled on the rocky ledges. The rain streamed fervently down. Our animals scrambled and staggered upwards with bitter complaints, but mercy there was none. As we reached the crest the wind rushed heavily against us in angry surges as though it would sweep us over the cliff, and flung the stinging rain and hail level in our faces. Wild water, wild sky, wild earth, wild air, — it was superb, the pure -drawn joy of life. And here, in the neck of the pass, lay Lake Agnew, darkly, wildly beautiful. High mountains closed it in; at its head a long white torrent thundered down over black ledges of slate; and over all crouched a sky shredded into grey rain. Ever and anon the wind swooped screaming down, and the little lake seemed to shrink and shiver like a terrified child.

At the head of the long cascade yet another lakelet was hidden, with rocky islets breaking its surface. This connected with still another, lying under a black precipice, and surrounded with huddled clumps of tamarack. Opening from this is a larger lake with a magnificent snowy peak showing beyond it to the west. It was Gem Lake, and the great mountain was Lyell, king of the middle Sierra.

The trail ran high above the water around the northern end of the lake before it dropped to a small meadow at the western end. Huge junipers were scattered along the cliff ledges, many of them mere skeletons, white and polished to the bone by the storms of many centuries. At this altitude of nine thousand feet winter reigns and rages for half the year; and the weird brothers stand grappling the rock with literal death-grips, their aged arms streaming out with horrified gestures, as if they would fight off the grisly enemy to the last.

By a rocky point where a few clustered pines made a shade which, however unnecessary to-day, might be grateful to-morrow (which would be Sunday), we pitched camp. Bodie, good man, rejoicing in abundant pasturage for his beasts, opened the grub packs with alacrity, and, outdoing himself in despatch, quickly hailed us to a majestic steak, replete with the juices of Mono’s best herbage.

The evening was mild, threatening more rain. I set fire to a sizable log that lay on the shore, and sat for an hour or two listening to the pleasant monologue of the lake. The wind, which had ceased about sundown, now rose again, and sent the ripples first whispering and then chattering up on the little beach. The sky was overcast, and occasional drops of rain fell hissing into the fire, which throbbed and roared like a blacksmith’s forge under the heavy swirls of wind. The sparks blew out in a steady stream over the black water. It was a fine, hearty end to a splendid day, and I brought my blankets down from camp and spread them close to the water’s edge, so that I could easily lift up and see what might be going forward in the way of weather or scenery if I should chance to awake during the night.

As it happened there was a good deal going on in the way of weather. I might have slept an hour or two when I awoke to find the rain pouring down heavily, and distant thunder rumbling in the south. Pulling up an extra canvas over my head I lay and listened for a while to the tattoo of the rain and the muffled growling of the thunder; then gradually I dozed off once more. A terrific burst of thunder right overhead awoke me again, followed by others that roared and crackled all around the lake. I almost seemed to see the shattering impact of the sound-waves as they broke against that black precipice, as I have seen great breakers burst on a stormy coast and rush wildly up the face of some high cliff.

The rain poured steadily down, and I retreated further into my fastness, in present comfort but with some anxiety as to how long it was going to last. I was fearful of damage, moreover, to our photographic properties, which were not protected against such heavy rain; but I was a hundred yards away from camp, and the prospect of a dash through rocks, darkness, and a deluge was depressing. So I lay and suffocated myself into a state of coma, in which I was dimly aware of the tumult without and of a small but determined stream of water trickling down the bed within. I sleepily followed its course with my mind’s eye, like a demonstration of the elements of hydraulics, observing how it slowly filled the hollows and ran rapidly down little cañons, intent upon finding its level, which coincided with the position of my feet. When next I awoke there was no sound of rain, and I could see grey light marking the squares of my plaid blanket. Molishly emerging I beheld a sodden earth, a scowling sky, and Field, driven untimely from his soaking bed, standing like a fire-worshipper on the highest coign of the adjacent rocks, eager to embrace the first rays of a melancholy sun.

Breakfast put a better face upon matters, and a warmer sun allowed us to dry our clothes and bedding, though much after the fashion of Irish haymaking, dashing in and out between showers of rain and hail that kept dropping upon us as soon as ever we spread them out.

Wandering up the course of the stream in the afternoon, I encountered a shepherd with his band of innocents. I had seen yesterday with some surprise a cloud of dust rising from a shoulder of the mountain a mile or two to the north, and after much cogitation had decided that it must be caused by a land-slide. Later in the evening, however, I had heard, borne on the wind, the deep toom, toom, of the great French sheep-bell, and knew that the dust that had puzzled me marked the passage of a band of those “hoofed locusts “(as Mr. Muir calls the unconscious devastators), which, denied entrance into the National Park, range all summer about the eastern flank of the Sierra. These animals seem to have a ventriloquial quality of voice that disguises their exact locality, and the first notice I had of their near approach was the barking of the two dogs as they caught sight of me and rushed to the attack. One of them was a superb collie of an unusual silver-grey color and of great size; the other a composite canine, simply a dog. I was not sorry to hear the voice of their master crying, “À bas, Roland! Suzette!

The shepherd was a pastoral-looking youth, French, blue-eyed, with a pleasant slow smile and a language mixed of his native tongue, English, and Spanish. With his wide-brimmed hat and sauntering, country air, he would have made a pretty Silvius if fitted out with a beribboned crook in place of the stout cudgel he carried, with which he mechanically thumped the log of fallen timber across which we conversed.

“It was rain the night that is passe, ver mooch rain.”

“But yes, it is certain: and we got wet. And you?”

“Ma foi, yes, m’sieu’. Sacré! quel tonnerre! quel éclair! quelle pluie! I was—how you say?—droon, moi.”

“It is said that to drown is not unpleasant,” I ventured.

“Eh, bien, to me I do not like it. It wets.”

“It is true. Think you the rain is over?”

“Quien sabe, señor?” And after some further debate, and with gesticulations of profound consideration, we parted.

It is a strange life that these wandering shepherds lead. In the spring they leave the valleys with their flocks, a couple of dogs, and a burro loaded with simple provisions, among which is sure to be included one of the great round cheeses made by loving hands of mother or sister in dear France, and brought or sent to console the absent Jacques or Armand in his exile. For half the year they wander from valley to mountain and from cañon to meadow, in and out and up and down, each night gathering their slow-moving flocks around them, and camping patriarchally with their faithful lieutenants, a true democracy of labor. The only sounds they hear, beside the great monologue of Nature herself, are the everlasting conversations of the sheep, the bark of their dogs, and the deep boom of the sheep-bell.

The bells, like the cheeses, are characteristic;— solid, old-world things compounded of steel and silver, and often curiously ornamented. Their tone, while it is of great carrying power, is musical and mildly melancholy. Often, too, the herders carry with them some beloved instrument,—flute, or accordion, or even violin; and you may chance to hear, in some lost cañon or by some lonely lake, the Marseillaise, or some wildly sweet Provencal air, played with a fervor of love and longing that exceeds the utmost of skill.

Near by our camp was a heap of stones that supported a rough cross, made of straight pieces of pine-bough fastened loosely with baling-wire. This humble monument marks the grave of a solitary who came years ago to this high and lonely spot, seeking to evade arrest by the grim sergeant. But the hand was on his shoulder, and here he died. Through the short summer the birds whistle and the grasses wave, and all the long winter the silent snow falls and the storm whirls, over his place of rest. I noticed that a few wild forget-me-nots were blooming among the stones of this tiny cemetery. Some friendly angel may have planted them there, out of pity and such strange sorrow as angels may feel.

The evening clouds were remarkably beautiful, of golden-rose, smoky greys and purples, and greenish yellows, with a further background of dull, thundery blue. Again I sat late by the ruddy fire. It was pleasant, drawing toward the end of my Sierra wanderings, to think how many of these friendly pines and hemlocks had been reddened by my camp-fires. And will be again? Quien sabe? as Armand says. But the little black wavelets plashing on the beach keep saying again and again, Yes, yes;—yes, yes; —yes, yes. So be it, with all my heart.

A few showers fell again during the night, but we had rigged up a shelter, and Field and I were only aware of them to the extent of turning over, smiling comfortably, and going to sleep again. Bodie, who had declared that there would be no more rain, suffered the fate of the prophet who is rash enough to back his opinion to the length of acting upon it.



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