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Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


The fine enthusiasm of Mr. Muir never burns more brightly than when he writes of the gentian meadows of the Sierra. During a month of wanderings in the high country the previous summer I had been on the qui vive for a sight of the flower, for I was infected with his spirit,—as who is not that reads him?—but I could never catch a glimpse of his cerulean darling. This year, also, I had thus far searched for it in vain; but at last, here in the Tuolumne Meadows, I came upon it. I knew it at once though I had never seen it before; this deep chalice of glowing blue must be the long-sought blossom; and so it was. But delightful as the flower is, it can never supplant with me that most charming flower of the Sierra, the lavender daisy. With no fervors of color, the latter embodies the sweetest of floral (as of human) virtues, simplicity, and stands face open to the sky, well-bred, slender, and quietly gay.

It was with reluctance that I now turned westward. A few miles to the east were Mounts Dana and Gibbs, with the fine territory lying beyond and to the south of them; and in the north, unseen but not unfelt, lay the Matterhorn country, in whose long cañons and by whose solitary lakes I had wandered the previous year. But I had reached here the extreme easterly point necessary to my purpose, and from here could make my way back to the north wall of the valley, keeping all the time on the high levels.

The Tioga road, which I should follow for some fifteen miles, is a rough track built in historic days by the owners of the once famous Tioga mine, which, long since abandoned, lies near the crest of the Sierra about twelve miles northeast of the meadows. For purposes of technical “control,” a wagon is still driven over it once a year by an adventurous teamster; and deserted cabins mark here and there the sites of “stations” such as Porcupine Flat, Dark Hole, White Wolf, and Aspen Valley.

Turning westward along this ancient highway, I came at once among the familiar Yosemite formations. Slopes of glabrous rock swept down into the level green of the meadows. Fairview Dome, a perfectly turned cupola of granite, towered twelve hundred feet above the road, and facing it stood another monstrous hummock, carved in peculiarly massive plates and ledges, from the crevices of which battered hemlocks and junipers peered down like stumpy dwarfs.

The road led through open forest, at first of tamarack alone, then mixed with hemlocks and mountain-pines. The clouds of yesterday had returned; by noon the sun was obscured, and I looked forward with enjoyment to a rain. The forest wore its finest aspect of gloom; every tree stood observant and waiting. There was no wind; no branch moved, nor leaf whispered. The birds too were mute, flitting quietly among the pine-aisles as if lost in a dim church. Grey sky, grey mountains, grey stems of innumerable trees, —all was grey, calm, expectant.

There is a melancholy amount of dead timber throughout this region. Long stretches of tamarack forest have perished, as if at a stroke. Close examination shows that they have been destroyed by fire, although the polished skeletons would seem to indicate almost any other agency. The thin bark of this species burns like paper, and when it falls off leaves the trees complete from trunk to twig, apparently blasted rather than burned, the mockery of a forest. But among the dead trees there are numbers of prosperous young saplings from one to ten feet high. One can only hope that the new generation is not doomed to the fate of the old, and that the late-awakened zeal for forest preservation will avail to save other tracts from destruction.

Dome succeeded dome, the road descending gradually and bearing southwest. Passing close under the treeless easterly slope of Murphy’s Dome, I came early in the afternoon in view of Tenaya Lake. On the left rose another mountain, hardly less barren, but with a few whitened junipers high up on the ledges standing backed against the precipices in fine fighting attitudes. A good meadow lies at the upper end of the lake, and into this I turned to look out a place for my camp, for the rain was now imminent.

When looking for a camp-site I usually go ahead of the animals, leading Adam by the halter-rope. This is the signal for Teddy to fall behind and hunt out titbits undisturbed, but he has a youthful horror of being left behind and lost, and generally keeps a sharp lookout to hold us in view. On this occasion he was betrayed by some agreeable morsel into allowing us to get out of his sight, and while I was tying Adam preparatory to unloading, I heard a weird, multitudinous kind of sound, and beheld Teddy racing along toward us at a swinging canter, his packs jouncing rhythmically as he came. His ears were rigid, and his excited eyes gleamed wildly about with an expression of ludicrous anxiety. The sound I heard was compounded of rattling cans, creaking harness, and the attrition of the heterogeneous articles comprised in his pack; among them, I reflected, certain liquids and semi-liquids that were not arranged for such rapid transportation. He had made half the circuit of the meadow, careening over at a fine, cutting angle as he bowled along, before he espied us, when he bore down upon us, still at a canter, came to anchor handsomely, and in a moment was chousing his consort out of the best of the pasturage.

I had hardly unpacked before it began to rain briskly. Throwing a line between two trees, I fastened the pack-canvases together and made of them a rough shelter, sufficient for my purpose. Then, with my blankets safely under cover, I sat botanizing in my humble, popular way, and rejoicing over the rain and my gentians.

With the rain came a strong wind that drove it in heavy swirls against my shelter, and made the dead pines rock and strain like the masts of ships at anchor in a squall. The wavelets drove crisply up on the beach with a joyful sound of chattering water, and two sandpipers ran up and down the wet edges of the sand, happy and excited, or flew out over the lake, skimming over the crests with sharp, curving wings, and tittering little wailing cries of pleasure in sympathy with the storm.

The rain lasted for two or three hours, and then cleared suddenly away to a spectacular sunset. The wet rock of the mountain sides wore a more sombre majesty of color, and a patch of snow that lay in a niche five hundred feet above me flushed almost to damask in the last red rays of the sun.

I had staked the burros a little way back from the lake, and when about dark I went over to picket them on fresh pasturage for the night, I was surprised to see the smoke of a camp-fire rising at the upper end of the meadow. Lake Tenaya is a favorite camping-place for travellers to and from the High Sierra or the Mono country, and it was not the fact of a camp, but the place chosen for it that struck me as strange. After attending to the animals I walked over to satisfy my curiosity.

I found that my neighbors were a party of Indians; two men, one of middle age, the other younger, a young woman whom I guessed to be the squaw of the younger man, and two little girls of six or eight years. They showed no surprise at my appearance, hardly looking up as I approached, and I had no doubt that with Indian quickness and secrecy they had watched my arrival at midday, and could have given me as exact a statement of my proceedings since that time as I myself could have furnished. My formal salutation was acknowledged by a glance and an inarticulate monosyllable from the men, and by the slow retreat of the two children until they backed against a tree, where they stood and gazed at me with serious unconcern. The woman had not even looked up. She was crouching on hands and knees over a smouldering fire, which she was endeavoring by blowing upon it to cultivate into a blaze.

In the half-darkness the swarthy face with its hanging ropes of hair, and the tense, muscular arms, glowed with ruddy gleams as she blew on the embers. The silence of the spectators and the intent attitude of the single actor in the group conferred upon the operation almost the quality of a rite.

It was difficult to read hospitality into the general situation, and I allowed a minute or two to elapse while I absorbed the pictorial elements of the scene. But I was too well aware of the native taciturnity of the Indians to feel it as a rebuff, and, moreover, I have a genuine liking for them, based, I confess, more upon indirect than upon first-hand knowledge.

The offer of tobacco is to-day as ever the friendliest advance one can make to an Indian. For that matter, it is understood in the same light by Mexicans and whites also; and I have often been thankful that nature has provided this universal medium of friendly exchanges. It now supplied me with the means of an introduction, and walking forward I tendered my pouch to the older man with a friendly gesture and a word of appreciation of the fire, which was now burning brightly. It was at once accepted, and when at my invitation the younger man and the woman also shared my long-cut, the way was open for a friendly powwow, and in a minute or two we were all seated and smoking sociably. As I used a pipe I was able to abandon the pouch to them, and as cigarette followed cigarette it passed from hand to hand with a rapidity that would have defied the intelligence of a detective.

A fragmentary conversation brought out that they were Mono Indians returning from the Yosemite to their valley on the eastern side of the mountains. The fact that I had been there the previous summer, and that we had some mutual acquaintances among the Indians of the valley, opened the way still further; and when I had lured the children into partial amity with a bait of ornamental brass buttons which I chanced to have in my coat-pocket, and which they promptly transferred to their mouths, we got on swimmingly.

The woman and the younger man took no part in the conversation, entering into it only to the extent of emphatic nods and other symbols of acquiescence in the sentiments expressed with regard to the persons who came under inquisition. The discussion, if it could be called such, took, in fact, a range not much beyond the discovery of common acquaintances, and was conducted in some such manner as this:—

“You sabe Indian Simon?”

“Him live Mono?”

“No, him live Yosemite; stay Yosemite all time.”

“Oh, ya-a-a, sabe Simon.”

“Simon my friend, good man, yes?”

’Stá ’ueno.

A pause, the adults smoking determinedly while the children kept me carefully skewered. Then,—

“Manuel, you sabe?”

“Manuel live Mono? Yosemite?”

“Yosemite, rancheria.”

“Oh, ya-a-a, sabe Manuel.”

“Him good man, too.”

“Ya-a-a, him good man, Manuel good man, sure.” Another pause.

“You see me when I come to-day, afternoon?”

“Oh, ya-a-a, see you come. Bringum two burro, Adams, Teddee.”

“How you sabe my burros?”

“Oh, ya-a-a, sabe burro allright. Burro not belong you.”

“No, not belong me. How you sabe?”

“Oh, ya-a-a, sabe oleman Dickson, Hite Cove. Him haveum burro for pack, I see. You buyum, how much?”

“No, I not buyum; rentum.”

(I found myself, with half-conscious amusement, adopting the pidgin-English of my friends.)

’Stá ’ueno: I sabe you rentum.”

“How you sabe?”

But to this I could get no answer. They grunted in energetic chorus, but left me in ignorance and admiration; and I am in doubt to-day whether he really knew my business as thoroughly as he seemed to do, or whether among the other interesting traits of the Indian is to be reckoned that of being a superlative and unnecessary bluffer.

With such innocent exercises we passed an hour of true Indian sociability, smoking industriously and speaking about once every three minutes. The children had retired, that is to say, they had burrowed under a heap of nondescript bedding and odoriferous saddle-blankets which lay, sufficiently near, at a few yards’ distance. When I arose to go, my pouch, a nickel-plated, horseshoe-topped affair, had not returned to my custody. It was an old friend, and I was loath to lose it; but when a casual glance around failed to reveal it I gave it up, rather than institute a search which, if unsuccessful, might seem to reflect upon the honesty of my hosts. So, saying nothing about the pouch, I bade them good-bye and groped my way in the pitchy darkness back to my camp, twice narrowly escaping a plunge into the creek, which stole with a canal quietness between deeply cut banks.

When I reached camp my lower half was well chilled by contact with the rain-laden bushes. I made a genial blaze by which to dry myself, and as I sat by it I pondered upon the mysterious nature of that law by virtue of which the smoke of a camp-fire blows always, without regard to the direction of the wind, into the face of the bystander. Large spiders, of the kind whose pin’s-head of body is suspended upon long legs of miraculous thinness, ambled over me, exploring the creases of my costume; and I wondered whether there is not suggested in the anatomy of these creatures a mechanical principle which an architect might turn to remarkable account.

Sunday was to be a day of rest and mending, and when I awoke next morning I was determined not to forsake my blankets until I could emerge upon a comfortable temperature. When at length I arose I looked in vain for the smoke of the Indians’ fire. Evidently they had already broken camp and departed. I thought I would walk over after breakfast to their camp, and make a search for the pouch in case I had overlooked it in the semi-darkness the night before, but I confess I thought it likely that it was in their company and well on the way to Mono.

While I sat at breakfast I saw the older Indian loping down the meadow toward me on his pony. As he came up and we exchanged “Buenos dias!” he held out the pouch to me, explaining that the “muchach” had taken it because it was bright. He was sorry, and he had “beatum good.” I thanked him for returning it and asked him to keep it for his trouble, but I could not persuade him to accept it. While we fraternized over the coffee-pot I learned that they had started at sunrise and he had actually ridden back several miles to restore my property. I had known that these Indians bore a high reputation for trustworthiness, but I own I was astonished at this scrupulous honesty, and was heartily ashamed of my suspicions. With some difficulty I got him to accept a small canister of tobacco, and he rode off to overtake his party, under pledge not to “beatum muchach’’ any further on my account.

My animals gazed at me with surprise and gratitude when, instead of bringing them in for packing, I presented them with a breakfast relish of onions. Some repairs were necessary on my clothing, and as I (to use the ingenious expression of a plainsman friend) “staked out” my buttons with copper wire, I was struck by the degree of polish of which khaki is susceptible which has been well treated with pine-gum.

In the afternoon clouds again came up from the north and a heavy thunder-storm broke over the lake. Mount Hoffman in the west grew leaden and veiled, and looking down the lake I could see skeins of rain falling from the edges of the clouds that overhung the valley. The wind blew strongly enough to raise waves of respectable size, and I again retreated to my shelter. The thunder became continuous and made a noble jubilation among the mountains. There is an amphitheatre of cliffs far up on the east shoulder of Tenaya Peak which seemed to focus each peal, wrap it together, and hurl it down in explosive bursts upon the lake. It was a superb Sunday concert.

The rain was heavy and lasted for several hours. At the foot of the tamaracks among which I was camped solid masses of resin had collected. I kicked off lumps from these with my boot-heel, and with them kept up a handsome fire, independent of my rain-soaked supply of firewood. By sundown again the clouds had vanished, and the day closed in an idyll, with the evening star beaming in a thoughtful sky and drawn in quiet, tremulous lines on the tranquil surface of the lake.

The stillness of the night was broken by the sound of newly formed cascades that poured in many places over the bare rock of the mountain sides. Thoreau relates that people used sometimes to remark upon the loneliness of his life in the Concord woods, and rejoins in his quaint fashion, “Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? “I confess I am not built on that sublime scale; but with trees about me I find that I seldom suffer for lack of company. And besides the trees themselves there are their populations of birds and squirrels, all friends and comrades alike.

My lash-ropes, which had been thoroughly soaked In the rain, were frozen during the night as stiff as wire cables, and it was impossible to pack with them next morning until I had got them thawed out. As I wrestled with the ice-bound knots and hitches I realized faintly the melancholy nature of the seafaring life, and marvelled that any one should voluntarily “follow the sea” as a profession.

By mid-morning I had packed as well as I could and we again took to the road, which follows the north shore of the lake almost to its lower end. Clouds’ Rest came again into view to the south, and Mount Hoffman closer to northwest. The rocks showed here a remarkable degree of glacial action and shone with the dull lustre of polished marble.

At the foot of the lake, where an ancient rail-fence lies submerged and decaying among the grass of a small meadow, the road turned to the north, and climbing a steep grade opened a lovely landscape of which the lake, at a distance of a mile or two, was the centre. Directly from the water’s edge on its farther side Tenaya Peak rose for two thousand feet, with Cathedral Peak showing over its shoulder remarkably like an English parish church. The foreground was a slope of glistening rock strewn with an incredible litter of boulders.

A sun of spring-like freshness shone over the landscape, and under its warmth the wet ground poured out its spiciest odors. The dead cones that lay in myriads on the forest floor had closed their scales like umbrellas, and resumed for a brief time their living shapes. One is apt, unless he is acquainted with the appearance of the growing cones, to be deluded by this behavior into supposing that he is meeting some species of pines that are new to him. The cones of the tamarack and hemlock in particular are not easily recognized under their temporary transformation.

The road trended northward almost to the foot of Mount Hoffman before it turned again westerly and began a gradual descent in company with a versatile little creek. An opening of the forest to the south gave a glimpse of Half-Dome under yet another aspect, seen at right angles to the well-known semi-profile that commands the valley. Far to the west the blue of timbered mountains closed the view, running together fold on fold, their myriad tree-tops scratching the sky-line like needle points.

Vivid ovals of meadow broke the forest, starred with daisies that were more engaging than ever in their rain-washed freshness. Rounding the base of Mount Hoffman I discovered the expected southwesterly trail, and striking into it headed directly for the valley rim. The timber here again was strikingly fine, the firs especially statuesque and dignified; and the afternoon sunlight flooded the forest with a grave and solemn splendor.

I had prepared myself for trouble when I packed iii the morning, and now it overtook me. The lash-ropes, stretching as they dried, had gradually loosened until at a steep descent the packs of both animals slipped bodily forward on to their necks. A few excited gymnastics completed the ruin, and nothing remained but to unload and repack. The operation is a harassing one when the ground is a steep and brushy side-hill, and a good deal of time was consumed by it.

After crossing the creek which flows down Indian Cañon to the valley, the trail rose to a low divide, then again descended, now in full view of the great precipice which rises at the west of the Yosemite Creek. This was already deep in shadow, a sombre and imposing object, and enhanced by contrast the sunset color that pulsated on the summit of Sentinel Dome, directly to the south. The forest became more open, Jeffrey pines and junipers growing sparsely on the pavement-like expanse of disintegrating granite. A final abrupt descent brought me to Yosemite Creek, and crossing by the bridge just above the head of the fall I turned along the west side of the stream and camped where a scanty growth of herbage offered the only provender for the animals that I was likely to find in the neighborhood.

I had arranged with my friend Eytel that I would signal my arrival at this point to him in the valley below. By the last of the daylight I climbed to the highest point of the cliff on the east of the fall, and lighted my signal-fire. The floor of the valley three thousand feet below twinkled with electric lights, and I anticipated without enthusiasm the time when a captive balloon will be anchored in the middle of the valley, and airships moored at favorable spots for doing the sunsets and sunrises.

Early next morning I climbed down to the lip of the fall. It is a wild enough place, and the tremendous escarpment of Yosemite Point, projected in strong profile against the morning haze, was powerfully impressive. The upper end of the valley was filling with misty sunlight, but below the village everything was still in obscurity, except where the salient points of the southern wall caught dull, purplish gleams. In middle distance loomed the colossus of Half-Dome, and beyond, Mounts Clark and Starr King stood forward like the advancing waves of the sea of Sierra peaks.

At this time of year, the end of summer, the fall had lost much of its beauty and grandeur, but even now from where I stood at the verge of the first sheer drop of sixteen hundred feet it presented a fascinating sight. The creek, after passing through two or three deep, cauldron-like pools, falls in cascades for a hundred feet. Then leaping another hundred it strikes a ledge and is broken into dust, which drifts idly away upon the wind and is lost to view.

From observation of the walls of the gorge above the fall I could partly realize the stupendous energy with which the stream when in flood hurls its waters far out beyond the lip of the fall, and was able to imagine the magnificence of the spectacle at this point on such occasions. I could also faintly conceive what King’s fine geological sense suggested to him at the same spot,—“how immeasurably grander must it have been when the great, living, moving glacier, with slow, invisible motion, crowded its huge body over the brink, and launched blue ice-blocks down through the foam of the cataract into that gulf of wild rocks and eddying mist.”

I had often noted from the valley the splinter or flake of rock which stands separated from the main wall near Yosemite Point. Climbing along the edge of the cliff I found that this remarkable monolith, standing perhaps a hundred feet clear of the summit of the precipice, is so tall, straight, and slender that I was nowhere able to observe where its base joins the parent rock.

From the Point another enormous prospect opened. Here again, as everywhere in the neighborhood of the valley, Half-Dome was the overpowering ingredient in the view. The light was still misty and uncertain, and the great disk of the northern face hung like a blue curtain from the edge of the mighty fracture. From this elevation of 7200 feet the convexity of the dome is depressed to a low, swelling curve, and the laminations of its concentric structure show like fine toolings on a ball of ivory. Directly to the east North Dome showed as a mere hillock, only five hundred feet above me. A broad splash of sunlight shone dully on the apron of granite over which an arm of the ancient glacier had flowed.

In the foreground the forest swept down at a keen angle, halting only at the very edge of the precipice which plunges sheer to the valley floor. Opposite, across the gulf, frowned the dark escarpment of Glacier Point. The broad foot of solid rock which sinks into the forest below this great cliff is to me one of the arresting features of the valley. The most casual mind is struck by the massive slope of burnished granite, and comprehends something of the majestic movement of the glacier which, pouring down the cañon of the Illilouette, encountered here the converging mass of the Tenaya glacier, and, deflected westwards, was crowded against the impeding buttress.

Turning to the south, Sentinel Dome marked the head of the magnificent panorama of the valley wall, the shadows of the highest points projected blue-black across the park-like level. In the west Eagle Peak and the abrupt faces of the Three Brothers shone in clear morning light, and below lay the deeply cut trough where the river gleamed palely among obscuring masses of timber.

It seemed somewhat of a pity that since the authorities had placed, or permitted some one to place, a flag-pole at this much-visited point, there could not have been found a worthier emblem to fly from it than the scrap of sacking which, to judge from internal evidence, had then long disgraced it.

Reluctantly I left this fine coign of observation. A marmot, which when I arrived I had noticed lying on a projecting rock apparently waiting for the sun, was still, after perhaps half an hour, watching me with frank curiosity. He was not more than five yards distant, and I felt flattered by his confidence and spoke appreciatively to him as I turned away. In acknowledgment he politely changed his position so as to keep me in view until I disappeared below his horizon.

It was already nearly midday, and I made my way directly back to camp, striking obliquely across a steep slope of ledges and house-like boulders. Gnarled pines gripped the crevices and thick beds of buck-brush filled the sheltered hollows. The junipers were here in unusually fine foliage, spreading in firm rounded outlines like full-leaved oaks. The disintegrating rock gave good footing to my nailed boots, and I found it exhilarating to stride rapidly down over shelves of sparkling granite that often tilted under my weight. I crossed the creek almost dry-shod between two of the “pot-holes” with which its bed is honeycombed, and climbing up a brush-choked gully, emerged, almost as much to my own surprise as theirs, exactly where my animals were tethered. Their pasturage had been scanty, and with cheap generosity I eked out their commons from such of my supplies as promised to show a surplus.

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