Home A - Z FAQ Art Prints Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

Next: RafaelitoContentsPrevious: Great Sequoias

Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


CHAPTER X
THE WAWONA COUNTRY

Wawona lies sequestered at the bottom of a V bowl of forested mountains. The South Fork of the Merced River emerges here from its narrow cañon into a gentle expanse of meadow, through which it dreams a short course before it is again caught and imprisoned by its rough gaoler.

All forest places are places of rest, and meadows and valleys are even more so in their nature. Wawona combines them all, and indeed I do not know a more idyllic spot. Seclusion is in the very air, and its beauty is of that gentle and perfect quality that does not so much command one’s admiration as it quietly captivates one’s heart. Even its wonders, the great Sequoias, are friendly wonders, living and personal; and I for one always feel that if Yosemite has the greater glory, Wawona has the deeper charm.

Wawona, moreover, is classic ground. Fifty years ago, when California was very young indeed, Clark’s Station, as the place was then called, was the centre of the life of the Sierra backwoods. The lower creeks and reaches of the Merced as much as anywhere were the scene of the boisterous epic which Bret Harte has immortalized. The names on the map of the region are themselves a directory of picturesque episodes; and along every creek are relics of the Golden Age, —old shafts, and uncouth mounds of dirt; some of them tokens of “prospects” only, to which such a name as “Nary Red” might have appertained; others which you look at with respect as your driver, pointing with his whip up some cheerless cañon, remarks that “a half a million was took out of that there gully. Who by? Old man Dougan, him as they call Hard Luck Sime, down to Mariposa. Where’s the hard luck come in? Well, you see it was this-a-way:—” and there follows a chapter from life, a wild but fully credible story, beginning in toil and hardy bouts with Fortune, traversing a spectacular region of glitter and riot, and ending in poverty and crime.

Here and there you may come upon an abandoned arrastra, the ponderous water-wheel warped and sagging under a long alternation of dry and wet seasons. In one such spot which I encountered the ghosts of the Fifties came crowding thickly around me. There lay the great stones still beside the pit, the rotting cables still holding by a rough mortising of lead. The rough-hewn timbers were pulling apart, and shed out, when one tapped them, a yellow, lifeless dust from a thousand worm-holes. Skeletons of chairs, scraps of looking-glass, and such débris lay about. Mixed with mouldy rags and sacking were shreds of a woman’s finery, frills and ruffles; and nailed to one of the empty window-frames, half hidden by giant lupines, was a little bird-cage made of slips of cedar, from which the mocking-bird or meadow-lark that once made it his unwilling home had long been emancipated. Adjoining the house was an enclosure of half-an-acre or so. The fence lay on the ground, and in the long grass two rose-bushes and a lilac were slowly strangling to death. The place seemed to hold the memory of some very human action; and I was fain to hope that the cage and roses might mark it as an innocent drama of love and children’s laughter.

A few miles east of Wawona stands a sightly peak, Mount Raymond, which carries its snow well into midsummer, although it rises only forty-five hundred feet above the warm and sheltered valley. One sunny day of early summer, leaving my camp in the upper Mariposa Grove of Sequoias, I started leisurely on the easy ascent. Making due east and keeping to the ridge which here forms the watershed between the Merced and San Joaquin river systems, I entered the forest, which here is principally of the red and white firs. The delightful company of these my favorite trees constantly drew me into side explorations, and delayed me into a saunter. Now and then faint traces of a blazed trail appeared, but they were so doubtful and elusive that it was fortunate that there was no difficulty in keeping my direction without their help. The trail, moreover, was often blocked by fallen trees that made ramparts of a man’s height, and offered the choice of climbing convex walls or making circuits which were often prolonged by unexpected entanglements. On the north side of the ridge the mountain ran steeply down in an unbroken slope of thirty-five hundred feet to the river; on the south the slope was not so sharp and was somewhat more broken.

The timber thinned out to a scantier growth as I left the fir-belt. The brush grew sparse and stunted, and patches of snow lay in the hollows Then rather suddenly I passed out on to bare rock, and straight ahead rose the peak, glistening white and cold. Here it became necessary to keep to the southern slope, for the snow on the other was treacherously soft and shot down at an uncomfortable angle, unbroken but for a few black bolts of rock or decapitated stumps of pine.

Heavy blue clouds were massing in the south and east, and the wind suddenly blew from the same quarter in heavy gusts and with a bitter rawness. I began to have a suspicion that a storm was brewing, but was unprepared for the abruptness with which it came. It was late in the season for snow to fall, so that I was surprised to see the first warning flakes. It was not a comfortable spot in which to stand even a short siege. The storm was coming from the south, and I was consequently exposed to its full force, as I had no desire to bivouac on the steep, soft snowfield of the northern slope, especially in the strong wind that was now blowing. I was well above the main forest belt, and the few isolated Jeffrey pines within reach were too small to afford any shelter. Under the circumstances I judged it best to hurry forward and try to reach some favorable spot before the height of the storm was upon me. I was not far from the summit, and after twenty minutes of pretty violent exertion I arrived there, and found partial shelter under the topmost point of the mountain.

Almost on the moment the storm reached me, and I was enveloped in a swirl of snow that charged at me horizontally with dizzying velocity. I flattened myself against the friendly rock that bore the brunt of the onset, and debated what was best to do. I had no fear that the storm would last longer than an hour or two at most, but I was heated with the exertion of the climb, and in the icy temperature, and without opportunity of exercise, I began to chill at an alarming rate. Fortunately, after the first blinding gusts had spent themselves the snow lightened somewhat, and I seized the moment to make a sortie in search of dry brushwood for a fire, if I could succeed in kindling one. Fifty yards down the mountain side I found what I wanted, and gathering an armful, I scurried back to shelter. In a few minutes, by manceuvring with coat and sombrero I had cherished a few twigs into burning, but then had much ado to keep them together in the furious wind. No sooner would I get them fairly ablaze than they would be contemptuously swept off by the wind into the snow-filled air. Again and again I tried, with numbing fingers, while my little stock of matches decreased until I began to lose hope. But at last I got a good blaze, and then, after another sally for larger fuel, I sat down in great exhilaration.

If I had set my mind to imagine the best possible experience for the day I could not have succeeded half so well. Here I was, on the summit of my first Sierra peak thus far, snugly sheltered in the middle of a snowstorm which could not, I felt sure, last long enough to become dangerous; with a noble fire roaring defiance to the screaming wind, lion against panther; only midday, with time and daylight to spare; lunch in pocket, with pipe and tobacco to follow. It was huge luck. I even found in my pocket a small quantity of tea. Quickly I filled my tin cup with snow, and in a few minutes had a cup of boiling amber fragrance ready to accompany my bread and cheese. Then I sat down, back to my stout rock and feet to the fire, and rejoiced in the hurly-burly, while my pipe-bowl glowed almost to the point of incandescence with the intense combustion.

All the time the storm came whirling past, the flakes shooting by level in the heavy gusts as if they had been fired from a gun, and I sat and watched them stream away into the void. My bivouac was on the very edge of the snow-slope, so that the fire gradually ate out a semicircle of the snow-cliff opposite me. It was an inspiriting experience. I was in a little world alone with the lusty elements, sometimes unable to see for ten feet around me: above and all about was nothing but the whirling white void, from which and into which the crowding snowflakes hurried, seeming to push upon one another in their silent haste to be gone.

Suddenly it brightened, and the leaden dullness changed to a silvery glow like that we used to see on the faces of angels in our childhood’s dreams. In another minute, while I wondered at the quickness of the change, a thin sunlight washed past me, and I looked up to see the last flakes pelting like black specks across the glistening haze of the sky. Two minutes more, and the storm was over; I could see its rearguard, blue and misty, crossing the gorge to the north. Then through the snowy veil the eastern peaks began to glimmer, whitely glorious under a broken sky. Looking over the sharp northern edge of the mountain, Wawona Meadows glinted greenly in the sun, and all around on west, north, and east, the wide slopes, blue and dark with timber, were flecked with rapid cloud-shadows.

Opposite gleamed the stony forehead of Wawona Dome, and midway between, but far below, the river ran palely. I fancied I could hear its hoarse cry. Turning to the south I saw a high, summery sky in which floated bands of little fleecy clouds, and along the horizon lay the faint fawn-color stretches of the valley of the San Joaquin. Nearer, in middle distance, the forest rose higher and higher, running in wavy undulations; and nearer yet it was broken by patches of gleaming snow. From a hollow not five miles away smoke was rising: alas, it marked a lumber-camp.

Though the storm was over the icy wind still blew, and more clouds were massing. By the middle of the afternoon I began the return, keeping closer to the spine of the mountain than in the ascent. The exhilaration of the wild day and place gave every sense its widest range, and I noted a hundred new things with quickened sympathy and perception,—the quaint, inch-high blossoms that trembled in the wind in such myriads that I almost believed I could catch the sound of their vibrations; the angry cry of a hawk fighting his way up wind and compelled to veer and temporize, against his haughty nature; the snow-bird that, blown almost into my face, chirped a humorous apology as he swung over the ridge; the Douglas squirrel who disputed my passing under his tree so viciously that he nearly barked himself off from it and was fain to scramble up again ignominiously; the dwarf oaks just in bud as though it were February, that splayed over the rocky ground; the dwarf currants that seemed grotesquely trying to clamber away out of sight in an awkward, high-legged fashion, like spiders; and the young ten and twelve foot firs still lying full length and half buried under last winter’s snow, that sprang up and threw handfuls of frozen snow in my face when I gave them a lift to free them from their covering. And so back again to my camp among the great Sequoias, standing dark and stately against the fire-strewn sky of a still stormy sunset.

On another expedition I made in the Wawona region, I had the company of a lanky Stanford undergraduate who was recuperating at the hotel from the stress of examinations. He was an ardent fisherman, and kindled at my mention of a chain of lakes, of high repute among the craft, that lie up on the high plateau over which the Chilnualna Creek flows to its leap into the chasm that opens beside Wawona Dome. It was early in the summer, and the trail beyond the head of the fall had not been travelled that season; but that was all the better. So one morning Longshanks and I marched out upon our quest.

For a mile or two our way led through the valley forest, where now, at the end of May, every sunny opening was enamelled with fresh grass and flashed blue with lupines, lilac with cyclamens, and white with the large nemophila of the Sierra. Half an hour brought us to the foot of the falls of the Chilnualna. These falls have been so much eclipsed in fame by the great waterfalls of the Yosemite that they are not as much celebrated as their fantastic beauty deserves. Without depreciating the glories of the mighty cataracts of the valley, I acknowledge that I for one find these less renowned falls equally beautiful and more romantic. The lower part of the descent is an alternation of boisterous cascades and most seductive pools. The wayward water every moment changes its mood, now plunging in bursts of hissing spray, now circling in pools where you wonder whether some slender naiad has not slipped under the rocking water at your approach, and fancy that it is the lifting and spreading of her hair that makes that misty gloom in the emerald depths. The rocks are of a formation which breaks vertically, and the water shoulders its

A TRAIL IN THE WAWONA FOREST
[click to enlarge]
A TRAIL IN THE WAWONA FOREST
way among the obstructing cubes and pillars in a thousand bolts of white thunder.

From the foot of the fall the trail starts away on a wide détour, tacking in legs and reaches that seem to take a most unreasonable circuit. Fresh tracks of deer accompanied us, and presently we came upon a group of three quietly feeding seventy or eighty yards ahead. For a few moments they did not see us; then as our scent reached them their heads went up all on the same instant, as if by clockwork, and they stood gazing with nervous curiosity, but with no sign of fear. After a long pause two of them went on grazing, while the other from time to time scratched his ear with a quaint expression, apparently wondering how much longer we meant to stand staring at nothing. When at last we started toward them they allowed us to approach within forty yards, before with two or three great bounds they vanished into the friendly chaparral.

A hundred varieties of blossoming plants called for notice and admiration: delicate iris, that embodiment of French elegance, pushed up through the foot-high thicket of chamoebatia; the manzanita was still in bloom at this elevation, though by now its “little apples” were ripening in the valley below; and many varieties of compositae shone up with friendly reminders of English meadows dappled with daisies and dandelions. Moreover, there was continual interest in noting the exits and the entrances of the various conifers as we climbed, species after species appearing, waxing to its prime, waning, and disappearing.

The traveller in these mountains is generally in the company of three kinds of coniferous trees,— the one through whose proper belt he happens to be passing, the one next below, and the one next above it. One comes after a time to feel the changes subjectively, as it were, becoming aware of the tree-company one is in, almost without noticing it, by a kind of intuitive knowledge. Without consciously observing the transition I find myself in a yellow pine mood, or a red fir mood, or a tamarack mood, my senses automatically taking their key from the nature of the prevailing forest. When I enter the tamaracks, for instance, the background of my mind shifts into a sense of the illimitable, weird, and dreary: the yellow pines affect me with laziness and easy views of life: among the Sequoias my consciousness takes on an Egyptian tinge: I am somehow aware of crocodiles and ibises. Every species has its own atmosphere, and I fancy that if I were led blindfolded through the Sierra forests, I should know at any time in what companionship of trees I was by recognition of their familiar spirit. Only the Jeffrey variety of P. ponderosa is somewhat of an uncertain quantity, the wanderer of the family, making erratic appearances, sometimes high up on the upper margin of the firs, and again picketed out among the sun-bleached brush of the Mono plains.

Coming after a climb of twenty-five hundred feet to the head of the fall, we stopped to view the leap of the water. The stream comes down from the rough plateau of its upper course in a series of steps, runs for two hundred yards through a chain of pools and reaches, and then is drawn smoothly over a rounded lip into the dark and well-like gorge. Fifty feet down it breaks upon a ledge and rises in a great arc or wheel of water. As the still early sun shone obliquely upon it, the wild wind that ascended from the tumult of that black chasm stripped off every moment the edge of the whirling rim of water in vaporous rainbow-flames of red, and blue, and orange. It was a solemn and beautiful sight, such a vision as might have found a place in the sublime narrative of a Hebrew prophet. I have never seen elsewhere anything of the kind, and the recollection of the hurrying flames playing upon the wheel of racing water comes over me now with a sense of having witnessed some deep parable, of which, though I saw the outward glory, I had been too gross to understand the meaning.

While I still stood fascinated, I noticed a white butterfly come drifting over the gulf. It hung fluttering for a moment, then with a curious leisureliness circled down, following the falling water, until it passed out of my sight. In a few moments the little insect reappeared, sailing up out of the tumult with a superb carelessness of flight. I watched the frail emblem of the soul with a feeling which I did not trouble to analyze, recognizing unconsciously, perhaps, some allegory of innocence and victory.

Our trail lay now over a rough plateau thinly timbered with pines whose foliage was of a black and serious cast. These wind-swept table-lands, open to every weather, have often a peculiarly stark and forbidding appearance; the blazing sun and withering winds seem to have bleached the very granite to a shivering complexion, and the shallow draws and contours, marked with dark timber, are drawn in lines like the creases in an aged face. At about seven thousand feet we began to enter snow, which as we climbed soon became continuous and left us only scanty blazes by which to follow the trail. Now our mild troubles began. The snow, though fairly deep, was well softened, and every few minutes one or other of us would go through, often up to the knees. Uphill travelling of this kind is very slow and tiring work, every step up and forward being discounted by several inches of slipping down and backward, and the strain is severe and continuous. However, the exertion put us in good state to withstand our constantly increasing wetness as we plunged more and more frequently through the thin crust which had frozen during the night and was now every moment softening under the sun.

One thing that we had not taken into account was the likelihood of having to ford the stream; and as usual, the unexpected happened. The Chilnualna Creek is but a trifling affair as rivers go, and in later summer no doubt one could easily jump it. But as we stood on the snowy bank and cogitated our problem, we faced a swirling stream of icy water, varying from knee-deep to waist-deep, and of considerable strength of current. A cast up and down the bank for some distance convinced us that the trail had made no mistake as to the best place to ford the creek. As my companion put it with scholastic precision, the problem was simplified by the elimination of the factor of place, leaving only the points of time and method to be solved.

Here Longshanks had the advantage of me. His bodily configuration was arranged upon the useful principle of a pair of compasses, and, moreover, he was fresh from the Olympic “stunts” with which college students temper the academic severities. On the other side of the stream a large rounded boulder offered the chance of escaping a ducking to an athlete who might expect to reach it by vaulting. Longshanks provided himself with a pine branch, straight and long, and pluckily made the essay. Sound muscle and judgment stood him in good stead. He sailed through the air; his pole struck in a friendly crevice, and he landed neatly on the boulder and jumped down, exhorting me to follow without delay. I felt morally sure that I could not make the leap with the best vaulting-pole that ever grew; but the stream had to be crossed somehow, so I plucked up heart, found a likely looking pole, and vaulted my best. My pole, through some concealed defect, broke in halves as my weight came on it, and I fell in midstream in four feet of water. Luckily I came down on my feet and was able by a strong effort to brace myself against the current, and so splashed ashore. After all, I was not much worse off, for I had been wet to the knees for an hour already. It was almost a satisfaction to be so completely soaked: I could now go ahead, careless of snow and water alike. When in the course of a mile or two we had to cross again, I simply marched through and squelched on my way, Longshanks enviously searching for narrower places while I assured him that the wide crossings were much the best, for the water had only reached to my equator.

Mile after mile we ploughed along, perspiring heartily and occasionally glissading down snow-slopes. The blazes grew more and more casual, until we began to think we might have passed our lakes, hidden in some fold of the snowy landscape. Suddenly we came upon the first of them,— Grouse Lake, a dark steel mirror of water, intensely still, almost an exact circle in shape, and ringed with banks of pure unsullied snow. From the further side came the sharp bark of a fox, and a troop of snow-birds flitted silently across and away. It was delightfully Arctic and solitary, and we gazed with admiration and with something of the elation of discoverers. At least it was certain that the identical beauty that lay under our eyes had not been seen by any other, for we were the first to travel the trail since the winter snows (which usually fall on the Sierra at this altitude by mid-October) had shut the lonely lakelet up to its eight months’ solitude.

It was well past midday, and eight hours since we had had breakfast, so here we decided to eat our meal. Longshanks ate his in a fisherman’s hurry, for he was itching to cast his flies on that untried water. My own first necessity was to forage for firewood and to pray that my block of matches, which I had stuck in my hat-band to dry, might fulfil their office. As one after another of them gave up the ghost with only a fizz and an evil smell, though I tried every variety of friction, from the drawling scratch of the experienced cowboy to the vicious jerk of the tenderfoot, my opinion of the inventor of that curious survival, the California block-match, sank very low.

At last a fortunate twist brought success, and I soon had a royal fire blazing. Then, peeling, I hung my sodden clothes on the brush within range of the generous heat, and proceeded with my own lunch, wondering the while how many centuries might have elapsed since last a gentleman had dined there “in the buff,” and surrounded by snow. My clothes steamed away industriously, but I had time to smoke a pipe before they were reasonably dry. I could see Longshanks working his way round the lake, casting assiduously but apparently without success; and by the time I was dressed he rejoined me, fishless indeed, but excited with the vision of an incomparable trout that he had seen swim out from under a submerged log, leaving, so he declared, a wake like a Mississippi steamer.

We knew that two other lakes lay a short distance to the west, and struck across country to find them, over snow that was deeper and firmer. A mile brought us to Crescent Lake, which we found to be a larger sheet of water, of irregular shape, still partly covered with melting ice. At the northern end of the lake we came upon a forlorn little cabin, half buried in a snow-drift. Entering, we stood upon a floor of clear ice: the melting of the snow had flooded the house, and the hard packed earth floor had held the water, which had frozen solid. Bones of deer and of other game were littered about the room, one end of which was cumbered with the wreck of a huge chimney of rock. I had heard of the place: it was once the summer home of Jim Duncan, a man whose fame as a hunter still lingers in the memory of old Sierra back-woodsmen.

The exploits of Jim Duncan, if they ever come to be written, will make a stirring tale. It is known that he kept a diary of his hunting-trips, but I learned from his sister that when questioned about it during his last illness, he denied its existence, and it is supposed that he had destroyed it. Mr. Galen Clark,1 now of Yosemite but anciently of Clark’s Station (the present Wawona), who was intimate with him, tells me that Duncan at one time intended publishing this diary, and with that view put it into the hands of some acquaintance of his to edit and put in form for the publisher. For some reason, which can hardly have been that the subject-matter proved to be not of sufficient interest, the editor-elect failed to fulfil his office, and Mr. Clark supposes that Duncan, under the influence of his disappointment, may have destroyed his manuscript.

1Since this was written Mr. Clark has passed away, high in the regard of all who knew him, and close upon the completion of his ninety-sixth year. His body lies in the little Yosemite cemetery, and in the Sequoia-shaded grave which, after the tranquil fashion of those Biblical patriarchs whom in simplicity of spirit he resembled, he had prepared for himself years ago.

The few facts regarding him which I have been able to gather from his old companions in these mountains are to the following effect: About the year 1857 Duncan came up into the Sierra from Visalia. It is likely that he was one of the many unsuccessful gold-hunters who about that time were left stranded by the retiring wave of the gold excitement all up and down the foothill creeks and cañons of the Sierra Nevada. His native state of Michigan contributed her full quota of these defeated Argonauts. Duncan, for his part, forsaking the quest of gold had declined upon pork, and in the year named was roaming with a band of hogs among the virgin pastures of the lower Sierra, after the manner of those Newtys of Pike whom Clarence King has immortalized in his delightful pages.

The course of his wanderings brought him to the green meadows of Wawona (as now called), and here his career as a bear-hunter began with a chance encounter. Walking up one day from the meadows, where he was camped, in the direction of the grove of Sequoias (which had that same year been discovered by Mr. Clark), Duncan met his first bear. He was carrying a combined rifle and shotgun, but he had at that time such a high estimation of the California grizzly that he forbore to fire. A few days later he had another encounter, this time at close range. Hurriedly firing a heavy charge of buckshot at the redoubtable foe he turned and ran for dear life without waiting to ascertain the result of his shot. On the third occasion he killed his game; and as time went on, and he and Bruin had frequent misunderstandings regarding pork, he began to match himself against his enemy with more confidence.

Those were the golden days of hunting in the Far West, and bears were incredibly plentiful. In one day of his early career Duncan killed five bears, a father, mother, and three well-grown cubs; and from that time he lost all fear, and settled into his stride as a hunter with a special mission for bear. As years passed, and notches multiplied on the stock of his old muzzle-loader, he set himself the task of an even hundred, or century, of bears. But it was not to be: he died some ten years ago without completing his task, but with an authentic record of between eighty and ninety bears to his credit. It may be that chagrin at his failure to reach the goal he had set himself was the cause of his destroying the diary to which I have referred.

Mild tourists to the Yosemite, where now a degenerate race of bears dwell under the protection of the incomprehensible laws which have banished their mutton, may denounce the killing of nearly a hundred bears by one man as slaughter. But in Duncan’s time the boot was on the other leg; and as Longshanks and I stood and looked at his little cabin in this desolate and lonely spot, we paid sincere homage to the spirit of the departed pioneer.

As it was impossible to cast a line beyond the ring of half-submerged ice that encircled the lake, Longshanks gave up all idea of fishing; and the afternoon being well advanced we were fain also to abandon our intention of seeing Johnson Lake, and take the trail homeward. I was by this time comfortably warm and dry, and the thought of having to wade the stream again on our way back was highly provoking. In the hope that we might evade it we left the trail and made a wide cast to the north, which we figured should bring us in somewhere near the head of the fall. Without a compass or knowledge of the ground such calculations are open to a host of mischances. For one thing, it is not easy to estimate the arc of a circle in covering rough country, and for another, unexpected obstacles may make it impossible to keep even reasonably near to the proposed line of travel.

Progress was slow, for the snow was softer than it had been in the morning; but we floundered along, mile on mile, up and down, tobogganing helter-skelter down every practicable slope. In the exhilarating air even the uphill work was a sort of play. Whenever we heard the roar of the river sounding near us we took another cast, and flattered ourselves that we were outflanking the enemy. But as the hours and the miles passed it began to be a question how long this was to go on. Nature is hard to beat at the game of patience. Then we found ourselves facing the river once more. It was getting dusk and we decided to cross, neck or nothing; so it looked as if I, at any rate, was in for another bath of snow-water. Prospecting up and down the bank for the best place to tackle the annoying job, we espied a dead tree that had fallen at a steep slant partly across the stream, the further end overhanging a broken stump that leaned from the other side. Blessing our luck we swarmed up, and with a ten-foot drop landed on the stump and slid down on the other side.

The rest was plain sailing, for we were headed in the right direction and began to leave the snow behind as we came to lower levels. The way lay then over a wide expanse of granite, almost treeless, and curving in overlapping layers into seams and folds, along which ran arrowy brooks of water from the snows we had left. The sun had set behind rifted clouds, but on our left the high ridge of Buena Vista Peak suddenly flushed to almost crimson, culminating and sinking to ashy gray in a breath, as with a sigh of ineffable beauty.

We reached the head of the falls as the light was almost gone, and after a few minutes’ rest plunged down the well-marked trail, swinging along at five miles an hour, sore of foot but with spirits unflagged. By nine o’clock we made the Wawona road, and half an hour later were at headquarters. We had been out fifteen hours, and had covered about twenty-five miles of pretty rough country, mainly over soft snow, and with a rise of forty-five hundred feet in altitude. Longshanks successfully dodged the enquiries of rival fishermen, and we turned in after an impressive supper, desperately tired but satisfied exceedingly.

Wawona Meadows themselves might be called the Sleepy Hollow of the West. It is the most peaceful place that I know in America, and comes near being the most idyllic spot I have seen anywhere (which is a considerable admission for an Englishman to make). Here is an unbroken meadow, green as heaven, a mile long, waving knee-high with all delicious grasses and threaded with brooklets of crystal water. It is surrounded with a rail-fence that rambles in and out and round about and hither and thither in that sauntering way that makes a rail-fence such a companionable thing, nearly as good as a hedge. Beyond the fence the forest rises on all sides, surging gloriously up, ridge above ridge, a most friendly and comfortable sight.

The meadows lie east and west. To the east stands Mount Raymond, and to the west Signal Mountain (known also as Devil’s Peak), the culminating point of the Chowchillas. The South Fork of the Merced flows along the northern edge, breathing easier after its boisterous rush through the cañon; and beyond it the glistening mass of Bald Mountain shows like an elephant’s forehead to centre the gaze. On the south lies a particularly admirable belt of forest, flowery and ferny to a degree, through which the short trail climbs up to the Sequoia groves. Yellow pines, sugar pines, firs, oaks, and cedars stand ranked in emulous perfection, with a first-storey undergrowth of ceanothus, dogwood, wild-rose, hazel, and gooseberry, and a ground-floor tangle of lilies white, lilies red, lilies grave, lilies gay, dwarf ceanothus with delicious little blossoms of sapphire blue, chamoebatia the blessed, and dozens more.

In the Wawona Meadows one may experience what used to be called, in a pretty old English phrase, “a charm of birds.” Embroidered upon the tenor voice of the pines, the deeper whisper of the oaks, and the talking rustle of ferns and grasses are the meadow-lark’s bubbling cascade, the wild cry of the flicker, and innumerable chucklings, carollings, and cacklings from songsters of greater or less degree. Platoons of blackbirds wheel about in rhythmic manoeuvres, dropping now and then by one impulse out of sight, as if the ground had opened to receive them. Swallows dip and dive over the lake of herbage, breasting the green billows like swimmers, and exploiting all manner of flavorable insects. All the earth’s children, animal and vegetable alike, are rampantly at work or play. Starry hosts of mimulus twinkle, wild strawberries hide and tantalize, buttercups and wild-roses perform their little alchemies of remembrance; gay young dandelions flash their gold like prodigals, and hoary old dandelions (“all flaxen was his poll”) stand pondering on the brevity of life. And ever the shining waves of the grass go by and away, to die in soundless surf on the forest edge. The soft wind blows you little cool kisses, and when for a moment it dies away, the pine incense rises hot and spicy, with almost a spirituous pungency.

For an hour or so at midday silence reigns. The birds retire to shady siestas: everything drowses, except the tireless wind and the grass, and even they move sleepily. Then some one, somewhere, gives the word, “Come on!”— and in a moment the world moves on again, whistling and playing pranks like a schoolboy. Trailside company is distractingly plentiful: there are pipings and rustlings overhead, excited scamperings underfoot, underground soliloquies of amphibious brooks, indecisions of butterflies, imminent perils of pendent bees, trepidations of lizards, absurdities of inverted beetles, perturbations of ants, exasperations of gnats with assassinations of the same; and everywhere green laughter of leaf and grey reverie of lichen.

The high land-cliff of Wawona Point rises on the northern boundary of the upper grove of the Wawona Sequoias. From it one looks down nearly three thousand feet into the gulf of forest, in the midst of which the meadows lie like a sheltered lake. I found it especially a noble station from which to watch the sunrise. Only two miles to the east rises Mount Raymond, and his peak is the first to kindle. For a few moments the illumination seems to be stationary; then it spreads slowly down, turning the blue shaded snow-fields to glistering white. Then it catches and goldens the spiry tips of the fir-forest, and they seem to tremble with delight, striving up and thrilling with the fervor of life.

As the radiance comes flooding down, the needles of a sugar pine on the ridge between me and the sunrise flash and shimmer with white lances of light, and the great Sequoias smile out, one by one, with solemn, age-old joy. Wawona lies still sunk in a bowl of purple shadow, but the sun’s brush lays wash below wash of gold on the mountain-side. Next the light catches the old white stump that stands on the point; then it suddenly streams through the gorge below him, and paints a long triangle of yellow that pushes down and down, reaching and grasping, until in a few moments it comes to the edge of the meadows. The quiet is intense and unbroken but for the voice of the river, which throbs up from the void below and seems to echo back and reverberate from the very sky.

To south and west the level plain of the San Joaquin lies in long streaks of fawn and blue; blue where every slight inequality of ground spreads an island of shadow behind it. Farmers wake, horses stamp and rattle for their morning hay, roosters shout their insane defiances to creation, car-bells jangle, newsboys wrangle, bacon sizzles in kitchen and camp, and I go down to breakfast.



Next: RafaelitoContentsPrevious: Great Sequoias

Home A - Z FAQ Art Prints Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/yosemite_trails/wawona.html