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Yosemite Trails (1911) by J. Smeaton Chase


It was well after noon when I broke camp and started out on the Eagle Peak trail. Almost immediately I met once more that magnificent zone of firs which I can never enter without a feeling that approaches the religious. There is something in the demeanor of these trees that ministers to an instinct for gravity which receives little satisfaction in these days, and I could not refrain from occasionally halting the cavalcade while I indulged the sentiment to the full. The conservation policy is perhaps more politic than it knows, conserving not only the nation’s resources, but, in a manner, its men.

The trail, after bearing northward and rounding the high cliff that rises to the west of the creek, turned again to the south, passing along the edge of a meadow full of cheerful daisies, and then rose steeply to Eagle Peak. This point, the highest of the Three Brothers, is several hundred feet higher than any other accessible summit along the walls, and gives the finest of all the views of the upper end of the valley. The scene was that day enhanced by broken masses of cloud that hovered over the High Sierra, through which a pale sun threw sensitive, shifting lights over the ranks of distant peaks. But for the interference of the hemisphere of Half-Dome, the sweep of the prospect was unbroken. Again I admired the scimitar curve of Mount Clark, and again felt the Alpine fascination of that noble cluster of mountains of which Lyell is the nucleus. The nearer distance was filled by a sea of granite, shaded in severe black and white; and almost in the foreground but thirteen hundred feet below, I could see the delicate scarf of the Yosemite Fall, drifting airily down the great cliff on which I had stood at early morning.

To the south I looked directly down upon a long gable that is cut vertically away on its eastern face to a precipice, and runs on the west in a steep plane to meet the flank of El Capitan.

The summit of Eagle Peak itself is a satisfactory pile of huge leaves and boulders of weathered granite, loosely thrown together. As I sat intent upon the wistful play of light and shade over the distant mountains and the pageant of the sky-scenery, I was startled by a rattling whistle of wings overhead. Before I could get up from the cleft into which, for protection from the keen wind, I had wedged myself, the bird was gone from view, leaving me in uncertainty as to its kind, but willing to believe that I had shared that fine solitude with an eagle.

From Eagle Peak a southwesterly trail of not over two miles leads to the summit of El Capitan. It is seldom travelled, and in many places is obliterated by chaparral. A mountain-trained burro will ordinarily pick out a bad trail better than the generality of man-kind, but here Adam was at fault and wandered aimlessly about, or stood helplessly gazing back at me for instructions. Fastening Teddy’s halter-rope to the back horn of Adam’s pack-saddle, I took the lead and they immediately followed, ripping through scrub-oak, buck-brush, and manzanita with what seemed ostentatious disregard of their packs.

We feasted as we went on thimble-berries, I on the ripe fruit, they impartially on the whole plant, which they alternated with fern, bunch-grass, young oak-leaves, and herbs of sundry kinds. Now and then a mouthful of pennyroyal or spearmint odorized the atmosphere agreeably. For some unexplained reason none of Nature’s children seem to consider the wild gooseberry a desirable fruit. The bushes here hung full of tempting-looking berries, prickly, but of good flavor. No doubt the bear, an absolute omnivore, appreciates them, but the bears of the region have mostly repaired to the valley, where banquets of piquant refuse from the camps are freely spread for all.

The trail crossed several small creeks, but all of them were dry. I was somewhat disconcerted at this, for I particularly desired to camp on the summit of El Capitan, and I knew that I should find no water there. I ‘had watered the animals at the meadow, but where was my evening tea and morning coffee to come from? As we threaded an unpromising tract of brush I heard a sound as of the subterranean trickling of water, and traced it to a small hole just big enough to admit my hand. By lying face downward I could with difficulty reach my arm down to the tiny stream, and I devoted ten minutes to filling my canteen with a compound of gravel, dead leaves, ants, and water.

A few handsome sugar pines appeared as the forest thinned out. This fine tree, which is here at about the upper limit of its growth, is conspicuous even among such monarchs as the firs. The lithe branches express a steel-like temper, and take a spirited sweep that is wholly different from the reserved manner and statuesque symmetry of its companions; and when the tree is hung with full-grown cones there is an opulence in its aspect that marks it as the head of its family.

The timber ceased suddenly at a shelving expanse of rock and sand, and I recognized the contour of the vast headland which marks the gateway of the valley. Not a blade of grass grows on this barren tract, and I followed the western edge of the cliff, looking for pasturage, until I came to the Ribbon Fall Creek. At the head of the 3300-foot fall (which is the highest of all the Yosemite waterfalls, but also the most ephemeral), I found a little swale of verdure and there made camp, staking out the animals among grass literally up to their heads and mosquitoes not a few. I made a hasty supper and fled, leaving them to enjoy their riches and bear their trials alone.

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As for me I was determined to sleep on the very crest of El Capitan. A certain nausea has crept into my feeling for this famous mountain since eager advertisers have claimed it for their own, and publish its lineaments on soap-wrappers and beer bottles. But up here on this austere and lonely brow, all that could be forgotten, and taking my blankets and materials for a partial breakfast, I marched back half a mile to the summit of the elephantine forehead of the mountain.

I had heard of a monster juniper, juniperus juniperorum, surpassing all the junipers of Yosemite, that grew hereabout, and by the last of the daylight I searched for him, hoping to pass my El Capitan night beneath or at least beside him. My knowledge of the habit of the species ought to have guided me to the wind-swept western edge, where next morning I found the tree; but I had to content myself with a gallant hulk of Jeffrey pine whose topmast had been blown over in some winter’s gale and now hung by a few tough shreds creaking somewhat dismally in the wind. Here I made a royal fire and sat in great content, watching the red light fade in the west and congratulating myself on the fulfilment of a long-cherished desire,— that I might see my camp-fire smoke ascending from the “skyish head” of the Captain of Yosemite.

Before I turned in I walked a short distance farther out on the promontory. It was a. strange and somewhat unearthly situation. In the dim starlight I seemed to stand on a grey plain that sloped gradually but perceptibly away on all sides. A few gaunt trees, uncertainly seen, showed stark against the night sky, and seemed to peer and listen. I walked over to the eastern slope and looked down into the valley. It was a misty void, in which the gaze sank, and sank, as in a bottomless gulf. One dark shape loomed in the obscurity, the great arc of mountain which soars up to Glacier Point. Beside that there was nothing but the pallid glimmer of the rock on which I stood, and the stars shining in the indigo vault with a faint, high radiance that enhanced the solemnity of their immeasurable distances. The wind, which had blown strongly from the east, had almost died away, and passed me with a low and dreary sound. I might have been the last survivor on an asteroid.

At five o’clock next morning I was astir and drinking my coffee. The sky was yellowing in the east, and the irregular line of the Sierras was cut upon it in opaque, lifeless blue. Overhead the long needles of my pine hummed in the dawn wind, a dull, resonant tone like the reluctant smorzando of a bass-viol. The great caņon to the west was deep in sleeping mist, and above it a few stars shone greyly in a firmament that was still dark, as if the night had retreated there. The air was like poetry, and the “one touch of nature” was supplied when a small yellow bird arrived, fluffed himself out with an easy appearance of taking a chair, and fraternized sociably while he awaited my crumbs.

Then I went down to the brink of the precipice. There is a long, rounded slope to the south, at first gentle, then steeply shelving. The ground is a coarse granite sand through which the friable rock pushes in shelves and ledges. I climbed carefully down among huge slabs, and crept out along the edge of a flake which leans out over the cliff. A monument of piled rocks stands on the verge, and hard by it I found the bench-mark of the Geological Survey, recording 7042 feet of altitude. I was at first tempted to lie down and secure an absolutely vertical coup d’oeil; but I had no difficulty in refraining when I heard the warning tone that the loose rock returned when I stamped upon it to test its stability, and I contented myself with toppling a block of granite over the edge as my proxy. No sound of its striking came back from the abyss.

From a niche among the rocks I looked down upon the valley, slowly growing into distinctness as the light strengthened. El Capitan Meadows lay directly below, a carpet of quiet half-tones, grey-green, russet, and umber. The river shone like a ribbon of steel, bordered here with white shallows of sand, there with deep green of pine and cedar, and again with clumps of poplar whose lighter foliage showed the first touch of autumn gold. At the foot of the cliffs, sharp lines of talus stood boldly out like capes into the meadow, ashy grey, or darkly forested with pines. The southern wall ran in mile on mile of sombre precipice, alternately rifted with purple shadows and scarred with white avalanche scorings.

The sun rose at length, gilding the bald crest of Sentinel Dome and sending shafts of misty amethyst streaming between the outstanding buttresses of the walls. The picture was still magnificent, but the deeper enchantment passed away as the light increased. I made my way to the west cliff and there found my juniper: a sort of arborescent Atlas, twenty-three feet in circumference at four feet above the ground. Its height does not exceed its girth, and the farthest reaching limbs are of about the same length and some five feet around near the trunk. The stem rises in thick coils, like a twisted column; every branch and twig is furred with the yellow moss of age, and the whitened twigs and branchlets stream out wildly, like grey hair. Yet the tree is in full vigor, the foliage dense and brushy, the arms well balanced, and the whole appearance expressive of enormous age allied with unfailing strength and hardiness.

As I returned to camp I noticed, attached to a small tree, the fluttering remains of a sack which bore the advertisement of some brand of flour, of course “the best.” The fitness of things is apparently of small account to most of us, after all our generations of culture and decades of magazines. I willingly halted and climbed the tree in order to detach the rag, and had the pleasure of incinerating it before I left the mountain.

My animals received me with incoherent sounds of welcome, and hastened toward me to the limit of their ropes. They were standing amid the wreckage of their feast, surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes, like spendthrifts among the ruins of their fortunes, beset by creditors. I made a second breakfast, packed, and about noon started to make my way if I could by the ancient trail to Gentry’s, on the Big Oak Flat road. By returning to the valley over that road I should make my circuit exact and complete, and fulfil my purpose in the letter as well as in the spirit.

Half a mile brought me to a small stream, the main Ribbon Fall Creek, crossing which I came upon a little hunched-up cabin, doorless, and leaning half-a-dozen ways. An old pack-saddle lay near by, and a disabled Dutch oven reclined in a Dying-Gladiator attitude on a talus of empty cans that descended to the stream. On a sleeping-bunk within the house lay an object which in the gloom I took to be the form of the owner of the dwelling, but which proved to be only a wood-rat’s nest of imposing dimensions. Sundry articles of household use lay about with that waiting expression which such objects in a deserted habitation seem to contract.

On leaving this house of dejection my troubles began. For a quarter of a mile the trail could be kept, with difficulty, though for all evidence to the contrary it might have been years since anybody had travelled over it. But it became more and more obscure, and I frequently had to tie up the animals while I made wide casts before I could recover it some distance ahead. At last it ran out on to a meadow (Blue-jay Meadow, as I afterwards found it is called), and there vanished finally. The most diligent search failed to reveal any token of it coming out on the farther side. After wasting much time I decided to cut loose and make across country as best I could, bearing west and somewhat south, knowing that if I could but keep going in that direction I must sooner or later strike the road.

My brave little burros stepped out gamely, and we plunged into the forest. It was not long before we were entangled in difficulties. Windfallen timber blocked us in, whichever way we turned, and we spent exciting hours in climbing up and jumping down among stockades, moats, and circumvallations such as civilian quadrupeds are not often required to encounter. They would scramble, packs and all, over logs of such corpulence that when their forefeet had made the passage their bellies rested on the round. A convulsive spasm would bring the hind-legs over, and they would stand for a moment gazing eagerly at me with an air of asking “What now?”

I looked anxiously for blazes, scanning each old scar with my glasses in the hope of finding it to be of human origin; but always without avail. It was near sundown, and I was beginning to think of working down hill to the nearest caņon where I might find forage and water before the light failed me, when at last I came upon the trail and we cheerfully marched straight ahead. The only obstructions now were occasional newly fallen trees, and these we could generally circumnavigate by breaking through patches of stubborn buck-brush or affectionate manzanita.

In the twilight we tramped industriously along for two or three miles, the trail descending rapidly and leaving the fir-belt for an open forest of sugar pines, yellow pines, and at last cedars. About dark we entered an old clearing beyond which ran the good grey road. I identified the place as being our goal, the site of Gentry’s Saw-Mill. The mill itself has long vanished, but the name and a few ancient planks remain to remind an oblivious world that it has been.

A quarter of a mile down the road we found water, and I camped among sugar pines and dogwood, the blossoms of the latter hardly yet withered at this altitude of 6000 feet.

The feed for the animals was scanty and undesirable, but some equine magnifico who had lately dined hard by had left a considerable quantity of prime oat hay by the roadside, and this, with a few handfuls of onions and potatoes which I contributed from my own supplies, provided them with a supper of unusual attractiveness.

All that remained for the next day was a commonplace tramp of five dusty miles down the road to the point where, at the foot of El Capitan, it converges with the other two roads into Yosemite,—that from El Portal by which travellers over the railway now enter the valley, and the old stage-road from Raymond and Wawona by which they used to arrive (often in hysterics) in days of more leisure and less luxury.

Lunching at noon by El Capitan bridge, a friendly soul who was resting for the midday hour from his work on the road, the terrifying dust of which is being at last suppressed by a just if procrastinate government, and of whom I asked the news of the ten days during which I had been out of range of news and newspapers, inquired whether I had heard about the North Pole. In some alarm I asked him, “What?” and then learned that while I had been on my puny travels tidings had come that the greatest of geographical feats had been accomplished, and that the North Pole, the desire, the defier, and the death of many dauntless men, had been at last conquered, and, in a manner of speaking, was no more.

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