Here to return to
APRIL IN THE YOSEMITE
The road to the mountains
FROM the San Joaquin Valley I went by a branch railroad to Raymond far back in the Sierra foothills. The journey was delightful. Everywhere were flowery fields and pastures, and at times the wastelands were fairly covered with radiant blossoms. Some of the patches and streaks of bloom were blue, some purple, some white, and still others were a blaze of reds and yellows. The poppies were perhaps the most abundant and striking, but there were multitudes of delicate bluebells, and there were “nigger toes” and “popcorn” and dainty snowdrops and “little Johnnies” and many more.
Raymond is a half wild little village with some fine rough hills and ravines about, but no sign of grand mountains or big trees or charming waterfalls. The Yosemite was still distant a two days’ stage drive. It was the opening of the season and visitors were few. Only two others went on when I did. They were an elderly man and wife. But the stage also carried several men who were going to the Valley to work, one of them a Chinaman cook, another a blacksmith known as “Hank,” and a third whom his comrades addressed as “Bud.” The stage was a three-seated top wagon, and I sat on the front seat between the driver and the blacksmith.
Hour after hour we went on climbing among the rough, stony hills. They were not very interesting. Everywhere were granite boulders and scattered oaks garlanded with mistletoe, and now and then would occur a scrawny pine. In places there was much undergrowth such as sagebrush, chaparral, buckeye, and a bushy lupine that was loaded with purple blossoms. Then, too, there were great patches of poison oak, each shrub a reddish mass of new foliage. “You want to be careful how you walk through that,” advised the driver; “though some people ain’t affected by it at all. It don’t trouble me none, and I’ve monkeyed with it for forty years — walked through it, handled it, and even had it in my mouth.”
Grass was so plentiful that the driver remarked, “I would just like to be a cow for the next three months. I’d be sure to have all I wanted to eat, and I’d have nothing to do only to lie around. But by the end of June the grass will be dried brown, and the pasturing won’t be so pleasant. Still, that brown grass ain’t bad; for it’s like hay and is all right till we have rains to wash the goodness out. We are likely to get wet weather in October, and then the cattle have a hard time. But if the rains come early in the fall the new grass soon starts. If the rains are late the dry feed is destroyed and the new doesn’t get a chance to take its place. So the cattle half starve all winter.”
In the valleys were occasional little farms or the homes of ranchmen, and presently the elderly man on the back seat pointed to one of these and said, “It seems to me that the people who live there must lead a lonely life.”
“Oh, no,” responded the driver, “they can drive to town in forty minutes; but then, they don’t go there very often because they’re afraid of the cars.”
We frequently saw birds. Red-headed woodpeckers were working away on the dead trees and the telegraph poles, and blue jays and linnets were common. Once I got a glimpse of a robin, and there were a few hawks and soaring buzzards. The driver called my attention to a quail standing under a bush, and said, “These foothills are full of them in the fall.”
Several times we had a momentary glimpse of a ground squirrel scudding to shelter. The blacksmith claimed these squirrels were good to eat, but the driver declared they were no better than rats. “Well,” said the blacksmith, “cook ‘em properly and they’re good enough for anybody.”
“Some people eat rattlesnakes,” observed the driver
“If I was going to eat one I’d want to kill it myself,” the blacksmith said. “You know if you only just wound one it will bite itself where it was hurt and fill its flesh full of poison.
In a number of spots along the way were rubbish dumps of dirt and broken stone where some old gold mine had been worked, and the lady passenger wished she could get out and hunt for a “nudget.” We passed through Grub Gulch which contains a mine still in operation, and in the rough mountain hollow was a rude little hamlet. The mine is not of much account; but in the booming days that followed its discovery there was a wild and lawless community here. “They used to have a man for breakfast every little while,” declared the driver.
Now and then we met a team, and among the rest were several wagons loaded with apples that left a trail of delicious fragrance behind them. Later we saw the orchards in the secluded mountain glens, and I asked the driver if the fruit was profitable. He said, “That depends on the man who raises it and on circumstances. The fellow that handles this orchard we are passing has hard scratching to make ends meet, and he’s close as a mosquito, too; but some do very well.”
Much of the way the road clung to a steep hillside. It was narrow and crooked, and on the outer side looked dangerously precipitous. When teams approached each other the drivers shouted a warning and were apt to stop to consider just how to pass. The broadest place possible was selected and one team crowded up to the bank while the other drove gingerly along on the verge. Our own experience was mild compared with what it would have been later in the season when the five-span freighting wagons were running.
The Valley of the Yosemite
We were constantly encountering streams. They were seldom bridged and we splashed straight across. It was a pleasure to see them, for they were not like the muddy streams of the lowlands, but were clear and sweet, with stone-strewn courses down which they leaped and foamed with unceasing melody. The road was more or less muddy, but the driver assured us that the first thirty miles of our journey were decidedly pleasanter than they would be in summer. Then there would be dust and torrid heat. “Why,” said he, “it gets so hot that the wagon tongues hang out. I’ve seen the thermometer up to 118 in the shade.”
One of the things that adds zest to the stage trip is the possibility of a hold-up. In the past these hold-ups have occurred about once in four years. The previous season a highwayman had relieved a load of tourists of their purses, but did not take their jewelry or watches. He apologized for the annoyance he was causing and said he didn’t like to have to resort to such a practice, but he needed the money. When the collection had been finished an English tourist got out his camera and said to the desperado, “I’d like to take your picture, you know.”
“Certainly,” was the reply, “go ahead,” and he submitted to the photographing very gracefully and then departed.
The hold-up that preceded this one was an affair of more consequence. There were five stages going up the valley that day, one behind another, and a single man held them all up right in a bunch. He was a little particular, and when he thought a man had not turned over to him as much money as he carried, he ordered his victim to “dig up some more.), But he was not without a touch of ceremonial politeness, for he presented each of his benefactors with his card on which was printed the words, “The Black Kid.” At length his work was completed and he took to the brush and was seen no more.
We stopped once in ten or twelve miles to change horses, but this made little delay as the horses were harnessed and waiting for us. The longest pause was twenty minutes at the station where we had our noon lunch. After this lunch the blacksmith, as he settled himself in his place, smacked his lips and declared that the cream pie he had eaten for dessert was the finest pie of any sort he had ever tasted. “The only fault I have to find,” said he in conclusion, “is that the cook is too good a mathematicianer and cuts his pies into too many pieces.”
By mid-afternoon we had passed the foothills, and ahead of us lay a mountain. Bud informed the driver that he was going to get out and “hike” for a while, and when he alighted the blacksmith and I joined him. The trees had become more numerous and there were many tall, handsome yellow pines. Bushes were fewer, but in places the ground was hidden by a low evergreen growth of bear clover. “The bears don’t eat it,” said the blacksmith, “but it smells like ‘em.”
“Seems to me,” said Bud, “it smells just like a wet dog; and if you walk through it for an hour or two in summer you’ll have that smell on your clothes for the rest of your life.”
Just then the blacksmith found a horseshoe in the road and he hung it up on a bush. “That’ll bring me good luck,” he remarked.
“I don’t know about that,” was Bud’s comment. “I’ve quit hangin” ‘em up lately because I noticed I got drunk as a lord every time I did it.”
As we climbed upward the ground became increasingly muddy and slippery, and at length patches of snow were to be seen here and there in the woodland. These were larger and more frequent as we went higher until the mantle of white was everywhere. The sky had gloomed over and it began to storm, a mixture of rain and sleet. Now we arrived at a rough shanty and barn where the stage was to change horses. What a wintry wilderness it was! — white roofs and a giant evergreen forest roundabout, gloomy and mysterious with the cold storm.
When the stage came we walkers got in and tucked the blankets tightly about us and everyone prepared for a disagreeable journey; but shortly the mists drifted away and the sun shone into the shaggy, dripping woodland, and brightened the dark foliage and the brown, rough-barked tree trunks. The driver seemed anxious about his return trip on the morrow. “Gee! this snow’ll be frozen then,” he said, “and it’ll be slick as glass. The brakes won’t hold and I’ll have a lot o’ trouble to keep the wagon from runnin’ onto the horses.”
We presently passed over the top of the mountain ridge and were in really magnificent forest that man had never devastated. The trees grew to full maturity and died and fell to enrich the mountain mould for future generations just as their ancestors had before them from time immemorial. Many of the sugar and yellow pines and cedars were four to six feet in diameter, and they often towered up fully two hundred feet. It was a satisfaction just to look at their straight and towering boles. The noblest of the trees and those most prized by the lumbermen were the sugar pines. Specimens have been found that had attained a thickness of twelve feet and were still living, sound in every fiber. The cones are very large and handsome. They grow to be from a foot to eighteen inches long and beautify the tree and ground beneath for months after the seeds have taken wing. The tree’s name comes from a sweet gum that exudes from the heart-wood where wounds have been made either by forest fires or the ax. The gum takes the shape of irregular, crisp clusters of kernels. When fresh it is perfectly white and delicious.
The Yosemite Falls
In descending the mountain it was quite necessary to hold on. The wheels cut through the snow in a very uncertain way, and we thumped and jolted and shook about in a manner that was very disturbing. The lady on the seat behind was constantly cautioning her husband to hang on to her, even if her arm was getting blistered with his clutch. When her side of the vehicle tipped up she begged him to hurry and shift as near her end of the seat as possible to keep the balance. When it went the other way she had him slide back to his side. Yet in spite of all he could do to act as ballast she was certain at times we were going over. “Oh, oh!” she exclaimed as we passed safely through one crisis, “what foolishness to come all this way and over such poor and dangerous roads just to see a little scenery that we may not care for after all! I told you we would regret it, but, you were bound to come.”
Once when the driver let the horses break into a trot along the verge of a precipice she ordered him to “Stop!” and added in an aside that she had never seen such reckless driving. Gradually we had left the snow behind and now we were much of the time dragging along in the mud. Darkness came, but at last we saw the lights of the tiny settlement of Wawona ahead and came out into a clearing in the valley basin, and there was our hotel with shelter and warmth and food.
The ground was stiff with frost the next morning, the air crisp and clear. We were on the road at seven and were soon climbing another mountain, snugging along the slope and creeping in and out of the ravines. Deer tracks were frequent in the highway mud, and these set the Yosemite workers who were on the stage to telling their experiences in hunting the animals, and they pointed out this place and that along the trail where they had shot one or more. We were on a government reservation where hunting was against the law, and from May to October a hundred of Uncle Sam’s cavalry were stationed at Wawona to see that the law was enforced. But after the cavalry left, the huntsmen banged away very much as they pleased. While the soldier guardians were present they exercised some degree of restraint, yet the efficiency of the troops was generally rated pretty low. According to a state official whose headquarters were in the Yosemite they were worse than useless. “I’ll give you an instance,” said he. “Five soldiers caught one of the fellows that lives in these parts out hunting and they started for camp with him. But on the way a deer crossed their trail, and every one of the soldiers shot at it and missed. ‘Give me my gun,’ says the prisoner, ‘and I’ll kill the deer for you, if you want me to.’
“So they gave him his gun and he brought down the deer. ‘Well,’ they says, ‘you can keep your gun and hike out.’
“Yes, sir, these soldiers kill any quantity of game and they’ve fished out every stream and lake in this region. Before them Arabs got in here we had some of the finest fishing in the Sierras.
“Once the captain told me he was going to bring his cavalry up to camp in the Valley. Him and I locked horns right there and the soldiers didn’t come. Thunder and lightning! I have no use for their sort, and there’s too much red tape and pompousness about the whole management. The captain has got to come down off the roost if he wants to do business with me. Any bulldozing proposition won’t go.
“We had a fire on the reservation last summer and it burned for six weeks and ran over a territory thirty-five miles square. For the whole six weeks the Valley was full of smoke, and the tourists who come didn’t get to see hardly anything at all. The fire very near burned up the soldiers’ camp. They were supposed to be fighting the fire; but what class of persons are they? A fellow with any ginger in him wouldn’t take a job at thirteen dollars a month. They aren’t in the army to work. They know how to beat the game from A to Z, and for accomplishing anything really effective they’re no earthly use. Their police duty is a farce. Why, they’re constantly getting drunk at Wawona and raising thunder. They make a regular scat-house of the place. This fire I was speaking of was altogether too much for them. They didn’t know how to handle it, and they didn’t care to exert themselves much anyhow. It’s said that some of them would burn a space around themselves and then lie down and have a sleep. By and by the fire got up into my region and I took ten men and in three days put the whole thing out. With a dozen of these California foothill boys I can do everything five hundred of the soldiers and a brigadier-general in command of ‘em could do, and a blamed sight better. They are supposed to keep cattle and sheep off the reservation, but there’s men who will feed a flock of sheep all around those soldiers. Give me a few local rangers and I’d nab every herder that sticks his nose across the line. Geewhizacar! I’d catch more trespassers in six months than they would in a hundred years.”
The stage toiled on till we were again in the white winter woods. As we climbed higher the snow grew deeper and in some places a passage had been shovelled through, leaving walls on either side half-way to the top of the stage. Finally we reached a little station over six thousand feet above the sea level. It was in a small clearing, with the dark, serrated woods all about, and it was fairly buried in drifts eight or ten feet deep. A narrow channel had been dug, and a little space cleared before the barn. We ate a hasty lunch and were soon on the road again, wallowing through the snow and pitching about in the most exciting manner, always with a vague fear that the vehicle might chance to turn over and send us to destruction down the mountain side.
In time we came to where we could look down on the famous Valley — a long winding crevice bounded by mighty cliffs and peaks of many varying forms. How quiet and protected it did look after all those savage inhospitable heights and hollows we had traversed! But the thing that made it most attractive was a slender waterfall dropping over the face of one of the giant bluffs — dainty, fairy-like and giving the otherwise sober landscape a touch of lightness that was very fascinating. This fall was the keynote of the scene through all the long descent to the valley bottom. It was the Bridal Veil, dashing down for nine hundred feet, a mass of foam and spray, and as we drew near we saw shreds of rainbow painting the mists. Across the valley the driver pointed out another waterfall, but a very tiny one, which he said was called “The Maiden’s Tear.”
“That’s a very curious name,” said the lady passenger. “Why do they call it that?”
“Because it is so far from the Bridal Veil,” replied the driver.
The valley is about seven miles long and nowhere much exceeds a mile in width. Nearly all of it is perfectly level, some of it open meadows and pastures, but mostly thinly wooded with tall pines and cedars and firs intermingled with occasional deciduous trees or groves. A small river, rapid and rocky and crystal clear, wended its way through the vale, and, all along, the great cliffs soared skyward in many a vast buttress and pinnacle. It was a wilderness valley, and yet it was so level and secluded and so hedged about by protecting mountains that it seemed a spot of eternal calm and serenity.
The Yosemite was first seen by white men in January, 1851. For some time previous there had been friction with the Indians on the mountain borders; but the first serious quarrel occurred when six Indians visited a trading-post thirty miles west of the Valley, and a drunken ruffian from Texas, without any reasonable cause, stabbed to the heart the chief of the party.
The other five savages at once shot the Texan to death with their bows and arrows, and retreated to the forest. Two nights later a pack of sixteen mules was stolen from the trading-post corral by the Indians and driven off to the mountains.
These happenings occasioned great excitement among the whites. It was midwinter, yet a company of about one hundred men from the vicinity armed themselves and started on the trail. The Indians had gone to the Yosemite canyon where they converted the mules into jerked meat, and there the frontiersmen surprised them and slaughtered a large number. It was a massacre that included men, women and children. The whites were revenged and they left the Valley. But, though they were the true discoverers of the famous spot it was only made known to the outside world by an expedition that went on a similar raid two months later. Those who took part in this second foray had a rough time in the snowstorms and deep drifts of the mountains, and when they reached the Valley they found no Indians except one old squaw. However, the scenery so impressed certain members of the party that their descriptions of it aroused very wide interest in its marvels.
The Valley is supposed to have been given its peculiar character by a convulsion that caused the rock mass filling the space to sink to some unknown depth. For a vast period of time the waste from the sides of the cliffs dropped into this abyss, which was doubtless occupied by a lake of surpassing beauty. But at length the hollow was filled sufficiently by the falling rocks and by the soil the streams brought from the regions surrounding so that the lake became the present alluvial valley.
Half way up the glen is a village consisting of a two-story wooden hotel and its annexes and several photograph studios, a store, a tiny church and a few dwellings. The hamlet looked strangely lost with the tremendous heights towering around. Just beyond a meadow the Yosemite Fall drops over from the crest of a rock wall twenty-six hundred feet high. How slender and beautiful it is! and how amazing its long leap! It brightens the whole vicinity and relieves the somberness of the ragged mountainous cliffs, and the air resounds with its mellow roar. It is characteristic of the canyon that you have the music of the waterfalls in your ears wherever you go, while the great rock walls loom about with a constantly changing sky-line. Of course, not all visitors are satisfied, and one man said to me, “These mountains around the Valley are all right, but I don’t think much of the waterfalls, after seeing Niagara.”
As well say a humming bird is not beautiful because you have seen an eagle.
Up at the far end of the valley where it narrows and you look ahead into a wild wooded defile, is Mirror Lake. This, however, scarcely deserves its name; for the only time it is apt to be quiet is before sunrise. Soon afterward the wind sucks down the valley and the surface is broken with waves for the rest of the day.
Trails lead to the top of all the important bluffs and peaks, and it would seem as if a person could climb to his heart’s content. But to some people a trail is too prosaic and they like the glory of going up where there are difficulties and danger. In a recent summer an old Alpine climber named Bailey and a young companion decided to follow up a steep crevice along the wall of El Capitan to the summit of that king of cliffs. It proved a very arduous task, and the younger man several times urged the elder to return; but the latter was determined to go on. They were nearly to the top, and Bailey, who was ahead, sat down on a ledge and reached his staff to assist his comrade. Suddenly he toppled over and bounded along down the rocky slope. The young man saw him disappear, and to calm his nerves he seated himself and smoked a cigaret. He did not dare to descend, and when he rose he struggled up to the summit and followed the trail down to the hotel. Helpers promptly returned with him carrying a number of long ropes, and after a good deal of difficulty they recovered the body of Bailey about seven hundred feet below where he fell.
The winter residents of the Valley number only about thirty, but in summer the village expands wonderfully. hundreds of tents are put up to serve as homes for campers and the place is very populous. Formerly this was a “tin can town” just as are most California hamlets — that is, the street and neighborhood were strewn with the rusty receptacles of canned goods which enter largely into the Western bill of fare. But now every dweller, temporary or permanent is compelled to bury his old tins. It seems a pity that the buildings should be so uncomely and cheap, and one regrets the ugly wooden or iron bridges, so artificial and out of keeping with the landscape. The bridges might well be arches of the native stone, simple and permanent, that would make the scenes of which they are a part more beautiful instead of less so.
When my visit came to an end and I rode out of the Yosemite it was with many a lingering and half-regretful backlook as we climbed the mountain, and left behind that vale of enchantment with its mighty environing heights and delectable waterfalls. Two ladies sat on the box seat with the driver, who was unusually youthful, intelligent and entertaining. They were discussing the timidity of travellers, and the driver said, “I have had ladies riding on this seat, who, when the wagon gave a bad jolt, would holler and grab hold of me.” “You liked that, didn’t you?” said the lady next to him.
“Well, not while I was drivin’,” he responded. “I wouldn’t object some other times, perhaps.”
“I suppose you do have some funny people on the stage,” the lady remarked.
“Yes,” said he, “there was a trip last summer I carried a load that was all women, and every one of ‘em was an old maid, and always would be. The youngest of the lot must have been thirty-five or forty.”
“That’s not so very old,” the lady interrupted. “There’s plenty of chances for her yet.”
“Well,” was the driver’s response, “all I can say is, if she’s goin’ to marry she’d better get a move on her. Those old maids was at me to tell ‘em a story, or give ‘em a conundrum; and finally I says, ‘Why is it that an old maid likes to go to church early?’
“They couldn’t tell, and I said, ‘Because she wants to be sure to be there when the hymns are given out.’
“They said I was awful to give such a conundrum as that, but it pleased ‘em all the same.”
“Were those old maids from the East?” inquired the lady.
“Yes, there ain’t none out here,” replied the driver. “Our girls all marry, and there’s not enough to go around.”
“You are not married, are you?” queried the lady.
“Oh, I was taken long ago,” he responded. “Get up, Humpy; go on Smoke!” said he cracking his whip over the backs of the front horses.
“What are the names of the other two?” the lady questioned.
“Coon and Toothpick,” he replied.
Each of the three hundred and fifty horses on the route has its name and its individuality, but I think the names of our four had more than the average of picturesqueness.
From Wawona, where we arrived in the afternoon, I made a side trip to see the big trees. This necessitated an eight-mile climb up a mountain side; for the trees love a high altitude. The road had only just been opened through the snows, and once our stage got stuck in a drift. Considerable digging had to be done before the struggling horses could drag us free. As we were toiling slowly along the driver asked us if we had ever seen one of their black California rabbits. We never had.
“Why, there’s one now,” he said, pointing on ahead.
Sure enough, there was the rabbit sitting on its haunches alert and watchful close by the road, and it was nearly three feet tall. I expected every moment it would leap away, but we continued to approach and it did not move except that I saw an eye blink and its ears waggle a trifle. We were all very much excited over the sight and were exclaiming softly to one another when lo! we suddenly realized that the rabbit was nothing but a remnant of a burned-out stump which chanced from a certain view-point to have the outline of a rabbit.
The Grizzly Giant
When we were well up on the height we changed to a sleigh and at last we came to the forest giants. They are in the midst of heavy woodland and are scattered among trees of various other species, many of which are themselves of magnificent girth and height; but the sequoias stand out distinctly. Their reddish brown bark is unlike the bark of the rest of the trees in texture as well as color, and the larger trees far exceed in size any of their comrades not of the same family. They differ also from the balance of the forest in having dome-like tops instead of pointed ones. Most of them are sadly scarred about the base by fire; but the charred crevices and hollows date far back and are said to be due to a habit the Indians had of letting fires run through the woodland to clear it of undergrowth and make easier travelling and hunting.
The most venerable and the largest member of the clan is the “Grizzly Giant.” It is supposed to be over five thousand years old, and its immense size, its shattered and dead top and gnarled limbs make it look like the ancestor of its race. The tree is ninety-three feet in circumference, and its first limb, a hundred feet from the ground, has a diameter of six feet. Many of the sequoias have broken and bare tops, but this is the work of storms rather than age. Even when a big tree falls the end is still far off; for the wood does not decay readily at heart, and the wasting away from the outside is very slow. Trees that were thrown down before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock are in the Sierra forests today with wood in them as sound and bright in color as it was in their prime. Most full-grown trees are not much over twenty feet in diameter and about two hundred and seventy-five feet in height. But the giants of the race go up fifty feet more. The trees, except for accidents, seem to lack little of being immortal. They live on indefinitely until cast down by storms, burned, killed by lightning or destroyed by man.
The fruitfulness of the sequoias is marvelous. The cones are only about two inches in length but the branches hang full of them and each is packed with two or three hundred seeds. Millions of seeds are ripened annually by a single tree — no doubt, enough in some cases to plant all the mountain ranges in the world. However, very few seeds ever get the chance to germinate, and of those that do, not one tree in ten thousand lives through the vicissitudes that beset its youth. Yet trees abound of all ages, from fresh-starting saplings to those in the glory of their prime, and the giant trees seem abundantly able to maintain their race in eternal vigor.
The day following this visit to the big trees I returned to Raymond; and it was not so prosaic a change from the wonderland where I had been as might have been expected. Indeed, it was a real delight to descend from the wintry mountains and to gradually find the spring about us — at first only faint hints, but finally a green earth, and new leafage on the trees and abounding blossoms, and the birds flitting and singing.
NOTES. — The word Yosemite means “full grown grizzly bear.” Since 1905 the park has been in charge of the Federal Government, and is policed by two troops of cavalry who camp near the Yosemite Fall. This waterfall is the highest in the world with anything like the same amount of water. When it comes over the top of the cliffs it is about 35 feet wide. A splendid ice-cone, 500 feet high, forms at the foot of the upper fall in winter.
Bridal Veil Fall derives its name from the effect on it of the wind, which often makes it flutter like a filmy veil.
Travellers now usually go to the valley by way of Merced and El Portal. From the latter place, where the railroad ends, a 12-mile stage road takes one into the heart of the valley.
The Yosemite season lasts from early April until October, though it is now possible to go at any time without serious discomfort. The cold, and the heavy snowfall on the mountains are the chief deterrents to winter visits. The best months are May and June, when the falls are full of water and there is no dust.
The customary way to see the famous Mariposa Grove of Big Trees now is to make an excursion from the Yosemite Valley. It is 26 miles to the hotel at Wawona, and 8 miles more to the Grove. Here are about 600 fine specimens of the sequoia.