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Summer Suns in the Far West
Chapter V. The Yosemite Valley

LEAVING Salt Lake City on a Monday afternoon, we first had a glimpse of the Salt Lake itself. Fain would we have made a run to the fashionable watering-place on the Salt Lake, and had a dip in those waters which are more impregnated with salt than the Dead Sea, and equally destitute of fish, and which buoy one up so wonderfully that sinking in them is a kind of impossibility. We passed through Ogden, the second city of Utah, a railway junction, and likely to grow in population and importance. Then we committed ourselves to our sleeping-berths. Next morning we looked out on what proved a weary wilderness—the desert of Nevada.

Perhaps some readers may he interested to know a little of life in the cars. The cars are always like long rooms, with a passage running longitudinally, and seats holding two on either side. If two persons are travelling together, they usually get “a section” of the Pullman—that is, two seats which by day may be placed so that the occupants sit opposite to each other. As bedtime draws near, the porter, usually a coloured man, comes along and prepares the beds. First the two seats are drawn together, a mattress and other gear placed over them, and the lower bed prepared. Then, turning a screw, he folds down something like a broad shelf, attached by a hinge to the sloping roof of the car, and this, with bed-gear corresponding, forms the upper bed. Curtains are then attached to a rod that runs along the top of the car, closing in both beds, and the process is complete. You snuggle yourself somehow into bed, and divest yourself of your clothing as best you may. It is not an easy process, for the roof is very low. In the morning you are probably awakened by the porter calling out, “Breakfast in half-an-hour.” You know that that is an announcement not to be trifled with. You wriggle hastily into your clothes, jump up, then move along to the end of the car, where there is a lavatory with a very small basin; and waiting your turn., you get your face and hands dipped and cleansed. Ladies are better off; they have a little room, returning to your berth, you move through the narrow avenue, amid shoulders, elbows, and knees out against the curtains, representing the contortions of your belated fellow-travellers who are yet struggling to get inside their garments. The porter is already busy “fixing” the vacated berths. It may be that your breakfast is at a roadside station, and in that case you leave the car. But it may also be that there is no hotel or restaurant for hundreds of miles; in these circumstances a “dining-car” is hooked on to the train, and you pass along to it for your meal. The fare is wonderfully good, and by no means cheap; but often the car sways about so vehemently that eating is far from pleasant. The hours of the day pass wearily to some, and the pack of cards—symbol so often of poor resources sifts where—is produced very early. For the victims of tobacco, there is a small smoking room, generally in good demand. Those who eschew both cards and tobacco, when they tire of their book will find their fellow-passengers very willing for conversation; or, if they want fresh air, may stand a little on the platform at the end of the car. Where there is varied and beautiful scenery, and the smoke is not blown in your face, this is delightful; but where there is nothing but wilderness, the attraction is small.

And wilderness it was all that day, as we moved through the state of Nevada. We were not sorry when night came on and we betook ourselves again to our sleeping-berths. When we got up next morning, we were close to Sacramento, the state capital of California. The scene had undergone a delightful change. We were among groves of greenery, and saw for the first time the orange-tree in its native clime, luxuriating in the sunshine and loaded with its apples of gold. We could not but recall lines written of another land, “far, far away”:—

“Know ye the land of the cedar and vine,
Where the flowers ever blossom, the beams ever shine;
Where the light wings of zephyr, oppressed with perfume,
Wax faint o'er the gardens of Gul [the rose] in her bloom;
Where the citron and olive are fairest of fruit,
And the voice of the nightingale never is mute;
Where the tints of the earth and the hues of the sky,
In colour though varied, in beauty may vie,
And the purple of ocean is deepest in dye?”

We had an hour to spend in Sacramento, and by the aid of the street car we were soon among its lions. Its Capitol is very handsome, a kind of miniature of that of Washington, and the Roman Catholic cathedral is massive and stately. In other respects the city is ordinary enough. It finds it too hard to compete with San Francisco, and, wisely, it does not try.

Our plan was to defer our visit to San Francisco until our return journey, and spend that week in the Yosemite Valley. We were still in flowery May, and if we had deferred the Yosemite trip we should have found the flowers all gone and the waterfalls all dry. Though we hardly knew what we were to encounter, we were very thankful that we made this arrangement, for we had an admirable opportunity of seeing the valley.

Lying in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, the Yosemite Valley is one of the most remarkable and interesting bits of American scenery. It is reached most easily, if the word easily may be used in such a connection, from the station of Berenda, on the Southern Pacific Railway, about a hundred miles from San Francisco on the north, and between three and four hundred from Los Angeles on the south. The service of trains on that line is very limited; for though we arrived at Berenda at four in the afternoon, there was no means of getting further till five next morning. Berenda is one of those stations in the midst of the wilderness where art seems to have vied with nature to make the place the very climax of desolation; for with all its gorgeous beauty in many parts, California is but a waste, howling wilderness in others. For accommodation in a wretched hotel you pay at the same rate as in the best of the country; and indeed you may reckon as the usual charge all the time you are in the valley a dollar a meal and a dollar a bed, save in one or two instances where you get a rapid meal for three-quarters. The charge for conveyance is also high: “the round” from Berenda and back is forty-five dollars; and if to the hotel charges you add something for a carriage drive here, or a saddle horse there, you will find that a week in the Yosemite costs for each person not much under twenty pounds.

At five in the morning you go on board the cars on a branch railway, and in an hour and a half you are carried to Raymond, where the tug-of-war, in the form of stage-coach lighting with the mountain passes, begins. After breakfast you are allocated to a place in one of the stage-coaches (of which there may be half-a-dozen); and as there was a party of the name of Stewart from Los Angeles, and two of the seats in their stage were not required by them, the clerk seems to have thought that the couple from Scotland might find fittest accommodation there. A most agreeable party it was, and the easy and kindly manners of California enabled the people from the old country very soon to feel themselves at home.

Before starting on the stage we were already pretty high up among the mountains, for the railway has the steepest gradient in California, and does its very best to carry us up. And we were in a very different scene from that which we left at Berenda. The weary sage-brush which dots the wilderness with awful monotony had entirely disappeared, and we were already in the region of most beautiful trees and flowers. This, perhaps, is the first feature that strikes the stranger. You see in the woods flowering trees covered with blossoms, as if they were huge rose bushes in full bloom; while at your feet you have masses of flowers, pink, blue, purple, scarlet, as if the blaze of Dirleton garden had been scattered over acres and miles. You have only to get down as the horses are changed, and in five minutes you have gathered a bouquet fit for a bride. And yet I do not know that the effect is more pleasing than that of our own laburnums, chestnuts, and hawthorn, and charming banks and meadows of daisy, primrose, and buttercup. The distance you have to travel the first day (to Wawona) is about forty miles, but it occupies the whole day till nightfall. We had five changes of horses during the day, so that in all twenty horses were needed to haul eleven persons along. The lower ranges of the Sierra Nevada are striking and beautiful. The outlines of the hills, and the far-reaching glimpses one gets from time to time, remind one of the Grampians near Blair Athole, while the rich clothing of pine and oak and other trees seems to recall the scenery of Dunkeld. The whole was set forth to perfection by the brightest sun that ever shone and the purest sky that ever gleamed. The effect of the climate was wonderfully invigorating; the party were all in the best of spirits, entering with all their hearts into the beauty of the scene. The only drawbacks were the excessive heat and the excessive dust, of both of which we may truly say that it was impossible to contend with them; the only alternative was to submit as gracefully as possible to their absolute control.

As we got more into the heart of the mountains, the trees became more striking. We were not yet among the big trees, but we were among bigger trees than we had ever seen. Very striking was the aspect of the ordinary pine-trees, especially as they rose from the valleys, some two hundred feet in height, pointing to heaven as straight as arrows, and displaying in branches and leafage the most perfect symmetry. It seemed hardly possible for any one to escape the moral lesson—it would be well for us if we rose to heaven as straight and direct as these noble trees.

American forest roads are not perfection. But the wonder is that in such a region of hill and valley there are carriage-roads at all. In few cases has more been done than to clear a path; and often the ruts remind you of the entrance to a stone-quarry, or the track formed by cart-wheels in excavating the foundations of a house. While the coach ascends, the movement is very slow, but it is safe and comfortable; but woe betide you when it plunges downhill, determined to make up for time lost in the ascent! Let no lady or other mortal dream of attempting this journey who cannot stand being knocked and tossed hither and thither, especially when the coach strikes on a stone or a concealed row of logs, and bumps you up and down half-a-dozen times in succession, as if you were dancing a jig. For this same movement must be undergone for several days, and for delicate ladies it is certainly too much.

Evening brings you to the hotel at Wawona. You are still half a day’s journey from the Yosemite Valley, but you are comparatively near the celebrated “big trees,” and it is convenient to visit them from this place. Wawona in the native tongue means “big trees.” The distance to and from is but seventeen miles, but it occupies about four or five hours. As you penetrate into the forest you observe, in addition to the tall pines and arbor views to which you have been accustomed, a new variety, of unprecedented thickness, and bright russet stems, having a look of very hoary antiquity. It is the tree known among us but as a shrub, the Wellingtonia gigantea, as we call it, but the Washinytonia gigantea of the Americans. Both of these names, however, bid fair to be superseded by the term Siquoia gigantea, applied by a recent Government botanist, who observed that this was but a variety of the big redwood trees of the coast, to which the name Siquoia sempcrvirens had already been given. In these mountains this tree grows to a size unprecedented in any other part of the globe. It is a clannish tree, and even here is found only in certain bits of the forest. How it comes to grow here to such prodigious proportions we cannot tell, except that the soil, the climate, and the shelter of the Mariposa county must be highly favourable to its growth.

'the more striking trees have got peculiar names, appropriate to their appearance. There is the Grizzly Giant, the Three Graces, the Graceful Couple, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the like. The thickest tree in the grove is the Grizzly Giant. Some young persons brought a ball of twine and put it round him. They included a projecting root which they should have omitted; this made the length of the piece of twine between thirty and forty yards. Another tree has a passage scooped out at the root, through which the stage-coach with its four horses easily passes; but this tunnel seems in no degree to interfere with the welfare of the tree. Near when1 we stopped to rest our horses occurs a remarkable prostrate tree. It. is some three hundred feet long. It is so high that a ladder is needed for you to get on it, and the first hundred feet might be scooped out to form a considerable ship. The rest of the tree contained timber more than enough to stock a large timber-yard. It is no myth that is told of a farmer who had acquired a hundred and sixty acres of land, that out of one tree he got timber enough to build his house and barns, and to enclose the whole of his farm, and had a large quantity over for such other purposes as lie required it. A tree on the border of a county so fell that while its root was in one county its stem was in another. The number of such stories told of the big trees is very great.

Next morning we bid farewell for a time to Wawona, which is charmingly situated in an amphitheatre of hills, with a clear rapid stream flowing past. With our stage and four horses we penetrated still further into the Sierra. Up the steep ascents, in which we had occasionally to double upon ourselves, our rate of progress was sometimes not more than three miles an hour, and often we had to pause; to give the poor horses their breath. Every here' and there we would reach a commanding point, from which we looked out on a scene of wonderful sylvan beauty. One of these is named “Oh My Point,” because no American can look out from it without indulging his characteristic exclamation, “Oh my!” At last, about mid-day, we reached the far-famed “Inspiration Point,” and paused to look down on the glories of Yosemite. It is a very striking view. About ten or twelve miles of narrow valley spread out before us, enclosed in abrupt almost perpendicular mountains, rising to the height of some four thousand feet, broken at the summits into every variety of picturesque form, and gleaming with silver streaks of waterfalls so steep that the water is dashed to spray long before it reaches the bottom, and when the sun is behind the spectator, shines in the tints of the rainbow. Inspiration Point, commands a splendid view of El Capitan, the boldest of the cliff's, and the Bridal Veil, perhaps the finest of the waterfalls.

As we move downwards, and get into the valley, its other fine features appear. Among the most striking of these are Sentinel Cliff, Cathedral Spires, the Three Brothers, the Three Graces, the Half Dome, and the North Dome. Cathedral Spires is the name of two pointed spires that rise six or seven hundred feet above the general summit, having a striking resemblance to the object from which they derive their name. The Half Dome is a huge mass of dome-shaped rock, that in some convulsion of nature has been split in two, leaving the question a puzzle for mankind—What became of the other half? But of all the rocks El Capitan is the most wonderful. He rises in almost sheer perpendicular height three thousand three hundred feet, with corresponding breadth, and so far as you can see there is not a seam or division in the vast mass of granite. Of the waterfalls, the Bridal Veil (the name explains itself) is sweet and beautiful, but the Nevada Falls have more variety of form and a larger mass of water. Everywhere the pine is at home. It often finds for itself a home in the very face of the rocks, or crowns their very summits.

Seen from any commanding point, under the bluest of skies and the brightest of sunshine, the valley is wonderfully grand. The surface is level and very rich, evidently the bottom of a lake in former times. But the glorious amphitheatre of nearly perpendicular rocks is what makes it so unique and so sublime. It is really something for Americans to be proud of, and in all likelihood it is unexampled in the; world. Yet I must confess I like some of tin; Swiss valleys better. Amid all the grandeur of Yosemite, there is a want of that softness of beauty which sets off so well the sublimities of the Alps. And we want the snowy summits piercing the heavens and mingling with them, and speaking to us so expressively of the union of earth and heaven. But mass and magnitude are very expressive to the American mind, and I have no doubt that those who have travelled far are sincere in declaring, as they often do most enthusiastically, that there is nothing like the Yosemite in all the world.

There are two hotels in the valley—Barnard’s and the Stoneman House. We were recommended to take the former, which is also the older, and we were glad that we did so. It is charmingly situated, and our bedroom window, and the veranda on which it opened, commanded a delightful view of the Yosemite Fall, a cascade in three leaps, the tallest of which is some fifteen hundred feet, and the whole, I think, about two thousand six hundred. Nothing could be more charming than to sit in the evening and gaze on the stream of virgin silver losing itself in foam, but quickly pulling itself together for another leap. We had the pleasure to be much in contact with Mr. M‘Cord, the guardian or Government official of the valley, and to receive from him much information and attention. We were happy to be able to repay him in some degree by taking the Sunday service in the chapel, of which lie takes charge. We must mention another inhabitant, Mr. Galen Clark, the discoverer of the big trees, a man full of intelligence and scientific knowledge, and whom, after all he has done for the valley, it is a pain to see living alone, in his old age, and earning a humble living by hiring a carriage for the use of visitors. Hardly had I written these lines when the political whirligig brought a rapid change. Mr. M'Cord was sent adrift, and Mr. Clark appointed guardian. As in most cases in America, politics did it. We were glad that Mr. Clark was promoted, but vexed for Mr. M‘Cord.

The Stoneman House, a mile and a quarter further up the valley, is a large three-storied building, named after some Governor Stoneman, but is much less fortunate in its situation than Barnard’s. There are several weeks in winter when the sun can be seen for little more than an hour. But here, as elsewhere, people complain of the way in which things are done by the authorities. The valley is the property of the United States, but is under the charge of the state of California, who appoint a body of commissioners to look after it. These commissioners will pay it a visit now and then, and on one of these occasions they resolved to build this Stoneman Hotel, without having consultation with the few residents, and without being aware of the strong objections to the situation.

The history of the valley is not uninteresting. During the whole period of the Spanish occupation of California it seems to have been unknown. It was in a somewhat accidental way that it was discovered by the Americans in the early days of the gold enterprise. The county of Mariposa, in which both the valley and the big trees are situated, has some valuable gold mines. The miners were ever and anon having depredations committed on them by Indians, whose whereabouts could not be discovered. At length it was found that their home was in a valley to which all access was impossible save at one or two points, which they carefully guarded. War ensued, and it ended in the Indians being dispossessed. There is a dispute whether the true name of the valley, which in the Indian language is said to mean, “The home of the grizzly bear,” ought to be Yostomito or Yohamite. Usage has settled the question in favour of the former, but it is apt to suggest the idea of Shorn dwelling in the tents of Ham. For a few years after the discovery of the valley it remained unfrequented. A gentleman who was about to publish a work on “Picturesque California” remembered that lie had heard of a waterfall in the valley eight hundred feet high. He determined to find it and insert it in his work. With two companions lie set out on the search. Ho gives an amusing account of his efforts to find some of the men who had taken part in the military operations, but one after another had forgot all about the way to the place, only each was sure such another could tell it. After going for a long time from post to pillar, Mr. Hutchings at last found the way into the valley, and then discovered scenes that threw all other parts of “Picturesque California ’’ into the shade.

The permanent residents in the valley are hardly a score in number, but in summer it swarms with visitors, and it is not the hotels only that shelter them. “Camping out” is a common operation. A family, or a cluster of families, pitch a tent in tin* valley, travel in their own buggy or waggon, bring with them cooking utensils, and manage to have a very “good time” for a week or longer. The camping-ground being near the hotels, T happened to pass an encampment of this sort on the Sunday afternoon, when I was immediately accosted by a gentleman, who introduced himself as a professor of mathematics in Massachusetts, sojourning in California for his health. He had just been preparing notes of my sermon for the local paper, and wished to read them over to me. “The local paper,” I said; “what do you mean?” “Oh, there’s a printer in camp here, who brought with him a printing machine and set of types, and every week he prints the Yosemite Gazette.” Most thoroughly American! Americans can make newspapers live where there, seems as little to live on as for the pines on the face of the rock. And sometimes there are two rival papers where there is hardly a decent house. And these can abuse each other as roundly as the famous newspapers of Eatanswill. The newspaper is a wonderful institution in America.

On the following day we had a pleasant drive in Mr. Clark’s conveyance, first to the Mirror Lake, and thereafter all down and up the valley. The effects of the tossing in the stage-coaches prevented one of our party from attempting more. But some of the waterfalls I reached on foot. It was interesting to look over the official list of visitors in the guardian’s hook. Among the earliest was Charles Kingsley, whose name was entered without note, or comment. Known names occurred from time to time. The latest name of all was that of a family from Edinburgh, of whose existence 1 had never heard.

Of the glacial condition of the valley and of the Sierra Nevada at one period there seems to be no doubt. But how these mighty masses of rock came into their present position no mortal can tell. The impression one is apt to have is, that at one time the opposite sides met, and that they were severed by some unexampled explosive force that tossed them asunder as if they were the playthings of a child. Anyhow, they form now the Titanic battlements of a valley which well repays the visit of the tourist. Nowhere does nature appear greater, or man more feeble and dependent. And yet man continues to subdue even this valley to his purposes. A railway has already been surveyed between Maymond and Wawona, and we shall be much surprised if American enterprise does not succeed ultimately in carrying the rails into the valley itself, and thereafter in laying a mountain line, hardly, indeed, to the summit of El Capitan, but possibly to the Glacier Point, or some other eminence that commands the whole.

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