The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 14/Number 81/On Horseback into Oregon
ON HORSEBACK INTO OREGON.
After our return from the Yo-Semite Valley, Bierstadt and myself remained in San Francisco, or its delightful neighborhood, making short excursions around and across the bay, for more than a fortnight. But this lotus-eating life soon palled. We burned to see the giant Shasta, and grew thirsty for the eternal snows of the Cascade Peaks still farther north. So much of a horseback-ride to the Columbia as brought us into Oregon I here propose to sketch in brief.
The rest of our party had become sated with travel and gone home. One glorious September day we took our saddle-bags, note-books, and color-boxes, put our horses on board the Sacramento steamer, and, without other baggage or company of any sort, set out for the Columbia River and Vancouver's Island.
At Sacramento, on the next morning after leaving San Francisco, we shifted our quarters to a smaller and light-draught boat which was to take us up the shallow river to its head of navigation. This arrangement was a great economy of time. The country bordering the Upper Sacramento for two hundred miles from the Californian capital is level and comparatively tame, so that no artistic advantage would have resulted from following the bank on horseback. From the little steamer the view became a perpetual pleasure. About twenty miles above Sacramento we passed the mouth of Feather River, disgorging coffee-colored mud from the innumerable gold-diggings along its course, and came into lovely blue water, pure as the cradling snow-ridges between which it issued. The immediate margin began to be thickly wooded with overhanging willows, oaks, and sycamores. These were alive with birds of every aquatic description. The shag, a large fowl of black and dingy-white plumage, apparently belonging to the cormorant family, peopled every dead tree with a live fruit whose weight nearly cracked its branches; every snag projecting from the river-bed was studded with a row of the same creatures at mathematically equal intervals, each possessing just room enough for his favorite pastime of slowly opening his wings to the utmost, and then shutting them again in solemn rhythm, like a pupil of Dr. Dio Lewis's or a patient in the Swedish Movement-Cure. The quiet embayed pools and eddies swarmed with ducks; every sunny bar or level beach was a stalking-ground for stately cranes, both white and sand-hill; and garrulous crows kept the air lively, in company with big California magpies, above our heads.
The course of the river grew more and more sinuous as we ascended; it was near the close of the dry season, and there remained none of those cut-offs which economize distance during the prevalence of the rains. The Upper Sacramento, especially when softened and rendered illusory by such a full moon as it was our good-fortune to travel under, perpetually recalls that loveliest of fairy streams, the higher St. John's, in Florida. Nothing out of dreams is more peacefully enchanting than the embowered stretches of clear water rippled into silver arabesque through a long moonlight night, or the hazy vistas, impurpled by twilight, into which one swings around the short curves of the Sacramento, amid a silence that would be absolute but for his own motion, while beyond either woody margin the great plains spread away untenanted, a waving wilderness of wild grass and tulé.
Enjoying the far-niente of a life of such sweet monotone all the more because it was such a contrast to our rough riding past and future, we spent two golden days, as many mezzotint twilights, and a pair of silver nights upon our steamer. On the morning of the third day we reached Tehama, a dead-and-alive little settlement, seven hours' journey by the river-windings from Red Bluffs, the head of navigation, but only ten miles by land. We had now got in sight of mountains; the ethereal blue of Lassen's Buttes, rimmed with the opal of perpetual snow, bounded our view northerly; and as every motive for taking to the saddle now consisted with our desire for economizing time, we here began our horseback-ride, reaching Red Bluffs several hours before the steamer.
Just out of Tehama we struck into a country whose features reminded us of the wooded tracts between Stockton and Mariposa. After two days of tulé and wild grass, Nature grew suddenly ennobled in our eyes by thick and frequent groves of the royal California oak. There was a feeling of luxury in the change, which none can know who have not had a surfeit of boundless plains. We bathed our hearts and heads in shadow; the fever of unbroken light went out of us; our very horses shared in the relief, and gave themselves up to a sweet somnambulism with which we had too much sympathy to break it by spurs.
Red Bluffs we found a place of more apparent stir and enterprise than any Californian town we had seen, except San Francisco and Sacramento. There was quite a New-England air about the main street,—so much so that I have forgotten to call it Plaza, as I ought. This place is the starting-point for all overland supplies sent between the Sacramento and Portland. Immense wagons—shaped like the Eastern charcoal-vehicle, but dwarfing it into insignificance by a size not much inferior to that of a Mississippi flat-boat—are perpetually leaving the town, drawn by twelve mules or horses, and in charge of drivers whose magnificent isolation has individualized them to a degree not exceeded in the most characteristic coachman of the Weller tribe, or the typical skipper of the Yankee fishing-smack. There are few finer places to study genre than the California ranches frequented by the captains of these "prairie-schooners." At convenient distances for noon halts and nightly turnings-in, the main freighting-roads of the State are adorned with gigantic caravanseras offering every accommodation for man and beast, provided with arcades straddling nearly across the road, under which all passing wagoners not only may, but must, shelter themselves from the rigors of rain or sun, and billeted along their fronts with seductive descriptions of the paradise within, to which few hearts prove obdurate after being softened by the compulsory magnanimity of the arcade.
In time there must be a railroad all the way from Sacramento to Portland. There is not a mile of the distance between Red Bluffs and the Oregon metropolis where it is not greatly needed already. Nearly the whole intervening region is exhaustlessly fertile,—one of the finest fruit-countries in the world,—but so entirely without an economical avenue for its supplies or outlet for its productions, that many of the ranchmen who have settled in it feel despondent in the midst of abundance, and leave hundreds of magnificent orchard-acres paved with rotting apples which would command a "bit" a pound in the San-Francisco market, if the freight did not more than consume the profit, and the length of the journey render the fruit unsalable.
The first day out from Tehama we made a distance of nearly forty miles,—part of the way through oak-groves and part over fine breezy plains, with the noble mountain-chain out of which Lassen's Buttes rise into the perpetual-snow region continually in sight on the right hand. The only incident that occurred to us this day, in any other key than that of pure sensuous delight in the fact of life and motion under such a spotless sky and in an air that was such breathable elixir, together with the artistic happiness which flowed down on us from the noble neighboring mountains, was our discovery early in the afternoon of a cloud of dust about half a mile ahead, with the forms of a hundred horsemen dimly looming through it. Such a sight sets an old overlander instinctively fumbling at his holsters; fresh as we were from the horrors of the desert, we felt our scalps begin to detach themselves slightly from the cranium. But we rode straight ahead, as our only method of safety was to wear a bold front, if the cavaliers were, as we half suspected, a party of Humboldt Indians who had lately taken the warpath between Lassen's Buttes and the coast. I don't recollect ever having been better pleased with the look of Uncle Sam's cavalry-uniform than we were, upon coming up with the squad and finding it a detachment of our own men sent out to chastise the savages.
That night we reached a ranch called the "American,"—and certainly its title was none too ambitious, for it had the whole horizon to itself, and to all appearance might have been the only house on the continent. It was a place unvisited of fresh meat and ignorant of gridirons; but we were tired enough, after the first day of our return to the saddle, to sleep soundly in a bed of tea-tray dimensions, and under what appeared to be a casual selection from a hamper of soiled pocket-handkerchiefs, when we had despatched the first of that long series of suppers on fried pork and green-serpentine saleratus-biscuits which stretched between us and the northern edge of Oregon.
Though the month was September, the heat in the middle of the day upon the broad rolling plains we now had to traverse was as oppressive as an Eastern July. During our whole horseback-journey, therefore, we made it our custom to rise as soon after dawn as possible, breakfast, travel a stage of fifteen or twenty miles, make a long mid-day halt in some pleasant nook, and push on twenty miles farther before we unsaddled for the night. We were just now enabled to make this second stage the most leisurely and the longest of the two,—for the moon was still in all the glory of its California brightness and plenitude, and to have travelled by moonlight between the Sacramento and Mount Shasta is one of the prominent memories of a lifetime. No patriotic attachment is demanded to make the Californian say with the Irishman that his country's full-moon is twice as large and splendid as any other's. Phenomenally, at least, the bare facts support him.
At noon of the day on which we left the American Ranch, we came up a rugged hill into the settlement of Shasta. This town is a mining depot of some importance, chiefly memorable to us for some excellent pie, made out of the California apple-melon, in wonderful imitation of the Eastern green-apple tart, and a charge of five dollars and a half in gold made by the great Californian Express Company for bringing Bierstadt's color-box (heavy as a small valise) from Red Bluffs, whither we had let it go on by boat. Why this should have left a memorable impression on our minds it would be hard to say; for, although the demand was somewhat more than the stage employed by the Express Company would have charged to take either one of us the same distance, accompanied by a heavy trunk, we should by this time have acquired sufficient familiarity with extortion from the Company's officials to have paid very quietly a bill of fifty dollars for the same service, and then dismissed the trifling matter from our minds. But indignation at swindles is sometimes cumulative.
At the town of Shasta we left the main wagon-road,—finding that it passed a long way from the most important point on our itinerary, the base of Shasta Peak. By striking across the country six miles to the small settlement of Buckeye, we intersected a route little travelled, but far more picturesque, and leading directly to the great object of our longings. On the way to Buckeye we again encountered the Sacramento, here dwindled to a narrow mountain-stream, with bold precipitous banks and a rock bottom, a smooth and deep, but rapid current, and full of trout and salmon. We crossed it on a rope-ferry, and climbed the steeps on the other side, but did not leave it. Thenceforward to Shasta Peak we were never out of its neighborhood.
By this détour of ours we came into a country better wooded and watered than any through which we had been travelling. When the sun left us, we found the moonlight so seductive that we pushed on late into the evening,—making our all-night halt at a ranch-man's whose name had been given us by some passing native, who praised his accommodations unboundedly, but proved much more of a friend to him than to ourselves. It is a duty to visit the afflicted. It is a misfortune, not a crime, to have a wife and six children, the latter all under twelve years of age. It is a still greater and no less irresponsible calamity to have them all prostrated by chills-and-fever, yet forbidden to yield to its depressing influence by the stimulus of several million healthy fleas. Ignorance, not wilfulness, may be at the causal bottom of a batch of bread which is half saleratus, and a stew of venerable hens which is one-third feathers. Nor can we regard it as other than a beneficent arrangement in the grand scheme of Nature's laws, that a pack of noble hounds should pass the hours of slumber around our humble casement in the free indulgence of a liberty distinctly authorized by the sacred Watts as follows,—
"Let dogs delight to bark," etc.
Still, I think public opinion will sustain me in the view that the much afflicted family were not agreeable to pass the night with.
This is the place for a useful financial statement. Everything on our present trip cost a dollar. Bed for one, i. e. one's share of a bed for two,—supper,—each horse's forage,—breakfast,—every several item, a dollar. No matter how afflicted the family, saleratusy the bread, loud the dogs,—nothing was furnished under the dollar. When people happen to have enough dollars, this becomes comic. It reminded us of the Catskill Mountain House, where in specie-times everything (after hotel-bills) was twenty-five cents,—from getting a waiter to look at you, to having the Falls tipped up for you.
The day's journey between the afflicted family and Dog Creek, where we stopped the third night, is such an affluent remembrance of beauty that I feel glad while I write about it. We started under circumstances somewhat tedious. Nobody was going toward Mount Shasta with so much as a pack-mule. The father of the afflicted family labored under the blight of his surroundings, and after severe thought gave up the task of attempting to recall when anybody had been going toward Mount Shasta. It was also too much for him to calculate when anybody would be going. We paid him his dollars,—wished that his shadow might never be less, which it couldn't very well, unless the ague can dance on a mathematical line,—and set out with the color-box carried alternately before us on our pommels. It had been our bête noire from the time five dollars and fifty cents ransomed it at Shasta. We now began to wonder whether the Express Company also had carried it on a pommel,—in which case we thought we could forgive the Express Company. The morning was sultry, and as we started our horses forth upon a walk,—for the box could not stand jolting,—we looked forward to a tiresome day.
As we went on, Nature seemed determined to kiss us out of the sulks. Just as we broke into fresh grumbles, which we wanted to indulge, and our horses into fresh trots, which we desired, but could not tolerate, we entered some lovely glen, musical with tinkling springs, its walling banks tapestried with the richest velvet of deep-green grass, brocaded with spots of leaf-filtered sunshine. When we began to swelter, we came into the dense shadow of great oaks, or caught the balmiest wind in the world through aromatic pine and cedar vistas along the crown of some lofty ridge. It was impossible to be vexed with the step-mother, Fate, when the fingers of our mother, Nature, were straying through our hair. To drive away the last elf of ill-humor, and make us thenceforth agree to regard the box as an ornamental appendage which we were good-natured enough to let each other enjoy by turns. Pitt River, the last fork of the Upper Sacramento, came glancing into our landscape, the very perfection of fluent freedom and gladness. Every rod of the journey along its west bank disclosed a new picture. The misty blue mountains of the range toward Shasta Peak formed the abiding background of every view. Steep, fir-battlemented banks of one generic form, but endless variety in the beauty of the tree forms and groups which rose from their glacis, mile after mile, framed in some new loveliness of light-and-shadow-flecked bend, deep sepia-dark pool, singing shallow, or brawling rapid of the clear stream. Eagles were sailing, like a placid thought in a large heart, far over our heads in the intimacy of a spotless sky; the great ground-squirrel flashed like a gray gleam over the gnarled mossy roots at the side of our narrow dug-way; and in brilliant blots or darting shafts of Magenta fire, we recognized among the tree-tops that loveliest bird of the North-American forest, the great crested woodpecker. Here and there, to introduce a human element, came cleared spaces by the river's brink, where pointed wands stood impaling flakes of red salmon-flesh,—the open-air curing-house and out-door store-room of the Pitt-River Indians. Once in the course of the day we lighted on a picturesque ragged hut, where the purveyors of this meat were soaking themselves in full side-hill sunlight,—where little savages of every degree of gauntness in their limbs, ochriness on their cheeks, shockiness in their heads, and protuberance in their abdomens, were gorging themselves to still more hideous ventral embonpoint,—where white men, lower than the lowest Diggers they herded with, had forgotten the little they ever knew of civilization, and stood glaring at us like half-sated Satyrs as we passed. Other bits of genre hourly came into the picture with pappoose-carrying squaws who hunted yew-berries along the road-side fringe of woods, youngsters wearing no attire but a party-colored acorn-basket of deft finger-work, which they carried loaded on their shoulders, or listlessly trailed empty at their sides. Dr. Prichard has some hideous pictures of Papuans and Australians; but if Ethnology were a match-game, we could give him those two points, and beat him easily by playing a few of the Digger women whom we saw that day. They reached the ugliness of aboriginal specimens which we had encountered on the west verge of the Goshoot country; and if any earthly pilgrimage, short of the mountains of Nightmare, can reveal their rivals, I should like to get into a prime state of health and be allowed a peep at them through a spy-glass.
The condition of the white men who live and make alliances with these poor creatures is too heart-sickening to print. The law that governs all associations of culture with barbarism, where the latter is in dynamic excess, holds rigorously true in California. The higher race recollects only the cultivated evil of the state whence it fell,—and carrying to its savage mates subtler means of accomplishing vice than they knew before, presently gives rise to a combination from which all the simplicity of the low race is eliminated, and into which enter all the devils of mature civilization. Nor do these devils come accompanied by a single grace or angel which softened or restrained crime in the developed community. The attachment of this region's older settlers for their savage comrades is something incredible. To enjoy their society they cheerfully embrace a life as impure, uncleanly, free from all humanizing influences, as that of the lowest Digger with whom they consort. Sometimes a strange incongruous romance, like moonlight on a puddle, lights up these mongrel liaisons, and infuses into them a burlesque of sentiment. We found one old hunter whose squaw ran away from him into the mountains at regular six-months' intervals, and who invariably spent hundreds of dollars and no end to hardships in hunting her up and restoring her to his wigwam. Another, who had kept an Indian seraglio from the time of the earliest gold-discoveries, had repeatedly been to the nearest legal officer, (two or three days' journey off,) and besought him, without effect, to marry him to one of his squaws in Christian fashion. It certainly did seem hard that the poor fellow should be forbidden to make the only reparation in his power for wrongs of twelve years' standing; but the æsthetic, naturally enough to those who have seen Diggers, predominated over the legal and moral in the judicial mind, and he was finally sent away with an injunction never to show his face again while "this court continued to know herself" in the Shasta region.
As often happens in the discipline of human life, the thorn in the flesh was withdrawn as soon as we had learned the lesson of bearing it resignedly. At the last crossing of the Sacramento, we learned from the ferryman that a providential wagoner was just ahead of us, going certainly to Dog Creek, and presumably, if we made it an object, all the way to Strawberry Valley, at the foot of Shasta. The one whose turn it was not to carry the color-box galloped ahead, and detained the wagoner until the heavy dragoon had time to come up. With a deep sigh of relief, we stowed our box in the "prairie-schooner,"—made a contract to have it packed on mule-back from Dog Creek to Shasta, in consideration of one among a gross of cheap watches which we had brought for trade with Indians and Trappers,—and, relieving our horses by the first canter they had enjoyed that day, sped away with the deep conviction that the man who first called chrome and white-lead light colors must have been indulging the subtile irony of a diseased mind.
The seven miles of our journey from the last Sacramento crossing to Dog Creek were even grander in their scenery than our morning stage. The road was a dug-way from one to seven hundred feet above the base of a winding castellated cliff, here and there cut in rugged sandstone, but often both walled and buttressed with steep slopes of virgin turf kept emerald by innumerable trickling springs, ice-cold and crystal-clear, while here and there it passed through woods as dark as twilight. The slope on which we travelled formed one side of a valley, green at its bottom as a New-England meadow, and watered by a picturesque affluent of the Sacramento. About dark we came to the Dog-Creek Ranch, where we had such a delicious supper of trout, cooked in the good old Green-Mountain fashion with an Indian-meal night-gown on, as made us "forget the steps already trod," followed by a really nice pair of beds, wherein we took long and ample preparation to "onward urge our way" upon the morrow.
At Dog Creek we were encamped round about by the largest and most prosperous Indian tribe that we had seen on our trip. Their bows and arrows were elegant in shape and color: the former stained in a variety of patterns, sometimes carved, and wrapped as well as strung with deer-sinews; the latter headed with nicely cut pieces of a black obsidian which abounds in the vicinity of Shasta Peak, and which of itself is an unerring test of the original volcanic character of the mountain. The quivers of this Dog-Creek tribe were the most beautiful preparations of whole mink, otter, and sable skins, which I have seen in Indian hands anywhere on the continent. One of the men had a great cap made out of an entire grizzly cub-skin, the claws very nicely preserved and dangling behind, while the head curved forward on top like the crest of an old Greek helmet. Nowhere did we find neater, more ornamental berry-baskets, or more carefully worked dishes and basins, than those woven or scooped and stained by this tribe. In wandering through their stick-and-bark lodges we found some tolerably good-looking men, far above the average brutality of the Diggers, with simple, pleasant expressions, and not afraid to look one in the eye. In one lodge crouched a man and woman who without exception were the oldest-looking people I ever saw. The husband was blind, the wife palsied; but they had been left in charge of a sprawling family of their fifth generation, which haste and the warm weather forbade our counting. I gave the old lady a plug of tobacco, and watched, as she put it up against her husband's face, to see which of the wrinkles was his mouth; while, on her filling a pipe and smoking with grunts of evident approbation directed to myself, I felt pleasant and Biblical, as if I had been doing a good turn to Methuselah's aunt.
Only forty miles more stretched between us and Shasta Peak. We had now reached an elevation where it was visible to us in its full majesty from the southwestern side. All day, after our leaving Dog Creek, its giant cone, snow-wrapt half-way to the base, kept surprising us through clefts in the surrounding crags at the end of long wooded vistas, or on some clear, treeless height to which we had climbed, forgetting the mountain in our heat and labor. The country about us was becoming wilder and wilder: our road was sometimes a mere trail, half obliterated by springs or traversing rivulets. We now rode in the woods most of the time, and found the shadow, stillness, and fragrance all delicious. Beside all the springs we discovered the southernwood of our Eastern gardens growing wild, its strawberry-scented and maroon-colored buds much larger than those of our variety, and, though a trifle less intense in their perfume, still sufficiently sweet to make every nook in which they grew delicious for yards around. Here and there the woods showed some symptoms of autumnal change; there were hectic spots now and then on the maple-leaves; but nothing approaching in loveliness the forest-euthanasia of our Eastern fall appeared until we had crossed the boundary of Oregon. Shasta Peak is, by the track, nearly eighty miles from that line. To-day, just as the sun got down to the tree-tops, the wooded slope suddenly receded from our left, and towered into one of those noble crags which all over the continent go by the name of "Castle Rock," but which include no instance more truly deserving the name than this bold mass of pinnacles and bastions, bare as a Yo-Semite precipice, which lifted itself apparently about a thousand feet above the green glacis of the slope, stern and gray at the base, but etherealized along its crest and battlement by sunset spendors of red and gold. Simultaneously with the Castle's appearance, our leafy covert parted before us, and disclosed in level light, which made its snow opalescent, and bathed its vast, rugged masses of stone and earth in one inclusive winy glow, the glorious giant of California which had drawn us hither through the wilderness. The height of Shasta is variously stated. It is certainly over sixteen thousand feet, and may likely be nearer eighteen thousand. The last geological survey pronounced it the highest mountain in the Nevada range,—a statement taking into account Mount Hood and the other great peaks of the Cascade system, which itself is but an Oregon reappearance of the Sierra Nevada. The distance from which Hood, Saint Helen's, and Rainier could be seen with the naked eye led us afterward to regard this statement with some doubt; but certainly no peak which we met in all our large experience of the mountains of the continent ever compared with Shasta in producing the effect of vast height. All the others which we have seen, with the exception of Lander's Peak, whether in the Rocky, the Nevada, the Cascade, or the Pacific Coast range, have suffered, visually, from modulation through their gradually ascending tiers of foothills, or by the blending of their outlines with the neighboring peaks. This is especially so with Pike's Peak, which, despite its being one of the loftiest mountains in America, has its proportions most dissatisfyingly disguised, in all but a single point of view, in the cañon of the Fontaine-qui-Bouille. Shasta is a mountain without mediations. It sits on the verge of a plain, broken for a hundred miles to the northward only by pigmy volcanic cones heaped around extinct solfataras. We approached it in the only direction where there were anything like foothills to climb; but even upon us, on reaching Strawberry Valley, at its southwestern foot, the wonderful peak broke with as little feeling of gradual approach as if we had not seen its head glowing grander and more real out of the blue distance repeatedly during the last three days. When we first saw the whole of it distinctly, it seemed to make no compromise with surrounding plains or ridges, but rose in naked majesty, alone and simple, from the grass of our valley to its own topmost iridescent ice.
That view was not accorded to us on our first day out from Dog Creek. It was nearly dark when we reached the Soda Springs, nine miles south of Strawberry,—took a draught of the most delicious mineral-water I ever drank, more piquant than Kissingen, and cold as ice,—resisted the seductions of a small, premature boy of eight, who issued from the Springs Ranch to dilate agedly on the tonic properties of the water, the relaxing virtues of the beds, and the terrors of the grim forest which lay for us in the black night between there and Strawberry,—and, clapping spurs to our tired horses, pushed forward with stern determination to reach Sisson's that evening.
I think that a darker night than presently lapped us among the thick evergreens was never travelled in. There were some streaks of blackness a mile long, in which, literally, I could not see my horse's head. But we had learned confidence in our animals' sagacity, and walked them, cheerily whistling to keep each other informed of our whereabouts, through at least six miles of road utterly unknown to and unseen by us. It was what Eastern people call very "poky"; but the language addressed to us by the premature boy had made it a matter of personal self-respect for us to get to Sisson's that night. With a certain sense of triumph over that unpleasant and dissuasive child, we saw a lantern gleam from a corral about ten p. m., and had our interrogative hail of "Sisson's?" answered in welcome affirmative by Sisson himself.
At Sisson's, or exploring with him in the neighborhood of Shasta, we passed one of the most delightful weeks in our diary of travel through any land. His house was a low, two-story building, which had run like a verbena in all directions over a grassy level,—putting out a fresh arm at every new suggestion of domestic convenience, until it had become at once the most amorphous and the most comfortable dwelling in the California wilds. His herds were populous and prosperous; only the merest pretence of fences broke their dream, without affecting their reality, of limitless pasture. His ranch ostensibly consisted of a few hundred acres; but Old Shasta was his only surveyor of landmarks, and his base of supplies was coextensive with the base of the mountain. His family consisted of an admirably energetic and thrifty wife, who had accompanied him from Illinois, where he used to be a schoolmaster, and one pretty little baby-girl indigenous to Strawberry Valley. The presence of this mother and child in a wilderness which otherwise howled chiefly with rough sporadic men and equally rough ubiquitous bears, was a perpetual delight to us, so far from our domestic communications. We admired Shasta all the more for looking at it over a little, gentle, pink-and-white baby who lay asleep in its shadow, like a cherub pressed to the bosom of one of the Djinn. Escaping from the poetical ground, I may observe, that, between the chief French restaurant of Sacramento City and the Dennison House in Portland, Oregon, no family whom we encountered lived in such wholesome and homelike luxury as Sisson's. If a Society for the Diffusion of Gastronomic Intelligence among the Heathen is ever founded in California and Oregon, (and how bitterly such a philanthropic enterprise is needed my diary spotted with the abominable grease of universal frying bears abundant witness,) I hope that the first tract which it publishes will be a biography of Mrs. Sisson, the first point insisted on by that tract, "This excellent and devoted woman used a gridiron." Bless her! how she could broil things! No man who has not built up his system during a long expedition with brick after brick of pork fried hard in its own ooze,—who has not turned all his brain's active phosphorus into phosphate of soda by alkali-biscuits drawn from the oven in the hot-dough stage,—who has not drunk his pease-coffee without milk at the tables of repeated Pike settlers too shiftless to milk one of their fifty kine,—who has not slept myriads in a bed with Cimex lectularius and his livelier congener of the saltatory habits,—can imagine what a blissful bay in the iron-bound coast of bad-living Sisson's seemed to us both in fruition and retrospection. We occasionally had beef, when Sisson, or some near neighbor ten miles off, "killed a critter" and distributed it around; excellent mountain-mutton, flavorous as the Welsh, was not lacking in its turn; but the great stand-by of our table was venison, roast, broiled, made into pasties, treated with every variety of preparation save an oil-soak in the pagan frying-pan of the country. As for chickens and eggs, it "snewe in Sisson's house" of that sort of "mete and drinke,"—he was Chaucer's Franklin transported to Shasta. Cream flowed in upon us like a river; potatoes were stewed in it; it was the base of chicken-sauce; the sirupy baked pears, whose secret Mrs. Sisson had inherited from some dim religious ancestor in the New-England past, were drowned in it; and we took a glass of it with magical shiny rusk for nine-o'clock supper, just to oil our joints before we relaxed them in innocent repose. Our rooms were ample, our beds luxurious, our surroundings the grandest within Nature's bestowal. Our capital host and hostess became our personal friends; and all that they did for us was so heartily kind and so cheerily comfortable, that, if we were asked where, on the whole, we passed the pleasantest, as distinct from the grandest, week in California, I think we should answer, "At Sisson's, in Strawberry Valley."
Sisson was, without exception, the best rifle-shot I ever saw. I have seen him bring down a hawk soaring as high as I could see it. Before a target, at any distance usual for such experiments, his aim was practically unerring. He possessed, in addition, two other prime qualities of a first-class woodsman,—keen sight for game in covert, and soft-footedness in stealing on it,—to a degree so unequalled in my acquaintance that I feel justified in calling him, not only the best shot, but the best hunter I ever knew. We spent three days in exploring, sketching, and deer-stalking with him, during all which time he was never once taken by surprise, but invariably saw his game before it scented him, and as invariably cracked it over before ourselves, or another old huntsman with us, had time to say, "Where is it?" Our main excursion led us about a dozen miles from the house to a lofty ridge, populous with game, thickly wooded with evergreens, and on its bold prominences giving us splendid views of Shasta. No height that we could attain dwarfed the grandeur of the mountain by sinking its base, and no lateral variation of our standing-points produced any change in its shape. New delicacies of rock and snow network came out as we shifted, and the sunlight produced different beauties of color and chiaroscuro in the glacier-like cradles of its upper ice; but so far as height and form were concerned, it seemed to have no more parallax than a fixed star. This fact is of course partly due to its being a nearly regular cone, but much of it depends on the intrinsic grandeur of a mountain standing lonely on the plain, full sixty miles in cincture, and in stature nearly eighteen thousand feet.
We came back from our expedition with an abundance of venison, a number of interesting color-studies, and memories of California scenery surpassed only by the Yo-Semite. We had struggled through miles of chaparral, after which no abatis that I ever saw on the Potomac would have been any discouragement to us, provided only we had the same wonderful horses. To get some idea of this peculiarly Californian institution as we encountered it, imagine a side-hill which would have given the best horse a hard pull, even had it been bare of undergrowth, and set this hill as thick as it will hold with manzanita and burr-oak: the former, as its name implies, like a little apple-tree, only more viciously gnarled, leathery, and complicated in its boughs than the most picturesque old russet in a New-England orchard, and ramifying at once from the root without any main trunk; the latter, an oak-bush of the same general characteristics, having its swarming acorn-cups covered with spikes like the chestnut. When these have interlocked with each other till the earth is invisible and the whole tract has become a lattice of springes and pitfalls, push a horse through it three miles up a slope of forty-five degrees, the breast-high twigs scourging him at every step; and if you get out, as we did, without a fall or a broken leg to either man or beast, you will not only have acquired a just idea of the California chaparral, but an admiration for the California horse which will last you to your dying-day. To repay us for this struggle, we had found one lake lying in a precipitous gorge, only twice before visited by white men; while Bierstadt, always the indefatigable explorer of every party we were in together, climbed with his color-box to still another lake, of which he was the first discoverer, and whose lovely lineaments he preserved in one of the best studies of our trip. Besides these results of our expedition, we brought away the satisfaction of having leaped our horses across the Sacramento River. Where it flowed at the bottom of one deep ravine we had to traverse, it was a foot deep and ten feet wide. The twig which cracked under my horse's hoof, and fell into the stream as he sprang over, a month hence might be dashing about in the scud under the foot of some Pacific whaler, or, still farther off in time, drift into the harbor of Hong Kong. Rivers always seem to me like the nerves of Nature: there is no conductor of thought and impression like that little silver thread which leads out from the ganglion of a deep forest-spring, to spread, many leagues off, upon the sensory surface of the Oceanic World. In an earlier article I spoke of the mighty emotions which came thronging on me at the heads of the Platte and the Colorado: I felt them only less powerfully when my horse jumped across the Sacramento's birthplace.
After a day's rest at Sisson's, we bade the capital fellow and his excellent wife a good-bye which had more regret in it than we ever felt before for comrades of a single week's standing, and resumed our northward journey,—Bierstadt's color-box the fuller by a score of Shasta studies taken under every possible variety of position, sky, and time of day.
The country continued thickly wooded for nearly twenty miles from Strawberry, and the forest-trail was every now and then drowned out of sight by streams rushing from the snow of Shasta. When we emerged from the timber, we found ourselves on a plain opening widely to the north between diverging ridges, and scattered here and there with black scoriæ like the slag of a furnace. In some places an attempt had been made to mend the road with lava, and as it crunched under our horses' hoofs we could almost imagine ourselves making the circuit of Vesuvius, so evident was it from the look and feel of things that Pluto has at no very remote period boiled his dinner-pot on the hob of Shasta Peak.
The day was fine,—the air more bracing than we had found since leaving the Yo-Semite. Our week of comparative rest at Sissons had brought our horses into splendid condition for the road; both we and they were boiling over with animal spirits; and it was still early in the afternoon when we rode the fortieth mile of our way into Yreka, on the full gallop. I need not say that we had made other arrangements than our pommels for the transportation of our heavy baggage to the next place where we should need it. Sisson, always full of resources, had taken good care of that for us both.
Neither to the traveller nor the raconteur is Yreka a place to linger in. It consists of one long street, with a tolerable brick hotel at one end, and a kennel of straggling houses swarming with Chinese of ill odor and worse repute at the other,—intersected by half a dozen narrow lanes, devoted principally to stables, gambling-shops, and liquor-dens. I only quote the language of all the inhabitants whom I conversed with, when I say that such glory as it once held among the northern mining-towns has entirely departed from it. The discovery of the Boisé and John-Day mines to the far northeast has attracted away all the principal gold-seekers who once dug and panned in the vicinity; and if there ever was a place which had nothing intrinsic to fall back upon, it is Yreka. We were glad to leave it after one night's rest.
The day we evacuated it was atmospherically the most glorious that we enjoyed upon our whole trip. The air had a golden look, as if it not merely transmitted, but were stained with sunshine. The sky was spotless, the weather as warm as our mid-June, but without the least languor. The landscape was that broad plain I have mentioned, with Shasta on its verge, intersected by low rolling ridges, and broken by the cones of extinct volcanic spiracles, sometimes grouped, but oftener isolated. Shasta himself seemed to have gained rather than lost in majesty by our forty and now steadily increasing miles of distance. Either from atmospheric effect, or because we now saw a new and more irregular portion of his crown, the snow upon it became opalescent to a degree which I have never seen surpassed by any such effect. The light reflected from it seemed to gleam like a softened flame deep down beneath some pearly medium, rather than any rebound of sunlight from a surface.
The rugged hillocks between which we rode were bare and craggy at their tops, but all about their base, and far down into the plain, grew abundance of a plant wonderfully like the heather in its size as well as in the shape and color of its blossoms. Broad, exquisitely claret-tinted streaks and patches of this lovely thing softened the landscape everywhere. We seemed to be travelling in a beautiful confusion of Nature, where the Scottish Highlands had got together under a California sky with the Roman Campagna. Throughout this sweet desolation reigned a visible and audible quiet which made our horses' hoofs seem noisy. Between Yreka and the Klamath River—a narrow, rapid stream, recalling some portions of the Housatonic, which we intersected about noon, and along which we rode for an hour—we met only two or three silent horsemen and as many eremitic wood-choppers.
Turning north from the Klamath, we dined at a miserable settlement called Cottonwood, around which for miles in every direction departed gold-hunters had burrowed till the ground was a honey-comb, or more properly a last-year's hornets'-nest, since there was no sign of honey in the cells, and, from what a most dejected native told us of the yield, never had been any to speak of.
Leaving dreary Cottonwood with even greater pleasure than we had felt in abandoning Yreka, we began ascending the slope toward the Oregon line. At every mile the country grew lovelier. California seemed determined to make our last impressions of her tender. The bare, brown rocks became densely wooded with oaks and evergreens. Late in the afternoon we came to broad meadows of such refreshing deep-green grass as we had not seen before since we left the rich farming-lands of the Atlantic side, and the level golden bars which lay on them between forest-edges made us homesick with memories of peaceful Eastern lawns at sunset. After crossing several miles of such meadows, and the quiet[Pg 86] brooks which ran through them, we traversed a number of strange low ridges, undulating in systematic rhythm, like a mountain-chain making a series of false starts prior to the word "go," reached the true base of the Siskiyou Mountains, and began our final climb out of the Golden State.
The road was very uneven, rocky, cut up by rivulets from the higher ridges, and in most places only a rude dug-way, with a rocky wall on one side, and a butment of thickly wooded débris steeply descending to a black brawling torrent on the other. But we did not trouble ourselves with the road. The wild beauty of the forest absorbed us on either hand; and we were astonished at the rapid transition which the leaves suddenly took on, from the dry, burnt look, characteristic of the end of the California dry season, to autumnal splendors of red and yellow, hardly rivalled by the numberless varieties of tint in our own October woods. Just as the sun sank out of sight, we reached a lofty commanding ridge, stopped to rest, turned around and saw Shasta looming grandly up out of the valley-twilight, his icy forehead all one mass of gold and ruby fire. It was one of the grandest mountain-sights I ever looked on: such a purple hush over the vast level below us; such colossal broad shadows on the giant's foot; such a wonderful flame on that noble, solitary head, which, but for the unbroken outlines leading up to it out of the twilight, might have been only some loftier cloud catching good-night sun-glimpses at half-way up the firmament. Goodnight from Shasta! Alas, not only to the sun, but to us! We felt a real pang, as we confessed to ourselves that we were now looking upon this noblest and serenest, if not loftiest, of all the mountains in our travel, for the last time in years,—perhaps the last forever. We gazed wistfully till admonished by the deepening twilight; then, as Shasta became a shadow on the horizon, plunged silently into the dense woods again, climbed to the Siskiyou summit, and, descending through almost jetty darkness, were in Oregon.