Visalia is the name of a small town embowered in oaks upon the Tulare Plain in Middle California, where we made our camp one May evening of 1864. Professor Whitney, our chief, the State Geologist, had sent us out for a summer’s campaign in the High Sierras, under the lead of Professor William H. Brewer, who was more sceptical than I as to the result of the mission.
Several times during the previous winter Mr. Hoffman and I, while on duty at the Mariposa gold-mines, had climbed to the top of Mount Bullion, and gained, in those clear January days, a distinct view of the High Sierra, ranging from the Mount Lyell group many miles south to a vast pile of white peaks, which, from our estimate, should lie near the heads of the King’s and Kaweah rivers. Of their great height I was fully persuaded; and Professor Whitney, on the strength of these few observations, commissioned us to explore and survey the new Alps.
We numbered five in camp:—Professor Brewer; Mr. Charles F. Hoffman, chief topographer; Mr. James T. Gardiner, assistant surveyor; myself, assistant geologist; and our man-of-all-work, to whom science already owes its debts.
When we got together our outfit of mules and equipments of all kinds, Brewer was going to reengage, as general aid, a certain Dane, Jan Hoesch, who, besides being a faultless mule-packer, was a rapid and successful financier, having twice, when the field-purse was low and remittances delayed, enriched us by what he called “dealing bottom stock” in his little evening games with the honest miners. Not ungrateful for that, I, however, detested the fellow with great cordiality. “If I don’t take him, will you be responsible for packing mules and for daily bread?” said Brewer to me, the morning of our departure from Oakland. “I will.” “Then we’ll take your man Cotter; only, when the pack-saddles roll under the mules’ bellies, I shall light my pipe and go botanizing. Sabe?”
So my friend, Richard Cotter, came into the service, and the accomplished but filthy Jan opened a poker and rum shop on one of the San Francisco wharves, where he still mixes drinks and puts up jobs of “bottom stock.” Secretly I longed for him as we came down the Pacheco Pass, the packs having loosened with provoking frequency.
The animals of our small exploring party were upon a footing of easy social equality with us. All were excellent except mine. The choice of Hobson (whom I take to have been the youngest member of some company) falling naturally to me, I came to be possessed of the only hopeless animal in the band. Old Slum, a dignified roan mustang of a certain age, with the decorum of years and a conspicuous economy of force retained not a few of the affectations of youth, such as snorting theatrically and shying, though with absolute safety to the rider, Professor Brewer. Hoffman’s mount was a young half-breed, full of fire and gentleness. The mare Bess, my friend Gardiner’s pet, was a light-bay creature, as full of spring and perception as her sex and species may be. A rare mule, Cate, carried Cotter. Nell and Jim, two old geological mules, branded with Mexican hieroglyphics from head to tail, were bearers of the loads.
My Buckskin was incorrigibly bad. To begin with, his anatomy was desultory and incoherent, the maximum of physical effort bringing about a slow, shambling gait quite unendurable. He was further cursed with a brain wanting the elements of logic, as evinced by such non sequiturs as shying insanely at wisps of hay, and stampeding beyond control when I tried to tie him to a load of grain. My sole amusement with Buckskin grew out of a psychological peculiarity of his, namely, the unusual slowness with which waves of sensation were propelled inward toward the brain from remote parts of his periphery. A dig of the spurs administered in the flank passed unnoticed for a period of time varying from twelve to thirteen seconds, till the protoplasm of the brain received the percussive wave; then, with a suddenness which I never wholly got over, he would dash into a trot, nearly tripping himself up with his own astonishment.
A stroke of good fortune completed our outfit and my happiness by bringing to Visalia a Spaniard who was under some manner of financial cloud. His horse was offered for sale, and quickly bought for me by Professor Brewer. We named him Kaweah, after the river and its Indian tribe. He was young, strong, fleet, elegant, a pattern of fine modelling in every part of his bay body and fine black legs; every way good, only fearfully wild, with a blaze of quick electric light in his dark eye.
Shortly after sunrise one fresh morning we made a point of putting the packs on very securely, and, getting into our saddles, rode out toward the Sierras. The group of farms surrounding Visalia is gathered within a belt through which several natural, and many more artificial, channels of the Kaweah flow. Groves of large, dark-foliaged oaks follow this irrigated zone; the roads, nearly always in shadow, are flanked by small ranch-houses, fenced in with rank jungles of weeds and rows of decrepit pickets.
Our backs were now turned to this farm-belt, the road leading us out upon the open plain in our first full sight of the Sierras. Grand and cool swelled up the forest; sharp and rugged rose the wave of white peaks, their vast fields of snow rolling over the summit in broad, shining masses. Sunshine, exuberant vegetation, brilliant plant life, occupied our attention hour after hour until the middle of the second day. At last, after climbing a long, weary ascent, we rode out of the dazzling light of the foot-hills into a region of dense woodland, the road winding through avenues of pines so tall that the late evening light only came down to us in scattered rays. Under the deep shade of these trees we found an air pure and gratefully cool.
Passing from the glare of the open country into the dusky forest, one seems to enter a door and ride into a vast covered hall. The whole sensation is of being roofed and enclosed. You are never tired of gazing down long vistas, where, in stately groups, stand tall shafts of pine. Columns they are, each with its own characteristic tinting and finish, yet all standing together with the air of relationship and harmony. Feathery branches, trimmed with living green, wave through the upper air, opening broken glimpses of the far blue, and catching on their polished surfaces reflections of the sun. Broad streams of light pour in, gilding purple trunks and falling in bright pathways along an undulating floor. Here and there are wide, open spaces, around which the trees group themselves in majestic ranks.
Our eyes often ranged upward, the long shafts leading the vision up to green, lighted spires, and on to the clouds. All that is dark and cool and grave in color, the beauty of blue umbrageous distance, all the sudden brilliance of strong local lights tinted upon green boughs or red and fluted shafts, surround us in ever-changing combination as we ride along these winding roadways of the Sierra.
We had marched a few hours over high, rolling, wooded ridges, when in the late afternoon we reached the brow of an eminence and began to descend. Looking over the tops of the trees beneath us, we saw a mountain basin fifteen hundred feet deep surrounded by a rim of pine-covered hills. An even, unbroken wood covered these sweeping slopes down to the very bottom, and in the midst, open to the sun, lay a circular green meadow, about a mile in diameter.
As we descended, side wood-tracks, marked by the deep ruts of timber wagons, joined our road on either side, and in the course of an hour we reached the basin and saw the distant roofs of Thomas’s Saw-Mill Ranch. We crossed the level disc of meadow, fording a clear, cold mountain stream, flowing, as the best brooks do, over clean, white granite sand, and near the northern margin of the valley, upon a slight eminence, in the edge of a magnificent forest, pitched our camp.
The hills to the westward already cast down a sombre shadow, which fell over the eastern hills and across the meadow, dividing the basin half in golden and half in azure green. The tall young grass was living with purple and white flowers. This exquisite carpet sweeps up over the bases of the hills in green undulations, and strays far into the forest in irregular fields. A little brooklet passed close by our camp and flowed down the smooth green glacis which led from our little eminence to the meadow. Above us towered pines two hundred and fifty feet high, their straight, fluted trunks smooth and without a branch for a hundred feet. Above that, and on to the very tops, the green branches stretched out and interwove, until they spread a broad, leafy canopy from column to column.
Professor Brewer determined to make this camp a home for the week during which we were to explore and study all about the neighborhood. We were on a great granite spur, sixty miles from east to west by twenty miles wide, which lies between the Kaweah and King’s River cañons. Rising in bold sweeps from the plain, this ridge joins the Sierra summit in the midst of a high group. Experience had taught us that the cañons are impassable by animals for any great distance; so the plan of campaign was to find a way up over the rocky crest of the spur as far as mules could go.
In the little excursions from this camp, which were made usually on horseback, we became acquainted with the forest, and got a good knowledge of the topography of a considerable region. On the heights above King’s Cañon are some singularly fine assemblies of trees. Cotter and I had ridden all one morning northeast from camp under the shadowy roof of forest, catching but occasional glimpses out over the plateau, until at last we emerged upon the bare surface of a ridge of granite, and came to the brink of a sharp precipice. Rocky crags lifted just east of us. The hour devoted to climbing them proved well spent.
A single little family of alpine firs growing in a niche in the granite surface, and partly sheltered by a rock, made the only shadow, and just shielded us from the intense light as we lay down by their roots. North and south, as far as the eye could reach, heaved the broad, green waves of plateau, swelling and merging through endless modulation of slope and form.
Conspicuous upon the horizon, about due east of us, was a tall, pyramidal mass of granite, trimmed with buttresses which radiated down from its crest, each one ornamented with fantastic spires of rock. Between the buttresses lay stripes of snow, banding the pale granite peak from crown to base. Upon the north side it fell off, grandly precipitous, into the deep upper cañon of King’s River. This gorge, after uniting a number of immense rocky amphitheatres, is carved deeply into the granite two and three thousand feet. In a slightly curved line from the summit it cuts westward through the plateau, its walls, for the most part, descending in sharp, bare slopes, or lines of ragged débris, the resting-place of processions of pines. We ourselves were upon the brink of the south wall; three thousand feet below us lay the valley, a narrow, winding ribbon of green, in which, here and there, gleamed still reaches of the river. Wherever the bottom widened to a quarter or half a mile, green meadows and extensive groves occupied the level region. Upon every niche and crevice of the walls, up and down sweeping curves of easier descent, were grouped black companies of trees.
The behavior of the forest is observed most interestingly from these elevated points above the general face of the table-land. All over the gentle undulations of the more level country sweeps an unbroken covering of trees. Reaching the edge of the cañon precipices, they stand out in bold groups upon the brink, and climb all over the more ragged and broken surfaces of granite. Only the most smooth and abrupt precipices are bare. Here and there a little shelf of a foot or two in width, cracked into the face of the bluff, gives foothold to a family of pines, who twist their roots into its crevices and thrive. With no soil from which the roots may drink up moisture and absorb the slowly dissolved mineral particles, they live by breathing alone, moist vapors from the river below and the elements of the atmosphere affording them the substance of life.