CALIFORNIA COAST TRAILS
CHAPTER I

Leaving El Monte — Objects of the ride — Our horses and equipment — El Monte — The first Mission San Gabriel — Friendly Mexicans — A ranch-house of Old California — Downey — A farmer of California's best type — Sleepy Hollows — Camp on the San Joaquin — Coyotes and sulphureous coffee — Laguna Cañon — Warfare of sun and fog — The coast: Laguna Beach

"HELLO!" said a little girl in a sunbonnet, in shy response to my own salutation. (I did not know her, but I like shy little girls in sunbonnets.)

"Hello! travellin' or jest goin' somewheres?" said a pumpkin-faced boy, grinning at us over a gate.

To this ingenious witticism we deigned no reply.

"Hello! — goin' campin'?" said a rancher, jolting on a load of hay behind two serious horses.

The rancher, with no very wonderful feat of discernment, had hit the mark. Carl Eytel the painter and I were riding down the south road from El Monte one midsummer morning, with our blankets rolled behind our saddles and other appurtenances of outdoor living slung about us. Ever since I had lived in California I had been waiting for an opportunity to explore the coast regions of the State. At last the time had come when I could do it; and Eytel, my companion on other journeys in the mountains and deserts of the West, was free to join me for the southern part of the expedition.

Our object was to view at our leisure this country, once of such vast quiescence, now of such spectacular changes. Especially we wished to see what we could of its less commonplace aspects before they should have finally passed away: the older manner of life in the land; the ranch-houses of ante-Gringo days; the Franciscan Missions, relics of the era of the padre, and the don, the large, slow life of the sheep and cattle ranges, and whatever else we could find lying becalmed in the backwaters of the hurrying stream of Progress.

As we meant to camp wherever night might find us, we carried with us everything we needed to make us free of cooks and chambermaids. At the same time we determined not to be encumbered with pack animals. A description of our equipment may interest the reader who wonders how this could be done on a trip which, in my own case, ran to something not far short of two thousand miles.

To begin with the horses: My companion's mount was a hardy and experienced Arizona pony, round of build, sedate of temper, and serviceable to the last ounce. He owned the straightforward name of Billy, and looked it. For years he and his master had haunted the outposts of Western civilization, from the coast as far as to the lands of the Navajos and Moquis, in that picturesque region which the Spanish explorers named El Desierto Pintado. Nothing came amiss to Billy, either in forage or incident. He ate alternately of mesquit and tules, dozed equally well under palm or pine, and viewed burro-train or automobile with impartial eye.

My own horse I had bought for this trip from a Los Angeles dealer, and knew nothing of him except that he was said to hail from some Nevada stock range. As neither the dealer nor he could tell me his name, it was needful to fit him with another; so, from a trifling incident of the purchase, I called him Chino. He had a good head and limbs, intelligent eyes, and the lean body lines of a racehorse. I believe there was a strain of "blood" in him somewhere. He was gentle in temper, and, though excitable, was afraid of nothing, except that some unlucky experience had left him nervous of his picket-rope. After a few proofs of this drawback I got him a pair of hobbles, and had no further trouble.

For saddles we both had the excellent McClellan or army pattern, which are light, strong, and fitted with rings and fastenings front and rear for blankets, holsters, and other matters. We had had saddle-bags built of stout waterproofed canvas, fourteen inches long, twelve deep, and five "in the box." These were invaluable, rode well, and held a surprising quantity. In one side of one pair went our mess-kit and cooking-tackle, the articles all arranged to "nest," and made with detachable handles. The stove consisted of merely two little strips of wrought-iron, which, laid across a couple of stones or even across a hole scooped in the ground, made a quite serviceable cooking-place. In the other side were note-books, maps, ammunition, toilet things, and so forth. There was room for some odd articles of provision as well, and even for a small volume or two.

The other pair of saddle-bags accommodated the bulk of the provisions, of which the staples were rice, flour, oatmeal, sugar, tea, coffee, and the invaluable erbswurst, a compacted ration of pulverized split-peas and bacon. These items were supplemented as occasion offered with bread, cheese, canned meats, vegetables, and fruit, while the gun provided rabbits and such other game as was in season.

To complete the list of our traps, — I carried on one side of my saddle-horn a small hatchet in a sheath, and on the other a camera and light tripod. Eytel had the gun, slung in a holster, and his sketching-things. Our blankets, with a few extra pieces of clothing, were rolled compactly and fitted above the saddle-bags behind the saddles. I suppose my horse carried, rider included, about two hundred pounds, and Eytel's possibly a little less. These were good loads for our rather light animals; but our stages were meant to be short, and in the nature of the case they would be often broken, since the whole object was to look about us at our ease, as tourists stroll about Paris or London, seeing the sights.

The road we were riding along might have been in Surrey or Virginia, so tall were the hedges that half hid the fence in their wild sweet tangle. You will not see much of verdure in travelling California roads by midsummer. Our sun is a thirsty one, and for half the year the landscape at close range is one of dry brown earth and shrivelled herbage, though distance may wash it over with amethyst, as Memory does with the unhappy landscapes of the mind. But the land about El Monte is damp and low-lying: green meadows and fields of alfalfa stretched on either hand, and the road was triple-bordered, first with vivid ribbons of grass starred with dandelions, next with rustling bulrushes or arrowy evening-primroses, and then with a fifteen-foot thicket of bushes over which rolled a flood tide of wild grape-vines, their tendrils reaching far up into the air in the determination to grasp their fill of summer.

The village of El Monte is a rather pretty little place, not too much modernized, with plenty of big poplar and eucalyptus trees swaying above the modest cottages. (I venture to hope that the reader agrees with me in finding, as I always do, the dwellings of the rustic poor, with their democratic marigolds and nasturtiums, more charming to the sympathies, and even to the eyes, than those elaborations of self-conscious modesty that line our streets in these almost too elegant days. I seriously think that humble things ought to please us best.) The place stands near the bank of the San Gabriel River, a dozen miles or so east of Los Angeles, and four miles from San Gabriel, that dusty little hamlet the long drowse of whose one street of adobes is broken nowadays by half-hourly convulsions when the electric car comes clanging with its load of tourists to "do" the venerable Mission.

Not many, however, even of Californians, are aware that the crumbling old building, with the ponderous green bells that threaten at every ringing to wreck the cracked campanile, is not the original building of its name. The first Mission San Gabriel was built in the year 1771, close to the river, and about five miles south of the present church. It was abandoned after five years, by reason of some disability of site, and a second building was consecrated, in the present position, in the fateful year of 1776. It, also, was temporary, and in 1796 the third and permanent structure took its place.

As the site of the first building was but a short distance off our road, we diverged to see what might remain to keep the memory of its brief existence. Passing a little huddle of dwellings, half house, half shed, we stopped to ask for directions of the unmistakably Irish head of an apparently Mexican family. He could give us little help: had lived there a long time, and had "heerd somethin' about an old 'dobe," but evidently was no antiquarian. Inquiry of a Mexican woman who lived a little farther on resulted in the identification of a spot near the bank of the river, where we thought we could trace the outline of a rectangle, marked by a slight inequality of the surface of the ground, which might indicate the ruins of adobe walls that had sunk back, literally "earth to earth," to their original clay. It was in the middle of a field of yellowed grass sprinkled with gray bushes of horehound and defiled with the carcass of a dead buzzard. Hum of bees, murmur of summer wind, twinkle of river shallows, these were all as of old. The rest was silence.

The morning had been cloudy, with a high fog, when we started, but by the time we were a few miles on the road the fog melted away, leaving a sky of light, sensitive blue, dappled with faint clouds that were like the sighs of a sleeping child. The hills on our left, under which lay the little Quaker town of Whittier, passed from gray to fawn, and behind us the rocky barrier of the Sierra Madre was streaked here and there with folds of mist that clung in the deeper cañons. At a corner of the road stood a school- house, enclosed, as every school-house should be, in a square of trees. The trees in this case were especially handsome poplars, rising like pillars of green flame into the air, and resembling in shape, I suppose, that pillar of fire and cloud that led the way for the fugitive Israelites.

It was yet before midday when, at the crossing of the river, we came to a simple white-plastered house with a great bush of some flowering vine pouring over the roof in masses of wine-red bloom. Making bold to tie our horses to the rail before the veranda, I entered into conversation with the three Mexican women who were resting in the shade of the porch, while Eytel sketched the place. The señora herself, a sweet-faced old dame with quiet, kindly eyes, sat gazing out with placid enjoyment over the river while we talked; the daughters, both mature women, stood by, listening, but speaking little.

The equipment carried by our horses occasioned some curiosity as to our purposes and destination, and I found it difficult to explain the indefinite nature of our journey until I bethought me of that useful term paseo, which told all in one word. (A paseo, it may be explained, is a walk, a ride, an excursion, a picnic, in fact, a going anywhere and any- how, so long as it is leisurely, pleasurable, and unbusinesslike.) The old lady, learning that I was from Los Angeles, grew eloquent in a gentle way over the advantages of living in this quiet spot rather than in the city, where, beyond noisy cars and much people, there was "nothing, nothing." I had no difficulty in agreeing, but I fancied that the silent daughters by the door had another opinion.

  IMAGE: A Ranch-House of Spanish Days

A RANCH-HOUSE OF SPANISH DAYS
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

With friendly adieus we rode on our way, and after a mile or two stopped, soon after noon, under a shady pepper-tree close to the Sanchez Ranch-house. Here we ate our lunch while the horses refreshed themselves with a scattering of hay from the field, lately cut. Two Mexicans from the house came over to chat with us while we smoked our pipes, displaying great interest in our expedition, and exhibiting that courtesy of speech and manner which, for some reason incomprehensible to me, seems to be considered by many people as almost a base quality in their race.

(The reader will no doubt notice in the course of these pages that the Californian Spaniards and Mexicans in one way or another enter more into my narrative than their numerical strength in the population of the State would render natural. The reason is partly that my purposes led me much into those out-of-the-way districts where they still form a large element in California life, and partly that I have a genuine liking for them, — not, I may say, without the basis of considerable experience. I confess to having no sympathy with the slighting regard in which they, especially the Mexicans, are held by the great majority of people in the West; and to holding them quite our equals-using the word "our" to signify the rest of us in general — in that sum of good, bad, and indifferent qualities which makes up the characters of races and nations. With this opinion, and with the sympathy naturally accompanying it, I find pleasure in their society; and the reader may perhaps receive an impression of their greater importance in the community than their relative numbers would justify.)

The old Sanchez house, which stands on an abrupt rise above the road and the river, retains still a few marks of the bygone importance of the family. It is now almost a ruin, and consists partly of the original adobe house and partly of later "frame" additions, even these showing traces of unusual finish and expense in carved cornices and ornamented mouldings. The cavernous fireplace and vast stables testify to the numbers of those who gathered to the hospitality of the old house in the days of its prime.

All day we kept the south road toward the coast, after crossing, early in the afternoon, the stream known as the Rio Hondo, or Deep River — a name calculated to provoke a smile from the traveller who, passing over it in the dry season, sees nothing but a wide expanse of sand and a thicket of willows. Sundown found us on the outskirts of the little town of Downey, where we pitched camp in a vacant lot adjoining a church, and passed a night embittered by mosquitoes. We arose early, and bade adieu to Downey while all but a few of the townspeople were still wrapped in slumber, or in the enjoyment of those serene moments during which one reconnoitres at long range the duties of the coming day.

For us it was a day of long straight roads, of inexpressible dust, of leagues of sugar-beets, and farms at mile-long intervals. After the gloomy experience of the previous night it was cheering to anticipate a night of unbroken rest at the ranch of a friend of Eytel's. to whose house we rode up just as the family were sitting down to supper. We were at once welcomed to bed and board, hay was thrown down to our tired horses, and in due time we slept the sleep of the just traveller who is secure not only of his own but also of his horse's welfare.

Our host was a representative of the best type of American farmer: a thoughtful, well-read man, courteous in the old, leisured manner, widely travelled, and full of distinct impressions and shrewd comparisons. Twenty-seven years of California ranching on the grand scale had left him with a well-digested fund of practical outdoor wisdom that made hours of conversation with him pass like minutes. His knowledge of the locality where he now lives goes back to the time of its first settlement by Mormons, who, under the unflattering names of "swamp angels" and "tule-rooters," found the region an all but uninhabitable marsh, and have made it almost the richest of California's boasted soils.

It was mid-afternoon next day when we said good-bye and rode away. On the right hand the twin peaks of Santiago Mountain rose into a faint blue sky, while to the south a pearly bank of sea-fog overhung the Pacific. In spite of careful directions as to our road we soon found ourselves wandering in a maze of tule swamps and barbed-wire fences, while hosts of implacable midges swarmed about us, biting furiously at horse and man alike. Two Mexicans whom we met walking could give us no directions, but a Chinaman on horseback at last put us right, and we made a happy escape. The time, we remarked, is oddly out of joint when Chinamen ride while Mexicans go afoot.

The road ran by sundry little settlements, some new and thriving, others, such as the hamlet of Fairview, where a few old houses and a church no longer young stood among loquacious poplars and cottonwoods. With all the phenomenal growth of population in California as a whole, we found tracts of country here and there which have somehow been exempted from the influx, and some which from that point of view appear even to have retrograded. But the kindly law of compensation is quietly at work, and one finds a charm in these Sleepy Hollows where nothing has grown but the trees, where the improvements are only in the increase of moss and lichen on roofs and fence-posts, and where old ladies still drive with fat ponies and antiquated phaetons to Sewing-Meetings and Ladies' Auxiliaries, instead of whizzing in automobiles to Browning Clubs and bridge parties.

Crossing the main Santa Ana road as a meteoric procession of these last-named vehicles were bearing back Los Angeles holiday-makers from the seaside to their homes, we struck across the San Joaquin Ranch. The sun was going down behind us, and our shadows were projected gigantically before us on the wide yellow plain. Darkness overtook us early, aided by the fog that had waited for set of sun to advance its gray armies. A dry camp and poor grazing seemed to be our portion: but luck favored us, and by the last daylight we descried in the distance a stack of baled hay, beside which was a litter of loose hay which we felt free to appropriate for our horses.

Then, prowling in the darkness in the faint hope of discovering water, we came upon a good artesian flow issuing from an open well-boring. It was of blood-heat temperature, strongly charged with sulphur, and of highly unattractive odor: but it was water, and neither we nor our animals were inclined to refuse it. Tying the horses securely, lest they should be tempted to exchange our uninteresting society, during the night, for that of a band of their own flesh and blood that were grazing near by, we spread our blankets under the lee of the haystack, and were lulled to sleep by a nocturne in which the wailing of plovers competed at disadvantage with an indescribable clamor of coyotes.

It was something of a problem next morning how in this treeless country we were to achieve our indispensable coffee. But Eytel, who is a sort of Bedouin, was equal to the emergency. With ten minutes' search we gathered a few handfuls of dry mustard stems, and with these he made a small but efficacious fire. The beverage made with the sulphur-impregnated water revealed a startling flavor, and it needed a certain amount of determination to ignore its weird aroma; but it was hot and we were cold, so that it really went very well.

We were early in the saddle, and making for the pass between the northwesterly flanks of the San Joaquin Hills and the foothills of the Santa Ana Range of mountains. Interminable beans in time succeeded to the miles of pasture land, and I gained an increased respect for the useful legume when I saw it growing thus, not in family back-yard fashion, but in great horizon-filling expanses from which loaded railroad cars would soon be rolling away to carry it by the hundreds of tons to the bean-loving world.

A countryman with whom we talked told us that artesian water lay at no great depth below all this level plain of the San Joaquin (not to be confounded, by the way, with the other San Joaquin, the great central valley of California whose southern boundary, the Tehachapi Range of mountains, forms a convenient geographical division between the southern and central portions of the State). I thought that if that were so I could foresee the time, not very far distant, when the prairie-like landscape I saw would be chequered into hundreds of trim little farms, occupied by Farmers of the New Style, who, scientifically blending water and soil under the most generous climate in the world, would cover the great expanse with the choicest fruits of the earth.

Turning southward and rounding the outermost point of the San Joaquin Hills, we began to descend into the Laguna Cañon. Utilitarian reflections were not suffered entirely to occupy my thoughts. As we rode, my companion noted with a painter's instinct the broad simplicity of line and color. Yellow bays of stubble washed far up into the folds of the hills, and on their wide expanses solitary oaks or islands of brush were stamped in spots of solid umber. The gray thread of road stretched on before us, appearing and lapsing as it followed the gentle contours of the land; and over all a sky of pure cobalt had succeeded to the broken grays and purples of the morning.

At the head of the long descent to the coast lay a lagoon bordered with rustling tules and populated by files of water-fowl. Here and there a heron or a sandhill crane stood sunk in abysmal reflections. Brush began to cover the hillsides, the half-tone drabs and sages relieved with the uncompromising green of the tuna cactus, these last decorated with vivid yellow blossoms that sprouted like jets of flame from the edges of the lobes.

The cañon in its lower half is highly picturesque. Steep hills close it in, and curious caverns, some of them of large size, give a touch of mystery to their rocky sides. This quality of the scene was heightened when suddenly the sea-fog that lay continually in wait along the frontier of the coast, gaining a temporary advantage by some slackness of the enemy, poured over the mountain to the southwest and cast the whole mass into impressive gloom. On the instant the leaf was turned, brush was transmuted to heather, from California I was translated to Scotland. Fringes of sad gray cloud drooped along the summits or writhed entangled in the hollows of the hills. One who did not know the almost impossibility of rain at midsummer in this region would have declared that it was imminent. A strong breeze blew salty in our faces; but when by mid-afternoon we rode into the village of Laguna Beach, the sun again held sway. So the unceasing warfare goes along this coast.

We rode our horses down to the beach. The philosophic Billy was unemotional as usual, but my Chino, a lean bundle of nerves, was deeply interested, and gazed snorting and breathing quickly at the phenomenon of the surf. Turning westward we found an oasis of wild oats among the brush and cactus that occupied the rising ground at the back of the cliffs, and there cast anchor.

It was highly pleasant at evening to lie in our blankets listening for an hour to the surf growling like a friendly watch-dog in our extensive back-yard: and to wake, after a night of industrious oblivion, to feel the sea-fog brushing our faces with its cool soft fingers, a kind of infinitesimal needle-bath.

  IMAGE: Carl Eytel and the Philosophic Billy

HOW WE TRAVELLED: CARL EYTEL AND THE "PHILOSOPHIC BILLY"
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS