CALIFORNIA COAST TRAILS
CHAPTER X

A bad road — A Marblehead skipper: bygone whaling — Portuguese fishermen — Point Conception: night at the lighthouse — A natural division point — The Jalama: fine old olives — Camp on the Espada: tramp company again — A Point Conception wind — An inexplicable family — The town of Lompoc: Chinese freemasons: Don Camilo, a Spanish-Californian — The Mission of La Purísima Concepción.

THIS stretch of coast is reputed to be the windiest part of all the California seaboard. There chanced to be only moderate breezes at this time, however, with a good deal of fog; and the morning on which we left the cañon was calm, with a sleepy sea that gleamed to white where it caught the rays of a hazy sun. The road, which can never have been exactly a boulevard, had been almost obliterated by the spring rains, and scraps of broken harness, shed plentifully along the way, seemed to illustrate the adventures of the last wagon that had passed over it. It was a relief when, after a few miles, we fought our way through a jungle of ten-foot mustard down to the beach, where we could travel on the hard sand. There seemed a little risk here and there of being cut off by the tide before we could round the many headlands, and at every crossing of a creek I could see that the adventure of the quicksand came vividly to Chino's mind. The loneliness of the region was marked by the presence of a bald eagle that sat in haughty solitude on the cliff-edge, and gazed on us with unquailing eye as we passed below. This great bird is becoming rare in California, but still breeds in the lonely islands off the coast.

At El Bulito Cañon I caught a glimpse of the handsome large house of a local cattle-baron. Gleaming white among noble oaks, it had much the air of a French chateau until I reflected that it was probably built of one-inch plank, or perhaps cardboard. Cañon followed cañon, breaking the rounded hills of yellowing grass that rose in long succession to the west. Coming to the Cañada del Cojo I found a little cluster of buildings where a trio of Portuguese fishermen had established themselves. A great boiling of nets was going forward in an immense cauldron set against the cliff, and in a shed one of the men was employed in making traps for crawfish (destined, I suspect, to appear as lobsters on the dining-tables of San Francisco and Los Angeles).

As pasturage was scanty hereabouts, I had a mind to camp if I could buy forage for my horse. The Portuguese had none, for they kept no horse, but I learned that an old American fisherman lived close by, on the cliff, and that there I might find what I wanted. I found the old man at home, and he willingly offered the best he had, — for Chino the use of a decaying stable, and for myself a place to spread my blankets in an old barn, among rats, bats, nets, sails, and rudders. His own quarters were hardly better, and housed a quaint museum of smells, the accumulated odors of half a century of fish. I shared his supper of eggs, potatoes (which it was his fancy to call oranges), biscuit, and coffee, while he, at my request, told me a little of his history.

He was an old Marblehead skipper who had found his way to this solitary spot as far back as the year 1866, and had lived here alone since that time. (His Portuguese neighbors had come only a year or two ago.) He was now seventy-six, but still followed his calling, and had no idea of forsaking it yet awhile. Why should he? he said. When he went in to Santa Barbara he saw men of his own age "hanging off and on without wind enough in their sails to blow out a candle"; and look at him, as sound as a fo'c'sle bulk-head! Dangerous to handle the boat alone? Well, maybe; but he never thought of that. Storms? Why, yes, now and then. Once he was capsized, and was pretty badly used up when a lumber schooner picked him up just before nightfall; but that was years ago, and he thought the weather late years was n't near as hard as it used to be, in the Channel.

Maybe I did n't know that there used to be a sight of whaling went on right here at the old Cojo landing; not so long ago as I'd think, neither. The whalers' camp was right below there, and they would tow the whales — California grays, they were, mostly — to shore and cut them up and try out the blubber on the beach. "You see, there was n't so many places along this piece of coast where you could beach a boat, anyway, so the Cojo was quite a place in them days."

And had I ever heard of the school the priests used to have a few miles up the country? It was for teaching the boys to be priests, and now and then some of them boys would break away, and run off down here, and he would row them out to some ship that came near in, like they generally do coming round Conception. The old fellow chuckled delightedly over this reminiscence, as a smuggler would over the "shooting" of a rich cargo of contraband.

When I appeared by appointment for breakfast, at a quarter-past four, I found that he had already taken his own, and was ready to go out for the morning catch. I hinted that I should like to accompany him, but he ignored the suggestion, evidently feeling that landlubbers were best ashore. He left me to close up the house when I was ready to move, cautioning me to see that the chickens were shut in their coop, or the coyotes would surely get them.

So he took the fat gray horse, and I watched them drag the boat down to the water, and saw him shove off, leaving the horse tied on the beach ready to haul up the boat on his return. Plucky old Yankee skipper! Some day the old gray horse may wait over-long, and master and boat may come home at last in evil plight, thrown up, mere drift, by the indifferent sea. But, meanwhile, "we never think of that."

I stopped to chat again with the Portuguese as I passed, for I felt an interest in meeting these countrymen of Da Gama and Magellan. Dark, active, crisp-looking fellows, they were very different from the American or English fisherman type; but they fitted well into the picture that came to my mind, of caracks, caravels, arquebusiers, and marineros, —

"And past the headland, northward slowly drifting,
        The freighted galleon."

This was the type of men who went flitting about uncharted and all but fabulous seas under the flag of the Navigator Prince. Midday found me still lounging there, and I was invited to eat dinner with them. The wife of one, a smiling, handsome woman, speaking excellent English, had prepared a delicious meal, my offer of payment for which was generously scouted. The husband and one of the other men, as I learned casually at table, had been capsized the week before, while the wife had helplessly watched them through the glass for twelve hours as they clung to the bottom of their boat.

Two miles farther on I passed Government Point, where lay the bones of a small steamer, the Shasta, wrecked here a few years ago; and then, striking across a wide, sandy plateau, another mile brought us to Point Conception and the neat white buildings of the lighthouse station. I had brought a note of introduction to the keeper, and found myself a bone of hospitable contention between him and his next in command.

The lighthouse is an important one, with a light of the "first order Fresnel system," visible for forty miles, and a fog-horn whose range I do not remember, but which I should estimate as of about ten thousand newsboy-power. The building stands on a bold angle of this great seaward promontory, and carries its lantern two hundred and fifty feet above the water. The night I passed there was densely foggy, and, while sharing the watch of the second officer, I found it fascinating to pace for the midnight hour about the rocky platform, dank and slippery with the mist, listening to the maelstrom of swirling, roaring water, and the grim hail of the syren, bellowing to unseen ships its warning against the treachery of the fog — "Ro-o-o-o-o-o-ocks!" and again, over and over, "Ro-o-o-o-o-o-ocks!" A terrible sound to strike the ear of seaman or sea-traveller, too near! Too late for warning, it turns to a cry for help, often, alas! too late for that, as well.

A sight that I shall long remember was that of the sixteen great moving bars of light marked on the fog like spokes of a gigantic wheel. As the huge lens revolved on its bearings, the white beams travelled slowly, smoothly round, searching the fog inch by inch as if to discover what it might be hiding, — doomed ship, or shipwrecked men in boat or raft, drowning sailor clutching at a spar, or pallid bodies of the dead. As the rays passed in turn over the face of rock behind the tower, the shrubs and flowers started out of the gloom as if they, too, were dead and suffered an unwilling resurrection. It was a relief after a while to climb again to the tower and join my friend in the commonplace comforts of coffee and cigars, until four o'clock and daybreak ended his watch and sent us to bed. My last waking sensation was the shriek of the fog-horn, still on duty, — "Ro-o-o-o-o-o-ocks!"

Point Conception forms the western abutment of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the elbow, as it were, to the humerus. Here ends the long westerly trend of the shore, which from this point bends sharply northward. I looked with interest to see what lay next before me. What I saw was a bluff, rocky coast, shut off at a few miles' distance by the promontory of Point Arguello; and, looming above a wilderness of broken mountains, one impressive peak, El Tranquillon. (Some one had a happy inspiration in that name.) The railway here follows the shore closely, with the road, now a somewhat better one, accompanying it.

In my mental survey of the coast of the State, I had always found it fall naturally into three divisions: a southern, from the Mexican boundary to this salient angle; a central, from here to San Francisco; and a northern, thence to the Oregon line. Dana, also, whose observation extended from San Diego to San Francisco, viewing the coast in the large way of a sailor, remarks that "Point Conception may be made the dividing line between two different faces of the country. As you go to the northward of the point, the country becomes more wooded, has a richer appearance, and is better supplied with water." So, in leaving Point Conception, I felt the stimulus of new expectations; and the prospect of trees in greater number and variety made a special attraction.

The first few miles of our new road, however, proved barren of event and even of water. All the morning we travelled a dusty road, far enough from the cliff edge to be shut off from view of the sea, and bordered on the other hand by tedious hills robed in summer monotony of brown. About noon we crossed the railway and came down to the beach near the mouth of the Jalama Creek. There is a spring of warm sulphur water here, whose virtues for bathing I should have liked to test; but trains, whose schedule I did not know, passed unduly near, and it was necessary to refrain.

I had been told that I ought to see the old Jalama Ranch, which lay a few miles inland. It is now deserted, and is said to have been an appanage of the neighboring Mission of La Purísima Concepción in the days of its prosperity: indeed, I heard it spoken of by the Mexicans as the Mission of San Francisquito. A romantic trail led to it by way of a valley of great shaggy oaks. I passed an old orchard where vines still grew rampant of leaf, though fruitless, and, a little farther on, the remains of a cellar-like wine-vat of masonry, overflowing now with phenomenal nettles and lively with bright-eyed lizards.

The old ranch itself occupies a shady, dell-like spot at the junction of two creeks that made music through all the vale. I walked under avenues of ancient olives which met overhead and whitened the grass with myriads of starry blossoms, — a habit of this tree by which one of Job's obnoxious friends illustrated the fate of the wicked, who "shall cast off his flower as the olive." Two huge, poplar-like pear trees were heavy with fruit, and there were the remains of an efficient hedge of the tuna cactus. Altogether it is a beautiful and interesting place, and if any one wishes to make me a present of the San Julian Ranch, on which it lies, I shall have no difficulty in deciding where to build my country seat.

I returned to the coast by sundown, and pitched camp on the bluff beyond the creek. Near by was a black and eyeless ruin of adobe, the old ranch-house of the Espada. After getting my supper I walked over to inspect it. As I passed the doorless entrance of one of the rooms I caught a whiff of tobacco, and a voice from the gloom hailed me with, "Come in, partner; lots of room." I hope I am as good a democrat as the average man, but I confess I was a little nettled at the cordiality of this greeting, evidently from a brother tramp. However, I put a good face on it and entered. I could see nothing but the red tip of a cigarette and the twin high-light of a brilliant nose; but the voice in which I was invited to sit down on a box which I should find by the door had a guileless tone, and even a hint of timidity, and my foolish resentment faded away.

So we sat and exchanged judicious explanations; or rather, I sat and he lay, for he announced that he had gone to bed (no elaborate ceremony, I suspect). I could tell that he was a man of fair education, even before he confided to me that he was the son of a well-to-do Ohio farmer, and had thrown up good prospects when the wanderlust caught him, twenty years before. I could but admire the philosophy of his conclusion: he "thought sometimes that he might have made a mistake." There is much virtue in "might." After all, to the actual bad there is always a possible worse, and still beyond that there lies a whole unknown region of superlative.

I invited my neighbor to breakfast with me, and looked forward with some curiosity to the meeting by daylight. He proved to be a tall, middle-aged, pathetic man, weak of mouth and eye, buttoned and safety-pinned into a long overcoat. He was loud in enthusiasm (genuine enough, poor fellow, I have no doubt) over my camping appliances. The little sleeping-tent was a marvel, only possible because extant; almost more incredible were my white enamelled cups and plates; he became incoherent over the coffee, and could only express his admiration for all in such impressive generalizations as "Well! I call this living!" or, "Don't that knock you, now?" When we parted Chino's load was lighter by my duplicate set of enamel-ware and half my supply of coffee.

As I passed the neat house of a small ranch near the road, I halted to make an inquiry as to the road. The rancher, a young Spaniard, proved so affable that our conversation extended until noon, when I was invited to join the family for a meal. Both Señor 0. and his wife were of families that figure largely in the ante-American history of California, and here again I experienced the open-hearted courtesy of this kindly race.

A few miles inland from here was the town of Lompoc, near which were the remains of another of the Missions, La Purísima Concepción. After a mile or two I struck a road running northward, which made a fairly direct route to the place. A cold wind had sprung up, from which I hoped to find shelter by taking to the cañon up which the road lay. But I was sadly mistaken, for the power and coldness of the wind increased as the road climbed, until both myself and Chino were in misery. This, then, was a taste of Dana's infamous Point Conception wind. Harder and harder it blew, and by some local ingenuity it managed to come from all quarters in quick succession, or sometimes even from all at once. The sun shone clearly enough, but made not the least impression on the temperature. The grass and herbage looked pinched and starving, and the very rocks seemed to cower. Ordinarily the scene would have been interesting, though not specially pleasing; — the weird yellow land, treeless, silent, and uninhabited for league on league; the stark, hard sky; the glimpse of indigo sea behind; and the pale lilac road winding interminably away till it became a mere scratch of gray on the great hill-shoulders that lifted to the distant sky-line. It was picturesque, or posteresque, in an odd, clever way, but under that confounded wind it looked abject, bald, and almost hideous.

At last, to my vast relief, the divide was crossed, and we dropped into peace and comfort. The contrast within twenty yards was amazing. A soft sun lighted a landscape varied with trees, fields of grain, and cattle-spotted pastures. Beside the road stood a little farmhouse in a bright garden of flowers. A stream ran in a pretty cañon that opened eastward, and here we stopped to regain our tranquillity and eat our lunch. Then I went up to the farmhouse to assure myself of my road. A solemn man and boy, in Quakerish, wide-brimmed hats, and who were apparently in the act of leaving the house to return to work, answered my knock. An incomprehensible scene, over which I have pondered more than once, met my gaze as the door was opened. By the table, where, evidently, a meal had just been despatched, stood two heavy-looking, middle-aged women, each with a wreath of flowers on her head. Their eyes were bent upon the floor, and for all sign to the contrary they might have been graven images. Not a move was made during the two or three minutes that I remained there. They stood facing me, side by side, solid, stolid, and silent. It occurred to me that they had all been going to dance, or had just done so; but in view of the bearing and physiognomy of all four, the idea was ludicrous to the last degree. Is there, I wonder, some quaint and serious sect whose daily ritual includes a minuet aux fleurs after dinner?

I had not gone far before I heard the man and boy coming up behind. They walked side by side with long, marching steps, and each carried a shovel. Without a word or a look they stalked by, like "ships that pass in the night." I watched them until they turned in at a gate that led to a hillside field of grain. There they passed beyond my ken, but for a long time they haunted my camp-fires like some hopeless conundrum.

The country I now found myself in was of an unusual character. The cañon ran between high hills, broken with cliffs and darkly variegated with solid clumps of trees. Farmhouses were perched precariously on these steep slopes, and a fringe of timber wavered along the sky-line. At the bottom ran the creek, growing apace, and the road, which followed it, was quite charming, often overlaced with oaks, and bordered with high banks on which honeysuckle, wild roses, wallflowers, and many other wildling favorites grew among jungles of grass and thickets of prosperous weeds. The occasional roadside houses stood among cherry and apple trees; and altogether the region looked interesting, homelike, and cheerful.

By evening I found myself on the outskirts of Lompoc. This is a town of quite respectable size, but of sedate and village-like aspect. The locality is famous for its farming, and a branch of the railway comes down from the coast. The principal crop is mustard, fields of which lie all about the town, while yellow-blossomed stragglers invade the vacant lots and corners. On a side street I passed a red-and-green balconied house on which appeared the sign "Yee Hing, Chinese Freemasons' Headquarters." This had a queer look. I tried to conjecture what mongrel rites might be celebrated within. It was not easy, but so far as secrecy is concerned, at least, one can understand that these impenetrable people are well fitted to be adepts.

There is a considerable Spanish and Mexican population in this old town. I had brought a letter of introduction to Don Camilo R., the head of one of the old Spanish-Californian families, and formerly the owner of a great grant of land farther north. I found him living in a cottage of four or five little rooms, and my interview with him and his wife was most pleasant. The tall old don, in his black silk skull-cap, was like a Vandyke picture; and his manner was a fine fusion of dignity, simplicity, and cordiality. It was delightful to watch him romping with his sturdy baby grandson, and to hear him pronounce over and over again, with innocent pride in his English, the name of his son "Beely," whom I was charged to call upon on my way up country. The vivacious doña bustled about to get me afternoon tea, "as every day in England they have it, — is it not true?" No hospitality could be more gracious, and, I will add, more touching. It was not only kindness, but honor that they would heap upon me. Whenever I hear (as I often do) disparaging words spoken of the Spanish race, I have only to recall that simple meal and those delightful people to range myself without hesitation on their side.

As I came into Lompoc I had passed the ruins of the original Mission of La Purísima Concepción, distinguished now as the Mision Vieja, or old Mission, to mark it from its successor. It is little more than a heap of adobes, but a great crack still shows the means of its demolition, by earthquake. The second Mission was built some three miles to the northwest of the town, where, next day, I found it sleeping in gentler decay among sober brown hills and acres of mustard and beans. It, too, has long been disused, and, as with Santa Ines, the heavy rains of the last spring had wrought havoc with the unroofed walls of adobe. A long row of filleted pillars and one or two door and window openings alone give coherence to the ruin. Wild mustard waved in profusion around and within the precincts. I pitched camp on a clear spot among the tangle of weeds, and passed a quiet Sunday in wandering about the old place, and in the company of quail, doves, and squirrels, and echoes and fancies of the past.