CALIFORNIA COAST TRAILS
CHAPTER XII

Into the mountains — The knob-cone pine — A lost trail — Camp on Diablo Creek — Rough going — A debate with Chino — French hospitality, and Irish — The city of San Luis Obispo: the Mission: preposterous chimes: lynchings — Volcanic peaks — A gray day — Italian-Swiss settlers — Blithe cowboys — Morro — Entering the Coast Range country — Cayucos — The town of Cambria — Abalone fishers — San Simeon — Piedras Blancas lighthouse — Welsh kindness — Indian relics — A primitive school — Irish hospitality again.

A FEW miles to the northeast of the San Luis Hot Springs is the city of San Luis Obispo, with another of the Franciscan Missions. My contour map showed an interesting looking piece of rough country lying near the coast, which would be missed if I took the direct road. I therefore determined to find a way over the mountains, and made a start northward up a cañon charming with ferns and wild flowers and profitable with blackberries. A gay little brook trotted beside the road, and when outposts of the pines appeared on the higher ridges, I congratulated myself on my choice.

We passed many small farms, but nearly all were abandoned, owing, I fancy, to the repeated washing-out of the road in winter storms. Near the head of the cañon I found the owner of a ranch working at the road to render it passable for a wagon, in hope of making his farm salable. His family and furniture had been moved away, he said, but he should be glad of my company for the night at the house if I chose to stay. This I was glad to do, and enjoyed his simple talk of his losses, his children, and his plans. Somehow, such confidences often come nearer to the heart than a valuable kindness.

Next morning I started early on my climb. The dilapidated road went no farther, but my friend pointed out a trail that led in the right direction. It struck at once up the mountain-side, which here bore a thin forest of the interesting knob-cone pine (Pinus tuberculata). The region had been burned over some few years before, with the result that most of the old trees were dead, but around them flourishing squads of pinelings were growing. These were already bearing cones, as if Nature had hurried to forestall another fire, which, if it had come before the young trees bore their fruit, would have ended the succession: for the species is peculiar in holding its cones unopened until fire destroys the tree, when the seeds are liberated by the heat that kills the parent. They seemed a vivid illustration of St. Paul's eloquent argument for the resurrection.

The trail had gradually become fainter, until, near the summit of the first ridge, it wavered off into uncertainty and finally ran out. I tied Chino and beat about for half an hour hoping to pick it up, but the depopulation of the cañon below had put the trail into disuse, and the industrious brush had quickly claimed its own.

To south and west I got glimpses of the ocean at a few miles' distance, and on the other hand ran a maze of mountains and cañons, far too steep and too heavily brushed to allow of our making across country. Leading Chino carefully along a sharp slope I gained a connecting ridge that was sufficiently open on its summit for travel. It bore west, whereas I wished to go north, but I went on in hope of either striking a trail or finding more open country by which to drop to Coon Creek Cañon, where I knew there was a road.

Coming at length to the end of the ridge, I found that it fell away steeply. In the deep cañon that opened below me I saw a tiny cabin and traces of cultivation. It was getting towards evening, and there was nothing for it but to go back or to get down to the cañon, where there would probably be a trail, and almost certainly water. So, leading Chino carefully by the bridle, we began the descent. It was a difficult piece of work, and not entirely without danger. Had I been alone it would have been merely to fight my way through stiff brush down a steep hillside; but Chino with his encumbrances was in constant danger of losing his footing on the sharp uneven slope, or getting snagged on some rock or stubborn elbow of greasewood or buckthorn. But the good horse behaved well, responding instantly to my voice and guidance, and by sundown we got safely down to the cañon.

As I expected, I found a good stream, and following it down we soon came upon a faint trail, which led to the cabin I had seen from above. It was deserted and had fallen into the quick decay that overtakes man's abandoned outposts in the wilderness. A row of cypresses, a few starving vines, figs, and apples, and a straggling rose-bush seemed to show that a family, and not some solitary settler, had here suffered defeat. It was far from being a cheerful spot, but it served our purpose well enough. I found good pasturage for Chino on a little ciénaga, or marshy spot, beyond the creek; and supper and a rousing pine-wood fire soon put me in happy mood. I spread my blankets among the old trees of the orchard, and lay blinking at the darkening embers until the final blink came that was prolonged until morning.

We were early on the march, or, to speak literally, on the scramble. I had figured out my whereabouts as closely as I could by map and compass, and decided that I must be on Diablo Creek, the stream next south of Coon Creek, which I must somehow reach before I should find a road. I prospected up the first one or two cañons, only to find that they soon changed their direction. Then came one that seemed more hopeful, and though it was full of broken rock and boulders, and hard on Chino's feet, I determined to try it. As I was leading him carefully among the rocks I stepped close beside a rattlesnake that lay coiled among them. We had a lively engagement for a minute or two, but as I was not wearing my revolver and he was too discreet to come into the open, I had the mortification of seeing him slip into a cranny where neither shot, stick, nor stone could reach him. I always feel unhappy when I fail to kill one of these detestable creatures.

We made slow headway up the cañon, which soon degenerated to a gully. It grew very hot, for in this narrow place no breeze could reach us, and the rocks reflected the heat like firebrick. Once or twice it seemed impossible to go on, for Chino was slipping about every moment, and I was afraid he would fall and come to harm. But the gully continued in the right direction, and I hate turning back. During pauses for rest I would sit on a rock to study the map while Chino looked on over my shoulder. Then we would discuss the situation somewhat thus (I interpret my horse's part by his demeanor, which was almost intelligent enough to amount to conversation):

Chino. "Hang it! this can't be the trail, you know."

I. "Why, no, it's not exactly a trail, Chino, but it heads the right way. Besides, the map —"

Chino. "Confound the map! I don't believe —"

I. "Uncle Sam's map, Chino, your uncle and mine. It must be right, you know."

Chino. "Well, but —"

I. "It can't be much farther to the head of the cañon, anyhow, and then —"

Chino. "Well. but look —"

I (getting up). "Now, look here, my boy, we are going on up, so that's all about it: at least. I am: you may stay where you are, if you like."

Chino (aside). "That'll never do: he pays the stable bills in town fairly enough." (Sighs heavily.) "Well, then, all right: we'll take another shot at it. Come on, Governor."

In this manner we toiled along for perhaps two hours, and at length stumbled out from the cañon upon a flat where, under a big oak, were the traces of an old camp, probably of cattle-men. On the hillside opposite I saw to my relief faint but unmistakable signs of a trail. After an hour's rest we made for it, and followed it down long zigzags, here overgrown with brush and there washed out by rains, until we emerged in a green valley which I knew must be Coon Creek Cañon.

In a little shanty from which smoke was rising I found an old Frenchman woodcutter, sorting herbs into bundles. His first word was the usual hospitable one, "Are you hungry? I'll get you some dinner." I was glad to take a cup of the coffee which was still hot on the stove; and then, learning that the road was close by, I struck into it. A comfortable ranch-house stood at the junction, and seeing a man romping with a child by the open door I went over to speak to him. When I had made sure of my whereabouts and explained my presence in that out-of-the-way spot, the question again was, "Have you had dinner? Well, come in; we are just sitting down."

The family consisted of the handsome old man I had spoken to, a stalwart son and daughter-in-law, and two chubby, blue-eyed children. I was made to feel as much at home as if I were a member of it myself. It proved that they were Irish, so I might add another nationality to the list of those from whom I had received a traveller's aid and comfort. Like the apostle, I felt myself "debtor both to the Greeks and to the Barbarians."

San Luis Obispo was still eight or ten miles away, and after the morning's work we travelled slowly. I walked, leading my tired horse, and enjoying a sunset view out over the wide Los Osos Valley below me. A lake of milky cloud filled all the valley, extending westward to the coast and far out to sea. Above it stood up, black and ragged, the summits of a row of volcanic peaks which give a unique character to this locality. Beyond lay the main range of the Santa Lucia, now near at hand, softly opalescent in evening light. About sundown we arrived on the outskirts of the town, and I furnished diversion for the young fry of the place as I hauled my tired steed along, almost by main force, to his quarters.

My own were close to the Mission, and at intervals of each day of the two or three I stayed here, I watched from my window the black-shawled women hurrying to service. Once before, when I was in the town, I had wandered into the old building, and, finding service in progress, had felt it good to kneel with the half-dozen Mexican peons who shared the back seats with me. Somehow, the ties of a common humanity (and, I hope, a common humility also) seem to me of more account than the differences, momentous as I hold them to be, between Rome and Canterbury. And when I watched these humble, black-shawled, rather sad-faced women going to their devotions, something brought to my mind the carpenter's wife of Nazareth, and a phrase or two of that sweetest lyric of Holy Writ — "the lowliness of His handmaiden ... exalted them of low degree."

The Mission itself, founded in 1772, is not specially attractive, but contains some interesting matters. By the kindness of the priest I got entrance into the old garden, a quiet square of old-time flowers and arbored walks. The Father told me that the Tulareños, or Indians of the interior valley, who come periodically to the coast to gather shell-fish, still make their camp as of right in the Mission grounds. I was glad to hear that in the eyes of his church, at least, the Indian yet has some trifling rights beside his pauper's dole.

I was at first staggered and then much amused by the bells of the Mission as they called worshippers to the services. Imagine being awakened from normal slumbers by this preposterous ditty, rung, in a sort of jig-time, on bells not remarkable for sweetness of tone —

IMAGE: Musical notation of the chimes of San Luis  -  part 1

— repeated four times, and ending with three explosions fortissimo

IMAGE: Musical notation of the chimes of San Luis -  part 2

This, it appears, is San Luis's traditional exhortation to his parishioners. Performed, as it was, in quick time and with a sort of idiotic excitement, it resembled the antics of marionettes, and I could never hear it without a burst of laughter.

A walk about the town, which is an old one, by Western reckoning, and contains some six thousand people, yielded a few attractive items. There is quite an air of old California remaining in the nooks and corners. Near the centre of the town stands what was one of the best of the old adobe houses, now fallen to the uses of a Chinese laundry. Near by are a few fine olive and pear trees; and half hidden here and there among the stores are tall date-palms and ancient prickly-pears that mark the gardens of the old pueblo.

The surrounding region has been the scene of labor of some notable bandits, and more than once it fell to the citizens of San Luis, as to those of many other Western towns, to take the execution of the laws into their own hands. In one year, I was told, no less than eleven malefactors, or supposed malefactors, were here summarily hanged; and a lady with whom I talked described how, on one occasion, she herself, a girl at the time, looking casually from her veranda, had seen three bodies swinging in a row at the corner of the street.

On leaving San Luis Obispo I took a northwesterly road that led toward the coast. A sprinkle of rain was falling, but those little crossbowmen of God, the swallows, wheeling happily about in the upper air, prophesied fair weather, though the heads of the rank of peaks that rose close by to the south were veiled in rolling mists. Both in color and outline these mountains are very conspicuous. Each peak stands out isolated, statuesque, and finely unconventional. Broad cloudings of lichen, in gray, ashy green, and purple, variegate the ragged blackness of their contours. Under that sombre sky they had a strange and antediluvian look. As I came near the third in order, called Cerro Romualdo, it showed through the eddying cloud as a black volcanic cone; and to heighten its eerie appearance a company of buzzards were perched in the gaunt sycamores at its base, as grim as Odin's ravens.

On the other hand lay the Santa Lucias, a long wall of fawn and black, belted at half its height with a level stratum of vapor. The valley had fully taken its summer hue of brown, but the foreground was tinged with the gold of dry wild-oats. A few gray farms nestled among gray rocks on the gray mountain-side; a colorless stream rattled over a stony gray bed; gray moss trailed from the roadside oaks; and the sky was of that great, elemental gray that stirs the Anglo-Saxon in one as sea-spray would rouse a Viking. In California I never get enough of this finest of colors, and here I set my teeth for very joy. Even Chino felt the stimulus, tossed his head, pricked his ears, and broke voluntarily into a canter.

From here northward for some hundreds of miles the principal industry of the coast region is dairying, and the people engaged in it are mainly Italian-Swiss. It was a surprise to me, and a rather unwelcome one, to find in what numbers these hardy and industrious folk have settled here: unwelcome, not from any dislike I have for the race, but because my intercourse with them has given me the impression that, of all the various racial ingredients, the Italian will prove to be the most difficult to blend.

While I was lingering near the remains of an old orchard, to give Chino a chance to graze, a cloud of dust and a hilarious whooping told the approach of a "bunch" of cattle. They were convoyed by five cowboys in sombreros and "chaps," who stopped to fraternize with a brother horseman. They had been four days on their way down from the San Luis ranges, and were loud in envy when they learned that I was two months out and still had more than half my journey before me. Two of them at once offered to "trade jobs" with me, without even waiting to hear the nature of my own business. When they understood this they were urgent to accompany me, and thought they might be useful in "working the picture-box" or even "doing the poetry stunts." But, finding that their beef was spreading over too wide a territory while we talked, they suddenly jerked their ponies round and with blithe shouts of "Adios!" jingled away in a whirlwind of dust.

Evening was falling as we came to the coast at the village of Morro. The sun broke for a moment through the clouds in a sudden magnificence of crimson, painting a gorgeous belt along the horizon and empurpling the great plain of ocean, though all about me was still that nobler gray.

Morro's population sat at ease on doorsteps and packing-boxes, watching a game of horseshoe quoits. The stable-man was with difficulty detached to attend on Chino, and I made a meal at a primitive restaurant while the lads and lasses of the place performed on an adjoining rink to the strains of a phonograph.

This pretty place is destined. I think, to be of more note than it is now. It lies at the northern point of a beautiful bay, three or four miles in length and all but landlocked. The sporting attractions are of the best, the landward scenery very interesting, and the great rock, El Morro, which stands at the bay's mouth, gives nucleus and distinction to the whole.

On leaving Morro I found myself definitely entering that little-known stretch of mountain country which borders the Pacific closely for a distance of about a hundred miles. For most of that distance there are no roads and few settlers, while the trails are rough, steep, and often so little travelled as to be difficult to follow. Further, no maps of the region were to be had. Many persons had told me that I should never get through without a guide; but it seemed to me that, since water must be plentiful and I could carry food enough for many days, there would be no particular hardship in the matter even if I should get lost.

My only fears were on Chino's account. The long trip had worn him down, easily as we had travelled, and with all my care the saddle had rubbed sores on the withers which might render him unfit for use; while the question of feed would be a troublesome one, for the wild forage was by now almost gone, and I could not rely upon buying fodder from the scattered settlers. However, I could not afford to miss this fine piece of coast; so I resolved to go on, taking what chances there might be, and offsetting them as far as possible by special care. I had got some general idea of the trails from people at San Luis, and had no doubt we should get through.

The regulation sea-fog lay thick upon the coast as we started northward. To seaward the great rock loomed uncertainly, and the cries of unseen gulls came weirdly through the mist. Occasionally a field of beans would be seen near some farmhouse occupied by Swiss, with all hands diligently hoeing, not only men and boys, but women. I suppose to some people this would seem shocking, but I own that it had a wholesome, primitive look to me, and I could not see that civilization, or even "culture," needed to quarrel with it. The houses were generally rough, too, but they had an air of country comfort, and there were plenty of trees about them. Here again I may be retrograde, but I sometimes wonder whether the elegance of our days is not in some insidious way a foe to true home-making; and whether the modern American home, with its perfection of artistic and hygienic accessories, is quite the equal in value, as regards the Family Idea, of those simpler conceptions which our immigrants bring with them, though they seldom persist in the first generation American born.

The road kept near the shore, and as the fog slowly lifted I now and then caught glimpses of the Santa Lucias, now a soft mystery of blue shaded with milky skeins of mist. Eight miles, and we came to Cayucos, a one-street village lying in the bend of a rocky bay. While Chino lunched at the livery-stable I found a quaint little restaurant whose Portuguese proprietor, on the mention of my meeting with his countrymen at Point Conception, shook my hand as earnestly as though I had done him a high favor, and would hardly be persuaded to take payment for my meal.

A few miles farther, near Point Estero, the road turned somewhat inland. It was again a delight to find myself among pines, this time of the radiata species, whose southern limit of natural growth is this region. The tree is one of the handsomest of the pines, especially notable for the full, dark brilliance of its foliage. In its manner of growth, and with that background of gray and silver sky, I was strongly reminded of the Scotch fir of my native land.

From the top of a long, steep ascent, I looked down upon the compact little town of Cambria, lying pine-encircled in a hollow of the hills. I have seldom seen a place more happily situated. A fine trouty stream, the Santa Rosa Creek, flows in a wooded cañon past the town, mingling its jaunty voice with the roar of the ocean, near at hand, though unseen. In the gardens, palms compete with wonderful fuchsias and sensational rose-bushes of tree-like size. From its name, and the fact that its mainstay is mining (principally for quicksilver), I expected to find the place Welsh; and, indeed, it has much the physical air of a rain-washed Welsh town. I found, however, that, as with all the region, the preponderating flavor is Swiss.

I put up for the night at the comfortable hotel, and next morning we took our way again through the fragrant pine woods. On the top of the hill was a little cemetery, lying between sea and pines and hushed by the voices of both. A bright, strong wind was blowing on this upland; on one hand spread a brilliant green and purple sea, with the eternal fog-bank lying in wait in the offing; on the other rose the mountains, with great pines etched finely on the sky-line.

Where we came down to the shore a camp of Japanese abalone fishers had established themselves. Huge cauldrons were boiling on the beach, and a wide space near by was covered with the drying-racks. Here, as at several other places, I found the men equipped with power-launches and modern diving-dresses. The camps were always neat and systematic, and everything complied with the national characteristic of thoroughness.

The coast now curved to the pretty bay of San Snneon, fringed with islets of rock round which the sea coiled in dazzling whiteness of spray. Along the cliff large sea-asters grew thickly, with lavender lupines, yellow tar-weed, and eschscholtzias of that splendid deep orange that suggests the Arabian Nights, or, the court of Ahasuerus; like sunshine filtered through silken curtains of crimson and gold. Inland, gray farms lay in bends and hollows of the mountains; wind-shorn oaks and laurels filled the narrower cañons; and whenever the road swung in to round the head of one of these, I found myself suddenly in a different world, among wild roses, ferns, blackberries, and phenomenal thickets of coarse flowering weeds.

We loitered along so easily among these various attractions that it was near evening before we came to the village of San Símeon. This once promising little port has dwindled under the caprices of Fortune and local landowners until now only one small coasting steamer calls unpunctually at its wharf. I found myself the only guest in a hotel that would have housed double the whole population, with room to spare. But my host (an old Maine seaman, and for twenty years in the lighthouse service on this coast) and his good Welsh wife made amends by their friendliness for the physical drawbacks of the place.

I rode out next day to visit the lighthouse at Piedras Blancas, six miles up the coast. A rattling breeze blew from the sea, and Chino, appreciating the freedom from saddle-bags and blanket-roll, let himself out at his best. On the way we passed the Piedras Blancas Ranch-House. I found this once fine old mansion deserted and falling to ruin. Two ancient cypresses leaned mournfully against the veranda, and seemed as though they were weeping; the crazy steps rocked under my feet; and some pigeons took flight through a broken window. The place looked like some faithful old retainer, left decrepit and pitiful by the death of his master.

The lighthouse is a high white tower, handsomer than most of those on this coast. I found there, besides the keepers, a lot of frank-eyed, frolicking children whom from their dress I took to be all boys until by chance I found it was otherwise. The spot is a lonely one, but there seems to be something in the nature of the lighthouse service, some spiritual ingredient, that keeps its people hearty and wholesome.

At Cambria I had met a young Welshman, owner of a large ranch in the mountains, and whose father had a dairy-ranch near Piedras Blancas. I called on these good people on leaving San Simeon, and stayed a day or two with them, enjoying the cheerfulness of family life in three generations and the Old-World simplicity of manners. No doubt a travelling Turk or Zulu would be welcomed in that house of kindness, but I could see that the old gentleman's heart warmed toward me when I was able to give him "Boreu da i chwi" (good-morning) for a breakfast-table greeting.

This region must once have had a considerable population of Indians, though now it contains fewer than any other part of California. My host's vegetable garden was quite a museum of their relics. The stone morteros, or grinding-bowls, came in handily as sockets for gate-posts, and among the baby's toys was one of these in miniature, which probably had been fashioned by some aboriginal parent as a plaything for his little girl, — perhaps an item in a doll's set.

One of the sons, having business with a neighbor a few miles up the coast, accompanied me when I again started on my way. I was respectfully amused at the primitive appointments of the Piedras Blancas school, which we passed, and which seemed to illustrate Pallas in all her chaste severity. The school-house was a tent of ten by twelve feet, and the furniture consisted of three small tables, evidently of kitchen antecedents, two plank benches, a chair and desk for the teacher, a nail-keg for an emergency scholar, a demijohn for water, with a tin cup, a square yard of blackboard, and a handful of books, apparently fourth-hand. It was vacation season, and a trio of cows sniffed at the crannies in hope of scenting hay. The only sound beside the cry of plovers was the sober voice of that wise old teacher, the sea, thirty yards away: and I wondered whether it might not be instilling into those children of the lighthouse, who come here for their simple schooling, some fine lesson of reverence and wonder that may one day blossom into poetry or art.

My companion's destination was a dairy-ranch kept by two jolly young bachelor Irishmen. One or two neighbors happening in, we made a cosmopolitan dinner-party, six nationalities among seven people. Gaiety and friendliness abounded equally with beans and home-cured bacon. Again there was no withstanding the hospitable pressure to stay for the night. I shared my hosts' room, with the result that we talked so late that we had hardly got to sleep when we were awakened by the cries of the vaqueros as they brought the cattle into the corrals for the morning milking.