CALIFORNIA COAST TRAILS
CHAPTER II

Aliso Cañon — The eucalyptus — Bird voices at morning — A painter's coast — Our camp at Aliso Cañon — Coast features and resemblances — A typical Southern California cañon — The artist's point of view — A hermit's cave — California land-grants: their names — Dana's cliff at San Juan — The town of San Juan Capistrano: its old-time air: its ruined Mission — Relics of Mission days.

LAGUNA BEACH is a main resort of California artists, and the next morning was devoted to a foregathering with certain of them who chanced to be painting in the neighborhood. Then was there great comparison of sketch-books, and expositions upon line, balance, and mass: not even the spectrum was out of range. With Bohemian hospitality and a notable combustion of tobacco the hours sped away, until, soon after midday, we saddled up to move a short distance farther down the coast.

A few miles along a road that wound and dipped over the cliffs brought us by sundown to Aliso Cañon. A brackish lagoon lies at the mouth, barred from the ocean by the beach sands. The walls of the cañon are high hills of lichened rock, sprinkled with brush whose prevailing gray is relieved here and there by bosses of olive sumach. A quarter-mile inland we struck tokens of the neighborhood of a ranch, and here made camp under a rank of fragrant blue-gums populous with argumentative kingbirds and cheerful orioles.

The landscapes of California have been greatly enriched by the acclimatization here of the eucalyptus. It is not often that the presence of an imported ingredient adds a really natural element to the charm of scenery; but the eucalyptus, especially the globulus variety that has become so common throughout the State, has so truly native an appearance that it seems as if its introduction from Australia must have been more in the nature of a homecoming than of an adoption. The wide, treeless plains and valleys which once lay unrelieved and gasping under the summer sun, and inspired similar sensations in the traveller, are now everywhere graced by ranks and spinneys of these fine trees, beautiful alike, whether trailing their tufty sprays in the wind, or standing, as still as if painted, in the torrid air.

When the winter rains come there are no trees that so abandon themselves to the spirit of the time. With wild sighs and every passionate action they crouch and bend as if in the very luxury of grief. and toss their tears to the earth like actors protesting their sorrows on a stage.

The long, scimitar-like leaves are as fine in shape as can be imagined, and each tree carries a full scale of colors in its foliage, — the blue-white of the new, the olive of the mature, and the brilliant russets and crimsons of the leaves that are ready to fall. The bark is as interesting as the foliage, its prevailing color a delicate fawn, smooth enough to take on fine tone reflections from soil and sky. Long shards and ropes of bark hang like brown leather from stem and branches, making a lively clatter as they rasp and chafe in the wind, and revealing, as they strip away, the dainty creams and greenish-whites of the inner bark.

The tree's habit of growth sets off its beauties to the best advantage, long spaces of the trunk, arms, and smaller branches showing all their handsome colors and "drawing" between the dense plumes of foliage. In early summer the tree flowers with a profusion of blossoms uniquely tasteful, and later, the seed-vessels are as quaint and curious as rare sea-shells. To crown all, the tree is as fragrant as sandalwood, and the scent a hundred times more robust than that exotic perfume, which is fit only for seraglios and the effeminate paraphernalia of Mongolian decadence.

The night was cloudy but warm. Our blankets were spread upon a deep litter of blue-gum leaves, and their vigorous essences gave the spot unusual attractiveness as a sleeping-place. Something, however, — probably the virtue of our Laguna friends' home-grown tobacco, — again made me wakeful; but it was enjoyable enough to lie and watch the quiet play of the foliage, the only sounds the gentle clatter of leaf on leaf, the industrious mastication of the horses, the occasional challenges of distant owls, and the monotonous voice of the surf lulling the earth with its unceasing narrative.

The hubbub of birds that greeted the morning was something to remember. The kingbirds seemed to be the earliest risers, their waking complaints overlapping the long-range adieus of the owls. For some time nothing else stirred. No doubt birds have their peculiarities of temper, or at least of temperament, just as we have. I fancied the less strenuous inhabitants of the trees lying lethargically gazing at the brightening sky, awaiting the fatal moment when the duties of the coming day could no longer be ignored: perhaps, like some of us, the victims of "liver." In due course the linnets, blackbirds, orioles, and canaries came in; and just before sunrise the cliff swallows, of whom a flock of full two hundred inhabited a cavern by the lagoon, filled the air with their sweet trilling voices as they swung and soared in zestful manoeuvres. Then the cliff wren's cascade of plaintive chromatics rang out from far up the hill; and when the sun arose, and with him the insects, the flycatchers arrived to occupy the most desirable stations for business. Next the quail began to call in the willows, their flute-like voices receding as they made their way to the hillsides for the day; the soft cry of doves came from the stubble; and finally the scream of a hunting hawk supplied the inevitable element of discord.

Our camp here was so attractive that we remained for several days. For my companion's purposes the locality was quite undeniable, the coast both up and down being ideally broken and paintable. Point after point, rich in ochres, madders, and umbers, ran out into a sea of truly Mediterranean brilliancy, and chains of islets ringed with flashing foam lay like pendants of jewels on the turquoise plain. The cliffs rose in general to a hundred feet or thereabouts, and were broken by frequent cañons which varied with lines of heavy brush the sweep of hillside that ran to a horizon of large, free outlines. Dark ranks of cypresses, stunted and broken, stood here and there near the cliff edge, the when and the by whom of their planting offering problems of casual interest to the infrequent wayfarer.

Thirty miles in the west lay the island of Santa Catalina, often unseen for many days together, and even in clear weather hardly discernible above the gray line of the sea-blink that banded the horizon.

Before we moved on, Eytel had quite a gallery of studies and sketches tacked up on the trees to dry. Altogether our camp had an attractive air of al fresco Bohemianism, and we would not have exchanged it for the charms of the Vache Enragée and the Boul' Miche'. Saddles, bridles, saddle-bags, guns, spurs, and cooking-tackle were strewn all about the little spot which for the time we called home: an easel and palette signified the door of the studio; and our horses fraternized and quarrelled alternately in such close proximity to our beds that they could have kicked out our brains as we slept if they had been so minded.

This part of the coast of California bears a curious likeness to that of the Channel Islands off the Brittany Coast. A difference there is in details, of course, — geologic structure, vegetation, and, somewhat, color. Here, warm ochres, creams, and drabs alternate on the broken cliff faces with olive-greens, grays, and masses of ashy rose; and the herbage of the tops carries out the same general class of tone. Cactus growing to the cliff edges gives a touch wholly characteristic of the region. But the long, wing-like reaches of the land line, where ten miles of coast will contain twice that number of little emerald bays barred one from the other by white arms of spray, brought constantly to my mind the rocky shores of Guernsey and Jersey. There are some little castellated peninsulas that I could match almost detail for detail with some that I remember near St. Aubyn. Such resemblances are full of pleasure: they keep one's thoughts unstagnant and ever on the wing; and, better yet, they reach down and stir sometimes those subtlest strings of all, that vibrate in the dark, quiet chamber of the mind where lies the well of tears, keeping that unstagnant, too.

One afternoon we rode a few miles up the cañon toward El Toro, the nearest point of the railroad. The valley — for it is too gentle in outline to be properly called a cañon — is so purely typical of many of the California landscapes that I will describe it as an example. As soon as we passed the gates of the ranch we entered a league-long valley from which rose smooth slopes of pale-golden grass. The rounded swells and folds of the land took the light as richly as a cloth of velvet. In the bottom lay the creek, in isolated pools and reaches, its course marked sharply by a border of green grass and rushes. Red cattle grazed everywhere or stood for coolness in the weed-covered pools. The hillsides were terraced by their interlacing trails. Elders and willows grew at wide intervals, a blot of shadow reaching from each. Under them the rings of bare gray earth were tramped hard as brick where generations of cattle had gathered for shade. In one side reach of the valley was a little bee-ranch of a score or two of hives, with the typical shanty of the bee-man closed and apparently deserted. It was an "off-year" for bees near the coast: excess of fog had spoiled the honey-flow.

As we rode, blue mountains rose on the northern horizon. They were the Santa Ana Mountains, fifteen miles away. That was the only ingredient in the view that could come under the term "picturesque": the rest was open, bald, commonplace. European painters — American, too, all but a few — would have declared it crude and impossible. The yellow horizon was cut on the blue of the sky in a clean, hard line. At one spot, where the creek in winter flood had cut out a fifteen-foot bluff, the shadow was a slash of inky blackness on the glaring expanse of sun-bleached grass. There was always a buzzard or two swinging slowly in the sky, and once one rose near by with a heavy, shambling flight from his surfeit on the carcass of a dead steer. That was all: but to Eytel, and indeed to me, though I am no artist, it was complete and perfect. If beauty consists, as theorists, I understand, declare, in the true expression of spirit, then certainly this landscape complied with the terms. It was a very summary of the native and original California del Sur, California of the South, as Nature designed it. And even the sophisticated mind, trained to weigh tone values and balance of line, found the composition ideal in its magnificent Western simplicity. Pretty? a thousand miles from it. Picturesque? the very word sounds puerile. But simple, strong, dignified (which I take to be the primaries of art, after all), these were the very facts of the case, the materials of the landscape.

Of small life there was plenty, but not in much variety. Ground-squirrels by hundreds scurried across the road, or sat motionless, so exact an imitation of dead stumps of wood that it was hard to detect the trick, which they no doubt relied on for safety. Their runways were as well-beaten and plain to see as, in many places, was the county road we were on. A ground-owl, like another stump, sat on the edge of the creek-bluff, his head revolving like a screw as he watched us through three-quarters of a circle. Two road-runners raced away uphill, the sunlight glancing from their long straight backs and tail-feathers as if from steel. Once a coyote stole up the hillside, standing in plain view on the ridge as long as he felt sure he was out of range, and then dodging from cover to cover until he reached his safe ravine. A hawk chevied by kingbirds, like a Spanish galleon beset by pirates, drifted and flapped about in misery, a fine moral spectacle of poetic justice.

We had been told of a cave somewhere in the cañon, which had been in past days inhabited by a hermit. Our friend at the ranch remembered that nearly forty years ago his father had removed from it scraps of iron and such other articles as the hermit, even then long departed and already become historic, had left behind to keep his memory gray (as I suppose a hermit would prefer to have it). We had no difficulty in identifying the place, though we had not asked for direction to it. A mile or two up the cañon we found a sizable cave in the side of a stony hill that rose from the eastern bank of the creek. The roof was still begrimed with smoke, so that the swallows, and even the bats, had eschewed the place; and Eytel picked up near the entrance a stone pestle, such as was, and still is to some extent, used by the California Indians to grind flour in their morteros. This no doubt was the property of the legendary man.

A little delving in the floor of the cave brought to light fragments of shells of mussels and clams, but nothing more eloquent of the past; nor were any reflective inscriptions, such as one would think to befitting if not inevitable, to be found on the walls. But hermits, we remembered, are not all given to scribbling; and then, our friend (if we might take that liberty with him) might not have been able to write. In fact, we speculated whether he might not have been one of those Kanakas whom Dana, in "Two Years Before the Mast," reported encountering, I thought, at San Juan, only a few miles from this very spot. Hence no writing: and the pestle, and the art of using it, were no doubt the gift of friendly Indians.

We fancied our man, a literal cave man, sitting at set of sun in the door of his lonely dwelling, revolving eremitical thoughts, and travelling, perhaps, in mind the leagues of blue ocean back to far Hawaii. We thought we heard him singing his "Super flumina Babylonis" by the willows of the creek; and with kindly thoughts of the unknown brother we turned away.

It was gently mortifying, after these sentimental exercises, to find later that we had been at the wrong cave. The true place is in a side cañon on the other side of the creek: and, anyhow, it was at San Diego, not San Juan, that Dana met his protégés.

As we returned in the late afternoon, shreds of silvery fleece were drifting over the hill from the sea, to dissolve in the heated air that still rose from valley and mountain. An hour later the balance would be slowly reversed, and during the night the people of the inland towns and farms as far as to the foothills of the Sierra Madre would lie under the cool blanket of the sea-fog.

The land of California was held under first the Spanish and then the Mexican governments in large grants, or ranches. Most of these have, under American rule, and especially during the last few decades, with their accelerated development, been broken up: but a few remain intact; and the original names of all of them still adhere, and preserve for us a touch of the glamour of the old régime. To name only those tracts which we had traversed in coming from El Monte to the coast, there were, — San Francisquito, Potrero Grande, La Merced, Paso de Bartolo, Santa Gertrudis, Los Coyotes, Los Alamitos, Las Bolsas, Santiago de Santa Ana, and San Joaquin. Aliso Cañon is on the Niguel, a designation which has by general consent been Englished into Newell, a fair phonetic approximation.

We now entered upon the grant of the Mision Vieja de San Juan Capistrano, the lands that formerly pertained to that once flourishing Mission establishment. Wide levels of yellow grass that shone like silk in the sunlight led to a small cañon in which lay a narrow lagoon. Skirting this we came to a great expanse of stubble, with here and there huge piles of sacked grain built up like redoubts, a palpable defiance to famine.

A shallow stream, the San Juan Creek, here comes down to the sea. The adjacent coast was the scene of events narrated by R. H. Dana in that graphic chapter of autobiography, "Two Years Before the Mast," to which reference was made on a recent page. It was easy to identify the cliff from which the hides were thrown down to the much-abused sailors of the Pilgrim, and where Dana himself performed that perilous descent for which he received such ambiguous thanks from the redoubtable Captain T. The presence of a pensive pelican, who sat, apparently in the remorse of indigestion, on the top-most scarp of the cliff, seemed somehow to aid in the reconstruction of these bygone incidents of the place.

We now turned our backs for a few days upon the ocean and rode inland. The sun, setting in a pageant of color, poured a flood of rosy gold upon the low hills to the east, and clad with a more solemn splendor the higher back ranges. Behind us a segment of gray sea filled the mouth of the valley. Its passionless unconcern, in contrast with the companionable aspect of the other features of the scene, affected me with a sudden feeling of aversion. Water, though the most beautiful, seems the least humane of the elements.

Darkness was falling as we entered the little town of San Juan Capistrano. A few torpid Mexicans lounged outside the stores, which had closed for the day, and gave us Buenas noches as we passed. We camped beside the river half a mile beyond the town, and enjoyed at night a fine entertainment of summer lightning that played along the northern, horizon. Lightning is something of a rarity in California.

Capistrano — to use the common abbreviation — is the most interesting small town in California. The reason is that it has remained Californian in the old sense, that is to say, Spanish, Mexican, and Indian. I suppose five-sixths of the inhabitants are of those races, and the remnant is a motley of Basques, Germans, French, and Jews. Judge E., who is the Justice of the Peace and the effective Squire of the place, is an American, certainly, but if you should ask his name you would be told, Don Ricardo. Capistrano's threescore or so of houses are mostly adobes, its stores are tiendas, its meat-markets carnicerías, its weekly function a baile, its celebrations fiestas, and the autumnal employment of its people pizcando nueces in the walnut orchards which fill the lower valley of the San Juan.

But the great charm of Capistrano lies in its Mission. Here stood what must have been the most beautiful of all that chain of twenty-one churches which in the last decades of the eighteenth century rose like a monkish dream on the gentle landscape of California, culminated in a unique but momentary success, and sank quickly into decay under the exploitation of successive governors of the Spanish and Mexican régimes. An omen of the general catastrophe fell early on the Mission of San Juan Capistrano when, in 1812, the great domed church, shaken by an earthquake, crashed down in hideous collapse upon the congregation as they knelt at their devotions. There remains now a ruin of singular beauty: owl-haunted colonnades of crumbling arches, clustered pillars on whose broken filletings the thoughtful moonlight loves to linger, a fragment of the dome showing still the quaint frescoes of the Indian artisans, and a little nondescript campanile of four bells, the pride of old Acú, hereditary ringer of bells to San Juan.

The padre, a cultivated, kindly young Kentuckian, made us heartily welcome to the hospitality of the quiet old place. We spread our blankets among the rustling wild oats of the quadrangle, and consorted for a few nights with the ghosts of neophytes of a century ago. The days passed quickly, Eytel's in sketching, mine in exploring with the padre the few remaining treasures of the library, — slender tomes in rough sheepskin, like tall, pale old gentlemen, written closely in Spanish with records of christenings and burials, each volume devoutly rounded off with its "Laus Deo," a triumph of flamboyant calligraphy; ancient sets of Bossuet and Massillon; breviaries, missals, what-not; — all endued with that odor of sanctity which is neither Catholic nor Protestant, the sanctity of age and bygone human usage.