CALIFORNIA COAST TRAILS
CHAPTER XX

Big Bert — Odd names — The lowland fir — Wild flowers — Point Arena: the lot of lumber towns — The Alder Creek dispute — Greenwood — Gray weather — Autumn colors — Navarro, a deserted village — A confidence concerning Albion — Little River: blessings on that little girl! — Mendocino City — Fort Bragg — Rain again — Scotch hospitality — A fine surf — Sunday at Hardy Creek.

IN passing the Gualala I had left Sonoma for Mendocino County. At first I thought I would fish this tempting-looking river, and stay the night in the town, but the gloom of the place was rather terrifying, and I went on to see what the next stopping-place might offer. A mile or two brought me to it, the usual inn-saloon combination, kept by a massive Italian from whom the place had received the name "Big Bert."

He was a hearty fellow, his wife comely and smiling, and the house clean and comfortable. I enjoyed my eggs and macaroni with these good people, and passed a pleasant evening by their fireside under the eyes of the late King Humbert and his consort, whose portraits looked down from the wall. After we had all gone to bed a party of musical Italianos arrived with accordions, and hammered for admission. It was almost daylight before the festivities ended with "0 Italia!" and a final catastrophe of glassware.

The same picturesque coast continued next day. Castellated islets and peninsulas alternated every mile with romantic little bays. Here and there along the cliff tan-bark and railway ties were piled. The map of the coast is thickly marked with names, but most of them relate to lumbering settlements that have vanished with the marketable timber of the immediate locality. Some of these tiny places bore odd names: for instance, during the morning I passed Rough and Ready, and Hard Scratch. Others, less striking but more attractive, were Anchor Bay, Signal Port, Fish Rock, and Schooner Gulch.

It was Election Day, and among the amendments to the State Constitution to be voted on was one to introduce Woman Suffrage. From several electioneering buggies, driven by capable-looking women, that passed me, I guessed that Mendocino County, far as it is out of the general ruck of politics, was not to be left out of account in the Great Sex Revolution.

In the cañons hereabout I began to meet a new coniferous tree, the lowland fir (Abies grandis). It resembles so much the white fir of the mountain regions of the State that I mistook it at first for that tree. Like the other members of the family, it suffers much distortion from the winds in these exposed positions, and shows little of that aristocratic trimness which is such a feature of the fir family in general.

In token of the higher latitude and moister climate that I was entering I had lately noticed wild violets growing here and there by the roadside; whether belated from last season or in advance of the next, I could not tell. To-day I met also a number of our handsome poppies (Eschscholtzia), and of another very beautiful flower, new to me, much like the rein-orchis of our mountains.

To-day's march was an easy one of only fifteen miles. About noon I rode into the town of Point Arena, and put up at the only hotel that remains open for business out of some half-dozen whose signs I met as I passed up the street. The place seems to be threatened with the fate of Gualala. A townsman of forty years' standing reported that it now had fewer people than when he had come there. But it is the common lot of lumbering settlements; they are suicides by profession. Point Arena is still the headquarters of a considerable lumber company, but probably they, in turn, are dependent upon the caprices of greater financial interests, and I would not give much for the town's place on the map twenty years hence.

The country here becomes rather more open, with a wider strip of level land running back from the shore. For some distance next day I passed through a region of farms that occupy the low, broad valley of the Garcia River. But before long the high timbered ridges again drew to the coast. A few miles to the northwest of the town is the headland of Point Arena. In the distance I could see the tall white shaft of the lighthouse, recently built to replace the former one, destroyed by the earthquake of 1906.

A place with the ambitious name of Manchester proved to consist of six cottages, a store and post-office, and a picturesque weather-beaten church on a hill. Here I met one of the principal actors in what promised at the time to become a notorious affair. I had read in newspapers, months before, of a feud which had arisen between the settlers on Alder Creek (the next creek to the northward) and a lumber company operating in the region. This man was one of the settlers. I think he at first suspected from my semi-military equipment that I might have some relation to the dispute. At least, he accosted me when we met on the road, and finding that I was only an interested member of the public, he gave, at my request, his own version of the case. It was to this effect: —

In the year 1891 a number of squatters came into the Alder Creek country. The land at that time had not been surveyed, and so was not technically open to settlement. Two years later the tract was declared open, and the men in a body went down to San Francisco to "file" on their respective claims according to law. They were met with the statement that their claims could not be entered, as the land in point was covered by a prior claim. The squatters, suspicious, rightly or wrongly, of the good faith of the statement, and thinking (for such things have happened) that the official might be simply the mouthpiece of some lumber "interests" whose eyes were on this fine tract of timber, brought suit to clear up the point. That suit, after the lapse of eighteen years, had not been decided.

The men meanwhile lived quietly on their claims, until latterly the lumber company in question had raised a definite claim to the land, and had undertaken to eject the settlers by force. The latter held their ground. The company thereupon hired a score or so of "gun fighters," and brought them upon the disputed territory; and for six weeks (at the time of our conversation) it had been touch-and-go day by day, with prospects of bloodshed on a considerable scale at any moment. Two weeks before, my informant, acting for the squatters, had petitioned the authorities at Washington that a force of deputy marshals be sent to keep the peace, pending a legal settlement of the quarrel; which seemed to me a reasonable request. When I met him he was on his way to Point Arena in hope of hearing that something was to be done.

These were the facts as he gave them. I do not, of course, vouch for them. But what a request to have to make! Here were thirty men or thereabouts at gun's point for six weeks, and the case notorious; yet no step had been taken by any authority, State or Federal, to prevent bloodshed. It does not sound a creditable episode to occur in the United States in the year 1911.

Alder Creek itself, where I forded it close to the mouth, looked peaceful enough, with two fly-fishers and an automobile that had "gone dead" in midstream. The four passengers, up to their knees in water, were working, literally like beavers, to push the heavy machine up the bank. I saw no look of sympathy for them in Anton's expressive eye.

Streams are plentiful all along this timbered coast. At almost every mile we crossed some creek or gulch or river, and the views up these cañons were always delightful. Narrow-gauge railways have been built a few miles up many of them, to bring the lumber down to the coast at one of the numerous landings. Both railways and landings in many cases are disused, and only serve to illustrate the folly of the hasty exploitation which the forests of the country in general have suffered.

At Elk River a mill and railway were in full operation, and the wide stream was blocked with logs that were awaiting their turn under the screaming saws. Two miles farther on, we entered the little town of Greenwood, and finding an inn (conducted, like most of the business of the place, by the lumber company of the locality) we put up for the night. The house was rather dismal, but things were enlivened by the pretty Swedish girl who waited at table. She spoke English with difficulty, and evidently was new to her work, but she took such innocent enjoyment in her own awkwardness that the whole table was put into the best of humor.

The next morning was a specially delightful one, genial, yet pensive, even "soulful": one of those days when, as some one has said, "our very sensations turn to reverie." The tree armies that crowded the eastern ridge stood in sooty blackness against a sky of thoughtful gray, yellowed with stray shafts from the hidden sun. A gently breathing sea broke in quiet thunder at the base of the cliff, or licked and coiled about the dark rocks and islets with a sort of playful but ponderous inertia. Once or twice a vessel, far out, showed like a phantom through the haze. I find, somehow, like Thoreau, that "my spirits infallibly rise in proportion to the outward dreariness"; and, dark as the day was, my joy rose another point whenever we passed into the denser shade of the cañons. I suppose I was born under some gloomy aspect of planets: at least, if not, I must totally and forever disbelieve in astrology. Now and then we passed a little farm, and men at work in the fields would stop to wonder at the sight of a solitary traveller riding along and scribbling as he went, or reining up to gaze raptly about him or up into the sky. There seemed a peculiar beauty in the sallow, faded herbage, and the wild cry of the flicker, always a favorite sound, came to-day with an added thrill.

It was by now full autumn, and the vegetation had taken on those warm and thoughtful hues that make the season so pleasing. How gracious are these deep and sensitive tones, — the gravity of umber, the dignity of sienna, the mild magnificence of madder, the serenity of gray! One may call spring the lyric, summer the epic, and winter the dirge of the color year. Autumn is the elegy, the quiet re-consideration, the rich maturity of experience.

After passing a tiny settlement bearing the Dickensian name of Cuffey's Cove, a few miles brought me to the Navarro River and a deserted village of gray and weathered houses. I call it deserted, for I saw no one about the place, nor smoke rising from any chimney in token of human life and comfort or the baking of bread; though a few skirmishing pigs and chickens seemed to imply at least one inhabitant. The situation was beautiful, — a deep valley with a wide, winding river; and the eucalyptus trees and dracæna palms in the gardens showed the owners' expectation of remaining. But lumber and lumber companies had ruled otherwise. Most of the buildings were out of plumb; the church leaned at an alarming angle; and a loon swimming leisurely in the middle of the stream seemed to certify the solitude of the place.

Concerning the next place I came to, I invite the reader to share a little confidence. My map gave its name as Albion, and, Englishman as I am, I felt a particular interest in the place that bore that name. So it was with something like horror that I noted the two or three rickety shacks, the wreck of a wharf, the former store, now a dirty saloon with two profane old men loafing on the porch, and the hangdog "barkeep" playing cards with a couple of boys within. Could this be a parable of my native land? It was quite a shock, and I went on not a little depressed. A mile farther, and I turned a corner; — o behold! a fine little town, all buzzing and humming with life, steam whizzing, saws shrieking, locomotive bustling about with cars of lumber, trim schooner at wharf, men wiping perspiring brows, and everything thriving. This was the place, after all: the other was Whitesboro', when it was anything. And down at the river's mouth was a little purple bay, all a-glitter with wind and surf. It was a microcosm of the real Albion, and I rejoiced at the sight, as I hope, friendly American reader, you would have done if the circumstance had happened to you on your travels, meeting some foreign Columbia or Washington.

The piece of coast between Albion and the next place, Little River, seemed to me almost the finest I had seen. Such headlands, black and wooded, such purple seas, such vivid blaze of spray, such fiords and islets, — a painter would be ravished with it. Little River itself is a pretty, straggling village of high gabled houses with quaint dormers and windows, and red roses clambering all about. Apple trees were gleaming with ruddy fruit, and the pines about the school-house were full of chattering children out for recess. One little girl of eleven or twelve, not specially pretty, but childlike and therefore lovely, smiled up at me as I passed, and wished me "Good-morning." Heaven bless that little girl! Such a thing is better than a thousand dollars to a bachelor.

Then Mendocino City came into view, making a brave show with its red and white houses, schools, and churches, ranged on a long promontory above a bay at the mouth of Big River. Here I stopped for an hour to give Anton a rest and a feed at the stable. He had travelled excellently to-day, cantering gaily along without so much as a suggestion from me. His respected predecessor, Chino, never once offered to do such a thing of his own free will, and it was not always easy to persuade him to it.

As I walked about the town, I noticed bills posted with the announcement, "The Albion Lumber-jacks will give a Masked Ball on Wednesday Evening. Prizes for Best Costumes, Ladies and Gentlemen. Come one, come a Thousand, and have a Bully Good Time. Supper at 12.15." I hoped that the thousand would come and the good time be bullier than their best expectations.

Some four miles farther on, I passed a short distance east of Point Cabrillo, with its small light-house. Another mile brought me to Casper River, which I found blocked with great logs, and agile lumbermen with "peavies" extricating them one by one. The river above the little town looked very inviting, flowing slow and wide between high walls of timber. Again I lamented that the difficulty of fodder for my horse made it impossible for me to explore it, or even to camp for the night. Darkness was falling as we passed through the village of Noyo, lying prettily on a neck of land between Hare and Noyo Creeks. Anton was tired, and I would willingly have stopped if there had been any inn at the place. As it was, I had to urge him on a few miles farther, and it was after nightfall when we came wearily into the thriving little town of Fort Bragg, the advertisements of whose enterprising merchants had appeared on the roadside fences for the last fifty miles.

It was a dull morning, with a southerly wind that threatened rain, when I left Fort Bragg next day. The sea was heavy, and the coast was obscured at a short distance by a haze of flying spray. Before I reached the hamlet of Cleone, a few miles up, it was raining, with no inn in prospect for fifteen miles unless I turned back to Fort Bragg. This I could not bring myself to do, so pushed on in hope of some chance shelter.

The coast north of Fort Bragg runs for several miles in dunes of sand. In places these are fully fifty feet high, and I was told that they are encroaching on the land at the rate of several rods a year. Coming to a ranch lying in the rear of these sand-hills, and the rain giving no sign of ceasing, I determined to inquire the prospects for accommodation. The good Scotch people received me as though I had been an expected friend; and as the rain continued, I spent both day and night with them. It was rare and pleasant to hear grace before meat said by the father, and the good fare seemed all the better for the observance.

The morning came fair, and I took the road with friendly farewells from the kind Scots. A warm sun drew a haze from the wet ground and their finest scents from the grateful vegetation. For some distance the sea was hidden by hills of sand, but the roll of heavy surf reverberated from a mile away. At Ten Mile River a rocky coast again began, the road along the cliff-edge affording a fine spectacle of green combers, black rocks, and creamy smother of spray. Far to the north I caught glimpses of the Humboldt coast as it ran out westward.

Hour after hour the hills on my right rose crested continuously with serried conifers, while to the left sounded ever the rush and mutter of the surge. The surf here was particularly fine, with six or seven long white lines marching always to the attack. Wherever a rock was encountered, the effect was as though, in a battle, a man here and there threw up his hands and fell, while his comrades closed up and pushed on unchecked.

Anton's steady pace and the monotonous roar of water drew me into a kind of dream in which I seemed to see the ships of the great explorers of this coast as they passed in the offing. I imagined captains and men gazing curiously at the lonely coast, speculating upon the inhabitants, noting eagerly every curve of bay and height of forbidding cliff, scanning rock and surf, and wondering at the unbroken forest that ran for league on league along the mountain horizon. The fascination of the explorer's life is an easy thing to understand.

About noon I passed the little settlement of Westport. Huge piles of planks and ties were stacked ready for shipping, and a coasting steamer lay a mile offshore waiting her chance to run in for loading. At the mouth of almost every creek along this coast there is some tiny lumber settlement, and here and there beside the road were piles of ties that had been brought down the rough tracks that I saw leading off into the forest.

A long steep grade at length turned inland. From the summit I looked down through a screen of dwarfed firs and redwoods upon the busy little town of Hardy Creek. It was only mid-afternoon, but the situation and the neat hotel looked so attractive that I determined to put up for the night and the following day, which would be Sunday. The place consists of a score or two of cottages scattered along the bottom of a deep cañon up which runs a little railway. The cañon's mouth, where a small stream flows out, was filled with a triangle of bluest sea. I climbed up the hillside at evening and bathed in a fiery glow of sunset that lighted up the stately trees as if by a conflagration.

Here I passed a quiet Sunday in the ever-satisfying companionship of trees. It was the l5th of October and the day on which the quail-shooting season opens: consequently the male population of the place had betaken themselves early to the hills. Only one or two old fellows haunted the veranda of the hotel and poisoned the sweetness of the day with a contest of fancy profanity. In the evening I walked down to the mouth of the cañon and came upon the three saloons which compete for the wages of the lumber-jacks of Hardy Creek. Squads of their patrons were lurching and howling from door to door. I think I am no fanatic: yet I believe I could look on quite cheerfully if some retributive disaster would ruin the harpies who suck these poor fellows so unmercifully.