CALIFORNIA COAST TRAILS
CHAPTER V

Northward bound — San Fernando: its Mission — The San Fernando Valley — Topanga Cañon — Wild flowers — A wayside Thomas — The coast — Dana's opinion of San Pedro — North-Westward Ho! — The Malibu: "No Trespassing" — Shoreside sheep — I am an object of compassion — The pro and con of solitude — Camp by the ocean-edge.

THE middle of May of the next year after my expedition with Eytel southward from Los Angeles found me again in the saddle. This time I was alone, and northward bound. My appetite for practical geography had been only whetted by the fraction I had seen of the coast-line of the State, and I felt bound now to complete the unit.

I had the same horse and much the same equipment as before, the principal difference being that to save weight I carried no gun, but instead a short-jointed fly-rod (which found frequent use). Also I had had made a little tent of very light oiled material, fitted with jointed aluminum poles, the whole weighing about six pounds. This was in view of the fact that the rainy season might overtake me before I completed the trip. For a great part of the journey I did not carry it with me, but had it sent forward to San Francisco ready for the expected change of climate. Again my starting-point was El Monte, where my good Chino had just enjoyed a liberal vacation in pasture.

I took a somewhat circuitous route to the coast, and for two reasons. In the first place, I was willing to forego the sight of that galaxy of seashore pleasure towns, Santa Monica, Redondo, Long Beach, San Pedro, and several more, which, in the exuberant metaphor of real estate circulars, "are flung like a tribute of gems at the feet of imperial Los Angeles"; in the second, I wished to visit the Mission of San Fernando, lying twenty miles northwest of Los Angeles and half as much more from my point of departure.

I had a long ride and a hot day for my start. and Chino's load was no light one. I rode by way of Pasadena and the Cañada which connects the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys, and put up for the night at the little town of San Fernando. The next day being Sunday I remained about the place, while Chino, in stable, made industrious preparations for strenuous days at hand.

The Mission of San Fernando, which was founded in 1797, probably never had as great claims to notice, on the score of beauty, as had some others of these interesting monuments; but the heavy low building, with its long line of arches, red-tiled roof, and elementary campanile, is pleasing for its simplicity, and seems appropriate to the humility of the order of St. Francis. The church itself is in ruins, and shows plain evidences of the unhallowed industry of treasure-seekers with crowbars. An old Mexican now guards the place, unlocking for a small payment wormy doors with fiddle-like keys, and leading the visitor by precarious stairways to mouldy lofts and cellars, peopled with shades of priest and neophyte, comandante and soldado de cuero.

The San Fernando Valley, through which I rode next day. is an example of those famous ranches in which the lands of California were held by grantees of the Spanish or Mexican Government. This was one of the last of them to remain unbroken, and was now in process of being surveyed for selling off to settlers of the new order. It opened before me m league on league of grain, waving ready for harvest. a crop to be measured by the thousands of tons. The landscape flickered under an ardent sun and as we plodded hour after hour along the tedious straight roads, escorted by clouds of pungent dust, I panted for the clean, crisp breezes which I knew were blowing just beyond the low range of the Santa Monica Mountains to the south. No single tree offered respite of shade, and the two or three ranch-houses we passed looked almost hideous in their blistering whitewash.

Gradually the valley began to close m toward the west, where the wooded Simi Hills rose to meet the higher Santa Susanas; and turning at last southward I struck into the main coast road, and came by sundown to the little village of Calabasas. drawing rein before a small building which bore the sign of the Hunter's Inn.

Automobiles were whizzing about like cockchafers, and the landlord, after a careless word in answer to my inquiry for board and lodging, turned his attention to the superior order of travellers, leaving me to arrange where and how I pleased for both my horse and myself. At the third request he condescended to show me to a room, which made amends by its pleasing rusticity. There was a wren in occupation, and a great oak tapped with friendly fingers on window and roof. Supper, when at last it came, showed host and hostess in a better light, so that conversation ran agreeably. The night was made pleasant by a sound as of rain on the roof from the drops condensed from the fog by my sociable oak.

When I took the road early next morning, the fog still hung over the landscape in wreaths of thoughtful gray broken to east and south by auspicious gleams of sun. A superb freshness lay upon every leaf and flower, and the very stones of the highway appeared to share the improvement. The road now struck directly down to the coast, following the Topanga Cañon, and the way was enlivened by a thread of water which grew quickly into a sizable brook. I was impressed by the ruggedness of the mountain slopes, which rose in striking mass and contour, and in places pushed the road into a mere defile, overhung by precipices of fine height and verticality. At the northern end of the cañon are many neat little hillside farms, mainly of Mexicans, and the dust of the road was plentifully marked by the scamperings of children's naked feet.

The summer was at its full of flowers. The beautiful tree-poppy grew freely in many places, bearing shallow cups of palest gold at twice a man's height. By the roadside bloomed the great golden Mariposa tulip, flecked with brown, a truly magnificent blossom. Mountain lilac was just breaking into clouds of fragrant azure, and wild roses, daintily simple, gleamed from every thicket. (I always feel that the wandering Briton owes a special debt to Nature for the wide dissemination of this delightful flower, which greets him in so many alien lands.) Poppies, mimulus, brodiæas, and many more added their cheerful colors to the summer show.

There were few travellers on the road, but while I stopped to lunch by a little stream that came in at a bend of the cañon, an old man came by, driving a wagon, and turned in for the midday rest at the same spot. We fell into chat upon such universal topics as crops, aëroplanes, and local politics, and grew quite cordial over the Sugar Trust. I saw that my friend's attention had been caught by Chino's equipment, but it was not until I was ready to move on that he brought out the inevitable "Whar you bound for?" When I replied "To Oregon," I saw a look of annoyance come into his face. I had already found that my expedition appeared a formidable one to the average stay-at-home, but this old fellow was a frank unbeliever. "Whar did you say?" he inquired again, sternly this time. "Oregon," I answered; "why not?" But he felt sure now that he was being trifled with, and the only response to my parting "Good-day" was a mortified grunt.

The former day's travel had been a pretty hard one for us both, and I determined to make this one correspondingly light. So when by mid-afternoon we came near the mouth of the cañon (as I knew by the distant sound of breakers), I stopped at a little opening and pitched camp. The stream contained some fair-sized trout, and a half-hour's fishing produced my supper. A ruminative evening by the camp-fire closed the day. I turned in betimes, and lay once more, as many times last year, listening to the murmur of the sea, which was now again to be my great monologuist for perhaps half a year.

I was astir by first daylight, and was early on the way to the mouth of the cañon. As I reached the top of a little rise, the roar of the sea close by met me with a sort of boisterous friendliness, like the welcome of some tremendous mastiff. Looking eastward from the cliff on which I stood, I could see the long wharf at Santa Monica, and, beyond, a long curve of shore that ran to the Palos Verdes and the promontory of Point Fermin. Beyond that lay the town of San Pedro, detested of Dana, who in 1835 reported it as being "universally called the hell of California," and who himself wrote of it that "This rascally hole of San Pedro is unsafe in every wind but a southwester, which is seldom known to blow more than once in half a century." Now, three quarters of a century later, the "rascally hole" is in process of becoming a great port, with a much wider range of interests than the shipping of "California bank-notes" (as Dana calls the hides which formed the return cargo of the Pilgrim). Turning to the west, my eye followed the long reaches of broken cliff along which ran my road, until the land view was closed by the low yellow cape of Point Dume.

I lingered here a few minutes while I enjoyed the occasion, for here my northern coast trip was actually to begin. It seemed in a modest way momentous to be turning my face northward and westward; and I surveyed in fancy the long leagues of coast which I was to travel, to where, instead of languid dunes and sunburned brush, I should ride by stalwart cliffs and through stately alleys of forest. There was deep pleasure in the prospect. Thoreau says that the southwest was his point of inclination for travel, and enlarges, in his ingenious way, upon the reasons for his preference. For me it is always the northwest that captures my imagination. "The West is but another name for the Wild," Thoreau remarks; and in the same fanciful way the North seems to me somehow to signify the Noble. Was not the Northwest Passage always a natural goal for enterprise and gallantry? Farewell, then, I said, land of the South and sea of the South; and welcome the ultimate West, and the dark, the gray, the solitary North.

My Chino, meanwhile, free from such unpractical abstractions, was employing his leisure with the cliffside herbage. He is an engaging creature, and we had many sentiments, and even conversations, together, sharing confidences upon the quality of the water, or the state of the roads, and other such matters of mutual interest. Automobiles, naturally, were often a topic, and I may say that Chino's views on that subject, which may easily be guessed, were quite my own.

Turning, then, westward, a few miles of pleasant road brought us to the entrance to the Malibu Ranch, a long strip of land lying between the southward-facing foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains and the shore. At the gate was posted a warning that Trespassing was Strictly Prohibited. I knew that public right of way through the ranch had long been contested by the owners, and I had been warned that I might find my way disputed by their myrmidons with shotguns. But there was nothing except the passive placard to prevent my entering, and I passed in with little doubt of making an equally peaceable exit at the western end.

On a limb of a sycamore that overhung the road a large cross was roughly cut. It marks the place of one of the many commonplace tragedies of early California days. Some horsethief, name now unknown, was hanged there. Perhaps it would be better to say, some alleged horsethief, for mistakes no doubt occurred on occasions when somebody had to hang, and quickly, too; and when Justice, playing a sort of hide-and-seek, might let her sword fall suddenly upon any member of the free-and-easy community, who was so unwise as to get in the way. The hard sand beach here offered a tempting road along the water's edge, and I turned Chino down to it. He was a little averse at first to facing the burst of the rollers and stepping into the hissing froth, but he soon caught the idea, and with arched neck and gay bearing splashed through the wash of the breakers, and kicked the creamy fans of water into sparkling showers.

I had seen only one or two people on the road that day, and it seemed as if we were quite the only trespassers, until I saw a mass of whitish objects approaching and heard a new sound mingling with the lazy booming of the sea. As we came nearer I saw that it was a band of sheep, which were being driven along the beach by a mounted Mexican, aided by dogs. It seemed odd to see these pastoral creatures marching composedly along on Neptune's frontier, nibbling at seaweed, their voices rising in plaintive crescendo above the recitative of the surf.

A splendid ram walked with immense dignity at the head of the flock, his long fleece quivering as he stepped, like that great beard of the Prophet by which good Mussulmans swear. The herder rode behind on a lively broncho. We stopped to pass a few words, and I learned that he and his band had come down the coast over a hundred miles, and were bound for the neighborhood of San Juan Capistrano, nearly as far still to the south. The mention of my own destination excited his pity.

"Ah! it makes much cold there. I have heard that it rains always; is it not true?"

I explained that it was not quite so bad as that; but he still gazed at me with compassion, and rejoined with a shrug, —

"Huy! not to see ever the sun! And the fruits and the good wine do not grow there! Huy! such a country! I should not like it."

His sheep had left him far behind while we talked, and he now said Adios, and turned to overtake them. But as he rode away he still shook his head over the thought of a country where it rained always, and the good wine could not grow.

The promontory of Point Dume, like a flattened turret, stands well out to the south about midway of the Malibu. Here the road bent inland for a mile or two, but soon again came down to the shore. Frequent cañons, each of them carrying a small stream of water, broke the seaward slope of the mountains. Evening was drawing near when I found myself at the Trancas Cañon, at the mouth of which lies a small brackish lagoon. Here I found a good camping-place under a great tent-like sycamore. Orioles supplied my supper with music; and a night of balmy airs, with the drowsy rumble of breakers not a hundred yards away, rounded off a highly pleasant day.

The first sound of the morning was the wild cry of gulls as they quarrelled over breakfast. As I ate my solitary flapjacks I was half inclined to wish that it had been possible for me also to quarrel with somebody; but the presence of Chino, grazing hard by, allayed the loneliness for me, as I hope mine did for him. We were early on our march, following the shore under a bright morning sun. I could see, a few miles out, a white steamer making eastward, and waved my good-morning to the passengers who, I took for granted, were gazing toward me, though not exactly at me, from over the side.

The road lay alternately along the beach and the cliff, where yuccas bloomed plentifully among the brush. These white-burnoosed Arabs looked out of place standing here within stone's throw of the ocean, and their exotic scent mingled strangely with the sharp tang of seaweed. Now we pushed through thickets of head-high mustard that dusted us with yellow; next, sunflowers stared at us eye to eye; and again, lavender sage refreshed us with fugitive dashes of perfume. The rattle of machinery came faintly to me, and I could see the mower and his team creeping along high up on the hillside a mile away. It was far too heavenly a day for one to be in a hurry, and I dismounted and removed Chino's bridle, leaving him at liberty to saunter and graze while I sauntered and praised. Only here and there a clump of thorny cactus obtruded a suggestion of evil. I suppose that cactus may have been unknown before the Fall.

One of the compensations to be set against the lack of a companion was that I was free to stop or proceed, hurry or delay, camp here or there, entirely at my own choice (only having regard to my horse's needs as to forage). So when, early in the afternoon, I came to an attractive little stream that ran in a deep cañon filled with sycamores and wind-blown oaks, I paused and considered. The brook chattered happily over the rocks of the beach until it met the sea, like the sudden cutting-off of the life of a child. Close by it was a triangle of clean sand, littered with driftwood; and near at hand there was a space of good fodder. It is not always that things arrange themselves so propitiously: I could make camp not twenty yards from the very verge of the ocean. The opportunity was not to be missed. I got my little tent pitched in spite of a strong breeze which showered me with flying sand; and then spent a lazy afternoon in the society of the gulls, my loquacious little brook, and the indolent roar of breakers.

The wind increased during the evening to a point that made a camp-fire something more than a luxury; so I started a noble blaze and humbly emulated the poet with his "Fire of Driftwood." I found, too, that my little shelter, like his "farmhouse old . . . gave to the sea-breeze, damp and cold, an easy entrance."

Sand makes one of the least desirable of sleeping places, and all night I was consciously or subconsciously aware of the thunder of the waves close by. Once or twice I heard the spray rattling like hail on the tent, or the hiss of the sea-froth as it washed far up on the beach and then sank away into the sand. I had picketed Chino in a more sheltered spot fifty yards away, and, blanketed warmly, I think he passed the night quite as comfortably as his master.

I was up at four o'clock, and broke camp early. The breeze was strong and keen, and an inexhaustible freshness was in the air, as if the world had been created within the week. Gulls and pelicans were fishing busily, and on the horizon two faint smudges marked where steamers were passing. After a few miles more of alternate shore and cliff, we crossed the line into Ventura County, and at the same time bade adieu to the Malibu and its cantankerous but futile placards.