A Window on the Wilderness
Fall Equinox 2001 || Volume IV, Number 3
|Following the Trail of J. Smeaton Chase|
his marks the final installment of J. Smeaton Chase's epic ride through the Northern Santa Lucia; from his first setting hoof in the waters of the San Carpoforo to finally crossing over, by bridge, the "wide, shallow stream called the Carmel." In this installment Chase passes through Big Sur proper, follows the old county road over the ridge into the Little Sur country, makes a side-trip to the Point Sur Lighthouse, and visits with Al Clark at his homestead on the south fork Little Sur before following the wagon road northward toward the urbanization of the Monterey peninsula. Those readers who feel left in the lurch by our not continuing the series further northward take heart - another reprint of this classic book has recently hit the market, and can be purchased online via barnesandnoble.com.
In the last installment of this series we rode with Chase from Pacific Valley on the south coast to Castro Canyon in Big Sur. If you haven't yet read that chapter, we recommend that you do so right now. Also highly recommended as background for this excerpt is a reading of Phil Williamson's excellent review of Chase's book.
An Excerpt From
California Coast Trails
J. Smeaton Chase
First published by Houghton Mifflin Company, New York in 1913,
and reprinted in 1987 by Tioga Publishing Company, Palo Alto.
Reprinted again in 2001 by The Narrative Press, Santa Barbara.
he change from sidehill trail to graded road, agreeable enough to Anton, gave me some regrets as implying a tamer country. For the first time for some days I got into the saddle and rode. The morning and the road were both delicious. A cool air came from the sea, which we now left out of sight, and the scents from bay, redwood, and underbrush were spicy and stimulating. The road wound downward between the wooded ridge that shut the ocean from sight and high, steep hills of yellowed grass, slashed, as ever, with timbered cañons. Unwelcome signs of what, I suppose, we must call civilization, began to occur in the guise of warnings against "hunting, fishing, or camping on this ranch."
From time to time I caught the sound of a large stream running in the cañon below, and before long we dropped into the valley of the Big Sur River and came upon a little Noah's Ark affair, with "Post Office" painted upon it. This place has long been known as "Post's," after an early settler, but lately some person with a craving for change has persuaded the authorities to rename it "Arbolado," a monstrosity of mongrel Spanish of which the department should not have been guilty. From here a stage runs on alternate days to and from Monterey, twenty-five miles to the northward.
For five charming miles the road accompanied the stream under grateful shade of redwoods mottled with golden green of filtered sunlight. Then, climbing in long curves, it opened a fine view of the valley of the Sur, lying open, as on a map, the stream itself hidden in deep forest almost to where a bar of surf marked its meeting with the ocean. A strong wind was blowing from the water, and as the fog broke away from time to time the warring white-clawed waves could be seen far out at sea. Near by, and on my left, stood the lonely rock of Point Sur, its summit hidden in mists; and on the other side rose a striking white mountain called Pico Blanco, the second highest point of the range. It looked strangely white, almost as though it were snow-covered, against the blue of the eastern sky. From north and west, masses of gray sea-wrack came driving every moment in imposing volume, and, encountering some opposing air current, maintained a sullen battle among the hills.
Descending the steep grade we entered the beautiful cañon of the Little Sur, where, to my surprise, I found a mountain hotel and a "resort" of tents on the bank of the river. The place was deserted by the summer visitors, for September had now begun; but hay was there, and I judged it best to stay for the night, for fodder was now the matter of first importance in my calculations.
I devoted the rest of the day to a visit to the lighthouse at the Point, five miles away. The afternoon was delightful, with a clear sun and a Kiplingesque sort of wind; and Anton, relieved for once of impediments, bethought himself of his Arizona youth, and was bent upon rounding up all the cattle he saw on the hillsides. The ocean was of a splendid, windy purple, though far to seaward the fog lay furled along the horizon in a band of pearly gray. Quail whistled in the brushy gullies, and overhead the gulls strained and screamed against the wind.
A little black steamer was shouldering her way doggedly up coast, the white water churning by her sides and the smoke tearing away from her funnels as she fought her way along. I suppose that Ruskin, in his quaint dogmatism, would not have included the smoky little bull-dog in his eulogy of the SeaBoat, but it seemed to me to show all the dutiful hardihood that roused his admiration, "baring its breast, moment after moment, against the unwearied enmity of ocean; the subtle, fitful, implacable smiting of the black waves, provoking each other on endlessly, ... still striking them back into a wreath of smoke and futile foam, and winning its way against them, and keeping its charge of life from them."
The Point is an abrupt rock connected with the shore by an isthmus of sand. A narrow path cut in the rock leads up to the lighthouse buildings. Anton was excited when he saw the surf crashing below him, and gazed from it to me with an "I say, you know!" kind of expression that was comically human. I was kindly received by the lighthouse folk, and shown over their spick-and-span domain. The light, which is a powerful one of the "first order," stands two hundred and forty feet above the water, - rather too high, I was told, since at that height the fog is more frequent and dense than nearer the surface.
In the course of a walk up the stream next morning, I came upon an original who for many years has lived a Robinson Crusoe life in a coign high up on the cañon wall. His ramshackle dwelling was more shed than house, and I found the ancient himself seated beside it, in a rather alarming state of undress, under the shelter of an umbrella which he had hung obliquely from the roof to intercept the morning sun. With his bright blue eyes, skin originally ruddy but now tanned to Indian hue, and shock of long white hair, he made a most odd appearance.
He was talking to himself as I approached, but hailed me hospitably to come in and sit down for a chat. The chatting was a passive affair on my side, for he himself did not cease talking for a moment, and after one or two vain attempts to stop him, I only sat and listened. His great topic was minerals, concerning which he had a theory, new to me, that every metal has a father and a mother. This great discovery had been revealed to him by an old Indian woman, once of these parts, who had bequeathed him a "map," by which, he declared, he was able to make his theory effective. To discount the palpable discrepancy between his apparently poor circumstances and his potential wealth, he explained that he cared nothing for actual money, being content with knowing that he could at any time procure it: a philosophy which, as he appeared to hold it sincerely, was an admirable one, and worthy to be recommended to our captains of finance.
The wind blew more strongly after sundown, and tassels of foliage from the redwoods overhead came thumping all night on the tent in which I slept. It was blowing half a gale when in the morning we took the road, which, after crossing the Little Sur River, climbed a long rise that brought us again into company with the sea.
The birds had collected in the sheltered cañons and their unusual numbers made those parts of the way specially attractive. So steep were the sides of some of the cañons that where the road ran high up on the wall, I could look down upon the tops of the redwoods close below me as if I were an aviator; and the scent that came up from the forest was such as (to speak it humbly) I hope to find in heaven.
In one cañon I found a school-house, the first I had passed for a week, and a post-office named Sur. The latter gave no token of its use, for mail-boxes and sign-board had gone out to sea together during the winter rains. When I learned that the stream was Mill Creek, I wondered how many more of that name I was to meet. I think Mill Creeks in California could be numbered by the score.
All day the road wound along a rocky shore, beside a bright sea broken by surf-ringed islets and the glistening fringe of kelp that lies for league on league unbroken along this coast. To landward still rose the monotonous drab hills sprinkled with gray sagebushes or grayer outcroppings of rock. At long intervals, stark-looking ranch-houses appeared, but there was little travel on the road, and the human voice was still a rarity to the ear. Wreaths of fog came drifting in now and then from the sea, and the faint coughing of the syren at Point Sur, miles in the rear, seemed to add to the loneliness of the scene.
On rounding a bend I saw the hills before me crested darkly with pines. Even at three miles' distance their vigorous manner of growth marked them as of the radiata species, and I knew by that token that we were coming to the neighborhood of Monterey, where, almost alone, the tree is native.
It was nearing sundown, and I should have been glad to camp among them, but again the necessity of fodder forbade, and I turned in at the next ranch to inquire the prospects for a night's lodging. The Portuguese woman received me kindly and found me a bed in a little outhouse. The husband was away, but five jolly children took possession of me with such enthusiasm that it was evident that a visitor was regarded as a prize of the first degree. In five minutes Avelino was on my back, Ernesto and Braulio were punching me jovially, Angeles of the soft brown eyes was filling my hands with her best-beloved flowers, and fat José was planning a rescue in order to show me a phenomenal farrow of pigs. Supper was an uproarious event, and afterwards the whole battery of phonograph records was ground off for my delight.
I left them next morning while the boys were milking the herd of thirty cows, and dear little Angeles, in enormous sunbonnet and gloves, skirmished about waiting to carry the pails to the milkhouse. It was a superlative morning, with neither wind nor fog. The first hint of autumn was abroad in some elusive fashion, though in brilliancy the day was more like May than September. The sea was a splendor of deep Mediterranean blue, and broke in such dazzling freshness of white that one might have thought it had been that day created. How amazing it is, that the ancient ocean, with its age-long stain of cities and traffic, toil and blood, can still be so bright, so uncontaminated, so heavenly pure! It seems an intentional parable of Divinity, knowing and receiving all, evil as well as good, yet through some deathless principle itself remaining forever right, strong, and pure, the Unchanging Good.
Pines grew here along the cliff, outlining with tawny stem and dark magnificence of foliage the most exquisite of vistas. The coast was broken by little bays full of brown seaweed that rose and fell indolently with the slow breathing of the sea. Islets were scattered along as if they had been dropped like pebbles out of a full hand. I do not think there can be anywhere on our shores a more enchanting piece of coast than this and the next ten miles to the north. It is the acme of what is generally named the romantic in sea scenery, and is calculated, I should think, to throw an artist into a frenzy in which he would paint one final and conscious masterpiece, then close color-box, camp-stool, and umbrella, and hurl them all over the cliff together.
Noon found us at Point Lobos. It is a superb headland overgrown with pines and cypresses that lean in perilous balance over the crashing sea, or stand statuesquely on rocky ledges, ideally pictorial. The cypresses are monarchical fellows, wonderful in size and evident age, and Lear-like in their storm-thrawn attitudes. Like the pines, they are strict natives of this locality, and give a unique charm to this delightful coast. By their manner of growth they reminded me of the monumental yews of English churchyards; and, indeed, there is much of the same solemnity in their gnarled stems, far-reaching, bony arms, and rich but gloomy foliage.
I was courteously entertained at lunch by the owner of the ranch which includes this enviable piece of coast, and then pursued my way, soon crossing a bridge over the wide, shallow stream called the Carmel. A beautiful valley here opens inland. I had long wished to explore it, as well as to try my flies on the river, which has a good reputation among fishermen. But Anton was badly in need of a blacksmith, now near at hand, and I decided to keep the road towards Monterey.