Following the Trail of J. Smeaton Chase
Pacific Valley to Castro Canyon
In the last installment of this series we rode with Chase from Jolon in the San Antonio Valley back over to the coast at Pacific Valley. 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 review of the book originally published in 1913, California Coast Trails.
This installment follows Chase as he leaves Pacific Valley and makes his way along the old county trail up the Big Sur coast, visiting with many of the early homesteaders and even taking a tub at the place we now know as Esalen.
California Coast Trails
First published by Houghton Mifflin Company, New York in 1913,
Camp at Mill Creek - " Tools and the man " - A serpentine trail Lucia, a postal frontier - A lost school-house - The tanbark oak - A Coast Range sunset - Gamboa's Ranch: a rare situation - Sudden changes of scenery - The trail lost again: rough scrambling - Little's Springs: a bath in mid-air - Unseen choristers - Two hundred feet of magazines Camp among the redwoods - Superb trees - Castro's Ranch.
It was a Saturday afternoon when I left Pacific Valley. A few miles up coast the view was closed by the promontory of Lopez Point, on the hither side of which is a stream called Mill Creek, where I proposed camping for Sunday. The afternoon was bright, for a change, and I travelled slowly, revelling in the romping wind and the splendid color-play of the sea. The mountains again rose abruptly from the shore in folds of faded gold that were swept by flying cloudshadows and chequered with clearblocked masses of timber in cañon and on crest. Again I longed to be a painter, - a great painter, one to whom the subjectiveness, the spirituality, of color should be known, and who might transcribe this fine fragment of Nature in all its material and immaterial beauty. There is a largeness and freedom about this little-visited coast that puts the mind under stimulus, and almost rids one of that deadly incubus of experience which so sadly dulls the edge of our impressions.
At Mill Creek I found one of the "landings" which take the place of harbors on this rocky coast, - a crane, cable, and windlass by which freight is sent up or down between cliff and water. I found my friends from the ranch at work at a pile of redwood timbers which they were about to raft down to their own landing. There is no lack of variety in the occupations of the settlers on the coast of the Santa Lucia. "Tools and the man" will be the text of the Virgil of this region. I made camp beside the creek, but the pasturage was so scanty that it was necessary to take Anton a mile farther, to where a Mexican lived from whom I might buy hay. Here Anton was accommodated in the stable, and when, after a pleasant chat, I returned to camp, I carried back a sizable venison steak, pressed upon me by the good people.
The fog was unusually dense at night, and by morning my blankets were soaking. I kept up a roaring fire for comfort till noon, when the weather cleared, and the rest of the day was spent in seeking shady places for relief from the sun. The creek was full of trout, and two hours of the evening sufficed to catch my breakfast and enough to make a fair return for my venison.
The trail next day continued to wind along the cliff, diving every half-mile or so into a wooded cañon and giving a charming alternation of land and sea-scape. If the course of this trail were drawn in bird's-eye fashion it would show a surprising serpentine, and the ratio of air-line distance to actual travelling would be a remarkable one if it were calculated.
In one of the cañons I found the home of an old settler. It made an inviting appearance, with its garden of herbs and flowers and its half-acre of fruits and vegetables. A boy was cleaning a rifle by the gate, and through the open door I could see the owner of the place; a man of so little curiosity that, although I may easily have been the first passer-by for a week, he neither asked nor cared to see who the traveller might be. Usually, the arrival of a stranger would bring out all hands and a host of questions.
In another and deeper cañon known as Lime Kiln Canon I came upon the remains of a considerable building filled with machinery, all now fallen into wreck. The place was a wilderness of ferns, flowers, and noble redwoods, and I had to resist a strong inclination to camp there, backed by Anton on the score of a scanty cropping of green fodder. The climb out was long and strenuous, but Anton did himself credit, and, indeed, I had constant reason to congratulate myself on the exchange I had made.
After some miles of steady travelling my next landmark came in sight far ahead, a farmhouse set high up on the hillside. It was always a relief to find that I was on the right track, for besides being little travelled the trails are much complicated with cattle-trails. The house proved to be also the post office of Lucia, the farthest outpost of the postal service in this direction. Here (on Monday) I mailed letters which, after lying here until Saturday, would be taken to Gorda, where they would wait until the following Saturday before starting for Jolon and the inhabited world.
Now began another stiff climb, compensated by fine expansive views to seaward. I was astonished to find a school up here on this lonely mountain-side. The scholars had just been dismissed and were playing round the neat little building. Of the ten or twelve I saw while I stopped to chat with them, all but two were Mexican, - a fact which helped to explain there being so many children within range, for Mexican families are apt to be a good deal larger than American, and three little homes might easily contribute a dozen or more youngsters of school age.
A couple of miles farther on I came on one such home, - a picturesque, weather-beaten house shaded by fruit trees whose size showed a probable age of some forty years. A tall, white-haired old man who was sitting in the porch came forward and greeted me in Spanish as I reined up, inquiring whether I would not dismount. I was glad to do so, and passed a pleasant half-hour with him and his eldest son. Again I found that the mere mention of having friendly acquaintance with a compatriot was enough to ensure the kindest reception.
It was late afternoon when I got my directions for the next ranch, where I intended to stay for the night. Crossing the deep cañon of Vicente Creek, the trail bore steadily up the mountain-side until it must have reached a height of well over two thousand feet. In the cañons hereabouts the tan-bark oak (Quercus densiflora), that curious link between oak and chestnut, grows freely, and the gathering and shipping of the bark formerly made a considerable industry here, as it still does along the coast farther north. At one spot, known as Tan-Bark Camp, I noticed the remains of a large abandoned encampment.
Higher still, and near the crest, I came into a region of magnificent yellow-pines and redwoods. It was sundown, and the view was a remarkable one. The sun shone level, and with a strange bronze hue, through a translucent veil of fog. Below the fog the surface of the ocean was clear, and was flooded with gorgeous purple by the sunset. On the high crest where I stood, a clear, warm glory bathed the golden slopes of grass and lighted the noble trees as if for some great pageant. There was a solemnity in the splendor, an unearthly quality in the whole scene, that kept me spellbound and bareheaded until, fatefully, imperceptibly, the sun had set.
The situation of Gamboa's Ranch is superb, the very finest I know. The house, an old and picturesque one, hangs like an eyrie on the mountainside, which here is so high and steep that one looks down upon the vast expanse of ocean as if from a two or three thousand foot cliff. Downs of rich grass-land fill the view to north, south, and east, with great pines clothing every ridge and hollow. The fog seldom reaches to this height; yet its coolness tempers the summer, and the climate forms a perfect combination of the sea, mountain, and forest elements.
The "boys" were away driving cattle across the mountains, but the wife, a pretty Mexican woman, made me welcome, and after a supper of venison with frijoles and tortillas, entertained the hired man and me with a phonograph medley of favorite Spanish airs. It was something of a shock to find that even these farthest recesses of the mountains had not escaped the terrible machine, which I suppose by now is rousing the echoes of Nova Zembla and the Mountains of the Moon. I slept under an apple tree in the orchard, which was festooned throughout with ropes of venison "jerky." During the deer season, venison is as much a staple of these mountaineers as potatoes are all the year to dwellers in town.
A mile or two beyond Gamboa's is the Arroyo Grande, one of the deepest cañons of the range. I had been but little on horseback since we entered this rougher country, wishing to spare Anton as much as possible: a point of necessity, indeed, for the trail was almost always either steep in grade or lay along slopes sharp enough to make the consequences of a stumble something more than annoying. I now led Anton carefully down the stair-like descent, which took us from open grassy slopes, through a region of flowery brush, into a shadowy canon of redwoods with a lively stream. Here again it was a trial that the total absence of forage forbade camping, for otherwise the place was superlative for the purpose. Half a mile farther on we crossed the north fork of the same stream, where I had to endure a similar tantalization. Then came a long, hard climb out, with alternate blaze of open hillside and slumberous shade of cañon.
These changes are startlingly sudden throughout this region. From steep-walled clefts filled with silent companies of straight-stemmed trees and roofed with a green firmament of foliage, one passes without warning to breezy hillsides of sun-scorched grass or brittle gray sage and buckwheat, where, far below, the greatest of oceans stretches from the line of the cliff, out, and away, to infinitude and China.
The country hereabouts was marked everywhere with an unconscionable tangle of cattle-paths, among which it was quite impossible to keep the trail. I knew that I needed to keep well up on the mountain, but with a mile of steep slant to guess on I was soon hopelessly at fault. Moreover, the slope was cut vertically by rocky, brush-filled gullies which bothered Anton greatly. Several times I had to build or cut a way for him. He was behaving so bravely and sagaciously that when, at one place, after I had spent half an hour in building trail, he pointedly refused to trust himself to it, I thought it best to defer to his instinct and waive the point, though to round the head of the gully meant another hard climb. As it was, he received some cuts about the knees, hocks, and feet, and I looked at him with compunction when, at last, we picked up a more likely trail, and rested for ten minutes to recuperate and repair damages.
Far ahead, and nearly at shore level, I could see a tumble-down mess of corrals and cabins which I knew must mark an abandoned ranch called Dolan's. I had been advised to camp there, on account of there being water and a little pasturage; but when we reached the place it looked so woe-begone and generally uninviting that, fagged as we both were, I resolved to push on to some more desirable spot. So on we marched for weary miles, now, fortunately, over a better trail, and at last, rounding the head of another deep cañon came to Little's Springs, otherwise known as Slate's.
Here I found a comfortable, old-fashioned house where I could put up for the night. In fact, the place makes some claim to rank as a resort, by virtue of its medicinal springs, though no guests were in evidence, nor any token of either expectation or accommodation for them. A quarter of a mile from the house I found a couple of tents pitched on a ledge of rock halfway down the hundred-foot bluff. In them were bath-tubs to which hot sulphur water was led from springs that break out all along the cliff. Tents and tubs had been hauled up with windlass and cable from the vessel that brought them down from San Francisco, and then had been lowered over the cliff on to the ledge near the springs. It was an enjoyable experience to bathe thus, as it were, in mid-air, with gulls screaming all around and breakers roaring fifty feet below.
Fog again enveloped us when we started next morning. I was told that the trail from this place was an official one, being kept up by the county, and I communicated the news to Anton for his consolation. It kept close along the cliff, as I could tell by the sound of the surf and the cries of sea-birds far below. It was very interesting to travel thus, as was often the case, in company with unseen comrades, beauties, or dangers. Once I heard a company of land-birds singing away merrily in some bush in the fog below me. It had a charming sound, reminding one of
"... magic casements opening on the foamI often wished I were some small fraction of a Keats myself, to put the beauty of such little incidents into felicitous phrase.
Now and then a rift in the vapor showed for a moment the dull gray gleam of the combers as they plunged shoreward, or the dark fringe of rocks, forever pushing back the wash of the sea. In the cañons the fog made a strange white gloom, dense but luminous, through which great stems of trees stood up like pillars in some Dantean temple of shades. Sometimes a group of wind-twisted trees showed weirdly through the mist, as if peering up from under their matted thatches of foliage in dread of some portentous stroke. Every cañon had its stream, filling the air with a monotone that would have been ghostly but for the cheerful notes of the ouzels. The presence of that gay little water-sprite is as genial as August sunshine.
About midday the fog broke away, revealing, far up the coast, a prominent headland which I set down as Point Sur. It revealed also my trail, stretching like a pleated ribbon along the mountain, high above the sea, on and on to vanishing point. At the head of one of the cañons I found a snug little place kept by two old bachelors who have carved out a narrow strip of ground on the roof-like slope above the creek. I stopped for a rest and a chat, and gained a little sidelight on the conditions of life along this coast from the three piles of magazines, each reaching from floor to ceiling of their living-room, or about two hundred feet, board measure, of compressed literature, which they keep for reading-matter in winter, when for weeks together the trails may be impassable. At the mouth of this cañon the creek makes a spectacular drop direct into the ocean, like some Norwegian stream falling into a fiord.
In the next large canon there was a huddle of decayed buildings with the remains of an orchard. As there was fair pasturage I resolved to camp, a special attraction being the fine redwoods that grew along the creek. I had never until then found an opportunity of making camp among these trees, though at one time or another I have hobnobbed with almost all the other members of the California conifers, from tide-water to timber-line. I unsaddled at the foot of a genial-looking monster, picketed Anton in knee-high wild oats, and ate my supper under the eyes of a covey of quail that perched on an old rail fence near by and discussed me in almost human tones. The occasion justified a camp-fire of the best, and I passed a long evening cheerful with reminiscences of bygone nights among the forests of the greater California Sierra.
The squirrels and jays were aroused at first daylight by the smoke of my breakfast-fire; but when we were ready to start, it seemed to me that I had hardly done due honor to my first redwood camp, so I took off Anton's saddle and smoked a couple more leisurely pipes. Then in peaceful mood we set out. The ocean lay under the usual shroud of fog, but on our high path the sun shone warm and bright, and the morning was gay with birds and butterflies. A rattlesnake that was out for an early breakfast, and crossed the trail in front of us, left his body to the buzzards as a sarcastic commentary on the adage of the bird and the worm. Tracks of deer were numerous about every creek and spring, and once, when we had just crossed the trail of a mountain-lion, Anton became so excited that I had no doubt he scented the animal somewhere close at hand.
The redwoods in the cañons were finer than any I had yet seen, some of them quite wonderful in their straight, stately symmetry. The older branches of the largest trees were recurved, and hung for thirty or forty feet close about the stem. In places the sun's rays could hardly pass through the high roof of foliage, and I moved among the gray and purple pillars subdued to "a green thought in a green shade," as some one has put it. Anton's sensations apparently took the same hue. His pasturage the past night had not been over-luxurious, and he neglected no mouthful of verdure that came in his way. I wished I could introduce him to one of those mountain meadows where in former years I had often seen my animals half smothered in juicy grasses.
Late afternoon found us at Castro's Ranch, a comfortable, old-fashioned place, the terminus of wagon travel at the northern end of the Santa Lucias, as San Símeon is at the southern. The distance between them is about sixty miles in an airline, but must be two or three times as much in actual travelling distance by the trails. I received a genial welcome from these excellent people, and made up Anton's arrears of hay and grain.
Dogs, cats, and geese made the place lively with companionable sounds, and an orchard of peaches and apples formed an acceptable incident. I was lodged in a tiny, white-curtained room opening on a flowery jungle of garden, and at supper was plied with venison, frijoles, and tortillas, with vegetable adjuncts, to which I had long been a stranger, in notable array.