Following the Trail of J. Smeaton Chase
The Sea to Jolon
In the spring of 1911 Joseph Smeaton Chase, intent upon experiencing the beautiful landscape of California one last time before it was forever overrun by automobiles, set out on horseback to ride the coast from Mexico to Oregon. His journal of the trip, published in 1913 as California Coast Trails, was reviewed by Phil Williamson for the DCQ a while back, which certainly deserves a reading before continuing with this reprint.
Chase's book is long out of print, and can even be difficult to find in used bookstores. But its content is so important to those interested in the history of the northern Santa Lucia that we decided to reprint here in the DCQ the text of the chapters dealing with the area, which is basically from San Carpóforo Creek to the Carmel River. Its a lot of material, so it will be presented in three parts, with this first installment covering his journey from the Coast near San Simeon over the mountains to the town of Jolon.
California Coast Trails
First published by Houghton Mifflin Company, New York in 1913,
San Carpóforo Cañon - Oddities of pronunciation - More kind Mexicans - A mountain home - The Pear Orchard - A resting spell - The Santa Lucia fir - Duality of climate - Physical and pictorial aspects of the region - A hot climb Crossing the crest - More great oaks - Camp on the Nacimiento River - A delightful swim - Sunday in camp - The trail lost - Intelligence of Chino - The San Antonio River - The village of Jolon: Indian music: my classification.
The fog, which had hardly lifted for two days past, lay denser than ever over the coast when, about mid-morning, I rode away along the cliffs. I caught momentary glimpses of black, fang-like rocks among which the sea hissed and spouted in incessant uproar. From the cliff-edge the ground rose to a high, undulating horizon uncertainly seen between the wreaths of the fog. The country was treeless: only low-growing brambles, thistles, and bracken sprinkled the ground, and mingled their faint wet odor with the strong smell of the sea. All concurred to bring up a vivid remembrance of the downs and moorlands of England; and I half fancied I heard again the seraphic voice of the skylark, showering down impassioned joy from the firmament of gray.
Gradually there grew up before me the high wall of the San Carpóforo Cañon, and a couple of miles brought me to its edge. (This name suffers many variations. I have read it "San Carpoco," "San Carpojo," "Zanjapoco," and "Zanjapojo," while in speech the changes are rung on "Sankypoko" and "Sankypoky." It is not surprising that this modest saint should prove troublesome to laymen; and I had lately met with greater oddities of pronunciation at San Símeon, where I heard Piedras Blancas seriously referred to as "Peter's Blankets," and Arroyo Cruz, the name of a neighboring cañon as "A Royal Cruise.")
To keep the main coast trail I should have crossed the cañon at its mouth and continued directly northward. I had two reasons, however, for wishing to make a divergence: one was, to visit the Mission of San Antonio, which lay on the other side of the Coast Range and could be reached by a trail that crossed the mountains at this point; the other, to study a rare tree, the Santa Lucia fir (Abies venusta), which is found far up a few cañons of this range. I had heard that a small group of them grew in the San Carpóforo and the double object decided me to turn inland.
After a few miles the trail left the bottom of the cañon and climbed the northern wall. Scattered willows were exchanged for shady woods of oak and maple, with thick underbrush of wild cherry, buckeye, and many other flowering shrubs. The fog had lifted by noon, but long before sundown white scarfs of vapor again floated in, eddying in elbows of the cañon or creeping with serpentine motion along the cliff-like walls. The opposite summit, gaining an increased effect of height from the belt of fog, rose like the wall of some legendary sky city.
High up on the north face of the cañon I came upon the ranch of my friendly acquaintance of Cambria. It lies about midway up the western slope of the mountain, backed by a wood of fine oaks, and looking out over the deep rift of the cañon to a high ridge crested with pines. For situation the spot is quite ideal, and its elevation of seventeen hundred feet, with its nearness to the sea, give it an unequalled climate. In the orchard I saw such diverse fruits as cherries, oranges, and butternuts, with many others, all growing in perfection.
Again it was Welsh hospitality to which I fell debtor. The evening sped with tales of sport, for which the antlers, skins, and other trophies that crowded the house furnished the texts. When I awoke at dawn next morning, I looked out from my bed under a maple upon a spectral river of cloud that filled the cañon below me. As the sun rose, the vapor began to draw away in shreds and skeins of gray, and for an hour we were enveloped in the grateful moisture. Another hour, and the sun burned as through a glass, while the fruit reddened almost as one watched it. Yet a pleasant coolness held in the shade, and now and then a snowy berg of cloud drifted lazily up the cañon to melt away as it reached the warm stratum of the upper air.
There are the remains of an old orchard hereabout, the origin of which is a mystery to the few people who know of its existence. It lay near my route, and I turned aside to pay it a visit. It goes by the name of the "Pear Orchard," but I found only one pear tree remaining, and sharing the solitude with a score or so of hardy olives. By comparison of the size of these olives with others I have seen in the gardens of the Missions, it seemed that they could hardly be less than a century old, while the pear was an oak-like tree, the Nestor of mortal pears. Who were the planters of this secluded mountain garden? I could only guess that, like the one I had found on the Jalama, it had been an outpost of one of the Franciscan Missions, and had been cultivated by the old padres with the help of their Indians. But padres and Indians alike have long vanished, and left no successors to claim the fruit of this forgotten orchard.
Chino's sore withers had become so troublesome that I resolved to cease travelling for a time while I doctored and rested him. A few miles up the cañon I found a good place for the purpose, where a ciénaga provided abundance of pasturage, and there I made camp, under a great oak beside the creek. I had provisions for ten days or more, and there were plenty of trout in the stream. The ciénaga produced medicine as well as forage, in the shape of the herb called by the Spaniards mastransia, an excellent remedy for such troubles as Chino's, either in horses or men. I was not sorry myself, after two months in the saddle, to stay for a time in this attractive place. Twice a day I brought Chino in for medical parade; otherwise there was nothing to interfere with a programme of fishing, mending, botanizing in my humble way, or unadulterated loafing.
About a mile from camp I found the group of firs I wished to study. They grow in a deep and narrow part of the cañon and mostly on the northward-facing slope, where little sun reaches them. I was greatly interested in meeting this rare tree, of which there are probably not more than a thousand or two living. In shape it is a typical fir, straight, spiry, and symmetrical, reaching a height of about eighty feet. The foliage is stiff, bright, and sharp-pointed, and the cone is unique for the long, bristly bracts that protrude from between the scales. The cones are produced only at the top of the tree, and it was a little trying to feel the slender leader bend almost to horizontal under my weight when I climbed to secure a few specimens.
On the mountain-side about camp grew a scattering of digger-pines (Pinus sabiniana), becoming more numerous toward the summits. It was a mark of the peculiar duality of climate in this region that both the moisture-loving fir and this droughtloving pine find it suited to their contrary natures. The yucca, and the great golden mentzelia, five feet high, also flourished on the hotter slopes, the former a surprise to meet in this latitude.
I found that I had been largely mistaken in my forecast as to the physical features of this part of the Coast Range. I had figured this western slope, where streams are numerous and summer fogs almost perpetual, as a region of rugged mountain, bearing a heavy forest of coniferous trees; as being similar, in fact, to the corresponding slope of the Sierra Nevada, but with more of timber, by reason of the greater moisture of the summer climate. Instead of this, I found, rising from the coast, steep but rounded hills of grass, only occasionally ridging up to rocky crests. Files of oaks grew in folds and hollows, and mingled with them in the deeper cañons were alders, sycamores, willows, and the fragrant California laurel (otherwise known as myrtle, pepperwood, or bay). Farther north I found the slopes steeper, the cañons deeper and more wooded, and the crest of the range (which runs higher than here) densely forested; but there also the seaward slopes are rounded, grassed or brushy, and, generally speaking, scant of timber.
Pictorially, the country I was now in is full of beauty and character. A more admirable contrast of color could not be imagined than these massed slopes of quiet gold, gentle in contour, but striking in height, imposing in length of range, and blotted by the clustering oaks with islands of serious green. Especially was it lovely at sunset, when the summeryellowed hills took a flush of rose, the long cañons were shadowed in purple, and even the uncompromising blue of the sky warmed to a tenderer glow of violet.
The flat where I had my camp had once been "homesteaded" by a settler, one Heisel, whose memory is kept alive by the remains of his fireplace. It seemed natural that the last token of a home-loving German (as I take him to have been) should be his chimney. My blankets were spread under a small oak near by, and I made a point of smoking my evening pipe beside the old pile of stones round which, I guessed, his own tobacco smoke must often have eddied.
I had been nearly two weeks in camp, and it had come to mid-August. My supplies had almost run out, and Chino's pasturage was becoming scanty; but his sores were looking well, and it seemed safe, as well as necessary, to move on. When it came to starting, I became conscious again how quickly any place of abode, camp no less than cottage, engages man's instinct for a home. My heart fell a little as I took a last look round the little clearing, and I waved my hand sentimentally to the oak that had been my "green caravanserai." Not so with Chino, who marched off so cheerfully that it was plain he suffered no pensive emotions.
I had got such instructions as I could regarding the trail across the mountains. It is so little travelled that only twice during my fortnight in camp had anybody passed along it: but it is well marked, and in some places worn deeply into the earth. I suspect, indeed, that it may have been, in Mission days, the trail to the old orchard which I have mentioned; and that it was from the firs in the cañon (called árboles de incienso by the Spaniards) that the fathers at San Antonio procured the aromatic gum for incense.
The trail led steeply up the mountain-side to the northeast. There was a hot sun, and the warm wind from the interior valleys brought more distress than refreshment. I had saddled Chino with special care, to avoid chafing, and, with a view to his comfort, had packed the load on the saddle, as I intended to lead him. I did not fill my canteen, as I relied upon finding water where I crossed the creek higher up; but at the first crossing it was quite dry, and at the second only a couple of slimy pools remained among the boulders. These Chino promptly drank dry. After two hours of pretty strenuous climbing we came to the crest of the ridge, from which I looked out over a wilderness of low ranges, colored here in dark bands of "chamise," there in golden slopes of grass thinly stippled with oaks and diggerpines.
I made a hasty lunch, for I had no very clear idea of the distance to the Nacimiento River, where I intended to camp, and which would probably be the first water we should strike. Then, with a regretful glance back to the west and its cool fog curtain, we plunged down the landward slope. The sun beat down with trying fervor, the trail was rough and difficult with brush, and shade was at an impossible premium. A couple of miles down I found the remains of a settler's house, and explored for water, but without success.
An hour more of rough going brought us to a wide glade wooded with oaks of unusual size and beauty. They were the great valley oak of California, the roble of the Spaniards. The species was well known to me, but nowhere else have I seen it reach the stateliness of these superb trees. The huge white trunks and fountain-like flow of branches had a sort of Greek perfection, and one could easily understand why, if Greece has such oaks as these, they were held sacred to Zeus. Here were the remains of a house, and I searched again for water, for I was getting pretty thirsty. But the cracked troughs in the old corral gave notice that I need not expect to find any, and seemed to hint at the reason for the abandonment of this handsome homestead.
A short distance beyond this place the trail emerged at a divide, and I saw with relief the cañon of the Nacimiento lying below, with one pool of blue water shining among its sun-bleached boulders. The opposite wall was a high, perpendicular bluff of purple-red rock, barren except for a few spectral digger-pines that grew in crannies, or leaned in languid attitudes on the summit. It was an unusual landscape, and one worthy of particular notice, but I was too tired and thirsty to enjoy it, and hurried on to get down to the stream.
The trail descended the north side of the cañon, and by evening we debouched at river level into a valley of grass, oaks, and pines. Fording the river we went into camp among the willows on the farther bank. I was amused to see the puny size of the stream, for at Cambria I had heard a ranchman describe how he had nearly lost his life in swimming it with his horse three months before, and I had intended to use caution in fording it. Such are the vagaries of Californian rivers.
There was a deep pool, almost landlocked, close to camp, and to this, after supper, I repaired for a swim. I do not know when I have enjoyed one so much. The water was crystal clear, and perfect in temperature. White sand formed the bottom; one side was fringed with small cottonwoods, and the other, where the water was deepest, was walled directly by the dark, perpendicular rock, from the crevices of which waved fringes of delicate fern. The moon was nearly full, but it was not yet an hour past sunset, and the day hovered on that quiet borderland where one can hardly tell shadows from thoughts. A pale flicker of moonlight caught the ridges of water that flowed about me as I swam slowly to and fro, and once a water-snake slipped noiselessly away before me, the little black head rippling the water into lines of pallid silver. After the heat and thirst of the day I felt half inclined to sleep in that delicious pool.
Then I gathered a good supply of fuel and spent a luxurious evening in company with a small but loquacious fire. Tomorrow would be Sunday, and we should not travel. I was glad that it occurred that I could pass a day by this stream, which I had long wished to see. Even the name seemed to invest it with a special charm. I take it to have a religious reference; and the association of the Holy Birth with the quietude and beauty of Nature that reigned in this lonely spot seemed very happy. I suppose there was not a human being within ten miles of me in any direction.
I awoke next morning in time to catch a coyote nosing at the saddle-bags, which I had hung in the fork of a willow twenty yards from my sleeping-place. A shot from my revolver sent him scurrying. The morning was passed in camp, in hope of offsetting the maximum of heat by a minimum of exertion. In the afternoon a trifling breeze wandered up the cañon and I spent some hours in trying to prospect out to-morrow's trail among the tangle of cattlepaths that crossed and recrossed, converged and diverged, all over the country. It was annoying to find, after several miles of tramping, that what had seemed to be the principal trail led again to the river, by which I knew it was not the one I wanted. In the end I resolved to ignore them all, and strike across country by compass.
It was evening when I got back to camp, and the air was full of the cooing of doves and the whick, whick, of their wings as they flew to and from the river. Once when I went down to the stream I saw for the first time the great American egret (Herodias egretta), unmistakable in its snowy beauty, though not now wearing the bridal plumes that have almost brought the species to extermination. I noticed also the watermark of the spring rains in the drift that had lodged in branches fifteen feet above the present level, and could better appreciate the risk in swimming such a torrent, nearly a furlong wide and full of hidden traps and dangers.
I was up next morning by moonlight, and after breakfast doctored Chino's sore, which had become inflamed again by the heat and the climb of Saturday. I saddled him with all possible care, again arranging his load with a view to leading instead of riding him. Then we both drank deeply at the creek, and started with a full canteen. I had no map of the region, for there is a gap of a hundred miles or so here in the maps of the Geological Survey; but I gauged the direction of Jolon, my objective point in the San Antonio Valley, to be nearly due north, and believed I could trust the compass better than the one or two doubtful landmarks of which I had been told.
The country ran in interminable low hills, or lomas, as monotonous, and about as vacant of recognizable features, as a tract of ocean; but it was pretty open, and only cut by shallow gullies from which the water had vanished, leaving a sickly white incrustation of alkali. Among these we threaded our way hour after hour without much difficulty, while I looked carefully at every trail we crossed for marks of horses' hoofs, but saw nothing but the tracks of cattle, coyotes, and deer, except once where a bear's heavy imprint was sunk in the baked clay of a dry arroyo.
Chino was in unresponsive mood, though I tried to interest him in various topics. I am sure that by now he understood much of what I said to him. Naturally, I did not choose such matters as politics or the price of pig-iron for discussion: but to such sentiments as "Chino, my boy, we're doing handsomely, aren't we?" or "What do you say to taking five minutes for cooling off, old fellow?" I am sure he responds understandingly; while when I attempt something humorous, as "Well, old chap, I don't see the domes and minarets of Jolon on the horizon yet, do you?" he replies with something that comes as near a smile as is possible to the equine countenance. Nature, in framing this best of quadrupeds, seems very judiciously to have put the humorous ingredient at a minimum. It would be unfortunate if the horse were so constituted as to care as much as the terrier, for instance, for practical joking. Between the two of them, it seems to be a question whether the horse or the dog is to be the first to surprise his master, some fine day not far ahead, by bringing out the epochmaking words, "Goodmorning!"
We had been steadily marching northward for several warm hours when the cattle-path we were on began spontaneously to develop symptoms of wheel-tracks, which grew imperceptibly from nothing and nowhere. The trail widened gradually into an unmistakable road, which led, on the whole, in the right direction. It descended a long, winding cañon through sparse timber, emerging at last upon a river which I knew must be the San Antonio, while beyond the low range of hills to the east must lie the wide valley of the Salinas. Then came a fence, at which novel sight Chino stepped out with more enthusiasm. The stream was almost dry, but under the bank I found a little trickle of water, and we took an hour for lunch and rest.
A mile beyond the river I saw a ranch-house in the distance, and knew by a flutter of linen that it was inhabited. A young woman answered my hail by opening a window six inches. To my inquiry whether I was on the road to Jolon, she replied curtly, "Yes." "And the distance?" "A mile." With that the window was slammed down and she vanished. This was somewhat chilling demeanor from the first human being I had seen for nearly a fortnight; but the news of my whereabouts was welcome enough. We were soon on the main road, and by evening entered the village and put up at a rustic inn, where Chino tasted once again the comforts of a stable and I of feminine cookery and housekeeping.
Jolon is a primitive place, though not an old one. It lies twenty miles from the railway, but on a road which has a fair amount of travel. A dozen times a day an automobile charges through, with passengers goggling through clouds of dust to catch those flying glimpses which seem to satisfy the people who like that way of seeing the country. The village consists of two store-and-hotel combinations, a church seldom used, a school, three saloons, and about as many small residences.
A sound of strumming came continually from one or other of the saloons, where two stolid Indian youths with violin and mandolin sat playing sans intermission the simple and rather joyless airs to which generations of their people have danced or shuffled. They played in an oddly mechanical fashion, giving no least token of pleasure in their occupation, but sawing and picking away in a poor, dull way that seemed pathetically to illustrate their racial attitude toward life. A little creek, a branch of the San Antonio, runs through the village, and is vocal all day with plovers; while trios and quartettes of coyotes, wise beyond the range of poison or rifle, perform in the dusk of dawn and evening.
Jolon promptly adjudged me to be a prospector, and the classification held good until the following noon, when my landlord approached me with a sample of rock and requested a diagnosis. I saw that he disbelieved me when I said that I could not tell quartz from quicksand, but was convinced when I declared his specimen to be volcanic putty, which it certainly resembled. On the score of my McClellan saddle I was next placed in the Forestry Service, and as no occasion arose for disturbing that idea I suppose it remained. For the rest, I noted that the dialect of Jolon is rather above than below the Western standard in amount and quality of profanity; and that days when the thermometer registers a hundred and odd degrees are pronounced by Jolonians to be agreeable.