Fall Equinox 1998 || Volume I, Number 2



Houghton Mifflin Company, New York 1913
Tioga Publishing Company, Palo Alto 1987

A Review by

EDITORS' NOTE - October 13 2005: The complete text of the original 1913 edition of California Coast Trails, including all sixtteen original photographic plates, is now available online in the Fall 2005 edition of the Double Cone Register at http://www.ventanawild.org/news/fall05/chase/.

T here have been moments, when watching the sun go down across the Pacific from the shoulders of Cone Peak or walking along the banks of the Little Sur, or perhaps strolling in the Gardens of Mission San Antonio or looking at the ruins of the old adobe hotel near Jolon; moments when the breeze stills and the leaves cease to rustle, when I think I can hear, as though from a great distance, the slow tap and scuffle of hooves and a gentle whispering like that of a man speaking comforting words into the ear of a skittish horse, and I feel that I am in the presence of the friendly spirit of Joseph Smeaton Chase.

Cover of the first edition of
California Coast Trails, 1913

Chase was an Englishman, a scholarly amateur naturalist and adventurer who, in 1911, embarked on a journey that anyone who loves the wildlands of this State would envy: A paseo, on horseback, along the California coast from Mexico to Oregon. The record of his travels, liberally sprinkled with poetic evocations of the beauty of the land, wry affectionate accounts of encounters with people along the way, and apposite quotations from Keats, was first published in 1913 by Houghton Mifflin under the title California Coast Trails.

Starting in midsummer from El Monte near Los Angeles, and accompanied by a friend, the painter Carl Eytel, Chase turned his redoubtable horse Chino to the south and the Mexican border. Although this first leg of his paseo was short, he found many opportunities to exercise his keen eye and poetic sensibilities. We read his impressions of the eucalyptus, the plight of the Mission Indians, and the hospitality of local Mexicans (throughout the book, Chase reminds us of his love of the "Spanish" people, who in 1911 still retained many of the noble traditions of Old California, and his disdain for the general racism against them prevalent, then as now, among California gringos). Upon reaching San Diego, with the hills of Baja California in sight, Chase and Eytel return to Los Angeles, the first part of the epic journey complete.

In May of the following year, Chase set out again, this time alone and bound for the north and distant Oregon. Again Chino carried the baggage; and again we are treated to a wealth of observation and anecdote. We learn of the grave of Cabrillo and the bitter rivalry between Hueneme and Oxnard; of the Santa Barbara of 1911 in contrast with the town that Richard Henry Dana saw in 1835; of Chinese Freemasons and the descendants of Dana himself; and of the many Mission buildings along the way, restored or in ruins - interesting reading for the student of Mission history. And plenty of incident as well: a near-fatal (for Chino) adventure with quicksand on the beach at Gaviota, and the hospitality of Spanish, Portuguese, Welsh, and Irish inhabitants of the coast provide a lively narrative setting for Chase's observations and digressions.

For readers of the Double Cone Quarterly - that is, for lovers of the Ventana Wilderness, the Big Sur coast, and adjacent lands - the meat of Chase's book begins with his first view of the Santa Lucia Mountains, from a ridge near the valley of Todos Santos north of Lompoc (not much smog to obstruct long views in those days!):

At the head of the canyon I looked out on a long desired sight, -- the distant highlands of the Sierra Santa Lucia, lying low and blue in the north. For years I had been waiting my chance to get at that little-traveled range, and it had formed, in fact, a main inducement in planning the summer's trip. Now that at last it was coming within striking distance, I gazed at it with special interest, trying to forecast from the dim and tumbled outlines some features of contour, timber, or stream.

On to San Carpofóro Canyon ("Sankypoky" to the locals of Chase's time; he entertains us with interesting local variants on Spanish placenames, like "Peter's Blankets" for Piedras Blancas or "A Royal Cruise" for Arroyo Cruz). Chase enjoyed more Spanish and Welsh hospitality at isolated ranches before heading up the canyon in search of the rare and famous Abies bracteata, the Santa Lucia fir (for a wealth of information on which see the article by David Rogers in this issue of the Double Cone Quarterly, and his second article on the subject in the Winter Solstice '98 issue).

On the Nacimiento River
Photo by J. Smeaton Chase from the first edition of California Coast Trails, 1913

After an arduous climb over the coast ridge Chase reached the canyon of the Nacimiento. A welcome swim ensued, the description of which will evoke fond memories for anyone who has taken a cold dip in the Little Sur, Higgins Creek, or any other stream in the mountains after a long hot dusty day on the trail:

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.

The trail took Chase next to "the domes and minarets of Jolon," which even in 1911 he could call "a primitive place;" it does not seem that he was much impressed, despite being treated to the artistry of Indian musicians on fiddle and mandolin. Sadly, it was here that he bade adieu to Chino, a horse whom he endowed with as much character as any in literature; and here he found Anton, the sturdy pack horse who would accompany him the rest of the way to Oregon.

From Jolon Chase came next to Mission San Antonio, of which he gives us a long and rich description. His trail took him continuously north through the mountains: the old mines at Los Burros, the looming presence of Santa Lucia Peak (which we call Junipero Serra Peak today - personally I like the old name better, or even the Esselen name - Pimkolam), the first redwoods along Willow Creek, Gamboa's and Castro's ranches and their hospitable inhabitants, Little's Hot Springs, with bathtubs suspended on the cliff face to catch the hot mineral waters (springs now removed from public use by the Esalen Institute), McWay Creek Falls -- all lay along Chase's trail.

At last the long hard trail gave way to graded road and Chase and Anton descended into the Valley of the Big Sur. They travelled swiftly northward, past Point Sur and Point Lobos to Carmel, even then a haven for artists and academics from Berkeley and Stanford, and then to Monterey, where in Chase's day a haze of the romance of Old California still lingered over the shady streets.

The trail from Monterey to Oregon is treated in less than a hundred pages, although these pages are as rich as the rest in observation, incident, and humor: in Aptos he inquires as to the origin of the town's name, and his host replies with "Aptos, Aptos; well, Aptos is a good name, ain't it?"; Santa Cruz is "a staid, ordinary kind of place" (times change - and often they come full circle again); Big Basin, even then rotten with tourists; the effort of getting through San Francisco on horseback after so long on the trail; Muir Woods, the Mendocino Coast, the Klamath country and the Indians of Requa, and the final walk from Crescent City to view the coast of Oregon before returning south (by sea) - all described with Chase's characteristic brand of wry aplomb and friendly good humor.

But the high point of the book - as it was the high point of his paseo for Chase himself - is the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Big Sur Country. Even though Chase saw it as we never can, before the highway, when the land was still dotted with isolated ranches accessible only by trail, before tourism, exclusive resorts and the advent of the weekend backpacker had made their numerous marks on the land and on the spirit of the place - even with all these changes, those who travel the backcountry can still see this truly magical place much as Chase saw it.

One of these days, I'm going to make a paseo of my own, following Chase's footsteps from, say, the San Luis Obispo county line, through the Silver Peak Wilderness and Ventana to Big Sur. One of these days, for sure; and I know that J. Smeaton Chase will be with me every step of the way.


J. Smeaton Chase was also the author of two other books of travels in California: California Desert Trails, about two years of adventuring from Palm Springs to the Colorado River, and Yosemite Trails, describing adventures around Wawona, Tuolumne, and Hetch Hetchy (won't be able to do that one for a while, I guess!). Like California Coast Trails, these were republished in the 1980's by Tioga Press. Unfortunately they are no longer in print, but are generally available in used book stores, over the internet at abebooks.com or bookfinder.com , and of course in your local library. Happy trails, and may Chase be with you!

Boon Hughey has contributed a series of four excerpts from California Coast Trails to the Double Cone Quarterly: The Coast to Jolon (Winter '00), Jolon to Pacific Valley (Spring '01), Pacific Valley to Castro Canyon (Summer '01), and Big Sur to the Carmel River (Fall '01).

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