Following the Trail of J. Smeaton Chase
Jolon to Pacific Valley
In the last installment of this series we rode with Chase from the coast at San Carpóforo creekmouth over the Coast Range to Jolon. 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 Jolon and visits with some early inhabitants of the San Antonio Valley, prior to re-crossing the Coast Range to the Los Burros Mining District and Pacific Valley on the seashore.
California Coast Trails
First published by Houghton Mifflin Company, New York in 1913,
Farewell, Chino; enter Anton - Camp at the Mission of San Antonio de Padua: crows, ants, swallows, and coyotes Spanish hospitality and family affection - Dog versus skunk - Diggerpines - Recrossing the crest - Santa Lucia Peak - Los Burros mining settlement - A voluble box-lid - Delightful trail Entering the redwoods - The coast again - Bold scenery - Pacific Valley: a lonely ranch: "Striking it rich" - The weekly mail.
My only regret in leaving Jolon was that there I said farewell to my good Chino. The roughness and heat of the journey over from the San Carpóforo had resulted in inflaming his withers again, and so badly that it would be at least two weeks before he could be fit for the troublesome piece of country that lay ahead. I had noticed in the hotel stable a well-built saddle-horse, a little heavier than Chino, of a color between buckskin and sorrel, and showing that dark stripe along the back which is recognized by experts in horseflesh as a mark of superior toughness. From the fact that he had last belonged to a forest-ranger, and also from the remarkable variety of brands he carried, I judged that he must be used to roughing it; and when, on a trial canter, he proved to be free and lively without undue nervousness, I decided on the change.
It went much against the grain to part with the loyal companion of several expeditions by California shore, desert, and mountain. But the summer was getting late and I was only about halfway to my goal, so that I must not lose more time if I was to finish the trip before the rainy season set in. A "trade" was arranged. I filled my pockets with Chino's preferred dainties, paid him a final visit, and left him munching my valedictory apples with so much indifference that poignant regret on my own side seemed superfluous.
At the north end of the valley, where the hills closed together, I came to the Mission. It stands, ruined and solitary, on the east bank of the river, and looking down the sunny, oak-filled valley. In situation it was, perhaps, the happiest of all the Missions; but, like nearly all the others, it has suffered from both spoliation and neglect, and the beauty of its setting seems only to accent the desolation of its decay.
Mission San Antonio de Padua -- Photo by Margie Whitnah, © 2001.
The remains show the total enclosure to have been of great extent, and history gives it as one of the most prosperous and important of all the chain. The church, which has lately been partly repaired, is a lofty, barnlike structure, with no remaining traces of interior decoration or furnishing, and the walls are horribly defaced by the name-scratching insanity of sightseers. The facade, built of the durable Mission tiles, is still beautiful in its tasteful simplicity, and a few skeleton arches of the quadrangle are standing; but the bells have long since disappeared. Instead of vesper chime, the air was raked by the strident voices of many crows, disputing, after their wont, over the choice roosts in the cottonwoods. It needed a more violent effort of fancy than I was capable of to hear in the shouts of these pirates the song of praise which poets think they detect. In pleasant contrast, St. Anthony's swallows, happiest dispositioned of birds, were thrilling with evening joy, and seemed to weave a charm of communal friendliness and content about the old crumbling building.
Hard by the church stand a few indomitable pear and olive trees, as thrifty as though not a year had passed since the last of the padres of San Antonio forsook his hopeless charge. A broken rank of pomegranates marks the boundary of the old garden, their uncompromising green and scarlet quite out of harmony with every other element of the scene. A small building of adobe, a hundred yards away, was interesting as showing the early California method of roofing. The heavy rafters and ceiling beams were still held in place by rawhide lashings. Layers of tules were placed on the rafters, and on these rested the heavy red tiles. I learned later that the building had been the Mission jail.
I made camp by a brook that ran in a hollow behind the church, but had a fancy for sleeping among the olives, - a fancy for which I paid tribute to a spiteful colony of ants. Coyotes sympathetically shared my vigil. I slept uneasily, and was awake in ample time to receive their adieus as they stole away to cover at dawn. These animals are very numerous in this locality, and as I rode away in the afternoon I noticed the carcasses of several of them hung to the limbs of the trees for example to the rest.
Some of my Spanish friends in the south had recommended me to relatives of theirs who lived near Jolon. I found them living a few miles from the Mission, and was received in the kindest manner and made welcome to stay at the house. It was a good example of the ranch-house of earlier days, a substantial adobe, broad of verandas, and shady with locusts, almonds, and clustering roses. There was an orchard of fine old trees, and a well of specially soft water to which the young beauties of the neighborhood were wont to resort on Sundays, a dozen in a bevy, to wash their dusky tresses. It would make a pretty sight, the row of girls with locks dishevelled, sitting in the sun beside the tamarisk hedge, laughing over the gallantries of young Arturos and Robertos, and laying trains of harmless malice for firing at the next fandango. Here again it was most pleasant to see the family affection to which I have referred in previous pages as a noticeable feature of Spanish and Mexican life. Little Julio, and Adriano, and Engracia came clambering about their genial giant of a father, calling him by his pet name of Tito: and the senora might have sat as model for the picture of a happy wife.
A brother of my entertainer happening in, I was carried off to spend a day or two at his house ten miles up country. We rode the whole distance through unbroken oak forest, and the house, set at the foot of a wooded hill and on the bank of the San Antonio River, occupies a position that might be coveted by millionaires. Deer and quail are plentiful; the river abounds with trout; and even salmon-spearing is no rarity. The veranda was a sort of epitome of California sport; Dona Petronela was bound that I should taste all the delicious Spanish dishes at their best; both husband and wife were full of interesting conversation on matters and manners now passed away; and altogether, one of the most agreeable episodes of the whole journey was the two days I passed in that tasteful home.
From here I was to cross the mountains again to the coast. My host accompanied me a mile or two to put me on the trail. A couple of the dogs came with us, in hope of some interesting incident, which came when my companion spied a skunk, which he shot from the saddle. The dogs rushed off joyfully to do their part, and received a full volley of the peculiar skunk artillery at close range. It was intensely comic to see their frantic disgust, and the vain attempts they made to rub, scrub, scratch, drown, or outrun the vile legacy bequeathed them by innocent little Mephitis americana.
At the place where the coast trail crosses the river my friend said good-bye and turned back, while I struck up the mountain. Digger-pines were numerous, and came as near to forming a forest as this singular species ever attains. It is the most shadeless of trees. There may seem to be a fair density of foliage, but the sun somehow gets through the airy tassels with hardly any loss of power, and the ground below shows only the faintest tone of gray. This peculiarity was again impressed upon me as I led my horse up the steep mountain-side under a sun of semi-desert heat, and it was with relief that, on reaching the first high ridge, I saw, a few miles to the west, the blue of substantial forest, and, beyond, the familiar white band of fog overhanging the Pacific.
Reaching at length an altitude where the finer yellow-pines began, we halted for rest. Far to the north I could distinguish Santa Lucia Peak, the culminating point of the range, cut in a band of solid purple on the fainter blue of the sky. As we crossed the next divide there opened suddenly a full view to the west. A huge caņon fell away abruptly from where I stood, the northward-facing slope draped darkly in forest, the southward in lighter brown of "chamise," and the seaward opening filled with a gleaming barrier of fog, that broke here and there into curling waves of vapor. A cool wind blew from the ocean, and I hailed with pleasure the return to coast conditions of climate.
Now came a long descent through fragrant forest of pine, spruce, and madroņo It was evening when we came to a point where a side trail led down to the mining settlement of Los Burros. A mile brought us to the village, where we found accommodation at a quaint little hutch of a place, kept by a German whose quiver was not only full, but bursting, with tow-headed, chattering children. The mines are not of great importance, but at least they have disproved the belief that was for a long time prevalent, that this part of California was barren of gold. It was a strange sight that I saw next morning when we had climbed out of the hollow in which Los Burros lies, and I looked out to the west. The fog was not far below me, and I seemed to stand between two firmaments, the blue of the upper and the gray of the lower sky. Around me was spread a stratum of landscape in brilliant sunlight, with Santa Lucia Peak glowing like an opal in its setting of sumptuous pine foliage.
At a little cabin beside the trail I paused to read a notice that had been inscribed on a box-lid, apparently with a red-hot nail. In fervor of composition it suggested the "agony column," with a touch of Flora Casby, in "Little Dorrit, " thrown in. This is how it read:
Notice the bond will be Taken up, this is Gold ridge and dont you forget it sir Mines to bond all on the Famous Mother lode Free Milling quartz Cyaniding ore and Placer ground on the Famous Spruce creek Bigest bar Famous Nugget lode at head of Spruce Creek above it terms reasonble inquire Right here.The house appeared to be vacant, but I did not care to risk meeting the voluble dealer in "prospects," and hurried away.
That morning's trail was the most delightful I had experienced on the trip, winding down the forested mountain-side among yellow-pines, oaks, and madroņos. The ground was all ashy rose with the fallen leaves of the last-named tree, and was like one of those wonderful old Persian rugs. Across the caņon the mountains rose in steep slopes of faded gold, laced here and there with dark files of timber; and beyond, the distant back ranges receded in varying tones of blue. The fog was slowly drawing out to sea, and suddenly, as if a curtain were partly lifted, I could look beneath the sheet of dazzling cloud and see the crinkled water a thousand feet below, leaden in the shadow of the dense vapor. A short distance up the coast Cape San Martin stood sharply out, a line of surf marking where the great shoulder of mountain plunged into the ocean.
At a bend of the trail I noticed a cluster of slender pyramids, rising among the pines, dressed with close, feathery plumes. They were redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), no less beautiful and hardly less wonderful than their cousins, the Giant Trees of the Sierra Nevada. I was now entering upon the territory of this exclusive tree, which grows nowhere but in the fog-belt of the coast from here to the northern limit of the State. I greeted it with enthusiasm, forecasting the many delightful days during which I should be in its companionship. If there had been pasturage available I would have celebrated the meeting with a night and a camp-fire, but the best I could do was to decorate my sombrero and Anton's bridle with sprigs of the handsome foliage. The trees had been cut a few years before, and I noted the vigorous growth of saplings that encircled each great stump. One may often see a number of the trees growing thus in a complete ring, marking the circumference of some vanished monster. No tree yields better returns to intelligent methods of forestry than this one, as valuable for its uses as it is splendid in its growth.
The trail descended for mile after mile through this charming woodland, issuing at last on the shore at the mouth of Willow Creek. Here the fog again enveloped us in its cool embrace. I gathered that this was Anton's first introduction to the sea, for he halted and gazed at it with deep attention, head cocked slightly sideways, as I found to be his habit on encountering a novelty.
Close by the place where Willow Creek flows out is the prominent headland generally known as Point Gorda. There being two other capes of the name in California, this one has been officially named Cape San Martin. The Point forms the southern arm of a rocky bay, on which the westering sun now shone palely, half veiled by the vapor that was again beginning to creep inland. The fog movement on this coast during summer is almost as regular as the swing of the tides, and the long caņons running east and west act like funnels for the constant interchange of air between sea and land.
The shore here, as all along this mountain-walled coast, is bold and scenic, fringed everywhere with islets about which the water coils and lurches in unceasing turmoil. I cannot imagine a more alluring yachting ground than this hundred-mile reach of lonely water, with its barrier of summer gold or winter emerald; and in the coming era of air travel one of the inducements held out to tourists by the Pacific Coast Aërial Transportation Company will certainly be "the unrivalled panorama of the Santa Lucia chain of mountains, rearing its glowing rampart from the isle-gemmed empire of the sea to the azure vault of the empyrean - " etc., etc.
We now climbed a steep trail cut in the face of the cliff. The flash and thunder of the surf below were so trying to Anton's nerves that the expedition narrowly escaped a tragic finale on the rocks beneath. Coming to the top, I saw a narrow bench of land extending a mile or two to the north; the only stretch of level land along the Santa Lucia coast, and dignified with the name of Pacific Valley (though there is really nothing at all valley-like about it). In the distance were the weatherbeaten buildings of a ranch, where in due course we arrived, and found entertainment with hearty, simple people.
The place was picturesque with a frontier-like litter of odds and ends. On the pickets of the fence I counted eight sets of deer antlers, and the walls of the outhouses bore a notable array of pelts of sheep, deer, oxen, wild-cats, seals, and smaller animals. Miners' pans and mortars, mineral specimens, fishing-gear, and rifles marked the varied interests of the family life. I looked with curiosity (not impertinent, I hope) at the weary-looking, elderly housewife, for I had heard that a few months previously the family had "struck it rich." A landslide had uncovered a ledge of very valuable gold-bearing quartz on their property, and had promoted them at a step from the frugal comfort of farmers to a reasonable certainty of easy wealth. I could not but wonder what would be the physical, mental, moral, and spiritual results.
The father, now dead, had carried the weekly mails for fifteen years by pack-horse from Jolon over the trail I had just travelled. Jim, his old departmental mule, retired from service, roams about the ranch, respected by horse and man alike. The day that I arrived chanced to be mail-day, so I had the opportunity of seeing the excitement when, long after dark, a clatter of hoofs announced the event of the week, and young Benito, whose acquaintance I had made at Jolon, went jingling past on his way to the post-office at Gorda, a mile farther up the trail. I was glad to find, by the example of this pleasant family, that it is yet possible to live where mail comes once a week, and telegraph or telephone messages are impossible, and still be comfortable and contented.