ACROSS THE SIERRAS ON HORSEBACK, by James H. McBride, M. D., 1904

“The Sierras are highest near their eastern limit, gradually falling toward the west and breaking down into rounded hills that lose themselves in valleys. Entering the mountains from the west one rises from semi-tropic valleys where snow never falls to the higher eastern summits where snow-fields that never wholly melt drop their icy waters into the desert.

Porterville, on the eastern side of the San Joaquin Valley, is twenty miles by stage from the trail that enters the mountains by the canon of the north fork of the Tule River. There are many beautiful ranches and orange orchards, in this vicinity, where oranges ripen a month earlier than in the more southerly counties — a hint of the freaks of California climate. Ranchers hereabouts pump water for irrigation by electricity, certainly an evidence of progress, though it suggests that civilization is gradually extracting much of the picturesqueness from life.

At the foot of the trail, one sees the beginnings of the Sierras. It strains the imagination to grasp it —that these heights were once a level ocean-bed. In a single cramping in the growing pains of the planet this submerged plain was crushed and lifted and the ocean dashed its waves on new shores, two hundred miles away.

The people of California missed the ice period by coming late. Great ice sheets once thrust their arms down the giant earth creases, cutting gorges and canons and carving the chief mountain features upon which frost and stream have since worked their will. At the foot of the trail we took riding horses and pack animals and began the slow ascent of the canon down which the Tule River has cut its riotous way. The fall of the river is so rapid that through much of its course it is the twin brother of a cataract. It tumbles over great boulders, slips through channels in its rocky bed so narrow as at times to bury it from sight : it darts into whirling pools and spreads like gossamer over some shelving rock, then plunges into a great basin where trout find grasshoppers and exercise.

The trail follows the stream closely to Nelson’s Valley, and, though there is a general rise, there are steep climbs and equally steep descents. At times we are on a level with the river, then up again over a ‘hogsback,’ then climbing around a jutting peak, then up a mountain side, the stream very small so far below but with a roar that seems to have grown by borrowing a hundred echoes. Hour after hour we climb the canon to the organ-notes of the river and the drum-beat of the horses’ feet on the rock. These sounds emphasize the prevailing quiet, and we realize that we are already far from civilization, and feel a new companionship with nature. Why is it that one is always calmed and rested by the forest, feeling a fellowship with these mindless forms that sooth us with hushed music and lay quieting hands upon our hurried lives? It is not wholly scenery, nor isolation, nor the majesty of these towering columns of green. I suspect that it is, in part, the awakening of ancestral memories that reach back beyond civilization’s dawn. Our untamed forefathers hunted and fished and had their homes near or among the trees, and their oldest and deepest associations were of the forest. When we quit our civilization and go out with nature, those primitive experiences that are a race inheritance rise dim and vague in consciousness, and we feel something of the old freedom and peace that the elder man felt as he sat beneath his roof of sky and pines.

After a ride of twelve sobering miles Nelson’s Valley is reached — a picturesque basin rimmed by mountains that rise thousands of feet above it. The mountains gradually recede, in successive benches covered with oak, fir and pine. Beautiful mountain streams sing their way to the Tule gorge through fields and groves and apple orchards; quail whistle in the meadows; mountain grouse, forgetting spring is gone, hoot their discordant love-calls far up in the pines; black bear search the valley nightly for Nelson’s hogs, and deer haunt the mountain slopes, though sadly shy of even the most friendly observation.

The altitude here is 4,700 feet, and the climate wholly different from that of the valley. In winter snow falls, from two to four feet deep, and nature sometimes recalls the glacial period for a day, and sends the mercury down to zero. Summer days are cool and delightful. The morning evaporation from the mountain meadows in the canon forms clouds that sweep to the summits and hang in broken, restful masses above the white peaks. If clouds could be stocked and sold (and why not along with oil lands?), what would I not give for a share in those Sierras of the sky, that form, and rise, and drift away over the quiet heights at Nelson’s.

John M. Nelson, who owns this mountain park, is a pioneer of the fifties. He comes of a family of doctors and had he been college-bred might have been a scientific man of note. He is wise in woodcraft and loves nature. Neither tree, nor bush, nor flower, nor habit of animal or bird escapes his notice. He rarely returned from a walk without some flower to show us, or a strange herb in whose medicinal powers he had confidence. | envied his therapeutic faith. Nelson is irrepressibly cheerful and now (at seventy-three) is singing his way through life. Men of the mountains have this spirit; for here at least care can not shut out the fair views that lie for all upon life’s landscape. If I were an artist and wished to generalize in a portrait the features of the best type of the pioneer, I would go to Nelson’s Valley and paint the strong and kindly features of my friend.

After a two day’s stay and with Nelson for a guide, we climbed over the valley’s steep rim and were soon in the heart of the Sierras, 6,000 feet above the breakers of the Pacific and still rising. Here, and for two or three day’s travel beyond, the evergreen growths are at their best. The pines and firs are the Alpine climbers of the forest; they seem to thrive on altitude and severities of climate. We rode through miles and miles of magnificent forest, mountains full of huge pine trees and infinite stretches of fir, so dense of growth as to leave little standing room for humbler trees.

The mountain meadows are among the most beautiful features of the Sierran landscape. The more level kind that are the survivals of glacial lakes are so smooth as to give the appearance of cultivation. Owners of cattle pasture their stock by thousands on the meadows. The practice of the government of giving permits for such use of the meadows should be discontinued, as the stock injure the pasturage and pollute the streams. The cowboys of the Sierras are sufficiently untamed and picturesque in appearance to satisfy even the tenderfoot tourist — if, by chance, he penetrated so far.

The cowboy is not wholly bad. A few desperadoes who have ‘shot up the town’ have brought them all into disrepute. As a rule they are civil and have strict notions of fair-play and honor.

I was a companion in a three days’ hunt in the Sierras with a man who had herded sheep and cattle in the mountains for many years. He is now growing old, and, having abandoned the strenuous work of herding, comes here every summer for a three months’ lonely hunt for game and mines. The hope of finding a rich mine has probably made life much easier for him during many a lonely winter in the valley. Stark was rough to the glance and touch, but kindly and a gentleman by instinct. He was a temperate man, never swore, and had a beautiful affection for his horses. There was a romance in his life — a girl he had loved and had left in Indiana and who died soon after. He still plans to go back and visit her grave, over which the flowers of forty summers have spilled their perfume. Stark was a man of sentiment and a dreamer: who would not be? He is confident that he will some day find a rich mine in these mountains. May those fair and unrealizable dreams be ever yours, my ex-companion and rugged friend. May the girl you loved come down to you ‘on stairways quarried from the mines of night,’ and bring back in dreams the happy yesterdays of life — with promise of ever brighter tomorrows.

At Salt Trough Meadows we camped 7,600 feet above the sea and awoke next morning, July 12th, to find ice a quarter of an inch thick. Soon after leaving this camp we had our first view of the snow peaks many miles to the north. Far down below the ridge on which we were riding, the north fork of the Kern winds its way through the gorge of a wide canon, the waters of the stream coming chiefly from the snows that marble the sides of the peaks. Black looking fields of forest, ending abruptly, mark the limit of timber-growth on the mountains. Above the timber-line the mountain peaks rise several thousand feet, looking deceitfully smooth and calm in the distance. To the east the view extends across the canon of the North Fork to the range of mountains separating it from the Big Kern.

These great Sierra canons, that are many miles wide, with their guardian mountains thousands of feet high, were once occupied by glaciers that filled them to their brims with Amazons of slow-moving ice. As milder climate came and the glaciers melted, the gulfs were for ages filled with torrents that cut the mountains down, grinding the rock to powder and freighting it in cubic miles of sediment and soil to the valleys of California.

Later in the day we came in sight of the Kern, which curved, a white line, in the distance far below us. We went down, down, two thousand feet over the almost perpendicular face of a bluff, and, landing on the quiet Kern flats, pitched our tents on the banks of the Grand Canal.

Sidney and William were the expert fishermen of the party, and trout would have become a glut had we not developed a capacity, not only for punishing food, but for annihilating it. The expert fisherman is certainly a specialist of a daring and exclusive kind. When he takes his rod in hand, he is seized with a strange eagerness and aloofness. He does not speak; he slips noiselessly behind bushes that grow on the banks of trout streams, wearing his front clothes out creeping over rocks. He falls over boulders and banks, unconscious of injuries that at home would demand an ambulance. He stands in an icy stream in an ecstasy of expectation, and when he falls into a pool he comes up dripping with smiles and water if he has only hooked a fish. He lives apart from other men in an imaginary world. His thoughts are all of fish, his figures of speech are borrowed from those swimming thousands that only exist to bite a hook and furnish him with a story that will be the ‘royal flush’ of the day’s incidents. He is probably the only person who clearly realizes that this world swims in space; and when for others the heavens are ablaze with stars, he sees little fish swimming in the sky’s blue sea, emblems of the glorious five-pounders that were too big to be landed.

For business and for books they said
Chey’d ceased to have a wish;
No school to them was worth a fig,
Except a school of fish.

We stayed here several days hunting and fishing and dreaming, and in that brief time had years of peace and recovered decades of health and vigor. The amateur mountaineer cannot find a better place to conduct a campaign than the Kern flats. The surroundings are picturesque, the fishing is excellent and there is unlimited room for hunting — more room, I found, than game.

The Kern is a clear, cold, swift stream with a roar that can be heard a mile as it rolls over boulders and beats against its granite walls. Even where it flows through the meadows of the Kern flats, it runs at a mad speed; and further down the stream, where the valley passes into a gorge, the river is turned on edge, and, thundering through a narrow gateway, dashes in foaming whiteness over black islands of rock. Where water oozes from the sides of little gulleys, miniature meadows spread their spring green; flowers in countless numbers sweep among the boulders in streams of blue and yellow; birds nest and sing in the willows that bend over the foaming river; and, above this turbulence and its fringe of greenness, stretch the arms of sheltering pines. After a long day’s hunt, and when one recalls that his only deer swung unharmed over the ridge, he inventories his weariness and his bruises and thinks of home and a soft bed. But a night’s sleep in the frosty air brings back his boyish delight in the freedom and the companionship of the mountains. Down at home the rumbling of cars and wagons, the noisy scramble of men, the infinite discordances of civilization leave little room for thoughts that are higher than a sky-scraper or bigger than an income. Up here one sits and walks with Nature. He is part of her quiet and unhurried life, and sees her vast order go serenely on. The life history of a decaying tree is appealing in its slow tragedy; the crumbling rocks that time has chiseled to strange forms have almost a human interest. Common objects have new attractions, and common sounds are music in the forest corridors. Across the meadow the cowbells are melodies; the bird’s song, that falls from the top of the pine, emphasizes by mere contrast the magnitudes of the mountain world and the vastness of the spaces. Those towering heights, where eagles are soaring as mere black specks and clouds tear their way over jagged peaks, rise from our quiet meadow campground. The moon never seemed quite so near, nor so neighborly, as its light streams through the broken roof of forest; and, now that one can think of it without missing a train, how real it seems that this earth is one with those planets shining in the still West, nightly passing with their procession down the avenues of the stars.

The Edison Company is erecting extensive plants further down the stream, to utilize the river for light and power. We shall soon have new fancies when we turn on our electric light that streams through cables 125 miles long — visions of powerhouses and great engines will pass; in place of these our light will be a message from Nature’s reservoirs on the Sierra’s summits. The light that falls on our book will have been but a moment before in the energy of the cataract, companioned by the Kern’s wild song.

The Kern was very high, for the season of the year, from melting snow; but we finally crossed without accident and went on five miles to Hot Springs. Even Nelson’s Jack Posey opened his idiotic eyes and carried his little pack and big ears across the wild rapids in safety.

No enigma of the Sierras will haunt me longer than the possible goings-on of the mysterious ‘innards’ of Posey’s consciousness. The Sierras have their charms and their mysteries, vast forests that clasp hands in an unbroken family line from Alaska to Yucatan, streams whose beds were laid beneath the sea and chiseled by rivers of ice, mountains whose pinnacled heights were here before man was born and have seen empires rise and pass in fatal change; but I am sure no more enduring memories nor greater mystery will remain to me from my experiences in the Sierras than the strange conduct of Nelson’s jack, standing, for instance, hungry and thirsty, immovable for hours, in a beautiful meadow and only fifty feet from water; or refusing to associate either with mules or horses, and yet when they passed out of sight immediately shaking the earth with his dissonant and brassy bray. Surely the ass never evolved. The special creation hypothesis alone accounts for him.

A number of hot mineral springs, bursting from near the banks of a cold mountain stream, where meadows stretch for acres on two sides of the ravine, in a valley enclosed by high mountains makes a glorious camping place at Hot Springs. These springs are remnants of others much larger, now extinct, that once flourished here and deposited thick layers of soda and lime in terraces upon the sides of the streams. Trappers who winter here, having a faith in muddy therapy, have dug a bath-tub in the ground by a spring which fills it with water at 110 degrees. This is cooled to a comfortable temperature by a cold spring that occupies the same room, so to speak, only ten feet away.

If there is a more delightful camping place within the Sierran leagues than Hot Springs, our trail did not pass it. The camp is in a grove of magnificent firs and pines and within a hundred feet of it a clear mountain stream runs with furious and noisy swiftness. This stream furnished our fishermen with infinite sport, and our appetites with a satisfaction only known to those who have felt the ‘camper’s’ consuming hunger. Fabian, our cook, was an expert in cooking trout, and, in fact, was an expert in everything that can be compassed by shift or skill of the chef in camp. No more faithful cook ever contemplated a dinner, and such meals as he devised and executed are worthy of mention in any history of camp achievements. I see him now, with quick movement and deft hands, broiling those trout to a desert brown, the sight of which multiplied appetite by two, while his tenor voice rings out musical and clear, making a fine chorus with the furious stream and the softer echoes of the forest.

Our memories of Hot Springs will always be associated with perfect days and moonlit nights. From the amphitheater of our little valley the mountains swept in forest-covered sides to heights of rugged grandeur. Green meadows with beds of yellow flowers lay in pastoral quiet on the sides of ravines, while in- numerable streams, rushing in cascades or cataracts, carried the leading part in that mountain chorus that in after years will still fall for us upon the ear of fancy.

As one lives in the mountains and learns to love them, he finds they take on a sort of personal and conscious life. Their massive forms, standing out against the purpling evening sky as it darkens to night, suggest a world power that looks beyond man’s small horizon. These heights seem to call to each other across the plains of the sky in those finer voices of the imagination that echo among the stars and help one to realize that, after all, only a small part of life is bounded by cities, and houses, and books, and work. The songs of these mountain rivers are not all rocks and water — irrigating ditches have this. To me the river is al- ways telling the story of earth-making and mountain-carving — of springs that trickle from crevices in walls of granite and trachyte; of meadows that are hung far up on mountain sides; of flowerbeds upon old glacier-moraines or at the edge of snow fields in the early spring days of July; of glaciers that carved mountain forms and laid the course of streams and then passed on to re- commence their never-ending cycle of wave and cloud and storm. There seems to be some spirit that has a local habitation in this mountainous order — that knows the secrets of Nature’s harmony, and gathers the roar of the cataract and the hum of the breeze and the song of birds into the symphony of mountain sounds.

From Hot Springs the trail passes over yet higher mountains and through beautiful forests and innumerable mountain meadows nine thousand feet above the sea. The camp on Monache Meadows affords fine views of distant peaks. Beyond, the trail passes through a volcanic region, where only yesterday, by the geologic calendar, a perfect pyramid of a mountain, 2,000 feet high, was built up, with many other mountains of lesser height. For miles we passed among volcanic hills and over masses of lava looking so fresh and threatening that one might easily expect to meet a live volcano just around the corner. But these volcanic mountains are older than they look, by thousands of years. Forests have come and gone upon their sides like crops of grain, since the turbulent days when the Sierras, and their companion ranges from Alaska to Mexico, were pouring out thousands of square miles of lava. These western mountain-ranges were sowing their wild oats in those days, and things were happening worth mentioning. It was the last act in the making of America; and, when the smoke cleared away, the work was finished and a continent settled down to the geologic quiescence of old age.

Not far from these meadows Whitney Creek runs near the trail for several miles — a beautiful stream over which Isaac and I grew enthusiastic, if not sentimental. The South Fork of the Kern and Whitney Creek both finally join the Big Kern Throughout their course they run far apart, except in this locality, where, South Fork bending far to the west and Whitney to the east, the two streams get the backs of the bends so near together that they are separated by less than two hundred feet. Some enterprising ranchers on the South Fork once cut through the thin partition and attempted to divert Whitney into the other creek, but the courts interfered and judicially turned off the water.

Whitney Creek divides its time between busy rapids and quiet pools, whose fish population made our fishermen lay their hands more than once on their rods, but the caravan moved on and they desisted. This little stream, I hear, carries its head high in Sierra society. It comes from gorges where snow lingers in June and Spring comes in August, from peaks that tower skyward above the timber line and from those farther heights and those perpetual springs, the snows and glaciers that lie among the clouds on Whitney’s summit.

Turning from Whitney Creek, the trail passed out of the large meadows, and at four in the afternoon, after a climb of hours on a mountain side that was so steep it seemed the trees would lose their balance, we reached the crest of the Sierra divide, where water flows east.

Our barometer got out of breath at 11,700 feet and refused to register, but we estimated that the summit was over 12,000 feet high. On the eastern face of the crest snow lay in great heaps, and Sidney and Isaac took a turn at snow balling for Auld Lang Syne on July 22nd.

From this point we looked out over the eastern wall of the Sierras to the desert, where lay other mountains, range on range, rolling away to the eaves of the eastern sky. Back of us lay the central range of the Sierras, beyond the basin of the Kern, lying in far and dim blue masses, with lofty peaks and snow-covered ridges, and extending a hundred miles north and south. Mt. Tyndall, illusively near, rose in a mass of rocky-pinnacled grandeur above a multitude of other peaks that stood shoulder to shoulder along the crest of the range. The meadows where we had camped the night before were little spots of level green between the volcanic mountains, now shrunk to mere knolls, as we saw them from the heights where we were islanded among the clouds.

We camped that night on Cottonwood Creek, whose ice-chilled waters flow into the desert of Owens River Valley. From Cottonwood it is but five miles to the basin of Sheep Mountain, where lie the so-called Enchanted Lakes. The trail winds up a gorge — the ancient roadway of a vanished glacier. When within a half mile of the basin, the trail approaches the perpendicular wall of a mountain, over which pours a roaring waterfall. Climbing over this rim, we are in the lake-basin of Sheep Mountain.

I am ashamed to use this vulgar name for one of the culminating peaks of the Sierras. Why do Americans daub imposing mountain peaks with a coarse nomenclature? How long will barnyard names designate the monuments that nature has reared above the clouds. Two hundred years ago the Spaniard, with a sense of fitness and a fine sentiment, wrote epitaphs for his heroes in ‘San Antonio’ and ‘San Bernardino.’ We whitewash his works of art by saying ‘Old Baldy’ and ‘Gray-Back.’

Sheep Mountain, over 12,000 feet high, and its companion peaks that rim this little bowl of a basin a mile in diameter, form as strange a region as ever survived the scourge of glaciers and the wreck of geologic wear. There is a beautiful meadow in the basin, flowers are blooming everywhere and birds of several species sing as merrily as if snow fields were not their neighbors. Firs grow in the basin and on the sides of the peaks, though they are not large, the struggle for existence being too severe to permit of the surplus energy that makes bigness. It was interesting and almost tragic to see them growing in meager clusters and thinning files among the masses of soilless rock far up on the sides of the peaks, fighting their way toward impossible summits where they are beaten upon by bleak winds that never rest, and worn by storms of arctic winters.

The one open side of this rim of mountains is on the east where the stream that carries the lake-waters makes a wild leap into Cottonwood Canon. This basin was made by a glacier, the eastern wall being its terminal moraine; the great boulders that are scattered about are fragments broken from the once higher summits of Sheep Mountain, now reduced to the modest height of 14,096 feet. There are sixteen lakes in the basin, some of them well stocked with trout.

There is a fine distant view from the eastern side out over the Sierras to the purple desert-mountains. We seemed to have climbed to the roof of the world. The Inyo Mountains and Sierra Gordos, that rival the Sierras in height, are piled in un countable folds and peaks against the sky, with here and there spots of pale yellow desert, all seeming to be wrapped in an atmosphere of purple and old gold that has set in unchanging hues.

The ride to Lone Pine on the desert plain is over rugged mountains, dizzily steep, down which the traveler drops out of the Sierras 7,500 feet in four hours’ ride. The mountains gradually take on the somber aspects of the desert. The high peaks of the summit have squeezed the western winds dry, and they float in cloudless aridity out over the waterless region beyond. The evergreens that thrive in the high, moist regions disappear ; even the small shrubs cease with the flowers and grasses — for the desert creeps up the mountain-sides and sows sage-brush and desolation three thousand feet above the plain.

Lone Pine is a slumberous little village, in an island of irrigated greenness, in the desert valley of Owens River. Owens Lake, twenty miles across, is a vanishing remnant of an immensely larger lake once occupying this entire valley. The dry air of the desert long since drained it to clouds.

From here to the railroad at Mojave, the stage road passes for a hundred miles over a picturesque region of desolation, over seas of sand, between hills and mounds and long ledges of black lava that the uncounted centuries have left as fresh as yesterday ; by the walls of ancient lakes whose soft layers of colored stone have been carved by frost and tempest to strange and beautiful architectural forms; over stretches of alkali plains and basins whose snowy whiteness and sedimentary floor tell the story of the unequal contest of forest and stream and lake with the consuming desert.

Those glorious days of our brief boyhood of yesterday in camp have gone upon Time’s swift wings; but they will come back in reminiscent hours when we wake the memories 6f trail and bivouac that we love. When we are weary with grinding care and tired of the hurry and strife of life’s journey, they will come in thoughts of the sweet rest and free life of the mountains; in memories of the quiet peacefulness of the meadows, with their encircling heights, and the roaring streams, the multitudinous voices of the forest, the night skies and their passing caravans of stars, and the scenes of the camp-fire with the songs and bursts of laughter that are echoing still among the cliffs and gorges of the Sierras.”

The Song of the Kern

“From heights where flaming snow-flowers grow,
From grassy flats and far ravine,
From fields of snow and ice I flow
Through granite gates to join the plain
Through ages I have kept my way,
From their vast years my record bring;
My time-piece does not note the day,
But takes a century at a swing
I flow unchanged in outward form,
Today I go, tomorrow come;
Up from the sea in cloud and storm,
My slow, unending cycles run
These mountains age — my youth shall last;
My life’s renewed with each new morn
When man and all his works are passed,
In unworn years I’ll still flow on.”

-Excerpt courtesy of the Internet Archive, Kahle / Austin Foundation, “Out West: Vol. 20, Iss. 4,” April 20, 1904. Images courtesy of Newspapers.com, The Los Angeles Times, date of publication referenced by individual filenames

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