Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

Chapter 2
The Passes of the High Sierra


The roads that Nature has opened through the heart of the High Sierra are hard to travel. So the sedate plodder of the lowlands would say, whether accustomed to trace the level furrows of fields, or the paved streets of cities. But as people oftentimes build better than they know, so also do they walk and climb and wander better than they know, and so it comes, that urged onward by a mysterious love of wild beauty and adventure, we find ourselves far from the beaten ways of life, toiling through these rugged mountain passes without thinking of a reason for embracing with such ungovernable enthusiasm so much stem privation and hardship.

"Try not the pass" may sound in our ears, but despite the solemn warning, come from whom it may, the passes will be tried until the end of time, in the face of every danger of rock, avalanche, and blinding storm. And whatever the immediate motive may be that starts us on our travels--wild landscapes, or adventures, or mere love of gain, the passes themselves will in the end be found better than anything to which they directly lead; calling every faculty into vigorous action, rousing from soul-wasting apathy and ease, and opening windows into the best regions of both earth and heaven.

The glaciers were the pass makers of the Sierra, and by them the ways of all mountaineers have been determined. A short geological time before the coming on of that winter of winters, called "The Glacial Period," a vast deluge of molten rocks poured from many a chasm and crater on the flanks and summit of the range, obliterating every distinction of peak and pass throughout its northern portions, filling the lake basins, flooding ridge and valley alike, and effacing nearly every feature of the pre-glacial landscapes.

Then, after these all-destroying fire-floods ceased to flow, but while the great volcanic cones built up along the axis of the range, still burned and smoked, the whole Sierra passed under the domain of ice and snow. Over the bald, featureless, fire-blackened mountains glaciers crawled, covering them all from summit to base with a mantle of ice; and thus with infinite deliberation the work was begun of sculpturing the range anew. Those mighty agents of erosion, halting never through unnumbered centuries, ground and crushed the flinty lavas and granites beneath their crystal folds. Particle by particle, chip by chip, block by block the work went on, wasting and building, until in the fullness of time the mountains were born again, the passes and the summits between them, ridges and canyons, and all the main features of the range coming to the light nearly as we behold them today.

Looking into the passes near the summits, they seem singularly gloomy and bare, like raw quarries of dead, unfertilized stone--gashes in the cold rock-bones of the mountains above the region of life, empty as when they first emerged from beneath the folds of the ice-mantle. Faint indeed are the marks of any kind of life, and at first sight they may not be seen at all. Nevertheless birds sing and flowers bloom in the highest of them all, and in no part of the range, north or south, is there any break in the chain of life, however much it may be wasted and turned aside by snow and ice, and flawless granite.

Compared with the well-known passes of Switzerland, those of the south half of the Sierra are somewhat higher, but they contain less ice and snow, and enjoy a better summer climate, making them, upon the whole, more open and approachable. A carriage-road has been constructed through the Sonora Pass, the summit of which is 10,150 feet above the level of the sea--878 feet higher than the highest carriage-pass in Switzerland--the Stelvio Pass.

In a distance of 140 miles between lat. 36° degrees 20' and 38° degrees the lowest pass I have yet discovered exceeds 9,000 feet, and the average height of all above sea-level is perhaps not far from 11,000 feet.

Substantial carriage-roads lead through the Carson and Johnson Passes near the head of Lake Tahoe, over which immense quantities of freight were hauled from California to the mining regions of Nevada prior to the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad through the Donner Pass. Miles of mules and ponderous wagons might then be seen slowly crawling beneath a cloud of dust through the majestic forest aisles, the drivers shouting in every language, and making a din and disorder strangely out of keeping with the solemn grandeur of the mountains about them.

To the northward of the memorable Donner Pass, 7,056 feet in height, a number of lower passes occur, through whose rugged defiles long emigrant trains, with footsore cattle and sun-cracked wagons a hundred times mended, wearily toiled during the early years of the Gold Period. Coming from far, through a thousand dangers, making a way over trackless wastes, the snowy Sierra at length loomed in sight, to them the eastern wall of the Land of Gold. And as they gazed through the tremulous haze of the desert, with what joy must they have descried the gateway through which they were so soon to pass to the better land of all their golden hopes and dreams!

Between the Sonora Pass and the southern extremity of the High Sierra, a distance of a 160 miles, there is not a single carriage-road conducting from one side of the range to the other, and only five passes with trails of the roughest description. These are barely practicable for animals, a pass in this region meaning simply any notch with its connecting canyon and ridges through which one may, by the exercise of unlimited patience, make out to lead a surefooted mule or mustang, one that can not only step well among loose stones, but also jump well down rugged stairways, and slide with limbs firmly braced down smooth inclines of rock and snow.

Only three of the five may be said to be in use--the Kearsarge, Mono, and Virginia Creek passes--the tracks leading through the others being only obscure Indian trails not graded in the least, and scarce at all traceable by white men. Much of the way lies over solid pavements where the unshod ponies of the Indians leave no appreciable sign, and across loose taluses where only a slight displacement is visible here and there, and through thickets of weeds and bushes, leaving marks that only skilled mountaineers can follow, while a general knowledge of the topography must be looked to as the main guide.

One of these Indian trails leads through a nameless pass between the head waters of the south and middle forks of the San Joaquin, another between the north and middle forks of the same river, to the south of the Minarets, this last being about 9,000 feet high, and the lowest of the five.

The Kearsarge is the highest. It crosses the summit of the range near the head of the south fork of Kings River, about eight miles to the north of Mount Tyndall, through the midst of the grandest scenery. The highest point on the trail is upward of 12,000 feet above the sea. Nevertheless it is one of the safest of the five, and is traveled every summer from July to October or November by hunters, prospectors, and stock-owners, and also to some extent by enterprising pleasure-seekers. For besides the surpassing grandeur of the scenery about the summit, the trail in ascending the western flank of the range leads through a forest of the giant Sequoias, and through the magnificent Kings River Valley, that rivals Yosemite in the varied beauty and grandeur of its granite masonry and falling waters. This, as far as I know, is probably the highest traveled pass on the American continent.

The Mono Pass lies to the east of Yosemite Valley, at the head of one of the tributaries of the South Fork of the Tuolumne, and is the best known of all the High Sierra passes. A rough trail, invisible mostly, was made through it about the time of the Mono and Aurora gold excitements, in the year 1858, and it has been in use ever since by mountaineers of every description. Though more than a thousand feet lower than the Kearsarge it is scarcely inferior in sublimity of rock-scenery, while in snowy, loud-sounding water it far surpasses the Kearsarge.

The Virginia Creek Pass, situated a few miles to the northward, at the head of the southmost tributary of Walker River, is somewhat lower, but less traveled than the Mono. It is used chiefly by "Sheep-men" who drive their flocks through it on the way to Nevada, and roaming bands of Pah Ute Indians, who may be seen occasionally in long straggling files, strangely attired, making their way to the hunting grounds of the western slope, or returning laden with game of startling variety.

These are all the traveled passes of the high portion of the range of which I have any knowledge. But leaving wheels and pack-animals out of the question, the free mountaineer, carrying only a little light dry food strapped firmly on his shoulders, and an axe for ice-work, can make his way across the Sierra almost everywhere, and at any time of year when the weather is calm. To him nearly every notch between the peaks is a pass, though much patient step-cuffing is in some cases required up and down steeply inclined glaciers and ice-walls, and cautious scrambling over precipices that at first sight appear hopelessly inaccessible to the inexperienced lowlander. All the passes make their steepest ascents on the east flank of the range, where the average rise is nearly a thousand feet to the mile, while on the west it is about two hundred feet. Another marked difference between the east and west portions of the passes is that the former begin between high moraine embankments at the very foot of the range, and follow the canyons, while the latter can hardly be said to begin until an elevation of from seven to ten thousand feet or more is reached by following the ridges, the canyons on the west slope being accessible only to the birds and the roaring falling rivers. Approaching the range from the grey levels of Mono and Owens Valley the steep short passes are in full view between the peaks, their feet in hot sand, their heads in snow, the courses of the more direct being disclosed nearly all the way from top to bottom. But from the west side one sees nothing of the pass sought for until nearing the summit, after spending days in threading the forests on the main dividing ridges between the canyons of the rivers, most of the way even the highest peaks being hidden.

The more rugged and inaccessible the general character of the topography of any particular region, the more surely will the trails of white men, Indians, bears, deer, wild sheep, etc., converge into the best passes. The Indians of the west slope venture cautiously across the range in settled weather to attend dances and obtain loads of pine-nuts and the larvae of a small fly that breeds in Mono and Owens lakes, while the desert Indians cross to the west for acorns and to hunt, fight, etc. The women carry the heavy burdens with marvelous endurance over the sharpest stones barefooted, while the men stride on erect a little in advance, stooping occasionally to pile up stepping-stones for them against steep rock-fronts, just as they would prepare the way in difficult places for their ponies. Sometimes, delaying their journeys until too late in the season, they are overtaken by heavy snowstorms and perish miserably, not all their skill in mountain-craft being sufficient to save them under the fierce onsets of the most violent of autumn storms when caught unprepared. Bears evince great sagacity as mountaineers, but they seldom cross the range. I have several times tracked them through the Mono Pass, but only in late years, after cattle and sheep had passed that way, when they doubtless were following to feed on the stragglers and those that had fallen over the precipices. Even the wild sheep, the best mountaineers of all, choose regular passes in crossing the summits on their way to their summer or winter pastures. Deer seldom cross over from one side of the range to the other. I have never seen the Mule-deer of the Great Basin west of the summit, and rarely the Black-tailed species on the eastern slopes, notwithstanding many of the latter ascend the range nearly to the head of the canyons among the peaks every summer to hide and feed in the wild gardens, and bring forth their young.

Having thus indicated in a general way the height, geographical position, and leading features of the main passes, we will now endeavor to see the Mono Pass more in detail, since it may, I think, be regarded as a good example of the higher passes accessible to the ordinary traveler in search of exhilarating scenery and adventure. The greater portion of it is formed by Bloody Canyon, which heads on the summit of the range, and extends in a general east-northeasterly direction to the edge of the Mono Plain. Long before its discovery by the whites, this wonderful canyon was known as a pass by the Indians of the neighborhood, as is shown by their many old trails leading into it from every direction. But little have they marked the grand canyon itself, hardly more than the birds have in flying through its shadows. No stone tells a word of wild foray or raid. Storm-winds and avalanches keep it swept fresh and clean.

The first white men that forced a way through its sombre depths with pack-animals were companies of eager adventurous miners, men who would build a trail down the throat of the darkest inferno on their way to gold. The name Bloody Canyon may have been derived from the red color of the metamorphic slates in which it is in great part eroded, or more probably from the blood stains made by the unfortunate animals that were compelled to slide and shuffle awkwardly over the rough cutting edges of the rocks, in which case it is too well named, for I have never known mules or horses, however sure-footed, to make their way either up or down the canyon, without leaving a trail more or less marked with blood. Occasionally one is killed outright by falling over some precipice like a boulder. But such instances are less common than the appearance of the place would lead one to expect, the more experienced, when driven loose, picking their way with wonderful sagacity.

During the exciting times that followed the discovery of gold near Mono Lake it frequently became a matter of considerable pecuniary importance to force a way through the canyon with pack trains early in the spring, while it was yet heavily choked with winter snow. Then, though the way was smooth, it was steep and slippery, and the footing of the animals giving way, they sometimes rolled over sidewise with their loads, or end over end, compelling the use of ropes in sliding them down the steepest slopes where it was impossible to walk.

A good bridle-path leads from Yosemite through the Big Tuolumne Meadows to the head of the canyon. Here the scenery shows a sudden and startling condensation. Mountains red, black, and grey rise close at hand on the right, white in the shadows with banks of enduring snow. On the left swells the huge red mass of Mt. Gibbs, while in front the eye wanders down the tremendous gorge, and out on the warm plain of Mono, where the lake is seen in its setting of grey light like a burnished disc of metal, volcanic cones to the south of it, and the smooth mountain ranges of Nevada beyond fading in the purple distance.

Entering the mountain gateway the sombre rocks seem to come close about us, as if conscious of our presence. Happily the ouzel and old familiar robin are here to sing us welcome, and azure daisies beaming with sympathy, enabling us to feel something of Nature's love even here, beneath the gaze of her coldest rocks. The peculiar impressiveness of the huge rocks is enhanced by the quiet aspect of the wide Alpine meadows through which the trail meanders just before entering the narrow pass. The forests in which they lie, and the mountaintops rising beyond them, seem hushed and tranquil. Yielding to their soothing influences, we saunter on among flowers and bees scarce conscious of any definite thought; then suddenly we find ourselves in the huge, dark jaws of the canyon, closeted with nature in one of her wildest strongholds.

After the first bewildering impression begins to wear off, and we become reassured by the glad birds and flowers, a chain of small lakes is seen, extending from the very summit of the pass, linked together by a silvery stream, that seems to lead the way and invite us on. Those near the summit are set in bleak rough rock-bowls, scantily fringed with sedges. Winter storms drive snow through the canyon in blinding drifts, and avalanches shoot from the heights rushing and booming like waterfalls. Then are these sparkling tams filled and buried leaving no sign of their existence. In June and July they begin to blink and thaw out like sleepy eyes; sedges thrust up their short brown spikes about their shores, the daisies bloom in turn, and the most profoundly snow-buried of them all is at length warmed and dressed as if winter were only the dream of a night. Red Lake is the lowest of the chain and also the largest. It seems rather dull and forbidding, at first sight, lying motionless in its deep, dark bed, seldom stiffed during the day by any wind strong enough to make a wave.

The canyon wall rises sheer from the water's edge on the south, but on the opposite side there is sufficient space and sunshine for a fine garden. Daisies star the sod about the margin of it, and the center is lighted with tall lilies, castilleias, larkspurs and columbines, while leafy willows make a fine protecting hedge; the whole forming a joyful outburst of warm, rosy plantlife keenly emphasized by the raw, flinty baldness of the onlooking cliffs.

After resting in the lake the happy stream sets forth again on its travels warbling and trilling like an ouzel, ever delightfully confiding, no matter how rough the way; leaping, gliding, hither, thither, foaming or clear, and displaying the beauty of its virgin wildness at every bound.

One of its most beautiful developments is the Diamond Cascade, situated a short distance below Red Lake. The crisp water is first dashed into coarse granular spray that sheds off the light in quick flashing lances, mixed farther down with loose dusty foam; then it is divided into a diamond pattern by tracing the diagonal cleavage joints that intersect the face of the precipice over which it pours. Viewed in front, it resembles a wide sheet of embroidery of definite pattern, with an outer covering of fine mist, the whole varying with the temperature and the volume of water. Scarce a flower may be seen along its snowy border. A few bent pines took on from a distance, and small fringes of cassiope and rock-ferns grow in fissures near the head, but these are so lowly and undemonstrative only the attentive observer will be likely to notice them.

A little below the Diamond Cascade, on the north wall of the canyon, there is a long, narrow fall about two thousand feet in height that makes a fine, telling show of itself in contrast with the dull, red rocks over which it hangs. A ragged talus curves up against the cliff in front of it, overgrown with a tangle of snow-pressed willows, in which it disappears with many a surge, and swirl, and plashing leap, and finally wins its way, still grey with foam, to a confluence with the main canyon stream.

Below this point the climate is no longer arctic. Butterflies become more abundant, grasses with showy purple panicles wave above your shoulders, and the deep summery drone of the bumble-bee thickens the air. Pinus Albicaulis, the tree mountaineer that climbs highest and braves the coldest blasts, is found in dwarfed, wind-bent clumps throughout the upper half of the canyon, gradually becoming more erect, until it is joined by the two-leafed pine, which again is succeeded by the taller yellow and mountain pines. These, with the burly juniper and trembling aspen, rapidly grow larger as they descend into the richer sunshine, forming groves that block the view; or they stand more apart in picturesque groups here and there, making beautiful and obvious harmony with each other, and with the rocks. Blooming underbrush also becomes abundant,--azalea, spiraea, and dogwood weaving rich fringes for the stream, and shaggy rugs for the stem unflinching rock-bosses, adding beauty to their strength, and fragrance to the winds and the breath of the waterfalls. Through this blessed wilderness the canyon stream roams free, without any restraining channel, stirring the bushes like a rustling breeze, throbbing and wavering in wide swirls and zigzags, now in the sunshine, now in the shade; dancing, falling, flashing from side to side beneath the lofty walls in weariless exuberance of energy.

A glorious milky way of cascades is thus developed whose individual beauties might well call forth volumes of description. Bower Cascade is among the smallest, yet it is perhaps the most beautiful of them all. It is situated in the lower region of the pass where the sunshine begins to mellow between the cold and warm climates. Here the glad stream, grown strong with tribute gathered from many a snowy fountain, sings richer strains, and becomes more human and lovable at every step. Now you may see the rose and homely yarrow by its side, and bits of meadow with clover, and bees. At the head of a low-browed rock, luxuriant cornel and willow bushes arch over from side to side, embowering the stream with their leafy branches; and waving plumes, kept in motion by the current, make a graceful fringe in front.

From so fine a bower as this, after all its dashing among bare rocks on the heights, the stream leaps out into the light in a fluted curve, thick-sown with sparkling crystals, and falls into a pool among brown boulders, out of which it creeps grey with foam, and disappears beneath a roof of verdure like that from which it came. Hence to the foot of the canyon the metamorphic slates give place to granite, whose nobler sculpture calls forth corresponding expressions of beauty from the stream in passing over it--bright trills of rapids, booming notes of falls, and the solemn hushing tones of smooth gliding sheets, all chanting and blending in pure wild harmony. And when at length its impetuous alpine life is done, it slips through a meadow at the foot of the canyon, and rests in Moraine Lake. This lake, about a mile long, lying between massive moraines piled up centuries ago by the grand old canyon glacier, is the last of the beautiful beds of the stream. Tall silver firs wave soothingly about its shores, and the breath of flowers, borne by the winds from the mountains, drifts over it like incense. Henceforth the stream, now grow stately and tranquil, glides through meadows full of gentians, and groves of rustling aspen, to its confluence with Rush Creek, with which it flows across the desert and falls into the Dead Sea.

At Moraine Lake the canyon terminates, although apparently continued by two lateral moraines of imposing dimensions and regularity of structure. They extend out into the plain about five miles, with a height, toward their upper ends, of nearly three hundred feet. Their cool, shady sides are evenly forested with silver-firs, while the sides facing the sun are planted with showy flowers, a square rod containing five to six profusely flowered eriogonums of several species, about the same number of bahias and linosyris, and a few poppies, phloxes, gilias and grasses, each species planted trimly apart with bare soil between as if cultivated artificially.

My first visit to Bloody Canyon was made in the summer of 1869, under circumstances well calculated to heighten the impressions that are the peculiar offspring of mountains. I came from the blooming tangles of Florida, and waded out into the plant-gold of the great Central plain of California while its unrivaled flora was as yet untrodden. Never before had I beheld congregations of social flowers half so extensive, or half so glorious. Golden compositae covered all the ground from the Coast Range to the Sierra like a stratum of denser sunshine, in which I reveled for weeks, then gave myself up to be home forward on the crest of the summer plant-wave that sweeps annually up the Sierra flank, and spends itself on its snowy summits. At the Big Tuolumne Meadows I remained more than a month, sketching, botanizing, and climbing among the surrounding mountains ere the fame of Bloody Canyon had reached me.

The mountaineer with whom I camped was one of those remarkable men so frequently found in California, the bold angles of whose character have been brought into relief by the grinding effects of the gold-period, like the features of glacier landscapes. But at this late day my friend's activities had subsided, and his craving for rest had caused him to become a gentle shepherd, and literally to lie down with a lamb, on the smoothest meadows he could find. Recognizing my Scotch Highland instincts, he threw out some hints about Bloody Canyon, and advised me to explore it. "I have never seen it myself," he said, "for I never was so unfortunate as to pass that way; but I have heard many a strange story about it; and I warrant you will find it wild enough."

Next day I made up a package of bread, tied my notebook to my belt, and strode away in the bracing air, every nerve and muscle tingling with eager indefinite hope, and ready to give welcome to all the wilderness might offer. The plushy lawns staffed with blue gentians and daisies soothed my morning haste, and made me linger; they were all so fresh, so sweet, so peaceful.

Climbing higher, as the day passed away, I traced the paths of the ancient glaciers over many a shining pavement, and marked the lanes in the upper forests that told the power of the winter avalanches. Still higher, I noted the gradual dwarfing of the pines in compliance with climate, and on the summit discovered creeping mats of the arctic willow, low as the lowliest grasses; and patches of dwarf vaccinium, with its round pink bells sprinkled over the sod as if they had fallen from the sky like hail; while in every direction the landscape stretched sublimely away in fresh wildness, a manuscript written by the hand of Nature alone.

At length, entering the gate of the pass, the huge rocks began to close around me in all their mysterious impressiveness; and as I gazed awe-stricken down the shadowy gulf, a drove of grey, hairy creatures came suddenly into view, lumbering towards me with a kind of boneless wallowing motion like bears. However, grim and startling as they appeared, they proved to be nothing more formidable than Mono Indians dressed in a loose, shapeless way in the skins of sage rabbits sewed together into square robes. Both the men and women begged persistently for whiskey and tobacco, and seemed so accustomed to denials, that it was impossible to convince them that I had none to give. Excepting the names of these two luxuries, they spoke no English, but I afterwards learned that they were on their way to Yosemite Valley to feast awhile on fish and flour, and procure a load of acorns to carry back through the pass to their huts on the shore of Mono Lake.

A good countenance may now and then be discovered among the Monos, but these, the first specimens I have seen, were mostly ugly, or altogether hideous. The dirt on their faces was fairly stratified in the hollows, and seemed so ancient and undisturbed as almost to possess a geological significance. The older faces were, moreover, strangely blurred and divided into sections by furrows that looked like some of the cleavage joints of rocks, suggesting exposure in a castaway condition for ages. They seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading down the pass out of sight.

Then came evening, and the sombre cliffs were inspired with the ineffable beauty of the alpenglow. A solemn calm fell upon every feature of the scene. All the lower depths of the canyon were in the gloaming shadow, and one by one the mighty rock fronts forming the walls grew dim and vanished in the thickening darkness. Soon the night-wind began to flow and pour in torrents among the jagged peaks, mingling its strange tones with those of the waterfalls sounding far below. And as I lay by my camp-fire in a little hollow near one of the upper lakes listening to the wild sounds, the great full moon looked down over the verge of the canyon wall, her face seemingly filled with intense concern, and apparently so near as to produce a startling effect, as if she had entered one's bedroom, forsaking all the world besides to concentrate on me alone.

The night was full of strange weird sounds, and I gladly welcomed the morning. Breakfast was soon done, and I set forth in the exhilarating freshness of the new day, rejoicing in the abundance of pure wildness so closely pressed about me. The stupendous rock walls, like two separate mountain ranges, stood forward in the thin, bright light, hacked and scarred by centuries of storms, while down in the bottom of the canyon, grooved and polished bosses heaved and glistened like swelling sea-waves, telling a grand old story of the ancient glacier that once poured its crushing floods above them.

Here for the first time I met the Artic daisies in all their perfection of pure spirituality--gentle mountaineers, face to face with the frosty sky, kept safe and warm, by a thousand miracles. I leaped lightly from rock to rock, glorying in the eternal freshness and sufficiency of nature, and in the rugged tenderness with which she nurtures her mountain darlings in the very homes and fountains of storms.

Fresh beauty appeared at every step, delicate rock-ferns, and tufts of the fairest flowers. Now another lake came to view, now a waterfall. Never fell light in brighter spangles, never fell water in whiter foam. I seemed to float through the canyon enchanted, feeling nothing of its roughness, and was out in the glaring Mono levels ere I was aware.

Looking back from the shore of Moraine Lake, my morning ramble seemed all a dream. There curved Bloody Canyon, a mere glacier furrow two thousand and three thousand feet deep, with moutonnée rocks advancing from the sides, and braided together in the middle like rounded, swelling muscles. Here the lilies were higher than my head, and the sunshine was warm enough for palms. Yet the snow around the Arctic willows on the summit was plainly visible, only a few miles away, and between lay narrow specimen belts of all the principal climates of the globe.

About five miles below the foot of Moraine Lake, where the lateral moraines terminate in the plain, there was a field of wild rye, growing in magnificent waving bunches six to eight feet high, and bearing heads from six to twelve inches long. Indian women were gathering the grain in baskets, bending down large handfuls of the ears, beating them with sticks, and fanning out the rye in the wind. They formed striking and picturesque groups as one caught glimpses of them here and there in winding lanes and openings with splendid tufts arching overhead, while their incessant chat and laughter proclaimed their careless joy.

I found the so-called Mono Desert, like the rye-field, in a high state of natural cultivation with the wild rose and the delicate pink-flowered abronia; and innumerable erigerons, gilias, phloxes, poppies and bush-compositae, growing not only along stream-banks, but out in the hot sand and ashes in openings among the sage-brush, and even in the craters of the highest volcanoes, cheering the grey wilderness with their rosy bloom, and literally giving beauty for ashes.

Beyond the moraines the trail turns to the left toward Mono Lake, now in sight around the spurs of the mountains, and touches its western shore at a distance from the foot of the pass of about six miles. Skirting the lake, you make your way over low bluffs and moraine piles, and through many a tangle of snow-crinkled aspens and berry bushes, growing on the banks of fine, dashing streams that come from the snows of the summits.

Here are the favorite camping grounds of the Indians, littered with piles of pine-burrs from which the seeds have been beaten. Many of their fragile willow huts are broken and abandoned; others arch airily over family groups that are seen lying at ease, pictures of thoughtless contentment, their wild, animal eyes glowering at you as you pass, their black shocks of hair perchance bedecked with red castilleias and their bent, bulky stomachs filled with no white man knows what. Some of these mountain streams pouring into the lake have deep and swift currents at the fording places, and their channels are so roughly paved with boulders that crossing them at the time of high water is rather dangerous. That Mono Lake should have no outlet, while so many perennial streams flow into it, seems strange at first sight, before the immense waste by evaporation in so dry an atmosphere is recognized. Most of its shores being low, any considerable rise of its waters greatly enlarges its area, followed of course by a corresponding increase of evaporation, which tends towards constancy of level within comparatively narrow limit. Nevertheless, on the flanks of the mountains, drawn in well-marked lines, you may see several ancient beaches that mark the successive levels at which the lake stood toward the close of the glacial period, the highest more than six hundred feet above the present level. Then, under a climate as marked by coolness and excessive moisture as the present by devouring drought, the dimensions of the lake must have been vastly greater. Indeed, a study of the whole plateau region, named by Fremont "the Great Basin," extending from the Sierra to the Wahsatch mountains, a distance of 400 miles, shows that it was covered by inland seas of fresh water that were only partially separated by the innumerable hills and mountain ranges of the region, which then existed as islands, forming an archipelago of unrivaled grandeur.

The lake water is as clear as the snow-strearns that feed it, but intensely acrid and nauseating from the excessive quantities of salts accumulated by evaporation beneath a burning sun. Of course no fish can live in it, but large flocks of geese, ducks, and swans come from beyond the mountains at certain seasons, and gulls also in great numbers, to breed on a group of volcanic islands that rise near the center of the lake, thus making the dead, bitter sea lively and cheerful while they stay. The eggs of the gulls used to be gathered for food by the Indians, who floated to the islands on rafts made of willows; but since the occurrence of a great storm on the lake a few years ago, that overtook them on their way back from the islands, they have not ventured from the shore. Their rafts were broken up and many were drowned. This disaster, which some still living have good cause to remember, together with certain superstitious fears concerning evil spirits supposed to dwell in the lake and rule its waves, make them content with the safer and far more important product of the shores, chief of which is the larvae of a small fly that breeds in the slimy froth in the shallows. When the worms are ripe, and the waves have collected them and driven them up the beach in rich oily windrows, then old and young make haste to the curious harvest, and gather he living grain in baskets and buckets of every description. After being washed and dried in the sun it is stored for winter. Raw or cooked, it is regarded as a fine luxury, and delicious dressing for other kinds of food acorn-mush, clover-salad, grass-seed-pudding, etc. So important is this small worm to the neighboring tribes, it forms a subject of dispute about as complicated and perennial as the Newfoundland cod. After waging worm-wars until everybody is weary and hungry, the belligerents mark off boundary lines, assigning stated sections of the shores to each tribe, where the harvest may be gathered in peace until fresh quarrels have time to grow. Tribes too feeble to establish rights must needs procure their worm supply from their more fortunate neighbors, giving nuts, acorns or ponies in exchange.

This "diet of worms" is further enriched by a large, fat caterpillar, a species of silk-worm found on the yellow pines to the south of the lake; and as they also gather the seeds of this pine, they get a double crop from it--meat and bread from the same tree.

Forbidding as this grey, ashy wilderness is to the dweller in green fields, to the red man it is a paradise full of all the good things of life. A Yosemite Indian with whom I was acquainted while living in the valley, went over the mountains to Mono every year on a pleasure trip, and when I asked what could induce him to go to so poor a country when, as a hotel servant, he enjoyed all the white man's good things in abundance, he replied, that Mono had better things to eat than anything to be found in the hotel--plenty deer, plenty wild sheep, plenty antelope, plenty worm, plenty berry, plenty sagehen, plenty rabbit--drawing a picture of royal abundance that from his point of view surpassed everything else the world had to offer.

A sail on the lake develops many a fine picture--the natives along the curving shores seen against so grand a mountain background; water birds stirring the glassy surface into white dancing spangles; the islands, black, pink and grey, rising into a cloud of white wings of gulls; volcanoes dotting the hazy plain; and, grandest of all overshadowing all, the mighty barrier wall of the Sierra, heaving into the sky from the water's edge, and stretching away to north and south with its marvelous wealth of peaks and crests and deep-cutting notches keenly defined, or fading away in the soft purple distance; cumulus clouds swelling over all in huge mountain bosses of pearl, building a mountain range of cloud upon a range of rock, the one as firmly sculptured, and as grand and showy and substantial as the other.

The magnificent cluster of volcanoes to the south of the lake may easily be visited from the foot of Bloody Canyon, the distance being only about six miles. The highest of the group rises about 2,700 feet above the lake. They are all post-glacial in age, having been erupted from what was once the bottom of the south end of the lake, through stratified glacial drift. During their numerous periods of activity they have scattered showers of ashes and cinders over all the adjacent plains and mountains within a radius of twenty to thirty miles.

Nowhere within the bounds of our wonder-filled land are the antagonistic forces of fire and ice brought more closely and contrastingly together. So striking are the volcanic phenomena, we seem to be among the very hearths and firesides of nature. Then turning to the mountains while standing in drifting ashes, we behold huge moraines issuing from the cool jaws of the great canyons, marking the pathways of glaciers that crawled down the mountain sides laden with debris and pushed their frozen floods into the deep waters of the lake in thundering icebergs, as they are now descending into the inland waters of Alaska, not a single Arctic character being wanting, where now the traveler is blinded in a glare of tropical light.

Americans are little aware as yet of the grandeur of their own land, as is too often manifested by going on foreign excursions, while the wonders of our unrivaled plains and mountains are left unseen. We have Laplands and Labradors of our own, and streams from glacier-caves--rivers of mercy sacred as the Himalaya-born Ganges. We have our Shasta Vesuvius also, and bay, with its Golden Gate, beautiful as the Bay of Naples. And here among our inland plains are African Saharas, dead seas, and deserts, dotted with oases, where congregate the travelers, coming in long caravans--the trader with his goods and gold, and the Indian with his weapons--the Bedouin of the California desert.


[Back to chapter 1]   ·   [Forward to chapter 4]


Home | Alphabetical Index | What's New | Message Board


Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2014 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.