The Mountains by Stewart Edward White
XII. The Canon
One day we tied our horses to three bushes, and walked on foot two hundred yards. Then we looked down.
It was nearly four thousand feet down. Do you realize how far that is? There was a river meandering through olive-colored forests. It was so distant that it was light green and as narrow as a piece of tape. Here and there were rapids, but so remote that we could not distinguish the motion of them, only the color. The white resembled tiny dabs of cotton wool stuck on the tape. It turned and twisted, following the turns and twists of the canon. Somehow the level at the bottom resembled less forests and meadows than a heavy and sluggish fluid like molasses flowing between the canon walls. It emerged from the bend of a sheer cliff ten miles to eastward: it disappeared placidly around the bend of another sheer cliff an equal distance to the westward.
The time was afternoon. As we watched, the shadow of the canon wall darkened the valley. Whereupon we looked up.
Now the upper air, of which we were dwellers for the moment, was peopled by giants and clear atmosphere and glittering sunlight, flashing like silver and steel and precious stones from the granite domes, peaks, minarets, and palisades of the High Sierras. Solid as they were in reality, in the crispness of this mountain air, under the tangible blue of this mountain sky, they seemed to poise light as so many balloons. Some of them rose sheer, with hardly a fissure; some had flung across their shoulders long trailing pine draperies, fine as fur; others matched mantles of the whitest white against the bluest blue of the sky. Towards the lower country were more pines rising in ridges, like the fur of an animal that has been alarmed.
We dangled our feet over the edge and talked about it. Wes pointed to the upper end where the sluggish lava-like flow of the canon-bed first came into view.
"That's where we'll camp," said he.
"When?" we asked.
"When we get there," he answered.
For this canon lies in the heart of the mountains. Those who would visit it have first to get into the country--a matter of over a week. Then they have their choice of three probabilities of destruction.
The first route comprehends two final days of travel at an altitude of about ten thousand feet, where the snow lies in midsummer; where there is no feed, no comfort, and the way is strewn with the bones of horses. This is known as the "Basin Trail." After taking it, you prefer the others--until you try them.
The finish of the second route is directly over the summit of a mountain. You climb two thousand feet and then drop down five. The ascent is heart- breaking but safe. The descent is hair-raising and unsafe: no profanity can do justice to it. Out of a pack-train of thirty mules, nine were lost in the course of that five thousand feet. Legend has it that once many years ago certain prospectors took in a Chinese cook. At first the Mongolian bewailed his fate loudly and fluently, but later settled to a single terrified moan that sounded like "tu-ne-mah! tu-ne- mah!" The trail was therefore named the "Tu-ne- mah Trail." It is said that "tu-ne-mah" is the very worst single vituperation of which the Chinese language is capable.
The third route is called "Hell's Half Mile." It is not misnamed.
Thus like paradise the canon is guarded; but like paradise it is wondrous in delight. For when you descend you find that the tape-wide trickle of water seen from above has become a river with profound darkling pools and placid stretches and swift dashing rapids; that the dark green sluggish flow in the canon-bed has disintegrated into a noble forest with great pine-trees, and shaded aisles, and deep dank thickets, and brush openings where the sun is warm and the birds are cheerful, and groves of cottonwoods where all day long softly, like snow, the flakes of cotton float down through the air. Moreover there are meadows, spacious lawns, opening out, closing in, winding here and there through the groves in the manner of spilled naphtha, actually waist high with green feed, sown with flowers like a brocade. Quaint tributary little brooks babble and murmur down through these trees, down through these lawns. A blessed warm sun hums with the joy of innumerable bees. To right hand and to left, in front of you and behind, rising sheer, forbidding, impregnable, the cliffs, mountains, and ranges hem you in. Down the river ten miles you can go: then the gorge closes, the river grows savage, you can only look down the tumbling fierce waters and turn back. Up the river five miles you can go, then interpose the sheer snow-clad cliffs of the Palisades, and them, rising a matter of fourteen thousand feet, you may not cross. You are shut in your paradise as completely as though surrounded by iron bars.
But, too, the world is shut out. The paradise is yours. In it are trout and deer and grouse and bear and lazy happy days. Your horses feed to the fatness of butter. You wander at will in the ample though definite limits of your domain. You lie on your back and examine dispassionately, with an interest entirely detached, the huge cliff-walls of the valley. Days slip by. Really, it needs at least an angel with a flaming sword to force you to move on.
We turned away from our view and addressed ourselves to the task of finding out just when we were going to get there. The first day we bobbed up and over innumerable little ridges of a few hundred feet elevation, crossed several streams, and skirted the wide bowl-like amphitheatre of a basin. The second day we climbed over things and finally ended in a small hanging park named Alpine Meadows, at an elevation of eight thousand five hundred feet. There we rested-over a day, camped under a single pine- tree, with the quick-growing mountain grasses thick about us, a semicircle of mountains on three sides, and the plunge into the canon on the other. As we needed meat, we spent part of the day in finding a deer. The rest of the time we watched idly for bear.
Bears are great travelers. They will often go twenty miles overnight, apparently for the sheer delight of being on the move. Also are they exceedingly loath to expend unnecessary energy in getting to places, and they hate to go down steep hills. You see, their fore legs are short. Therefore they are skilled in the choice of easy routes through the mountains, and once having made the choice they stick to it until through certain narrow places on the route selected they have worn a trail as smooth as a garden-path. The old prospectors used quite occasionally to pick out the horse-passes by trusting in general to the bear migrations, and many a well-traveled route of to-day is superimposed over the way-through picked out by old bruin long ago.
Of such was our own trail. Therefore we kept our rifles at hand and our eyes open for a straggler. But none came, though we baited craftily with portions of our deer. All we gained was a rattlesnake, and he seemed a bit out of place so high up in the air.
Mount Tunemah stood over against us, still twenty-two hundred feet above our elevation. We gazed on it sadly, for directly by its summit, and for five hours beyond, lay our trail, and evil of reputation was that trail beyond all others. The horses, as we bunched them in preparation for the packing, took on a new interest, for it was on the cards that the unpacking at evening would find some missing from the ranks.
"Lily's a goner, sure," said Wes. "I don't know how she's got this far except by drunken man's luck. She'll never make the Tunemah."
"And Tunemah himself," pointed out the Tenderfoot, naming his own fool horse; "I see where I start in to walk."
"Sort of a `morituri te salutamur,' " said I.
We climbed the two thousand two hundred feet, leading our saddle-horses to save their strength. Every twenty feet we rested, breathing heavily of the rarified air. Then at the top of the world we paused on the brink of nothing to tighten cinches, while the cold wind swept by us, the snow glittered in a sunlight become silvery like that of early April, and the giant peaks of the High Sierras lifted into a distance inconceivably remote, as though the horizon had been set back for their accommodation.
To our left lay a windrow of snow such as you will see drifted into a sharp crest across a corner of your yard; only this windrow was twenty feet high and packed solid by the sun, the wind, and the weight of its age. We climbed it and looked over directly into the eye of a round Alpine lake seven or eight hundred feet below. It was of an intense cobalt blue, a color to be seen only in these glacial bodies of water, deep and rich as the mantle of a merchant of Tyre. White ice floated in it. The savage fierce granite needles and knife-edges of the mountain crest hemmed it about.
But this was temporizing, and we knew it. The first drop of the trail was so steep that we could flip a pebble to the first level of it, and so rough in its water-and-snow-gouged knuckles of rocks that it seemed that at the first step a horse must necessarily fall end over end. We made it successfully, however, and breathed deep. Even Lily, by a miracle of lucky scrambling, did not even stumble.
"Now she's easy for a little ways," said Wes, "then we'll get busy."
When we "got busy" we took our guns in our hands to preserve them from a fall, and started in. Two more miracles saved Dinkey at two more places. We spent an hour at one spot, and finally built a new trail around it. Six times a minute we held our breaths and stood on tiptoe with anxiety, powerless to help, while the horse did his best. At the especially bad places we checked them off one after another, congratulating ourselves on so much saved as each came across without accident. When there were no bad places, the trail was so extraordinarily steep that we ahead were in constant dread of a horse's falling on us from behind, and our legs did become wearied to incipient paralysis by the constant stiff checking of the descent. Moreover every second or so one of the big loose stones with which the trail was cumbered would be dislodged and come bouncing down among us. We dodged and swore; the horses kicked; we all feared for the integrity of our legs. The day was full of an intense nervous strain, an entire absorption in the precise present. We promptly forgot a difficulty as soon as we were by it: we had not time to think of those still ahead. All outside the insistence of the moment was blurred and unimportant, like a specialized focus, so I cannot tell you much about the scenery. The only outside impression we received was that the canon floor was slowly rising to meet us.
Then strangely enough, as it seemed, we stepped off to level ground.
Our watches said half-past three. We had made five miles in a little under seven hours.
Remained only the crossing of the river. This was no mean task, but we accomplished it lightly, searching out a ford. There were high grasses, and on the other side of them a grove of very tall cottonwoods, clean as a park. First of all we cooked things; then we spread things; then we lay on our backs and smoked things, our hands clasped back of our heads. We cocked ironical eyes at the sheer cliff of old Mount Tunemah, very much as a man would cock his eye at a tiger in a cage.
Already the meat-hawks, the fluffy Canada jays, had found us out, and were prepared to swoop down boldly on whatever offered to their predatory skill. We had nothing for them yet,--there were no remains of the lunch,--but the fire-irons were out, and ribs of venison were roasting slowly over the coals in preparation for the evening meal. Directly opposite, visible through the lattice of the trees, were two huge mountain peaks, part of the wall that shut us in, over against us in a height we had not dared ascribe to the sky itself. By and by the shadow of these mountains rose on the westerly wall. It crept up at first slowly, extinguishing color; afterwards more rapidly as the sun approached the horizon. The sunlight disappeared. A moment's gray intervened, and then the wonderful golden afterglow laid on the peaks its enchantment. Little by little that too faded, until at last, far away, through a rift in the ranks of the giants, but one remained gilded by the glory of a dream that continued with it after the others. Heretofore it had seemed to us an insignificant peak, apparently overtopped by many, but by this token we knew it to be the highest of them all.
Then ensued another pause, as though to give the invisible scene-shifter time to accomplish his work, followed by a shower of evening coolness, that seemed to sift through the trees like a soft and gentle rain. We ate again by the flicker of the fire, dabbing a trifle uncertainly at the food, wondering at the distant mountain on which the Day had made its final stand, shrinking a little before the stealthy dark that flowed down the canon in the manner of a heavy smoke.
In the notch between the two huge mountains blazed a star,--accurately in the notch, like the front sight of a rifle sighted into the marvelous depths of space. Then the moon rose.
First we knew of it when it touched the crest of our two mountains. The night has strange effects on the hills. A moment before they had menaced black and sullen against the sky, but at the touch of the moon their very substance seemed to dissolve, leaving in the upper atmosphere the airiest, most nebulous, fragile, ghostly simulacrums of themselves you could imagine in the realms of fairy-land. They seemed actually to float, to poise like cloud-shapes about to dissolve. And against them were cast the inky silhouettes of three fir-trees in the shadow near at hand.
Down over the stones rolled the river, crying out to us with the voices of old accustomed friends in another wilderness. The winds rustled.