The Mountains by Stewart Edward White
XVI. The Valley
Once upon a time I happened to be staying in a hotel room which had originally been part of a suite, but which was then cut off from the others by only a thin door through which sounds carried clearly. It was about eleven o'clock in the evening. The occupants of that next room came home. I heard the door open and close. Then the bed shrieked aloud as somebody fell heavily upon it. There breathed across the silence a deep restful sigh.
"Mary," said a man's voice, "I'm mighty sorry I didn't join that Association for Artificial Vacations. They guarantee to get you just as tired and just as mad in two days as you could by yourself in two weeks."
We thought of that one morning as we descended the Glacier Point Trail in Yosemite.
The contrast we need not have made so sharp. We might have taken the regular wagon-road by way of Chinquapin, but we preferred to stick to the trail, and so encountered our first sign of civilization within an hundred yards of the brink. It, the sign, was tourists. They were male and female, as the Lord had made them, but they had improved on that idea since. The women were freckled, hatted with alpines, in which edelweiss--artificial, I think --flowered in abundance; they sported severely plain flannel shirts, bloomers of an aggressive and unnecessary cut, and enormous square boots weighing pounds. The men had on hats just off the sunbonnet effect, pleated Norfolk jackets, bloomers ditto ditto to the women, stockings whose tops rolled over innumerable times to help out the size of that which they should have contained, and also enormous square boots. The female children they put in skin-tight blue overalls. The male children they dressed in bloomers. Why this should be I cannot tell you. All carried toy hatchets with a spike on one end built to resemble the pictures of alpenstocks.
They looked business-like, trod with an assured air of veterans and a seeming of experience more extended than it was possible to pack into any one human life. We stared at them, our eyes bulging out. They painfully and evidently concealed a curiosity as to our pack-train. We wished them good-day, in order to see to what language heaven had fitted their extraordinary ideas as regards raiment. They inquired the way to something or other--I think Sentinel Dome. We had just arrived, so we did not know, but in order to show a friendly spirit we blandly pointed out A way. It may have led to Sentinel Dome for all I know. They departed uttering thanks in human speech.
Now this particular bunch of tourists was evidently staying at the Glacier Point, and so was fresh. But in the course of that morning we descended straight down a drop of, is it four thousand feet? The trail was steep and long and without water. During the descent we passed first and last probably twoscore of tourists, all on foot. A good half of them were delicate women,--young, middle-aged, a few gray- haired and evidently upwards of sixty. There were also old men, and fat men, and men otherwise out of condition. Probably nine out of ten, counting in the entire outfit, were utterly unaccustomed, when at home where grow street-cars and hansoms, to even the mildest sort of exercise. They had come into the Valley, whose floor is over four thousand feet up, without the slightest physical preparation for the altitude. They had submitted to the fatigue of a long and dusty stage journey. And then they had merrily whooped it up at a gait which would have appalled seasoned old stagers like ourselves. Those blessed lunatics seemed positively unhappy unless they climbed up to some new point of view every day. I have never seen such a universally tired out, frazzled, vitally exhausted, white-faced, nervous community in my life as I did during our four days' stay in the Valley. Then probably they go away, and take a month to get over it, and have queer residual impressions of the trip. I should like to know what those impressions really are.
Not but that Nature has done everything in her power to oblige them. The things I am about to say are heresy, but I hold them true.
Yosemite is not as interesting nor as satisfying to me as some of the other big box canons, like those of the Tehipite, the Kings in its branches, or the Kaweah. I will admit that its waterfalls are better. Otherwise it possesses no features which are not to be seen in its sister valleys. And there is this difference. In Yosemite everything is jumbled together, apparently for the benefit of the tourist with a linen duster and but three days' time at his disposal. He can turn from the cliff-headland to the dome, from the dome to the half dome, to the glacier formation, the granite slide and all the rest of it, with hardly the necessity of stirring his feet. Nature has put samples of all her works here within reach of his cataloguing vision. Everything is crowded in together, like a row of houses in forty-foot lots. The mere things themselves are here in profusion and wonder, but the appropriate spacing, the approach, the surrounding of subordinate detail which should lead in artistic gradation to the supreme feature-- these things, which are a real and essential part of esthetic effect, are lacking utterly for want of room. The place is not natural scenery; it is a junk-shop, a storehouse, a sample-room wherein the elements of natural scenery are to be viewed. It is not an arrangement of effects in accordance with the usual laws of landscape, but an abnormality, a freak of Nature.
All these things are to be found elsewhere. There are cliffs which to the naked eye are as grand as El Capitan; domes, half domes, peaks as noble as any to be seen in the Valley; sheer drops as breath-taking as that from Glacier Point. But in other places each of these is led up to appropriately, and stands the central and satisfying feature to which all other things look. Then you journey on from your cliff, or whatever it happens to be, until, at just the right distance, so that it gains from the presence of its neighbor without losing from its proximity, a dome or a pinnacle takes to itself the right of prominence. I concede the waterfalls; but in other respects I prefer the sister valleys.
That is not to say that one should not visit Yosemite; nor that one will be disappointed. It is grand beyond any possible human belief; and no one, even a nerve-frazzled tourist, can gaze on it without the strongest emotion. Only it is not so intimately satisfying as it should be. It is a show. You do not take it into your heart. "Whew!" you cry. "Isn't that a wonder!" then after a moment, "Looks just like the photographs. Up to sample. Now let's go."
As we descended the trail, we and the tourists aroused in each other a mutual interest. One husband was trying to encourage his young and handsome wife to go on. She was beautifully dressed for the part in a marvelous, becoming costume of whipcord-- short skirt, high laced elkskin boots and the rest of it; but in all her magnificence she had sat down on the ground, her back to the cliff, her legs across the trail, and was so tired out that she could hardly muster interest enough to pull them in out of the way of our horses' hoofs. The man inquired anxiously of us how far it was to the top. Now it was a long distance to the top, but a longer to the bottom, so we lied a lie that I am sure was immediately forgiven us, and told them it was only a short climb. I should have offered them the use of Bullet, but Bullet had come far enough, and this was only one of a dozen such cases. In marked contrast was a jolly white- haired clergyman of the bishop type who climbed vigorously and hailed us with a shout.
The horses were decidedly unaccustomed to any such sights, and we sometimes had our hands full getting them by on the narrow way. The trail was safe enough, but it did have an edge, and that edge jumped pretty straight off. It was interesting to observe how the tourists acted. Some of them were perfect fools, and we had more trouble with them than we did with the horses. They could not seem to get the notion into their heads that all we wanted them to do was to get on the inside and stand still. About half of them were terrified to death, so that at the crucial moment, just as a horse was passing them, they had little fluttering panics that called the beast's attention. Most of the remainder tried to be bold and help. They reached out the hand of assistance toward the halter rope; the astonished animal promptly snorted, tried to turn around, cannoned against the next in line. Then there was a mix-up. Two tall clean-cut well-bred looking girls of our slim patrician type offered us material assistance. They seemed to understand horses, and got out of the way in the proper manner, did just the right thing, and made sensible suggestions. I offer them my homage.
They spoke to us as though they had penetrated the disguise of long travel, and could see we were not necessarily members of Burt Alvord's gang. This phase too of our descent became increasingly interesting to us, a species of gauge by which we measured the perceptions of those we encountered. Most did not speak to us at all. Others responded to our greetings with a reserve in which was more than a tinge of distrust. Still others patronized us. A very few overlooked our faded flannel shirts, our soiled trousers, our floppy old hats with their rattlesnake bands, the wear and tear of our equipment, to respond to us heartily. Them in return we generally perceived to belong to our totem.
We found the floor of the Valley well sprinkled with campers. They had pitched all kinds of tents; built all kinds of fancy permanent conveniences; erected all kinds of banners and signs advertising their identity, and were generally having a nice, easy, healthful, jolly kind of a time up there in the mountains. Their outfits they had either brought in with their own wagons, or had had freighted. The store near the bend of the Merced supplied all their needs. It was truly a pleasant sight to see so many people enjoying themselves, for they were mostly those in moderate circumstances to whom a trip on tourist lines would be impossible. We saw bakers' and grocers' and butchers' wagons that had been pressed into service. A man, his wife, and little baby had come in an ordinary buggy, the one horse of which, led by the man, carried the woman and baby to the various points of interest.
We reported to the official in charge, were allotted a camping and grazing place, and proceeded to make ourselves at home.
During the next two days we rode comfortably here and there and looked at things. The things could not be spoiled, but their effect was very materially marred by the swarms of tourists. Sometimes they were silly, and cracked inane and obvious jokes in ridicule of the grandest objects they had come so far to see; sometimes they were detestable and left their insignificant calling-cards or their unimportant names where nobody could ever have any object in reading them; sometimes they were pathetic and helpless and had to have assistance; sometimes they were amusing; hardly ever did they seem entirely human. I wonder what there is about the traveling public that seems so to set it apart, to make of it at least a sub-species of mankind?
Among other things, we were vastly interested in the guides. They were typical of this sort of thing. Each morning one of these men took a pleasantly awe-stricken band of tourists out, led them around in the brush awhile, and brought them back in time for lunch. They wore broad hats and leather bands and exotic raiment and fierce expressions, and looked dark and mysterious and extra-competent over the most trivial of difficulties.
Nothing could be more instructive than to see two or three of these imitation bad men starting out in the morning to "guide" a flock, say to Nevada Falls. The tourists, being about to mount, have outdone themselves in weird and awesome clothes--especially the women. Nine out of ten wear their stirrups too short, so their knees are hunched up. One guide rides at the head--great deal of silver spur, clanking chain, and the rest of it. Another rides in the rear. The third rides up and down the line, very gruff, very preoccupied, very careworn over the dangers of the way. The cavalcade moves. It proceeds for about a mile. There arise sudden cries, great but subdued excitement. The leader stops, raising a commanding hand. Guide number three gallops up. There is a consultation. The cinch-strap of the brindle shave-tail is taken up two inches. A catastrophe has been averted. The noble three look volumes of relief. The cavalcade moves again.
Now the trail rises. It is a nice, safe, easy trail. But to the tourists it is made terrible. The noble three see to that. They pass more dangers by the exercise of superhuman skill than you or I could discover in a summer's close search. The joke of the matter is that those forty-odd saddle-animals have been over that trail so many times that one would have difficulty in heading them off from it once they got started.
Very much the same criticism would hold as to the popular notion of the Yosemite stage-drivers. They drive well, and seem efficient men. But their wonderful reputation would have to be upheld on rougher roads than those into the Valley. The tourist is, of course, encouraged to believe that he is doing the hair-breadth escape; but in reality, as mountain travel goes, the Yosemite stage-road is very mild.
This that I have been saying is not by way of depreciation. But it seems to me that the Valley is wonderful enough to stand by itself in men's appreciation without the unreality of sickly sentimentalism in regard to imaginary dangers, or the histrionics of playing wilderness where no wilderness exists.
As we went out, this time by the Chinquapin wagon-road, we met one stage-load after another of tourists coming in. They had not yet donned the outlandish attire they believe proper to the occasion, and so showed for what they were,--prosperous, well-bred, well-dressed travelers. In contrast to their smartness, the brilliancy of new-painted stages, the dash of the horses maintained by the Yosemite Stage Company, our own dusty travel-worn outfit of mountain ponies, our own rough clothes patched and faded, our sheath-knives and firearms seemed out of place and curious, as though a knight in medieval armor were to ride down Broadway.
I do not know how many stages there were. We turned our pack-horses out for them all, dashing back and forth along the line, coercing the diabolical Dinkey. The road was too smooth. There were no obstructions to surmount; no dangers to avert; no difficulties to avoid. We could not get into trouble, but proceeded as on a county turnpike. Too tame, too civilized, too representative of the tourist element, it ended by getting on our nerves. The wilderness seemed to have left us forever. Never would we get back to our own again. After a long time Wes, leading, turned into our old trail branching off to the high country. Hardly had we traveled a half mile before we heard from the advance guard a crash and a shout.
"What is it, Wes?" we yelled.
In a moment the reply came,--
"Lily's fallen down again,--thank God!"
We understood what he meant. By this we knew that the tourist zone was crossed, that we had left the show country, and were once more in the open.