The Mountains by Stewart Edward White
VII. The Foot-Hills
At once our spirits rose. We straightened in our saddles, we breathed deep, we joked. The country was scorched and sterile; the wagon-trail, almost paralleling the mountains themselves on a long easy slant toward the high country, was ankle-deep in dust; the ravines were still dry of water. But it was not the Inferno, and that one fact sufficed. After a while we crossed high above a river which dashed white water against black rocks, and so were happy.
The country went on changing. The change was always imperceptible, as is growth, or the stealthy advance of autumn through the woods. From moment to moment one could detect no alteration. Something intangible was taken away; something impalpable added. At the end of an hour we were in the oaks and sycamores; at the end of two we were in the pines and low mountains of Bret Harte's Forty-Nine.
The wagon-trail felt ever farther and farther into the hills. It had not been used as a stage-route for years, but the freighting kept it deep with dust, that writhed and twisted and crawled lazily knee-high to our horses, like a living creature. We felt the swing and sweep of the route. The boldness of its stretches, the freedom of its reaches for the opposite slope, the wide curve of its horseshoes, all filled us with the breath of an expansion which as yet the broad low country only suggested.
Everything here was reminiscent of long ago. The very names hinted stories of the Argonauts. Coarse Gold Gulch, Whiskey Creek, Grub Gulch, Fine Gold Post-Office in turn we passed. Occasionally, with a fine round dash into the open, the trail drew one side to a stage-station. The huge stables, the wide corrals, the low living-houses, each shut in its dooryard of blazing riotous flowers, were all familiar. Only lacked the old-fashioned Concord coach, from which to descend Jack Hamlin or Judge Starbottle. As for M'liss, she was there, sunbonnet and all.
Down in the gulch bottoms were the old placer diggings. Elaborate little ditches for the deflection of water, long cradles for the separation of gold, decayed rockers, and shining in the sun the tons and tons of pay dirt which had been turned over pound by pound in the concentrating of its treasure. Some of the old cabins still stood. It was all deserted now, save for the few who kept trail for the freighters, or who tilled the restricted bottom-lands of the flats. Road-runners racked away down the paths; squirrels scurried over worn-out placers; jays screamed and chattered in and out of the abandoned cabins. Strange and shy little creatures and birds, reassured by the silence of many years, had ventured to take to themselves the engines of man's industry. And the warm California sun embalmed it all in a peaceful forgetfulness.
Now the trees grew bigger, and the hills more impressive. We should call them mountains in the East. Pines covered them to the top, straight slender pines with voices. The little flats were planted with great oaks. When we rode through them, they shut out the hills, so that we might have imagined ourselves in the level wooded country. There insisted the effect of limitless tree-grown plains, which the warm drowsy sun, the park-like landscape, corroborated. And yet the contrast of the clear atmosphere and the sharp air equally insisted on the mountains. It was a strange and delicious double effect, a contradiction of natural impressions, a negation of our right to generalize from previous experience.
Always the trail wound up and up. Never was it steep; never did it command an outlook. Yet we felt that at last we were rising, were leaving the level of the Inferno, were nearing the threshold of the high country.
Mountain peoples came to the edges of their clearings and gazed at us, responding solemnly to our salutations. They dwelt in cabins and held to agriculture and the herding of the wild mountain cattle. From them we heard of the high country to which we were bound. They spoke of it as you or I would speak of interior Africa, as something inconceivably remote, to be visited only by the adventurous, an uninhabited realm of vast magnitude and unknown dangers. In the same way they spoke of the plains. Only the narrow pine-clad strip between the two and six thousand feet of elevation they felt to be their natural environment. In it they found the proper conditions for their existence. Out of it those conditions lacked. They were as much a localized product as are certain plants which occur only at certain altitudes. Also were they densely ignorant of trails and routes outside of their own little districts.
All this, you will understand, was in what is known as the low country. The landscape was still brown; the streams but trickles; sage-brush clung to the ravines; the valley quail whistled on the side hills.
But one day we came suddenly into the big pines and rocks; and that very night we made our first camp in a meadow typical of the mountains we had dreamed about.