VIII. The Pines
 

I do not know exactly how to make you feel the charm of that first camp in the big country. Certainly I can never quite repeat it in my own experience.

Remember that for two months we had grown accustomed to the brown of the California landscape, and that for over a week we had traveled in the Inferno. We had forgotten the look of green grass, of abundant water; almost had we forgotten the taste of cool air. So invariably had the trails been dusty, and the camping-places hard and exposed, that we had come subconsciously to think of such as typical of the country. Try to put yourself in the frame of mind those conditions would make.

Then imagine yourself climbing in an hour or so up into a high ridge country of broad cup-like sweeps and bold outcropping ledges. Imagine a forest of pine-trees bigger than any pines you ever saw before,--pines eight and ten feet through, so huge that you can hardly look over one of their prostrate trunks even from the back of your pony. Imagine, further, singing little streams of ice-cold water, deep refreshing shadows, a soft carpet of pine-needles through which the faint furrow of the trail runs as over velvet. And then, last of all, in a wide opening, clear as though chopped and plowed by some back- woodsman, a park of grass, fresh grass, green as a precious stone.

This was our first sight of the mountain meadows. From time to time we found others, sometimes a half dozen in a day. The rough country came down close about them, edging to the very hair-line of the magic circle, which seemed to assure their placid sunny peace. An upheaval of splintered granite often tossed and tumbled in the abandon of an unrestrained passion that seemed irresistibly to overwhelm the sanities of a whole region; but somewhere, in the very forefront of turmoil, was like to slumber one of these little meadows, as unconscious of anything but its own flawless green simplicity as a child asleep in mid-ocean. Or, away up in the snows, warmed by the fortuity of reflected heat, its emerald eye looked bravely out to the heavens. Or, as here, it rested confidingly in the very heart of the austere forest.

Always these parks are green; always are they clear and open. Their size varies widely. Some are as little as a city lawn; others, like the great Monache, are miles in extent. In them resides the possibility of your traveling the high country; for they supply the feed for your horses.

Being desert-weary, the Tenderfoot and I cried out with the joy of it, and told in extravagant language how this was the best camp we had ever made.

"It's a bum camp," growled Wes. "If we couldn't get better camps than this, I'd quit the game."

He expatiated on the fact that this particular meadow was somewhat boggy; that the feed was too watery; that there'd be a cold wind down through the pines; and other small and minor details. But we, our backs propped against appropriately slanted rocks, our pipes well aglow, gazed down the twilight through the wonderful great columns of the trees to where the white horses shone like snow against the unaccustomed relief of green, and laughed him to scorn. What did we--or the horses for that matter --care for trifling discomforts of the body? In these intangible comforts of the eye was a great refreshment of the spirit.

The following day we rode through the pine forests growing on the ridges and hills and in the elevated bowl-like hollows. These were not the so- called "big trees,"--with those we had to do later, as you shall see. They were merely sugar and yellow pines, but never anywhere have I seen finer specimens. They were planted with a grand sumptuousness of space, and their trunks were from five to twelve feet in diameter and upwards of two hundred feet high to the topmost spear. Underbrush, ground growth, even saplings of the same species lacked entirely, so that we proceeded in the clear open aisles of a tremendous and spacious magnificence.

This very lack of the smaller and usual growths, the generous plan of spacing, and the size of the trees themselves necessarily deprived us of a standard of comparison. At first the forest seemed immense. But after a little our eyes became accustomed to its proportions. We referred it back to the measures of long experience. The trees, the wood-aisles, the extent of vision shrunk to the normal proportions of an Eastern pinery. And then we would lower our gaze. The pack-train would come into view. It had become lilliputian, the horses small as white mice, the men like tin soldiers, as though we had undergone an enchantment. But in a moment, with the rush of a mighty transformation, the great trees would tower huge again.

In the pine woods of the mountains grows also a certain close-clipped parasitic moss. In color it is a brilliant yellow-green, more yellow than green. In shape it is crinkly and curly and tangled up with itself like very fine shavings. In consistency it is dry and brittle. This moss girdles the trunks of trees with innumerable parallel inch-wide bands a foot or so apart, in the manner of old-fashioned striped stockings. It covers entirely sundry twigless branches. Always in appearance is it fantastic, decorative, almost Japanese, as though consciously laid in with its vivid yellow-green as an intentional note of a tone scheme. The somberest shadows, the most neutral twilights, the most austere recesses are lighted by it as though so many freakish sunbeams had severed relations with the parent luminary to rest quietly in the coolnesses of the ancient forest.

Underfoot the pine-needles were springy beneath the horse's hoof. The trail went softly, with the courtesy of great gentleness. Occasionally we caught sight of other ridges,--also with pines,--across deep sloping valleys, pine filled. The effect of the distant trees seen from above was that of roughened velvet, here smooth and shining, there dark with rich shadows. On these slopes played the wind. In the level countries it sang through the forest progressively: here on the slope it struck a thousand trees at once. The air was ennobled with the great voice, as a church is ennobled by the tones of a great organ. Then we would drop back again to the inner country, for our way did not contemplate the descents nor climbs, but held to the general level of a plateau.

Clear fresh brooks ran in every ravine. Their water was snow-white against the black rocks; or lay dark in bank-shadowed pools. As our horses splashed across we could glimpse the rainbow trout flashing to cover. Where the watered hollows grew lush were thickets full of birds, outposts of the aggressively and cheerfully worldly in this pine-land of spiritual detachment. Gorgeous bush-flowers, great of petal as magnolias, with perfume that lay on the air like a heavy drowsiness; long clear stretches of an ankle- high shrub of vivid emerald, looking in the distance like sloping meadows of a peculiar color-brilliance; patches of smaller flowers where for the trifling space of a street's width the sun had unobstructed fall,-- these from time to time diversified the way, brought to our perceptions the endearing trifles of earthiness, of humanity, befittingly to modify the austerity of the great forest. At a brookside we saw, still fresh and moist, the print of a bear's foot. From a patch of the little emerald brush, a barren doe rose to her feet, eyed us a moment, and then bounded away as though propelled by springs. We saw her from time to time surmounting little elevations farther and farther away.

The air was like cold water. We had not lung capacity to satisfy our desire for it. There came with it a dry exhilaration that brought high spirits, an optimistic viewpoint, and a tremendous keen appetite. It seemed that we could never tire. In fact we never did. Sometimes, after a particularly hard day, we felt like resting; but it was always after the day's work was done, never while it was under way. The Tenderfoot and I one day went afoot twenty-two miles up and down a mountain fourteen thousand feet high. The last three thousand feet were nearly straight up and down. We finished at a four-mile clip an hour before sunset, and discussed what to do next to fill in the time. When we sat down, we found we had had about enough; but we had not discovered it before.

All of us, even the morose and cynical Dinkey, felt the benefit of the change from the lower country. Here we were definitely in the Mountains. Our plateau ran from six to eight thousand feet in altitude. Beyond it occasionally we could see three more ridges, rising and falling, each higher than the last. And then, in the blue distance, the very crest of the broad system called the Sierras,--another wide region of sheer granite rising in peaks, pinnacles, and minarets, rugged, wonderful, capped with the eternal snows.