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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 1 - Chapter VIII. By a Crooked Route to California


AFTER passing a month in this magnificent island, and finding that my health was not improving, I made up my mind to push on to South America while my stock of strength, such as it was, lasted. But fortunately I could not find passage for any South American port. I had long wished to visit the Orinoco basin and in particular the basin of the Amazon. My plan was to get ashore anywhere on the north end of the continent, push on southward through the wilderness around the headwaters of the Orinoco, until I reached a tributary of the Amazon, and float down on a raft or skiff the whole length of the great river to its mouth. It seems strange that such a trip should ever have entered the dreams of any person, however enthusiastic and full of youthful daring, particularly under the disadvantages of poor health, of funds less than a hundred dollars, and of the insalubrity of the Amazon Valley.

Fortunately, as I said, after visiting all the shipping agencies, I could not find a vessel of any sort bound for South America, and so made up a plan to go North, to the longed-for cold weather of New York, and thence to the forests and mountains of California. There, I thought, I shall find health and new plants and mountains, and after a year spent in that interesting country I can carry out my Amazon plans.

It seemed hard to leave Cuba thus unseen and unwalked, but illness forbade my stay and I had to comfort myself with the hope of returning to its waiting treasures in full health. In the mean time I prepared for immediate departure. when I was resting in one of the Havana gardens, I noticed in a New York paper an advertisement of cheap fares to California. I consulted Captain Parsons concerning a passage to New York, where I could find a ship for California. At this time none of the California ships touched at Cuba.

"Well," said he; pointing toward the middle of the harbor, "there is a trim little schooner loaded with oranges for New York, and these little fruiters are fast sailers. You had better see her captain about a passage, for she must be about ready to sail." So I jumped into the dinghy and a sailor rowed me over to the fruiter. Going aboard, I inquired for the captain, who soon appeared on deck and readily agreed to carry me to New York for twenty-five dollars. Inquiring when he would sail, "To-morrow morning at daylight," he replied, "if this norther slacks a little; but my papers are made out, and you will have to see the American consul to get permission to leave on my ship."

I immediately went to the city, but was unable to find the consul, whereupon I determined to sail for New York without any formal leave. Early next morning, after leaving the Island Belle and bidding Captain Parsons good-bye, I was rowed to the fruiter and got aboard. Notwithstanding the north wind was still as boisterous as ever, our Dutch captain was resolved to face it, confident in the strength of his all-oak little schooner.

Vessels leaving the harbor are stopped at the Morro Castle to have their clearance papers examined; in particular, to see that no runaway slaves were being carried away. The officials came alongside our little ship, but did not come aboard. They were satisfied by a glance at the consul's clearance paper, and with the declaration of the captain, when asked whether he had any negroes, that he had "not a d--d one." "All right, then," shouted the officials, "farewell! A pleasant voyage to you!" As my name was not on the ship's papers, I stayed below, out of sight, until I felt the heaving of the waves and knew that we were fairly out on the open sea. The Castle towers, the hills, the palms, and the wave-white strand, all faded in the distance, and our mimic sea-bird was at home in the open stormy gulf, curtsying to every wave and facing bravely to the wind.

Two thousand years ago our Saviour told Nicodemus that he did not know where the winds came from, nor where they were going. And now in this Golden Age, though we Gentiles know the birthplace of many a wind and also "whither it is going," yet we know about as little of winds in general as those Palestinian Jews, and our ignorance, despite the powers of science, can never be much less profound than it is at present.

The substance of the winds is too thin for human eyes, their written language is too difficult for human minds, and their spoken language mostly too faint for human ears. A mechanism is said to have been invented whereby the human organs of speech are made to write their own utterances. But without any extra mechanical contrivance, every speaker also writes as he speaks. All things in the creation of God register their own acts. The poet was mistaken when he said, "From the wing no scar the sky sustains." His eyes were simply too dim to see the scar. In sailing past Cuba I could see a fringe of foam along the coast, but could hear no sound of waves, simply because my ears could not hear wave-dashing at that distance. Yet every bit of spray was sounding in my ears.

The subject brings to mind a few recollections of the winds I heard in my late journey. In my walk from Indiana to the Gulf, earth and sky, plants and people, and all things changeable were constantly changing. Even in Kentucky nature and art have many a characteristic shibboleth. The people differ in language and in customs. Their architecture is generically different from that of their immediate neighbors on the north, not only in planters' mansions, but in barns and granaries and the cabins of the poor. But thousands of familiar flower faces looked from every hill and valley. I noted no difference in the sky, and the winds spoke the same things. I did not feel myself in a strange land.

In Tennessee my eyes rested upon the first mountain scenery I ever beheld. I was rising higher than ever before; strange trees were beginning to appear; alpine flowers and shrubs were meeting me at every step. But these Cumberland Mountains were timbered with oak, and were not unlike Wisconsin hills piled upon each other, and the strange plants were like those that were not strange. The sky was changed only a little, and the winds not by a single detectible note. Therefore, neither was Tennessee a strange land.

But soon came changes thick and fast. After passing the mountainous corner of North Carolina and a little way into Georgia, I beheld from one of the last ridge-summits of the Alleghanies that vast, smooth, sandy slope that reaches from the mountains to the sea. It is wooded with dark, branchy pines which were all strangers to me. Here the grasses, which are an earth-covering at the North, grow wide apart in tall clumps and tufts like saplings. My known flower companions were leaving me now, not one by one as in Kentucky and Tennessee, but in whole tribes and genera, and companies of shining strangers came trooping upon me in countless ranks. The sky, too, was changed, and I could detect strange sounds in the winds. Now I began to feel myself "a stranger in a strange land."

But in Florida came the greatest change of all, for here grows the palmetto, and here blow the winds so strangely toned by them. These palms and these winds severed the last strands of the cord that united me with home. Now I was a stranger, indeed. I was delighted, astonished, confounded, and gazed in wonderment blank and overwhelming as if I had fallen upon another star. But in all of this long, complex series of changes, one of the greatest, and the last of all, was the change I found in the tone and language of the winds. They no longer came with the old home music gathered from open prairies and waving fields of oak, but they passed over many a strange string. The leaves of magnolia, smooth like polished steel, the immense inverted forests of tillandsia banks, and the princely crowns of palms - upon these the winds made strange music, and at the coming-on of night had overwhelming power to present the distance from friends and home, and the completeness of my isolation from all things familiar.

Ersewhere I have already noted that when I was a day's journey from the Gulf, a wind blew upon me from the sea — the first sea breeze that had touched me in twenty years. I was plodding along with my satchel and plants, leaning wearily forward, a little sore from approaching fever, when suddenly I felt the salt air, and before I had time to think, a whole flood of long-dormant associations rolled in upon me. The Firth of Forth, the Bass Rock, Dunbar Castle, and the winds and rocks and hills came upon the wings of that wind, and stood out in as clear and sudden light as a landscape flashed upon the view-by a blaze of lightning in a dark night.

I like to cling to a small chip of a ship like ours when the sea is rough, and long, comet-tailed streamers are blowing from the curled top of every wave. A big vessel responds awkwardly with mixed gestures to several waves at once, lumbering along like a loose floating island. But our little schooner, buoyant as a gull, glides up one side and down the other of each wave hill in delightful rhythm. As we advanced the scenery increased in grandeur and beauty. The waves heaved higher and grew wider, with corresponding motion. It was delightful to ride over this unsullied country of ever-changing water, and when looking upward from the shallow vales, or abroad over the round expanse from the tops of the wave hills, I almost forgot at times that the glassy, treeless country was forbidden to walkers. How delightful it would be to ramble over it on foot, enjoying the transparent crystal ground, and the music of its rising and falling hillocks, unmarred by the ropes and spars of a ship; to study the plants of these waving plains and their stream-currents; to sleep in wild weather in a bed of phosphorescent wave-foam, or briny scented seaweeds; to see the fishes by night in pathways of phosphorescent light; to walk the glassy plain in calm, with birds and flocks of glittering flying fishes here and there, or by night with every star pictured in its bosom!

But even of the land only a small portion is free to man, and if he, among other journeys on forbidden paths, ventures among the ice lands and hot lands, or up in the air in balloon bubbles, or on the ocean in ships, or down into it a little way in smothering diving-bells — in all such small adventures man is admonished and often punished in ways which clearly show him that he is in places for which, to use an approved phrase, he was never designed. However, in view of the rapid advancement of our time, no one can tell how far our star may finally be subdued to man's will. At all events I enjoyed this drifting locomotion to some extent.

The tar-scented community of a ship is a study in itself — a despotism on the small territory of a few drifting planks pinned together. But as our crew consisted only of four sailors, a mate, and the captain, there were no signs of despotism. We all dined at one table, enjoying our fine store of salt mackerel and plum duff, with endless abundance of oranges. Not only was the hold of our little ship filled with loose, unboxed oranges, but the deck also was filled up level with the rails, and we had to walk over the top of the golden fruit on boards.

Flocks of flying fishes often flew across the ship, one or two occasionally falling among the oranges. These the sailors were glad to capture to sell in New York as curiosities, or to give away to friends. But the captain had a large Newfoundland dog who got the largest share of these unfortunate fishes. He used to jump from a dozing sleep as soon as he heard the fluttering of their wings, then pounce and feast leisurely on them before the sailors could reach the spot where they fell.

In passing through the Straits of Florida the winds died away and the sea was smoothed to unruffled calm. The water here is very transparent and of delightfully pure pale-blue color, as different from ordinary dull-colored water as town smoke from mountain air. I could see the bottom as distinctly as one sees the ground when riding over it. It seemed strange that our ship should be upborne in such an ethereal liquid as this, and that we did not run aground where the bottom seemed so near.

One morning, while among the Bahama dots of islands, we had calm sky and calm sea. The sun had risen in cloudless glory, when I observed a large flock of flying fish, a short distance from us, closely pursued by a dolphin. These fish-swallows rose in pretty good order, skimmed swiftly ahead for fifty or a hundred yards in a low arc, then dipped below the surface. Dripping and sparkling, they rose again in a few seconds and glanced back into the lucid brine with wonderful speed, but without apparent terror.

At length the dolphin, gaining on the flock, dashed into the midst of them, and now all order was at an end. They rose in scattering disorder, in all directions, like a flock of birds charged by a hawk. The pursuing dolphin also leaped into the air, showing his splendid colors and wonderful speed. After the first scattering flight all steady pursuit was useless, and the dolphin had but to pounce about in the broken mob of its weary prey until satisfied with his meal.

We are apt to look out on the great ocean and regard it as but a half-blank part of our globe —a sort of desert, "a waste of water." But, land animals though we be, land is about as unknown to us as the sea, but the turbid glances we gain of the ocean in general through commercial eyes are comparatively worthless. Now that, science is making comprehensive surveys of the life of the sea, and the forms of its basins, and similar surveys are being made into the land deserts, hot and cold, we may at length discover that the sea is as full of life as the land. None can tell how far man's knowledge may yet reach.

After passing the Straits and sailing up the coast, when about opposite the south end of the Carolina coast, we had stiff head winds all the way to New York and our able little vessel was drenched all day long. Of course our load of oranges suffered, and since they were boarded over level with the rail, we had difficulty in walking and had many chances of being washed overboard. The flying fishes off Cape Hatteras appeared to take pleasure in shooting across from wave-top to wave-top. They avoided the ship during the day, but frequently fell among the oranges at night. The sailors caught many, but our big Newfoundland dog jumped f or them faster than the sailors, and so almost monopolized the game.

When dark night fell on the stormy sea the breaking waves of phosphorescent light were a glorious sight. On such nights I stood on the bowsprit holding on by a rope for hours in order to enjoy this phenomenon. How wonderful this light is! Developed in the sea by myriads of organized beings, it gloriously illuminates the pathways of the fishes, and every breaking wave, and in some places glows over large areas like sheet lightning. We sailed through large fields of seaweed, of which I procured specimens. I thoroughly enjoyed life in this novel little tar-and-oakum home, and, as the end of our voyage drew nigh, I was sorry at the thought of leaving it.

We were now, on the twelfth day, approaching New York, the big ship metropolis. We were in sight of the coast all day. The leafless trees and the snow appeared wonderfully strange. It was now about the end of February and snow covered the ground nearly to the water's edge. Arriving, as we did, in this rough winter weather from the intense heat and general tropical luxuriance of Cuba, the leafless, snow-white woods of New York struck us with all the novelty and impressiveness of a new world. A frosty blast was sweeping seaward from Sandy Hook. The sailors explored their wardrobes for their long-cast-off woolens, and pulled the ropes and managed the sails while muffled in clothing to the rotundity of Eskimos. For myself, long burdened with fever, the frosty wind, as it sifted through my loosened bones, was more delicious and grateful than ever was a spring-scented breeze.

We now had plenty of company; fleets of vessels were on the wing from all countries. Our taut little racer outwinded without exception all who, like her, were going to the port. Toward evening we were grinding and wedging our way through the ice-field of the river delta, which we passed with difficulty. Arrived in port at nine o'clock. The ship was deposited, like a cart at market, in a proper slip, and next morning we and our load of oranges, one third rotten, were landed. Thus all the purposes of our voyage were accomplished.

On our arrival the captain, knowing something of the lightness of my purse, told me that I could continue to occupy my bed on the ship until I sailed for California, getting my meals at a near-by restaurant. "This is the way we are all doing," he said. Consulting the newspapers, I found that the first ship, the Nebraska, sailed for Aspinwall in about ten days, and that the steerage passage to San Francisco by way of the Isthmus was only forty dollars.

In the mean time I wandered about the city without knowing a single person in it. My walks extended but little beyond sight of my little schooner home. I saw the name Central Park on some of the street-cars and thought I would like to visit it, but, fearing that I might not be able to find my way back, I dared not make the adventure. I felt completely lost in the vast throngs of people, the noise of the streets, and the immense size of the buildings. Often I thought I would like to explore the city if, like a lot of wild hills and valleys, it was clear of inhabitants.

The day before the sailing of the Panama ship I bought a pocket map of California and allowed myself to be persuaded to buy a dozen large maps, mounted on rollers, with a map of the world on one side and the United States on the other. In vain I said I had no use for them. "But surely you want to make money in California, don't you? Everything out there is very dear. We'll sell you a dozen of these fine maps for two dollars each and you can easily sell them in California for ten dollars apiece." I foolishly allowed myself to be persuaded. The maps made a very large, awkward bundle, but fortunately it was the only baggage I had except my little plant-press and a small bag. I laid them in my berth in the steerage, for they were too large to be stolen and concealed.

There was a savage contrast between life in the steerage and my fine home on the little ship fruiter. Never before had I seen such a barbarous mob, especially at meals. Arrived at Aspinwall-Colon, we had half a day to ramble about before starting across the Isthmus. Never shall I forget the glorious flora, especially for the first fifteen or twenty miles along the Chagres River. The riotous exuberance of great forest trees, glowing in purple, red, and yellow flowers, far surpassed anything I had ever seen, especially of flowering trees, either in Florida or Cuba. I gazed from the car-platform enchanted. I fairly cried for joy and hoped that some time I should be able to return and enjoy and study this most glorious of forests to my heart's content. We reached San Francisco about the first of April, and I remained there only one day, before starting for Yosemite Valley. [At this point the journal ends. The remainder of this chapter is taken from a letter written to Mrs. Ezra S. Carr from the neighborhood of Twenty Hill Hollow in July, 1868.]

I followed the Diablo foothills along the San Jose Valley to Gilroy, thence over the Diablo Mountains to the valley of the San Joaquin by the Pacheco Pass, thence down the valley opposite the mouth of the Merced River, thence across the San Joaquin, and up into the Sierra Nevada to the mammoth trees of Mariposa, and the glorious Yosemite, and thence down the Merced to this place. [Near Snelling, Merced County, California.] The goodness of the weather as I journeyed towards Pacheco was beyond all praise and description — fragrant, mellow, and bright. The sky was perfectly delicious, sweet enough for the breath of angels; every draught of it gave a separate and distinct piece of pleasure. I do not believe that Adam and Eve ever tasted better in their balmiest nook.

The last of the Coast Range foothills were in near view all the way to Gilroy. Their union with the valley is by curves and slopes of inimitable beauty. They were robed with the greenest grass and richest light I ever beheld, and were colored and shaded with myriads of flowers of every hue, chiefly of purple and golden yellow. Hundreds of crystal rills joined song with the larks, filling all the valley with music like a sea, making it Eden from end to end.

The scenery, too, and all of nature in the Pass is fairly enchanting. Strange and beautiful mountain ferns are there, low in the dark canons and high upon the rocky sunlit peaks; banks of blooming shrubs, and sprinklings and gatherings of garment flowers, precious and pure as ever enjoyed the sweets of a mountain home. And oh! what streams are there! beaming, glancing, each with music of its own, singing as they go, in shadow and light, onward upon their lovely, changing pathways to the sea. And hills rise over hills, and mountains over mountains, heaving, waving, swelling, in most glorious, overpowering, unreadable majesty.

When at last, stricken and faint like a crushed insect, you hope to escape from all the terrible grandeur of these mountain powers, other fountains, other oceans break forth before you; for there, in clear view, over heaps and rows of foothills, is laid a grand, smooth, outspread plain, watered by a river, and another range of peaky, snow-capped mountains a hundred miles in the distance. That plain is the valley of the San Joaquin, and those mountains are the great Sierra Nevada. The valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast, level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea, ruffled a little in the middle by the tree fringing of the river and of smaller cross-streams here and there, from the mountains.

Florida is indeed a "land of flowers," but for every flower creature that dwells in its most delightsome places more than a hundred are living here. Here, here is Florida! Here they are not sprinkled apart with grass between as on our prairies, but grasses are sprinkled among the flowers; not as in Cuba, flowers piled upon flowers, heaped and gathered into deep, glowing masses, but side by side, flower to flower, petal to petal, touching but not entwined, branches weaving past and past each other, yet free and separate — one smooth garment, mosses next the ground, grasses above, petaled flowers between.

Before studying the flowers of this valley and their sky, and all of the furniture and sounds and adornments of their home, one can scarce believe that their vast assemblies are permanent; but rather that, actuated by some plant purpose, they had convened from every plain and mountain and meadow of their kingdom, and that the different coloring of patches, acres, and miles marks the bounds of the various tribes and family encampments.


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