California – Summer In The Canons

As I sit by my open window this morning of mid-July, the soft pitty-pat of a burro’s unshod hoofs greets my ears, and the murmur of pleasant voices. Looking up I see passing along the street in front of our house, our neighbors, the Professor and his wife, starting on their three weeks’ summer vacation in the mountains, and chatting with all the buoyancy of spirits that goes with the early hours of a day’s outing.

They have three burros. One is ridden by Madam Professor; the other two are packed with the camp equipment and provisions. The Professor in high-laced shoes and a khaki suit is walking and with the skillful application of his chamise stick keeps the burros in the middle of the street. Their destination is one of the cañons of the Sierra Madre, whose cool, green, rugged sides lift themselves five or six thousand feet against the blue heaven to the north of our little city. Five miles of gradual ascent will bring the small cavalcade to the foot of the mountains and the mouth of the canon—it may be Mil-lard’s or the Canon of the Arroyo Seco or another. There they will halt at noon for a siesta, and a cup of tea made with water obtained at one of the ranch houses that dot the upper edge of the mesa under the foot-hills. From that vantage ground there will be a superb view of the great valley of the San Gabriel with its busy towns and great ranch-lands, and far off across a low bank of fog to the southward the blue Pacific with the twin peaks of Santa Catalina Island rising above the haze. Beyond them, perhaps San Clemente’s hulking back will be visible. And there will be a pleasant breeze blowing in from the sea, still cool and refreshing after its thirty-odd miles of travel across the land.

Then, after an hour or two of this delicious far niente, the donkeys will be wakened to fresh endeavor; the cinches will be tightened; the smoldering remains of the bit of camp-fire will be quenched with earth—for in this dry summer weather a neglected ember might set fire to a whole mountain—and the climb into the cañon will begin. The burros spread their ears to a picturesque horizontal, drop their noses to the ground, and arrange themselves en queue upon the white dusty trail, Madam on burro number one and the Professor bringing up the rear. The air is filled with a dozen pungent aromas, as the packs brush against the shrubbery that crowds upon the trail—fascinating, unforgettable odors of artemisia and California bay, white sage and black sage, monardella and what-not. Ground squirrels frisk about at a safe distance, and gray lizards look inquiringly out from the top of sunny rocks as the procession passes. Noble California sycamores, great-leaved maples and alders cast a grateful shade in the cañon’s lower reaches, but the tinkle of water in the rocky stream-bed of the arroyo is missing. That will come higher up. Water is too precious in Southern California to be suffered to run at large in summer, and the iron pipe-line that follows this canon trail tells the story of the water caught at its source in the Sierra’s upper springs and conveyed to the valley to be meted out there to consumers at so much per inch.

Nightfall will find the little party beneath the Douglas spruces and live-oaks of the mountain’s higher slopes. The tent, if tent there be, will have been pitched, supper eaten, the blankets spread on a fragrant bed of springy boughs, the burros staked out, and the Professor and his wife—lovers still after two and twenty years of companionship in a rough world—sit with their hands in each other’s, silently watching the night mists gathering in the purple coves and cañons below them. The rosy tints of the sunset once almost gone from the sky, flash up again for a moment, then die finally away. Hesper glows like another sun, above one black western peak and slowly sinks behind it. An owl goes chittering by in the dusk, and a cool breeze awakening somewhere and taking wing through the night, makes the thought of the blankets a very pleasant thought. The Professor and his wife are glad they have come.

Perhaps this is their permanent camping ground for the three weeks, or it may be that they will better themselves by proceeding further on the morrow. When, however, they are settled, they will want to be under immemorial trees and near enough a trout stream for the Professor to keep his hand in as an active member of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Temperate Anglers ; and they will want to have an outlook across tree tops to the south and west, for thence come the cooling influences of the blessed trade-winds of the Pacific, which con-tribute so essentially to the summer comfort of Southern California.

All summer long from June until September, the canons of the California mountains are resorted to by camping-parties small and large, and to meet the demand for this healthful recreation many public camps, plain but comfortable, are established, where for ten or twelve dollars per week those who want such an outing but, unlike the Professor and his wife, do not care for the labors incident to maintaining a private camp, may go, indulge their souls and be happy. Within seventy-five or a hundred miles of San Francisco, for instance, both north and south, there are among the redwood forests scores of such public camps, where the visitor sleeps in a tent and eats his meals at a public table under the trees. This appears to be Arcady enough for a certain portion of our population, though the lover of unadulterated nature is apt to find such an outing with its permanent floors and deal tables, together with more or less boisterous companionship of people, too conventional for him. In the generous length and breadth of the California mountains, however, there is room enough for all.

Many camping resorts are advertised in the folders issued by the railroads, but just as there are as good fish in the sea as ever were caught, so there are countless choice nooks in this empire of a State, never dreamt of in the philosophy of the railroad man. Any old-time Californian, as he smokes his pipe under the vines of his porch of a summer night, will delight to give you points about his especial happy hunting grounds, and the best way to get there.

To mention a few in many of the more publicly known, there is the Shasta country in the extreme northern part of the State, to which a number of stations on the Southern Pacific Railroad serve as gateways. This region offers almost everything in the way of camping out, from marquees under the wing of a fashionable hotel to the wildest kind of wilderness, attainable only by the use of guides and pack animals. Ukiah in the Russian River region somewhat further south is a starting point for many camps, and the visitor having an interest in the basketry of the California Indians or in these Indians themselves, will find himself there within comparatively easy access of a great deal of Indian life. And there are the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

In the southern half of the State, every city and town from San Diego to Monterey has its summer camps in the cañons at its back, so that it seems invidious to mention one and not another. One, how-ever, cannot go amiss in Strawberry Valley on the western slopes of San Jacinto Mountain, or in Bear Valley in the San Bernardino Mountains, or in the great San Gabriel Cañon of the Sierra Madre accessible from Azusa. Then if one have a month or two to give to it—less time seems an insult to such grandeur-there is the glorious wild region of that comparatively little visited rival of Yosemite, the King’s River Cañon in the lower Sierra Nevada, to which one attains by wagon and horseback and foot from Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley. Here one may camp beneath giant sequoias which were old while the Roman Empire was still undreamt of ; may gather wild flowers by glacial lakes, or climb out above the timber line upon some of the noblest peaks of the High Sierra, and experience the doubtful enjoyment of weathering out a thunder storm in the clouds in the very factory of the lightning.

The advertisements of many of the “camper’s paradise” regions contain the announcement “Out-fits must be taken.” In such cases, if you are not over-strong and not only desire but need to be cornfortable—and this, it is to be remembered, is the class to which these hints are especially addressed-do not hearken to the voice of the athletic tempter who is continually urging folk to “travel light.” Let him if he like, go as John Muir does, with a sack of bread, a packet of tea and a tin cup; but as for you, hire an extra burro if need be, but by all means carry everything your reasonable comfort requires, except firewood and water. You may find yourself with some unnecessary things when you get there, but that is infinitely better than being short-supplied. Many travel by wagon to the road’s end, and there leaving the vehicle, pack their camp outfit and provisions upon the horses’ backs and proceed by trail to the sequestered spots that suit them, transporting thus even the family sewing machine and baby carriage, and leading the family cow. Only time and experience can show each camper the exact measure of his or her own needs.