Catalina – Winter On The Isle Of Summer

SANTA CATALINA ISLAND of worldwide fame, fifty miles due south from Los Angeles and thirty miles out at sea-an American Capri set in an ocean of perpetual summer, and possessing a climate quite peculiar to itself—is practically an unexplored country save to a very few. The aver-age visitor goes there to refresh his tired spirit on its delightful little beaches with their lovely out-look across a radiant sea to the dreamy mainland mountains; or to gaze into the luminous depths of the wonderful submarine gardens; or for a quiet game of golf on one of the most charming winter links in the world; or more often for a bout with those famous game fish of the Catalina waters, such as the leaping tuna, the yellow-tail, and that leviathan of the rod and reel, the jew-fish.

Like all the rest of the resorts within the tourist zone of California, however, Catalina, while she sets before the transient visitor a feast of attractions easily attainable and admirable to talk about when he shall have returned home, holds in reserve for her intimates her deeper and finer native charms. To know the real heart of Catalina one must turn to the hills which compass Avalon about. From their rugged sides and crests a new world opens to the view.

For the exploration of unexplored Catalina, the winter months are the best. Then the hills are clothed in fresh vestments of green and call you to come to them; the skies are the skies of Italy; and the stimulating sunshine invites to outdoor endeavor.

It is a breath-taxing climb, the ascent from the beach to the ridges, but you are helped by the paths worn by the clambering feet of bands of sheep with which the interior of the island is so over-run that their trails along the ridges make a practically continuous by-way for the pedestrian throughout the whole of the island’s twenty-two miles of length. Up, up, you go, zigzagging this way and that, puffing and blowing, the summit always retreating. By and by, you sit down to rest and draw draughts of refreshment into your tired lungs. There, far down, are the golf links, the club house like a toy and the golfers like pigmies creeping along the ground. Barely you discern the swing of a stick, and quite a perceptible time afterward, the sharp crack of the smitten ball reaches to your silent height. There a little further on is the medley of Avalon roofs, and there pouring from the wharf where the steamer from the mainland has just tied up, a black wave of tourists spreads over the beach. The horns of the crescent by, however, hide much of the sea’s expanse, and you rise and struggle up-ward again for a wider outlook.

You pass the head of a side canon or two, the summit is just beyond you at last, and with one final desperate charge you gain it—only to find that there is another above it! Nevertheless, the brow of the hill just ascended shuts Avalon completely from view and you are across the confines of Catalina’s other world. From the hillsides about comes the intermittent bleating of sheep, the lambs in a frightened treble, the mothers in a reassuring, dignified contralto. A black, glossy raven alights on the ground a few rods off, and satisfied by your stillness and immobility that you are harmless, wags his head slowly from side to side and indulges in a low, melodious ditty so different from the harsh croak that he addresses to the rest of the world, that you feel yourself of the elect. Wild doves are cooing and a valley quail makes you the target of his railing whistle. “You fool-you, you fool—you,” he says as plainly as his eastern cousin says “Bob White.” On every side the monotonous monosyllabic squeak of ground squirrels pipes up; Mollie Cottontail looks in on you quite unexpectedly to herself, and scurries away in terror; you may even catch a distant view of a little gray fox slipping along the hills.

But it is a long lane that has no turning, and finally you do reach a ridge beyond which there is no other—only illimitable views of the real Pacific, for at Avalon it is but a channel that one sees. Off there to the southward the island of San Clement humps his big bulk; far to the west lies little San Nicolas, and if the atmosphere is clear, the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, a hundred miles away, show in the dim northwest. Santa Catalina herself stretches away from your feet to the north and the west in a succession of cañons and ranges and mountain peaks—you would call them so “back East,” though the highest is only about twenty-five hundred feet above the sea.

In these upper regions one may begin to realize something of the beauty of the midwinter plant life of Catalina. While there are few native trees of large or even medium size, there are low-growing sorts enough to make quite a forest showing, such as the picturesque dwarf oaks that flourish in ever-green groves both on the inland hillsides and along certain of the slopes that overhang the sea.

What pictures await the rambler amid these up-land sunlit thickets of oak, where the foot of the regulation tourist never treads ! Silver ferns and maidenhair nestle amid the green grasses about the shaded bases of the tree trunks; and looking down oceanward, where the gulls are querulously crying, there may be seen through the interstices of the gray, twisting branches of the little trees, exquisite vistas, as through windows framing the sapphire of the sea. The air is faintly fragrant with the flowers resembling apple blossoms which are the bloom of the crossosoma, a small, gray-barked tree, pale of leaf, twisted and twiggy, clinging to the rockiest, barrenest of soil, unsociably holding itself aloof from its fellows. Rotund clumps of bushy sumac with glossy, oily leaves that will pop into a flame like fire-crackers if you touch a match to them, are thickly dotted with their small pink and white bloom, where in surpassing content the bees sip and hum. Along these hillsides, too, are glorious specimens of the so-called California holly or toyon, the rich green foliage alight with the red glow of its clustered winter berries. A yellow-berried variety is occasionally found, and the possibility of collecting this rarity gives a special zest to a winter day’s outing in these unbeaten paths.

Sometimes as you top a hill there opens upon your view a distant slope that is sheeted in white or pale lilac, and hurrying towards the unfamiliar vision, you find it to be a grove of ceanothus, commonly called wild lilac in California—little trees about the size of the eastern dogwood, bearing in late winter feathery clusters of tiny flowers, with a bitterish, tonic fragrance. These treelings have great tenacity of life, and even when half dead the live half will still perform its winter duty of blooming. Some specimens that we found one February day on a promontory looking westward upon the Pacific were dead to the extreme top, where on one last live twig a few blossoms had opened, seeming like the soul of the expiring tree poising for flight into the heavens.

In the moist, shady canons and on the grassy slopes facing the north are many charming wild flowers, which begin to open as early as January, reaching their climax of bloom in April or Mayyellow-starred baeria, in patches upon the ground like golden rugs ; scarlet-mouthed beard-tongue, clambering over bushes; nemophilas, with pearly chalices, cousins to the baby-blue-eyes of the main-land; orange coils of fiddlehead, and twinkling wild pop-corn flowers in white. But of all the floral beauty of the island, nothing is capable of giving greater pleasure than the wild cactus gardens of the inland hills. The sheep that have had the run of the interior of the island for a generation, would long ago have cropped it flowerless, had it not been for the prickly pear cactus, which, growing luxuriantly on the sunny slopes has been as a nursing mother to multitudes of wild flowers that have gathered under its spiny skirts for protection from the marauding browsers. The great slab-like arms of a cactus clump stretch and sprawl about upon the ground in a way that makes a very effective hedge, and within their beneficent sphere of influence such a tangle of lovely wildings grows and flourishes as is worth a long climb to see. Here are misty clouds of galium and flaming spikes of Indian paint brush, wild four-o’clocks, magenta-hued, lavender-cupped phacelias, and the white trumpets of native morning glories; here the cheerful suns of the plebeian yellow ox-eye blaze by the side of the delicate Catalina mariposa tulips. Blue brodiaeas and bluer nightshades are here, vetches in varying shades of purple and in white, velvety-leaved hosackias with clustered blooms of orange and yellow, and the mingled fragrances of the stately white sage, threadleaved artemisia, and everlasting. Even a few ferns and patches of moss-like selaginella snuggle beneath the shadows of the great cactus wings where some moisture lingers after the more exposed earth is baked hard as a brick.

As for the cactuses themselves, the edges of their flat stems are glorified in February and March with crumpled pinkish buds that expand into broad flow-ers of limpid yellow. Later they are fringed with rows of fruit and resemble Pipes of Pan. These fruits of the slab-jointed tuna or prickly-pear cactus are very pleasant to the taste when at the proper stage of ripeness—a condition which may be known by the rich purple color and the loosened hold of the fruit upon the stem, causing it to be easily detached. Because of the bundles of minute prickles which dot the fruit, it needs to be plucked with a gloved hand. Then slice the square end off, and squeeze the pulpy interior into your mouth. Though seedy, it possesses a pleasant flavor, subacid and cool, and is evidently nutritious to the ravens, quails and Mexicans that make of it a staple item of diet.

There is but one wagon road on Catalina that penetrates into the interior of the island, so that the exploration of the inland hills can be done thoroughly only on foot. The network of sheep trails, however, making of every ridge an aerial highway and connecting one ridge with another throughout the length and breadth of the island, brings the remotest points within comparatively easy reach of good walkers who find Catalina a pedestrian’s paradise. Even those whose limit is quickly reached in a walk at home find that the island air renders trips entirely possible of a Iength that was undreamed of before. We know of one lady who finds a half-mile walk in the East quite a burdensome undertaking, but who one spring day climbed to the summit of the range east of Avalon and walked ten miles by easy stages with entire enjoyment along the ridges overlooking the sea, returning by way of one of the cañons, without especial fatigue.

Among the all day trips afoot from Avalon, one that will prove of more than ordinary interest is to Silver Cañon on the western’ side of the island—about ten or twelve miles, there and back—affording some superb views of the open Pacific, and chances to get a glimpse of wild goats. This trip may be accomplished by strong walkers in a half day, but unless one is pressed for time, it is well to take a day, giving time for frequent stops to en-joy the views.

To Black Jack (one of the two highest peaks of the island) and back, about fifteen miles, is another delightful jaunt, introducing the pedestrian to the scenery of Catalina’s heart, as well as affording from the summit of the peak a magnificent all-around ocean view. From Black Jack the walk may be extended some four miles further to Empire Landing where are the serpentine quarries, once worked by the original Indian inhabitants of the island for the manufacture of stone cooking pots. The marks of their primitive cutting are still seen upon the outcroppings. There selecting some handy spot upon the bowlder—a knob or jutting corner would be preferred—the red craftsman would fashion it into the outside of a pot. When properly shaped thus, the pot was severed from the rock and the interior then chiseled out. At the time of our last visit, some of the half-finished pots were still undetached from the rock, just as their sculptors had left them when, nearly a century ago, they abandoned their old home. In event of continuing the Black Jack trip to Empire Landing, provision should be made in advance either to camp at the Landing overnight, or to have a boat call and take you back to Avalon the same day.

On another day you may have the Moonstone Beach boat drop you in the morning at Swain’s Landing, and walk to the head of the canon out upon the stage road and so back to Avalon. The walk is approximately six or seven miles, but it is a stiff climb out of the cañon. A feature of this cañon is the presence in it of several small groves of the ironwood (Lyonothamus floribundus) a rare tree found nowhere in the world but on Catalina and one or two of its neighbor islands. Should your visit be as late as May or June, you would be treated to the novelty of seeing it in bloom.

Owing to the scarcity of springs on Catalina, water must be carried in a canteen, on any all-day outing; and before starting on a lengthy trip, the outlines of the island’s geography should be firmly fixed in mind, for once out of Avalon, there is practically no chance of a lost rambler’s meeting any one to put him on his road again. If one has a reasonably good head for direction, there is little likelihood, however, of getting badly lost in the island unless one should be caught in a fog, which sometimes shuts in suddenly in the winter season. Then the only safe course is to stop and wait until it lifts.

The fisher folk around Avalon will be found to be a kindly people, willing as a rule to impart all in-formation they can, and like all whose vocation leads them into familiar contact with the life of the sea, they have many things picturesque and wonderful to tell about it. But of the land side—the unexplored side—of Catalina, we found few to tell us anything, until we made the acquaintance of John of the chicken ranch, whose shack and corrals are a mile up the beautiful cañon back of the golf links. A small, gray, shaggy-bearded man is John, with twinkling blue eyes and a heart that has a kind thought for all the world except the red-throated linnets that flock persistently about his garden : “The thieving little devils,” he says, “they never know when they have enough, and destroy every-thing a body raises!”

After a career of wandering by sea and land this Ulysses of the West happened upon Catalina twenty-odd years ago and has been there ever since. Perhaps it was because he had a surfeit of the sea, out of which nearly every other permanent resident of the island was seeking to make a living, or perhaps it was because in a community of fishermen and boatmen, poultry-raising was a calling without competitors, that John embarked in the business. However that may be, it proved a thriving enter-prise, and dwelling in the lap of the hills John has managed to pick up about all that anybody knows of the island’s land side. From him we learned the shortest cut to Silver Cañon, and where was the nearest point to see the sun set in the Pacific; he initiated us into the mystery of a cooling drink, made from the sticky, red, acid berries of a bush which he called “shumake”; instructed us in what island plants made the best “greens,” and how to recognize under its protean forms that “abominable shrub or weed” as Robert Louis Stevenson called the California poison-oak. And it was John, who with a shovel one day disclosed to us the enormous proportions—it would be a fat man indeed whose body was as big—of the root of the chilicothe vine or “big-root,” that clambers riotously over all the thickets of the island and adorns them with its clustered white bloom, its bristling seed-pods the size of goose eggs resembling little porcupines swinging by their tails.

We first heard of John when we were keeping house in a tiny three-roomed cottage at the top of an Avalon street so steep that we suspect it must have been built up in the interests of the butchers and the bakers, the climbing gave us such an appetite ! The most robust appetite palls on monotony, and after we had exhausted the variety of the Avalon provision shops two or three times over, our tastes demanded chicken. We looked and inquired for chicken at all the shops, but in vain. There were steaks guaranteed to melt in the mouth, mutton chops fresh off the range, legs of Iamb, and pigs’ feet and tamales if we would, but never a chicken. Then we learned that John was the poultry monopolist of the island. So one sunny afternoon we went in quest of him.

The road up John’s beautiful canon makes one of the pleasantest short walks out of Avalon, winding, after it leaves the golf links, by a: gentle ascent among rolling hills, their sides dotted with clumps of dwarf oaks and wild lilac, blossoming elders and red-berried holly and thickets starred with wild flowers and musical with the song of birds. As the road rises, it gives us, as we stop now and then to look back, exquisite glimpses of the blue sea and far away the snow-capped mountains of the mainland rising dreamily above the fog banks of the mainland shore. By and by a turn in the road shuts all that from view, and a nearby cock-a-doodle-doo betokens the poultry ranch at hand.

The sight of John’s chickens, his waddling ducks and strutting turkeys resplendent of feather, and the clouds of cooing pigeons presented an embarrassment of riches that rather staggered us. Here were possibilities beyond our wildest hopes—broilers, friers, roasters, squabs—surely we must invite company to our feast. John, ambling about with a bucket of chopped alfalfa, caught sight of us and came forward to greet us with a slow and gentle speech and a smile that with difficulty disengaged itself from his tangle of whiskers. Why, yes, he had a purty nice lot of chickens ; they hadn’t ought to be anything but nice with the green stuff he giv’ ‘em—chopped alfalfa and such, and wheat ground up tasty in the coffee mill. Yes, he reckoned they was some friers among ‘em, but not quite big enough to sell, not just yet. That fat old hen for stewing? Well, no-o he didn’t think Would be right to let her go, not just now; you see, she’s a purty good layer yet, and eggs is eggs, these days. Them ducks? Well no-o, he wasn’t selling ducks, not just now; he was figurin’ on getting a bunch of them together before parting with them. Them turkeys, there, he had rather thought of killing a couple at Christmas, but somehow it didn’t get done, and it was a question if they’d be good eating just now.

This was indeed discouraging. It seemed ridiculous that in a land fairly flowing with chickens, we should be thus baffled. We sat down on a log and while John proceeded to shower his pets with chopped alfalfa, we held a council of war. Being human, John must have his price, but it was evidently not the price of a chicken or two; something rarer than money must be had to reach him. We looked at his shabby little cabin void of human companionship, and it occurred to us that as John was “batching it” and had batched it for twenty-odd years, his stomach was probably his vulnerable point. We were housekeeping and it was within the possibilities of our gasoline stove to turn out a pudding. Might it not be that a pudding—we arose and renewed the attack.

“John,” said Sylvia, “we want a nice stewing chicken. If you can sell us one, we will pay you your own price for it, and make you a pudding.”

John’s mouth gave a twitch or two. The arrow had hit the mark. He stood uneasily first on one leg and then on another, took a hasty look at his clucking family, shut his eyes and surrendered. The chicken would be ours at two o’clock tomorrow.

We shall probably never forget that chicken. It was a big, fat dowager of a hen, and we cooked it and cooked it and cooked it. We began after break-fast and let it stew till dinner time. We stayed in during the afternoon and unceasingly let it simmer. The process was renewed after supper and kept up until bed-time. The veteran bird holding her own, we ordered a fresh can of gasoline next morning, and continued the treatment. At the expiration of nine hours of stewing, all told, the hen was still holding well together, but we were exhausted with hope deferred and served her up. We ate the tenderest parts at that sitting, and cooked the rest in instalments off and on for the balance of the week.

“John,” I remarked, when we called on him again, “the ranch isn’t what it was before the hen left, is it? An old familiar sight gone out of your life, eh? You must miss her sadly.”

John’s eyes twinkled.

“Wasn’t she a good tastin’ bird?” he inquired.

“She tasted well enough,” we admitted, “but she seemed a little old. She’d been on the place some time, hadn’t she?”

“No-o,” he replied reflectively, “no-o, not so long. She wasn’t over three year old, I guess-mebbe four—or a little rising that.”

“That was a good pudding,” he added, as he handed back the dish, with three fresh eggs in it.