California Coast Trails; A Horseback Ride from Mexico to Oregon - J. Smeaton Chase - ebook

In 1911, Chase journeyed 2,000 miles on horseback from Mexico to Oregon and intimately recorded his experiences along the way.In his journals, Chase poetically provides a glimpse of California’s towns and wilderness as they appeared at the beginning of the 20th century.J. Smeaton Chase (1864-1923) was an English-born American author, traveler and photographer.Joseph Smeaton Chase has become an integral part of California literature: revered for his poignant descriptions of California landscapes. An Englishman who toured the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains in 1915 with his burro, Mesquit, Chase published poetic diary entries detailing his escapades through the Sierra Nevada mountains and California desert. 

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J. Smeaton Chase


Copyright © J. Smeaton Chase

California Coast Trails


Arcadia Press 2017




“A TRAVELLER is a creature not always looking at sights — he remembers (how often!) the happy land of his birth — he has, too, his moments of humble enthusiasm about fire, and food — about shade, and drink; and if he gives to these feelings anything like the prominence which really belonged to them at the time of his travelling, he will not seem a very good teacher; once having determined to write the sheer truth concerning the things which chiefly have interested him, he must, and he will, sing a sadly long strain about Self; he will talk for whole pages together about his bivouac fire, and ruin the Ruins of Baalbec with eight or ten cold lines.”



THE little thread of land, so puny, and yet so obstinate that it has almost the look of an intentional provocation, which has kept the two great oceans of the world asunder, is on the point of being severed, and the twin Americas clipped apart. With that event there will open for California an era of development as striking as that which followed upon the great awakening in the middle of the last century. With increase of commerce and population there will come important physical changes and the obliteration of much of what is distinctively Western in life and manners. Especially for that reason the writer hopes that this volume of impressions and experiences gained during a leisurely horseback-journey recently made through the coast regions of the State may be found timely, and not without interest and value.

The matters of principal concern to him in making his trip were not, it is true, the practical ones of commerce and its prospects and possibilities. Rather, the facts and beauties in nature and the humane and historic elements in life were his points of special attraction. Thus it occurs that neither the cities passed on his route nor the industries of the coast region are treated in particular detail. If apology be needed for any dearth of what may be called practical information in the volume, he feels that the lack has been, is being, and increasingly will be supplied by the many capable pens always at work on the categorical and statistical side.

In describing the features of the scenery no attempt has been made to paint in high colors. Indeed, on a re-reading of the manuscript the impression is that, in the desire to avoid the flamboyant at all hazards, the balance may have been weighted a trifle on the conservative side. But if a mistake has been made, it is in the right direction; and the writer states here his plain belief that California, with her magnificent mountain range of the Sierra Nevada, her generally diversified configuration, a shore-line extending through nearly ten degrees of latitude (with the variety in climate and in animal and vegetable life which that fact implies), and a history tinged first with the half-pathetic romance of Spain and then by the brief but lurid Epic of Gold, is by much the most beautiful, interesting, and attractive of all the States of the Union.

It may fairly be pointed out, further, that there is only one region of the United States, and indeed there can be but few parts of the world, where one may travel with enjoyment for half a year continuously, secure from climatic vagaries, and carrying on the animal one rides everything needful for comfort by day and night. There might well be organized a Society of California Rovers, whose annual programme it would be to take to the road, trail, or shore at, say, the first appearance of apple blossom, and allow no roof, unless one of canvas, to interpose between them and these kindly skies until the last Late Pippin has fallen from the tree.

N.B. — For the convenience of the general, and especially the non-Californian, reader, the pronunciation, and also the meaning where it is to the point, of the Spanish words which occur in the text are given in a Glossary, placed at the end of the volume, preceding the Index. These words are numerous, but they are unavoidable in the nature of the case, since most of the place-names throughout the coast region of California are Spanish. Beyond these place-names, however, the Spanish words introduced are those only that have passed into common speech in the one-time Spanish and Mexican territories.




Leaving El Monte — Objects of the ride — Our horses and equipment — El Monte — The first Mission San Gabriel — Friendly Mexicans — A ranch-house of Old California — Downey — A farmer of California’s best type — Sleepy Hollows — Camp on the San Joaquin — Coyotes and sulphureous coffee — Laguna Cañon — Warfare of sun and fog — The coast: Laguna Beach

“HELLO!” said a little girl in a sunbonnet, in shy response to my own salutation. (I did not know her, but I like shy little girls in sunbonnets.)

“Hello! travellin’ or jest goin’ somewheres?” said a pumpkin-faced boy, grinning at us over a gate.

To this ingenious witticism we deigned no reply.

“Hello! — goin’ campin’?” said a rancher, jolting on a load of hay behind two serious horses.

The rancher, with no very wonderful feat of discernment, had hit the mark. Carl Eytel the painter and I were riding down the south road from El Monte one midsummer morning, with our blankets rolled behind our saddles and other appurtenances of outdoor living slung about us. Ever since I had lived in California I had been waiting for an opportunity to explore the coast regions of the State. At last the time had come when I could do it; and Eytel, my companion on other journeys in the mountains and deserts of the West, was free to join me for the southern part of the expedition.

Our object was to view at our leisure this country, once of such vast quiescence, now of such spectacular changes. Especially we wished to see what we could of its less commonplace aspects before they should have finally passed away: the older manner of life in the land; the ranch-houses of ante-Gringo days; the Franciscan Missions, relics of the era of the padre, and the don, the large, slow life of the sheep and cattle ranges, and whatever else we could find lying becalmed in the backwaters of the hurrying stream of Progress.

As we meant to camp wherever night might find us, we carried with us everything we needed to make us free of cooks and chambermaids. At the same time we determined not to be encumbered with pack animals. A description of our equipment may interest the reader who wonders how this could be done on a trip which, in my own case, ran to something not far short of two thousand miles.

To begin with the horses: My companion’s mount was a hardy and experienced Arizona pony, round of build, sedate of temper, and serviceable to the last ounce. He owned the straightforward name of Billy, and looked it. For years he and his master had haunted the outposts of Western civilization, from the coast as far as to the lands of the Navajos and Moquis, in that picturesque region which the Spanish explorers named El Desierto Pintado. Nothing came amiss to Billy, either in forage or incident. He ate alternately of mesquit and tules, dozed equally well under palm or pine, and viewed burro-train or automobile with impartial eye.

My own horse I had bought for this trip from a Los Angeles dealer, and knew nothing of him except that he was said to hail from some Nevada stock range. As neither the dealer nor he could tell me his name, it was needful to fit him with another; so, from a trifling incident of the purchase, I called him Chino. He had a good head and limbs, intelligent eyes, and the lean body lines of a racehorse. I believe there was a strain of “blood” in him somewhere. He was gentle in temper, and, though excitable, was afraid of nothing, except that some unlucky experience had left him nervous of his picket-rope. After a few proofs of this drawback I got him a pair of hobbles, and had no further trouble.

For saddles we both had the excellent McClellan or army pattern, which are light, strong, and fitted with rings and fastenings front and rear for blankets, holsters, and other matters. We had had saddle-bags built of stout waterproofed canvas, fourteen inches long, twelve deep, and five “in the box.” These were invaluable, rode well, and held a surprising quantity. In one side of one pair went our mess-kit and cooking-tackle, the articles all arranged to “nest,” and made with detachable handles. The stove consisted of merely two little strips of wrought-iron, which, laid across a couple of stones or even across a hole scooped in the ground, made a quite serviceable cooking-place. In the other side were note-books, maps, ammunition, toilet things, and so forth. There was room for some odd articles of provision as well, and even for a small volume or two.

The other pair of saddle-bags accommodated the bulk of the provisions, of which the staples were rice, flour, oatmeal, sugar, tea, coffee, and the invaluable erbswurst, a compacted ration of pulverized split-peas and bacon. These items were supplemented as occasion offered with bread, cheese, canned meats, vegetables, and fruit, while the gun provided rabbits and such other game as was in season.

To complete the list of our traps, — I carried on one side of my saddle-horn a small hatchet in a sheath, and on the other a camera and light tripod. Eytel had the gun, slung in a holster, and his sketching-things. Our blankets, with a few extra pieces of clothing, were rolled compactly and fitted above the saddle-bags behind the saddles. I suppose my horse carried, rider included, about two hundred pounds, and Eytel’s possibly a little less. These were good loads for our rather light animals; but our stages were meant to be short, and in the nature of the case they would be often broken, since the whole object was to look about us at our ease, as tourists stroll about Paris or London, seeing the sights.

The road we were riding along might have been in Surrey or Virginia, so tall were the hedges that half hid the fence in their wild sweet tangle. You will not see much of verdure in travelling California roads by midsummer. Our sun is a thirsty one, and for half the year the landscape at close range is one of dry brown earth and shrivelled herbage, though distance may wash it over with amethyst, as Memory does with the unhappy landscapes of the mind. But the land about El Monte is damp and low-lying: green meadows and fields of alfalfa stretched on either hand, and the road was triple-bordered, first with vivid ribbons of grass starred with dandelions, next with rustling bulrushes or arrowy evening-primroses, and then with a fifteen-foot thicket of bushes over which rolled a flood tide of wild grape-vines, their tendrils reaching far up into the air in the determination to grasp their fill of summer.

The village of El Monte is a rather pretty little place, not too much modernized, with plenty of big poplar and eucalyptus trees swaying above the modest cottages. (I venture to hope that the reader agrees with me in finding, as I always do, the dwellings of the rustic poor, with their democratic marigolds and nasturtiums, more charming to the sympathies, and even to the eyes, than those elaborations of self-conscious modesty that line our streets in these almost too elegant days. I seriously think that humble things ought to please us best.) The place stands near the bank of the San Gabriel River, a dozen miles or so east of Los Angeles, and four miles from San Gabriel, that dusty little hamlet the long drowse of whose one street of adobes is broken nowadays by half-hourly convulsions when the electric car comes clanging with its load of tourists to “do” the venerable Mission.

Not many, however, even of Californians, are aware that the crumbling old building, with the ponderous green bells that threaten at every ringing to wreck the cracked campanile, is not the original building of its name. The first Mission San Gabriel was built in the year 1771, close to the river, and about five miles south of the present church. It was abandoned after five years, by reason of some disability of site, and a second building was consecrated, in the present position, in the fateful year of 1776. It, also, was temporary, and in 1796 the third and permanent structure took its place.

As the site of the first building was but a short distance off our road, we diverged to see what might remain to keep the memory of its brief existence. Passing a little huddle of dwellings, half house, half shed, we stopped to ask for directions of the unmistakably Irish head of an apparently Mexican family. He could give us little help: had lived there a long time, and had “heerd somethin’ about an old ‘dobe,” but evidently was no antiquarian. Inquiry of a Mexican woman who lived a little farther on resulted in the identification of a spot near the bank of the river, where we thought we could trace the outline of a rectangle, marked by a slight inequality of the surface of the ground, which might indicate the ruins of adobe walls that had sunk back, literally “earth to earth,” to their original clay. It was in the middle of a field of yellowed grass sprinkled with gray bushes of horehound and defiled with the carcass of a dead buzzard. Hum of bees, murmur of summer wind, twinkle of river shallows, these were all as of old. The rest was silence.

The morning had been cloudy, with a high fog, when we started, but by the time we were a few miles on the road the fog melted away, leaving a sky of light, sensitive blue, dappled with faint clouds that were like the sighs of a sleeping child. The hills on our left, under which lay the little Quaker town of Whittier, passed from gray to fawn, and behind us the rocky barrier of the Sierra Madre was streaked here and there with folds of mist that clung in the deeper cañons. At a corner of the road stood a school- house, enclosed, as every school-house should be, in a square of trees. The trees in this case were especially handsome poplars, rising like pillars of green flame into the air, and resembling in shape, I suppose, that pillar of fire and cloud that led the way for the fugitive Israelites.

It was yet before midday when, at the crossing of the river, we came to a simple white-plastered house with a great bush of some flowering vine pouring over the roof in masses of wine-red bloom. Making bold to tie our horses to the rail before the veranda, I entered into conversation with the three Mexican women who were resting in the shade of the porch, while Eytel sketched the place. The señora herself, a sweet-faced old dame with quiet, kindly eyes, sat gazing out with placid enjoyment over the river while we talked; the daughters, both mature women, stood by, listening, but speaking little.

The equipment carried by our horses occasioned some curiosity as to our purposes and destination, and I found it difficult to explain the indefinite nature of our journey until I bethought me of that useful term paseo, which told all in one word. (A paseo, it may be explained, is a walk, a ride, an excursion, a picnic, in fact, a going anywhere and any- how, so long as it is leisurely, pleasurable, and unbusinesslike.) The old lady, learning that I was from Los Angeles, grew eloquent in a gentle way over the advantages of living in this quiet spot rather than in the city, where, beyond noisy cars and much people, there was “nothing, nothing.” I had no difficulty in agreeing, but I fancied that the silent daughters by the door had another opinion.

With friendly adieus we rode on our way, and after a mile or two stopped, soon after noon, under a shady pepper-tree close to the Sanchez Ranch-house. Here we ate our lunch while the horses refreshed themselves with a scattering of hay from the field, lately cut. Two Mexicans from the house came over to chat with us while we smoked our pipes, displaying great interest in our expedition, and exhibiting that courtesy of speech and manner which, for some reason incomprehensible to me, seems to be considered by many people as almost a base quality in their race.

(The reader will no doubt notice in the course of these pages that the Californian Spaniards and Mexicans in one way or another enter more into my narrative than their numerical strength in the population of the State would render natural. The reason is partly that my purposes led me much into those out-of-the-way districts where they still form a large element in California life, and partly that I have a genuine liking for them, — not, I may say, without the basis of considerable experience. I confess to having no sympathy with the slighting regard in which they, especially the Mexicans, are held by the great majority of people in the West; and to holding them quite our equals-using the word “our” to signify the rest of us in general — in that sum of good, bad, and indifferent qualities which makes up the characters of races and nations. With this opinion, and with the sympathy naturally accompanying it, I find pleasure in their society; and the reader may perhaps receive an impression of their greater importance in the community than their relative numbers would justify.)

The old Sanchez house, which stands on an abrupt rise above the road and the river, retains still a few marks of the bygone importance of the family. It is now almost a ruin, and consists partly of the original adobe house and partly of later “frame” additions, even these showing traces of unusual finish and expense in carved cornices and ornamented mouldings. The cavernous fireplace and vast stables testify to the numbers of those who gathered to the hospitality of the old house in the days of its prime.

All day we kept the south road toward the coast, after crossing, early in the afternoon, the stream known as the Rio Hondo, or Deep River — a name calculated to provoke a smile from the traveller who, passing over it in the dry season, sees nothing but a wide expanse of sand and a thicket of willows. Sundown found us on the outskirts of the little town of Downey, where we pitched camp in a vacant lot adjoining a church, and passed a night embittered by mosquitoes. We arose early, and bade adieu to Downey while all but a few of the townspeople were still wrapped in slumber, or in the enjoyment of those serene moments during which one reconnoitres at long range the duties of the coming day.

For us it was a day of long straight roads, of inexpressible dust, of leagues of sugar-beets, and farms at mile-long intervals. After the gloomy experience of the previous night it was cheering to anticipate a night of unbroken rest at the ranch of a friend of Eytel’s. to whose house we rode up just as the family were sitting down to supper. We were at once welcomed to bed and board, hay was thrown down to our tired horses, and in due time we slept the sleep of the just traveller who is secure not only of his own but also of his horse’s welfare.

Our host was a representative of the best type of American farmer: a thoughtful, well-read man, courteous in the old, leisured manner, widely travelled, and full of distinct impressions and shrewd comparisons. Twenty-seven years of California ranching on the grand scale had left him with a well-digested fund of practical outdoor wisdom that made hours of conversation with him pass like minutes. His knowledge of the locality where he now lives goes back to the time of its first settlement by Mormons, who, under the unflattering names of “swamp angels” and “tule-rooters,” found the region an all but uninhabitable marsh, and have made it almost the richest of California’s boasted soils.

It was mid-afternoon next day when we said good-bye and rode away. On the right hand the twin peaks of Santiago Mountain rose into a faint blue sky, while to the south a pearly bank of sea-fog overhung the Pacific. In spite of careful directions as to our road we soon found ourselves wandering in a maze of tule swamps and barbed-wire fences, while hosts of implacable midges swarmed about us, biting furiously at horse and man alike. Two Mexicans whom we met walking could give us no directions, but a Chinaman on horseback at last put us right, and we made a happy escape. The time, we remarked, is oddly out of joint when Chinamen ride while Mexicans go afoot.

The road ran by sundry little settlements, some new and thriving, others, such as the hamlet of Fairview, where a few old houses and a church no longer young stood among loquacious poplars and cottonwoods. With all the phenomenal growth of population in California as a whole, we found tracts of country here and there which have somehow been exempted from the influx, and some which from that point of view appear even to have retrograded. But the kindly law of compensation is quietly at work, and one finds a charm in these Sleepy Hollows where nothing has grown but the trees, where the improvements are only in the increase of moss and lichen on roofs and fence-posts, and where old ladies still drive with fat ponies and antiquated phaetons to Sewing-Meetings and Ladies’ Auxiliaries, instead of whizzing in automobiles to Browning Clubs and bridge parties.

Crossing the main Santa Ana road as a meteoric procession of these last-named vehicles were bearing back Los Angeles holiday-makers from the seaside to their homes, we struck across the San Joaquin Ranch. The sun was going down behind us, and our shadows were projected gigantically before us on the wide yellow plain. Darkness overtook us early, aided by the fog that had waited for set of sun to advance its gray armies. A dry camp and poor grazing seemed to be our portion: but luck favored us, and by the last daylight we descried in the distance a stack of baled hay, beside which was a litter of loose hay which we felt free to appropriate for our horses.

Then, prowling in the darkness in the faint hope of discovering water, we came upon a good artesian flow issuing from an open well-boring. It was of blood-heat temperature, strongly charged with sulphur, and of highly unattractive odor: but it was water, and neither we nor our animals were inclined to refuse it. Tying the horses securely, lest they should be tempted to exchange our uninteresting society, during the night, for that of a band of their own flesh and blood that were grazing near by, we spread our blankets under the lee of the haystack, and were lulled to sleep by a nocturne in which the wailing of plovers competed at disadvantage with an indescribable clamor of coyotes.

It was something of a problem next morning how in this treeless country we were to achieve our indispensable coffee. But Eytel, who is a sort of Bedouin, was equal to the emergency. With ten minutes’ search we gathered a few handfuls of dry mustard stems, and with these he made a small but efficacious fire. The beverage made with the sulphur-impregnated water revealed a startling flavor, and it needed a certain amount of determination to ignore its weird aroma; but it was hot and we were cold, so that it really went very well.

We were early in the saddle, and making for the pass between the northwesterly flanks of the San Joaquin Hills and the foothills of the Santa Ana Range of mountains. Interminable beans in time succeeded to the miles of pasture land, and I gained an increased respect for the useful legume when I saw it growing thus, not in family back-yard fashion, but in great horizon-filling expanses from which loaded railroad cars would soon be rolling away to carry it by the hundreds of tons to the bean-loving world.

A countryman with whom we talked told us that artesian water lay at no great depth below all this level plain of the San Joaquin (not to be confounded, by the way, with the other San Joaquin, the great central valley of California whose southern boundary, the Tehachapi Range of mountains, forms a convenient geographical division between the southern and central portions of the State). I thought that if that were so I could foresee the time, not very far distant, when the prairie-like landscape I saw would be chequered into hundreds of trim little farms, occupied by Farmers of the New Style, who, scientifically blending water and soil under the most generous climate in the world, would cover the great expanse with the choicest fruits of the earth.

Turning southward and rounding the outermost point of the San Joaquin Hills, we began to descend into the Laguna Cañon. Utilitarian reflections were not suffered entirely to occupy my thoughts. As we rode, my companion noted with a painter’s instinct the broad simplicity of line and color. Yellow bays of stubble washed far up into the folds of the hills, and on their wide expanses solitary oaks or islands of brush were stamped in spots of solid umber. The gray thread of road stretched on before us, appearing and lapsing as it followed the gentle contours of the land; and over all a sky of pure cobalt had succeeded to the broken grays and purples of the morning.

At the head of the long descent to the coast lay a lagoon bordered with rustling tules and populated by files of water-fowl. Here and there a heron or a sandhill crane stood sunk in abysmal reflections. Brush began to cover the hillsides, the half-tone drabs and sages relieved with the uncompromising green of the tuna cactus, these last decorated with vivid yellow blossoms that sprouted like jets of flame from the edges of the lobes.

The cañon in its lower half is highly picturesque. Steep hills close it in, and curious caverns, some of them of large size, give a touch of mystery to their rocky sides. This quality of the scene was heightened when suddenly the sea-fog that lay continually in wait along the frontier of the coast, gaining a temporary advantage by some slackness of the enemy, poured over the mountain to the southwest and cast the whole mass into impressive gloom. On the instant the leaf was turned, brush was transmuted to heather, from California I was translated to Scotland. Fringes of sad gray cloud drooped along the summits or writhed entangled in the hollows of the hills. One who did not know the almost impossibility of rain at midsummer in this region would have declared that it was imminent. A strong breeze blew salty in our faces; but when by mid-afternoon we rode into the village of Laguna Beach, the sun again held sway. So the unceasing warfare goes along this coast.

We rode our horses down to the beach. The philosophic Billy was unemotional as usual, but my Chino, a lean bundle of nerves, was deeply interested, and gazed snorting and breathing quickly at the phenomenon of the surf. Turning westward we found an oasis of wild oats among the brush and cactus that occupied the rising ground at the back of the cliffs, and there cast anchor.

It was highly pleasant at evening to lie in our blankets listening for an hour to the surf growling like a friendly watch-dog in our extensive back-yard: and to wake, after a night of industrious oblivion, to feel the sea-fog brushing our faces with its cool soft fingers, a kind of infinitesimal needle-bath.


Aliso Cañon — The eucalyptus — Bird voices at morning — A painter’s coast — Our camp at Aliso Cañon — Coast features and resemblances — A typical Southern California cañon — The artist’s point of view — A hermit’s cave — California land-grants: their names — Dana’s cliff at San Juan — The town of San Juan Capistrano: its old-time air: its ruined Mission — Relics of Mission days.

LAGUNA BEACH is a main resort of California artists, and the next morning was devoted to a foregathering with certain of them who chanced to be painting in the neighborhood. Then was there great comparison of sketch-books, and expositions upon line, balance, and mass: not even the spectrum was out of range. With Bohemian hospitality and a notable combustion of tobacco the hours sped away, until, soon after midday, we saddled up to move a short distance farther down the coast.

A few miles along a road that wound and dipped over the cliffs brought us by sundown to Aliso Cañon. A brackish lagoon lies at the mouth, barred from the ocean by the beach sands. The walls of the cañon are high hills of lichened rock, sprinkled with brush whose prevailing gray is relieved here and there by bosses of olive sumach. A quarter-mile inland we struck tokens of the neighborhood of a ranch, and here made camp under a rank of fragrant blue-gums populous with argumentative kingbirds and cheerful orioles.

The landscapes of California have been greatly enriched by the acclimatization here of the eucalyptus. It is not often that the presence of an imported ingredient adds a really natural element to the charm of scenery; but the eucalyptus, especially the globulus variety that has become so common throughout the State, has so truly native an appearance that it seems as if its introduction from Australia must have been more in the nature of a homecoming than of an adoption. The wide, treeless plains and valleys which once lay unrelieved and gasping under the summer sun, and inspired similar sensations in the traveller, are now everywhere graced by ranks and spinneys of these fine trees, beautiful alike, whether trailing their tufty sprays in the wind, or standing, as still as if painted, in the torrid air.

When the winter rains come there are no trees that so abandon themselves to the spirit of the time. With wild sighs and every passionate action they crouch and bend as if in the very luxury of grief. and toss their tears to the earth like actors protesting their sorrows on a stage.

The long, scimitar-like leaves are as fine in shape as can be imagined, and each tree carries a full scale of colors in its foliage, — the blue-white of the new, the olive of the mature, and the brilliant russets and crimsons of the leaves that are ready to fall. The bark is as interesting as the foliage, its prevailing color a delicate fawn, smooth enough to take on fine tone reflections from soil and sky. Long shards and ropes of bark hang like brown leather from stem and branches, making a lively clatter as they rasp and chafe in the wind, and revealing, as they strip away, the dainty creams and greenish-whites of the inner bark.

The tree’s habit of growth sets off its beauties to the best advantage, long spaces of the trunk, arms, and smaller branches showing all their handsome colors and “drawing” between the dense plumes of foliage. In early summer the tree flowers with a profusion of blossoms uniquely tasteful, and later, the seed-vessels are as quaint and curious as rare sea-shells. To crown all, the tree is as fragrant as sandalwood, and the scent a hundred times more robust than that exotic perfume, which is fit only for seraglios and the effeminate paraphernalia of Mongolian decadence.

The night was cloudy but warm. Our blankets were spread upon a deep litter of blue-gum leaves, and their vigorous essences gave the spot unusual attractiveness as a sleeping-place. Something, however, — probably the virtue of our Laguna friends’ home-grown tobacco, — again made me wakeful; but it was enjoyable enough to lie and watch the quiet play of the foliage, the only sounds the gentle clatter of leaf on leaf, the industrious mastication of the horses, the occasional challenges of distant owls, and the monotonous voice of the surf lulling the earth with its unceasing narrative.

The hubbub of birds that greeted the morning was something to remember. The kingbirds seemed to be the earliest risers, their waking complaints overlapping the long-range adieus of the owls. For some time nothing else stirred. No doubt birds have their peculiarities of temper, or at least of temperament, just as we have. I fancied the less strenuous inhabitants of the trees lying lethargically gazing at the brightening sky, awaiting the fatal moment when the duties of the coming day could no longer be ignored: perhaps, like some of us, the victims of “liver.” In due course the linnets, blackbirds, orioles, and canaries came in; and just before sunrise the cliff swallows, of whom a flock of full two hundred inhabited a cavern by the lagoon, filled the air with their sweet trilling voices as they swung and soared in zestful manoeuvres. Then the cliff wren’s cascade of plaintive chromatics rang out from far up the hill; and when the sun arose, and with him the insects, the flycatchers arrived to occupy the most desirable stations for business. Next the quail began to call in the willows, their flute-like voices receding as they made their way to the hillsides for the day; the soft cry of doves came from the stubble; and finally the scream of a hunting hawk supplied the inevitable element of discord.

Our camp here was so attractive that we remained for several days. For my companion’s purposes the locality was quite undeniable, the coast both up and down being ideally broken and paintable. Point after point, rich in ochres, madders, and umbers, ran out into a sea of truly Mediterranean brilliancy, and chains of islets ringed with flashing foam lay like pendants of jewels on the turquoise plain. The cliffs rose in general to a hundred feet or thereabouts, and were broken by frequent cañons which varied with lines of heavy brush the sweep of hillside that ran to a horizon of large, free outlines. Dark ranks of cypresses, stunted and broken, stood here and there near the cliff edge, the when and the by whom of their planting offering problems of casual interest to the infrequent wayfarer.

Thirty miles in the west lay the island of Santa Catalina, often unseen for many days together, and even in clear weather hardly discernible above the gray line of the sea-blink that banded the horizon.

Before we moved on, Eytel had quite a gallery of studies and sketches tacked up on the trees to dry. Altogether our camp had an attractive air of alfresco Bohemianism, and we would not have exchanged it for the charms of the VacheEnragée and the Boul’Miche’. Saddles, bridles, saddle-bags, guns, spurs, and cooking-tackle were strewn all about the little spot which for the time we called home: an easel and palette signified the door of the studio; and our horses fraternized and quarrelled alternately in such close proximity to our beds that they could have kicked out our brains as we slept if they had been so minded.

This part of the coast of California bears a curious likeness to that of the Channel Islands off the Brittany Coast. A difference there is in details, of course, — geologic structure, vegetation, and, somewhat, color. Here, warm ochres, creams, and drabs alternate on the broken cliff faces with olive-greens, grays, and masses of ashy rose; and the herbage of the tops carries out the same general class of tone. Cactus growing to the cliff edges gives a touch wholly characteristic of the region. But the long, wing-like reaches of the land line, where ten miles of coast will contain twice that number of little emerald bays barred one from the other by white arms of spray, brought constantly to my mind the rocky shores of Guernsey and Jersey. There are some little castellated peninsulas that I could match almost detail for detail with some that I remember near St. Aubyn. Such resemblances are full of pleasure: they keep one’s thoughts unstagnant and ever on the wing; and, better yet, they reach down and stir sometimes those subtlest strings of all, that vibrate in the dark, quiet chamber of the mind where lies the well of tears, keeping that unstagnant, too.

One afternoon we rode a few miles up the cañon toward El Toro, the nearest point of the railroad. The valley — for it is too gentle in outline to be properly called a cañon — is so purely typical of many of the California landscapes that I will describe it as an example. As soon as we passed the gates of the ranch we entered a league-long valley from which rose smooth slopes of pale-golden grass. The rounded swells and folds of the land took the light as richly as a cloth of velvet. In the bottom lay the creek, in isolated pools and reaches, its course marked sharply by a border of green grass and rushes. Red cattle grazed everywhere or stood for coolness in the weed-covered pools. The hillsides were terraced by their interlacing trails. Elders and willows grew at wide intervals, a blot of shadow reaching from each. Under them the rings of bare gray earth were tramped hard as brick where generations of cattle had gathered for shade. In one side reach of the valley was a little bee-ranch of a score or two of hives, with the typical shanty of the bee-man closed and apparently deserted. It was an “off-year” for bees near the coast: excess of fog had spoiled the honey-flow.

As we rode, blue mountains rose on the northern horizon. They were the Santa Ana Mountains, fifteen miles away. That was the only ingredient in the view that could come under the term “picturesque”: the rest was open, bald, commonplace. European painters — American, too, all but a few — would have declared it crude and impossible. The yellow horizon was cut on the blue of the sky in a clean, hard line. At one spot, where the creek in winter flood had cut out a fifteen-foot bluff, the shadow was a slash of inky blackness on the glaring expanse of sun-bleached grass. There was always a buzzard or two swinging slowly in the sky, and once one rose near by with a heavy, shambling flight from his surfeit on the carcass of a dead steer. That was all: but to Eytel, and indeed to me, though I am no artist, it was complete and perfect. If beauty consists, as theorists, I understand, declare, in the true expression of spirit, then certainly this landscape complied with the terms. It was a very summary of the native and original California del Sur, California of the South, as Nature designed it. And even the sophisticated mind, trained to weigh tone values and balance of line, found the composition ideal in its magnificent Western simplicity. Pretty? a thousand miles from it. Picturesque? the very word sounds puerile. But simple, strong, dignified (which I take to be the primaries of art, after all), these were the very facts of the case, the materials of the landscape.

Of small life there was plenty, but not in much variety. Ground-squirrels by hundreds scurried across the road, or sat motionless, so exact an imitation of dead stumps of wood that it was hard to detect the trick, which they no doubt relied on for safety. Their runways were as well-beaten and plain to see as, in many places, was the county road we were on. A ground-owl, like another stump, sat on the edge of the creek-bluff, his head revolving like a screw as he watched us through three-quarters of a circle. Two road-runners raced away uphill, the sunlight glancing from their long straight backs and tail-feathers as if from steel. Once a coyote stole up the hillside, standing in plain view on the ridge as long as he felt sure he was out of range, and then dodging from cover to cover until he reached his safe ravine. A hawk chevied by kingbirds, like a Spanish galleon beset by pirates, drifted and flapped about in misery, a fine moral spectacle of poetic justice.

We had been told of a cave somewhere in the cañon, which had been in past days inhabited by a hermit. Our friend at the ranch remembered that nearly forty years ago his father had removed from it scraps of iron and such other articles as the hermit, even then long departed and already become historic, had left behind to keep his memory gray (as I suppose a hermit would prefer to have it). We had no difficulty in identifying the place, though we had not asked for direction to it. A mile or two up the cañon we found a sizable cave in the side of a stony hill that rose from the eastern bank of the creek. The roof was still begrimed with smoke, so that the swallows, and even the bats, had eschewed the place; and Eytel picked up near the entrance a stone pestle, such as was, and still is to some extent, used by the California Indians to grind flour in their morteros. This no doubt was the property of the legendary man.

A little delving in the floor of the cave brought to light fragments of shells of mussels and clams, but nothing more eloquent of the past; nor were any reflective inscriptions, such as one would think to befitting if not inevitable, to be found on the walls. But hermits, we remembered, are not all given to scribbling; and then, our friend (if we might take that liberty with him) might not have been able to write. In fact, we speculated whether he might not have been one of those Kanakas whom Dana, in “Two Years Before the Mast,” reported encountering, I thought, at San Juan, only a few miles from this very spot. Hence no writing: and the pestle, and the art of using it, were no doubt the gift of friendly Indians.

We fancied our man, a literal cave man, sitting at set of sun in the door of his lonely dwelling, revolving eremitical thoughts, and travelling, perhaps, in mind the leagues of blue ocean back to far Hawaii. We thought we heard him singing his “SuperfluminaBabylonis” by the willows of the creek; and with kindly thoughts of the unknown brother we turned away.

It was gently mortifying, after these sentimental exercises, to find later that we had been at the wrong cave. The true place is in a side cañon on the other side of the creek: and, anyhow, it was at San Diego, not San Juan, that Dana met his protégés.

As we returned in the late afternoon, shreds of silvery fleece were drifting over the hill from the sea, to dissolve in the heated air that still rose from valley and mountain. An hour later the balance would be slowly reversed, and during the night the people of the inland towns and farms as far as to the foothills of the Sierra Madre would lie under the cool blanket of the sea-fog.

The land of California was held under first the Spanish and then the Mexican governments in large grants, or ranches. Most of these have, under American rule, and especially during the last few decades, with their accelerated development, been broken up: but a few remain intact; and the original names of all of them still adhere, and preserve for us a touch of the glamour of the old régime. To name only those tracts which we had traversed in coming from El Monte to the coast, there were, — San Francisquito, Potrero Grande, La Merced, Paso de Bartolo, Santa Gertrudis, Los Coyotes, Los Alamitos, Las Bolsas, Santiago de Santa Ana, and San Joaquin. Aliso Cañon is on the Niguel, a designation which has by general consent been Englished into Newell, a fair phonetic approximation.

We now entered upon the grant of the Mision Vieja de San Juan Capistrano, the lands that formerly pertained to that once flourishing Mission establishment. Wide levels of yellow grass that shone like silk in the sunlight led to a small cañon in which lay a narrow lagoon. Skirting this we came to a great expanse of stubble, with here and there huge piles of sacked grain built up like redoubts, a palpable defiance to famine.

A shallow stream, the San Juan Creek, here comes down to the sea. The adjacent coast was the scene of events narrated by R. H. Dana in that graphic chapter of autobiography, “Two Years Before the Mast,” to which reference was made on a recent page. It was easy to identify the cliff from which the hides were thrown down to the much-abused sailors of the Pilgrim, and where Dana himself performed that perilous descent for which he received such ambiguous thanks from the redoubtable Captain T. The presence of a pensive pelican, who sat, apparently in the remorse of indigestion, on the top-most scarp of the cliff, seemed somehow to aid in the reconstruction of these bygone incidents of the place.

We now turned our backs for a few days upon the ocean and rode inland. The sun, setting in a pageant of color, poured a flood of rosy gold upon the low hills to the east, and clad with a more solemn splendor the higher back ranges. Behind us a segment of gray sea filled the mouth of the valley. Its passionless unconcern, in contrast with the companionable aspect of the other features of the scene, affected me with a sudden feeling of aversion. Water, though the most beautiful, seems the least humane of the elements.

Darkness was falling as we entered the little town of San Juan Capistrano. A few torpid Mexicans lounged outside the stores, which had closed for the day, and gave us Buenasnoches as we passed. We camped beside the river half a mile beyond the town, and enjoyed at night a fine entertainment of summer lightning that played along the northern, horizon. Lightning is something of a rarity in California.

Capistrano — to use the common abbreviation — is the most interesting small town in California. The reason is that it has remained Californian in the old sense, that is to say, Spanish, Mexican, and Indian. I suppose five-sixths of the inhabitants are of those races, and the remnant is a motley of Basques, Germans, French, and Jews. Judge E., who is the Justice of the Peace and the effective Squire of the place, is an American, certainly, but if you should ask his name you would be told, Don Ricardo. Capistrano’s threescore or so of houses are mostly adobes, its stores are tiendas, its meat-markets carnicerías, its weekly function a baile, its celebrations fiestas, and the autumnal employment of its people pizcandonueces in the walnut orchards which fill the lower valley of the San Juan.