My Day in the Wilderness

My Day in the Wilderness  (1873) 
by Helen Hunt Jackson

From Scribner's Magazine, 1873. (Helen Hunt Jackson, writing as "H. H."). An account of a horseback ride up (and down) the daunting Indian Canyon of Yosemite Valley.

On our left hand rose a granite wall, so straight that we could see but a little way up, so close that we had need to take care in turning corners not to be bruised by its sharp points, and so piled up in projecting and overlapping masses that, mountain as it was, it seemed as if it might topple at any second. On our right hand—space!


By H. H.

It was the morning of our eighth day in Ahwahne; and the next day we must go.

If it had been my birthday of my eightieth year in Ahwahne, I could not have clung to the valley more fondly. As I looked up to the dark line of firs on either side of the Great Fall, I pictured to myself the form of that six-year-old boy of the Ahwahnechee, who, when the white men entered the valley, was seen climbing, naked, like a wild chamois, on the glistening granite face of the rock-wall, midway between heaven and earth, to escape the enemy. A cruel man of his tribe lured him down and gave him captive to the white men, who christened him Reuben, put trowsers on him, and sent him to school. But just when they thought they had him tamed, he stole two horses and ran away, "to illustrate the folly of attempting to civilize the race," says the biographer of the poor Ahwahnechee; "to illustrate the spell of Ahwahne," say I. Swift on the stolen horses I know he rode back to Ahwahne, and finding it in the hands of white men, fled on to some still remoter walled valley, where he lives in a wigwam to-day.

"John Murphy, guide," as with quaint dignity he writes his name, stood near me, also looking up at the Fall.

"When you come back next year, 's ye say you're comin', but then folks never does come back when they sav they will," said Murphy, "I'll hev a trail built right to the base o' thet upper fall."

"Why, Mr. Murphy, where will you put it?" I said, looking along the sheer gray wall three thousand feet high.

"There's plenty of places. I'll make it as broad 'n' easy a trail 's there is in this valley," said Murphy quietly; "'tain't half so steep as 'tis up Indian Canyon, where they've just finished a new trail this week; at least so they say; I hain't seen it."

"Up Indian Canyon," I exclaimed, for I knew where that lay; it was the next one to the east of the Great Fall, and in one of the steepest parts of the valley. "Then why can I not go out of the valley that way, and strike across to Gentry's?"

Murphy hesitated.

"Well, ye might; an' 'twould be jest what you'd like; you could cross the Yo Semite Creek just above the Fall, an' go' up on to Eagle Pint; an' the view from there is finer than 'tis from Sentinel Dome where I took ye yesterday. But ye see I mistrust whether the river ain't too high to ford."

What more could be needed to make one resolve to go? Boom-boom-boom, sounded the deep violoncello undertones of the Fall, thundering down from the sky, three thousand feet up. Ford that? Every drop of blood in one's veins took a bound at the thought.

All the Scotchman in Murphy demurred about the undertaking; but the woodsman and the sympathizing guide conquered.

"I'd like to hev ye see it first rate," he said, "but I want ye to understand before we set out, that I shan't cross if I think there's any resk."

This last with a determination of tone which was worthy of Cromwell.

In an hour all was ready, and, in spite of shaking heads and warning voices, we set out. In that short time the usual amount of conflicting testimony had been gathered as to the trail and the condition of the river. "The trail was finished;" "the trail was only half done;" "the river was much too high to be forded;" "a man had come across yesterday, without trouble."

"I expect ye'd kind o' hate to give up, an' come down into the valley agin?" said Murphy, inquiringly, as we rode out into the meadows.

"Mr. Murphy," I replied, "I shall not give up, and come down into the valley again. There must be some other way of getting across, higher up. Is there not?"

If Mr. Murphy perceived the truly feminine manner in which I defined my position, the delicious contrast between my first sentence and my last, he did not betray any consciousness of it, but answered with undisturbed gravity:

"Why, yes; there's the old Mono Trail, a good piece farther up the river. But I drama's you could ride so far's that. However, we don't know yet but what we can get over to the first ford." And Murphy relapsed into his customary thoughtful silence.

The meadow was dewy and sweet; through the lush grass and brakes we rode past red lilies, white azalias, columbines, and wild roses: after half an hour of this, we struck the new, trail and began climbing the wall.

Almost at once, by the first two or three bends of the trail, we were lifted so high above the valley, that its walls seemed to round and close to the west, and the green meadow and its shining river sank, sank, like a malachite disk, slowly settling into place, at bottom. The trail was steeper than any we had seen. Even Murphy muttered disapprovingly at some of its grades, and jumped down and walked to make the climb easier for his old gray. On our left hand rose a granite wall, so straight that we could see but a little way up, so close that we had need to take care in turning corners not to be bruised by its sharp points, and so piled up in projecting and overlapping masses that, mountain as it was, it seemed as if it might topple at any second. On our right hand—space! nothing more; radiant, sunny, crisp, clear air: across it. I looked over at the grand domes and pinnacles of the southern wall of Ahwahne; down through it I looked into the depths of Ahwahne; away from it I turned, dizzy, shuddering, and found the threatening rocks on the left friendly by contrast. Then, with impatience at my own weakness, I would turn my face toward the measureless space again, and compel myself to look over, and across, and out and down. But it could not be borne for many minutes; even Murphy did not like it.

"I reckon this trail won't be much of a favorite," he said grimly; "'pears to me it's worse'n 't used to be gettin' up among the trees, on the Injun trail." We zigzagged so sharply that we seemed often to be merely doubling on our own track, with no perceptible gain, although each ascent was so steep that the horses had to stop for breath every two or three minutes. But to all my propositions to walk Murphy replied with firm denial.

"You'll be tired enough, come night, anyhow," he said, with a droll mixture of compassion and approbation in his voice: "you stay while ye be; that horse can do it well enough."

But he led his own more than half the way.

New flowers, and new ferns, that I had not found before in all Ahwahne, hung thick on the rocky wall, which, facing south, has sun all day, and can make the most of Ahwahne's short summers.

Every cleft was full of color or of nodding green. High in the very topmost crevices waved scarlet and blue blossoms like pennons, so far above our heads that we could see no shape, only the fluttering color; and long sprays of yellow honeysuckle swept into our very faces again and again.

Suddenly, Murphy halted, and exclaimed:

"I vow!"

Several other voices spoke at once, surprise and curiosity in their tones: a bend in the trail concealed the speakers. I hurried around it, and found myself facing four men working with pickaxes and spades on the trail. A small fire was burning on the rocks, and a big iron pot of coffee boiled and bubbled above it, exhaling delicious fragrance. The men leaned on their tools and looked at me. I looked at Murphy. Nobody spoke. This was the end of the new trail!

"I s'pose ye can get through well enough: the bushes are cut down," said one.

Murphy said something in a tone so low I could not hear; I fear it was not complimentary to my riding.

"Mr. Murphy," said I, "I would rather ride all day and all night in the woods than ride down this precipice again. Pray keep on. I can follow wherever you can go."

Murphy smiled pityingly at me, and went on talking with the men. Then he walked away with them for a few moments. When he came back, I read in his eyes that we were to go on.

"There's the old Injun trail," he said, "there ain't any trouble about the trail. The thing that stumps me, is the river; there don't none of these men think you can get over."

"But I'm goin' to get you through to Gentry's, somehow, before I sleep," added Murphy, with a new and delightful doggedness spreading over his face; and he sprang into his saddle, and pushed on. One of the men picked up his hatchet, and followed, saying:

"There's a bad piece just out yonder; I guess I'll fix a little for the lady."

The "piece" consisted simply of a brook, full of bowlders, water running like a mill-race, fallen trees and bent saplings, and tangled bushes all woven and interwoven above it. How we got over I do not know. Then the knight with the hatchet went back, and we began to pick our way up Indian Canyon. I could see no trail. All I knew was that Murphy was zigzagging along before me, on the steep side of the Canyon, through thickets of interlaced growths of all sorts, and over numberless little streams which were foaming across our track, and that I was following him.

"Don't try to guide the horse," he called back to me every few minutes. "He'll follow me, or pick out a better way for himself."

The "better way" resulted presently in a most surprising sensation. Lifting one fore-foot after the other carefully, and setting them both down firmly on the farther side of a big fallen tree, my horse whisked his two hind-feet over at one jump, which nearly threw me over his head.

"You villain!" shouted Murphy, who happened to be looking back. "That's because he's gettin' tired; I'll look out and not lead ye over any more trees big enough to jump."

Many an extra half-mile did we ride before night by reason of this: it was hours before I could ride my horse at the smallest log without a sharp terror.

But Indian Canyon did not last long. Once at the head of it, we came out into magnificent spaces of forest; pines and firs from one hundred to three hundred feet high, all about us, and as far as we could see, and it seemed as if we could look off as far as upon an ocean, for the trunks rose straight, and bare, and branchless for fifty, sixty, eighty feet. The ground was indescribably soft, with piled layers of brown pine needles, and high-branching brakes, which bent noiselessly under our feet. In and out among the fallen trees, now to right, now to left, Murphy pushed on, through these trackless spaces, as unhesitatingly as on a turnpike.

Following a few paces behind, I fell into a silence as deep as his. I lost consciousness of everything except the pure animal delight of earth, and tree, and sky. I did not know how many hours had passed, when Murphy suddenly stopped, and said:

"You set as if you was getting tired. I reckon you'd better rest a spell here; an' I'll go down on foot to the river an' see if we can get across. You'll feel better, too, if you eat somethin'." And he looked at me a little anxiously.

It was past noon. Murphy was right: it was high time for rest and for lunch, but merely to leave the saddle was not rest. The intense realization of the grandeur and the solitude was only heightened as I sat all, all alone, in such silence as I never, knew, in such space as I never felt. Murphy was not gone, he said, more than ten minutes, but in that ten minutes I lived the life of all hermits who have ever dwelt in desert or mountain.

As he came slowly towards me, I studied his face: Ford? or no ford?

I could not gather a gleam of indication, but one learns strange reticence with reticent people. I did not speak, only smiled: Murphy did not speak, only smiled, but shook his head, and began at once to fasten the saddle-bags on his saddle again.

In a moment, though, he spoke. "No use. Couldn't get across there myself, nohow. I never see the river so high 't this time o' year."

Now what was to be done? The old Mono trail, of which Murphy had spoken, came up the other side of Indian Canyon, and struck the river four miles higher. We could not be many miles from that trail; but the finding it was a matter of luck and chance. We might strike off on the ridges along the river, in just the line to hit it. We might wander about for hours, and not find it. Then, again, when we had found it, and by it had reached the river, what if even there the river proved unfordable? This was Murphy's great point of perplexity, I could see.

"We should have hard work to get back to the valley again to-night," he said.

I shuddered at the thought of riding down that wall after dark. But I kept silence. I did not wish to seem to bias his decision. At last he burst out with—

"I'm blamed if I know what to do. I hate to give up an' go back 's bad 's you can. I can sleep well enough under a tree, if wust comes to wust, but I dunno 's 't's right to run any risk on't for you."

Sleeping under a tree, with brave, kind, old Murphy to keep a watch-fire burning, looked to me like paradise in comparison with riding down Indian Canyon at night.

"Mr. Murphy," said I, "you must decide. I myself would far rather ride all night, or sit all night under a tree, than go down that trail again. I am not in the least afraid of anything excepting that. But I promised to be guided by your judgment, and I will. I will turn right round now, and go back to the valley, if you say so. But you must decide. Do just what you really think best."

This I said because my whole heart was set on going to Gentry's by the Mono trail.

Murphy pulled out his watch. It was half-past one o'clock.

"I don't think we could be later 'n three, gettin' to the river," he said. "I'll do it! I'll resk it!"

"But I dunno 's now I'm doin' right," he added, as I clapped my hands and sprang up. I sat down again and looked at him reproachfully.

"Yes, yes, I'll resk it," he exclaimed. "I wan't agoin' back on myself, but I dunno 's I'm doin' right for all that."

After we were mounted, Murphy stood still for some minutes, looking carefully all around, taking his bearings. Then he rode off in a direction apparently at right angles to the river. Now I was to find out—I who had thought the trail up Indian Canyon well nigh impassable—what it is to ride where there is no trail. Over steep slopes, thick with bowlders and bushes, and no trace of a path—along rocky ledges, where loose stones rolled under the horses' feet at every step,—three times Murphy tried too near the river to get up to the Mono trail. At last he turned back and struck down into the leveler spaces of forest again. It began to seem as if we were riding round and round in circles; north and south, and east and west, seemed alike; it was hard to believe that Murphy had any plan, any instinct. Acre after acre of pine-forest, hill after hill of bowlders and bushes, valley after valley with threading streams at bottom, we crossed. Sometimes we came upon great fields of low berry-bearing bushes, under the majestic pines. There was something infinitely touching in the sight of these stores of tiny fruit for the feeble folk who live on wing and in nests in the wilderness. Clumps of the strange red snow-flower, too, we saw in the wildest and most desolate places. Surely there can be no flower on earth whose look so allies it to uncanny beings and powers. "Sarcodes sanguinea," the botanists have called it; I believe the spirits of the air know it by some other.

Imagine a red cone, from four to ten inches in height, and one to two in diameter, set firmly in the ground. It is not simply red, it is blood-red; deep and bright as drops from living veins. It is soft, flesh-like, and in the beginning shows simply a surface of small, close, lapping, sheath-like points, as a pine-cone does. These slowly open, beginning at the top, and as they fold back you see under each one a small flower, shaped like the flower of the Indian Pipe, and of similar pulpiness. This also is blood-red; but the center of the cone, now revealed, is of a fleshy-pinkish white; so also is the tiny, almost imperceptible stem which unites the flower to it. They grow sometimes in clumps, like the Indian Pipe, three or four in a clump, sometimes singly. As far off as one can see down the dim vistas of these pine-forests will gleam out the vivid scarlet of one of these superb uncanny flowers. When its time comes to die, it turns black, so that in its death, also, it looks like a fleshly thing linked to mysteries.

At last Murphy shouted triumphantly from ahead: "Here's the trail. Fetched it this time; now keep up, sharp;" and he rode off down a steep and rocky hillside, at a rate which dismayed me. The trail was faint, but distinct: at times on broad opens, it spread out suddenly into thousands of narrow dusty furrows; these had been made by flocks of sheep driven through earlier in the season. From some of these broad opens were magnificent views of the high Sierras; we were six thousand feet high, but they were five and six and eight thousand feet higher still; their glistening white peaks looked like ice-needles, sharp, thick-set against the far blue sky; between us and them, a few miles off, to the left, lay the beautiful granite-walled, meadow-paved abyss of Ahwahne, but its narrow opening made no perceptible break in the grand surfaces of green and gray over which we looked to the horizon. It seemed long before we reached the river. At first sight of its gleam through the trees, Murphy drove his spurs into his horse, and galloped towards it. Slowly he rode up and down the bank, looking intently at the water. Then he turned and rode back to me. As before, I studied his reticent face in vain. But, when he began to speak, his eyes twinkled.

"It's runnin' pretty fast, but I can get ye over; I'll do it now, if I have to carry ye. But I'm goin' to ride over fust to see how the stones lay," and he plunged in. I had hard work to hold my horse back from following. Suddenly Murphy looked back and shouted, "Come on. 'Taint so deep 's I thought; come right on." For a second I shrank. Murphy was half across; the water was foaming high; I could see no bottom; Murphy's feet were thrown up by an inexplicable gymnastic twist, so that they were nearly on his horse's back, and nearly to his feet the water came; the current seemed to me swift enough to carry any living thing, man or horse, off his legs in a second. But shame made me bold, and I rode in. At the first gurgling rush of the water under me, and the first sway of my horse's body in it, I leaned forward, clutched his neck, shut my eyes, drew up my left foot, and tried not to think. It could not have been more than four or five minutes across, by the watch; but there are other measures of time than time. When I scrambled out dripping on the bank, Murphy sat on his horse looking at me kindly.

"Ye done that fust rate," he said, "an' now the sooner we push on the better."

I pleaded for five minutes' rest for the horses to nibble the low green grass which grew in the little bit of meadow at the ford. Poor things! it was half-past four o'clock; not a mouthful of food had they had since morning. For the last two hours mine had been snatching mouthfuls of every eatable and uneatable shrub we had passed.

But Murphy was inexorable. "'Twon't do tbem no good, the little bit they'd get, an' we've got considerable ridin' to do yet," he said.

"How far is it to Gentry's now? " said I.

"I dunno exactly," replied Murphy, Wise Murphy! "If we'd come out on Eagle Pint, where we calculated to, it 'ud ha' been about six miles from there to Gentry's. But it's some farther from here."

Some farther! into sunless, pathless woods, miles and miles of them,—out on bare plateaus, acres and acres of them,—down canyons, steep and ledged with bare rocks, or jungled with trees and bushes, down one side, over the stream at bottom, and up the other side, across three of them, led that Mono trail. And after the woods, and the plateaus, and the canyons, came more woods; "the last woods," said Murphy, and they did last. These were the great Tamarack Flats. Dense, dark, desolate; trees with black-seamed bark, straight and branchless, unloving and grim, up to the very tops; and even the tops did not seem to blend, though they shut out the sky. A strange ancient odor filled the air, as from centuries of distilling essence of resins, and mouldering dust of spices. Again, and again, and again, we were stopped by a fallen tree, which lay, barring our path for a hundred feet each way, and crossed again itself by other fallen trees, till we had to whirl and twine and ride up and down to get out of the corral. Then we would come to a huge snow-bank, nine, ten feet high, curiously dotted and marked over the whole surface, where rain-drops had pattered down, and pine-needles had fallen; around these also we had to ride, for they were too soft to bear the horses' weight.

After these circuits it "was very hard to find the trail again, for there was no trace of it on the ground—only old blazes on the trees to indicate it.

Sometimes Murphy would tell me to wait where I was, and not stir, while he rode back and forth looking for a blaze on a tree. Sometimes I spied the blaze first; and then I felt a thrill of real backwoods achievement.

On one of the opens he suddenly halted, and, waiting for me to come up, pointed to a mark in the dust.

"There's something ye never see before, I reckon," he said.

It was a broad print in the dust, as if a mitten had been laid down heavily.

"That's the trail of a grizzly," exclaimed Murphy exultantly, "he was the last along this road."

A little further on he stopped again, and after leaning low from his horse and looking closely at the ground, called back to me:

"There's been a whole herd of deer along here, not but a very little while ago. I'd ha' liked it if you could ha' had a look at 'em."

Grizzlies, deer, and if there were any other wild creature there, I should have been glad to see them all. Murphy and I seemed to belong to the wilderness as much as they. I felt ready to meet my kin, and rather lonely that they were all out of the way. But I wished that they kept their house better lighted. It was fast growing dark; very dark very fast. It was already quite impossible for me to see the blazes on the trees; and Murphy had often to ride close up to a tree to make sure he was right. The blazes were old, and in many places almost the color of the rest of the tree. I could see that Murphy was anxious. He kept his horse at the fastest gait he thought I could follow, and said to me every now and then, "Ye must keep up 's well 's ye can. These woods is pretty dark."

My horse was a pacer, originally; but bad usage and old age had so robbed him of his gait, that the instant he moved quickly he became almost unendurable. It was neither pace, trot, nor run, but a capricious mixing of the three. Hunger and crossness now added to the irregularity of his motions, and it was simply impossible for me to bear more than a few minutes at a time of anything but a walk. I felt also a singular indifference to getting out of that wood. It was uncanny in its gloom and damp and chill; but I liked being there. Its innumerable and impenetrable black vistas had an indescribable fascination. And here and there, even in the darkest distances, gleamed out the vivid warmthless glow of the mysterious snow-plants; sometimes just in the edge of the snow-drifts; sometimes on the banks of inky brooks.

Very dark, very fast, it grew; Murphy rode pitilessly ahead, and I crept patiently along, keeping my eye on the ghostly winding white of his horse among the trees. Suddenly I saw a light to the left, and Murphy wheeling towards it. I hurried up. Never shall I forget the picture I saw. A smouldering fire, two evil-looking men crouching over it; their mules tied to a tree; and a third still more villainous-looking man leading up a third mule.

But Murphy hailed them with as cheery good fellowship as if they had been old friends.

"How far is it to Gentry's?"

"Five miles," said they sullenly.

"'Taint now," exclaimed Murphy, startled into a tone of real astonishment.

"Guess you'll think so before you get there: five good miles," said the man who was leading up the mule.

Murphy rode on without a word, but in a few moments he turned to me, and said, energetically:

"Ye must reely keep up smart now. I couldn't possibly follow this trail, if it was to get much darker," and he fairly galloped off; turning back, however, to say in a lower tone, "I shouldn't wonder if them men were runnin' a man off from jail."

Luckily, the last three miles of the five were on the high road. It had not seemed very long to me, though it was so dark that I could not have followed Murphy easily except for his being on a white horse; when he stopped and, waiting for me to come up, said, "I suppose 'twould surprise ye now if I was to tell you that the road is jest out yonder!"

"No, Mr. Murphy," I replied, "nothing could surprise me less."

"Well, here 'tis," he said, a little crest-fallen, "and our troubles are all over."

It had a friendlier look than the black wood, after all—the broad gray belt of distinct road. And then first I realized how very dark it had been. Even in the road it was real night.

Three miles now down to Gentry's, the very road over which, eight days before, we had rattled so furiously in the stage, going to Ahwahne.

I jumped off my horse; for five minutes I lay at full length on a mossy log.

"I thought ye'd have to own up to bein' some tired before ye was through with it," said Murphy, with more compassion in his voice than in his words. "I tell you, though, I couldn't ha' followed that trail half an hour longer. It ain't so dark yet 's its going to be."

Gayly we cantered up to Gentry's piazza. The lamps flared as the astonished landlord opened his door to see who came riding so late. It was almost nine o'clock; twelve hours and more I had been in my saddle.

"Do tell," and "ye don't say," were the ejaculations with which everybody received the news of our having ridden out and from Ahwahne by Indian Canyon and the old Mono trail.

What a night's sleep it was, to be sure, which I took that night at Gentry's! and what genuine sympathy there was in dear old Murphy's voice, the next morning, when he came early to my door, for any orders to take down into the Valley! and I said: "Tell them I am not one whit tired, Mr. Murphy."

"Well, I'm reely glad," replied Murphy. "I was reely a'most afraid to ask ye."

When we bade Murphy good-bye the next day, we found it hard to make him take the small gift we meant as token of our friendship, and our appreciation of his kindness and faithfulness as guide. At last he consented, saying: "I've refused a great many times to take anythin' this way. But I'll tell ye what I shall do. When I get a place of my own, I shall jest put this money into some books, and write you folks' names in 'em to remember ye by."

But we are beforehand with him in the matter of names.

Here let his stand written, to remember him by:—

John Murphy:
Best of Guides in Most Wonderful of Valleys.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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