John L. Stoddard.

John L. Stoddard's Lectures, Vol. 10 (of 10) Southern California; Grand Canon of the Colorado River; Yellowstone National Park online

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below me here. A monstrous cloud-wall, like a huge gray veil, came
traveling up the Cañon, and we could watch the lightning strike the
buttes and domes ten or twelve miles away, while the loud peals of
thunder, broken by crags and multiplied by echoes, rolled toward us
through the darkening gulf at steadily decreasing intervals.
Sometimes two flashes at a time ran quivering through the air and
launched their bolts upon the mountain shrines, as though their
altars, having been erected for idolatrous worship, were doomed to be
annihilated. Occasionally, through an opening in the clouds, the sun
would suddenly light up the summit of a mountain, or flash a path of
gold through a ravine; and I shall never forget the curious sensation
of seeing far beneath me bright sunshine in one cañon and a violent
storm in another. At last, a rainbow cast its radiant bridge across
the entire space, and we beheld the tempest disappear like a troop of
cavalry in a cloud of dust beneath that iridescent arch, beyond whose
curving spectrum all the temples stood forth, still intact in their

[Illustration: ON THE BRINK.]

At certain points along the Cañon, promontories jut out into the
abyss, like headlands which in former times projected into an ocean
that has disappeared. Hence, riding along the brink, as one may do
for miles, we looked repeatedly into many lateral fissures, from
fifteen hundred to three thousand feet in depth. All these, however,
like gigantic fingers, pointed downward to the centre of the Cañon,
where, five miles away, and at a level more than six thousand feet
below the brink on which we stood, extended a long, glittering trail.
This, where the sunlight struck it, gleamed like an outstretched band
of gold. It was the sinuous Colorado, yellow as the Tiber.

[Illustration: RIPLEY'S BUTTE.]

[Illustration: A BIT OF THE RIVER.]

[Illustration: ON HANCE'S TRAIL.]

One day of our stay here was devoted to making the descent to this
river. It is an undertaking compared with which the crossing of the
Gemmi on a mule is child's play. Fortunately, however, the arduous
trip is not absolutely necessary for an appreciation of the immensity
and grandeur of the scenery. On the contrary, one gains a really
better idea of these by riding along the brink, and looking down at
various points on the sublime expanse. Nevertheless, a descent into
the Cañon is essential for a proper estimate of its details, and one
can never realize the enormity of certain cliffs and the extent of
certain valleys, till he has crawled like a maimed insect at their
base and looked thence upward to the narrowed sky. Yet such an
investigation of the Cañon is, after all, merely like going down from
a balloon into a great city to examine one of its myriad streets,
since any gorge we may select for our descending path is but a tiny
section of a labyrinth. That which is unique and incomparable here
is the view from the brink; and when the promised hotel is built upon
the border of the Cañon, visitors will be content to remain for days
at their windows or on the piazzas, feasting their souls upon a scene
always sublime and sometimes terrible.

[Illustration: A VISION OF SUBLIMITY.]

Nevertheless, desirous of exploring a specimen of these chasms (as we
often select for minute examination a single painting out of an
entire picture gallery) we made the descent to the Colorado by means
of a crooked scratch upon a mountain side, which one might fancy had
been blazed by a zigzag flash of lightning. As it requires four hours
to wriggle down this path, and an equal amount of time to wriggle up,
I spent the greater part of a day on what a comrade humorously styled
the "quarter-deck of a mule." A square, legitimate seat in the
saddle was usually impossible, so steep was the incline; and hence,
when going down, I braced my feet and lay back on the haunches of the
beast, and, in coming up, had to lean forward and clutch the pommel,
to keep from sliding off, as a human avalanche, on the head of the
next in line. In many places, however, riding was impossible, and we
were compelled to scramble over the rocks on foot. The effect of
hours of this exercise on muscles unaccustomed to such surprises may
be imagined; yet, owing to the wonderfully restorative air of
Arizona, the next day after this, the severest physical exertion I
had ever known, I did not feel the slightest bad result, and was as
fresh as ever. That there is an element of danger in this trip cannot
be doubted. At times the little trail, on which two mules could not
possibly have passed each other, skirts a precipice where the least
misstep would hurl the traveler to destruction; and every turn of
the zigzag path is so sharp that first the head and then the tail of
the mule inevitably projects above the abyss, and wig-wags to the
mule below. Moreover, though not a vestige of a parapet consoles the
dizzy rider, in several places the animal simply puts its feet
together and toboggans down the smooth face of a slanting rock,
bringing up at the bottom with a jerk that makes the tourist see a
large variety of constellations, and even causes his beast to belch
forth an involuntary roar of disenchantment, or else to try to
pulverize his immediate successor. In such a place as this Nature
seems pitiless and cruel; and one is impressed with the reflection
that a million lives might be crushed out in any section of this maze
of gorges and not a feature of it would be changed. There is,
however, a fascination in gambling with danger, when a desirable
prize is to be gained. The stake we risk may be our lives, yet, when
the chances are in our favor, we often love to match excitement
against the possibility of death; and even at the end, when we are
safe, a sigh sometimes escapes us, as when the curtain falls on an
absorbing play.


[Illustration: A YAWNING CHASM.]

[Illustration: OBLIGED TO WALK.]

As we descended, it grew warmer, not only from the greater elevation
of the sun at noon, but from the fact that in this sudden drop of six
thousand feet we had passed through several zones of temperature.
Snow, for example, may be covering the summits of the mountains in
midwinter, while at the bottom of the Cañon are summer warmth and
vernal flowers. When, after two or three hours of continuous descent,
we looked back at our starting-point, it seemed incredible that we
had ever stood upon the pinnacles that towered so far above us, and
were apparently piercing the slowly moving clouds. The effect was
that of looking up from the bottom of a gigantic well. Instinctively
I asked myself if I should ever return to that distant upper world,
and it gave me a memorable realization of my individual
insignificance to stand in such a sunken solitude, and realize that
the fissure I was exploring was only a single loop in a vast network
of ravines, which, if extended in a straight line, would make a
cañon seven hundred miles in length. It was with relief that we
reached, at last, the terminus of the lateral ravine we had been
following and at the very bottom of the Cañon rested on the bank of
the Colorado. The river is a little freer here than elsewhere in its
tortuous course, and for some hundred feet is less compressed by the
grim granite cliffs which, usually, rise in smooth black walls
hundreds of feet in almost vertical height, and for two hundred miles
retain in their embrace the restless, foaming flood that has no other
avenue of escape.

The navigation of this river by Major J.W. Powell, in 1869, was one
of the most daring deeds of exploration ever achieved by man, and the
thrilling story of his journey down the Colorado, for more than a
thousand miles, and through the entire length of the Grand Cañon, is
as exciting as the most sensational romance. Despite the
remonstrances of friends and the warnings of friendly Indians, Major
Powell, with a flotilla of four boats and nine men, started down the
river, on May 24th, from Green River City, in Utah, and, on the 30th
of August, had completed his stupendous task, with the loss of two
boats and four men. Of the latter, one had deserted at an early date
and escaped; but the remaining three, unwilling to brave any longer
the terrors of the unknown Cañon, abandoned the expedition and tried
to return through the desert, but were massacred by Indians. It is
only when one stands beside a portion of this lonely river, and sees
it shooting stealthily and swiftly from a rift in the Titanic cliffs
and disappearing mysteriously between dark gates of granite, that he
realizes what a heroic exploit the first navigation of this river
was; for nothing had been known of its imprisoned course through this
entanglement of chasms, or could be known, save by exploring it in
boats, so difficult of access were, and are, the two or three points
where it is possible for a human being to reach its perpendicular
banks. Accordingly, when the valiant navigators sailed into these
mysterious waters, they knew that there was almost every chance
against the possibility of a boat's living in such a seething
current, which is, at intervals, punctured with a multitude of
tusk-like rocks, tortured into rapids, twisted into whirlpools, or
broken by falls; while in the event of shipwreck they could hope for
little save naked precipices to cling to for support. Moreover, after
a heavy rain the Colorado often rises here fifty or sixty feet under
the veritable cataracts of water which, for miles, stream directly
down the perpendicular walls, and make of it a maddened torrent
wilder than the rapids of Niagara. All honor, then, to Powell and his
comrades who braved not alone the actual dangers thus described, but
stood continually alert for unknown perils, which any bend in the
swift, snake-like river might disclose, and which would make the
gloomy groove through which they slipped a black-walled _oubliette_,
or gate to Acheron.

[Illustration: A CABIN ON THE TRAIL.]

[Illustration: A HALT.]

[Illustration: AT THE BOTTOM.]


[Illustration: BESIDE THE COLORADO.]

If any river in the world should be regarded with superstitious
reverence, it is the Colorado, for it represents to us, albeit in a
diminished form, the element that has produced the miracle of the
Arizona Cañon, - water. Far back in the distant Eocene Epoch of our
planet's history, the Colorado was the outlet of an inland sea which
drained off toward the Pacific, as the country of northwestern
Arizona rose; and the Grand Cañon illustrates, on a stupendous scale,
the system of erosion which, in a lesser degree, has deeply furrowed
the entire region. At first one likes to think of the excavation of
this awful chasm as the result of some tremendous cataclysm of
Nature; but, in reality, it has all been done by water, assisted, no
doubt, by the subtler action of the winds and storms in the
disintegration of the monster cliffs, which, as they slowly crumbled
into dust, were carried downward by the rains, and, finally, were
borne off by the omnivorous river to the sea.


[Illustration: MILES OF INTRA-CAÑONS.]

But though, at first, these agents do not seem as forceful and
extraordinary as a single terrible catastrophe, the slow results thus
gained are even more impressive. For what an appalling lapse of time
must have been necessary to cut down and remove layers of sandstone,
marble, and granite, thousands of feet in thickness; to carve the
mighty shrines of Siva and of Vishnu, and to etch out these scores of
interlacing cañons! To calculate it one must reckon a century for
every turn of the hourglass. It is the story of a struggle maintained
for ages between the solid and the fluid elements, in which at last
the yielding water won a victory over adamant. It is an evidence,
too, of Nature's patient methods; a triumph of the delicate over the
strong, the liquid over the solid, the transitory over the enduring.
At present, the softer material has been exhausted, and the rapacious
river, shrunken in size, must satisfy itself by gnawing only the
archaic granite which still curbs its course. Yet if this
calculation overpowers us, what shall we say of the reflections
awakened by the fact that all the limestone cliffs along the lofty
edges of the Cañon are composed of fossils, - the skeletons of
creatures that once lived here covered by an ocean, and that ten
thousand feet of strata, which formerly towered above the present
summits of the Cañon walls, have been eroded and swept downward to
the sea! Hence, were the missing strata (all of which are found in
regular sequence in the high plateaus of Utah) restored, this Cañon
would be sixteen thousand feet in depth, and from its borders one
could look down upon a mountain higher than Mont Blanc! To calculate
the æons implied in the repeated elevations and subsidences which
made this region what it is would be almost to comprehend eternity.
In such a retrospect centuries crumble and disappear into the gulf of
Time as pebbles into the Cañon of the Colorado.

On my last evening in the pine tree camp I left my tent and walked
alone to the edge of the Grand Cañon. The night was white with the
splendor of the moon. A shimmering lake of silvery vapor rolled its
noiseless tide against the mountains, and laved the terraces of the
Hindu shrines. The lunar radiance, falling into such profundity, was
powerless to reveal the plexus of subordinate cañons, and even the
temples glimmered through the upper air like wraiths of the huge
forms which they reveal by day. Advancing cautiously to an isolated
point upon the brink, I lay upon my face, and peered down into the
spectral void. No voice of man, nor cry of bird, nor roar of beast
resounded through those awful corridors of silence. Even thought had
no existence in that sunken realm of chaos. I felt as if I were the
sole survivor of the deluge. Only the melancholy murmur of the wind
ascended from that sepulchre of centuries. It seemed the requiem for
a vanished world.




On certain portions of our globe Almighty God has set a special
imprint of divinity. The Alps, the Pyrénées, the Mexican volcanoes,
the solemn grandeur of Norwegian fjords, the sacred Mountain of
Japan, and the sublimity of India's Himalayas - at different epochs in
a life of travel - had filled my soul with awe and admiration. But,
since the summer of 1896, there has been ranked with these in my
remembrance the country of the Yellowstone. Two-thirds across this
continent, hidden away in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, eight
thousand feet above the level of the sea, there lies a marvelous
section of our earth, about one-half as large as the State of
Connecticut. On three sides this is guarded by lofty, well-nigh
inaccessible mountains, as though the Infinite Himself would not
allow mankind to rashly enter its sublime enclosure. In this respect
our Government has wisely imitated the Creator. It has proclaimed to
all the world the sanctity of this peculiar area. It has received it
as a gift from God and, as His trustee, holds it for the welfare of
humanity. We, then, as citizens of the United States, are its
possessors and its guardians. It is our National Park. Yet, although
easy of access, most of us let the years go by without exploring it!
How little we realize what a treasure we possess is proven by the
fact that, until recently, the majority of tourists here were
foreigners! I thought my previous store of memories was rich, but to
have added to it the recollections of the Yellowstone will give a
greater happiness to life while life shall last. Day after day, yes,
hour after hour, within the girdle of its snow-capped peaks I looked
upon a constant series of stupendous sights - a blending of the
beautiful and terrible, the strange and the sublime - which were,
moreover, so peculiar that they stand out distinct and different from
those of every other portion of our earth.

[Illustration: LONE STAR GEYSER.]

[Illustration: THE GROTTO, GEYSER'S CONE.]

[Illustration: ENTRANCE TO THE PARK.]

To call our National Park the "Switzerland of America" would be
absurd. It is not Switzerland; it is not Iceland; it is not Norway;
it is unique; and the unique cannot be compared. If I were asked to
describe it in a dozen lines, I should call it the arena of an
enormous amphitheatre. Its architect was Nature; the gladiators that
contended in it were volcanoes. During unnumbered ages those
gladiators struggled to surpass one another in destruction by pouring
forth great floods of molten lava. Even now the force which animated
them still shows itself in other forms, but harmlessly, much as a
captive serpent hisses though its fangs are drawn. But the volcanoes
give no sign of life. They are dead actors in a fearful tragedy
performed here countless centuries before the advent of mankind, with
this entire region for a stage, and for their only audience the sun
and stars.

I shall never forget our entrance into this theatre of sublime
phenomena. The Pullman car, in which we had taken our places at St.
Paul, had carried us in safety more than a thousand miles and had
left us at the gateway of the park. Before us was a portion of the
road, eight miles in length, which leads the tourist to the Mammoth
Springs Hotel. On one side an impetuous river shouted a welcome as we
rode along. Above us rose gray, desolate cliffs. They are volcanic in
their origin. The brand of fire is on them all. They are symbolic,
therefore, of the entire park; for fire and water are the two great
forces here which have, for ages, struggled for supremacy.



No human being dwells upon those dreary crags, but at one point, as I
looked up at them, I saw - poised statue-like above a mighty pinnacle
of rock - a solitary eagle. Pausing, with outstretched wings above its
nest, it seemed to look disdainfully upon us human pygmies crawling
far below. Living at such a height, in voluntary isolation, that king
of birds appeared the very embodiment of strength and majesty. Call
it a touch of superstition, if you will, yet I confess it thrilled me
to the heart to find that here, above the very entrance to the
Wonderland of our Republic, there should be stationed midway between
earth and heaven, like a watchful sentinel, our national bird, - the
bird of freedom!

At length a sudden turn revealed to us our first halting-place within
the Park, - the Mammoth Springs Hotel. The structure in itself looked
mammoth as we approached it, for its portico exceeds four hundred
feet in length. Our first impressions were agreeable. Porters rushed
forth and helped us to alight, and on the broad piazza the manager
received us cordially. Everything had the air of an established
summer resort. This, I confess, surprised me greatly, as I had
expected primitive accommodations, and supposed that, though the days
of camping-out had largely passed away, the resting-places in the
Park were still so crude that one would be glad to leave them. But I
lingered here with pleasure long after all the wonders of the Park
had been beheld. The furniture, though simple, is sufficient; to
satisfy our national nervousness, the halls are so well-stocked with
rocking-chairs that European visitors look about them with alarm,
and try to find some seats that promise a more stable equilibrium;
the sleeping-rooms are scrupulously clean; soft blankets, snow-white
sheets, and comfortable beds assure a good night's rest; and the
staff of colored waiters in the dining-room, steam-heat, a bell-boy
service, and electric lights made us forget our distance from great
cities and the haunts of men. Moreover, what is true of this is true,
as well, of the other hotels within the Park; and when I add that
well-cooked food is served in all of them, it will be seen that
tourists need not fear a lengthy sojourn in these hostelries.



[Illustration: MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS.]

[Illustration: FORT YELLOWSTONE.]

Standing on the veranda of the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, I saw
between me and the range of mountains opposite a broad plateau, on
which were grouped a dozen neat and tasteful structures. With the
exception of the photographer's house in the foreground, these
constitute Fort Yellowstone. "A fort!" the visitor exclaims,
"impossible! These buildings are of wood, not stone. Where are its
turrets, battlements, and guns?" Nevertheless, this is a station for
two companies of United States Cavalry; most of the houses being
residences for the officers, while in the rear are barracks for the

[Illustration: A FOREST IN THE PARK.]

No one who has visited the National Park ever doubts the necessity of
having soldiers there. Thus, one of the most important duties of the
United States troops, stationed within its area, is to save its
splendid forests from destruction. To do this calls for constant
vigilance. A fire started in the resinous pines, which cover many of
the mountain sides, leaps forward with such fury that it would
overtake a horseman fleeing for his life. To guard against so serious
a calamity, soldiers patrol the Park continually to see that all the
camp-fires have been extinguished. Thanks to their watchful care,
only one notable conflagration has occurred here in the last eight
years, and that the soldiers fought with energy for twenty days, till
the last vestige of it was subdued.

The tourist comprehends the great importance of this work when he
beholds the rivers of the Park threading, like avenues of silver, the
sombre frame-work of the trees, and recollects that just such forests
as adjoin these streams cover no less than eighty-four per cent. of
its entire area. In a treeless country like Wyoming these forests are
of priceless value, because of their utility in holding back, in
spring, the melting snow. Some of the largest rivers of our continent
are fed from the well-timbered area of the Yellowstone; and if the
trees were destroyed, the enormous snowfall in the Park, unsheltered
from the sun, would melt so rapidly that the swollen torrents would
quickly wash away roads, bridges, and productive farms, even, far out
in the adjacent country, and, subsequently, cause a serious drought
for many months.

[Illustration: FIRE-HOLE RIVER.]

Another very important labor of the United States soldiers here is to
preserve the game within the Park. It is the purpose of our
Government to make this area a place of refuge for those animals
which man's insatiate greed has now almost destroyed. The remoteness
of this lofty region, together with its mountain fastnesses, deep
forests, and sequestered glens, makes it an almost perfect
game-preserve. There are at present thirty thousand elk within the
Park; its deer and antelopes are steadily increasing; and bears,
foxes, and small game roam unmolested here. Buffaloes, however, are
still few in number. They have become too valuable. A buffalo head,
which formerly could be bought for a mere trifle, commands, to-day,
a price of five hundred dollars. Hence, daring poachers sometimes run
the risk of entering the Park in winter and destroying them.

[Illustration: MOUNTAIN SHEEP.]

It is sad to reflect how the buffaloes of this continent have been
almost exterminated. As late as thirty years ago, trains often had to
halt upon the prairies; and even steamboats were, occasionally,
obliged to wait an hour or two in the Missouri River until enormous
herds of buffalo had crossed their path. Now only about two hundred
of these animals are in existence, - the sole survivors of the
millions that once thundered over the western plains, and disputed
with the Indians the ownership of this great continent.

[Illustration: YELLOWSTONE ELK.]

Until very recently, travelers on our prairies frequently beheld the
melancholy sight of laborers gathering up the buffalo bones which
lay upon the plains, like wreckage floating on the sea. Hundreds of
carloads of these skeletons were shipped to factories in the east.
Now, to protect the few remaining buffaloes, as well as other
animals, our troops patrol the Park even in winter. The principal
stations are connected by telephone, and information given thus is
promptly acted on. No traveler is allowed to carry fire-arms; and any
one who attempts to destroy animal life is liable to a fine of one

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Online LibraryJohn L. StoddardJohn L. Stoddard's Lectures, Vol. 10 (of 10) Southern California; Grand Canon of the Colorado River; Yellowstone National Park → online text (page 7 of 10)