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which rose before we could get away from them, we made slow progress
over the dreadful road. At the hilltop, however, we were rewarded for
our strenuous scramble by a magnificent view of the river canyon and
a wide panorama of forest-clad hills with the emerald thread of the
Tuolumne winding through them.

A short distance over a stony trail brought us into the main street of
Chinese Camp, if we may so designate the wide, dusty section of road
lined with wooden shacks of which every other one seemed a saloon. The
appearance of the buildings warranted the guess on our part that there
has been little change in this primitive hamlet since Bret Harte visited
it, nearly a half century ago. Not far from here are many other camps
and villages which found enduring fame in the stories of this most
representative of all earlier California writers. Sonora, Angel's Camp,
Tuttletown, San Andreas, Mokelumne, and other places familiar in Harte's
pages may all be reached in a detour of fifty miles or so from the Big
Oak Flat road. Most of these towns, like Chinese Camp, have made little
progress since they were mirrored in the tales which appeared in the
old Overland and Argonaut of San Francisco.

Beyond Chinese Camp we encountered the worst stretch of road of the
entire day—a mere trail winding through a rough, boulder-strewn country
seemingly having no end or object in view except to avoid the rocks too
large to run over. No effort had been made to remove the smaller stones
from the way and we had an unmerciful jolting, although we crawled along
at a dozen miles per hour. Fortunately, there are no steep grades, and
occasionally smoother stretches afforded a little respite. It would be
hard to use language, however, that would exaggerate the relief which
we felt when, on ascending a sharp little rise, we came upon a splendid
paved highway which the road-book declared would continue all the way
to Stockton. I think that the last forty miles into the city consumed
less time than any ten miles we had covered since leaving Yosemite that
morning.

We certainly presented a somewhat disreputable appearance when we
came into the town. The car and everything about it, including the
occupants, was dirty gray with dust, which I noted was two inches deep
on the running boards and perhaps a little less on our faces, while
it saturated our clothing and covered our baggage. California hotels,
however, are used to such arrivals and we were well taken care of at the
Stockton, despite our unprepossessing appearance. A thorough cleaning
up, a change of raiment and a good dinner put us at peace with the world
and we were soon exchanging felicitations over the fact that we had done
Yosemite by motor car.




XVII

LAKE TAHOE


There are two routes out of Sacramento to Lake Tahoe which carry
fully nine-tenths of the motor travel to that interesting region. Both
traverse a picturesque mountain country with a spice of historic and
romantic interest and most motor visitors, naturally enough, go by one
route and return by the other. Our first visit to the lake was made over
the northern fork of the "wishbone" (as they usually style the forked
road) via Colfax and Emigrant Gap. For personal reasons we did not
complete the round trip at the time of our first visit, but a year later
found us again enroute to the gem of mountain lakes over the southern
fork by way of Placerville. I shall describe the two trips in order of
their chronology. In each instance we passed the night in Sacramento—the
best starting point for the day's run to Tahoe, the distance being about
one hundred and twenty miles by either route. It is well to get an early
start, whichever route is taken, for the road will not admit of speed
and there are many points where a pause is well worth while. And so we
were away bright and early on the Auburn road to the lake.

Out of the city for several miles through a fertile orchard and farm
country, we pursued a level, well-improved road which led us toward the
great hill range that marks the western confines of the valley. Entering
the rounded brown foothills, we kept a steady ascent through scattering
groves of oak and pine, with here and there along the way a well-ordered
stock farm or fruit ranch. It was in the height of the peach season
and a sign at a ranch house gate tempted us to purchase. A silver dime
brought us such a quantity of big, luscious, rosy-cheeked fruit that we
scarcely knew where to bestow it about the car. It was just off the tree
and ripe to perfection, and by comparison with the very best one could
buy in a fruit market, it seemed a new and unheard-of variety—ambrosia
fit only for the gods. And they told us that so immense was the crop of
peaches and pears in this locality that some of this unequalled fruit
was being fed to the pigs.

Following a winding but fair road through the hills, we soon came, as
we supposed, into the main part of Auburn, for we had taken no pains to
learn anything about the town. At the foot of a sharp hill we paused in
a crooked street with a row of ramshackle buildings on either side and
it was apparent at a glance that the population of the ancient-looking
town was chiefly Chinese. A few saloons and one or two huge wooden
boarding houses were the most salient features and a small blacksmith
shop near the end of the street was labeled "Garage." We mentally
classed "Sweet Auburn" with Chinese Camp and following the road leading
out of the place began the ascent of an exceedingly steep hill. At the
summit of the hill, however, we found quite a different Auburn—a fine
modern town with a handsome courthouse, an imposing high school and a
new bank building that would not seem out of place on any city street.
All this in a town of less than three thousand population. Nor should
I omit to mention the comfortable up-to-date hotel where we had a very
satisfactory luncheon.

Beyond Auburn the road climbs steadily to Colfax, a few short pitches
ranging from fifteen to twenty per cent. The surface was good and we
were delighted by many fine vistas from the hilltops as we hastened
along. At Applegate was a deserted hotel and "tent city" said to be very
popular resorts earlier in the summer. Colfax was the Illinois Town
of mining times and still has many buildings dating back to the "days
of gold." The town was given its present name when the steam road came
and it is now a center of considerable activity in railroading. There
is much beautiful scenery about Colfax. From the nearby summits across
long reaches of forest-clad hills, one may see on one hand the mighty
ranks of the snow crested Sierras and on the other the dim outlines of
the Coast Range. On exceptionally clear days, they told us, the shining
cone of Shasta may be seen, though it is more than one hundred and fifty
miles away.

Out of Colfax we continue to climb steadily and soon come upon reminders
of the days when this was one of the greatest gold-producing sections
of California. The hillsides everywhere show the scars of old-time
placer mining. Millions of the precious metal were produced here in the
few years following '49, but operations have long since ceased and the
deserted villages are fast falling into ruin. Dutch Flat and Gold Run,
now stations on the Southern Pacific, could no doubt have furnished Bret
Harte with characters and incidents quite as varied and picturesque
as Angel's Camp or Sonora had his wanderings brought him hither. For
the disappearance of the good old golden days, the natives console
themselves in this fashion, quoting advertising literature issued by
Placer County: "In days gone by the gold mining industry made this
section famous. To-day the golden fruit brings it wealth and renown."
And it also holds forth the hope that scientific mining methods may yet
find "much gold in the old river beds and seams of gold-bearing rock."

From Dutch Flat to Emigrant Gap, perhaps a dozen miles, the road climbs
continually, winding through pine forests that crowd closely on either
hand. Here is one of the wildest sections of the Sierras accessible to
motor cars, and the weird beauty culminates at Emigrant Gap, a great
natural gash in the Sierras which in early days gave its name to the
road by which the majority of overland emigrants entered California.
Near this point, a little distance to the right of the road and some two
thousand feet beneath, lies Bear Valley, one of the loveliest vales of
the Sierras—in early summer an emerald-green meadow—lying between Yuba
River and Bear Creek, shut in on every hand by tree-clad slopes. From
Emigrant Gap to the summit of the divide, a distance of twenty-seven
miles, the road mounts steadily through the pines, winding around
abrupt turns and climbing heavy grades—the last pitch rising to thirty
per cent, according to our road book, though we doubt if it is really
so steep. Crystal Lake and Lake Van Orten are passed on the way, two
blue mountain tarns lying far below on the right-hand side of the road.
From the summit, at an elevation of a little over seven thousand feet,
we have a wonderful view both eastward and westward. Behind us the
rugged hills through which we have wended our way slope gently to the
Sacramento Valley—so gently that in the one hundred miles since leaving
the plain we have risen only a mile and a half. Before us is the sharper
fall of the eastern slope and far beneath, in a setting of green sward
and stately pines, the placid blue waters of Donner Lake, beautiful
despite the tragic associations which come unbidden to our minds.

The descent from the summit of the divide to Truckee is gradual, some
twelve hundred feet in nine miles, though there are a few short, steep
grades of from fifteen to twenty per cent, according to our authority.
It was dark when we reached Truckee, but as there was no chance of going
astray on the road to Tahoe Tavern, we determined to proceed. The road
for the entire distance of fifteen miles closely follows the Truckee
River, a swift, shallow stream fed from the limpid waters of Lake Tahoe.
It was a glorious moonlight night and the gleaming river, the jagged
hills on either hand, and the dark pine forests, all combined to make
a wild but entrancingly beautiful effect. As we later saw the Truckee
Canyon by daylight, we have every reason to be glad that we traversed
it by moonlight as well.

Tahoe Tavern, with its myriad lights, was a welcome sight, none the
less, after an exceedingly strenuous trip, the personal details of
which I have forborne to inflict upon the reader. We were given rooms
in the new annex, a frame-and-shingle building, and were delighted to
find that our windows opened upon the moonlit lake. The mountain tops
on the opposite shore were shrouded in heavy clouds through which the
moon struggled at intervals, transmuting the clear, still surface of the
lake from a dark, dull mirror to a softly lighted sheet of water with
a path of gleaming silver running across it. Directly a thunder storm
broke over the eastern shore—very uncommon in summer, we were told—and
we had the spectacle of clouds and lake lighted weirdly by flashes of
lightning. The thunder rolling among the peaks and across the water
brought vividly to our minds Byron's description of a thunder storm
on Lake Geneva in the Alps. For a short time it seemed as if "every
mountain peak had found a tongue," but the storm died away without
crossing the lake.

Tahoe Tavern, a huge, brown, rambling building in a fine grove of
pines, fronts directly on a little bay and commands a glorious outlook
of lake and distant mountains. It is a delightfully retired and quiet
place, ideal for rest and recuperation, while the surrounding country
is unmatched in scenic attractions for those inclined to exploration,
whether by steamer, motor, horseback, or afoot. We found the service
and the cuisine equal to the best resort hotels in California—and that
is saying a great deal, since California in this particular leads the
world. Here we found a quiet yet exhilarating spot, the toil and tumult
of the busy world shut out by impregnable mountain barriers, where one
may repose and commune with nature in her grandest and most enchanting
aspects.

Our car, which we had hired from a Los Angeles dealer, had proved so
unsatisfactory that we decided to defer the various drives about the
lake until a subsequent visit. We therefore contented ourselves with
a series of walks around the tavern and the boat excursions about
the lake. It was only a little more than a year later that we found
ourselves again in Sacramento bound to Tahoe over the Placerville route.
We had discarded our trouble-making hired car for our own trusty Pierce
forty-eight, which in thousands of miles of mountain touring caused us
never a moment's trouble or delay.

Out of Sacramento we followed the new state highway, then almost
completed to Placerville. On the way to Folsom we saw much of gold
mining under modern conditions. Monstrous floating steam dredges were
eating their way through the fields and for miles had thrown up great
ridges of stones and gravel from which the gold had been extracted by
a process of washing. Something less than two million dollars annually
is produced in Sacramento County, mainly by this process, and the
cobblestones, after being crushed by powerful machinery, serve the very
useful purpose of road-building. Beyond Folsom the highway winds through
uninteresting hills covered with short brown grass and diversified with
occasional oak trees. We kept a pretty steady upward trend as we sped
toward the blue hill ranges, but there were no grades worth mentioning
west of Placerville. Before we reached the town we entered the splendid
pine forest, which continues all the way to Tahoe.

Placerville has little to recall its old-time sobriquet of Hangtown,
by which it figures in Bret Harte's stories. Here, indeed, was the
very storm center of the early gold furor—but five miles to the north
is Coloma, where Marshall picked up the nugget that turned the eyes of
the world to California in '49. Over the very road which we were to
pursue out of the town poured the living tide of gold seekers which
spread out through all the surrounding country. To-day, however,
Placerville depends little on mining; its narrow, crooked main street
and a few ancient buildings are the only reminders of its old-time
rough-and-tumble existence. It is a prosperous town of three thousand
people, and handsome homes with well-kept lawns are not uncommon. We
also noted a splendid new courthouse of Spanish colonial design wrought
in white marble, a fine example of the public spirit that prevails in
even the more retired California communities. The site of the town is
its greatest drawback. Wedged as it is in the bottom of a vast canyon,
there is little possibility of regularity in streets and much work
has been necessary to prepare sites for home and public buildings.
A certain picturesqueness and delightful informality compensates for
all this and the visitor is sure to be pleased with the Placerville of
to-day aside from its romantic history. Two fairly comfortable hotels
invite the traveler to stop and make more intimate acquaintance with the
town, which a recent writer declares is noted for its charming women—an
attraction which it lacked in its romantic mining days.

Beyond Placerville the road climbs steadily, winding through the giant
hills and finally crossing the American River, which we followed for
many miles—now far above with the green stream gleaming through the
pines and again coursing along its very banks. There are many deciduous
trees among the evergreens on these hills and the autumn coloring lent
a striking variation to the somber green of the pines. We had never
before realized that there were so many species besides conifers on the
California mountains. Maples and aspens were turning yellow and crimson
and many species of vines and creepers lent brilliant color dashes to
the scene. There was much indeed to compensate for the absence of the
flowers which bloom in profusion earlier in the season.

Georgetown, some forty miles above Placerville, is the only town worthy
of the name between the latter place and Tahoe. Beyond here we began
the final ascent to the summit of the divide over a road that winds
upward in long loops with grades as high as twenty-five per cent. There
were many fine vistas of hill and valley, rich in autumn colorings that
brightened the green of the pines and blended into the pale lavender
haze that shrouded the distant hills. From the summit, at an altitude
of seventy-four hundred feet, we had a vast panorama of lake, forest,
and mountain—but I might be accused of monotonous repetition were I to
endeavor to describe even a few of the scenes that enchanted us. Every
hilltop, every bend in the road, and every opening through the forests
that lined our way presented views which, taken alone, might well
delight the beholder for hours—only their frequent recurrence tended to
make them almost commonplace to us.

For a dozen miles after leaving Myers, our road ran alternately through
forests and green meadows—the meadows about Tahoe remain green the
summer through—finally coming to the lake shore, which we followed
closely for the twenty miles to Glenbrook. Most of the way the road
runs only a few feet above the water level and we had many glorious
vistas differing from anything we had yet seen. In the low afternoon
sun the color had largely vanished and we saw only a sheet of gleaming
silver edged with clearest crystal, which made the pebbly bottom plainly
visible for some distance from the shore. Here an emerald meadow with
sleek-looking cattle—there are many cattle in the Tahoe region—lay
between us and the shining water; again it gleamed through the trunks of
stately pines. For a little while it was lost to view as we turned into
the forest which crowded closely to the roadside, only to come back in
a moment to a new view—each one different and seemingly more entrancing
than the last, culminating in the wonderful spectacle from Cave Rock.
This is a bold promontory, pierced beneath by the caves that give its
name, rising perhaps one hundred feet above the water and affording
a view of almost the entire lake and the encircling mountains. On the
western side the mountains throw their serrated peaks against the sky,
while to the far north they showed dimly through a thin blue haze. The
lake seemed like a great sapphire shot with gold from the declining
sun—altogether a different aspect in color, light and shadow from
anything we had witnessed before. We paused awhile to admire the scene
along with several other wayfarers—pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists
who were alike attracted by the glorious spectacle.

Two or three miles farther brought us to Glenbrook, a quiet nook at
the foot of mighty hills, pine-clad to the very summits. The hotel is a
large but unpretentious structure directly by the roadside and fronting
on the lake. In connection with the inn is a group of rustic cottages,
one of which was assigned to us. It had a new bathroom adjoining and
there was a little sheet-iron stove with fuel all laid for a fire—which
almost proved a "life-saver" in the sharp, frosty air of the following
morning. The cottage stood directly on the lake shore and afforded a
magnificent view of the sunset, which I wish I were able to adequately
describe. A sea of fire glowed before us as the sun went down behind
the mountains, which were dimmed by the twilight shadows. Soon the
shadows gave place to a thin amethyst haze which brought out sharply
against the western sky the contour of every peak and pinnacle. The
amethyst deepened to purple, followed by a crimson afterglow which, with
momentary color variations, continued for nearly an hour; then the light
gradually faded from the sky and the lake took on an almost ebony hue—a
dark, splendid mirror for the starlit heavens.

The excellent dinner at the inn was a surprise; we hardly expected it
in such a remote place. They told us that the inn maintains its own
gardens and dairy, and the steamer brings supplies daily. The inn keeps
open only during the season, which usually extends from May to October,
but there is some one in charge the year round and no one who comes
seeking accommodations is ever turned away. Though the inn is completely
isolated by deep snows from all land communication, the steamer never
fails, since the lake does not freeze, even in the periods of below-zero
weather. We found the big lounging room, with its huge chimney and
crackling log fire, a very comfortable and cheery place to pass the
evening and could easily see how anyone seeking rest and quiet might
elect to sojourn many days at Glenbrook. But Glenbrook was not always
so delightfully quiet and rural! Years ago, back in the early eighties,
it was a good-sized town with a huge saw mill that converted much of
the forest about the lake into lumber. There are still hundreds of old
piles that once supported the wharves, projecting out of the water of
the little bay in front of the hotel—detracting much from the beauty of
the scene.

We were early astir in the morning, wondering what the aspect of our
changeful lake might be in the dawning light; and, sure enough, the
change was there—a cold, steel-blue sheet of water, rippling into silver
in places. Near the shore all was quiet, not a wave lapping the beach as
on the previous night. The mountains beyond the lake were silhouetted
with startling distinctness against a silvery sky, and on many of the
summits were flecks of snow that had outlasted the summer.

We had thought to go on to Reno by the way of Carson City, but we could
not bring ourselves to leave the lake and so we decided to go by the
way of Truckee, even though we had previously covered much of the road.
It proved a fortunate decision, for we saw another shifting of the
wonderful Tahoe scenery—the morning coloring was different from that
of the afternoon and evening. We had the good fortune to pick up an
old inhabitant of Tahoe City whose car had broken down on one of the
heavy grades and who told us much about the lake and the country around
it. He had lived near Tahoe for more than thirty-five years and could
remember the days of the prospectors and sawmills. Nearly all the timber
about the lake is of new growth since the lumbering days. This accounts
for the absence of large trees except in a few spots which escaped the
lumberman's ax. Yellow pines, firs, and cedars prevail, with occasional
sugar pines and some deciduous varieties. It is, indeed, a pity that
Tahoe and the surrounding hills were not set aside as a national park
before so much of the land passed into private hands.

The day was perfect, crystal clear except for a few white clouds
drifting lazily across the sky or resting on the summits of the
mountains beyond the lake. For a few miles out of Tallac we ran through
a pine forest, catching fugitive glimpses of the blue water through
the stately trunks. As we ascended the ridge overlooking Emerald
Bay, exclamations of delight were frequent and enthusiastic as the
magnificent panorama unfolded to our view. The climax was reached when
we paused at the summit of the ridge, where the whole of Tahoe spread
out before us. Just beneath on one hand lay Emerald Bay; on the other
gleamed Cascade Lake—a perfect gem in glorious setting of rock and
tree. And the glory of color that greeted our eyes! Exaggerated in
description? No mortal language ever conveyed a tithe of its iridescent
beauty and never will. One of the ladies exclaimed, "It is like a great
black opal!" and knowing her passion for that gem, we recognized the
sincerity of her tribute. And, indeed, the comparison was not inapt.
There were the elusive, changeful greens and blues, the dark purples,
and the strange, uncertain play of light and color that characterizes
that mysterious gem. Near the shore line the greens predominated,
reaching the deepest intensity in Emerald Bay, just below. Passing
through many variations of color, the greens merged into the deep blues
and farther out in the lake purple hues prevailed. Along the opposite
shore ran the rugged mountain range, the summits touched by cloud-masses
which held forth the threat of a summer shower—and it came just before
we reached the tavern. Overhead the sky was of the deepest azure and
clear save for a few tiny white clouds mirrored in the gloriously tinted
water. Altogether, the scene was a combination of transcendent color


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Online LibraryThomas D. MurphyOn Sunset Highways → online text (page 24 of 25)