Here to return to
ON THE BORDERS OF MEXICO
WHAT I saw of Arizona and Eastern California as I sped across them on the journey to the coast was for the most part barren, parched and forlorn to the last degree. As one of my fellow tourists remarked, “I don’t see what all this land is good for except to hold the world together.”
But suddenly the desert was left behind and we were amid blossoming gardens and green, luscious fields, and orange orchards with their dark, vigorous foliage all a-twinkle with golden globes. What a land of enchantment it did seem after those long days on the train hastening over the frosty and arid plains, and how the fresh full-leaved greenery did delight one’s heart! All things were growing and flourishing, the weeds were getting rank, the wildflowers were in bloom, and everywhere in home yards were callas and other hothouse and summer flowers in prodigal profusion.
To get as near the tropics on our west coast as possible I journeyed to San Diego, and on the way thither I had my first sight of the Pacific rolling its thunderous surf up on the beach and dimpling softly under the half clouded sky as far as the eye could reach. At San Diego I renewed my acquaintance with it, and spent much of the first day rambling along the waterside. I lingered longest in the section where the fishermen dwell. Their little cottages are many of them on piles and are over the water at high tide. This has its advantages, but there had been a storm the previous Sunday which made the pile-dwellers wish their homes were on the firm ground. It was as wild a gale as even the oldest inhabitant could remember, and the wind rose till the spray flew over the cottage platforms and wet the floors inside. To make matters worse the little rowboats and the fishing craft and some heavy timbers got away from their moorings in the harbor and butted into the supporting piles of the dwellings.
“Oh, yes,” said one lady, “it blowed so hard it done quite a good deal of damage. You see our garden out in front here. Everythin’ in it was gettin’ to look real nice; and now notice that yaller blossoming willow bush. It was crowded full o’ flowers, but the storm just nacherly pretty near broke it down.”
“We was lucky,” said her husband, “that we didn’t get into no badder troubles. Some houses was let down into the water and knocked all to pieces. Our house come near goin’. It had only two piles left under the middle; and it got twisted so the door wouldn’t open, while we was still inside. We begun to think we’d be drown, and I took a hatchet and pried off a window-casing. I’d ‘a’ knock the whole darn lights out rather than stay in there any longer. When we escaped I tried to save some boats that jammed in here next us. But when I had one partly pulled out a big wave piled twenty or thirty more on top, and I give up. After the storm I saved some broken pieces so I got a little of my damage back. I have sold part of them and they will furnish me tobacco money to last a while, anyway.
“I’m thinkin’ it’s goin’ to rain again,” he remarked as we were about to part. “I have a crooked toe that was shot in the Civil War, and that pains me every time the weather’s turnin’ bad. It never ain’t failed me yet, and I feel a storm is comin’ now.”
I was still wandering about exploring the town when I was accosted by a bareheaded, swarthy gypsy woman who wanted to tell my fortune. The charge was two bits, she said, and I produced the money. Then she made a poor pretense of glancing at the lines of my hand and mumbled a sing-song repetition with slight variations about my having had much trouble, asserting in conclusion that, “You have make considerable money, but you spend it easy.”
She hit it right about the spending so far as the quarter I had just parted with was concerned. Next she pulled a couple of little threads out of the fringe of her shawl, and had me tie two knots in one of them and repeat after her, “Go way trouble.” “Go way my bad luck.”
That done she crumpled up the knotted string, slyly substituted the other, which she had kept concealed, and told me to pull it out — when lo! the knots were gone. Lastly she gave this thread a twist about one of my buttons and affirmed that if I didn’t “tell nobody about it for eight days” I probably wouldn’t have “no more trouble and bad luck.” To make the thing certain, however, she wanted another quarter.
San Diego appealed to me most forcibly in the suggestions one caught everywhere that the place never experienced our savage Eastern winter. Yet there were chilly mornings and days of wind or rain, when a fire was a comfort. Otherwise everything conspired to make one feel it was early summer instead of March.
One morning I visited Old Town, an outlying suburb, which in the early days constituted all there was of San Diego. At that time the site of the present city was a sheep pasture. The parent village is pretty dead now, and many of the ancient adobe structures are in ruins, but others are still intact and occupied. Such structures are particularly interesting, because their massiveness gives them an air of repose and permanence, and because they are characteristic of the common method of building in the days when California was a part of Mexico. The material employed is a very sticky, dark brown clay fashioned into blocks about four times the size of an ordinary brick. Sometimes straw cut up into pieces an inch or two long was worked into the clay mud. Wet clay was used as mortar when the blocks were laid. The timbers of the floors, doorways and windows were built in as the walls were in process of erection.
Eight miles from Old Town, up a neighboring valley, is the remains of an ancient Spanish Mission which I decided to see. The valley is wide, and its basin is mostly cultivated. Much of it was growing to barley, oats and other grains, then knee high, and there was Indian corn well started, and melons just coming up, and an abundance of garden truck of all sorts ready for market. The finest tract was farmed by a Chinaman. He had many acres as level as a floor and his crops were thriving admirably; but his home buildings were dilapidated, and even the house a mere shack. The litter of work and carelessness was dubiously evident all about, and the premises were so odorous that it was no joke to get to leeward of them.
Judging from the Chinaman’s success, I imagined he would have rather a rosy opinion of the region, but some of the other dwellers in the valley were decidedly pessimistic. “California is overrated,” said one of them to me. “Every farm in the state is for sale. You need money to enjoy this country, and it takes a good big purseful to run a farm and get it into shape to be profitable. A poor man, or a man of moderate means has no chance. He travels up hill all the time and often in the end has to sell out for a song. Lots of people have an idea there’s money in fruit, but I’ve noticed our fruit growers usually make a profit one season and lose the next nine.”
The man did not appear very energetic, and his land did not look as if he worked it with much vigor or judgment. No doubt he painted the country in tints out of his own experience. Another man I talked with was a grizzled old fellow of a different type. He was carrying a post on his shoulder, and when I accosted him he dropped the butt end to the ground. Every few minutes he shifted the post up to his shoulder as if about to go on, but the conversation would take a fresh start and down would go the post once more. He did not agree with the neighbor whom I have quoted. “Oh, no,” said he, “not every place is for sale. The majority are, but there’s exceptions. I wouldn’t sell mine — leastways, not unless I got a good big price for it.
“I was over in Arizona lately,” he continued, “and on the train that brought me back I had a talk with a Missouri man, who was comin’ to the coast to settle with his whole family; and he said, ‘My little girl has been thinkin’ they have gold houses out in California and gold sidewalks and gold everything. She says she reckons they have gold taters to eat.’
“It’s a good deal the same with the older folks. They are often disappointed simply because they have unreasonable expectations. Yes, that’s just it, and they’ve got a lot to learn. It ain’t no soft job here. There’s plenty to do all the time, and if you want to succeed you haven’t hardly got time to talk to anyone. Even an industrious man don’t find it all straight sailin.’ This region is naturally kind of a desert. Just now for a few years we’re havin’ rain, and everythin’ is green and flourishin’. You couldn’t have better pasturage, and we don’t have to feed our stock anything in addition to what they pick up themselves, the year through. But before this wet spell there was eleven years we only had one good rain. The streams went dry, the wells went dry, and the feed all shrivelled up in the pastures. Why, we had to give the stock cactus to eat. We’d make a quick brush fire and take the cactus and singe off the thorns, and that singed cactus was what the cattle lived on. I sold most of my cows at ten dollars apiece the feed got so scanty.
The launching of the ship
“Another thing we’ve found out is that we can’t raise fruit in this neighborhood. The trees will do well for three or four years; but see here,” and with his post he thumped some clay laid bare in a washed-out gully, “under the surface soil a foot or two is this old adobe, and it’s got alkali in it. That’s the boy that ruins the fruit trees. The roots, as soon as they strike it, crumple up, and your trees begin to croak and don’t flourish any more.
“But the situation is like this — a man who comes here and works hard and uses some common sense and adapts himself to the country will prosper. One day I was callin’ on a genoowine old Dutchman who is livin’ a few miles away. Well,’ he says, ‘dis desert does look fine when it rains.’
“He’s got about sixteen children, and you might think he’d have trouble supportin’ ‘em. I mentioned something of the sort, but he replied, ‘I make a living here,’ and he gave a big wink and then said, ‘and I makit one dollar besides.’
“So can other people.”
It was a half-clouded morning, and the weather was reminiscent of a sultry day in June at home. The heat was full of moist, growing power, and the pastures and waysides were besprinkled with blossoms of every hue. Poppies, thistles and morning-glories were easily recognized, but most of the blossoms were unfamiliar, and they made a pageant of color such as the East never witnesses. One’s ears were greeted with the buzz of flies, the chirrup of insects, and by the croaking of frogs on the sodden lowlands. The walk was quite delightful, though not wholly so; for some little gnats darted about my face very persistently. The road I followed was not a public way, and it was frequently interrupted by gates that I had to climb over or open, and its markings became less and less distinct till I lost them altogether. I was then in a cultivated patch of olive trees, and many of the trees were loaded with fruit, both green and ripe. The ripe olives looked very like plums, and their appearance was so inviting I tried one; but it came out of my mouth much quicker than it went in.
I wandered across several fields till I found my road again, and at last I reached the old Mission on a terrace of a steep hillslope. Much of the original buildings is gone. They were used as a cavalry barracks in the war of 1846 and later as a sheep fold, and such use, added to neglect, has left only remnants; but enough still existed of the stout adobe walls to be impressive. It overlooked the peaceful, fertile valley. Near by, at the foot of the slope, was a grove of ancient olives musical with great numbers of birds, and on the borders of the grove was a fragment of cactus hedge and a few date palms, all that remains of the friars’ garden.
This is the oldest of the California Missions. It was founded in 1769, but the ruins do not date back to its beginnings; for in its sixth year the Mission was attacked by hostile Indians, one of the padres was killed and the buildings burned to the ground.
By the end of the century there were seventeen more Missions, and three others followed later. It was their purpose to instruct and civilize the Indians. The founding of a Mission was very simple. After a suitable place had been selected in a fertile valley a cross was set up, a booth of branches built, and the ground and the booth were consecrated by holy water and christened in the name of a saint. If there were Indians in the vicinity they were attracted to the spot by the ringing of bells swung on the limbs of trees, and presents of food, cloth and trinkets were given them to win their confidence. Each new Mission had at first only two monks. The booth and cross were in their charge, and they were to convert and teach all the Indians of the neighborhood. Several soldiers and perhaps a few partly Christianized Indians served as a guard and helpers. The community would have a number of head of cattle and some tools and seeds, and with this humble equipment those in charge were expected to conquer the wilderness and its savage inhabitants.
As a rule the Indians were of low intelligence and brutish habits; but they were taught to cultivate the earth and to do a variety of mechanical work. They felled timber, transported it to the Mission sites, and used it, together with adobe and tiles, in erecting the churches and other buildings. Thus in time rose the pillars, arched corridors and domes of the stately structures that are still impressive even in their ruins. Gradually a village grew about each church; for the Indians were encouraged to live near by, and some of the Mission communities numbered thousands.
The chief structure at a Mission was usually in the shape of a hollow square with a front of four or five hundred feet along which extended a gallery. The church formed one of the wings, and in the interior was a court adorned with trees and a fountain. Round about was a corridor whence doors opened into the friars’ sleeping apartments, workshops, storehouses, schoolrooms, etc. At sunrise a bell was rung and the Indians assembled in the chapel for prayers. Afterward they had breakfast and were distributed to their work. At eleven they ate dinner, and work was resumed at two. An hour before sunset the Angelus bell was tolled and labor was abandoned for religious exercises in the chapel. Supper followed, and then the Indians were free to take part in a dance or other mild amusements.
Crossing at the ford
The rule of the friars was in the main just and kindly. Drunkenness was punished by flogging, and the offenders in quarrels between husbands and wives were chained together by the legs till they promised to keep the peace. Fresh recruits were secured by sending out parties of Indians already attached to the new mode of life and letting them set forth to the savages its advantages, though it is said they were also sometimes captured by main force. The domestic animals imported for the use of the Missions multiplied with great rapidity, and in the care of them the Indians became very dexterous. Hides, tallow, grain, wine and oil were sold to ships visiting the coast, and from the proceeds the friars supplied the Indians with clothing, tobacco and such other things as appealed to the taste or fancy of the savage converts. Surplus profits were employed in embellishing the churches.
The Missions were established at about a day’s journey apart on the natural route of travel along the coast, and they were the usual stopping-places for travellers. Whenever one of these sojourners arrived he was welcomed with the hospitality of the Bible patriarchs. First of all his horse was led away to the stables, and the man was escorted to a bath. Afterward he was given a plentiful meal and a comfortable bed, and he was at liberty to stay as long as he chose.
The maximum of Mission prosperity was attained in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The friars and their neophytes owned countless herds of cattle, horses, sheep, goats and swine, and produced from the ground all their simple needs required. At each Mission were inclosed gardens and orchards where grew a considerable variety of vegetables and many fruits, including figs, oranges, olives and grapes. But white settlers were increasing, and contact with them tended to corrupt the Indians and to make them less easily controlled. The greed of the newcomers was aroused by the wealth of the Missions in land and herds, and in 1833 they influenced the Mexican congress to pass a law secularizing the Missions and turning over their property to public purposes, except for some small allowances reserved to maintain the churches. This enabled the politicians of the period to plunder the Missions very thoroughly, and the administrators who were appointed wasted no time in getting the tangible property into the hands of themselves and their friends.
So serious was the desolation wrought, and so evil were the effects on the Indians that the law was rescinded, but the mischief had been done, and the Missions were not able to recuperate. The ruin was completed by the American conquest, and the few remaining Indians were driven or enticed away. That they and their ancestors had been cultivating the lands for three-quarters of a century made no difference. The Americans wishing to pre-empt claims did not regard the presence of Indian families or communities as any more a deterrent than they would have so many coyotes. What cared the rude frontiersmen for missionary friars or civilized Indians? They came to squat on public lands, and they not only took such tracts as pleased their fancy, but in some cases the Mission structures were demolished for the sake of the timber, tiles and other building materials that were in them.
Every visitor at San Diego makes a trip to the village of Tia Juana, just across the line in Mexico. The idea is cultivated that by so doing one will get a brand new impression and that he will see a bit of Mexico which will serve as a fair sample of the whole. It is sixteen miles down to the line, and a train takes you that far. Close by the terminus is a boundary monument, and some people find pleasure in standing with one foot in their own country and one in foreign territory. Often they have themselves photographed in that position. But the person who wants to make all he can out of the situation jumps back and forth across the line until he is tired. Then, when he reaches home and is asked if he has been to Mexico, he can truthfully respond, “Oh, yes, many times.”
After you have had a look at the monument and indulged in such extras as seem desirable, you get into an omnibus drawn by four horses, and away you go over a road that I should judge had never received any attention since it was first travelled. There are holes and ruts and bumps and sloughs unnumbered, and whenever I thought we were going to capsize in one direction, the vehicle was sure to lurch and up went the other side to the danger point. Much of the way was across a gullied, brushy level where the floods had rampaged. Worse still, we had to ford a swift and muddy river. Into it we splashed, and the horses half disappeared, while the water swashed up over the wheel-hubs and barely missed coming into the ‘bus.
At last we reached Tia Juana. Its attractions were not very pronounced. There was just a wide street with a few shops and saloons on either side, and at some distance a straggling of shanty dwellings. It was on a bare plateau, but along the slope that dipped to the valley grew a few groups of trees. The plain swept away to a series of mountain ridges clothed with cacti and sagebrush. Such village men as were not employed in the shops seemed to be a lot of loafers, not given to exerting themselves much beyond the smoking of cigarets.
The one notable institution of the place is a bull-ring, and the amphitheatre of seats rises conspicuously just outside the hamlet. It is the patronage of the Americans that keeps the thing going, and any Sunday on which there is to be a fight they come from San Diego in swarms. Extra trains are put on, and teams drive from the town and from the ranches for miles around to serve as stages for conveying the excitement seekers from the station to the bull-ring. The chief financier of the enterprise is a Mexican who has a diminutive butcher shop in the village. It seems a somewhat appropriate branch of his everyday industry, but what can one say for the Americans who encourage the savage and degrading exhibitions?
The cost is a dollar for a seat in the sun, two dollars for a seat in the shade, and the audience is sure to number at least a thousand, and may rise to twenty-five hundred. It was said that the patronage had fallen off decidedly the year before because several horses had been gored to death. This was too much for the tender sensibilities of the American audience. The on-lookers were willing to see bulls killed, but not horses, and many of them refrained afterward from going. So now the toreadors have to fight on foot.
Between Tia Juana and San Diego is some very fine lemon country, and on my way back I had a talk with the owner of a twenty-acre orchard. “I come from Nebraska two years ago,” he said, “and I wouldn’t go back to live if you’d give me the whole state. It’s too cold, and they have blizzards there that blow the trains off the railroad tracks. I looked around down here and found a feller that was sick of the lemon business, and we made a swap. I give him sixteen hundred acres I had in Nebraska, and he give me his twenty-acre lemon orchard. Some of my neighbors up where I come from told me I was makin’ a poor bargain, but the Nebraska land was only worth about fifty cents an acre; so the value of my sixteen hundred acres didn’t count up very heavy. The feller I sold to didn’t really want the property, and he made another dicker and let it go for the furnishings of a shooting-gallery in Los Angeles worth very little over three hundred dollars.
“They’d been havin’ a spell of dry years, and the lemon orchards wa’n’t payin’ expenses; but the weather turned about and the trees began to do first-rate. It beats all how they will bear. There’s blossoms and green fruit of every size and the ripe lemons right on the same tree the year through. I shall clear six or seven thousand dollars this year. Of course there’s considerable expense, and I keep from two to six men at work and pay ‘em a dollar and a half for a nine hour day. I don’t hire any Mexicans — I don’t like their color; and I don’t hire niggers or Chinamen. I do considerable myself, but I feel that I’m kind o’ gettin’ lazy like everybody else that lives in this climate. It’s very different from what I been used to. You notice the old men here. They ain’t got the vim and spirit they have in the East. Back in Nebraska, an old man would think nothing of chasing a critter that had broke loose, but take a man of the same age in California, and you couldn’t get up a run with a pitchfork.
“There’s something about the air that slows you down; and I have an idee that once you get used to it you ain’t really contented anywhere else. Some people recollect their old home, in New England may be, and they think they’d like to go back there to live. One man whose home was near my lemon ranch was always talkin’ that way, and finally he sold out and went; but inside of two months he was back. Things there wa’n’t quite like what he remembered them, and the folks he used to know was mostly gone or changed. So he decided California was the place for him.”
Nearly a score of miles east of San Diego is the broad fertile valley of El Cajon. It lies among the hills with lofty rugged mountains overlooking it from farther inland, and I went to see it, attracted by the fact that it is famous for its great vineyards whence are shipped each season hundreds of carloads of raisins. An irrigating flume circles the hillslopes, but this artificial watering does not entirely take the place of rain, and in dry years the crop is sure to be a partial failure. Most of the ranches of this handsome vale were mortgaged, I was told. There are so many chances in weather, in disease, in pests, and in price that a permanent success in fruit growing in Southern California seems to be somewhat rare. It is a not uncommon belief that dry and wet periods alternate, each covering a series of several years. Things boom in the wet cycle, while in the lean years many orchards and vineyards fare so badly that they become almost worthless.
I had come to El Cajon by train with the intention of walking back, and presently I was plodding along toward San Diego, most of the time on the level mesas, but now and then dipping into a valley. There were frequent orchards of oranges, grape-fruit, lemons and olives, some thrifty, some far otherwise. The orange trees, though still loaded with fruit were coming into blossom, and in places the air was honeyed with the perfume. Most of the homes I passed were commonplace little cottages, frequently only a story high, apt to be ugly from plainness, but sometimes equally ugly from over-ornamentation. Yet there were a number of really substantial and attractive dwellings, fine in themselves and charming in their flowery environment. One home had a great rank hedgerow of roses full of white blossoms; but much of the land was as wild as it ever had been, and was brushed over with chaparral and other shrubs, waist high. A good deal of this was government land that could be bought for a dollar an acre. The country was at its greenest, but when the spring rains were past the ground would gradually parch and by July all the fields and pastures and waysides where there was not an artificial water system would be clothed in somber brown, and they would so continue till near the end of the year.
Half way in my journey I was overtaken by a young fellow in a buggy, and he invited me to ride. I was glad of the opportunity, for I was getting weary, and the landscape did not present much variety. He was from the East a twelve-month before and had been spending most of his time “cow-punching” in the mountains. He expressed the opinion that the country offered excellent chances to make money. But, if it was easy to make, it was also uncommonly easy to spend; “and yet,” said he, “you can live here as cheaply as anywhere if you choose to do so. Now San Diego is quite a resort of old Civil war pensioners. They’re there on the plaza every day sitting around under the shadow of the palms. I’ve talked with ‘em and they say a man can bach’ it — that is, get feed for himself livin’ as a bachelor — for a dollar and a quarter a week, and a room will cost a dollar more. So a moderate pension will support a man without his doing anything.”
In my own experience I found the gentle conditions of life were best exemplified by a man who dwelt near the beach. I had the feeling at first that I had fallen in with a shipwrecked mariner on a desert island. Just back out of reach of the waves he had a shanty seven feet one way by eight the other, and barely high enough to stand up in. It was built of all sorts of rubbish; and nearly everything in the house and round about might have been saved from some castaway vessel, and indeed was largely the salvage of the sea.
The interior walls were crowded with shelves, and from frequent nails were suspended many articles of use and ornament. The furnishings included a number of pictures and newspapers, and a few books. There was a bed with a coverlet made of an old sail, a chair tinkered out of some pieces of board, a rusty little stove, a muzzle-loading musket, and quantities of odds and ends. The two tiny, single-paned windows each had a board shutter inside and reminded me of the port holes of a ship.
I saw all these details with some thoroughness because I was caught by a shower and was invited to take shelter in the hermit’s hut. Outside he had a shed with a roof made of an old boat turned keel upward, and he had various whirligig contrivances set up in his yard — weather vanes in the form of ships with sails set and propellers revolving, and a kind of windmill of odd construction that turned a coffee grinder.
The proprietor of this peculiar conglomerate was a Maine man originally, and was a person of intelligence and some education. His chief companions were cats, and I saw half a dozen or more dozing around the premises. He got all the wood he needed to burn from the sea, and the sea furnished him with much of his food. Most of his fishing he did with a hook and line, but sometimes used a spear when he went after halibut. His gun had been neglected of late, because the last time he fired it he was out on the water after ducks and it nearly kicked him out of his boat. The money he needed to supply his few wants he got by digging and marketing a few clams, and by taking care of some boats belonging to the town boys, and by catching crawfish which he sold for bait. During the twenty years he had lived there he had never had an overcoat. It wasn’t his habit to stand around on windy street corners, he explained, and therefore in that mild climate he didn’t need one.
He was something of a radical in the matter of clothing, yet it is a fact that the climate is singularly equable, and so it is along the coast of the entire state; for though the northern extremity of California is in the latitude of Boston and its southern end is opposite Charleston, the thermometer seldom anywhere drops below freezing or rises to what is often experienced in New York City by the end of May. The breezes from the Pacific keep the land cool in summer and warm in winter.
NOTE. — The visitor at San Diego can choose among numberless hotels, from the most modest to the most palatial; or, if he prefers, can camp on Coronado Beach. The climate is unfailingly gentle, and the ocean and fertile valleys and distant mountains furnish many attractions. Most points of interest are easily accessible, and the traveller with limited time can see much in a very few days. There is excellent fishing and bathing. The glimpse of Mexico one gets at Tia Juana should not be missed, nor the ancient Mission and its olive trees, nor the adobe homes in “Old Town,” nor the caverned cliffs at La Jolla.