Here to return to
AMONG THE SHASTA FOOTHILLS
The white peaks of Mt. Shasta
IT WAS eleven o’clock at night, and I had just stopped off at a little railway station in Northern California. The station was not lighted and when the train rumbled away I was left blinking in the uncertain darkness. I looked this way and that for some sign of habitation and saw none. Looming against the northern sky rose a grim black peak, an almost perfect pyramid, strangely regular and vast and near. In the east rose another pyramid mountain mass, ghostly white with eternal snows. That I knew was Shasta. I began exploring the lonely void around and presently discovered a man with a lantern on the other side of the station. This man was good enough to act as my guide, and he piloted me across the road to a story-and-a-half hotel hidden among some trees. Then he went his way. The building was dark and silent. I stepped up on the piazza and after rapping again and again without avail reinforced my blows with shouts of “Hello!”
At length a woman’s voice responded, and presently the lady of the house appeared with a candle. She said she had no accommodations left except a cot bed; but as her hotel was the only one in the hamlet, a cot bed seemed to me a very satisfactory solution of my difficulties. She gave me the candle, and I climbed a narrow stairway into a garret — a little, rough-boarded apartment with a closed deal door at either end and a rude railing around the stairway-opening in the middle. A stand and a chair were in one corner, and in each of the other corners was a cot bed. Two of the beds were already occupied. The other was mine. There were no windows and no provision for ventilation, and after I blew out the candle the room was as dark as a pocket. Downstairs I could hear a clock solemnly ticking. One of my fellow-roomers was snoring uneasily, and the other would now and then talk in his sleep. But at last all this faded out of my consciousness, and when I awoke there were glints of light coming in at sundry cracks and knot holes in the partitions that separated the garret I was in from the apartments adjoining at either end. The occupants of these rooms were astir, and one at a time, two from each chamber, they entered my room and passed down the stairway.
My fellow-roomers now rose, and one of them, as he dressed, lit and smoked a cigaret. To wash we were obliged to go down to the back porch, where on a bench was a basin with a pail beside it from which to dip the necessary water. From this little porch we had the mighty form of Shasta in full view, marvelous in the height of its aspiring pinnacles and in the unsullied whiteness with which the snows clothed its wild crags. The woodland darkened its base, but the trees gradually frayed out and ceased long before they reached the summit.
We could also look forth from the porch on that near and frowning peak of gloom I had seen the night before. From bottom to top it was little else than barren rock and loose slides of stone. “It’s called Black Butte,” said the hired girl, “and I’ve been told it’s infested with rattlesnakes, and that the rocks are all wore slick with the snakes comin’ and goin’. It’s a fine place for ‘em all right, and people say if you go to the mountain just about sun-up you can see the rattlesnakes pokin’ up their heads all around.”
“Well,” said the landlady, “I know that knoll on the east side of Black Butte is a regular rattlesnake den. I had a boarder once named Chapman, and he had a perfect mania for catching’ rattlesnakes. He was really luny about it, and he went after ‘em every Sunday. I’ve never clumb up there, but I’ve seen the snakes’ tracks crossin’ the road down below. He’d catch ‘em alive and ship ‘em off and sell ‘em.”
“It’s said that if you get a good fat rattlesnake and try out the oil, that oil is a wonderful cure for rheumatism,” remarked one of the lodgers. “You rub it on and take it internally, both.”
“I’m not scared of snakes,” declared the hired girl, gazing meditatively at the dark stony height. “I’d just as soon tackle ‘em as not; but I don’t want anything to do with a mouse. Mice are creatures I can’t stand. I can dance for a week if I see a mouse runnin’ around the room. Yes, you bet I can!”
“I ain’t stuck on seein’ mice or snakes either,” said the landlady; “but I think the varmints back on Shasta are worse than the snakes.”
Then she told how, occasionally, a brown bear was captured and wildcats shot, and how right there at the hotel they sometimes would hear a California lion roar, or the coyotes yelping. In the midst of her observations she came to a sudden stop and chased out an old hen that had walked into the house and was looking around. “That there hen has got to change its habits!” she announced. “For two days it has laid an egg on my bed, and I won’t have such doin’s.”
The hens were laying very well, at present, she said, only they often stole nests off in the manzanita shrubs and thorny “sticker-bushes” where she could not find the eggs.
The well at the back door
The place where I was stopping was a woodland mill village clustering about some big red box-factory buildings with their piles of boards. Some of the houses were substantial cottages, but most were little shacks of unplaned boards that in themselves and in their surroundings were extremely unprepossessing. Their occupants were mostly “Eye-talians.” There were no gardens, no green grass — only ragged forest of brush and stumps and brown gritty earth. All the vicinity had been cleared of its good timber.
One odd feature of the village was its ovens. Under a shed adjoining nearly every house was a plank platform on which was built a dome-like cavern of stones and cement. In this a fire is made, and when it has burned down to embers it is raked out, and the loaves of bread are put in and the opening closed. The heat the oven has absorbed from the fire does the baking.
In my walks I often heard the weird honking of wild geese, and when I turned my eyes upward I would see a flock of the great birds with outstretched necks winging their swift way northward. Sometimes there would be no more than a dozen, and again there would be scores. They flew in a more or less V-shaped formation, and it was an inspiring sight to see them ploughing along the blue field of heaven. Frequently two or three flocks were in sight at the same time.
About a mile down the valley, not far from the road, was a pleasant green hollow where some cows were pastured, and through the glen flowed a crystal-clear brook. The brook burst forth full-fledged from a bountiful spring, and in the pellucid depths of the pools near this spring, one could get glimpses of lurking trout. Close by the stream was a cluster of pines, and one day as I was passing I noticed among the trees two men who had a little fire. I went into the grove and joined them. They spoke of themselves as “bums,” or “hoboes,” but affirmed that they were not tramps. “A tramp,” they explained, “never works, but a hobo is a man who travels on the road and does work when he can find a job.”
They even entered on a learned disquisition as to the origin of the word hobo; for they were men of intelligence and some education. They had “travelled from A to Z” in every state of the Union, and one of them said, “There’s very few has more knowledge of places and routes than I have. I could pass a better civil service examination than any mail agent on this railroad that goes through here.”
They had bunked in a box car that had a little straw in it the night previous. The sun had warmed the car so it retained its heat till about midnight, but after that it became so cold the hoboes crawled out and went down the railroad and built a fire. “Yes, there are discomforts,” they said, “and yet this is a very healthy life, and we never have any trouble with our stomachs or our lungs. A sick man couldn’t do better than to find a good pard, take along a little money and start out on the road.”
The men seemed very leisurely. In fact, “a tramp doesn’t care whether he gets to town this week or next. He knows the town will be there when he arrives.”
My companions spoke of the grove they were in as the “Hoboes’ Jungle,” and said that men of their sort were there nearly every day. They had several paper bags and parcels of provisions and were preparing dinner. The younger man acted as chef, and the older said, “I never was much of a jungle cook, but I can wash the dishes and get the firewood.”
Dishes were plenty, such as they were. There were tin cans and pails in great variety, and there was a stew-pan, a frying-pan and a large pot and a number of low, panlike dishes the hoboes had themselves shaped out of pieces of tin. The frequenters of this jungle never washed their pots and pans after they finished a feast, but left that job for the next men. The older of the two bums took the pot, and with a rag and some sand gave the inside a thorough scouring. Then he washed it at the stream side and plugged up a hole with a bit of wood. He brought it full of water to his comrade who was paring potatoes. Afterward he returned to the brook with several other cans and pails which he also cleansed and put in order. One of them he filled from the stream and set on the fire to boil for the coffee. Last of all he went into the neighboring woods and gathered an armful of fallen branches, broke them up and adjusted the pieces on a rough circle of stones that served for a fireplace.
“Now,” said the cook, “we want some ladles.”
“All right,” responded the other, “I never seen the time when I couldn’t jump into the bush and make a set of kitchen tools in about fifteen minutes, if I was real hungry.”
He got out his jackknife, selected some pieces of wood that suited his purpose, and soon had fashioned two rough paddles. Besides the potatoes, or “spuds” as they called them, the cook prepared two large onions and fried a good-sized piece of steak. He had some little packages of salt and pepper which he drew on for flavoring. The work was done with a good deal of deftness, but it took considerable time. However, he said that preparing the food was not nearly so much of a task as getting it in the first place.
“What’ll you have for a plate?” asked the cook, turning to his pard.
“Here’s a flat tin dish that’ll do,” replied the older man, “only I must burn it out first.”
Hoboes getting dinner
When everything was ready the cook put half the great mess of potatoes and onions into the burned-out dish, together with half the steak, while he reserved his share in the frying-pan. Then a loaf of bread was taken out of a parcel and the two sat down on some oil-cans turned bottom upward and ate in great contentment.
“This is a pretty spot,” observed the older man, and I always do like to eat where I can hear the sound of running water.”
They did not pause till the last morsel was gone, and I imagine it was the only square meal they had that day. After it was done, one got out his pipe and the other his chewing tobacco. They had some thought of applying for work in the local mills. If they decided to go on to other regions they would travel by train. Often they were permitted to ride on a freight train in return for helping the train crew with their work. If permission was refused they stowed themselves away somewhere, in or about the cars. Very likely they would get put off. Usually this was done at some stop the train made, and the hobo then spoke of himself as “being ditched.” Occasionally the train men would push a hobo off while the train was going, and in the hobo’s phraseology he then “hit the grit.” At times they sneaked a ride on a passenger coach — perhaps upon top or on the platform of the “blind baggage” coach next to the tender, or perhaps rode seated on the trucks down beneath the cars. “It ain’t a bad place under there,” declared the older man, “when the dust don’t fly too bad, and I’ve seen trains carryin’ more passengers on the trucks than was in the coaches.”
“I told you I’d been to every state in the Union,” said the younger man. “Besides that I’ve been to Honolulu and to Mexico. Mexico is called the land of tomorrow. It’s the motto of that country never to do today what you can put off till the next day, and California is just the same. That’s the effect of the climate, I suppose, and I won’t dispute but what the climate is fine. However, if you want a hobo tourist’s idea of California, I’d say that this state is nine-tenths climate and one-tenth business. The hobo that wants to come to a starvation country had better come here. Instead of eating three meals a day he gets only one meal in three days. They call this God’s country, but I tell you the devil has the whole thing in hand.
“When I came out here as a young man affairs went well with me for a time and I got to own two good ranches. Yes, I made barrels of mony. Then come a dry year and everything run behind. My stock was starving and I shot forty of my horses to put ‘em out of misery. Others I sold to a rich ranchman at a dollar a head. The best of ‘em he shipped to Nevada to graze, and the rest he killed and fed to his hogs. In addition to losing by the drouth I speculated in mining stocks and kept sending good money after bad till I lost all I had.
“This state is overrated. People back East hear about the fruit and the sunshine and the flowers the year around, and the railroads advertise, and the land sharks tell how this is the finest spot on earth to really enjoy livin’, and that when a person dies here he gets a ticket right from this glorious climate straight up into heaven with no change of cars. Lots of Eastern people believe this is all as represented. A family comes early in the year from the snows and frosts of their home winter. Here things are green, and the real estate agent knows the new-comers are green too. He shows ‘em a place, and says, ‘Now this is a nice ranch, and you can raise anything in the world on it. The price is so and so. We’re almost giving it away, as it were, but we want intelligent liberal people of your class to settle here.’
“The man’s wife, she looks around, and she says, ‘ Just see the sunshine, and the oranges, and all those roses. I guess we’d better have it.’
“So the man buys. But in a year or two there’s a change in his sentiments, and the wife ain’t quite satisfied. She gets to longin’ for the East, and she speaks to her husband and tells him things don’t seem to be just as they was represented. That’s what he thinks, too, and he’s ready to do whatever he can to please her; so he goes to the agent he bought of and says he wants to sell.
“‘Why, it’s foolish to do that,” the agent says. “Prices have dropped and at present you’d lose.’
“But the man wants to quit, and the agent makes him an offer. ‘The way things are now,’ he says, ‘that’s the best I can do.’
“The man sells and goes back East where he come from a few thousand dollars poorer than when he left. The neighbors ask how it happens he didn’t stay, and he tells ‘em, ‘They don’t have snow out there, and that’s about the only unpleasant feature they lack.’
“You talk up California to any people in the East who have lived out here and they’ll run you off the place. Irrigation is the only salvation for this West Coast land; and, by the way, did you ever notice how the natives spit to help out the work of the streams? I chew tobacco myself, but I ain’t a savage. The tobacco users in this country act as if they owned the air, and the floors of public buildings and railroad cars, not to mention the earth. They are irrigating all the time wherever they are, indoors and out, till a decent man is disgusted.
“They say it is dreadful easy to make a livin’ in the fruit business, but I tell ‘em I ain’t seen anyone knockin’ oranges out of the trees with a gold brick — no, not a single instance of that kind. It’s claimed that the San Joaquin Valley is one of the most fertile valleys in the world, and so it is in spots. But watch out for the hardpan. That is the great backfall in this country. Often the soil lies so thin on top of it that it’s just about worthless. Horned toads wouldn’t live on it. But the people in this country are what you call flimflammers, or, in other words, four-flushers. They lay off that hardpan desert into fruit ranches and induce people to leave their happy homes in the East to settle on it. A Californian expects you to give him all the mony you’ve got and thank him for taking it. He sticks you with that land, and you build a shanty on it and put up a windmill and supply the wind yourself. Sheep can barely exist on the soil, and it won’t raise white beans.
“Do you know about the mosquitoes? You walk along the Sacramento or the San Joaquin rivers, and the mosquitoes rise in swarms and follow you in droves; and there’s terrible malaria in those valleys. Lots of ranchers have to go to the seashore in the summer to spend a couple of months, and you’d be surprised to see how wrinkly and dark and sick they look. Some owners, just in self-defense, lease their land to the Chinamen and live in the city themselves. Chinamen don’t have malaria. They are very careful. They scrape their tongues at night with a piece of wood. I’ve watched ‘em, and they bathe their feet before goin’ to bed. They always boil their drinkin’ water, too, and never take any in its original form, but add a little tea.”
“I’ll tell you another thing,” said the older hobo. “I’m an ex-pugilist, but the fleas down there in Southern California have knocked me down and jumped on me. Of course you don’t get ‘em real bad till summer, though there’s some all the year.”
“Any hobo who wants to get work on a ranch here has got to carry his own blankets,” remarked the younger man. “On the farms back East the hired man has a room in the house and he sits at the family table to eat. Here they want the workingman to knuckle down and show his inferiority. Unless he’s got his blankets on his back and will sleep on the straw in the barn it’s not easy to find a job. ‘Blanket stiffs’ is what we call fellers who go about with their bedding. A stiff, you know, is a man who’s dead — that is, one who’s broke so often he don’t really count in the world.”
“A man with a farm here don’t begin to get the comfort out of it he would in the East,” declared the other hobo. “Fifty acres of good land there Will support him handsomely, and he’ll raise all his own vegetables, meat and everything. Out here he may have a much bigger place, but he’ll raise just one thing — fruit, or cattle, or whatever he chooses, and buy the rest, or do without. There’s people in this country with thousands of cattle who don’t milk a single cow and they use condensed milk.”
“One reason why we have trouble in getting work here,” said the younger man, “is because employers all give preference to natives. You take it there at San Francisco, if you’re a native son, they extend the glad hand and either give you a job or find one for you. There’s a society they call ‘Native Sons of the Golden West’ — Gloomy West, it ought to be; and it would describe the members more accurately if they called them ‘Native Drunks.’ They’re wine and steam-beer fiends, especially on the day when they gather by thousands to have their annual powwow. A native son won’t do you any kind of a favor without expecting you to grease his hand a little on the side; and we all despise a California hobo. If there’s a bunch of us together, and a native son comes along we won’t feed him or let him come within forty rods of our camp. It’s easy to get the best of ‘em. They’re not very sharp. You’d be surprised to see how simple some of these native sons are. Why, there was one of ‘em who’d always lived in the hills, and he concluded he’d travel East. He’d never seen a railroad, and when he’d bought his ticket and the engine came snorting along the track he was so afraid of the monster he wanted to run away. They could only get him on the train by blindfolding him and backing him up on from a cattle shute.”
“Well, I’ve got even with a few of ‘em for their meanness,” said the older hobo. “I’ve done quite a little canvassing out here, and if I’m sober I have a very good address and can make good mony. One spell I put in selling nice gold watches for twenty dollars, or perhaps eighteen. They cost me three. Another while I sold harness-dressing that I manufactured myself. I’d explain how it would make the leather soft and pliable and increase the durability, and I did well. Once I had twenty-seven hundred dollars ahead, but it seemed to get away from me. I never was inclined to hoard my money, and I could never save what I earned for more than a short time.
“My best profit came from a home dressmaking pattern. It was a kind of a disk made to look like leather and there were holes punched in it. They cost me fifty cents and was marked five dollars, but I told people that the manufacturers allowed me to introduce ‘em at two-fifty. They sold quick, and often people who didn’t buy would have me make a pattern for which they’d pay fifty cents. I could most always get feed for my horse and lodging for myself free by making a few patterns at the ranches where I stopped.
“But it’s much harder to sell to a California woman than it is to an Eastern woman. The climate seems to have a tendency to make people nervous and crazy. A woman here is always in a fidget, and at the same time she may not be doing anything; and there’s no use whatever tryin’ to transact business with ‘em after noon. You couldn’t sell a California woman a twenty dollar gold piece for a nickel then. She either wants to take a nap, or to go out on the street to display her finery.”
Two other hobo couples now arrived in the grove. They had parcels of food under their arms, and began dinner preparations. Each couple had their own fire, and did their housekeeping separately, but there was a friendly interchange of certain portions of the bill of fare. One party lacked coffee and bread. These things were supplied by the other, which in return received some bacon fat to fry eggs in, and several other small items. One of my earlier acquaintances got out a piece of soap and washed his hands and face in a pail of warm water. Then he went to the stream and washed an extra shirt he carried, and hung it on the bushes. Lastly, he shaved himself. In the sheltered glade loitering among the shadows of the grove with its carpet of pine needles, and lulled by the gentle warmth of the weather and by the singing stream the hobo life had a flavor quite alluring. Certainly the hoboes themselves seemed content and even happy.
The next morning the crown of the mighty Shasta was hidden by mists, and my landlady said, “It’s an old Indian sign that when there’s a cloud-cap on Shasta, ‘he talkee storm.’”
Sure enough, the weather was threatening all day, and we had sprinkles of rain and could see the snow-squalls whirling across the white mountain wastes. The hired girl looked from the back door up at the wild clouds hovering about the giant mountain, and said, “I told ‘em yesterday it was goin’ to storm, and I’ve come out a winner.”
Though Shasta’s topmost peak is 14,400 feet above the sea-level the climb to it is not especially difficult or dangerous, and many persons make the ascent every year. July and August are the best months for this, as then the weather is sure to be good and there is comparatively little snow. The climbers and their guide drive up to the timber line and camp for the night. At three the next morning they leave their horses and go the rest of the way on foot. Five hours of ascent takes them to the top, and they have ample time to look off on the world below, and to descend by nightfall to the village whence they started. The entire cost for parties of ten or more is five dollars each. For a single person the charge is twenty dollars.
The mountain with its hoary peaks and its shaggy base is always impressive, and one is reminded of the Alps; yet it lacks something of their charm, for there you have a mystery of atmosphere you seldom get in our land, and the vales about are pastoral and gentle. Then, too, there are rustic homes and quaint villages and peasant life in keeping, or in interesting contrast with the scene. But in America the foreground is only wilderness or ruined forest, blasted by the ravages of the lumbermen, and the buildings are unsightly sawmills, and temporary shacks for the help, and if there is a village it is altogether crude and unromantic.
NOTE. — The Shasta region is a land for the lover of the beautiful with the pioneer instinct. There is fishing and hunting and mineral springs and the most impressive of scenery. Many resorts have come into existence in the neighborhood where one can stop with entire comfort, such as Sisson, Mott, Shasta Springs, and Crag View. The limb to the summit of the white peak affords an exhilarating experience, and the acquaintance one makes with the wilderness around is certain to leave many pleasant memories.