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ON HORSEBACK INTO OREGON.
AFTER my return from the Yo-Semite Walley, I remained in San Francisco, or its delightful neighborhood, making short excursions around and across the bay, for more than a fortnight. But this lotus-eating life soon palled. I burned to see the giant Shasta, and grew thirsty for the eternal snows of the Cascade Peaks still further north. So much of a horseback ride to the Columbia as brought us into Oregon I here propose to sketch in brief.
With the exception of one artist companion and myself, our party had become sated with travel, and gone home. One glorious September day we two took our saddle-bags, note-books, and color-boxes, put our horses on board the Sacramento steamer, and, without other baggage or company of any sort, set out for the Columbia River and Vancouver's Island.
At Sacramento, on the next morning after leaving San Francisco, we shifted our quarters to a smaller and light-draught boat which was to take us up the shallow river to its head of navigation. This arrangement was a great economy of time. The country bordering the Upper Sacramento, for two hundred miles from the Californian capital, is level and comparatively tame, so that no artistic advantage would have resulted from following the bank on horseback. From the little steamer the view became a perpetual pleasure. About twenty miles above Sacramento we passed the mouth of Feather River, disgorging coffeecolored mud from the innumerable gold diggings along its course, and came into lovely blue water, pure as the cradling snow-ridges between which it issued. The immediate margin began to be thickly wooded with overhanging willows, oaks, and sycamores. These were alive with birds of every aquatic description. The shag, a large fowl of black and dingy-white plumage, apparently belonging to the cormorant family, peopled every dead tree with a live fruit whose weight nearly cracked its branches; every snag projecting from the river-bed was studded with a row of the same creatures at mathematically equal intervals, each possessing just room enough for his favorite pastime of slowly opening his wings to the utmost, and then shutting them again in solemn rhythm, like a pupil of Dr. Dio Lewis's, or a patient in the Swedish Movement-cure. The quiet embayed pools and eddies swarmed with ducks; every sunny bar or level beach was a stalking-ground for stately cranes, both white and sand-hill; and garrulous crows kept the air lively, in company with big California magpies, above our heads. The course of the river grew more and more sinuous as we ascended; it was near the close of the dry season, and there remained none of those cut-offs which economize distance during the prevalence of the rains. The Upper Sacramento, especially when softened and rendered illusory by such a full moon as it was our good fortune to travel under, perpetually recalls that loveliest of fairy streams, the higher St. John's, in Florida. Nothing out of dreams is more peacefully enchanting than the embowered stretches of clear water rippled into silver arabesque through a long moonlight night, or the hazy vistas, impurpled by twilight, into which one swings around the short curves of the Sacramento, amid a silence that would be absolute but for his own motion, while beyond either woody margin the great plains spread away untenanted, a waving wilderness of wild grass and tulé. Enjoying the far-niente of a life of such sweet monotone all the more because it was such a contrast to our rough riding, past and future, we spent two golden days, as many mezzotint twilights, and a pair of silver nights upon our steamer. On the morning of the third day we reached Tehama, a dead-and-alive little settlement, seven hours' journey by the riverwindings from Red Bluffs, the head of navigation, but only ten miles by land. We had now got in sight of mountains; the ethereal blue of Lassen's Buttes, rimmed with the opal of perpetual snow, bounded our view northerly; and as every motive for taking to the saddle now consisted with our desire for economizing time, we here began our horseback ride, reaching Red Bluffs several hours before the steamer. Just out of Tehama we struck into a country whose features reminded us of the wooded tracts between Stockton and Mariposa. After two days of tulé and wild grass, Nature grew suddenly ennobled in our eyes by thick and frequent groves of the royal California oak. There was a feeling of luxury in the change, which none can know who have not had a surfeit of boundless plains. We bathed our hearts and heads in shadow; the fever of unbroken light went out of us; our very horses shared in the relief, and gave themselves up to a sweet somnambulism with which we had too much sympathy to break it by spurs. Red Bluffs we found a place of more apparent stir and enterprise than any Californian town we had seen, except San Francisco and Sacramento. There was quite a New England air about the main street, — so much so that I have forgotten to call it Plaza, as I ought. This place is the starting-point for all Overland supplies sent between the Sacramento and Portland. Immense wagons—shaped like the Eastern charcoal-vehicle, but dwarfing it into insignificance by a size not much inferior to that of a Mississippi flat-boat—are perpetually leaving the town, drawn by twelve mules or horses, and in charge of drivers whose magnificent isolation has individualized them to a degree not exceeded in the most characteristic coachman of the Weller tribe, or the typical skipper of the Yankee fishing-smack. There are few finer places to study genre than the California ranches frequented by the captains of these “prairie schooners.” At convenient distances for noon halts and nightly turnings-in, the main freighting-roads of the State are adorned with gigantic caravanserais offering every accommodation for man and beast, provided with arcades straddling nearly across the road, under which all passing wagoners not only may, but must, shelter themselves from the rigors of rain or sun, and billeted along their fronts with seductive descriptions of the paradise within, to which few hearts prove obdurate after being softened by the compulsory magnanimity of the arcade. In time there must be a railroad all the way from Sacramento to Portland. There is not a mile of the distance between Red Bluffs and the Oregon metrop
olis where it is not greatly needed already. Nearly the whole intervening region is exhaustlessly fertile, — one of the finest fruit countries in the world,—but so entirely without an economical avenue for its supplies or outlet for its productions, that many of the ranchmen who have settled in it feel despondent in the midst of abundance, and leave hundreds of magnificent orchard acres paved with rotting apples which would command a “bit” a pound in the San Francisco market, if the freight did not more than consume the profit, and the length of the journey render the fruit unsalable. The first day out from Tehama we made a distance of nearly forty miles, – part of the way through oakgroves and part over fine breezy plains, with the noble mountain chain out of which Lassen's Buttes rise into the perpetual-snow region continually in sight on the right hand. The only incident that occurred to us this day, in any other key than that of pure sensuous delight in the fact of life and motion under such a spotless sky and in an air that was such breathable elixir, together with the artistic happiness which flowed down on us from the noble neighboring mountains, was our discovery early in the afternoon of a cloud of dust about half a mile ahead, with the forms of a hundred horsemen dimly looming through it. Such a sight sets an old Overlander instinctively fumbling at his holsters; fresh as we were from the horrors of the desert, we felt our scalps begin to detach themselves slightly from the cranium. But we rode straight ahead, as our only method of safety was to wear a bold front, if the cavaliers were, as we half suspected, a party of Humboldt Indians, who had
lately taken the war-path between Lassen's Buttes