[Today] we were up very early, but not refreshed, for the mosquitoes had allowed us but little sleep. We went up the valley sixteen or seventeen miles where a lava table crosses the entire valley, barren in the extreme. Here a stream comes down, and there is a sort of basin where there are nine or ten square miles of the best grass I have seen in the state. Three or four settlers have come in this year with cattle and horses, but there is feed for ten times as many. One has started a garden, to sell vegetables in Owensville, ten or fifteen miles distant, and Aurora, sixty-five miles distant. He came into camp and wanted to sell vegetables. I bought some, also four pounds of butter—all luxuries. Perhaps you would be interested to know what prices are asked for vegetables so far from any market. They were: green peas in the pod, ten cents a pound; turnips, eight cents a pound; cucumbers, twenty-five cents a dozen; radishes, thirteen cents a dozen; butter, seventy-five cents a pound, in gold—now worth three times its face in greenbacks. But they were very acceptable notwithstanding their price.
[Today] we kept on our way up the valley. It was not so hot—100° to 104°, most of the time 101°. We had the same features—deserts most of the way, grassy meadows where streams came down from the Sierra and spread on the plain, the barren Sierra on the west, the more barren Inyo Mountains on the east. The eastern slope of the Sierra is here almost destitute of trees, save in the canyons and along the streams.
We camped by a creek, where also a stream of warm water comes from some copious hot springs about a mile distant. We took a luxurious bath. Although the stream of cold water was abundant, it dried up in the intense heat before night and ceased to run, but flowed again the next morning. We have seen Indians along up the valley, but they shunned us, afraid of the soldiers. One only came into camp. There was a sweat house and other Indian “fixens” near camp, but the Indians all kept away.
We wanted some fresh meat, so two of the boys went out and shot a fine heifer and brought in the beef. They assumed that she belonged to a Secessionist and confiscated her. It is very common here for men traveling to supply themselves with beef from the large herds, but this is the first time that we have ever done it—in fact, it was the soldiers who did it, but we helped eat the beef, and it answered us a very good turn indeed.
[Today] we were up at dawn and started up the valley, and traveled twenty-two miles, about three-fourths of the way over deserts, the rest over grassy meadows. Many settlers have come in with cattle this year. Most of them are Secessionists from the southern part of the state. We passed the old Camp Independence, so lively a year ago—now a ranch, and the adobe buildings falling into ruin.
It was a terrible day. The thermometer ranged from 102° to 106°, often the latter, and most of the time 104°. It almost made us sick. There was some wind, but with that temperature it felt as if it came from a furnace. It came from behind us and blew the fine alkaline dust into our nostrils, making it still worse. We camped by the river and took a cooling bath….
During this day’s ride the Sierra loomed up grandly. The crest is at the extreme eastern part of the chain—grand rocky peaks, some of them over fourteen thousand feet, their cool snow, often apparently not over ten miles from us, mocking our heat.
[Today] we were up at dawn and went to Owens River, sixteen miles. Six miles brought us out of the canyon on the desert—then ten miles across the plain in the intense heat, and we camped on the river bank, without shade or shelter, the thermometer 96° in the shade, 156° in the sun. Yesterday in the snow and ice—today in this heat! It nearly used us up.
Owens Valley is over a hundred miles long and from ten to fifteen wide. It lies four thousand to five thousand feet above the sea and is entirely closed in by mountains. On the west the Sierra Nevada rises to over fourteen thousand feet; on the east the Inyo Mountains to twelve thousand or thirteen thousand feet. The Owens River is fed by streams from the Sierra Nevada, runs through a crooked channel through this valley, and empties into Owens Lake twenty-five miles below our camp. This lake is of the color of coffee, has no outlet, and is a nearly saturated solution of salt and alkali.
Here is a fact that you cannot realize. The Californian deserts are clothed in vegetation—peculiar shrubs, which grow one to five feet high, belonging to several genera, but known under the common names of “sagebrush” and “greasewood.” They have but little foliage, and that of a yellowish gray; the wood is brittle, thorny, and so destitute of sap that it burns as readily as other wood does when dry. Every few years there is a wet winter, when the land of even these deserts gets soaked. Then these bushes grow. When it dries they cease to put forth much fresh foliage or add much new wood, but they do not die—their vitality seems suspended. A drought of several years may elapse, and when, at last, the rains come, they revive into life again! Marvels of vegetation, some of these species will stand a tropical heat and a winter’s frosts; the drought of years does not kill them, and yet the land may be flooded and be for two months a swamp, and still they do not die. Such for instance is the common sagebrush of the deserts, Artemisia tridentata.
The aspect of these deserts is peculiar. In the distance, when individual bushes cannot be distinguished, they look like a gray plain of uncovered soil; near by they are still gray, or yellowish gray, but covered with bushes—no grass, few herbs, and no trees, only half a dozen species of bushes.The Inyo Mountains skirt this valley on the east. They, too, are desert. A little rain falls on them in winter, but too little to support much vegetation or to give birth to springs or streams. They look utterly bare and desolate, but they are covered with scattered trees of the little scrubby nut pine, Pinus fremontiana, and some other desert shrubs, but no timber, nor meadows, nor green herbage. There are a few springs, however. These mountains were the strongholds of the Indians during the hostilities of a year ago. They are destitute of feed, and the water is so scarce and in such obscure places that the soldiers could not penetrate them without great suffering for want of water. Camp Independence was located in the valley, and for a year fighting went on, when at last the Indians were conquered—more were starved out than killed. They came in, made treaties, and became peaceful. One chief, however, Joaquin Jim, never gave up. He retreated into the Sierra with a small band, but he has attempted no hostilities since last fall. These Indians are in the region where we are now, and it was against them that we took the escort of soldiers as a guard. There are a number yet, however, in the valley, living as they can—a miserable, cruel, treacherous set.
Mines of silver and gold were discovered in the Inyo Mountains some two or three years ago. They made some excitement, a few mills were erected, and three villages started—Owensville, San Carlos, and Bend City. The last two are rivals, being only 2 1/2 miles apart; the first is 50 miles up the river. We camped on the river near Bend City and went into town for fresh meat and to get horses shod. It is a miserable hole, of perhaps twenty or twenty-five adobe houses, built on the sand in the midst of the sagebrush, but there is a large city laid out—on paper. It was intensely hot, there appeared to be nothing done, times dull, and everybody talking about the probable uprising of the Indians—some thought that mischief was brewing, others not.
The rest of our party, who left us soon after we climbed up over Little Pine Pass, found a gold mine near the pass on their way home…and it was through this discovery that the pass came to be known as “Kearsarge Pass”. Down in Owen’s Valley…there is a low lying range of hills. In the early 60’s the Hitchcock boys discovered a mine in these hills…and they called their district the “Alabama District”…in honor of the Confederate cruiser “Alabama”….Our crowd, however, were all Union men, and when the news came that the Kearsarge had sunk the Alabama, our boys named the district where the cliff mine was the “Kearsarge District” to taunt the Rebels.
We descended down the canyon of Little Pine Creek and camped at a little meadow, in full view of the valley below and the ridges beyond, which were peculiarly illumined by the setting sun. On both sides of us were great rocky precipices. During the day’s progress we passed a number of beautiful little lakes.
Camp 181 Some prospectors had come over the summit to this place, as I told you, and we resolved to follow their trail, assuming that where they went we could go. [Today] we started and got about eleven miles, a hard day’s work, for we rose 4,300 feet. First we went up a steep, rocky slope of 1,000 to 1,500 feet, so steep and rough that we would never have attempted it had not the prospectors already been over it and made a trail in the worst places—it was terrible. In places the mules could scarcely get a foothold where a canyon yawned hundreds of feet below; in places it was so steep that we had to pull the pack animals up by main strength. They show an amount of sagacity in such places almost incredible. Once Nell fell on a smooth rock, but Dick caught her rope and held her—she might have gone into the canyon below and, with her pack, been irretrievably lost. We then followed up the canyon three or four miles and then out by a side canyon still steeper. We camped by a little meadow, at over nine thousand feet. Near camp a grand smooth granite rock rose about three thousand feet, smooth and bare.
[This] morning was clear. We packed up, got back into the canyon by our steep trail, killed a tremendous rattlesnake on the way, and camped again at the head of the valley, where we had been a week before. One of the soldiers caught a fine mess of trout. We have seen deer in abundance, but have not succeeded in getting any lately.