May 8, 1861: Santa Lucia Mountains
Today [Averill] had to go to a store a few miles distant for flour, so I took a long tramp of eighteen to twenty miles alone. We got an early breakfast, and I started in the cool of the morning, with a bag of lunch, compass, canteen of water, and knife, pistol, and hammer in belt. As one is so liable to find bears and lions here, it is not well to be without arms. I pushed back over the hills and through canyons about ten miles from camp to the chain of rugged mountains west of us. I was indeed alone in the solitudes. The way led up a canyon about four miles, with high steep hills on each side, then a ridge to be crossed, from which I had a fine view, then down again and among gentle hills about three miles farther to the base of the mountains. Here a stream was crossed by pulling off boots and wading, and then up a canyon into the mountains. This last I followed as far as I considered safe, for it was just the place for grizzlies, and I kept a sharp lookout.
Here I climbed a ridge to get a view behind. The slope was very steep, the soil hot, no wind, and the sun like a furnace. I got the view and information I desired. A very rugged landscape of mountains behind, steep, rocky, black with chaparral, 3,500 to 4,000 feet high. In front was the series of ridges I had crossed; beyond, the Salinas Valley, with blue mountains on the distant eastern horizon. Some very peculiar rocky pinnacles of brown rock rose like spires near me, several hundred feet high—naked rocks.
I started to return, and had reached the stream, when a crash in the brush near by startled me, and in a moment two fine fat deer, small but very beautiful, sprang out. I shot at one with my pistol, but only wounded him—so he got away. I have had the sight recently repaired, and I find to my disgust it is all wrong; had it been correct I certainly would have killed him, for it was a very fair shot, not over twenty-five or thirty yards. I shot twice more, but the deer were too far off, and my balls went still wider from the mark. I lunched in the cool shade of a fine oak.
The cattle here over the hills are very wild; they will run if they see a man on foot at the distance of forty or fifty rods off. Sometimes an old bull will boldly make an attack, so it is unsafe to go through a herd alone and on foot. The rancheros consider it desirable that their cattle be thus wild—they are less liable to be stolen or to be caught by wild animals. I passed near a herd. They first ran, but an old bull took for the offensive-defensive, and made for me. I did not dare trust to my pistol, so took “leg bail” and made for a tree, reached it, and then stood my ground, resolved to shoot him when he got near; but a club at last brought him to a stop, and finally he fled. On my way back I met Averill about two miles from camp, coming up the canyon to meet me with a mule.
While speaking of animals—the grizzly bear is much more dreaded than I had any idea of. A wounded grizzly is much more to be feared than even a lion; a tiger is not more ferocious. They will kill and eat sheep, oxen, and horses, are as swift as a horse, of immense strength, quick though clumsy, and very tenacious of life. A man stands a slight chance if he wounds a bear, but not mortally, and a shot must be well directed to kill. The universal advice by everybody is to let them alone if we see them, unless we are well prepared for battle and have experienced hunters along. They will generally let men alone, unless attacked, so I have no serious fears of them.
Less common than bear are the California lions, a sort of panther, about the color of a lion, and size of a small tiger, but with longer body. They are very savage, and I have heard of a number of cases of their killing men. But don’t be alarmed on my account—I don’t court adventures with any such strangers. Deer are quite common. Formerly there were many antelope, but they are very rapidly disappearing. We have seen none yet. Rabbits and hares abound; a dozen to fifty we often see in a single day, and during winter ate many of them.
There are many birds of great beauty. One finds the representatives of various lands and climes. Not only the crow, but also the raven is found, precisely like the European bird; there are turkey-buzzards, also a large vulture something like the condor—an immense bird.2 Owls are very plenty, and the cries of several kinds are often heard the same night. Hawks, of various sizes and kinds and very tame, live on the numerous squirrels and gophers. I see a great variety of birds with beautiful plumage, from humming birds up.
But it is in reptile and insect life that this country stands preëminent. There are snakes of many species and some of large size, generally harmless, but a few venomous. Several species of large lizards are very abundant. Salamanders and chameleons are dodging around every log and basking on every stone. Hundreds or thousands may be seen in a day, from three inches to a foot long. Some strange species are covered with horns like the horned frogs.
But insects are the most numerous. They swarm everywhere. House flies were as abundant in our tent in winter as at home in summer. Ticks and bugs get on us whenever we go in the woods. Just where we are now camped there are myriads of bugs in the ground, not poisonous, but annoying by their running over one. Last night I could scarcely sleep, and shook perhaps a hundred or two hundred out of my blankets this morning.
I shall sleep outdoors tonight—in fact all the rest are asleep but me, and only one is in the tent. We are under some cotton-wood trees which so swarm with ladybugs that Mike yesterday counted how many he brushed off of him in an hour. They amounted to 250—but he sat still under the tree. Scorpions occur farther south and are much dreaded. The equally dreaded tarantula abounds here. It is an enormous spider, larger than a large bumblebee, and has teeth as large as a rattlesnake’s. I killed one by our tent at Camp 27, and saved his teeth as a curiosity. Their holes in the ground are most ingenious.