May 9, 1861: Salinas Valley
We left San Antonio [this morning] and followed up the valley a few miles, then crossed a high steep ridge over one thousand feet high, which separates the San Antonio from the Salinas, and then descended and struck down the great Salinas plain. Dry as had been the region for the last sixty or seventy miles, it was nothing to this plain.
The Salinas Valley for a hundred or more miles from the sea, up to the San Antonio hills, is a great plain ten to thirty miles wide. Great stretches are almost perfectly level, or have a very slight slope from the mountains to the river which winds through it. The ground was dry and parched and the very scanty grass was entirely dry. One saw no signs of vegetation at the first glance—that is, no green thing on the plain—so a belt of timber by the stream, from twenty to a hundred rods wide, stood out as a band of the liveliest green in this waste. The mouth of this valley opens into Monterey Bay, like a funnel, and the northwest wind from the Pacific draws up through this heated flue with terrible force. Wherever we have found a valley opening to the northwest, we have found these winds, fierce in the afternoon. For over fifty miles we must face it on this plain. Sometimes it would nearly sweep us from our mules—it seemed as if nothing could stand its force. The air was filled with dry dust and sand, so that we could not see the hills at the sides, the fine sand stinging our faces like shot, the air as dry as if it had come from a furnace, but not so very hot—it is wonderfully parching. The poor feed and this parching wind reduced our mules in a few days as much as two weeks’ hard work would. Our lips cracked and bled, our eyes were bloodshot, and skins smarting.
We stopped for lunch at a point where the mules could descend to the river. A high terrace, or bluff, skirts the present river—that is, the plain lies from 75 to 150 feet above the present river. The mules picked some scanty herbage at the base of the bluff; we took our lunch in the hot sun and piercing wind, then drove on. We pulled off from the road a mile or so at night, and stopped beneath a bluff near the river. We had slept in the open air the previous night and did so again. It turns very cold during the clear nights, yet so dry was it that no dew fell those two nights, cold as it was! The mules found some picking where you would think that a sheep or a goat would starve.