July 25, 1861: Panoche Pass
[Today] we were up at three o’clock. We loaded up by the bright moon, and at four o’clock, just as the first streaks of morning light began to be seen in the east, we were on our way. The twilight in this latitude is shorter than it is farther north, and it soon became light. As we emerged from the canyon into a wider valley six miles below, the sun came upon us, now in all its force. We stopped at Griswold’s, fifteen miles, for breakfast, and to feed. Our mules had had no hay or grass, merely dry grain (barley), and but little of that, since we got into this region. Our breakfast was eaten with the thermometer at 95°, although but 8° in the morning; but our appetites were good after seventeen hours’ fast.
We were now on our way again, along the foot of the most barren chain of mountains, or rather between two such, in the Vallecito Canyon. Then we struck across the plain of Panoche. I wish I might describe that ride that you might realize it, but words are tame. The temperature was as high as any traveler has noted it (so far as I know) on the deserts of Africa or Arabia. Hour after hour we plodded along—no tree or bush. A thermometer held in the shade of our own bodies (the only shade to be found) rose to 105°—it was undoubtedly at times 110°, while in the direct rays of the sun it must have fluctuated from 140° to 150° or 160°. I think, from other observations, it must have risen to the last figure!
Imagine our feelings when we found that after our first drink a hole had been knocked in the canteen and our water was all gone. But the plain was crossed, and at its edge we stopped for a few minutes under the shade of a large oak. Here it was cooler—the mercury sank to 100°. It was the first tree we had seen for twelve miles of the road—I mean near the road—and we were still ten miles from any water. Here the road takes over the hills, dry and barren, but with scattered trees, oaks. None of the trees there (although some of the oaks are large) have foliage enough to make a complete shade—the leaves are too small, scarcely an inch long, and too few to shut out the sun. So, too, the pines, although their leaves are very long, cast only a very scanty shade. Many shrubs have the leaves with their edges turned to the sun, like the trees of the deserts of Australia—a most curious feature!As we climbed the hill, panting and thirsty, we met a wagon with some watermelons! A man visiting the mines had bought, at San Jose, 110 miles distant, some fine melons. Needless to say, we bought two, although the price was the modest sum of two dollars each. We stopped under a tree near by and ate them. They were large and fine ones, and I never knew before how deliciously refreshing a watermelon could be. He will sell the rest at two and three dollars each at the mines; a large muskmelon he valued at four dollars. These facts are significant as showing how rare such luxuries must be there to command such prices. I surely felt satisfied with my expenditure of a dollar for a third of one of them.
One of our mules, Old Sleepy, had been tied behind the wagon, his rider riding in the wagon. He had pulled back some, got a little choked, the dust and intense heat affected him like the blind staggers, and when discovered, grew suddenly very bad. Professor Whitney and I rode on ahead. It took several hours for the rest of the party to get him on to camp—the sheep wells before alluded to—the only water within many miles. Here we camped after our terribly hot day’s ride. Old Sleepy grew worse, a bottle of brandy poured down his throat partially revived him, but he was very ill.