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July 30, 1861: Bell Station (Pacheco Pass Road)

July 30, 2011
Lovers Leap

Lovers' Leap, near Bell Station; photo courtesy of Bob Burd

I resolved to visit Pacheco Peak, about twenty-eight miles northeast of San Juan, so Hoffmann and I started on our mules. Averill in the meanwhile went to Monterey for a horse he had bought.

I will describe our trip. First a ride of eighteen miles across the dead-level plain, tedious and monotonous. The Gabilan Range on the south, the Monte Diablo Range on the north, to which Pacheco, Santa Ana, and other peaks belong. To one who has never tried riding on a level plain, no description is adequate to cause a full realization of its tediousness.

The distance seems near, very near, to begin with. Pacheco Peak rises in such full view from our camp, its rocks and ravines every one so distinct that any of you would estimate its distance, without California experience, as five or six miles at most, instead of the near thirty we must ride to reach it—twenty, at least, in a straight line. The road is crooked, several miles are lost by its windings; the air is hot as we plod across it; league after league is passed without the aspect of the scene changing; the Pacheco seems no more near, nor the Gabilan no more distant, than it did an hour before. But at last a belt of scattered oaks is entered. Then we strike up a canyon, on the Pacheco Pass, through which the Overland made the crossing of this chain. Eight miles up this canyon, by a good road, brought us to Hollenbeck’s tavern1, in the heart of the chain at the foot of Pacheco Peak and at some elevation above the plain.

We had ridden the twenty-four miles from camp, but were not too tired to climb the peak, and as time was valuable and as it was still only two o’clock, our mules were put out, our dinner was got, and we started. There is a good and easy trail most of the way up, three or four miles, made by cattle and sheep. The wind had been high during the middle of the day and still shrieked through the canyons; it had annoyed us much on coming up the pass by the dust it raised.

Up, up, we toiled. The peak rises like a very sharp cone, forty to forty-six degrees’ slope on each side, about six hundred feet above the mass of mountains around—a sharp, steep, conical peak, towering far above everything near. It has generally been put down as a volcano (extinct) and the rock on top as lava, hence it was important to visit it. All wrong, however. The rock was the same as the rest of the chain, metamorphic, only a little more altered by heat. The ascent of the last cone was steep and laborious, but it was accomplished, and we stood on the highest rock of the summit—about 2,600 or 2,700 feet above the sea, and 2,500 feet above the plain on either side.

Strange, that the strong current of wind that sweeps through all the valleys scarcely reaches us here, only a gentle breeze plays over the summit. Below, to the south lies the great San Juan plain, its division into two parts, one running to Gilroy, the other to San Juan. It is four or five hundred square miles in extent, but it seems not one-fourth of that. A cloud of dust rises from it, raised by the high wind like a gauze veil two to three thousand feet high, but the Gabilan Mountains, the Salinas plain more obscure through the gaps, and the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west, are all visible.

The chain we are on is about thirteen or fifteen miles through the base, rising in an innumerable number of ridges to the height of about two thousand feet, furrowed into countless canyons, the whole elevated mass running northwest and southeast. To the east is the great Tulare, or San Joaquin, Valley, but a dense cloud of dust rises from it and forms an opaque white veil that shuts out the view of the Sierra Nevada beyond. We have a view of eighty or a hundred miles of the chain we are on, with the higher peaks to the east of us, some of which rise about three thousand feet, but are without names.

When you go off in rhapsodies over the grandeur of Mount Tom or Mount Holyoke, around which cluster so many poetical associations, think that the former is less than 900 and the latter but 1,200 feet high, with all their poetry! Here, peak after peak raises its grand head against the sky, and the addition of either of the Massachusetts heroes to the height of any one of them would scarcely be noticed; yet these peaks are not only unknown to fame, but are even without names. I was about to say, “Born to blush unseen, and waste their grandeur on the desert air.”

The mountains are covered with oats, now dry, giving them a soft straw color. We lingered on the peak until the sun was nearly set, the shadows long and dark on the plain, the canyons dark and gloomy, the sunny slopes bathed in the softest golden light. We returned to our tavern, ate supper, talked in the barroom on Secession at home, then retired—Hoffmann to fight fleas all night, I to congratulate myself that they do not bite me but only crawl over me in active troops. I wished for my blankets that I might go out and sleep.

1Now Bell Station

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2016 9:45 pm

    supper….!

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  1. June 24, 1862: Bell Station « Up and Down California

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