The Ghost of the Canyon
Wanted: One Hermit
Tradition dictates a male, preferably middle aged or elderly.
Must prefer the company of animals to that of people.
Salary: None. Benefits: None. Retirement: None.
Should be elusive and rarely seen.
Apply in person at the Kings Canyon Hermit Hole
The Hermit Hole in Kings Canyon was just a wide spot on the bank of the Kings River in the Sierra National Forest; a place where sometimes, if one were to look closely, you just might catch a glimpse of a frail, hunched figure disappearing into the bushes; a shadow of a man adept at making himself invisible; a ghost who blended with the rocks – the Ghost of the Canyon. But unlike most phantom figures in the dark, this ghost had a name – Clarence Quigley; a lonely man who preferred the company of his animals to that of people; a man with no salary, no benefits, no retirement; the perfect definition of an invisible man.
Clarence Quigley was a hermit, a man born in the closing years of the eighteen hundreds. He didn’t begin life as a solitary man but rather eased into the lifestyle; moving, along with his brother George, from his family’s home in the Sierra Nevada foothills up into the high mountains to live his life away from cities and the crowds of noisy people they harbored. Once in the mountains he found work with the Hume Bennett Lumber Company and made his new home in the area of Hume Lake where he worked as a Flume Snake for twelve years, walking the planks along the wooden flume as it crossed high above the canyons and clearing up clogs in the floating timber with a long stick wherever they occurred. On his day off he excelled in the logging camp sport of flume riding, sitting himself down on the tiny, V-shaped seat and tearing down the flume at speeds of up to fifty miles an hour, raising his hands high in the air as the wind blew through his long hair and he leaned perilously to one side as the flume boat raced around the turns. Then, as the flow of the water slowed through a level spot, he would jump off and walk into the woods to try his hand at some random prospecting.
Soon his search for gold and other precious metals grew to share equal time with his life as a flume snake, and then took over completely. One of his earliest successful mining claims came to be known as the Garnet Dike Mine, located deep in Fox Canyon near the Kings River. Quigley worked it for several years but sold the claim in 1935, losing it before it went into maximum production during World War Two, and losing it also before it grew to produce its maximum profits. But in 1935 Quigley had other issues to deal with and the profits from a tungsten mine fell far from his mind, because in 1935 Clarence Quigley’s wife passed away. Clarence was not quite a hermit yet, and he had chosen to share his life with the woman with whom he had fallen madly and deeply in love. She had accompanied Clarence into the mountains and shared the life of flume riding and prospecting with him. They had spent thirteen very happy years together when she suddenly passed away in 1935. Despondent, he sadly escorted her body back to the family’s home and stayed to see her buried in the Tollhouse cemetery. He said his goodbyes to her, silently promising that he would one day lie by her side; that one day they would be together again. Then, sunk in depression, he went back to his home amongst the mountains of Kings Canyon. But he was broken hearted, and that pain and lonliness moved him a large step closer to becoming a hermit.
With his brother George, Clarence went on to file several more mining claims in the forest which surrounded Kings Canyon. He also tried his hand at hunting and trapping – other mountain professions which might earn him a stake, but professions which would only require infrequent contact with others. He grew fearful that strangers might hear the sounds of his shots and learn where he lived and mined, so he took to hunting by knife and club because of the silence they promised. In his later years he reckoned that he had killed some sixty-five or seventy bears, many of the deaths counted in hand-to-claw fights with the large beasts. Sometimes he used a mining tool, such as a pick; once there was only a hammer at hand; often just a large stick. For several years Clarence and George made a good living from their claims, packing mostly gold nuggets out of the mountains to trade for food and tools. But then in 1942 George died as one of their mines caved in on him, burying him alive beneath a pile of rock and smothering him before Clarence could dig him out. After long days of digging Clarence finally managed to retrieve George’s body and inter him in a more fitting grave. But his last contact with society and civilization had now passed out of his already lonely life, and Clarence took his final quiet step toward becoming a true hermit.
It wasn’t that Clarence didn’t like people – he just didn’t seek them out. When he did accidently meet someone in the mountains he was friendly and affable, but if he saw them coming he was quick to disappear into the brush. This uncanny talent soon earned him the nickname of the Ghost of the Kings, and he became well known for his talents of fading away almost as soon as he was glimpsed. Yet if one was lucky enough to surprise him with a greeting, Clarence would engage in an easy conversation with him until he could comfortably take his leave.
Realizing the inevitability that someone would occasionally stumble onto his cabin or find one of his claims, Clarence took to posting signs to warn them away, and those signs often rambled on long after the warning had been declared. One such sign near his shack stated: “there is nothing in the house of any particular value, and I am writing this for the purpose of saving those who have a desire to pillage the trouble of breaking in.” Another warning sign began: “This sign is not placed here for honest people, but for crooks, meddlers, and pillagers.” It then went on to discuss people who just can’t leave things alone, how he had set traps for bears on the property, and concludes with “my advice is for everyone to stay on the outside for it is much safer than on the inside.”
Clarence held no anger or fear toward outsiders, but with the only two people in his life whom he had loved now gone forever, Clarence just preferred to be alone, and now no longer liked the idea of visitors even when he wasn’t home.
Years passed and Clarence came out of the mountains rarely, perhaps twice a year at the most. He would file proof every year that his claims were being worked in order to keep his title to them – but his fellow mountain men knew very well that Quigley had found many other sources of gold that weren’t filed on official claims. Then he would disappear back into the mountains with a half year supply of food packed on his burros, not to be glimpsed again – if he could help it – until at least another six months had passed. If winter had set in and he needed supplies, but there was no food for his burros to graze on during the trip, then Clarence would hike out alone for twenty miles or so to the nearest neighbor and carry back sixty or seventy pounds of food on his back, if he could barter for it. If winter was heavy and cold and the burros could dig out no traces of grass whatsoever, then he would hike out and pack back in with bales of hay strapped to his back. Clarence’s burros were his friends, and he was loyal to those friends.
An excellent hunter and trapper, Clarence was able to provide most of the food he needed on his own. But, in addition to hay for his burros, Clarence also sought some variety in his diet in addition to the meat he could easily harvest from the forest. So, what does a hermit like to eat? Besides the usual beans, bacon, and flour, Clarence also had a taste for peanut butter and chocolate. He saved the bacon grease from the pan and used it to add flavor to the quail and raccoon which fell to his traps. Raisins and dried milk also went back into the mountains with him, primarily because he’d found they made an excellent addition to his favorite breakfast dish – a large bowl of corn flakes. Two burros could pack in enough of these staples to keep him going for at least six months.
With his contacts to the outside world growing less frequent, Clarence moved farther back into the mountains as the years passed. He still had a shack close to the Garnet Dike Mine but was rarely seen there. Instead he ranged farther into the high country, sometimes to the lesser known claims to which he still held title, but often staying in one of the many randomly hidden shelters he’d constructed out of rock and timber. Other miners in the mountains thought these hideouts might number in the dozens, but no one knew for certain how many there might be as only a few of them had ever been discovered. If Clarence found himself on the trail when darkness fell and none of these shelters were near, then he had no difficulty in easily constructing something to fit his needs for the night. He once described how he did this – he would find two fallen trees near each other, peel long strips of bark off one of the trees and then arrange them in a semicircle around the base of the other tree. He would then light a fire inside this semicircle and the heat would radiate back onto him, keeping him warm while the smoke leaked out through the cracks. Another long strip of bark would serve as a mattress and he would sleep in comfort, waking every few hours to feed the fire. The one blanket he usually carried on his back did little to help keep him warm as it had at least one large hole in it for each of his years alone in the mountains, but it might have been carried more for psychological rather than physical comfort; it was perhaps one of the last links with civilization to which he still clung. Quigley was a man at home in the mountains, more comfortable with trees and animals than with people – as any self-respecting hermit should be.
Clarence Quigley continued to live an increasingly reclusive life as the years went on, eating his corn flakes and chocolate and talking to his burros until he passed on in 1975, eighty three years old. His body was found by a hiker, lying next to the Kings River in the canyon he called home. He had lived a life of contentment, a claim few can make, and ended that life by the river in the mountains he loved. His body was carried out by a burro, and he was buried next to his wife in the Tollhouse cemetery, keeping the promise he had made to her some forty years before. His secrets died with him; the secrets of those hidden sources of gold and the many lean-to shacks which might still hold a sack or two of nuggets or dust.
Now the Ghost in the Canyon is gone forever, and the high country of the Kings River has no hermit walking its hidden trails. So there’s a job opening here; a career opportunity for anyone who thinks he or she might be able to live such a life; to maybe even prefer it. It doesn’t pay much – perhaps just that elusive contentment in a world which offers us so very little of that commodity; a treasure far more scarce than gold.
Wanted: One Hermit
Qualifications: Male or female; happy with oneself.
Must prefer the company of animals to that of people.
Salary: None. Benefits: None. Retirement: None.
Should be elusive and rarely seen.
Apply in person at the Kings Canyon Hermit Hole.
The Kings is waiting. Care to submit your application?
Two men are standing in the dirt street before the open doors of a saloon in the eastern Sierra Nevada mining town of Bodie. It’s a cold January day in the year of 1878. They have come outside to settle a dispute which began inside the bar over drinks. How many drinks? Well, they can’t really remember. What was the argument about? By now they probably can’t remember that, either. But as the glasses had emptied and their voices had grown louder, anger had then erupted between them, and what had been a simple disagreement had slid into insults and one had challenged the other to a duel. It had become an Affair of Honor, and since neither would back down then one would have to die. In consideration for the safety of their fellow drinkers they had decided to take this part of the dispute out into the street, lest any stray bullet harm an innocent onlooker. Now they stood a mere two feet apart, feet planted wide as they swayed slightly, each with a hand poised over the handle of a revolver wedged into the front of pants held in place with a belt made of old rope; each waiting to pull his weapon and open fire, settling the matter once and for all. With any luck they would not pull the trigger until the barrel had cleared the rope belt and was levelled at their opponent, instead of where it now pointed down inside their pants at their own genitals, a result which would be a painful – and very embarrassing – end to the fight. They stared at each other as the seconds passed, then the fingers of one man twitched slightly. That was the signal for the other’s hand to drop to his weapon, and in an instant both guns had been drawn and leveled and bullets were flying as each of the men emptied his revolver. Since the two combatants stood only inches apart none of the shots missed, and none of the dozens of observers who had followed the two men out into the street were in any danger of being hit. In ten seconds the fight had ended, and both were spouting blood from numerous wounds in the chest, belly, arms, and hands. One of the two, satisfied that his honor had been successfully defended, staggered back into the saloon and ordered another drink to stem the pain as he leaned against the bar and bled on the floor. The other man, not at all satisfied that his honor had been restored, thought things over for a minute as he dropped rivulets of blood into the dusty street. Then, with one arm paralyzed from a bullet and the other hand having only two fingers that still worked, he lowered his revolver and clamped it in place between his knees. With the two working fingers that remained he slowly pulled the empty shells from the cylinder and replaced them with fresh live rounds. Then he turned and, hobbling painfully, made his way back into the saloon, leveled his revolver with a shaky hand, and proceeded to empty it once again into the back of the man who had disagreed with him. As the unwary man slid to the floor and lay still, the still-standing man nodded in satisfaction. Then he, too, dropped to the floor and bled to death.
But this had been an Affair of Honor, and he died knowing his honor had been defended.
Barbaric, you are thinking? Perhaps. Or, perhaps not. This was an integral and unquestioned part of California life a century and a half ago. A man’s honor was very important. It was a time when men, either alone or in groups, did not always rely on an officer of the law for help; a time when they only rarely turned to a lawyer to iron out a dispute. Such things took time and, when acting alone, matters could often be settled much more expeditiously.
Such an event took place one evening in the mining town of Sutter Creek where two men died within a short space of time without the law being asked to step in. A poker game was taking place in a saloon and an argument erupted between a local miner and a man who was looked upon with suspicion as a professional gambler. The argument led to blows being exchanged. The gambler, who was getting the worst of the fist fight, drew a long-bladed knife and stabbed the miner, who fell to the floor screaming. As his friends laid him out and bandaged his deep wound, a dozen others quickly formed a miner’s court and tried the gambler for assault. Within minutes he was found guilty and sentenced to a whipping. He was stripped to the waist and taken outside where he was tied to a pole and given seventy-five lashes with a bullwhip. The gambler lived through his punishment, but had to crawl away and try to tend to his own wounds. Yet he couldn't crawl far enough. The next day the miner died of his knife wound. So the miner’s court reconvened and tried the gambler for murder, finding him guilty. He was hung from a tree an hour later, after the court had indulged in a brief recess for drinks.
In 1857 the town of Hornitos saw a similar episode take place, only this time both men drew knives. Again it began with a poker game, and an accusation of cheating quickly saw both men pull their weapons. But before they could draw blood the dealer drew his own pistol and asked them to take their dispute outside so the game would not be interrupted. They looked at his weapon cautiously and nodded, and while the dealer and the other players returned to the game the two men went outside. Several minutes later one of them walked slowly back, bleeding profusely. He went to the bar, ordered a large brandy, and then raised it to his lips with one hand while he held his intestines in place with the other. He then resumed his seat at the card game and asked to be dealt in. That hand was his last; it was still being played when he slid from his chair to the floor.
In 1873 the silver mining town of Panamint was a booming metropolis on the eastern side of the Sierra, and it was often said that the Boot Hill just outside of town was the personal cemetery of a gunfighter by the name of Jim Bruce because it held so many of his victims. One time a prospector picked a fight with Bruce out on the street in front of the Bank of Panamint and drew his weapon. Although late to the draw Bruce’s hand was much faster and he walked away calmly, leaving it to others to dispose of the miner’s body. On another occasion Bruce was being entertained in a local brothel – not just by any of the girls, but by the Madame herself, a very desirable woman who limited her clientele to a select few men who were invited to her private chamber. As Bruce and his paramour were locked in a passionate embrace the door to the room flew open and a man walked in, demanding female companionship. Although caught unaware, Bruce reached out over the bedside to draw his weapon, then twisted to turn and fire. As the impatient client fell dead Bruce resumed his lovemaking, having successfully defended his bare-ass naked honor without missing a beat.
It wasn’t always just individual men who felt comfortable in being self-reliant in the face of adversity. Sometimes whole communities became involved.
In nearby Fiddletown, three suspicious characters were rounded up by the citizens following the robbery of a Wells Fargo office. Although no one had actually seen the men commit the crime, they were all pretty certain of their guilt because they were strangers. Still, they didn’t want to act too precipitously, and thought it would be best if the men confessed before they were hung. Yet the strangers refused to cooperate and instead professed their innocence. Hearing that a sheriff had learned of the robbery and was on his way, the citizens thought it would be good if they could wrap things up before he got there. So they placed nooses around the necks of the three men and hauled them up into the air until their feet dangled and kicked, then lowered them, loosened the nooses, and asked if they wanted to confess. They didn’t, so this procedure was repeated. Again, no confession. And again. And again. When the sheriff arrived all three were surprisingly still alive. He took them into custody and with a collective shrug the crowd dispersed, having done their best to further the cause of quick justice.
A man from Austria by the name of Pete Nicholas found himself in a somewhat similar situation in the town of Columbia when he got into a fight with a fellow miner named John Parote. As they rolled around in the street trading punches, Nicholas drew his knife and stabbed his opponent. Pete was arrested by the sheriff and thrown in jail. Then his story began to get a little more complicated, with perhaps just a bit of slapstick. The following morning a group of Parote’s friends broke into the jail and dragged Nicholas down the street to where they had a noose already hanging over a sturdy tree limb. As they were hanging him the sheriff and a deputy climbed up the tree from the other side to cut the rope. But the branch broke under the weight and all three of the men fell to the ground.
The mob pushed forward and shoved the sheriff aside, determined to hang Nicholas again. One of Nicholas’s friends made his way to the front, pleading with the mob to act in a civilized fashion, stalling them until reinforcements could arrive. His strategy worked, and Nicholas was quickly transferred to the Sonora jail. In Sonora he was tried for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to hang. But even though his trial was over, his attorney still had one more card to play.
As was pointed out earlier, men in California rarely sought the help of an attorney, usually wishing to resolve their own problems. However, Nicholas had made a wise decision not only in hiring a lawyer, but also in choosing a crafty one. While the local drama of Pete Nicholas was dragging on, the entire state of California was engrossed in the larger drama of what city was to be chosen for the state capital. San Jose and Sacramento seemed to be the most popular candidates but other cities were still in the running and the state legislature was being flooded with petitions for their consideration – petitions which often had thousands of signatures attached. One small mining town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by the name of Pine Log felt that the mountain folk who made up the backbone of California were being largely ignored, so they had started passing around a petition to make Pine Log the new capital city of California. Miners from neighboring communities also eagerly signed it, and soon the petition had over ten thousand signatures attached. While Pete Nicholas was awaiting his date with the hangman, one day his lawyer saw this petition sitting on a store counter in Columbia awaiting more signatures. In a stroke of inspiration he quietly pocketed the petition and its pages of attached signatures. Back in his office he removed the original petition and threw it away, then attached in its place a plea for leniency for Pete Nicholas. Then he forwarded that, along with its newly attached ten thousand signatures, to California Governor John Bigler. Having no clue as to who Nicholas was – nor did he even care - Governor Bigler immediately saw a way to possibly garner ten thousand votes in the next election and promptly reduced the sentence of Nicholas from hanging to ten years in prison. Then, upon further consideration, reduced it again to a mere four years. Instead of storming the jail the men of Columbia took it with good grace, seeing the humor in the situation and praising the lawyer for his creativity. In this case it was the lawyer who successfully defended his own honor even more than that of his client. And he did it with humor.
Humor was always one of the mainstays of mountain life. Whether you were a miner, logger, hunter, or trapper you would not have been able to survive life in the high country without being able to hand it out to others, and to laugh when you became the victim of it.
One day in Nevada City two men fell into an argument over drinks, and it quickly escalated to the deadly level of other such confrontations. But in this case friends of each of the men tried to intervene, urging them to separate and let things just cool off before it turned deadly. But the men seemed incapable of doing this. So their friends tried one more tactic and took away the revolvers both men were carrying, telling them to let things cool down for just one more hour. If, at the end of that hour, the two couldn’t see eye-to-eye and shake hands, then they would give the men back their weapons and let nature take its course. The two antagonists agreed, and sat down to wait. At the end of that hour neither had changed his mind, so their guns were returned to them. Finally the moment of satisfaction had arrived. The two stepped apart, faced each other, drew their weapons, and fired. Both men then grabbed their chests as thick red fluid ran down from between their fingers. Both thought they had been mortally wounded. Both expected to die within moments.
But neither of them did die. Because while their friends had held their weapons, they had decided to play a little joke on them. First they pried the lead from the casings and pocketed the bullets, replacing the shells into their chambers. Only now the shells held just gun powder. Then one man went across the street to a restaurant and borrowed a jar of strawberry jelly. They then filled half of each gun barrel with jelly and packed it in. And when the two men who could not be reconciled drew and fired, each splattering jelly on the chest of the other, the bar broke out into a roar of howling laughter with men rolling on the floor. The two antagonists had to laugh at themselves, and they finally shook hands.
It was an affair of honor, and honor had been satisfied.
Rite of Passage
Eating this coyote meat, Moses thought to himself, has to be worse than chewing on a lumberjack’s boot.
But Moses kept on chewing, because the tough, stringy meat dangling from the blade of his knife was the only thing hanging between him and death, and the foul taste which was filling his mouth was the only thing reminding him that he was still trying to breathe, sucking air through his mouth and around the foul meat because his nostrils were frozen shut; but still clinging to life as the snow piled up around him on this freezing November evening high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. So he chewed, and swallowed, then filled his mouth again and chewed some more as he watched the daylight fade and the cascade of a million snowflakes blurred into just one continuous white wall, limiting his world view to just the few feet surrounding him and his fire, until that too faded and he was left with only the small dancing flames.
This isn’t how I thought it would happen, he mused. This isn’t how I thought I would die.
Not many seventeen year old boys spend time pondering how they will die. But then, not many seventeen year old boys find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly left to face a Sierra winter, and to face it all alone, not knowing if it will last three months or eight; not knowing if the first man to pass this way in the Spring will find him, or instead by chance just come across the remains of his body.
In the year 1844 Moses Schallenberger was just a boy who was emigrating to California, making his way west with his family and neighbors in a train of wagons in what would later come to be remembered as the Stephens, Murphy & Townsend Party. They are remembered in the history books primarily because they were the first party of immigrants to arrive successfully in California with covered wagons. Yet what history tends to forget is that they were also famous for abandoning a seventeen year old boy in the wilderness, leaving him to find a way to survive alone as winter descended into the mountains – or, more likely, instead leaving him to starve and freeze.
The Stephens, Murphy & Townsend Party arrived at the eastern base of the Sierra late in the Autumn of 1844; later than they had planned because of a dozen delays along the way; none of which were serious but all of which resulted in them staring up at the Sierra from the East as October drew to a close instead of from the West. Scouts were sent out to try to discover an easy and quick way to cross the mountains, but no such path was to be found. Yet time was pressing, so they decided to begin the crossing on what appeared to be the least arduous route. They had barely begun when the trail led them to a Native American who was catching fish in a rocky stream that tumbled out of the narrow gorge. So they paused and talked to him – or tried to talk, but their communication ended up being mostly hand gestures, pointing, and a few words they optimistically hoped were mutually understood.
The native, whose name they understood to be Truckee, was very emphatic that they would not be able to cross the Sierra on the route they had chosen. He instead directed them farther North where they would find a passage by which they could ascend the mountains. He bid them to hurry, indicating that winter’s arrival was very close.
So the Stephen’s Party turned around and went looking for the path indicated by the helpful native. When they found the entrance next to a raging stream they wasted no time and immediately started up, naming it the Truckee Trail after the man who had guided them to the path. But the Truckee Trail soon turned into a series of zigzagging rocky declivities filled with one obstruction after another. Soon they were forced into the river itself as that offered the only way wide enough for the wagons to pass. Then they reached rock outcroppings ten feet high and more and had to lead the oxen around one at a time, then haul the wagons up by ropes. It was exhausting work, and November was entering its latter days when they reached a lake where they made camp, and they christened it Truckee Lake in memory of the helpful native whose advice had gotten them this far. There was little grass to be found for the livestock this late in the year, but the lean, boney creatures dug along the shore for what green shoots they could find. Game, at least, was still plentiful, and the men managed to shoot a few deer for food as well as a nice fat bear. With full stomachs they went to sleep hopeful that the coming days might see them safely across and down the other side.
But that night snow fell, and the camp awoke to more than a foot of the white stuff covering the ground. The temperature had dropped to well below freezing and the Truckee Trail lay buried and hidden. They knew that the wagons were not going any farther, so each of them bundled up food and some possessions and set out on foot, hoping to finish the crossing while they could still walk through the snow. Seventeen year old Moses, along with two other men, was chosen to stay behind for the winter and guard the wagons.
As the snow continued to fall, Moses and his two companions chopped down trees and hastily built a log cabin, a small enclosure measuring about twelve feet by fourteen feet in size. They had nothing with which to fill the cracks between the logs or the spaces between the roof poles, so they piled brush on top and along the sides. They also built a stone hearth with a chimney made of thick limbs going up one side. The cabin had no windows; just one low doorway for entrance and egress. But there was no door to close - just an old blanket hung across the opening to keep out the elements. They cut as much firewood as they could as the storm continued. The party had left them two oxen, which they slaughtered and butchered and hung outside to freeze. Then they settled down to wait out the winter.
The snow continued to fall without letup. Within a few days there was over ten feet of snow on the ground, and there was no end in sight. The three had quickly come to the realization that they were not going to survive the winter if they just continued to sit and do nothing. The wild game, which had been so plentiful upon their arrival at the lake barely a week ago, had now completely disappeared, and the two stringy oxen were not going to feed them for long. They decided they had to get out, and get out fast.
The next morning they cut branches to fashion some makeshift snowshoes, then headed out in a westerly direction. The snow was soft and they sank several inches with each step, then had to lift their feet back up out of the snow along with several pounds of snow that would fall in on top of the snowshoes with each step. Progress was slow and painful. Not knowing how many miles they had gone that first day the men made camp, cutting branches for a fire then huddling around it in their blankets. When they awoke the next morning they saw that their still smoldering campfire had melted down through the snow and now lay on bare dirt at the bottom of a fifteen foot deep circular hole in the snow. Without cooking a breakfast, they moved on. It was still snowing.
They had just started out when Moses began to get cramps in his legs. He could soon barely take twenty steps without excruciating pain lancing through his muscles, and had to stop to rest every few minutes. After only a couple of hours of this he knew he couldn’t go on. The three men sat down in the snow to talk, and Moses volunteered to stay behind. He said that he could probably find his way back to the cabin by Truckee Lake, and he would spend the winter there while his two companions went on. The others agreed. It was a brief but emotional farewell; all of them thinking that they would never again see each other. Then they turned and went their separate ways while the snow continued to fall.
Moses was successful in finding his way back to the lake by the end of that day - which was no small feat for a boy now alone, trying to follow a trail buried in snow, and with only a few feet of visibility before him. He dug his way into the cabin, lit a fire, then he collapsed from exhaustion. When morning came he rekindled the fire and then settled down to munch on a frozen strip of ox meat as he pondered his options.
Moses knew he couldn’t survive a winter of seemingly endless snow on just the little bit of meat left to him. But he also remembered that he had several wagons parked close by. True, there was no food in any of them and they now lay buried in almost twenty feet of snow, but he realized there might be items hidden in them other than food which could prove useful. So he started digging and, when he found the wagons, he began to search through them. He brought up more blankets and thick clothing to cover the walls as well as the open doorway to keep more heat in. He brought up armloads of books to read, because he knew that most of his time was going to be spent sitting quietly with little physical activity throughout the endless snowfall of winter. And, in one wagon, he found what he thought just might get him through the winter – a set of traps that one of the party had left behind. The next morning Moses baited the traps with pieces of ox meat from the precious little that was left, then set the traps out in a circle around his camp, and he smiled to himself as he walked across part of the now frozen Truckee Lake.
Moses is walking on water.
And he laughed, startled as his own voice echoed back to him across the frozen stillness. Then he went back to the cabin to wait. The next morning he got up and at first light went out to walk his trap line. To his surprise and delight one of the traps held a coyote. He killed it, reset the trap, then went back home to feast. After he had roasted it over the fire to a nice medium rare, he blew on it and then took a bite. It was horrible – the worst thing he had ever tasted. And he knew that it must really be bad because, in his starving state, anything should taste good. Yet no seasonings of any kind – not even salt – had been found in any of the wagons. Later that day he tried frying a coyote steak, but it tasted just as bad. The next day he tried boiling it, but that didn’t help. The day after he slow-cooked what was left in a Dutch oven, but even that didn’t improve the flavor of the meat as its taste seemed to grow even more vile with each attempt at cooking it. Each morning he went out to check the trap line, hoping for some variety. But, for the next three days, the traps remained empty.
I was wrong, he mused as he chewed. I think coyote must taste more like cow dung than a lumberjack’s boot.
Then, one morning, two of the traps held foxes. Moses was ecstatic, knowing in his heart that anything was going to taste better than that damned coyote meat. Moses hung one of the foxes along the back of the cabin to freeze and butchered the other, then cut a leg from the carcass and roasted it over his fire. The aroma of the roasting meat drove his stomach into a frenzy of noisy anticipation, and he could hardly wait until the meat was warmed through. Then he took his first bite, and smiled. It was delicious.
As the days passed the trap line continued to yield a steady supply of food. Coyotes and foxes, it seemed, were the only two local animals which didn’t migrate or hibernate in this part of the high Sierra at Truckee Lake, and Moses found himself living on a diet of fox, which continued to taste delicious no matter how much he ate. Fortunately, those tasty foxes comprised most of what he caught in his traps. When he did trap a coyote he would keep it in the event of wild game again becoming suddenly scarce, hanging it and letting it freeze along the back wall of the cabin; a supply of emergency meat if winter eventually drove all the game away and into hiding.
As December passed, Moses kept count of the days and celebrated Christmas all by himself. In one of the wagons he had found a small folded paper with a few spoons of coffee grounds inside, and he had saved that as a Christmas present for himself. On Christmas Day the aroma of coffee boiling in a pot joined that of roasted fox, and the cabin was host to a happy and warm Christmas.
As December passed into January, Moses continued in his solitary existence. It was easy for him to believe that he was the only person in the world; a world which he shared only with foxes and coyotes, spied on by the occasional crow flying overhead. Firewood was plentiful, as all Moses had to do was snap off tree limbs to keep his fire fed. His cabin now lay totally buried in snow – except for the tunnel he had dug – and the insulation the snow offered helped to keep him and his shelves of books warm.
January turned into February, and still the snow continued to fall. But wherever the foxes had hidden their dens they still managed to come out and up to the surface, enticed by the small pieces of meat in Moses’ traps. After walking his trap line every morning and starting a pot of meat cooking, most of Moses’ day was then spent reading. There were dozens of books in the wagons, enough to keep him entertained and educated for months.
It was at the end of February that Moses suddenly felt he was hallucinating; that the winter had finally gotten to him and driven him mad. He was out walking his trap line when he glanced up and swore that he could see the figure of a man walking out of the trees along the shore of the lake. Moses blinked, then rubbed his eyes and blinked some more. But the man was still there; still walking toward him. And when the man shouted and waved, Moses knew that he wasn’t alone in the world any more. It was the twenty-eighth of February, 1845, and Moses’ winter of isolation had ended.
For many months Moses’ sister had been begging members of the Stephen’s Party to return to Truckee Lake to rescue her brother, and for months her entreaties had been refused. No one wanted to return to face the mountain winter on foot, and all had felt that Moses had probably passed on to the next world very quickly after he’d last been seen to walk off into the snowy wilderness. But finally Moses’ sister had been able to cajole, or to shame, one man into going back to save Moses if he could, or to discover Moses’ fate if he couldn’t. When that man finally got to the lake, he was surprised to find Moses very much alive and not at all in need of saving. So after catching up on news over a meal of roasted fox he helped Moses construct some new snowshoes and together they walked out of the mountains. Moses left behind a string of eleven uneaten coyotes hanging outside on the wall of his cabin, forever grateful that he wouldn’t be forced to taste that meat ever again.
A few years later another party of immigrants got stuck at that same lake when winter fell, and they didn’t do nearly as well as that seventeen year old boy. Instead of taking the initiative to save themselves they instead sat down and waited to be saved. They starved, and they ate each other, and the lake got renamed in their memory, forever becoming Donner Lake - now a lasting memory of an epic failure instead of a tribute to a helpful native called Truckee. But in that winter of 1844 – 45 a young boy not only survived there alone by his own wits but he thrived, ending his winter in the mountains with more food than he started it with. He began that winter as a seventeen year old boy, and ended it as an eighteen year old man.
It was a Rite of Passage; a test which few men of any age or experience could pass. Moses did so with determination and intelligence, a passage through the mountains and into manhood.
Pause, if you will, and take a few moments out of your busy schedule to accept an introduction to a colorful individual named Smokey Jack. He’s not the main topic of this story, but meeting him will serve as an interesting path to the real subject of this tale, and that in turn will eventually lead us to the final destination of discovering how a 7,818 foot mountain peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains got its name. Smokey Jack was not the man’s real name, of course, but an acronym settled upon his colorful personage by those who repeatedly chanced upon him over the years as he tended his flock of sheep in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This was just one of many acronyms which were tossed about, which included not only Smokey Jack because of his countless hours spent alongside a campfire, but also Baked Bean Johnnie because of his limited diet, and the inevitable Sheepshit Jack because of his years spent trailing along behind his herd of sheep and plodding through the byproducts of his profession. Unusually – at least in the case of mountain men – the gentler nickname of Smokey Jack was kindly settled upon as the more commonly used phrase to reference him.
Smokey Jack was a loner, yet cheerful in the company of his sheep. As he roamed through the mountains, camping for a week or two at one meadow before guiding his animals on to the next, he survived almost entirely on a diet of beans, slowly baked in his cast iron Dutch oven over a campfire and seasoned with mountain herbs he would pick along his walks. Rarely would there be any meat to add to the pot – Smokey Jack was a shepherd, not a hunter. Jack would begin each day with a bowl of beans, and after he had eaten his fill he would then proceed to stuff the pockets of his greatcoat with them, taking large handfuls from the pot and simply dumping them into the various pockets until they were full to overflowing, which he would them dip into and eat along the way, all day long. As evening fell he would again sit by the campfire and eat more beans, and the next day begin the same routine all over again; the Happy Shepherd with the pockets full of beans. As the days, months, and years passed without Smokey Jack ever changing his clothing, his pants and shirt as well as the greatcoat inevitably became soaked through with bean juice. The thick liquid also dripped down onto his socks and into his boots, which also became saturated with the stuff. But becoming saturated with beans did not, as one might imagine, destroy Jack’s clothing. Instead as it seeped into the cloth it made the fabric thicker and stiffer as it hardened. It also became more compact as Jack sat and laid on it, building upon the cloth and eventually burying the fabric within a sort of bean sandwich. As Jack walked through the hills and the valleys, pieces of the mountains and the meadows began to stick to him. When parts of his wardrobe upon which the beans had not quite completely dried brushed against a tree or shrub, then a leaf or twig would attach itself and become a part of Jack’s outfit. When Jack laid or sat down, then an insect body or dead animal part might become likewise affixed to his wardrobe, as would small stones. Butterflies and bees which flew into him were destined to remain forever. Eventually almost all of Smokey Jack’s original clothing and footwear lay hidden within layers of an impressive collection of botanical and biological specimens, all held in place by an ever-thickening layer of increasingly aged baked beans. With a large fur hat on his head, an impressive crop of facial hair, and a long wooden staff held in the hand that wasn’t being used to feed gobs of beans into his mouth, Jack might rightfully be construed to be someone in whom more than a passing interest would be taken.
Yet Smokey Jack continued to walk through life in the company of his sheep, blissfully unaware of any discomfort to himself or any perception of being slightly strange in the eyes of others. And yet, when Smokey Jack did happen to venture near towns or mining camps – such as on his annual pilgrimages to and from the mountain meadows in the spring and summer, or when he was taking shelter from the winter snow in one of the relatively civilized wooden structures of a mining town – then he was indeed looked upon with wonder. And sometimes with horror. For the mining camps and mountain towns of the Sierra Nevada were filled with immigrants from all over the world, and those new arrivals had brought along with them many of their traditions and much of their folklore. One of those traditions from the Germanic areas of Europe was that of the Habergeiss, which told of a giant goat-demon with snapping jaws and who was clothed in animal hides; a demon who could steal one’s soul as it menacingly approached and gazed into your eyes, jaws moving and teeth grinding; a salivating soul-devourer risen from out of the shadows. So when Smokey Jack walked out of a snow storm on a windy moonless night and pounded on the door of some unfortunate miner who had recently arrived from Germany, then that unlucky fellow might well be excused for having a wardrobe accident of his own as his bladder let loose and he screamed in fright at the sight of this Habergeiss, this demon who had followed him halfway around the world and was here to lay claim to his soul.
But, as I mentioned earlier, Smokey Jack is not the real topic of this story. He’s more of an introduction, useful in illustrating the fact that many of the immigrants to California in the mid-1800’s; many of the miners, loggers, and trappers who made up most of the population of these mountains, may have been Californians in the physical sense but were still rooted in Old Country ways as far as their culture, traditions, and patterns of thinking were concerned. And it was those deeply ingrained ways of thinking that helped to shape their reality.
Jacob Bockweiss was a German immigrant who lived near the town of Coloma in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although he had started life in California by panning for gold, he soon tired of the backbreaking work and decided to trade in his pan and long-tom for a good rifle and a set of traps. He was an excellent shot, and providing food for the camps proved to be easier work than competing for the elusive yellow flakes with thousands of other men. He could sell the meat in town, send some of the pelts to sell in San Francisco, and still have enough leisure time to barter for a native wife and start a family – which he did. Jacob’s wife was named Sally – at least, that’s what he called her. Her real name and tribal affiliation are unfortunately forever lost. Jacob was one of many men in California who boasted German ancestry, and he was one of many first-generation immigrants who still held German culture and tradition fresh in their minds and hearts. It was one such aspect of this Germanic folklore – the Anklopfnachte - which inadvertently led to the naming of a mountain, but naming it not quite in the way which one might expect.
The German tradition of Anklopfnachte, or Knocking Nights, has in modern times lost its historic affiliation of mingling with The Dead and has instead evolved into a passive musical visitation akin to Christmas caroling. But in the mid-1800’s the tradition of Knocking Nights was still frightening in its Other-Worldly elements which it held over from centuries past. The Knocking Nights tradition dictated that the door to another world could open and allow a group of masked, caped demons through who would quietly approach a house or a farm, creeping silently toward the place where animals were kept, then knock loudly on a barn door or corral fence. The sudden noise in the middle of the night would startle the animals and they would vocalize their fear. And, if one listened closely, within these frightening squeals could be heard the names of people in the house or in the village; not just any people, but the names of those who were fated to die within the coming year, their fates foretold by the masked demons and given voice through the animals.
And so, late on the night of the Fifth Day of the Twelve Days of Christmas, there came a group of darkly cloaked and masked men to the cabin of Jacob and Sally Bockweiss; a group of his friends; a group of fellow German immigrants out in the night to play a joke on their German compatriot. They knocked and ran, waking the animals into an uneasy clamor as the masked men made their way off down the road laughing, still visible in the night as Jacob and Sally went out to see what was causing the disturbance. Upon seeing the backs of the retreating men and remembering what night it was, Jacob chuckled and went to settle the animals. But Sally was unfamiliar with the tradition, so after quieting the stock Jacob sat down by the fire to laughingly explain it to her. But Jacob was shocked when, instead of seeing his wife laugh at the prank as he expected, a look of horror fell across Sally’s face. When Jacob asked what was wrong, Sally began to shake and whispered that upon entering the yard she had heard the pigs squealing her name.
Jacob laughed and tried to ease her fears, saying that those weren’t real demons but just their neighbors out to play a joke; that animals could not foretell death; that Sally’s name had not been spoken by the pigs. But Sally would not be persuaded. She insisted that she had heard her name called; that her death had been foretold. And she asked Jacob to take her away from there; anywhere would be better as long as it was far away from the demons who had come calling; away from the pigs which had spoken her name. Jacob, of course, refused. He told her not to be silly. He said this was their home, this was where they made their living. Sally said they could make a living hunting and trapping anywhere; that they could live happily anywhere. Jacob refused. Sally begged him, pleading that she wanted their baby to be born away from this place; that she was afraid the baby wouldn’t be born at all if they stayed because she would die first. Jacob refused.
The holiday season passed and winter settled hard into the mountains. Most of the game had either migrated to lower elevations or was in hibernation, so Jacob was spending most of his time in the cabin with Sally, who never gave up in her pleading with Jacob to take her away. By the time Spring arrived Sally’s baby bump was large, and her pleas to leave became desperate. She could no longer sleep, as each night she awoke hearing the pigs squeal her name. “Sally. Sally.” And each night her sharp intake of breath as she sat bolt upright would also wake Jacob.
Finally, Jacob agreed to leave the town behind, and asked Sally where she wished to go. She immediately replied that farther up into the mountains would be best; away from people and domestic animals. So in May Jacob acquiesced and they departed, heading first in a southerly direction until the remaining snow no longer lay in their path, then higher up into the mountains. By June they were in what is now the Sierra National Forest, and the highest mountain they could see is now called Shuteye Peak. In the shadow of a smaller peak standing directly over them they set up a permanent camp, as Sally’s pains were growing sharp and frequent, and they knew the birth was quickly approaching. On the second day after making camp Sally went into labor. Jacob did his best to help her, laying her on a soft bed of animal skins and bathing her face in cold water. He later told friends that the only time he broke out in an uneasy sweat was when Sally would utter a sharp scream that would then echo off the rocks and through the ravines, as if other women were lurking out there repeating her call. At such times his own perspiration would become a cold blanket and send chills down his spine. On the third day in camp Sally finally gave birth. She had been in labor for more than twenty-four hours and was exhausted from the delivery as well as from the loss of blood; blood which continued to drain out of her after the birth was over. Jacob gave the baby a quick rub with a towel, then wrapped it in fur and laid the little girl in her mother’s arms. Sally moved the baby to her breast, and smiled happily up at Jacob as her tiny daughter attached her mouth and tried to suck.
Then Sally died.
Jacob buried Sally and her little baby girl there at the base of the peak under which she had given birth; Sally on her back with the baby still at her breast, both of them wrapped in soft, warm fur. He marked the grave with a cairn of stones and broke camp, his heart aching at leaving his family, but not able to make himself stay any longer there next to the grave. He said his goodbye, then looked up at the peak standing above and asked the spirit of the mountain to watch over them. And as he gazed up at the peak its shape brought to mind the image of Sally’s breast as he’d laid the baby on it, so he named the mountain Squaw Nipple Peak.
A romantic man? – Most definitely. An eloquent man? – Perhaps not so much.
Jacob left the high country and returned for a while to his cabin near Coloma, then moved onward from town and from history after leaving one name on a map.
The peak continued to carry that name on maps through the end of the 1800’s. But by the turn of the century the name was getting abbreviated to Squaw Peak, and as the 1900’s took hold it underwent another change to Squaw Dome, the name it still carries to this day. Sally and her unnamed baby still lie somewhere beneath, the cairn of stone having long vanished.
The naming of a place can be a strange thing, sometimes reflecting the spirit of that place, or sometimes instead instilling a spirit within it. Sally’s spirit of feeding her newborn daughter, the last act of a new mother as she lay dying, was gifted upon that mountain by her husband and then changed years later, perhaps out of deference to political correctness, or more likely due to anatomical prudishness.
For map makers, ‘Squaw’ is apparently perfectly acceptable, while ‘nipple’ remains offensive.
Smokey Jack, or Squaw Nipple Peak. It’s all in the name.
There’s an old road in these mountains, and it’s time for you to take
a Road Trip.
This is a road which, in its heyday, hosted more daily traffic than
any other road in California; than any other road on all of the west
coast of the United States. Dirty, dusty, and rutted, this unpaved
path through a small portion of the Sierra was cut by foot, hoof, and
wagon wheel over a period of many years, and although it grew to only
four miles in length by the mid-1800’s it proudly boasted far more
pedestrians, wagons, and horses on its rough surface than did any of
its prouder and more smoothly paved counterparts in cities such as Los
Angeles and San Francisco, and in the year of 1850 it was the busiest
thoroughfare to be found in perhaps all of the western states. This
road is still in existence, running the four miles between the old
mining towns of Nevada City and Grass Valley, although all of the
bumps and furrows which helped give it character so many years ago
have long been smoothed over.
And you, as a devotee of California history, you have decided that you
need to go up to the mountains and see it; to ride or walk it; to see
if you can still get a feel for what it was like to be on this road in
1850; to see if it will whisper to you something of its past.
So on a warm almost-Spring day in March you leave the city and head on
up to the Sierra. It’s late when you get to Grass Valley; the numerous
stops along the way to see other relics of the past have delayed you
longer than anticipated, and the warmth with which your journey began
has been replaced by the icy chill of thin mountain air. All the
restaurants you pass have already closed for the evening, with only
the lights from a convenience store still shining into the street as
you reach the edge of town. You stop and, on a whim, purchase a bottle
of rye whiskey from the otherwise unattractive display of food and
drink. After all, rye is what was served in the mountain saloons back
in the day, wasn’t it? As a concession to the tourist industry you
also purchase a shot glass which is decorated with old wooden false
front buildings against a mountain backdrop. Then you resume your
journey out of town, carefully watching the odometer and slowing to a
stop when it shows you have gone two miles from the last structure you
saw. Ahead of you on that dark road – another two miles distant – lies
Nevada City. You are at the halfway point, the dark and quiet median
of this road from the past. You once read somewhere – you can’t
remember where – that there was at one time a sign at this midway
point, a sign with two swinging arms, one pointing to Nevada City, two
miles away, and the other pointing to Grass Valley, two miles the
other way. But that sign fell over and disappeared years ago, never
Cold now, you struggle into your heavy jacket, grab an old blanket –
and of course your bottle of rye – and climb a small hill next to the
road. It’s quiet, with little traffic. You spread the blanket on a
bare patch of dirt beneath a leafless tree and sit down, rubbing your
hands together for warmth. Then you reach for the liquid warmth which
you brought along and pour yourself a shot, waiting for the road to
speak to you. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t. But you’re not in a hurry.
You’ve come a long way; you can show patience. You finish the drink
and then grab your knees, hugging them to your chest, and wrap what
you can of the blanket around your back. You pour another drink and,
as you sip it, you think back over what you’ve read of the history of
this part of the mountains. As the night slips by what little traffic
there was earlier has now completely ceased and you are all alone.
You’re warmer now, though you doubt that warmth has anything to do
with the blanket. You’re comfortable too, with a heat now lighting you
from within. As you look upward you see the stars begin to shimmer and
dance in the thin mountain air, and when you look back down you see
the shadows of figures from times long past moving on the road below
And, to your surprise, the road begins to speak.
The 1850’s – both Nevada City and Grass Valley were booming towns,
counting populations of about ten thousand and three thousand
respectively. Each was surrounded by smaller towns, and all were
surrounded by thousands of mining claims, the boundary of which was
generally held to be as far as the claimant could shoot his rifle and
hit a claim jumper. This road between the towns hosted fairly constant
travel all day long as well as through most of the night; miners and
shopkeepers, bankers and outlaws.
It was about here at this midpoint that in 1858 a stage was stopped by
a pair of masked robbers who had heard in town that there was gold
aboard the coach. In fact there was, but it wasn’t in the usual place
within a strongbox atop the coach. It was instead in the pockets of a
banker who was a passenger and who had a few thousand dollars of the
stuff hidden in his suit. After futilely searching atop the stage the
robbers decided to frisk the passengers, at which point the banker
quietly pulled a revolver from beneath his coat and held it on his
lap, saying nothing. At the sight of the weapon the robbers cautioned
the banker to ‘go easy’, and the banker responded that better pickings
were to be had on the next stage coming out of town, a stage coach on
which Wells Fargo would be shipping a considerable amount of gold.
After looking at the weapon again and at the calm, smiling man who
held it, the robbers nodded their thanks and retreated into the brush,
only to reappear later that day and rob the next coach of the
$21,000.00 Wells Fargo had placed on board. When later told of this
robbery, the banker on the first stage just laughed and shrugged. He
was a banker. And Wells Fargo, after all, was The Competition.
Stage robberies were a frequent occurrence here, but the robbers had
to be quick because of the volume of people using the road. One of the
more persistent hold-up artists was a man by the name of Jack
Williams. With his two companions he waylaid many coaches and was
always successful in making his getaway. One day after stopping a
stage and quickly searching the passengers, Williams climbed up and
tried to open the Wells Fargo lock box near the driver. But, tired of
Williams’ repeated robberies, Wells Fargo had installed a new type of
box on this stage; a stout metal safe that was impervious to Jack’s
bullets. Cursing profusely as time was running out, Williams finally
gave up and rode off, promising that he would not be outsmarted by
Wells Fargo, and the laughing stage driver resumed his journey to
town. But a few days later Williams again stopped that same stage.
This time he and his men had crow bars, sledge hammers, and a can of
blasting powder. The tools proved useless, as did the first attempt at
blowing the box open. But on the second try the powder blew the steel
box into the air and opened it, scattering gold over the road. As his
men retrieved the fortune, Williams passed around a bottle of brandy
to the passengers and apologized for delaying them. Then he and his
men disappeared down the road.
One day in 1851 two men from Nevada City walked this road to the edge
of town to settle a dispute. George Dibble and E.B. Lundy had gotten
into an argument and Dibble called Lundy a liar. He then went on to
challenge Lundy to a duel with pistols to resolve this affair of
honor. Lundy accepted, but warned Dibble that he had fought duels
before and that he was a crack shot. Dibble laughed. So the next
morning the men met to resolve the issue. It was early, cold, and
still dark, so the men met in a saloon for a drink to chase away the
chill before dueling. The saloon was barely lit with just a few
candles. Lundy tried one more time to caution his challenger, and as a
warning he drew his pistol and took aim at a candle across the bar
room, then severed the flaming wick with a single shot, leaving the
candle standing untouched. It was a perfect shot in the dark that
impressed every man there – every man, that is, except Dibble. Lundy
insisted he could repeat that Shot In the Dark at will. Dibble again
laughed. So the two men, with their Seconds by their sides and
surrounded by a crowd of men, walked this road to the outskirts of
town. Then they stood back to back, stepped twenty paces, turned and
fired. Dibble grabbed his chest, staggered a few steps, and dropped
dead in the road as Lundy walked coolly away. It was barely light, and
Lundy had made good his promise of a perfect Shot In the Dark.
This was also the road used by Bill Slater as he walked out of
California forever, and he did so in a colorful way. Slater was a shop
keeper in Downieville, another mining town not too far away.
Downieville was much more isolated than most mountain communities in
1850, a rough town in a narrow canyon with no roads connecting it to
the outside world, and for many months a hoard of gold had been
accruing from miners who were becoming increasingly impatient to sell
it. Slater had casually remarked to a customer in his store one day
that there was a place in San Francisco which paid twenty-two dollars
an ounce for gold, as opposed to the common value of sixteen dollars
per ounce. This news spread like wildfire through town, and soon the
eager miners elected Slater as just the right man to pack out their
gold and sell it for them in San Francisco, generously offering him a
fee of two dollars per ounce for doing so. Slater humbly agreed, and
was soon leading a line of heavily packed animals down the canyon and
out of town, carrying an estimated $25,000 of gold with him. He sold
the gold in San Francisco then took the money and boarded a steamer
going south. In Panama he stopped to speak with a gold seeker headed
for California and recommended the man go to Downieville, saying he
couldn’t find a more welcoming community than that town. He was
careful to repeat his name and asked to be remembered to the men
there, then laughingly headed east across the isthmus, never to be
This road was also frequently traveled by the famous dancer, Lola
Montez, who settled into semi-retirement in Grass Valley with her
third husband. A colorful woman who had once been the mistress of King
Ludwig of Bavaria, Lola’s talents and beauty were fading by the time
she arrived here. And the fact that she had never bothered to divorce
either of her first two husbands before marrying her third was a cause
of consternation to some law enforcement officials in Europe. Grass
Valley offered a quiet place to shelter, although Lola had a difficult
time living quietly. She kept two grizzly bear cubs as pets, and often
strolled the streets of both towns in very low cut gowns which proudly
displayed her ample bosom as she puffed on a cigar. When a local
minister preached to his congregation that her famous Spider Dance was
lewd and obscene, Lola took this very road to go to his home where she
walked through the front door and proceeded to give him and his family
a private yet flamboyant performance of that very same Spider Dance,
with a little extra lewdness thrown in for good measure.
Jack Williams continued to rob people along this four mile stretch of
road, but the Sheriff of Nevada City was getting a little impatient
with his antics. Just robbing people had been somewhat tolerable, but
using blasting powder to blow up steel express boxes was garnering the
town too much bad publicity. So one day the sheriff got together a
posse and the six men set off down this road to find Williams’ trail.
Just outside of town the sheriff led the pose off the road, following
what he thought were Williams’ tracks. But one deputy – an unusually
capable man by the name of Steve Venard – was sure the sheriff was
wrong and continued down the road alone. With the other five men still
chasing shadows, Venard came around a turn to see Williams and his men
in the road before him. They had seen him coming and had weapons
already leveled at him, and they immediately opened fire. Deputy
Venard pulled his fifteen-shot Henry Repeating Rifle from the scabbard
alongside his saddle and fired back. His first shot went through
Williams’ heart, and the outlaw dropped from his horse. Venard’s
second shot went right through the head of another bandit. His third
shot missed, but his fourth killed the last of the bandits. Hearing
the gun shots the rest of the posse finally arrived, but they were too
late for the fight. All they could do was to praise Venard’s
marksmanship and pick the bodies up off the road.
Miss Sarah Pellett, a woman long forgotten by history but who was
famous in the 1850’s for her vociferous attacks on the evils of
alcohol and the joys of temperance, also rode in a carriage along this
very road. Miss Pellet came to the gold camps to preach to the miners
against drinking alcohol, one of the miner’s most popular pastimes,
and the miners were surprisingly eager to hear her. In anticipation of
her arrival men from Grass Valley, Nevada City, Downieville, and other
camps joined her Temperance Society by the hundreds. When the day of
her talk arrived these men flocked impatiently to hear her. They were
so impatient, in fact, that they began to boo and shout at the opening
speaker, a man who apparently just didn’t know when to shut up.
Finally the frustrated crowd began to fire guns into the air in an
attempt to quiet him. But this persistent orator refused to yield the
platform and instead got into a shouting match with one of his
hecklers. This led to the challenge of a duel being offered and
accepted. Shotguns were chosen as weapons, and the crowd duly took up
a position a discreet distance from the speaker’s platform where Miss
Pellet sat to watch the duel – a duel which didn’t take very long, as
the speaker, who may have been long on words but was definitely short
on expertise with firearms, took a blast from the heckler’s shotgun
directly to the chest and fell dead in the street. Now, at last, the
men could finally hear the woman they had been so impatient to see.
But Sarah Pellet, seeing the Opening Act lying dead in the dust, had
wisely gotten back into her carriage and was speedily leaving town
without having spoken a single word, once again traveling along this
well-rutted road. Leaving temperance behind forever, the men returned
to the saloons.
A sudden breeze brushes across your face, gentle yet cold, and your
thoughts return from their wanderings as your eyes focus on the grass
and trees around you. The stars have stopped dancing. You take a deep
breath and shiver. The road before you – this road which had once been
the most traveled road in all of California – lies completely quiet
and devoid of movement and you wonder; did the road really speak to
you, or were those men and women whom you watched pass by merely the
result of your own Shots In the Dark?
Below you there is a soft noise which catches your attention; it
sounds just like the gentle squeak of a sign swaying in the breeze.
Two Miles to Nevada City; Two Miles to Grass Valley. But tonight, here
in the middle of this once busiest road in the state, here in the
middle of this cold and starry night, it’s somehow just a few short
steps back to 1850.
There was a time in California when an outlaw might be notorious as
the scourge of the county, stealing horses and robbing stagecoaches,
but he might also earn fame for displaying style, manners, and class
while professionally going through the motions of his chosen
profession. There was a time when a man’s acquisitive eye for an
excellent horse might lead to an eager chase by officers of the law;
yet that same man’s longing eye for a lovely woman would often lead to
those ladies gazing upon him just as eagerly. There was a time when a
man could be a horse thief by day and be a man who was known for his
elegant dancing that same evening. Such a man was John Allen,
otherwise known as Sheet Iron Jack.
Allen came to California in the 1860’s, migrating from his New York
home after a stint in the army. He was in his twenties and showed no
lust whatsoever for the yellow metal which had been bringing so many
Easterners to California for the past decade and a half. Instead he
opened a barber shop and entertained his customers with ‘lively and
humorous speech’ as he shaved their faces and trimmed their long hair.
After work he would be a favorite personality in the bar with his
endless supply of stories, and if he had any faults at all it was
that he sometimes drank a bit too much, and maybe talked a little too
much as well.
John spent his money freely, and it was sometimes remarked upon that
he seemed to have pockets that were deeper than those of a mere barber
should have been. But that was merely idle curiosity as Jack had never
been linked to anything of an even slightly unlawful nature. If anyone
did harbor suspicions about the source of his finances they were soon
charmed out of it by his easy manner and quick wit. And if those
weren’t enough, all such thoughts were bound to be forgotten when John
picked up his guitar and began to sing.
His fingers danced across the strings as his deep baritone voice sang
plaintive Mexican ballads – all the more impressive as John had lost
one finger while serving in the military. Cutting hair, shaving
beards, playing guitar, singing soulful songs; John Allen was just a
great guy to have around.
Until he got caught stealing horses, that is. Then everyone knew where
all that money came from, and they knew there was more to John than
met the eye. Much more.
John had apparently been stealing horses for quite some time and
arranging for their sale far away, quietly pocketing the money and
maintaining his local reputation intact. But on this day he had just
made off with three beautiful mounts from a nearby ranch and was
riding one of them while leading the other two into the hills when the
ranchers caught up with him. Allen was quickly recognized as he looked
back over his shoulder at the five rapidly approaching men, and before
making his getaway he turned to shout a cloud of vociferous profanity
at the rightful owners of the horses. Then he dropped the reins of the
two horses he was leading, spurred his mount, and made a beeline for
thick foliage. Taken aback by John’s colorful verbal outburst and also
by the two horses left standing in the road, the group stopped in
confusion. But two of the pursuing men maintained enough presence of
mind to pull shotguns from their scabbards and fire all four barrels
of shot directly at Allen, which hit their mark. John disappeared into
the foliage and the men chose not to give chase, instead taking the
two horses as their prize and quickly returning to town to spread the
news about the musical barber turned horse thief. Over drinks in the
bar one of the shotgun wielders was quite descriptive about the
episode and insisted that the shotgun blasts fired had hit their mark,
and was incredulous that Allen had shown no injury from their impact.
He said that the shots had actually bounced off Allen with a loud
metallic retort, leaving him unhurt. One of the many eager listeners
in the bar promptly raised his glass and offered a toast to the
tougher than nails horse thief, christening him ‘Sheet Iron Jack’
because of his bullet proof hide. And thus a nickname – and a legend –
Jack’s career as a horse thief now really took off since he no longer
had to take the care to lead a cautious double life, and it wasn’t
long before he was being chased through the hills and valleys by more
than one posse at a time. Yet he not only managed to keep track of his
pursuers’ whereabouts but was also able to easily elude them as well.
But just simply staying ahead of them was sometimes not enough for
this creatively-minded horse thief. It was too easy, and Jack found
himself longing for more of a challenge. On one such occasion Jack was
informed by a sympathetic friend that a posse was quickly
approaching. Jack knew the sheriff leading that particular posse had
never seen him, and was willing to bet that no one else in the group
had either. So he boldly rode back to find them and, when he had,
innocently asked the sheriff what they were all up to. The Sheriff
eagerly told him that they were looking for Sheet Iron Jack, the
notorious bullet-proof horse thief, and Jack promptly volunteered to
join the posse, giving a false name and offering to help if he could.
For the rest of that day he road alongside the sheriff and charmed him
with his engaging stories. That evening, when the posse stopped to
rent rooms for the night, the sheriff was so impressed with Jack that
he didn’t want to part company, even for the night, so he asked Jack
to be his bunkmate in one room, a request to which Jack charmingly
agreed. Late that night, as the sheriff snored loudly in deep sleep,
Jack picked up his boots and silently stole out of the room. After
closing the door he jammed it shut with the blade of a knife,
effectively imprisoning the gullible sheriff inside, then made his way
to the stable where he stole the sheriff’s horse as well as two others
from the posse, fine horses which he’d had his eye on all day. Just
before sunrise he stopped at a farmer’s house and, sitting by
candlelight, wrote a note to the sheriff thanking him for his
hospitality and complimenting him on his taste in horseflesh. Then he
rode off and disappeared, leaving the sheriff and the posse seething
in angry frustration as they read the note.
Months passed, the theft of horses went on, and Sheet Iron Jack
appeared free to roam the country unhindered.
On another occasion – even though he knew that a posse was close
behind – Jack stopped when he saw a Saturday night barn dance taking
place. Tying his horse out front he allowed himself to be lured in by
the sound of the lively music. He looked over the crowd, spotted the
prettiest girl, and promptly went up to her, laying a hand on her
partner’s shoulder. He announced himself as Sheet Iron Jack and stated
that he wished to have the honor of dancing with the lady. The man
backed off, not knowing what to think, and Jack took the lady in his
arms and led her around the floor. When the musicians stopped Jack
asked that they keep playing, and selected another young lady as his
next partner, separating her from her man and leading her around the
floor. And again with another lady. And again; and again; always with
the prettiest young ladies, and always with the men backing away
without offering any trace of challenge to the man identifying himself
as the bullet proof Sheet Iron Jack. After a half dozen such dances
Jack pulled his pocket watch out, looked at it thoughtfully, and
thanked the ladies as he made his way to the door, saying to the crowd
as he passed that a posse was close on his heels and that they would
soon be there. As he didn’t want this evening - what had really been a
lovely evening for him - to be disrupted, he was taking his leave.
With that he got on his horse and rode off. Not ten minutes passed
before the posse rode hurriedly into the farm yard, dismounting and
asking questions. The half dozen besotted young ladies said that Jack
was indeed a gentleman and that his manners were impeccable. The men,
embarrassed and humiliated, refused to speak. Then, as the sheriff and
his posse were ready to resume the chase, one woman observed wistfully
that Jack had danced like an angel. Yes, the other half dozen young
pretty ladies chorused sadly, longingly; he danced like an angel.
The man who danced like an angel had danced off into the darkness
without a trace. The bands of lawmen continued to look, and Jack
continued to effortlessly elude them.
One day while Jack was riding casually along a mountain road, knowing
that no pursuit was close at hand and taking the reprieve to look
about for untended horses, he came across a lone man sitting
dejectedly in the dirt alongside the road. Asking the stranger what
had happened to leave him all alone without any kind of transport, the
man explained that he had started out his journey riding a fine horse
but that his mount had begun to limp so he had stopped to rest. While
he was resting a mountain man had come along, looked over the horse,
and sadly but confidently declared that the cause of the lameness was
serious and would take at least a year to heal, during which time the
horse should not be ridden. Then, as the mountain man walked off, he
looked back thoughtfully at the traveler and kindly offered to take
the lame horse off his hands for thirty dollars and see to the
year-long cure for the poor animal. The traveler had agreed, and
accepted thirty dollars for the horse. Now he had to walk to the
nearest town and see if he could buy another horse for that thirty
Jack just shook his head and smiled at the naivety of this man who
gave new meaning to the word ‘Greenhorn’. But Jack also felt sorry for
him. Telling the man to sit down and wait for his return, Jack rode
off on the trail of the mountain man. When he found the shifty fellow
Jack identified himself, pulled his gun, and told him that he was
going to take the horse back to the greenhorn who had been so easily
fleeced and that the mountain man should shut up and not offer any
objection; that losing thirty dollars was an inexpensive lesson for
learning manners. But the mountain man did indeed object, so Jack
leveled his revolver and told him to empty his pockets; that the man’s
mouth had now cost him whatever other money he had in his possession
as well. To Jack’s surprise and delight, the mountain man had over six
hundred dollars in his pockets, all of which Jack now gratefully took
possession. Jack warned the man that if anybody was going to steal
horses in these mountains it was going to be him – Sheet Iron Jack –
and that he didn’t appreciate any competition from a local con artist.
Then he led the lame horse back to its rightful owner and explained
that the horse’s limp was caused by a shoe which wasn’t fitting
properly, and that a blacksmith could easily fix it. He related what
had happened with the mountain man and told the traveler to keep the
thirty dollars, but cautioned him that, if he ever saw the man in this
part of the mountains again, he would be fair game for Sheet Iron
The traveler had his horse, thirty dollars, and a story to tell, and
Jack had an enhanced reputation.
But Jack was getting tired of life on the road; of life on the run. He
was a social person who craved company; who liked to sing and dance
and drink. So one evening in search of companionship he road into town
and went into a bar for a drink. One drink led to another, and all
those drinks led to Jack’s being a little too loquacious and he got
into an argument with another man. Words led to shouts and weapons
were drawn. The shot aimed at Jack may have simply missed its mark,
but legend has it that it bounced off the chest of Sheet Iron Jack and
fell to the bar room floor. Jack’s shot hit the target, wounding his
opponent. Jack was thrown in jail, put on trial, and sentenced to two
years in San Quentin. Ironically, on the way out of town to prison,
while escorted by two guards on board a stage, the coach was waylaid
by two armed bandits seeking to hold it up. After the first shotgun
blast from the outlaws Jack stuck his head out the stage window and
let go with a loud and colorful burst of profanity aimed at the
would-be robbers, saying that he was on his way to get some sea air
and he would appreciate a little peace and quiet. Astounded, the two
robbers retreated into the brush without completing the robbery.
Jack stayed in San Quentin for less than six months of his two year
sentence, as his lawyer’s appeal for a new trial was successful. Back
in county jail, Jack escaped in less than a week. But the escapade on
the stage while riding to San Quentin had stuck in his mind, so he
recruited two fellows down on their luck and the three of them robbed
a stagecoach. Jack found it surprisingly easy, so he and his
companions promptly robbed two more. Jack had always been successful
while working alone, and having two new companions proved to be his
downfall. After the third robbery those two were easily apprehended,
and they told the sheriff where Jack could be found. Within days he
was back in San Quentin, this time serving a sentence of twenty-four
years for armed robbery.
But Jack’s luck still held, and six years later the governor of
California commuted his sentence and set him free – with the provision
that Jack leave California and stay out. Jack should have heeded that
advice, but he didn’t.
Less than a year later Jack stumbled out of a bar and began shouting
profanity at passersby. When the sheriff came along and suggested that
Jack might want to tone things down, Jack pulled his gun and pointed
it at the sheriff. The sheriff, with cool deliberation, grabbed the
barrel of the gun and twisted it around to point at Jack, then told
Jack to go ahead and pull the trigger. Jack wasn’t that intoxicated.
He allowed himself to be led to jail to sleep it off in the drunk
tank. But while Jack was sleeping a detective from the San Francisco
police force arrived in town looking for him. He had evidence that
Jack had been involved in the theft and resale of a very expensive
horse. And the evidence was pretty persuasive – when he’d resold the
stolen horse, Jack had signed the bill of sale with his real name,
This time Jack was sent to Folsom Prison. He served his sentence in
full, and when he was released, he disappeared forever. Some said that
he belatedly took the governor’s advice and left California for good.
Others said that he went to live with the Modoc in Northern
California, a native tribe amongst whom he had many friends. And still
others said that he immediately returned to his old profession of
horse thievery; a career at which he was actually quite good as long
worked on his own, didn’t take on any assistants to betray him, and
didn’t drink or talk too much.
Playing the guitar beautifully with only nine fingers; singing
haunting Mexican ballads in his deep baritone voice; stealing horses
with ease; Sheet Iron Jack was an outlaw with style; the outlaw who
was a legend because he was impervious to bullets.
And he danced like an angel.
A mirror can be a fickle friend, sometimes making you feel good or
sometimes bad; sometimes illuminating every corner around you while at
other times leaving you wrapped in shadow; and sometimes showing
something behind you which you didn’t know was there – behind you in
the room, or – if you have the right mirror - behind you in Time.
There is just such a mirror here in the Sierra Nevada Mountains; a
real mirror made of glass and framed in wood; and, if it approves of
your curious gaze and senses a sympathetic soul, it will perhaps open
for a moment and let you glimpse back in time.
To get into the mood for this story, let’s say that you just got home
from work. You’re worn out, and wonder what that job is all about as
the first thing to greet your arrival home is a pile of junk mail and
bills. You remove your coat and shoes, and pause to look in the hall
mirror as you pass, then wonder why you even have that mirror there
because it only makes you look as bad as you feel, while that sheaf of
bills in your hand somehow appears much larger than it should. You
toss the bills into a pile on the table and begin to wonder which form
of alcohol might best suit your mood of frustration.
Mirrors are strange that way – they sometimes bend what we think is real.
You are, perhaps, one of those slightly dissatisfied individuals who
finds yourself feeling unsettled by modern society; the crowds of
people, the babble of electronic noise, the never-ending hamster wheel
of income and debt which has become the cycle of modern life, and it’s
leaving you running on empty. You feel increasingly left out of
society and all it has to offer because you’ve paused for a moment on
that hamster wheel and had the audacity to question how you got there.
You’re one of those fringe-types who feels that maybe you would have
been more comfortable had you been born a century or two in the past,
into a time when life and all its cares were of a simpler nature.
You’re thinking that maybe you should just get off that hamster wheel
for good and move to the mountains to get away from it all. So you
turn off all the lights in the house save one for reading, light a
fire in the fireplace, and settle into your favorite comfortable chair
with a bottle and a glass at hand. After some time of staring into the
mesmerizing flames you begin to relax. Your most loyal friend has
settled down nearby and stretched his four furry legs in pleasure
before the fire. Then you open up a book to lose yourself in a story
of people who did decide to chuck away their former lives and move to
these mountains to make that change.
The mirror in the hall is forgotten by you for the time being; perhaps
it holds some memory of a reflection, or perhaps it’s watching you as
Coloma, in 1830’s, was a sleepy mountain town, one of many quiet
places in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where life was slow and
pleasant. Hunters and trappers were in large supply, and they mixed
easily and peacefully with the Miwok who had lived for generations in
that part of the mountains. As the 1840’s dawned, Gringos were coming
in from the West and Spaniards from the south, while the Russians were
getting more active farther away along the coast. But everybody was
getting along with each other, more or less. Trees were plentiful
around Coloma, and that’s what drew a Swiss immigrant by the name of
John Sutter there to build a lumber mill, also because Coloma also had
lots of swiftly running water to power that mill. But the mill wasn’t
even finished when Sutter’s workers found gold and shouted the
discovery across the mountains. By 1848 Coloma had quadrupled in
population with gold seekers. By 1849 it had grown so much that people
stopped counting the thousands of people – all they wanted to count
were nuggets of gold.
By the early 1850’s miners and their equipment covered the hillsides.
Most lived in makeshift cabins or tents. The majority of buildings in
town were devoted to the business of separating the miners from their
newly acquired wealth – saloons, gambling halls, supply stores, and
brothels sprang up all over town, on every crooked street where an
empty space begged to be filled. And they all did quite well in
catering to the needs of the thousands of lonely, thirsty, hard
And in one of these buildings in the town of Coloma - not one of those
old, leaning, ramshackle structures so hastily built to serve the
needs of the eager young miners - but instead in a carefully crafted
hotel meant to stand the rigors of time; in one room of this forgotten
hotel there stands a mirror; a sheet of antique glass bound in a
wooden frame which will not only show your reflection, but also which
sometimes opens as a window; a window through which someone from the
past has been observed peering out at the viuewer.
It’s a unique hotel, and a very unique mirror.
The Sierra Nevada House was a fine place indeed. Built around 1850, it
was conveniently situated near both Sutter’s Mill and the brand new
Wells Fargo office in the heart of the bustling Sierra mining town of
Coloma. Two stories tall, the ground floor held a bar, kitchen, and
dining room, while the upstairs floor contained bedrooms situated all
around the outside walls with a board walkway circling an open space
above the eating area. It was light, spacious, and clean.
And it was advertised for respectable women residents only - no
This was an entirely new concept for a gold rush mining town.
Certainly there were women in town, but most had come to work in the
bars or in the brothels, and in such places a bed was usually provided
as part of the job. But the Sierra Nevada House was setting itself up
for a different type of tenant; for women who had either accompanied
or followed their men to California but who didn’t wish to live in the
shabby accommodations which their men had put together out on their
claims. The Sierra Nevada House desired to cater to the cares of
(The mirror, at this time, had not yet arrived. It was on board a ship
bound from Boston, making its way around the Horn on its way to San
Not surprisingly, the Sierra Nevada House didn’t manage to make a go
of it as a boarding house for respectable women. There just weren’t
enough respectable women in town. So women of a somewhat less socially
respectable character soon came to occupy the Sierra Nevada House, and
it quickly reincarnated itself as one of the more popular of the bars,
brothels, and gambling halls dotting the streets of Coloma. The
numerous rooms lining the walls of the second story became more
populated that they ever had been – albeit for short periods of time -
and the boardwalk leading to them constantly resounded with the noise
of the tramping boots of the eager miners. The Sierra Nevada House had
seemingly found its purpose.
(By now the mirror had reached San Francisco, been unloaded from the
ship and repacked onto a wagon, and was on its way up to the
Isabel (or Isabella) was a popular lady in this new incarnation of the
Sierra Nevada House. Short, slender, with dark hair, she always liked
to dress in blue. She was a favorite companion of every miner, either
while keeping him company drinking in the bar, or standing behind him
with one hand on a shoulder giving him luck while he gambled at cards,
or – if he could afford it – accompanying him upstairs to her personal
room where he could appreciate her beauty and affection in a more
private setting, and then take home a happy memory to keep him warm on
those cold dark nights alone beneath a blanket in his shanty. Isabel,
it was generally agreed, shone brightly from an inner radiance as well
as from her lovely outer beauty, and she was always dressed in blue.
And so it was that when the mirror which had traveled so far finally
came to Coloma, its original purpose was immediately forgotten and it
was given as a gift to Isabel; a token of admiration and gratitude
from a lonely gentleman whose nights had been made brighter by her
company. Already an antique when it arrived at the Sierra Nevada
House, no one knew its exact age. It was old, and beautiful, and very,
Isabel placed the mirror in her room and gazed into it often. Several
times every day she would check her appearance and perhaps also admire
her beauty, the gold filigree on the wooden border framing her lovely
self just as it framed the mirror. Sometimes her gentlemen companions
would also pause there, although it was Isabel’s reflection which
caught them, not their own. But one of those men caught Isabel’s
heart, and left it forever empty. It was the very man who had given
her the mirror, a man who had brought the antique mirror and a wagon
load of other furnishings around the Horn to furnish a fine home he
had intended to build for the anticipated arrival of his wife, but who
instead chose to delay the wife, postpone the home, and abandon
Isabel, and disappeared back into the mountains in his search for
gold. From that moment on Isabel was often observed standing alone on
the porch gazing up into the high Sierra. If approached by men at
those times she would always decline an invitation for company, and
then retire to her room alone. And sometimes there in her room she
would be seen gazing into the mirror, staring, as if she was dreaming
of finding something within the antique glass. Men still sought her
out, but the one man whom she desired had gone and she could never
recover from that loss. So one day she quite suddenly disappeared from
Coloma, never to be seen again. It was rumored amongst the ladies of
the Sierra Nevada House and their patrons that she had gone in search
of the man who still held her heart. Isabel left all of her
possessions behind, including the mirror.
After her disappearance Isabel’s mirror was moved downstairs into the
parlor, then into other rooms variously used as a dance hall and a
dining room. Always it stood regally against one wall, and always its
antique elegance was appreciated by the patrons of the house when they
stopped before it. It wasn’t until a few decades had passed that some
who paused to admire themselves in the glass now instead saw the face
of a strange woman staring back out at them; a lady with dark hair and
sad eyes; a lady in blue. And she would hang suspended in the glass
before them as they gawked, the murky furnishings of an old bedroom in
the shadows behind her, her eyes meeting those of the one who gazed in
disbelief before she slowly faded away.
Isabel had returned.
Soon other strange occurrences began to manifest – a glass or a bottle
would slide by itself off the bar and crash to the floor; footsteps
could be heard pacing the catwalk that ran along to the rooms above
when no one could be seen on the walkway. When it was quiet there were
now times when a voice could be heard, perhaps loudly or sometimes
just a whisper; a voice where there was no person to be seen. And
sometimes when a lady or a guest walked into that bedroom which had
belonged to Isabel things were seen to have been moved, as if Isabel
had come to check the décor and then rearranged the furnishings to
suit her own taste. And then there would be that soft whisper as the
current occupant of the room slowly backed out.
The Sierra Nevada House burned down in 1902; it burned to the ground
and was completely destroyed. All except for the mirror. The mirror
survived intact, its antique glass and beautiful frame unmarred by the
roaring flames which had consumed everything around it. The Sierra
Nevada House was quickly rebuilt, mostly on the original floor plan,
and soon reopened as a fine hotel. The mirror was placed in the dining
hall and was again used for the next two decades for guests to admire
It wasn’t long before the lady in blue soon began to appear once
again; the lady with the dark hair and sad eyes who stared back out of
the mirror as if she was searching for something. Or someone. And then
she would fade away. And, as before, there were phantom footsteps and
soft whispers heard, and things moved all by themselves. The hotel had
an unseen guest as well as the paying ones.
The Sierra Nevada House burned to the ground again in 1925. Again, it
was completely destroyed – except for the antique mirror which eerily
survived unscathed. The House was again rebuilt and soon reopened to
the public, again as a hotel built on the original floor plan from the
1850’s, with a bar and dining room downstairs and rooms to rent above.
It also now came into occasional use as a town meeting hall and
community theater. The antique mirror was placed in a position of
honor in the banquet room. And it wasn’t long before the beautiful
Lady in Blue returned to visit the patrons, gazing out at them sadly
from its glassy depths.
Three appears to be a lucky number for the Sierra Nevada House, as
this third incarnation of the hotel and bar has now survived for
almost a century. And although, like the original hotel, the original
crowds of paying guests have long ago passed into the mists of time,
the spirits of the rough miners and the painted ladies eager to
entertain them still walk the mountains seeking gold and haunt the
rooms of the Sierra Nevada House searching for that brief reprieve
from lonliness. On the floor boards you can still sometimes hear
phantom footsteps; in the bar you might catch a quietly whispered word
in your ear, sending an unexpected thrill down your spine.
And if you gaze into the old wood framed mirror standing in the
banquet room you can still sometimes see a sad, beautiful lady in blue
swim upward out of its hidden depths to look back at you, searching
for something; for someone. Whether charmed or cursed the antique
mirror has survived the centuries and the infernos to offer itself as
a window to the past; Isabel’s mirror, the mirror of her dreams.
You are strolling casually through a grove of Giant Sequoia trees,
high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California on a summer
afternoon in the year 1856. Your pace is slow, both because the rocky
soil beneath your feet is rough and uneven, but also because you have
never seen anything like this splendid landscape in your entire life;
never could you even have imagined it – thousands and thousands of
Giant Sequoias standing thick and tall, covering the mountainsides in
waves as far as your eyes can see. It is late afternoon on an August
day, and your walk is leading you more or less northward along the
peak of a steep ridge line. To your right the Sequoias fall off in an
endless sea – later to be known as the Converse Basin - while to your
left you can see a small part of the depths of Kings Canyon far below.
You are the only person here on this ridge; indeed, you feel so
overwhelmed by the lonely beauty surrounding you that the thought
briefly flits through your mind that you might be the only person in
the entire world; perhaps it is even a wish.
Then a flash of light catches your eye, vaporizing that brief wish,
drawing your gaze away from the canyon and the trees. It flashes
again, and you look up, shading your eyes from the bright glare of the
descending sun to your left – and then you see it. There, up in the
sky where there should be only birds and clouds there now also seems
to be something else; something strange and out of place. Whatever it
is appears to be in motion, and that movement has caught a shaft of
sunlight and reflected down it into your eyes. You squint and look
harder, not certain of what you are actually seeing. It’s descending
toward you slowly from the north, flying at you as if it has taken
aim. You can’t identify it because you’ve never seen anything like it
before in your entire life. Very few people have seen anything like
it, because what you are looking at is an aircraft, and such
mechanical contrivances as this were not expected to be a part of
Sierra Nevada scenery in 1856, nor indeed in any part of California
scenery at that time.
You’re staring upward in awe now, caught up in the fascination of the
impossible unfolding right before your very eyes. And those eyes are
now beginning to make out some detail of the approaching craft – there
are at least two whirling blades on the back of the – well, the thing,
because that’s the first word that comes to mind - and some metal
constructs visible within the cabin of the craft, which must have been
what initially reflected that flash of light into your eyes. And
there’s a man there as well – and he’s waving to you! Could this
possibly get any more wondrous? And then it does indeed become more
wondrous, because you suddenly realize that the man above you has a
frightened expression on his face, and that his agitated wave is not
out of greeting for you but instead reflects abject fear. And then you
see why – the aircraft’s line of descent is taking it directly toward
the top of one of the tallest Sequoia trees on the ridge, and the
fright in the face of the man above seems to be because that, despite
all his energetic movement of some levers and wheels, his course
remains unchanged and will bring him into contact with that huge
monolith within seconds.
Time slows down for you now, and you watch those last few seconds of
the craft’s flight with extended detail. The aircraft plunges into the
upper branches of the Giant Sequoia tree and shudders to a stop as it
begins to crumple. The man who was waving so excitedly just seconds
ago is thrown out of the craft with the force of the impact. His body
arcs forward, limbs spread wide, and in horror you watch helplessly as
his chest becomes impaled on a stout, sharply pointed snag of a branch
while his head whacks forcefully against the trunk. He hangs there,
motionless, his eyes fixed and looking down at you, neck broken and
head hanging at an impossible angle, as the craft continues to fold
and crumple around him, slowly falling and getting caught in the tree,
hanging on the branches like the scattered decorations for some
unexpected holiday. Very little of the debris, you notice, actually
makes it to the ground. Your mind is virtually in some other dimension
by now, not knowing how to cope with all this, or even if you can
accept the information overload which your eyes have just fed into
your brain. But then there’s suddenly more for you to process, because
another glint of light catches your eye and you look up again. And
there, gliding down toward you from the north, is yet another aircraft
following in the flight path of its no longer existent companion,
heading for the ridge line which had been so peaceful just moments
before; heading for the tree which holds the remains of its flying
companion; heading for you. Your mind, at this point, has had enough.
Too much, in fact. It directs you to turn away and get the hell out of
there before the second aircraft arrives, which you obediently do.
When you try to make sense of all this and return with a friend a week
later, there is no sign of either of the aircraft; no sign of the
wreckage; no sign of that man with a broken neck who had been impaled
on that rough snag of a branch three hundred feet above. After all,
this is the year 1856, and machine-driven aircraft just don’t exist,
so you shake your head and laugh uneasily and conclude that it must
all have been a dream. Then you and your friend make camp and get
But it wasn’t a dream. The aircraft did indeed exist; that frantic
pilot did indeed die a painful yet unique death. But the entire scene
was cleaned up and sanitized by the crew of the second ship before you
could return. And what you just happened by chance to witness was a
glimpse into a strange chapter of Sierra Nevada past; a chapter which
hasn’t found its way into most, or any, history books. It’s a chapter
that tells the story of a unique group of adventurous Sierra men who
flew through the sky and who went by the name of the Sonora Aero Club.
Sonora, California, was a booming gold mining town in the 1850’s.
Along with its prosperous neighbors, such as Columbia, it had drawn
thousands of men into the mountains in the hunt for wealth. One of
those men was an adventurer by the name of Peter Mennis, and it was
this man who unwittingly inspired this relatively unknown chapter of
early California life. Little is known about Mennis other than that he
came to California in the early 1850’s because, like those thousands
of others, the magnetic draw of gold had pulled him here. Yet that
desire for wealth soon withered when another discovery captured his
imagination – the discovery of what he would name, Suppe.
Suppe was a discovery which Mennis quickly saw could free men from the
bonds of gravity, and it was a discovery the details of which he
jealously guarded. Until this time the only means of sustained flight
available to humans was in hot air balloons, but the discovery upon
which Mennis had stumbled was radically different. Suppe consisted of
a unique way in which to defy the shackles of earth; an anti-gravity
formula which Mennis accidently discovered and which was apparently
easy enough to develop with the basic materials available within a
California gold rush mining camp. With the means of rising into the
air thus established, Mennis went on to construct some simple
machinery for propulsion. He developed at least two different such
methods – one set of machines which turned bladed screws – or
propellers – and another machine which acted as a compressor, using
air shot out of a nozzle as a force of propellant. Both of these were
also powered by Suppe.
Mennis quickly left the lust for gold behind and now focused on his
new love of flying. Although he kept the secret of Suppe solely to
himself, he did share the love of flight with a handful of like-minded
adventurers, and it was they who formed the Sonora Aero Club. And on
an uninhabited level plain outside of town they began to build a
variety of aircraft, filling them with the necessary machinery
designed by Mennis for lift and propulsion, and then going on flying
outings all over the Sierra. That uninhabited level plain of land
outside of town from where all of this fantastic activity was staged a
century and a half ago is now the Columbia Municipal Airport.
The club built dozens of different aircraft of all shapes and sizes.
The lift provided by Suppe could apparently bring even large craft
into the air, while the shape of the craft wasn’t required to be
aerodynamic since the speeds attained weren’t all that great. All of
the aircraft were christened with names such as Aero Mary, Aero
Schnabel, or Aero Goeit, named after individuals who were either
friends of or admired by Mennis. One eerily prescient christening even
gave birth to an aircraft with the name of Aero Trump. Whimsy was
often employed in the aircraft design, with the shapes designed as
familiar objects on the ground or something one might expect to see on
a road, such as a large wagon. This proved to be of benefit in another
way, as the Club wished to keep their activities secret and not draw
unwanted attention, an event which Peter Mennis felt might threaten
his ability to keep for himself the closely-guarded secret of Suppe.
The Aero Goeit, for instance, was designed as a covered wagon, which
club members could openly drive on local roads and then, when they
found themselves alone, unhitch the horses, activate the Suppe, and
fly off on an adventure. Such trips often lasted for days, so food was
provisioned aboard and many ships were outfitted with a stove and
When in town the members of the club soon decided that it would be
best if they all lived together, so they took over all the rooms in a
boarding house where they had their own kitchen, bar, and workroom in
which to design aircraft. Mennis continued to insist upon complete
secrecy, and at least one member was kicked out of the club for
talking a little too much to an outsider. Another member, a man by the
name of Jacob Mischer, soon became the focus of a serious lesson for
other club members when he crashed his craft and burned to a cinder.
It was rumored within the club that he had tried to make some extra
money by offering to haul some cargo by air, and that he had paid the
ultimate penalty when this dalliance was discovered. It was the Aero
Goeit which got tangled in the Giant Sequoia tree, hijacked by a
novice member of the club, an unskilled pilot who, on a reckless or a
drunken impulse, had decided to take off and fly by himself with
little training. Other club members quickly gave chase in another
aircraft but were unable to bring a halt to his flight. It was left to
them to clean up the debris after the Sequoia had effectively halted
the runaway pilot. And the tree that he hit and upon which he killed
himself most likely stood on the high point of Hoist Ridge, the most
elevated part of what was once the Converse Basin Grove just a few
miles from what is now Kings Canyon National Park. The Grove is gone,
cut down decades later, with the Boole Tree now the only Giant Sequoia
still standing there to have possibly witnessed this tale.
Most of what is known about the Sonora Aero Club was recorded by
Charles Dellschau, an immigrant from Prussia who made his way to
California and, by happy circumstance, found himself invited to join
that group of adventurers. When the club disbanded in the 1860’s,
Dellshau moved to Texas where, in the 1890’s, he began to paint. In
hundreds of pictures he drew over the next three decades he portrayed
the dozens of aircraft designed and flown by the Sonora Aero Club as
well as the adventures of the members in their many flights, often
noting the names of the aircraft, club trivia, or names of the club
members in the picture margins.
With the frantic search for wealth being the primary concern for all
who came to California in those days, it’s not surprising that strange
practices such as those indulged in by Mennis, Dellschau, and the
other members of the Sonora Aero Club would pass largely unnoticed by
those recording the story of the time because that story, after all,
centered around gold. A group of eccentrics living in their own
private boarding house on the edge of town would have been lost in the
historical noise of thousands and thousands of boisterous miners.
The Sonora Aero Club ceased to exist in the 1860’s with the death of
its founder, Peter Mennis. Mennis had succeeded in keeping the secret
of Suppe to himself, and with his passing that secret died with him.
Left with a collection of aircraft that would no longer fly because
they lacked the power source, the club members honored Mennis’s wish
for secrecy one last time and destroyed all of the aircraft before
going their separate ways. And the secret was thus forever buried.
Or was it?
In November of 1896 a strange, slow flying craft was spotted in the
sky above Sacramento, California, flying eastward. This was the first
in a rash of sightings of strange crafts in the sky; sightings which
would continue through various states for almost a year. In April of
1897 the object was spotted by a pastor as it flew over his church in
Texas, and a few days later the Houston Daily Post reported several
other sightings. In other newspaper reports over subsequent weeks it
was said that the craft actually landed on the ground in Texas, and
that the occupants chatted freely with locals as they made repairs and
then flew off again.
On April 28th, the Galveston Daily News ran a story about one of these
airship occupants – one ‘Airship Inventor Wilson’. When doing his
artwork Dellshau would often make notes in the margins, sometimes
identifying a club member who was being portrayed in that picture, and
on one of Dellshau’s many drawings he wrote in the margin, ‘Tosh
Mennis’s secret may have died with him, but it may not have stayed
buried after all. Perhaps it was discovered again years later by
Wilson, another avid member of the club. And then, for a brief period,
the Sonora Aero Club took to the sky one more time before it died
forever. Now, a century and a half later, a lone Giant Sequoia
standing along a ridge above Kings Canyon is left as the only
surviving witness to this fantastic tale; to the story of a handful of
men who paved a highway in the sky.
Picture, if you will, a man standing in a shallow hole, slightly bent,
a shovel held in his hands with which he is slowly scooping dirt out
of the hole and adding it to a growing pile alongside. The man is
someone who might best be described as swarthy; a man of dark facial
complexion through which scars of varied length and depth crisscross
the leathery facade, his face made even darker by the compounded
layers of dirt caked upon his skin, dirt through which several days’
worth of black stubble can be seen poking through like a young crop in
a freshly fertilized field. His black hair hangs loosely all around
his face, for it has been many months since he has indulged in the
luxury of a haircut, and a comb is not an item counted amongst his few
possessions. The old blue cotton shirt hangs loosely upon him,
billowing about his chest and waist. The brown cotton pants, which
long ago were cut trimly about his figure, now also hang in folds;
over-used, under-laundered, and held in place only by the remnants of
a still beautiful silver-studded leather belt. From that belt once
hung a very long and very sharp knife; a weapon which is no longer
with him on this day of digging, but a weapon whose proficient use has
made him famous throughout the Sierra Nevada. The man stops and sighs,
straightening his back and flexing the fingers of his hands, five on
one hand and three on the other, and glances over his shoulder to see
if his guard is still attentive and, even more important, if the guard
has let the point of his rifle relax. Even just a little slack in
attentiveness would be enough. But even a slight glance that way is
enough to cause his hope to sink. The guard is still standing there
staring at him, one foot perched upon a rotten log, the rifle leveled
at him across that raised knee, and eyes staring at him unblinkingly.
The guard gestures with his rifle, waving it slightly just an inch or
two, enough to indicate that he wants the digging to resume. With a
sigh the man in the hole wraps his eight fingers around the worn
wooden handle of the shovel and raises another scoop of dry earth to
the edge of the pit. He is in no haste whatsoever to complete the job
which has been assigned to him; no hurry at all, because he has been
handed the slightly distasteful task of creating a hole which he is
destined to fill.
The year is 1853, the man we are watching is called Three Fingered
Jack, and he is digging his own grave.
Born and christened with the rather generic Mexican name of Manuel
Garcia, it might be thought that the most notable part of this man’s
life would be the no doubt colorful tale of how he had permanently
mangled a hand and achieved the more memorable sobriquet of Three
Fingered Jack, and yet that part of the tale has unfortunately been
lost on the cutting floor of history. Jack, instead, is now remembered
– when indeed he is recalled even at all – for the fact that he hated
the Chinese immigrants in California with a vociferous passion, and
that whenever he found himself in a Sierra Nevada mining camp which
counted such Asian oddities amongst their population he often went
into a rage over the fact that strange men from the other side of the
world had invaded his homeland to take its wealth, and he would then
proceed to hang several of them from a tree by their long, braided
queues. There was more than a small element of irony in this because,
just a few years before, the United States had fought a war with
Mexico. In claiming victory the United States had also claimed a large
portion of Mexico’s territory as its own, and the Bear Flag Revolt had
then made California’s separation from Mexico permanent. Manuel
Garcia, a man of Mexican descent, had thus become a foreigner in his
But it is probable that this irony was lost upon him.
The result following the act of hanging the unfortunate Chinese from
the tree by their queues would vary according to the mood Jack
happened to be in – or the state of inebriation. If he was feeling
generous, he would let them hang for a while, laughing as he watched
them struggle, then he would take that long knife which hung from his
belt and slice the queue off at the base of the neck, letting the men
fall to the ground and run away, leaving the lifetime of hair hanging
from the tree, swinging like a macabre decoration used in
acknowledging some strange holiday which only Jack knew and
celebrated. If, however, Jack found himself in a somewhat darker mood
then, after letting the men hang by their hair for some indeterminate
time, he would draw his long-bladed knife and walk around the tree,
slitting the throats of every man whom he had therein hung. And then
he would laugh.
Three Fingered Jack was not a nice man.
And yet, it wasn’t this colorful hobby of Jack’s which landed him in
trouble with the law. Killing Chinese for sport was indeed distasteful
to most, but nobody in the mining camps was going to get too upset
about it. Chinese, like other immigrants, were on the fringe of mining
camp life, and, as immigrants were ranked, they were on the very
bottom of any concept of a social hierarchy. And there was always the
added bonus that the dead men’s diggings would quickly pass into the
hands of others, so although Jack’s actions were far from typical,
they were also not enough to get him into any serious trouble. Serious
Trouble would have been if he had tried to practice this on Gringos,
and although Jack hated those Gringos as well, he was smart enough to
know where the line was drawn. No, Jack had quickly decided that he
would not hang and slice the Americanos. He would rob and shoot them
The early 1850’s saw California play host to a number of notorious
bandits, but the most colorful of them all was another man of Mexican
descent by the name of Joaquin Murietta. One of the most famous
outlaws in all of California history, Murietta was considered by most
to be a scourge on the land, while at the same time he was held by
many to be a folk hero who embodied the frustrations of California’s
Mexican population and who symbolized their need for resistance to the
influx of greedy white men. Murietta was a legend, like Zorro and
Robin Hood, nebulous and unreal, yet nevertheless he was a very
tangible reality to all those Gringos who felt that, real or not, he
epitomized the embodiment of the continuing threat of the Mexican
presence in California. So when it was rumored that Three Fingered
Jack had joined Murietta’s band of outlaws, the political pressure in
the California state capitol reached a boiling point and the
legislature voted to offer a reward for the capture of Murietta and
his gang of outlaws. However, a member of the California Committee on
Military Affairs pointed out that perhaps it wasn’t entirely ethical
to put a price on the head of someone who had never been convicted of
a crime. He also wisely warned the California legislature that there
was actually no real proof that any such person as Murietta really
existed and that a large reward just might encourage bounty hunters to
randomly kill people of Mexican descent and present the body to claim
the reward. So instead the legislature grudgingly voted to authorize a
band of self-styled rangers under the direction of a man named Harry
Love to hunt down Murietta and his gang and bring an end to the public
The confusion over whether or not Joaquin Murietta was in fact a real
individual or instead a myth – a myth which had so often been repeated
that it came to be believed - was now relegated to a peripheral
argument, for it was an irrefutable fact that Three Fingered Jack had
elevated himself from what had been a sideshow act to mainstream
crime, that he and a gang of other Mexican desperados were robbing
miners in the Sierra Nevada, making off with untold amounts of gold,
and occasionally shooting the victims in the process. The legislature
authorized the formation of the ranger patrol and the governor signed
it, and that is how a newly-arrived Texan by the name of Harry Love
came to lead a party of twenty newly-arrived volunteer Gringos on a
chase throughout the state for a notorious outlaw of Mexican descent
and his supposed gang of thieves, the only one of whom could be
identified with certainty was Three Fingered Jack, a man whose claim
to California being his rightful home was more legitimate than any of
these others. Three Fingered Jack, though vicious, was far from
stupid. He could see trouble when it was coming his way, and
immediately headed south through the Sierra, away from most of the
mining camps where he was both well-known and easily recognized.
At this point the Jack’s tale becomes a little more nebulous, with
history divided on which version, if any, holds the higher level of
authenticity. There is here a divergence in the possible paths of
Three Fingered Jack, and his tale turns into one of those adventure
stories where you can choose your own ending.
The first version was the one most often told in California later in
1853. Harry Love and his troupe of rangers ranged the length and
breadth of California for two months, investigating any incident in
which Murietta and his gang had been said to take part; following even
the most phantom lead in the hope of finding the outlaw and his
followers. On July 25th of 1853 Love and his men rode into a clearing
in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Tulare Lake and came upon a group
of Mexicans encamped there. The rangers, after two long months on the
trail, were tired and frustrated, and any group of Mexicans camped in
the hills were, as far as they were concerned, highly suspicious and
candidates for a noose. The rangers headed directly for the camp and
accosted the men, asking questions about who they were, what they were
doing, and which one of them was Joaquin Murietta, even though they
had no tangible evidence that these men were even outlaws, much less
the stuff of legend which they sought. The Mexicans, understandably,
did not take kindly to the intrusion and gruff accusations leveled at
them and basically told Love and his rangers to piss off. Weapons were
drawn and shots were fired. The Mexican who had been the most verbal
was the first to fall dead, and at that all the rest of the men fled
in different directions, some on foot and others on horseback. The
rangers took off after one mounted man who was still firing at them
over his shoulder.
As is often the case when history is recorded, the truth becomes lost
in the tangle of stories told, often changing and sometimes
disappearing entirely, and the legends that remain are all that we
have left to glimpse a snapshot of the past. One version of the tale
which branches off at this point has the man on horseback quickly
being shot in the back, falling off his horse, and pronounced as being
dead by the time the rangers caught up with him. They threw his body
over the back of his horse and returned to the Mexicans' camp, where
the only person remaining was the deceased man who had been the first
to fall in the fray. The rangers buried the two men and did not bother
to pursue the others. But before burying them they cut off the head of
the first victim, christening him as the famous yet ephemeral bandit,
Joaquin Murietta. Then they cut off the hand of the second man – and
perhaps a couple of fingers as well – and deemed him to be the evil
Three Fingered Jack. The hand and the head returned to Sacramento with
Harry Love and his rangers. They were given a triumphal welcome when
they displayed their trophies, and no one thought to ask for proof of
identification. The outlaws were dead; the rangers were heroes– End of
A second version of the tale has Love and his self-styled rangers
getting tired of the chase and deciding to give up. On their way home,
near Tulare Lake, they came upon a group of Mexicans peacefully
encamped. Not wishing to return to Sacramento as the pathetic losers
which they apparently were, Love and his men saw their chance to
redeem themselves from the laughter and derision which surely awaited
them. They decided to attack the Mexicans, and succeeded in killing
two of them before the rest disappeared into the trees. These two
conveniently became the two most notorious outlaws in California, and
the gratitude of a relieved population was heaped upon the victorious
men – as well as a generous cash reward from the personal coffers of
the governor. The outlaws were dead; the rangers were heroes – End of
A third version of the tale had Murietta and his gang heading south
and crossing the border into the safety of Mexico as soon as they
heard about the group of innocent men killed in their name near Tulare
Lake. They knew when to cut their losses and were wise enough to do
so, making it well south of the border into safety, where they lived
quite comfortably for the remainder of their lives on the spoils they
had taken from the Gringos to the north. Successful both in their
illegal endeavors as well as in their wise and hasty retirement, they
faded into history, never to be heard from again. End of Story.
A fourth version of the tale – the one with which this story began –
has the vocally vociferous Mexican at the encampment near Tulare Lake
immediately shot dead and the most rebellious of the others shot and
wounded after a long chase on horseback. The wounded man was taken
back to the encampment and sat on a log beside the body which waited
there. He protested his innocence, but of course the shooting of two
innocent men wasn’t quite the end to the tale which could be tolerated
by the rangers; not even one which could be considered. So the wounded
man was handed a shovel and told to dig. He asked the rangers why he
should have to dig his friend’s grave; why they just couldn’t bring
the body of the dead man back with them to Sacramento, where it could
probably be identified and this whole mess cleared up. After a bit of
polite coughing and delay, it was explained to him that the whole
thing was already quite clear; that he was, in fact, the notorious
outlaw known as Three Fingered Jack and the dead man on the ground
next to him was the even more notorious outlaw, Joaquin Murietta.
“No”, he protested, “that can not be! The man on the ground is my
friend, not an outlaw! And it’s obvious that I’m not Three Fingered
Jack!” He held up his hands to show them. “I still have all my
His short speech was received with more nervous coughing and
uncomfortable murmuring, as well as some laughter from some of the
more insensitive of the rangers. Then it was politely explained to him
that as soon as he finished digging, his hand would be modified to
meet the necessary requirements.
And, by the way, he wasn’t digging one grave – he was digging two.
And so this man from Mexico who had, just a few hours before, been
peacefully camping along the shores of a beautiful lake with his
friends, now found himself standing in a hole which was growing slowly
yet inexorably deeper, lowering him to his fate. And when the rangers
felt that it was deep enough – or perhaps they had just grown
impatient – they nodded to the guard with the rifle and a single
bullet found its way into the back of the man who had found himself in
the wrong place at the wrong time. A head and a hand were severed and
the two bodies were buried in an unmarked grave, where they rest
quietly to this day. The head and the hand, after returning to
Sacramento with the victorious rangers, toured California for several
years as a demonstration of the inevitable victory of Good over Evil,
drawing paying crowds wherever they went until they both disappeared
forever in the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of April, 1906.
End of Story.
Unless, of course, Murietta and Jack lived on in Mexico, in which case
they would have enjoyed this absurd Gringo circus from a long and safe
distance as they eventually laughed themselves to death at a ripe old
Three Fingered Jack cut off the long braided queues of the Chinese
invaders of his homeland. Harry Love cut off the head of a man who was
never proven to even exist. And Harry Love, just a few years later,
went crazy, losing his own head in a different way. He barricaded
himself in his house and died in a shootout with a posse of lawmen
whom he saw in his deranged mind as a band of enemy Mexican bandits.
Karma, so they say, can be a real bitch.
We were dreamers, dreaming greatly, in the man-stifled town;
We yearned beyond the skyline, where the strange roads go down.
The days grow shorter and colder, darker and icy, and as the wind
whips across the sides of the mountains, blowing stinging snow into
the eyes and a vacuum of cold air is sucked into the lungs, the year
draws to a close high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California,
and in these mountains it can sometimes feel as if not just the year
is ending but the entire steep white world around us is frozen in
time; that the Earth has spun an icy white cocoon in which it has
fallen asleep forever, neglectfully leaving us uninvited to its
hibernation and left shivering on the outside. In most of present day
California on New Year’s Eve the bars and nightclubs are filled with
drinkers and drunkards drowning themselves in the celebration of
another year lived and passed. On the following morning most will
awaken to make resolutions they will never keep, and with a sigh of
resignation go through another year just like the one ended. For they
have never yearned beyond the skyline.
But many in the mountains are here because of those very yearnings,
and so it was in the past. And when those years past drew to their
close there were indeed some who did drink to get drunk; some, but not
most. There were also those who drank to forget; some, but not many.
And there were some who also drank to ponder: How did I get here? How
did I start down this road? And so as this year draws to its close
perhaps you might offer yourself for a brief experiment. As you open
the door to the neighborhood bar for your New Year’s Eve drink, pause
for a moment on the threshold and close your eyes, take a deep breath,
then open them and step inside. If magic happens, which it sometimes
can, then you will open your eyes to find yourself in a ramshackle
Sierra Nevada saloon of a century and a half ago. You’re in a frozen
mountain town and the wind is pushing you through the door to find
relief in the relatively warm air inside. For our purposes it doesn’t
matter which town, because on this night they are all the same. You
won’t see anyone you know in this saloon, nor anyone of whom you might
have even remotely heard. These people are all quite real, yet all
merely forgotten footnotes in the lives of someone else passing
through. They have all passed on many decades ago; but they have all
agreed to come here tonight solely for your edification, so try not to
stare. As you walk into the saloon you see a few tables gathered near
the cast iron wood-burning stove at the far end of the room which are
all filled with men playing poker. The heat from this stove doesn’t
spread very far, so they are all huddled close to gather what heat
they can. Those not warming themselves from the stove are mostly at
the bar, pouring liquid warmth down their throats with a steady
regularity. You decide to join them, and you walk slowly across the
buckled plank floor where clumps of scattered dirty sawdust cling to
your boots; you lean on the bar, nudge aside the spitoon on the floor,
and hook one foot on the scarred rail which runs the base of the bar’s
length. The bartender pours you a whiskey. You thank him, fish deep
into your pocket for some money, and drop a coin on the counter top.
He nods with a cursory acknowledgement and moves on. As your eyes
follow him you see a woman with long dark hair sitting by herself all
the way down at the end of the bar to your left. You stop your head
from turning because you don’t want her to think you are staring.
Instead you continue to examine her out of the edge of you eye. Her
skin is dark brown, but what you can see from her profile tells you
that she is probably of Mexican descent, not Indian. She’s wearing a
colorful dress, but even the edge of your eye can note that it’s worn
thin and frayed at the edges. It’s not much, but it’s probably the
best she has. And you wonder; why is she here?
She, too, holds that same thought in her mind. Her name is Maria
Aquila, and as she slowly twirls the shot glass in her fingers you
acknowledge that the remnants of youth’s beauty are still to be found
in her features if one looks closely. Indeed, she had probably been
very beautiful when she was young. It’s not that she’s old on this
night – maybe about forty. Maria did indeed come from Mexico, making
her way north to end up here in this bar in the Sierra Nevada, but
that journey had been twenty years or more in her past. Maria was only
a young teenager when her parents arranged a marriage for her.
Actually the arrangement had been mostly her father’s doing, and her
mother had quietly acquiesced. Her father, steeped in Spanish
tradition, had picked out a man whom he felt would be a profitable
match for her; a man to whom Maria felt not the slightest attraction
even though he had been entranced by her beauty. After expressing her
displeasure at the arrangement and receiving only harsh words from her
father in response, Maria ran away one night from the only home she
had known in faraway Sonora, Mexico. After several days alone of
walking a dusty road leading north she joined a group of men who had
heard of the wealth of gold to be found in California and were heading
north to the mines. She stayed with them for the next few months,
doing what was necessary along the way to ensure her safe passage with
these men across the border, through the desert, and into the
mountains, where she finally parted from her fellow travelers. At
China Camp she continued earning her living in the only way she knew,
closing her eyes and dreaming of the future and saving what little she
earned from the men who purchased her favors. Years passed. When she’d
had enough she moved to another mining camp and opened a saloon. It
was then the charm and personality which had lain dormant within her
for so long reasserted itself. Her establishment became a showplace,
all decorated in her favorite colors, blue and white. Even all the
beer mugs and shot glasses had decorations on them. She often tended
bar herself, with her beauty and charm more easily parting men from
their money than had her lovely and desirable body managed even in its
best years. But sometimes the memories just got to be too much for
Maria; the memories of home in Mexico; the longing for her family; the
touch of all those hundreds of groping hands on her body. And when
those memories overwhelmed her Maria instead became her own best
customer, sitting alone at the end of the bar, trying to drown
memories which would always float back up to haunt her. And she would
think of going back to Mexico, or at least of leaving the mountains
for someplace civilized like San Francisco; of finding a good man and
marrying; of living a happy and respectable life. For a time she could
believe this might really happen, but not anymore; not that now her
beauty had faded to a memory which only she could see. So now all she
had left was the dream and the drink to keep it afloat. One night
Maria left the bar blissfully drunk, stumbling down the street to her
room. The sheriff saw her and, as he had always had more than a little
bit of a frustrated lover’s crush on Maria, he went to her aid to help
her get home. Maria turned on him and cursed him, calling him a
variety of colorful names in fluent Mexican and Chinese. When the
sheriff protested that he was only trying to help; that he cared;
Maria drew a long knife from beneath her skirt and lunged at him,
aiming the blade for his heart. The sheriff caught her arm and they
struggled for control of the knife. In that struggle the blade turned
and sliced through Maria’s wrist, severing muscle and tendon all the
way down to the bone. As the blood flowed the sheriff was distraught
with guilt and carried her to the doctor’s office, where the doctor
bandaged the wound but could not repair the damage. Over the next few
weeks Maria’s fingers curled and then froze into a claw. It was the
end of her dream of finding and enchanting a man. She walked down the
road to the edge of town, gave up, and died.
You find that you have been staring at Maria without wanting to, so
you let your gaze continue past the tired woman at the end of the bar
and continue beyond her. At a table near the door through which you
just entered sits a woman all by herself. The bartender has just
finished refilling her glass and she has thanked him with a soft
‘Merci’. Her eyes catch yours as she raises her glass, and she gives
you a sad smile. You turn away, embarrassed, and empty your own glass,
wondering why she is so sad.
She’s sad because she’s lost the man she loved.
Her name is Madame Louie. No last name; just Madame Louie. She’s old
now, and most of her life was spent earning a meager living by taking
in the laundry of miners; scrubbing their filthy clothes in a tub
perched on a makeshift wooden platform in back of her run down shack.
She also grew flowers in her garden and sold bouquets to the bartender
at a saloon in Columbia; a man who felt pity for her. Some of the
miners in Columbia had begun to notice that gold dust was disappearing
from their cabins and their diggings when they weren’t around, and it
was happening frequently enough for them to begin to look upon each
other with suspicion. Finally that suspicion settled upon an old
French man who had a claim on the outskirts of town. So the mostly
Irish-American-British-German miners of the town descended upon the
poor lone Frenchman, trussed him up, and prepared to hang him from a
tree which had grown a conveniently placed sturdy branch. As a polite
formality they asked him if he had any last words, but this courtesy
was lost upon the old man as he neither spoke nor understood English.
So, with a collective shrug, they bound his hands behind his back,
tightened the noose around his neck, and prepared to kick the stump
out from beneath his feet. At this point Madame Louie burst into the
crowd shouting that the man was innocent. However, as Madame Louie was
known to be sweet on her fellow French ex-patriot, her protests were
not taken seriously and they proceeded to kick the stump out from
under the Frenchman’s feet, leaving him to swing in the breeze. Madame
Louie screamed and grabbed an axe and began swinging it in wide
circles, sending the men scattering. When she reached the hanging man
she swung again, slicing through the rope and sending him tumbling to
the ground, but still breathing. With a laugh and a curse from the
crowd a new rope promptly appeared and the Frenchman was hung again,
and again Madame Louie appeared with her axe, swinging wildly and
shouting at the top of her lungs, claiming his innocence. Again the
crowd scattered, and again the frightening French woman swung and
sliced through the hangman’s rope, saving his life. Again Madame Louie
was driven away. Again another rope was produced. Again the Frenchman
was hung. And then again, like a specter from Hell which could not be
banished, the persistent French woman appeared with her axe to save
his life. And again. And again. Though the Frenchman seemed to have
more lives than the proverbial cat, his neck by now was raw and bloody
from the repeated caresses of the hemp rope. But Madame Louie had
managed to keep the score somewhat even, and each of her attacks with
the axe had drawn blood from at least one man in this crowd with the
hanging lust. Finally, the mob gave up. To a man they acquiesced to
Madame Louie’s insistence that the old Frenchman was innocent and let
him go. Madame Louie was exhausted, but exultant. She had saved the
life of the man she loved. There was no medical assistance to be had
in Columbia, so she sent her love off to the nearest doctor, who was
to be found in Angel’s Camp. The doctor treated his wounds and he
lived, but he never returned to the town where he had cheated death.
Madame Louie had lost the love of her life; not to the hangman, but to
the ghost of fear; a thing Madame Louie could never wave off with her
axe. Her heart was broken.
There’s a kink in your neck; you’ve been tilting your head to the left
for much too long. So you angle your nose forward like a rudder
steering its course to find the bartender staring at you. This is
disconcerting; does he suspect you have dropped in to his
establishment from another time? Abruptly you point at your glass, not
remembering having emptied it, and he refills it. Again you roll a
coin his way and he wanders back to Maria to offer comfort. Now you
gaze to the right, and you’re surprised to see a man you hadn’t
noticed before; a black man sitting all alone at a table in the far
corner, away from the stove and the heat; as isolated as he can be
from all the other men in the bar. There’s a drink on the table in
front of him, but you can easily see that the amber liquid rises all
the way to the rim and it sits untouched. Instead the man is holding a
rope curled loosely in his left hand. In his right he holds the end of
that rope, hanging in a loop. He moves that loop slowly, as if he
wants to let it fly but is afraid to do so. Instead it just sways
gently back and forth; back and forth, and he thinks of what road
brought him here.
The black man’s name is Charley. Charley was a slave in Texas. When
the Emancipation Proclamation – enforced by the Civil War – freed him,
Charley chose to stay with the man who had owned him. The owner’s name
was McGee. When the Civil War ended, McGee decided that a change was
in order so he packed up his few remaining belongings along with what
family remained and headed to California. McGee wasn’t married, and
his family was comprised by his mother, his sister and sister’s
husband, and their baby. When they arrived they staked out a ranch and
began acquiring a herd of cattle. One day on the eastern side of the
Sierra Nevada Charley was helping McGee and his family move some
cattle and horses down the mountain and in to Owens Valley. McGee and
Charley were on horseback - Charley was a good drover and a capable
man on a horse, as well as having a reputation for being deadly
accurate when throwing a rope. McGee’s mother, sister, and the child
were riding in a wagon. When they came to a river the wagon couldn’t
make it all the way across and got stuck in mud. It tilted to one side
and then tipped over, spilling mother and baby into the rushing water.
Unbeknownst to them, a group of Paiutes had been watching the party,
coveting the livestock and looking for an opportunity to make off with
the cattle and horses. When the wagon tipped the natives saw their
chance. As McGee and Charley were intent on saving the family from
drowning the Paiutes charged, shouting and firing a volley of arrows
at the two men. Luckily the act of firing an arrow from the back of a
running horse was not one which was conducive to accuracy, so all of
the arrows missed their targets. McGee rode his horse into the river
and picked his mother up out of the water. Charley was close at hand.
He jumped off of his horse into the rushing water and lifted McGee’s
sister into the saddle, then handed her the baby. Then he gave the
horse a hard slap on the rump and sent it galloping through the water
to the far side, and safety. McGee turned and went back for Charley.
There wasn’t room left in the saddle with him and his mother already
there, so McGee shouted to Charlie to grab the horse’s tail and hang
on. But Charley just shook his head, and McGee now saw that the black
man had his rope coiled in his hand. Charley pointed to the horses
they had been herding, then waved McGee on. McGee nodded and dug his
heels into the horse’s flanks, wheeling him away from the empty wagon
and the faithful man who, he now believed, would rope one of the
milling horses and quickly follow. But then something went wrong.
Charley, the man who never missed when throwing a lassoo, missed. His
sailing rope fell into empty water, missing the necks of the nearby
horses which had offered the promise of escape from the rapidly
approaching Paiutes. There was no second chance. The horses were
quickly across the river and out of reach, and the Paiutes were upon
him. The Paiutes took Charley and left the others; they took him back
to their camp and they gave him a very slow, very painful death. Until
the very end Charley pondered on how his skill with a rope had failed
him on his very last toss.
Charley’s rope is still gently swinging, back and forth, back and
forth, and you look away, back at your drink, wondering: What really
brought these people here?
What brought these people here to the Sierra Nevada was the yearning
to go beyond the skyline where the strange roads go down. None of them
had ever read Kipling, but they were kindred spirits nonetheless. All
were tired of what they had, and the hope of what the unknown road
might offer was just fine with them. For most men who came to
California the road seemed somewhat clearer; for most of them, in
their minds, saw it paved with gold. But for women, blacks, Chinese,
French - these all found themselves isolated in a lonesome minority
and pushed to the fringe of mountain society. They had followed a
strange road because they yearned for something better that lay beyond
the familiar skyline, and they ended up in the Sierra Nevada
Mountains; thousands and thousands of them, unknown and unremembered
except, perhaps, as a brief footnote in the history of some place now
long gone. Yet it is those few who yearn, who follow their dreams
beyond the horizon; it is they who make history worth remembering,
even if they as individuals have long been forgotten.
We were dreamers, dreaming greatly, in the man-stifled town,
We yearned beyond the skyline, where the strange roads go down;
Came the whisper, came the vision, came the power with the need;
Till the soul that was not man’s soul was lent to us to lead.
Rudyard Kipling – excerpt from: ‘Song of the Dead’
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.