Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Robert Louis Stevenson and the North Fork

I am always on the lookout for old descriptions of the North Fork American. It is quite amazing what one can find on the internet. This morning I stumbled upon Robert Louis Stevenson's diary-essay, "Across the Plains," date uncertain, but I would guess, in the late 1870s. The entire essay is remarkable. Little vignettes illuminate unforeseen historical corners, as when he changes from the Union Pacific to the Central Pacific, in Utah, and finds the cars of the CPRR so much taller and airier, clean, and freshly varnished; it put a new complexion on what had been a rather tiresome journey.

He also remarks upon the anti-Chinese movement (this suggests the late 1870s); how the Chinese had their own car, on the train, and that the Chinese car smelled better than the white cars, but the whites, when brought face-to-face with a Chinese man, would clutch their throats, as if strangling with the bad Chinese smell, and about to throw up.

So. The excerpt below begins with a glance back at the deserts of Nevada, and then, late at night, the train has stopped, perhaps in the canyon of the Truckee, west of Verdi, or perhaps near Donner Lake, in Coldstream Canyon.

The next morning Stevenson awakes, the train breaks free of the snowsheds once, near Emigrant Gap, and then breaks free again, for once and for all, at Blue Canyon. The American River Canyon is now in view.

Of all the next day I will tell you nothing, for the best of all
reasons, that I remember no more than that we continued through
desolate and desert scenes, fiery hot and deadly weary. But some
time after I had fallen asleep that night, I was awakened by one of
my companions. It was in vain that I resisted. A fire of
enthusiasm and whisky burned in his eyes; and he declared we were
in a new country, and I must come forth upon the platform and see
with my own eyes. The train was then, in its patient way, standing
halted in a by-track. It was a clear, moonlit night; but the
valley was too narrow to admit the moonshine direct, and only a
diffused glimmer whitened the tall rocks and relieved the blackness
of the pines. A hoarse clamour filled the air; it was the
continuous plunge of a cascade somewhere near at hand among the
mountains. The air struck chill, but tasted good and vigorous in
the nostrils - a fine, dry, old mountain atmosphere. I was dead
sleepy, but I returned to roost with a grateful mountain feeling at
my heart.

When I awoke next morning, I was puzzled for a while to know if it
were day or night, for the illumination was unusual. I sat up at
last, and found we were grading slowly downward through a long
snowshed; and suddenly we shot into an open; and before we were
swallowed into the next length of wooden tunnel, I had one glimpse
of a huge pine-forested ravine upon my left, a foaming river, and a
sky already coloured with the fires of dawn. I am usually very
calm over the displays of nature; but you will scarce believe how
my heart leaped at this. It was like meeting one's wife. I had
come home again - home from unsightly deserts to the green and
habitable corners of the earth. Every spire of pine along the
hill-top, every trouty pool along that mountain river, was more
dear to me than a blood relation. Few people have praised God more
happily than I did. And thenceforward, down by Blue Canon, Alta,
Dutch Flat, and all the old mining camps, through a sea of mountain
forests, dropping thousands of feet toward the far sea-level as we
went, not I only, but all the passengers on board, threw off their
sense of dirt and heat and weariness, and bawled like schoolboys,
and thronged with shining eyes upon the platform and became new
creatures within and without. The sun no longer oppressed us with
heat, it only shone laughingly along the mountain-side, until we
were fain to laugh ourselves for glee. At every turn we could see
farther into the land and our own happy futures. At every town the
cocks were tossing their clear notes into the golden air, and
crowing for the new day and the new country. For this was indeed
our destination; this was "the good country" we had been going to
so long.

By afternoon we were at Sacramento, the city of gardens in a plain
of corn ....

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