Myrna and I were married in a garden in June of this year. Seasoned wedding goers agreed that it was the best they had seen, embellished as it was with a brass choir, a more than passable poem by my father, lovely bridesmaids, and an incomparable bride. Two hippies came in to watch from the colonnade, apparently with approval because they gave us their beads. Many wept.
After the wedding we packed our rubber boat and drove up the coast, past the oil flow at Santa Barbara, which had been cleaned off the beaches but still lingered in the kelp beds, through the little fake Danish town of Solvang, past the Hearst Castle, which was hidden under a cloud, and up the twisted road to Big Sur. This was a country of trees and grass, of wrinkled mountains and rock cliffs fetching down to the sea. We climbed down one of the cliffs, with a few squeaks and trembles from Myrna at various hazards along the way. At the bottom was a sand beach with caves, dripping green moss, and a cold rivulet flowing into the ocean. On one side was a tunnel in the rock, crusted with shells and seaplants. Green waves rolled through the tunnel, whuffing against the sides. The tunnel cliff was gnarled and veined, with little shelves and nooks where cormorants perched watching for their prey. On the other side were more cliffs and a longhaired individual who had clambered down for reasons best known to himself and was now shuffling along the beach. In between was a little bay, dotted with rocks and spread with kelp. A sea otter was swimming in the kelp, on his back, now looking at us, now diving into the kelp. When we had seen our fill, we climbed back up our cliff, taking note of the longhaired one's warning that the last party which had come down our way had had to be pulled out with ropes.
We went on to Carmel, with its old Mission, its pine trees, its celebrated homes, its beaches, its rocks covered with birds and seals, its tourists. One of the latter had a station wagon with a large brood of kids, who dropped various articles of clothing out of the back window, seriatim, over a distance of several miles. From Carmel we went to Castroville, the Artichoke Capital of the World, and then to Santa Cruz, a place of great beauty.
Our road then led inland up the Sonoma and Russian River Valleys to Garberville, the beginning of the big redwood country and the recommended starting point for trips down the South Fork of the Eel River. We were, headed for Alder Point on the Eel proper, however, and we turned east over the foothills of the Coast Range between the two forks of the river.
This country was not unlike the Virginia mountains of my own upbringing -- two or three thousand feet in elevation, crisscrossed with dirt roads, cattle and timber country -- but it seemed one step more isolated and one step more spectacular. We drove for an hour under grey, drizzling skies without seeing anyone but a trailer truck driver who was trying to start his stalled vehicle. Even the cattle were sparse, with tiny herds of four or five animals showing themselves at ten-mile intervals. The road was alternately dirt and pavement, with each turn revealing a new vista of such wild and spacious beauty as to make you think the mountains were much higher than they actually were. Myrna, who had been worried by the cliff climb and had been warned that the Eel was crawling with rattlesnakes, did not find the isolation quite as splendid as I did. She also had some doubts about the car, which had crumpled a pushrod in Santa Barbara. As we came closer to Alder Point she began to review the awful things that might happen to us if we hitchhiked back to our starting point, a topic which was also of considerable concern to me, but not so considerable as my concern for getting on with the trip
Things did not look quite so gloomy in Alder Point, where the sun had come out at midday, and we learned that there was a passenger train upriver once every other day, which could be flagged down if you caught it on a straightaway where it had time to stop. The Eel is particularly well suited for honeymooning in that it is not followed by a road like most rivers, but by the Northwestern Pacific Railroad, a lumber line, which runs one or two freight trains and the passenger Buddliner between Eureka and San Rafael every day. The rest of the time we were to have the river to ourselves and the animals, mostly deer, who lived along the river, with the added luxury of a regularly scheduled ride back to the car.
The river itself was also well suited for a first trip, with long stretches of quiet water 50-100 yards wide, interspersed with very mild rapids It was still conveniently high from last winter's record snowfall, and neither as cold nor as insectridden as some of our informants had led us to expect. It was fringed with neck-high undergrowth at our put-in point, which elicited some discussion about snakes but did not produce any. We lugged our boat and equipment down to the shore -- food, maps, camera, paddles, camping gear, most of it in double waterproof bags. Our prize item was a plywood floor for the raft, which I had made myself on the advice of a professional river-runner in Pomona. It was perfectly fitted to the bottom of the raft, with holes bored to strap it in and three coats of bright blue paint. With such a floor, said my river-runner, we could stand up and move around at will in the raft without going through the bottom or wearing it excessively in one place.
By the time we were inflated, packed, and launched, it was five in the afternoon of June 10, almost four days after our departure from Claremont. It was Wednesday, with the next upriver trains due at midday on Friday and Sunday. The river was most inviting, with massive boulders thrusting up on either side. A doe with two fawns came down to drink in the cool of the day, wholly unembarrassed by our presence. We made about three miles before dusk and the discovery of a flaw in our planning obliged us to stop. A trickle of water in the bottom of the boat warned us that we had a leak. It turned out to be the result of our blue floor rubbing the bottom against the rocks.
The raft had a patching kit, but we discovered, to our chagrin, that the patching cement had dried up. We pitched camp on a gravel bar, enjoying yet another advantage of the Eel: it does not have power dams upstream to vary the water level and we could camp with reasonable assurance that we would not be washed away during the night. The stars were many, and bright as they can only be where they are not diminished by electric lights and polluted air. There was one moment when the darkness and the silence were broken by a lumber train, which roared by with a terrific din, but presently it was quiet again, and we drifted off to sleep.
The next morning Myrna broke camp and prepared breakfast while I walked back along the railroad to Alder Point to look for patching material. The Alder Point general store obliged we with two boxes of patching (which we have since almost used up), and in due time we were fed, patched, and on our way, this time with the blue floor tied on top of the seats so it would not rub in front. The correction was not enough. We slit another gash in the bottom, this time a large one on the side. The gushing water also punctured Myrna's sense of security, which had not been greatly strengthened by the prior events of the trip. "We're sinking, we're sinking!" she cried, drawing up her toes from the swirling water. We pulled over, unleaded, and patched up again. We reluctantly launched our blue floor on its own trip downriver, then set off for what was to be the finest part of the trip.
The sun comes out late on the Eel, melting the clouds on the mountaintop first, then penetrating farther and farther down the valley till it reaches the river, but, once on the river, it comes on very warm. We glided in perfect solitude down one sun-dappled stretch after another, stopping now and then to scale a cliff or sun or swim through the green water. Such moments can never be for long, but they are precious while they last. In our case, the first limiting factor was the fierceness of the midday sun. Just as I was reaching the sunburn point, we came to a place where the river's rock wall folded in, and inside the fold was a cave, which both demanded exploration and invited repose. We chose both and stopped for lunch. The cave turned out to be a drainage tunnel, some 200 feet in length, which had been blasted out to keep a creek on the other side from backing up against the railroad embankment during the spring floods. There was another such tunnel farther down the river. We then slept for two hours and set out again under the more hospitable sun of the late afternoon - only to find our way impeded by the evening wind, which blows upriver as fast or faster than the current will take you down. Our plan had been to land and pack our gear in time to catch the Friday train at one of the two places where we could reach the river by road: Fort Seward, 12 miles downstream from Alder Point, or Eel Rock, 20 miles beyond Fort Seward. Eel Rock was now out of the question for the Friday train; to make it for the Sunday train would have required a big push with no slipups, with the risk of having to wait till Wednesday if we missed. Myrna, who had borne up very well under all the breakdowns and snake stories, was beginning to feel the strain of too many new and strenuous experiences. When she started to comment on the resemblance between her honeymoon and boot camp, I turned my thoughts toward reaching Fort Seward and stopping, which we did just at dusk.
That night Myrna's air mattress sprang a leak, and the next day brought more and stronger reference to the boot camp simile. A proposed hike down the tracks brought our first marital crisis after the stationmaster told her how the rattlesnakes liked to nestle under the rails. The hike proved to be a rather short one. On our return to the station we found two engineers who were scouting the river for damsites. We rode with them on the train to Alder Point and they recommended that we look at the Smith and Klamath Rivers with an eye to our next trip, while we were still in that part of the world. Myrna's spirits were improving substantially, and, by the time we had driven back to Fort Seward, packed the car, and headed away from the river, she seemed remarkably cheerful for one leaving such an enchanting spot.
The road from the Eel was even more beautiful than the road to the Eel, being narrower and running much more to dirt than to pavement, with the most glorious spectacles imaginable stretching out in every direction. Curiously, the finest of them all was one that I had seen in a dream twenty years ago. The dream I remember distinctly. I was 11 or 12 years old, fighting my way through the birch trees in our chicken yard in Belmont. I loathed the place. The chickens had eaten up all the grass, and the birch trees were not the elegant silver kind but the scruffy, twiggy kind which sticks you in the eye and grows too close together. I was allergic to birch trees and to dust, both of which were everywhere. I pushed on, however, and presently found the going more pleasant, with grass and pine trees appearing in greater numbers, first the inelegant scotch pine and then the lordly white pine. I was climbing a mountain and soon left the birches far behind. Presently I arrived at a promontory which overlooked a river valley of striking beauty, such as I had never seen before and was not to see again till be took the road from Fort Seward. I awoke enraptured by the scene, turned on the light, and made a pencil drawing so that I would not forget it. I kept the drawing for many years but cannot remember what became of it. Perhaps it still exists.
I drove past the dream-view before I remembered what it was, then scooted off the road at the next turnoff on the other side for a better look. I had just enough time to realize that the angle was not quite right before it struck me that we were about to run into another car which had turned off from the other direction to enjoy the same view. It was an old station wagon, as I recall, whose driver had a look of experience about him. I enthused to him about the beauties of the countryside and asked him whether he had been in the area long. "I own it," he announced. It turned out that he was Guy Satterlee, the second-largest landholder in California with 31,000 Elysian acres. My first thought was to urge him to hold on to them, which turned out to be apposite, for he confessed that, in fact, he was about to sell. I demurred, discussed the problems of land ownership, with particular reference to the Blue Ridge county, and then took my leave, making a mental note to write him about turning the area into a state park.
We drove by dirt backroads, one lane wide, through redwood and fir forests, carpeted with pine needles and fields of daisies, in second gear all the way because of the steepness. We looked at Eel Rock, then returned to the Avenue of the Giants, which leads north through an aisle of enormous redwoods. All of this was lumber country, apart from park areas along the Avenue of the Giants, and huge trucks, piles of huge logs, and conical sawdust burners could be seen everywhere. We spent the night north of Eureka, then went on to examine the Klamath and Smith Rivers. The Klamath was neither as scenic nor as isolated as the Eel, being followed by roads for much of its length and serviced with jetboat tours from south of Crescent City, but it had more current and more exciting rapids than the Eel. The Smith was beautiful but too crammed with rocks for comfortable boating. We drove along the Smith valley into Oregon, then cut back on a dirt road toward Happy Camp on the middle Klamath. This had been goldmining country in the great days, and we discovered that one enterprising fellow was still at it. He had set up a water-blasting device which shot a hundred-foot column of water at the hillside, with the resulting muddy flow directed into a sluice where the gold might settle. Farther down the road was a rock emporium where an old man had settled with his lifetime collection of rocks, while his wife cherished her lifetime collection of old bottles. We looked at every rock, and I bought Myrna an anethyst for her birthday; then we looked at every bottle. This couple, too, was looking forward to selling their lifetime collections, just like Guy Satterlee, who was going to sell his acre collection. We left with a certain sadness at the temporary nature of even the most longterm projects.
We followed the Klamath for some distance past Happy Camp and soon found our horizon dominated by Mount Shasta, which is an extinct volcano whose mighty cone broods over miles and miles of countryside. We had dinner in a tavern, where we discussed the differences between Eastern and Western practices of baling and storing hay. We spent the night at a motel outside of Yreka, which must mean something in Greek, but I could not say what, unless it is a corruption of Yrcha "Pickle-jar" (Aristophanes). In any case, we found a little frog in the bathtub, in the course of our morning ablutions, and resolved to find him a more nourishing environment. We carried him for miles, up and down Mt. Shasta, past Black Butte, but the countryside was either too dry or too cold till we came to Big Spring, the headwater of the Sacramento River. This was full of mosquitoes (which bit Myrna) and seemed an ideal place for a frog, so we left him and went on to Mt. Lassen.
I examined Mt. Lassen with special interest, as my mother still has pictures of its last eruption in 1914, which she saw as a little girl. The mountain is quiet now, though there are steaming hot springs on one side, and the countryside is carpeted with rocks for scores of miles around. The mountain was still covered with snow, but the road had been cleared to permit cars to pass through snow canyons with fifteen-foot walls straight up on either side. We paused to carve a bas-relief monolith in one of the walls, then went on for supper to Red Bluff, where my mother's family used to spend its summers. We inquired to find an old-timer who might remember that era, but everyone had come since 1936. Myrna, who had been learning to drive a standard-shift as one of her honeymoon projects, succeeded in unparking the car and starting it on an uphill grade, a remarkable accomplishment. We drove down the Sacramento Valley into Sacramento itself, then north again for fifteen miles along the levee till I found that Myrna had directed me onto the right road but the wrong direction before falling back to sleep.
We retraced our path, stopped for the night, and next day drove on to Yosemite along the Merced River. Like the rivers farther north, the Merced was swollen from the great snows of last winter, and it was more filled with rapids than anything I had seen. I scouted it with great interest for a future raft trip. It was raining in the Yosemite Valley, filling it with mist and generating many new waterfalls, besides augmenting the flow of the old ones. Yosemite Falls itself and Bridalveil Falls came thundering down with a roar that drowned the roar of traffic on the valley floor, which has now been put on a one-way circuit to ease the traffic jams. No one can come to Yosemite without feeling the exhilaration of its great beauty, but the crowds in the Valley, which had more than tripled since I was last there in 1949, were a depressing reminder of the limited and temporary nature of the most precious things. The campsites were jammed full, the sewage system is overloaded, the valley fills with smog in the evenings from all the cars and campfires, hordes of hippies roam around, as repulsive in the mass as our two wedding hippies were attractive in the individual. The curse of our times is its superabundance of people and things. Like the hippies, we seek refuge from the curse in places like Yosemite, only to find it there before us.
Our trip did not end here, but perhaps my story should. We drove on to Glacier Point, then picked our way in the dark to the shattered hulk of the old Wawona tree, which once had a tunnel carved into it that you could drive through. It had fallen under last winter's heavy snows. We drove home the next day but came back two weeks later for a short but exciting trip through five-foot haystacks on the Merced, following another weekend float down the Colorado between Topock and Blythe. California is full of such enchanting places as we found on our honeymoon, and many more besides, but every passing year of new hunger for solitude which we cannot find in the cities takes its toll of the shreds of solitude left in places like the Eel River. It has been our heritage, along with the natural grandeur of which it is part, yet it seems as surely bound for extinction as Guy Satterlee's unspoiled acres and my old couple's rocks and bottles, not to mention the Wawona tree. The loss of the Wawona tree should not be a cause of great concern. Its passing is part of a larger scheme well beyond our control, and there are more where it came from -- but the solitude is a different matter. Once that is gone, it is gone forever, yet it is not as utterly beyond our powers of preservation as an individual living thing, for there are ways of conserving and protecting it if we would only use them. Myrna and I had a joyous honeymoon. I hope that the joys will still be there for our children's honeymoons.
--Ward Elliott, July 14, 1969
P.S. I would be most unkind not to add a copy of my father's more than passable poem.
Deliberate giving, loving its very loss,
Finding the citys surrender late and sweet,
Enter her opening heart, lead her sure feet
To follow spring that spreads a nuptial bed:
Cunningly work with nets to spread across
The path her feet will follow. Lightly
With gossamers, for bridal, veil her pure head.
And drown her eyes with magian dream
Of blossoms falling, in the slow stream
Of the laden wind, the wind that nightly
Blows the invisible hosts of fairy wings
Seeding the moonbeams--the wind that brings
Lovers the sigh suppressed, the word unuttered.
O penitent wind, that thus contritely
Causes my heart to bloom; for all you've plundered
Of Spring's first blossoms. Let the candles spluttered
By your gusty breath be all vowed now to love.
Blow me with gentlest cheeks her whisper: "My love."
--William Yandell Elliott, June 7, 1969