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The Canon
by [?]

One day we tied our horses to three bushes, and walked on foot two hundred yards. Then we looked down.

It was nearly four thousand feet down. Do you realize how far that is? There was a river meandering through olive-colored forests. It was so distant that it was light green and as narrow as a piece of tape. Here and there were rapids, but so remote that we could not distinguish the motion of them, only the color. The white resembled tiny dabs of cotton wool stuck on the tape. It turned and twisted, following the turns and twists of the canon. Somehow the level at the bottom resembled less forests and meadows than a heavy and sluggish fluid like molasses flowing between the canon walls. It emerged from the bend of a sheer cliff ten miles to eastward: it disappeared placidly around the bend of another sheer cliff an equal distance to the westward.

The time was afternoon. As we watched, the shadow of the canon wall darkened the valley. Whereupon we looked up.

Now the upper air, of which we were dwellers for the moment, was peopled by giants and clear atmosphere and glittering sunlight, flashing like silver and steel and precious stones from the granite domes, peaks, minarets, and palisades of the High Sierras. Solid as they were in reality, in the crispness of this mountain air, under the tangible blue of this mountain sky, they seemed to poise light as so many balloons. Some of them rose sheer, with hardly a fissure; some had flung across their shoulders long trailing pine draperies, fine as fur; others matched mantles of the whitest white against the bluest blue of the sky. Towards the lower country were more pines rising in ridges, like the fur of an animal that has been alarmed.

We dangled our feet over the edge and talked about it. Wes pointed to the upper end where the sluggish lava-like flow of the canon-bed first came into view.

“That’s where we’ll camp,” said he.

“When?” we asked.

“When we get there,” he answered.

For this canon lies in the heart of the mountains. Those who would visit it have first to get into the country–a matter of over a week. Then they have their choice of three probabilities of destruction.

The first route comprehends two final days of travel at an altitude of about ten thousand feet, where the snow lies in midsummer; where there is no feed, no comfort, and the way is strewn with the bones of horses. This is known as the “Basin Trail.” After taking it, you prefer the others–until you try them.

The finish of the second route is directly over the summit of a mountain. You climb two thousand feet and then drop down five. The ascent is heart-breaking but safe. The descent is hair-raising and unsafe: no profanity can do justice to it. Out of a pack-train of thirty mules, nine were lost in the course of that five thousand feet. Legend has it that once many years ago certain prospectors took in a Chinese cook. At first the Mongolian bewailed his fate loudly and fluently, but later settled to a single terrified moan that sounded like “tu-ne-mah! tu-ne-mah!” The trail was therefore named the “Tu-ne-mah Trail.” It is said that “tu-ne-mah” is the very worst single vituperation of which the Chinese language is capable.

The third route is called “Hell’s Half Mile.” It is not misnamed.

Thus like paradise the canon is guarded; but like paradise it is wondrous in delight. For when you descend you find that the tape-wide trickle of water seen from above has become a river with profound darkling pools and placid stretches and swift dashing rapids; that the dark green sluggish flow in the canon-bed has disintegrated into a noble forest with great pine-trees, and shaded aisles, and deep dank thickets, and brush openings where the sun is warm and the birds are cheerful, and groves of cottonwoods where all day long softly, like snow, the flakes of cotton float down through the air. Moreover there are meadows, spacious lawns, opening out, closing in, winding here and there through the groves in the manner of spilled naphtha, actually waist high with green feed, sown with flowers like a brocade. Quaint tributary little brooks babble and murmur down through these trees, down through these lawns. A blessed warm sun hums with the joy of innumerable bees. To right hand and to left, in front of you and behind, rising sheer, forbidding, impregnable, the cliffs, mountains, and ranges hem you in. Down the river ten miles you can go: then the gorge closes, the river grows savage, you can only look down the tumbling fierce waters and turn back. Up the river five miles you can go, then interpose the sheer snow-clad cliffs of the Palisades, and them, rising a matter of fourteen thousand feet, you may not cross. You are shut in your paradise as completely as though surrounded by iron bars.