J.S. Chase

J.S. Chase

" ... for there would be no trace, no clue ... "

28,    Nov, 2018

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Coast Trails

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" Here the expedition narrowly escaped disaster. " No exaggeration
bespeaks Chase here, for the serious nature of the ' expedition '
was certainly in peril. Another outcome may have left us with
no ' Coast Trails ' or ' Desert Trails. ' But for our good fortune,
as well as Chase's and Chino's, Chase surmounts this very real
life-threatening encounter with nature. Let not modern sensibilities
discount this situation. This was circa 1914, at a California
coast where a day or more may have passed before seeing
another person, let alone ' aid. ' 

Chase recounts the incident, one believes, as he went through it, 
controlled, but on the fringe of ' losing it. ' He had no time to panic.
No time could be lost in his mental and physical efforts to save himself
and his companion. His considering shooting Chino where he lay
seemingly beyond help, is a Chase at ends. He even thought that
he himself would, ' cease to be. ' He talks of afterward making
" a rare supper to celebrate the adventure, " so relieved he was
of surviving. And as was his penchant he found solace in his
companion's well being, " and the manifold voices of the sea. "

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The country hereabout is monotonous and unattractive. Low undulating hills run for mile on mile, treeless, and scanty even of brush, and the cañons are dry and shadeless. We marched some miles before finding water, and I resolved to camp at the first creek I should see. At last I came to one, which afforded good pasturage also; and, dismounting, I led Chino down toward the beach, where I noticed a little bench of green grass at the mouth of the cañon and on the very edge of the shore sand.

Here the expedition narrowly escaped disaster. The inwash of the tide, meeting the water of the creek, had formed an area, a sort of pit, of quicksand. This we had to cross in order to reach the beach, and in a moment, without warning, I was up to my middle, and Chino, following close behind. plunged in beside and almost upon me. On the instant I threw myself backward, and tried to work myself out, but the sand clogged me as if it were liquid, lead, and I could not reach back with my hands to where the solid ground would give me support. Chino, meanwhile, was struggling desperately but helplessly, the heavy saddle-bags and other articles of his load weighing him down so that he was already half covered.

By great good fortune the cañon wall was near by, not over eight feet away. It was of weathered rock, soft and shaly, and I thought that if I could anyhow work over to it I could get grip enough on it to support myself. It seemed an impossible thing to do, with that fatal sand clasping and weighing me down. but I attempted it.

I remember that, as I struggled, a horror of the commonplace sunlit evening flashed over me, and, with it, the thought that no one would ever know what had happened to me, for there would be no trace, no clue. That horrible sand would close over me, the sun would shine on the spot, the roar of waves would go on unbroken; I should simply cease to be. I think I wondered whether there would not be any way of telling my friends; but I am not sure whether that thought came then, or in thinking it over afterwards.

All this can only have taken a very short time. during which I was struggling to reach the rocky wall. At last my fingers scraped the rock, and gradually I was able to draw myself backwards to firm ground. Then I ran round by the solid beach sand, crossing the creek, and came back to Chino. He had stopped struggling, but lay over on his side, and had sunk so that one of the saddle-bags was quite out of sight. Blood, too, was spattered all about him.

Coming as close as was safe behind him, I gradually loosened as much of his load as I could reach. Then I caught his rope and tried to get him to exert himself. For some time he made no move, and I thought he must have broken his off-side foreleg on a half-buried snag of dead wood that projected above the sand. Again and again I tried to get him to move, but he still lay on his side, drawing great gasping breaths, and I about decided I should have to shoot him where he lay. But I made a last effort, shouting and hauling at him with all my strength, until I literally forced him to bestir himself: when, putting my last ounce into it, I pulled and shouted, refusing to allow him to relax his efforts for a moment, and gradually working his head round somewhat toward where I stood. With a final wild spasm he scrambled up on to the dry, hard sand, and stood snorting and trembling pitifully, bespattered with blood and utterly exhausted.

I was vastly relieved to find that the blood was coming from his mouth and nostrils. He had broken some small blood-vessel in his first struggles. I took off the saddle and led him carefully over to a grassy spot, where I washed out his mouth and then gave him a thorough rubbing-down; and within half an hour I had the satisfaction of seeing my staunch companion of so many days and nights feeding with equanimity and even enthusiasm.


The incident was sufficiently dangerous to give me a lesson in caution, as well as cause for hearty thankfulness. There was not the slightest hint of treachery in the appearance of the sand, but thereafter I went warily in all doubtful places. I ransacked my rescued saddle-bags and made a rare supper to celebrate the adventure. As the bags were strongly made, and waterproofed, the contents had not been much damaged. Then I ran up my sleeping-tent, in view of the fog which I could see advancing from the sea. I chose a place on a little shelf of dry sand, sheltered by the angle of the cañon wall, and apparently above high-water mark by a safe though narrow margin. Then in the dusk I gathered a pile of driftwood and made a royal fire, by which I sat until long after dark, listening with more than usual enjoyment to the tinkle of Chino's bell and the manifold voices of the sea. "

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" Somehow I felt unreal...."

11, November, 2018



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Desert Trails

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Here we find Chase, Kaweah, and their Indian companion inside
the Anza-Borrego Desert, south of the Salton Sea; a very forbidden
landscape as it seemingly unfolds to mirage before you. I've combined
two passages, chronologically concurrent, that put us with him in
' the valley of the shadow of death. '


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photo of the Anza-Borrego
j. develyn
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" We took up our march. Occasionally a wandering breeze blew for a moment,
and I opened my shirt and my heart to it, but it quickly died away, and again
the heat struck fiercely down.

It was impossible to maintain any interest in the view, but that was no loss,
since nothing changed, hour after hour. The mountain profiles merged and
emerged imperceptibly, and that was all.

It seemed a week that I had been creeping over this unending plain.
Somehow I felt unreal, as if I were a picture of a man in my position,
and wondered vaguely whether the man ever got anywhere.

This clay formation, wherever found in the desert, is the last extreme
of the barren, dreary, and dangerous. The vast network of gullies into
which it becomes worn may easily become a death-trap for the traveller.

Sense of direction is quickly lost: in the deep sand and gravel of the bottoms
a trail is almost as evanescent as if marked by water. The Indian who was
my companion pointed to the haze yellowish patch, twenty miles from
where we stood, and said, " Chee-chlicsh-noo-ah, devils house, we call that.
Very bad place. Man get in there no can ever get out. "

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(a defintion for the curious reader:
evanescent - soon passing out of sight, memory, or existence; quickly fading or disappearing: a shimmering evanescent bubble.)

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a short primer on the anza-borrego:




" The afternoon was delightful... "

8th, August, 2018
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Coast Trails

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chase, who occasionally expressed the desire to paint,
here, does just that; and, as his particular facility, mixes
emotive description - ' delightful, splendid; ' elegant
literary reference - ' Kiplingesque sort of wind; ' vivid
narrative - ' the gulls strained and screamed, ' and his
always treasured, wry humor as he describes his pony
' rounding up the cattle. ' What a scene to behold and
ponder!

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" The afternoon was delightful, with a clear sun and a Kiplingesque
sort of wind; and Anton, relieved for once of impediments, bethought
himself of his Arizona youth, and was bent upon rounding up the cattle
he saw on the hillsides. The ocean was of a splendid, windy purple,
though far to seaward the fog lay furled along the horizon in a band
of pearly grey. Quail whistled in the brushy gullies, and overhead the
gulls strained and screamed against the wind. "

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" ... I see it by an inward sense... "

15th, July, 2018

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Yosemite Trails

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In this excerpt Chase is headed up, into what is now the Ansel
Adams Wilderness, in the north-eastern High Sierra, after spending
the night at Silver Lake, where he " fished the stream ( Rush Creek )
with good success. The trout rose well to both fly and spoon, and were
of good size and mettle. " Chase, once removed from his native England,
shares with us a desire, at this point in the trip, for a change of weather:
" ... A south wind was blowing strongly, with a scent of rain in it, whereat
I somewhat rejoiced. Thus far the whole trip had been made in sunny weather
except for two or three spasmodic thunder-showers; and I longed for a day or two
of storm, or at least of cloud. so that wild scenery might receive the enhancement
of wild weather. " 

We will soon find out just how deep this yearning was, as we find Chase in a rare 
bite of fulsomeness, " ... as then came the blessed rain. " Chase's flight reveals he hasn't
forgotten his native land. It also belies his obvious  familiarity with the Bible as a veritable
 Psalm comes forth. It is a rare tack in Chase's writing, making it all the more sincere as this
man bears his soul. Further, and just as delightful, the ' flight ' focuses even more of our 
attention on what precedes and follows: Chase's evocative, descriptive prose, that transcends
mere narrative and paints the scene not only vivid in our imagination but we feel as if we are
there with him. 

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" I awoke to a glorious cloudy morning. Lowering vapors were lighted redly on their
fringes by a sun that struggled to raise an excited countenance above the opposite 
wall of mountains. Hardly an hour ahead of him the little thin moon was slipping
through the wrak as if she thought herself pursued. Evening primroses, like other
moons, gazed mildly down at me as I lay and watched the changes of the sky
reflected in the smooth-flowing river six feet away. The wind had ceased, and even
the aspens stirred not a leaf.

By seven o'clock we were on the trail. It led at first up the steep face of the western
mountain, among jumpers and open brushwood, and close beside the fall.



The same area Chase describes above, in 2016.
photo: jim develyn

The lake lay leaden grey among the gloomy hills, and rain was already falling 
from the eastern clouds. The wind had risen again, and boomed softly in our
ears, mingling with the rush and roar of the fall. 


The ' fall ' Chase refers to; Rush Ck 
down to Silver Lake, 2016.
photo: jim develyn

It was a morning full of half-tone poetry and clear but not acute sensations.
I wonder whether I am singular in finding myself, as I always do, ten times as
much alive on a soft grey day, or even a hard grey one, as on a sunny blue one.
If I thought, I were a poet, or a painter - now I could do great work. 

And then came the blessed rain, driving down, driving down. Ah, welcome,
welcome! O wild, free spirit of my beloved Cumberland mountains. I feel thee
near! O friends, long departed, with whom I knew then, ye are near too! Now,
see, far off the sun is pouring down a grey-gold flood of light upon some lonely
lake, - I see it by an inward sense; nay, I am there. How still it is, and holy -
the vision of a vision. 

We rounded the head of the fall in a wild amphitheatre of castled cliffs that 
poured off into vast slopes of screes A few junipers huddled on the rocky 
ledges. The rain streamed fervently down. Our animals scrambled and 
staggered upwards with bitter complaints, but mercy there was none. As
we reached the crest the wind rushed heavily against us in angry surges
as though it would sweep us over the cliff, and flung the stinging rain
and hail level in our faces. 

Wild water, wild sky, wild earth, wild air, - it was superb, the pure 
drawn joy of life!

And here, in the neck of the pass, lay Lake Agnew, darkly, wildly beautiful.


Lake Agnew, 2016
photo: jim develyn

High mountains closed it in; at its head a long white torrent thundered
down over black ledges of slate; and over all crouched a sky shredded into
grey rain. Ever and anon the wind swooped screaming down, and the little
lake seemed to shrink and shiver like a terrified child. "

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*** (Definitions for the curious!) ***

      Wrack -  A mass of high, thick, fast-moving cloud.

Redly - Yes, this is a word..an adverb of red. 

Fulsomeness - Complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree.

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stock photo

A part of Chase's pined for
Cumberland Mountains,
England. 

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** And finally, here is Chase's dedication from his, " California Desert Trails. " **


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" ... a haunting that lasts for life. "

1st, June, 2018
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Desert Trails
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From the grand Introduction to California Desert Trails, Chase's survey finds
him listing a bit, as he reveals to us, what we may instinctively know but never
pondered; that the desert, in essence, is a contradiction. He shares this with us
after, " consideration, and in the light of other's experience. " His is a sober and
 unsentimental sizing up; and instinctively, we get it. Chase is saying, I believe,
 that this attraction, that he and us feel, of the desert, is a bit strange; yet, " enduring "
and " subtly captive. " He concludes that, " there is something haunting in it. "

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photo by J. Smeaton Chase

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" ...It is in its essence a contradiction. The desert is the opposite
of all that we naturally find pleasing. Yet I believe that its hold
upon those who have once fallen under its spell is deeper  and
more enduring than is the charm of the forest or sea or mountain.
This must seem a strange statement to make, but I make it with 
consideration and in the light of others experience besides my own.

The beauty of great woodlands, the mystical solemnity of the sea,
the power and glory of mountains - right well we love all these:
yet somehow that pale, grave face of the desert, if once you look 
long upon it, takes you more subtly captive and keeps you enchained
by a stronger bond. 

It is as if you were bemused by the gaze of a sorceress: or had listened
over long to some witching, monotonous strain: or had pondered too
deeply on old legends of weirdry or parchments from tombs of strange,
forgotten lands.

Certainly it is not love, in any degree, that one feels for the desert, 
nor could any other single term convey the sentiment. But whatever
it is, there is something haunting in it and it is a haunting that lasts
for life. "

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*** The photograph in this post by Chase came from the above
            volume, " The Desert " by John C. Van Dyke. Chase suggested,
          and brokered a deal with Scribner's to provide the photos for
          a new edition of Van Dyke's book. According to Peter Wild,
             Scribner's haggled with Chase over the price. Chase received a mere
            $100 for the photos! As Wild points out, the effort that it took Chase
       to make the photos at that time, made the deal one to Scribner's
advantage, not Chase's.  But we are glad to have them. ***
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