HISTORY IN
    
SAN LUIS OBISPO
        COUNTY
 
  Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2001
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Features and Information:

Brooke Stoner's
"Lost on the Upper Nacimiento"
The Overland Monthly,
vol. 13, issue 74, February, 1889
   

[Note: Given the penchant of some of the Overland Monthly's writers for using catchy or punning pseudonyms, it's likely that  "Brooke Stoner" was not the real name of the author of this article.   Nor is it clear whether this piece is a fictional story, or a factual report.  But it evokes the vast, lonely nature of the north county's early days.]

Fifteen years ago, I was living in San Luis Obispo County near the coast. I knew the people well—the rapidly disappearing Spanish element, the Italian fishermen, the Swiss dairymen, the Missourian cattle-raisers of the hill region, the quicksilver prospectors, and the mountain hunters who ranged the wild region northwards toward the Monterey coast. I had climbed Morro Rock—the great mass of granite, 683 feet high, that guards the entrance to Morro Bay. I thought, in fact, that I knew the whole county from end to end, and had exhausted its varied experiences. But I was mistaken. 

One morning, I saddled up a wild brown horse, which I had bought from a large band, and rode northward from the old Summit region near the San Josephine mine. I meant to go through the hills to the old stage road at the crossings of the Nacimiento. But I was careless at best, and the trail was terribly confused by crossing cattle and sheep tracks, and by noon I had lost my way entirely, had wandered in a northwesterly direction, and had become involved in the thick forest and stifling undergrowth of the precipitous mountain region along the headwaters of the Nacimiento River, the boundary line between Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties. 

I do not know of a more wild and lonely region in all California than that in which I found myself. At least it was so at that time, some fifteen years ago. Nominally it was a cattle range, but practically speaking, one might spend a week there without meeting anything except birds, squirrels, lynxes, and an occasional deer. 

The fog from the Pacific drifted in in great waves, and obscured hill and ravine. For a week, indeed, this fog hung over the Coast Range, and as settlers afterwards told me, old ranchers were lost within a mile of their own homes, and wandered about for hours, until the sight of some familiar landmark enabled them to discover their location. Under such circumstances, a young man of the cities, unused to mountaineering, was even further bewildered. I managed to lose my bearings so completely, [so] that instead of going north, I was facing west, and towards the wildest ravines of the upper Nacimiento. 

The day darkened down into dusk; the land was a wild and foodless waste, in which there was no sight or sound that was cheerful or encouraging in any degree; no cattle lowing, no tinkle of a sheep bell or bark of a dog, or even the whistle of a quail. The fog dripped heavily from the trees, and my clothes were damp and cold. I uncoiled the long stake rope, and let my horse feed on the dry grass of a hill-slope, and drink at a spring in the bottom of the gulch. Then, with the end of the stake rope tied fast to a bush at my feet, I lay down on the lee side of a boulder, and went supperless to bed. 

During the night, I heard the coyotes about me, and once the slow, lumbering tread of a grizzly passing up the dry bed of the stream, where no cattle ever walked; but morning came, and I found everything as before—gray fog, brown hills, and loneliness. 

I saddled my horse, and rode slowly on, as a man shipwrecked would sail—he  cares not whither, so only he be ever moving. I think that for half a day, I understood, as never before, the feelings of a shipwrecked wanderer. For I was lost in the mountains. 

As noon I rode into a narrow black ravine and found signs of occupancy there. A small footpath was trodden in the tall, dry, wild oats. It led from a spring set low in the bank, and, turning past a rock, ascended to the head of the gulch. I rode into the bottom of the ravine, and saw that the spring was boarded up, and a cup hung on a branch near. Fortunately, I felt no desire to drink; indeed, my anxiety to find some settler and regain my bearings overwhelmed all lesser thoughts. 

The ascent of the path was easy, though narrow and rocky. I spurred my mustang, and he set his shoulders against the bank. This carried me past the trees by the spring, and I was able to see that there was a small flat space of ground at the head of the gulch, with a rude log cabin built against a moss-covered rock. Smoke came from the chimney; there was someone there. I gave my horse his head, and set him again to the bank. As we climbed, I directed his course straight toward the cabin. 

Fifty yards farther, an enormous white oak half blocked the road. On its bole was a board nailed, and on that board, painted in rude, wavering letters half a foot long, was the sentence: “For God’s sake, come no nearer.” 

I paused, drew rein, threw my horse back, facing the writing. I did not understand it then. But I do now. 

The breeze swept down across the hills, and brought a strange sickening odor from the cabin that startled me into wondering whether anyone lay dying of a fever there. An almost overmastering feeling of terror smote me for an instant, as that sickly, ghastly breath came from the cabin. I know now what that odor was, but then I did not know. I read the sentence once more, and rode on past it toward the ruined cabin. 

It would have been a beautiful spot for a poet or mystic, if only that overhanging dread were gone. Looking back, I saw with a delighted eye that the few rods of ascent had opened up a wide vista of distance—blue hills, from which the dense fog was now lifting, rocks, pines, and a vast mountain panorama. The level acre of ground was very fertile; wild fruits, vines, and flowers bordered it with glorious entanglements; two deep ravines held it between them; behind, the barrier of a mountain peak sheltered it—it was a site among a thousand. 

Riding on with gentle pace, I passed a rod of garden fenced in with closely wattled brush, and watered through hollow logs by water from a spring behind the cabin. Then I passed a pile of rude quail-traps. The hermit-dweller here, whoever he was, had food in abundance evidently, and by now I was at the half-open door of the dingy den. 

Suddenly something projected from within the cabin and caught the edge of the door, pulling it inwards. It was not a hand; there was nothing human about it except a vague suggestion that it might have once been a hand. I saw it plainly, with the sunlight flashing upon it—a horrible, distorted, inhuman thing—a claw that the midnight ghoul of a graveyard might envy. I heard the hoarse rattle and dull breathing of the creature inside, and the odors of the charnel house came with tenfold violence from the awful place. Again that hoarse, pitiful rattle; then words in good English, words such as these: 

“You must go away. It is death to stay here. My disease will kill you. Every breath is your poison.” 

“Can I help you?” 

“Nothing can help me. I am a leper. Leave me, and send no one here.” 

I asked the way. 

“Climb that mountain,” he cried. “Go at once.”  His words had the ring of an almost superhuman agony. 

For hours after, the words, “I am a leper,” rang in my ears. I kept finding new meanings in that awful cry from the harsh voice of the outcast. Who was he?  Whom had he loved, and what tragedy lay behind it all?  Was this the end of some old family of princes and conquerors, proud and luxurious, dying at the roots, poisoned at last with Oriental vices?  Was this the strange, unaccountable disaster of a single life, the wreck of a hopeful and genius-guided voyage on life’s sea? 

The mystery deepened as I rode. I saw the knotty hand projected, heard the voice crying “Unclean, unclean,” as the outcasts of Palestine were wont to cry, as they went forth to the desert. 

A mile from the cabin a bit of white fluttered in the grass. I dismounted and examined it. It proved to be a fragment of a woman’s letter, the paper of the costliest, the handwriting elegant and cultured, but the words mostly illegible. Perhaps it had belonged to that poor, crouching leper, but that is for the hereafter to reveal. 

An hour before dark, I had ridden to the top of the pine ridge. The fog had entirely disappeared. Looking back, I saw far below the break in the rocks, and the small, cup-like depression where the leper’s cabin stood. Westward, unmistakably clear and glorious, lay the vast, shining Pacific, twenty miles distant, and all the space between was purple and brown, white of quartz, and darkest green of fir trees and pine. Not a breath anywhere; not a sound afloat. Peace rested on the lonely wilderness. But while I stood there, looking and wondering, the living death moved beside that silent place, and crawled to his vegetables, and set his traps, and waited his release. 

I set my face northward. Far below me shone the Nacimiento River, broad and swift. There was no road, or even foot-trail, and the northern sides of the mountains were one mass of scrub-oak and chaparral. There was only one way—to force a passage along the bottom of the nearest ravine, and take the chances. 

I rolled the heaviest rocks I could stir down the ravine and somewhat cleared the way. Then I uncoiled my long riata, and going ahead, fastened it to a tree down the ravine. Returning I coaxed, pushed, and bullied my horse into sliding down. This operation sufficiently repeated brought me at last to the river, and following the bank, I was soon in a settlement. 

Five years passed away, and I had heard nothing of the leper of the upper Nacimiento. Then a San Luis Obispo newspaper mentioned the fact that a cabin had been found in the mountains and in it lay the skeleton of a man. Some refugee from justice, it was conjectured, had made his home there, and had died from accident, suicide, or disease. A year later, I met one of the herders for a large cattle owner in the region, and asked him about the country. 

“Filling up fast,” he said. “All sheep and cattle ranges from the Salinas to the ocean.  Not half so wild as it was ten years ago.” 

“How about that cabin?” I asked. 

“Well, sir, I was the boy that found it. First we found a boarded-up spring with a sign board of some sort nearby , but all the writing faded out. Then came a place where there had been a garden, but deer and bear and rabbits an’ sich had used that about up. There was some cabbages run wild, that we cooked for greens that night.” 

“There was little narrow paths running about the flat that looked like as if a cripple had hitched himself around. In fact, there was a queer feeling about the whole place, but I can’t exactly describe it. 

“Then the cabin was very old and worthless as a shelter, except the fireplace end. There had been a big fire there and lots of things burned. The ashes showed marks of letters and books and clothes and truck of every kind that had been burned there. We raked them all over, and found buttons and a pocket-knife, and bits of a few photographs. That was all. 

“The rest of the boys wanted to tear up the floor and dig for money, but I laughed them out of the notion. The fellow was some crazy fool, and that’s the whole story.” 

Some to whom I have told this matter have asked me to write it down, thinking that there may be some person or persons living who are deeply interested. So I have told it.

***

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Copyright © 2001 Lynne Landwehr.  All rights reserved.
www.historyinslocounty
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