Second Bench

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In My First Summer in the Sierra:

“We are now on what may be called the second bench or plateau of the Range, after many small ups and downs over belts of hill-waves, with, of course, corresponding changes in the vegetation. In open spots many of the lowland composit are still to be found, and some of the Mariposa tulips and other conspicuous members of the lily family; but thecharacteristic blue oak of the foothills is left below, and its place is taken by a fine large species (Quercus Californica) with deeply lobed deciduous leaves, picturesquely divided trunk, and broad, massy, finely lobed and modeled head. Here also at a height of about twenty-five hundred feet we come to the edge of the great coniferous forest, made up mostly of yellow pine with just a few sugar pines. We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” Chapter 1, June 6th

In Real Life:

in My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir talks about the spot where every nerve quivered and he finally felt he was entering the mountains.  I kind of know that feeling. John Fisk seems to think that happened around Greeley’s Mill.



June 6, Camp 3
We left the Haigh Ranch and turned right on the Priest-Coulterville Road (Boneyard Road in the old days). About a mile and a half later we turned left on the Cuneo Road which took us quickly up the second uplift. Just over the summit the flora changes immediately. Blue and Live Oak are replaced by Black Oak, the Sabine Pine by the Sugar and Ponderosa Pines. The height of the trees is much greater. The Sabine, reaching 80 feet, is surpassed by the Sugar and Ponderosa Pines at 100 to 200 feet. The Black Oak is three to four times more massive than the Blue or White Oaks. The Lifezone here is called transition and the line of demarcation is so sharp from upper Sonoran to Transition that you can step across it on the ridge that separates the two.

Turning right on Dexter Road we enter a settled area where retired people come to avoid valley heat. This was the road to Savage’s Diggings or later Big Oak Flat in Muir’s time. Continuing on for several miles, Dexter Road runs into Fiske Road and that into Greeley Hill Road where we turned right on the latter and went several hundred yards to Holtzel Road. At that point we identified the location of Greeley’s Sawmill close by, mentioned by Muir. He spoke of the very pleasant smell of sawdust and lumber of the Sugar Pine that the mill was cutting.

Muir also noted that Sugar Pines were getting scarce. I have from other sources confirmed that these meadows from Fiske to McCarthy contained one of the finest stands of Sugar Pine in California. That it was a premium wood is shown by an ad about 1856 indicating that the mill would deliver to Fresno first grade lumber. To move the lumber this distance over then existing narrow dirt roads suggests both need and demand (the round trip distance is 200 miles).

One of Muir’s sketches on page 14 of the first edition of My First Summer portrays ‘Second bench.’ The pyramid shape bordering the skyline at the left edge of the picture is Pilot Peak, a third uplift. The sketch shows that Muir was standing a little southwest of the intersection of Holtzel and Greeley Hill Roads, about 200 yards southwest of the Greeley Hill Market.

The other sketch on that page is a view of Horseshoe Bend. We found the spot where Muir made the sketch on top of a rise on Peno Blanco lookout.


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