Monday, January 19 – Box Canyon, CA

Our hiker group gets a jump on the day – our long awaited passage through Box Canyon. We start by heading up canyon from Vallecito Spring Park for a few miles following the dry stream bed. There are LOTS of cholla cacti – the kind that has a barb on the end, like a porcupine quill, so they stick and hold. Ouch! Jon and I fall prey to some and it’s so funny we’re almost helpless from laughing as we pass the spines back and forth between us as we try to get them out of each other. Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby comes to mind. It’s quite humorous and we have a good laugh.

This same morning in 1846, Colonel Cooke was worried about California’s confused situation. Were they still at risk for battle or not? Therefore, they marched in formation, “with more military order.”

We arrive at the base of a very big hill. BIG. It blocks almost the entire valley. Campbell’s Grade is the modern automobile road across the “rugged ridge … some two hundred feet high” that stymied the Battalion‘s guides. When guide Pauline Weaver reported that he didn’t think they could get across, the good Colonel replied (with “warm words” and quite “haughtily”, I should think) with a subtle but very telling compliment towards the Battalion’s men.

Cooke wrote, “I ordered him to find a crossing, or I should send a company who would soon do it.”

In other words, if the “professional mountain men guides” couldn’t find the way across the hill, Cooke had complete confidence that he could select from among the Battalion companies and that the Mormon boys would accomplish the task – “soon.” It’s a very subtle clue to how Cooke has come to view his command of men. He trusted them to be able to accomplish just about anything he could ask them to do.

Within a couple of hours the large boulders had been moved, a primitive road made for others to follow and using ropes, all eight remaining wagons were across the hill, entering what we now call Mason Valley. My presumption is that they took lunch there, then moved forward to the next set of challenges at Box Canyon.

The original narrow spots where they had to take crowbar and ax to the rock are gone. Dynamite was used to widen the stream bed for stagecoaches and later, early automobiles. Terry Wirth is going to return and see if he can identify exactly where that section is located.

As we hike further, we arrive at the waterfall that most folks confuse for the rocks they had to cut through. They are mistaken. Cooke said it was the “narrower pass” they had to avoid. The “narrower pass” waterfall is downhill from the parking lot where an interpretive panel almost gets the story right.

Across the dry stream bed from the interpretive panel are a series of trails climbing diagonally northward up the hillside. The two lower trails are “cut and fill” roads. These have had lots of work to create and maintain them. The interpretive panel says the lower is the Butterfield Trail and that the upper is the Battalion’s route. We don’t think that’s correct.

A more recent interpretation is that the lower trail is in fact, the first automobile road from the early 1900’s. The next higher “cut and fill” trail is now believed to be the Butterfield route. It certainly is not the Battalion’s route.

To find the Battalion route, you have to remember that wagons have to go straight uphill on steep slopes. There are two eroded wagon road segments above the two “cut and fill” routes. These, we believe, are remnants of the oldest Battalion and Gold Rush period wagon roads.

At the base of the three road hill was the “great rock to be broken” before the wagons could ascend the hill. Cooke kept moving back and forth from one work site to the other. Taking ax in hand – something few military leaders of the day would do – he worked side by side with the men to show them what had to be done to get the wagons through.

Wouldn’t you just love to have been able to see that sight? After the Colorado Desert crossing, almost at the end of their last rations, with bodies gaunt from deprivation, nearly naked and weary from lack of sleep, they were carving a lasting testimony into “living rock.”

I’m sure the sight made the angels weep.

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