WHEN a person feels homesick in San Francisco, he is very apt to say, "Well, after all, one compensation for living here is the climate." The atmosphere is certainly most bracing and exhilarating. Day after day, often for a long period, the air is so pure and balmy that it is a luxury to inhale it. We realize that it adds to the mere physical pleasure of living. Nowhere have I found winter weather so much like that of Naples as in some places on the coast, such as San Diego, Santa Barbara and Monterey, but the summers are very different, as the great heat of the South of Italy is here unknown.
There is, however, no division of summer and winter, but of the rainy and dry seasons. The former takes the place of winter, and the latter of summer. The dry season begins about in May, and after that no rain falls till November or December. All the moisture which vegetation receives is from the dews or the fogs at night. Of course, the country then begins to dry up, the plains in the interior become parched and dusty, and, except where there are evergreens, not a bit of green is seen. In San Francisco, the mornings through this season are generally warm and balmy, but about noon high winds set in from the ocean, often accompanied with fog. This peculiarity of climate is confined to some twenty miles on this part of the coast. It is said to arise from the heating of the plains in the interior, when by noon the air becomes rarified and a vacuum is produced. To fill this, the air rushes in through the chasm made by the Golden Gate. Other places on the coast have the cool breezes from the sea, but without the chilly winds. In this city, however, no one goes down to his business at ten o'clock, although the atmosphere be like June, without taking his overcoat with him, for he knows that, on his return towards evening, he will need it. In July and August the evenings are often so cold that a little fire is desirable.
The inhabitants complain of these cold winds, and yet they are preferable to the heat of our Atlantic States. They are, too, great preservatives of health, giving us a new atmosphere every twenty-four hours. Without this, there would be danger of the plague amid the filth and crowd of the Chinese quarter. I have seen, too, steamers infected with cholera come directly to the wharf, after having lost fifty or sixty passengers on their way up the coast--in one case patients had died after entering "the Heads '--and although hundreds rushed on board to meet their friends, and the sick were carried up into town, this was the last we heard of it. In any other city cholera would have spread like wildfire. Hero it is not thought necessary even to make sanitary laws.
In October or. November there may be a few occasional showers, though I have known the rainy season not to set in until about Christmas. Then the winds have ceased, and when it is not rainy, the air is so fresh and balmy, that every breath seems to invigorate and inspire with new life. On the country it acts like the advent of spring in other lands. The dusty plains, and the lulls which for months had been waving with the yellow wild oats, are now green, and carpeted with flowers. You see countless acres of them of every hue.
Before I reached here, I expected, during the rainy season, to find it raining almost all the time. There is, in this respect, a great difference in different seasons, yet generally, (and I am now writing after five years' experience,) I do not think more rain falls here during the six months of the rainy season, than usually, during the same length of time, at any period of the year on the Atlantic coast. "We arrived here in January, the middle of the rainy season, but for the first ten days we had rain but part of two days, with some showers at night.
I believe no city in the world is more healthy than San Francisco. Consumption never originates in it, and from its high position on the hills, it cannot be liable to chills and fever. Should any miasma be generated, it would be swept away by the high winds of summer. The effect of the climate indeed is very visible on those who have been here for some years. They are larger, more robust, and have a ruddy, English look, which is not so often seen on the Atlantic coast. In walking the streets one is struck with the stout, athletic appearance of the male portion of the population.
Many of these remarks about temperature apply to San Francisco only. In the state there is every variety of climate. Back from the coast a few miles, through the beautiful valleys of Santa Clara, or Sonoma, or Napa, it is warmer, but with a climate which cannot be surpassed in Italy. Still farther back, where entirely removed from the influence of the sea breeze, it is exceedingly hot through the dry season. At Sacramento and Marysville, for a portion of this season, the mercury rises above 100°, though from the latter place, the Sierra Nevada range is in sight, white and glittering, with its winter drapery of snow. And this range extends through the whole length of the State, affording on its slopes and in the valleys at its base, all varieties of temperature.
lone day came down the Sacramento Valley, when the thermometer in the sun registered 127°, but I did not feel the heat more than I should have done at the East, at 90°. Then, too, it is one peculiarity of the climate of this country, that however hot it may be through the day, it is always cool at night. I scarcely remember to have known in any part of California, a night when, it was comfortable to sleep without a blanket. In consequence there is no exhaustion of the system.
Another feature of the climate, and one which prevents the heat from being felt as much as in other countries, is the exceeding dryness of the atmosphere. The old Californians (Mexicans) after killing a bullock are accustomed to cut the flesh in strips, (it is here sold by the yard), and to hung it up for a few days in the open air till it becomes entirely dried. It is called "jerked beef." When passing their houses in the interior, I have seen the piazza, between the pillars, entirely festooned in this way. In any other country beef would be spoiled in a few hours, by this exposure. On the plains I have noticed a peculiar effect of this dryness of the air. In riding over them I have sometimes passed the carcase of a dead animal which had been left where it fell. It did not, however, in its decomposition, taint the air with any disagreeable odor, but seemed to dry up and pass away, until only the skeleton was left to rattle in the hard skin.
And yet, the mortality among those who came to California has been fearful. The two cemeteries at San Francisco--"Yerba Buena" and "Lone Mountain"--stretch far and wide with their almost countless graves, while through the length and breadth of the land, on the hillsides, and in the ravines and gulches through the mines, thousands are sleeping their last sleep, the very spot where they were laid forgotten. The sick have come here but to die. Every steamer brings those in failing health, who resort to this climate as their last hope of restoration. But having postponed the change too long, they come only to swell the bills of mortality of San Francisco. The exposure in the mines, too, is terrible. All day long, men inspired by the "greed of gold" work under the burning sun, standing perhaps up to their knees in water. Their food is insufficient and their accommodations such as give them but little shelter. Is it strange, then, that disease attacks them, particularly when so many are entirely unprepared by previous training to endure such hardships? Many, too, are without friends or any associates who know them or care for their welfare.
One day, at a mining camp, it is noticed that some one who has a "claim" near by has not appeared in the morning to dig as usual. Perhaps a miner, more benevolent than the rest, visits his tent and finds him seriously ill. For a day or two, a little attention is paid him, but the third morning he is found to be dead. No one knows him and he is hastily buried on the next hill. His tools and few effects are divided, and thus ends his history. I have heard of instances where men had been lying dead in their tents for days before their decease was discovered. The tent was closed, the occupant did not appear, no one felt any particular interest in him, and it was supposed he Lad gone off for a time "prospecting," (hunting for 'a new digging,) till actually the process of decomposition gave notice of the true state of the case.
This ignorance of each other's names, I found to be particularly frequent with young men of respectable families. They feel, in their present position, as if they had sunk themselves and are willing to live incog, until "their pile is made," and they can emerge again into respectability. They, therefore, are known to their companions by some sobriquet, often the place from which they come, as "Boston," "Kentuck,'' "Natchez"--and thus, if suddenly cut off, "they die and make no sign," and no one knows who are the relatives to be informed of their decease.
Many--very many--die on the journey over the prairies; and when their companions arrive at the Pacific, four or five months afterwards, they have entirely forgotten their existence and make no report. Not unfrequently, too, in riding over the wide plains of California, one comes to the bleached skeleton of some human being--all that the wolves have left. He has set out alone from the mines on his return to San Francisco. Weary, and perhaps ill, he attempts to walk across one of those wide-stretching plains between the Sierra Nevada range of mountains and the sea. Standing on its verge, the traveler, deceived by the exceeding transparency of the atmosphere, thinks that he can pass over it in a few hours. But he travels on--and on, while the horizon seems to fly from him and to become no more distinct, until at last, worn out and fainting under the noon-tide heats, he sinks down in his path and dies, alone. Months go by before any one passes that way, and then all that can be known is that these are the remains of a fellow being.
Or, discouraged at the "diggings," he wanders in broken health to San Francisco. Here he becomes worse and is carried to the hospital. Before he has declared his name or residence, the power to do so is gone. In a few days he is numbered with the dead, no papers are discovered about him to show who he is, and his sole record is found in the coroner's report at the end of the week:--"A man apparently about thirty years of age." And thus, in California, hundreds pass away, for whom fond hearts at home are yearning, hoping for letters month after month, always ignorant of the fate of the loved and lost. Constantly the steamers have brought me letters from families, not only in our own country, but in England, making inquiries for members of their little circles who had gone years ago to California and from whom no news had been received. Probably their closing scenes might be described in one of the ways I have mentioned above.