The Devil’s Gristmill*

Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage

“Let them praise the name of the Lord: for He commanded, and they were created” (Psalm 148:5).

The name the “Devil’s Gristmill” has been given to one of the geysers of California, that group of boiling springs, now famous. Indeed, the whole region has been baptized with Satanic nomenclature.

The guide showed us what he called the “Devil’s Mushpot,” the “Devil’s Pulpit,” the “Devil’s Machine Shop,” and, hearing a shrill whistle in the distance, we were informed it was the “Devil’s Teakettle.” Seeing some black water rushing from a fountain, from which the people of the neighborhood and tourists dip up genuine ink, we were told it was the “Devil’s Inkstand.” Indeed, you are prepared for this on the Pacific Railroad, as your guide book points you to the “Devil’s Gate,” and the “Devil’s Slide,” and the “Devil’s Peak.”

We protest against this surrender of all the geysers to the arch demon. All the writers talk of the place as infernal. We do not believe this place so near to hell as to heaven. We doubt if Satan ever comes here. He knows enough of hot climates, by experience, to fly from the hiss of these subterraneous furnaces. Standing amid the roaring, thundering, stupendous wonder of 200 spouting water springs, we felt like crying out, “Great and marvelous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty!” (Revelation 15:3).

Let all the chemists and geologists of the world come and see the footstep of God in crystals of alum and sulphur and salt. Here is the chemist’s shop of the continent. Enough black indelible ink rushes out of this well, with terrific plash, to supply all the scribes of the world. There are infinite fortunes for those who will delve for the borax, nitric and sulphuric acid, soda, magnesia and other valuables. Enough sulphur here to purify the blood of the race, or in gunpowder to kill it; enough salt to savor all the vegetables of the world. Its acid water, which waits only for a little sugar to make it delicious lemonade, may yet be found in all the drugstores of the country.

The water in one place roars like a steamboat discharging its steam. Your boots curl with the heat as you stand on the hot rocks, looking. Almost anywhere a thrust of your cane will evoke a gush of steam. Our thermometer, plunged into one spring, answered 175°. Thrust in the “Witch’s Caldron,” it asserted 215°. “The Inkstand” declared itself 200°. An artificial whistle placed at the mouth of one of these geysers may be heard miles away. You get a hot bath without paying for it. The guide warns you off the crust in certain places, lest you at the same moment be drowned and boiled. Here an egg cooks hard in three minutes.

The whole scene is unique and incomparable. The Yosemite§ makes us think of the Alps; San Francisco reminds us of Chicago; Clark Foss, the stage driver, hurling his passengers down the mountain at breakneck speed, suggests the driver of an Alpine diligence; Hutchings’ mountain horse, that stumbled and fell flat upon us, suggested our muleback experiences in Tête Noir Pass of Switzerland; but the geysers remind us of nothing that we ever saw, or ever expect to see. They have a voice, a bubble, a smoke, a death-rattle, peculiar to themselves. No photographist can picture them, no words describe them, no fancy sketch them.

You may visit them by either of two routes; but do not take the advice of Clark Foss, the celebrated stage driver. You ought to go by one route, and return the other; yet Foss has made thousands of travelers believe that the only safe and interesting way to return is the way they go—namely, by his route. They who take his counsel miss some of the grandest scenery on the continent. Any stage driver who by his misrepresentations would shut a tourist out of the entrancing beauties of the “Russian Valley” ought to be thrashed with his own rawhide. We heard Foss bamboozling a group of travelers with the idea that on the other route the roads were dangerous, the horses poor, the accommodations wretched and the scenery worthless. We came up in time to combat the statement with our own happy experiences of the Russian Valley, and to save his passengers from the oft-repeated imposition.

And thus I have suggested the chief annoyance of California travel. The rivalries of travel are so great that it is almost impossible to get accurate information. The stage drivers, guides, and hotel proprietors, for the most part, are financially interested in different routes. Going to Yosemite Valley by the “Calaveras route,” from the office in San Francisco where you buy your ticket to the end of your journey, everybody assures you that JM Hutchings, one of the hotel keepers of Yosemite, is a scholar, a poet, a gentleman, and a Christian, and that to him all the world is indebted for the opening of the valley. But if you go in by the “Mariposa route,” then from the office where you get your ticket, along by all the waystations and through the mountain passes, you are assured that Mr Liedig, the hotel keeper of Yosemite, is the poet and Christian, and that JM Hutchings aforesaid is a nobody, a blower, a deadbeat, the chief impediment to the interests of Yosemite—or, to use a generic term, a scalawag.

The fact is that no one can afford in California to take the same route twice, for each one has a glory of its own. If a traveler have but one day for the Louvre Gallery, he cannot afford to spend it all in one corridor; and as California is one great picture gallery, filled with the masterpieces of Him who paints with sunshine and dew and fire, and sculptures with chisel of hurricane and thunderbolt, we cannot afford to pass more than once before any canvas or marble.

But whatever route you choose for the “Hot Springs,” and whatever pack of stage driver yarns you accept, know this—that in all this matchless California, with climate of perpetual summer, the sky cloudless and the wind blowing six months from the genial west; the open field a safe threshing floor for the grandest wheat harvests of the world; nectarines and pomegranates and pears in abundance that perish for lack of enough hands to pick; by a product in one year of 6.5 million gallons of wine proving itself the vineyard of the Western Hemisphere; African callas, and wild verbenas, and groves of oleander and nutmeg; the hills red with 5,000 cattle in a herd, and white with a 150,000 sheep in a flock; the neighboring islands covered with wild birds’ eggs, that enrich the markets, or sounding with the constant yoi-hoi, yoi-hoi, of the sea-lions that tumble over them; a State that might be called the “Central Park” of the world; the gulches of gold pouring more than $50 million a year into the national lap; lofty lakes, like Tahoe, set crystalline in the crown of the mountain; so weird that you do not wonder that the Indians think that whoever points his finger at them must die, and in one place the water plunging from a height more than sixteen times greater than Niagara—even in such a country of marvels as this, there is nothing that makes you ask more questions, or bow in profounder awe, or come away with more interesting reminiscences than the world-renowned California geysers.

There is a bang at your bedroom door at 5 o’clock in the morning, rousing you to go up and explore them; and after spending an hour or two in wandering among them, you come back to the breakfast prepared by the model landlord of California, jolly, obliging, intelligent, reasonable. As you mount the stage for departure, you give him a warm shake of the hand, and suggest that it would be a grand thing if someone with a vein of poetry in his mind and the faith of God in his heart would come round someday, and passing among the geysers with a sprinkle of hot steam, would baptize them with a Christian name.

Let us ascribe to Satan nothing that is grand, or creative, or wise. He could not make one of these grains of alum. He could not blow up one of these bubbles on the spring. He does some things that seem smart; but taking him all in all, he is the biggest fool in the universe.

If the devil wants to boil his “Teakettle,” or stir his “Mushpot,” or whirl his “Gristmill,” let him do it in his own territory. Meanwhile, let the water and the fire and the vapor, at the lift of David’s orchestral baton, praise the Lord!

“I will praise Thee, O Lord, with my whole heart; I will show forth all Thy marvelous works” (Psalm 9:1).

Copyright © 2018 Alexandra Lee

*Adapted from “The Devil’s Gristmill,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], Around the Tea-Table (New York: Bible House, 1895). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

§ Talmage predated the National Park Service.

About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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