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banner - nine days on the summit of mt. shasta

benjamin colonna
Benjamin Colonna

B.A. COLONNA, Assistant
U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey

(Reprinted in The Journal Coast and Geodetic Survey,

June 1953, Number 5, pp. 145-152.)

Originally printed in The Californian for March 1880.)

IN WHAT FOLLOWS I state facts for the information of those interested, rather than

draw on my imagination to please the reader. Every one who ascends a high mountain has his own experience, and there are sensations peculiar to each individual. For my own part, although accustomed to mountain climbing, I have found nothing more difficult than to describe accurately what I have seen, and it is even more difficult to describe the sensations of one who remains for a long time at a great elevation.

During the summer of 1878 Mr. Carlile P. Patterson, Superintendent United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, authorized Prof. George Davidson, Assistant, to place a theodolite and heliotrope on Mount Shasta, in connection with the work then going on under the Professor's direction. Professor Davidson assigned the duty to me, and in executing it I arrived at Sisson's July 18th. Sisson's, a country inn and summer resort, is a place pleasant in itself, but to the dusty traveler by stage or the weary tourist after an expedition in the mountains or on the lakes or river in the vicinity, it is a paradise. From Sisson's to the summit of Mount Shasta is about 12 miles, in a straight line, and the ascent about 10,440 feet. Sisson's house is about 4,000 feet above the sea. Mount Shasta is 14,440 feet high, as determined by barometer. Mr. A. F. Rodgers, Assistant, United States Coast and Geodetic Survey and his party, were the first from the Survey to ascend Shasta and remain over night. His first ascent was April 30th, 1875, and his second in October of the same year. He had the weather no colder than I did, and all of his party seem to have suffered from the rarefied atmosphere. He was up 3 days, and erected an iron signal surmounted by a parabolic reflector, which is yet standing.

On the 24th of July we left Sisson's Hotel to make the ascent. The day was a delightful one, and we were all in fine spirits. The outfit which I proposed taking up weighed 750 pounds, and had to be packed from the snow line to the summit on the backs of 20 stout Indians. Besides the packers there was the usual number of squaws, papooses, and lean dogs -- the indispensable impedimenta of Indian braves. If there is anything outside of these household chattels that a brave in this neighborhood prides himself on it is his linen duster and jaunty straw hat. The former, to be stylish, must reach to within 6 inches of the ground, and for the latter a broad blue or red band is most desirable. Nearly every one in the party was mounted, and it was a somewhat noisy company, in which the voices of the braves and squaws were mingled with the crying of papooses and the barking of dogs, so that no one sound was clearly distinguishable. Our route was over a beautiful smooth mountain trail, which at first wound about in splendid forests of sugar pine. The ascent was so gradual that it would have been imperceptible to a casual observer. To the mountaineer, however, no better evidence of increasing elevation was necessary than the gradual change, first in size and shape, and finally in the species of the trees. By the time we had ridden 2 hours the sugar pine was much smaller, and interspersed with red fir. At the end of 3 hours the sugar pine had disappeared entirely, and we had red fir only. An hour later and we passed through the most beautiful forest of these trees that I have ever seen. It was entirely free from underbrush, the trees were young and vigorous, and their symmetrical and beautifully tapering trunks and branches, towering many feet above our heads, were decorated with very delicate and pretty yellow mosses. There were tracks of deer in and across the trail everywhere and occasionally bears' tracks could be seen, but our noise frightened them and they hid away.

We arrived at the upper edge of the timber at 3 P.M., where above us towered the beautiful snow-clad peak of Shasta. Here we were to spend the night and be ready for the ascent in the morning. The squaws picketed the ponies where they could obtain a scanty meal from the grass, which was just beginning to spring up among the rocks. The guide sent some of the braves to walk over the snow while it was still soft from the noonday sun, in order that we might save cutting places in it for our feet when we began the ascent in the morning. Near our campfire was the dry bed of a brook. By sunset it was a noisy mountain stream, which gradually increased in volume until nearly sunrise when it began to fall, and by noon it was dry again. This takes place every day in summer when there are no clouds, and is caused by the melting of the snow on the mountain side. Before dark we had partaken of our evening meal of cold food and hot coffee. Our blankets were then spread on the ground, and we were soon asleep. This was a short-lived pleasure; for we were awakened in a short time by the Indians, who, under their medicine man -- a shrewd old knave, and not too fond of work -- were performing such ceremonies as are customary with them before undertaking any important affair. How long they continued their monotonous chanting, I do not know; for I quickly fell asleep under its influence, and did not awake until the first light streak was visible in the east, announcing the approach of sunrise and the beginning of our day's labor.

Comparatively few Indians have ever been to the summit of Mount Shasta and these generally with white men. With them it seems to be a sacred place, and its snowy mantle they regard with reverence as an emblem of purity; nor will they defile it even with tobacco-juice. We partook of a hasty breakfast of hot coffee and cold food, and were soon at the place where the packs had been sorted out and left. They averaged from 35 to 40 pounds each, which is a fair load for one man to carry to the summit. The morning was clear. There was no wind, and the atmosphere was sharp and bracing. The trail that the Indians had previously tramped in the snow was followed step by step. But for this precaution no footing would have been secure without expending much time and labor in chopping our way in the snow. The first red snow was found at about ten thousand feet. The microscopic fungi which constitute the coloring matter were very abundant. Where the footprints were deep enough to pass through it, they presented the appearance of one's having left stains of blood around the edges of his tracks. It had decidedly a fruity taste; but none of us agreed as to what it was like. Sisson thought it resembled the flavor of ripe pears, while to me it was watermelon. A handful of it melted on newspaper, leaves, after the water has evaporated, a red, powdery substance, feeling on the hands much like fine Indian meal. The upper part of the snow, for a depth of 2 inches, was as white as usual, and of the ordinary granular form of old snow, like finely ground alum salt, hard packed. Below this came the red stratum, which was about 3 inches thick--the white again appearing under this. As we ascended slowly over the snow-field, it became steeper and steeper--our trail finally bearing off in the direction of an abrupt rocky hillside, leading up to the backbone of one of the ridges that radiate from the summit. Should one lose footing here, while the snow is frozen, there is little probability of being able to stop until he had slid some three or four thousand feet. He would make it very quickly, however; and I should apprehend no danger beyond the loss of a little skin, which would probably be rubbed off. The worst part of such a performance on my own account would have been the necessity of climbing back again.

While on the snow-field some one shouted, "Look! look!" and there, about a mile off, where a large rock, called "The Thumb," projects from the backbone, was a cloud effect more beautiful than I ever expect to see again. A small cloud seemed to have been hovering just behind the ridge from us; the morning sun had warmed it up, and just as the sun was high enough to welcome us with his genial warmth, the cloud came creeping over the ridge, and partially enveloped "The Thumb" in a robe, the colors of which were more beautiful than I can describe, and which changed incessantly, and finally, in a few moments, disappeared as silently as it had come before us. The impression left on my mind was that of all the colors of many rainbows passing rapidly into each other in endless confusion. We were soon over the snowfield, and at the foot of the rocky slope before alluded to. I did not like the looks of the immense boulders that I saw piled up above us on a hillside -- so steep that in ascending it both hands and feet were constantly required -- many of them so evenly balanced that a man's weight would start them tumbling from their resting places. It is this alone that constitutes the danger of an ascent of Shasta; even this danger can and should be avoided by going around such places. I was behind all the others, encouraging those who showed sign of exhaustion, when one of the packers accidentally dislodged a boulder about 6 feet in diameter. We were all on the lookout and endeavoring to avoid such an accident, and as soon as it started several called, "Look out!" On looking up I saw it coming down about 50 yards above me. I sprang aside as quickly as I could, and was just in time. I felt the wind from it as it went tearing by me, and was hit by some small fragments, but not at all injured. I followed it with my eyes as it went plunging downward. It was at once followed by a stream of other rocks that it had set in motion, and at the foot of the rocky hill the whole was launched in a confused mass on the hard, frozen snow-field, where stones of all sizes joined in a "go-as-you-please" rolling match, tracing curves that crossed and recrossed each other in all kinds of complications. They finally disappeared behind a turn, but we heard them some seconds after, when they had passed the line of the snow and were crashing and grinding among the rocks in the canyon below. As they gradually came to rest the sound died away as in the distance, leaving silence again to reign in its kingdom.

At the top of this hill we passed around the foot of "The Thumb" and found ourselves under the red bluff, a steep wall of pumice that is readily distinguishable from Sisson's. We passed around this wall over a snow-drift to the eastward of it. This drift seemed to have formed against a perpendicular wall, but it had melted away and left a deep, narrow chasm, the bottom of which was not visible. On top it was about 30 feet wide, and on the outside it fell off precipitously for three or four hundred feet. This is at an elevation of about thirteen thousand feet, and is where tourists generally begin to feel the effects of the light atmosphere. The medicine man gave out here, and his pack was taken by one of the supernumeraries. The strongest of the men now advanced but slowly and only 50 or 60 yards at a time before stopping to get wind. The last of the packers had not yet passed the snow-drift when we were enveloped in a very dense, cold fog, the approach of which I had not observed, being busily engaged at the time in getting the packers over the drift. Frost formed rapidly on our beards and clothing, and exercise was necessary for comfort. The packers were scattered, the stronger ones being considerably in advance, and not being able to see 20 feet in any direction, they all began calling at once. I hastened to the front and stopped the calling, and detained those in advance until those behind came up, when we resumed our journey again. Although there only remained about thirteen hundred feet to climb, it proved by far the most fatiguing part of the journey; the rarefied atmosphere making frequent halts necessary. During these halts each brave who had a linen duster would straighten himself up, look around in a patronizing way at his companions less fortunate than himself and with an air of comfort wonderful to behold, would button it to the throat as carefully as one's overcoat is buttoned to bid defiance to the cold. Two squaws, who came to pack, gave out here, but they went on without their packs to the Hot Springs. I shall always remember with pleasure the gallant manner in which the stronger braves vied with each other in carrying the packs of these women, and the kindly words with which they were encouraged to go on to the end ....

By noon the last pound of the outfit was deposited near the Shasta Hot Springs, 215 feet below the summit, where I intended to camp. As each Indian threw down his pack he swore in good plain English that he would never come up again, and cursed white men in general for doing such work. I noted carefully, and was surprised to see how varied their physical condition was. Some were panting from their exertions, and perspiring freely; in which condition they threw themselves at full length on the snow and refused to move. Others who had done the same work were shivering with cold, and sought the hot ground around the springs, where, stretching themselves on the warm sulphur beds, they remained shivering in spite of their linen dusters until they were sufficiently rested to begin the descent. A fair estimate of the condition of these men may be made when it is known that there were 20 in all; that only 5 of them had ever been to the summit; that they were now within 215 feet of it; that the fog was clearing away beautifully--and not one of them went up. When the last packer had gone, I found myself, with two attendants-- Richard Hubbard and Thomas Sullivan, both fine specimens of vigorous manhood--ready to go to work to make ourselves as comfortable as circumstances would permit. Our first care was to provide water, which was done by melting snow in a large tin vessel at the Hot Springs. Then our tent was pitched in as comfortable a place as we could find; and soon our little coal oil stove was in operation and we were preparing our coffee. Thomas Sullivan was then taken sick. His head troubled him so that he could not work, he began to suffer from cold hands and feet, and in a short time this was followed by sickness at the stomach, which compelled him to give up entirely. We wrapped him in blankets, and placed him in a corner of the tent on some robes to thaw out. By the time we had made our tent secure and snug it was dark. There was a light wind from the southward, and a clear sky, in which the stars were shining with extraordinary brilliancy. We spread our bed on the rocky floor of the tent, and crawled under the blankets, with Sullivan between us, in order, if possible, to warm him up. He was very restless all night, and was up from time to time, suffering very much from violent nausea. This interfered very much with our rest, and I was glad when it was light enough to get up. Sullivan's purple, haggard face and bloodshot eyes showed that he had suffered considerably, and I was glad to see him leave as soon as the sun was up. Being now unencumbered and in a splendid condition for work, we began with a will and although compelled to stop frequently for want of breath, we had by noon packed the instruments and observing tent to the summit, and made fair progress in setting them up. By night I was ready to observe on Lola and Helena, or show a heliotrope to Professor Davidson, who was at the former place.

The summit of Mount Shasta consists of two conical peaks about 200 yards apart. The northeast one is about 50 feet the higher, and is called Shasta Peak; the southwest one I called McLean's Peak, in honor of Doctor McLean of Oakland, who spent 2 nights and a day on the summit with me. It is in the valley between these peaks that the Shasta Hot Springs are situated. They are dotted about over an area of about 20 yards square and constantly send up steam strongly impregnated with light sulfurated hydrogen and other gases, the odor of which is offensive and very oppressive, so much so that in making examinations of them it is impossible to hold one's head in the fumes near the ground, and breathe. The temperature of these springs was carefully measured, and found to be 184o. One can walk about easily over them, but I always considered it safe to have someone near to give assistance in case of accident and to carry an alpenstock in my hand to assist myself with in case I fell through the crust, which consists of loose earth and small stones cemented together with sulfur, alum, and other minerals. Hubbard broke the crust over one of the springs with his alpenstock, and disclosed the mouth of quite a cavern, from which the steam rolled out in great volumes. Another opening sent out the steam in a small jet that caused a hissing noise much like that made by the steam escaping from a locomotive. I thought them all more active on some days than on others; but was unable to discover any change of temperature on these occasions. Mr. Carneal, of Oakland, spent 2 nights on the summit with me, and standing at my side on the north end of Shasta Peak, he discovered another group of hot springs on the north side, resembling in all respects the Shasta Hot Springs, but by no means so active. I named them Carneal Hot Springs. Whether the heat from these springs is volcanic or chemical I do not know, but am inclined to think it chemical.

The whole top of the mountain consists of ashes, lava, and igneous rocks. They are disintegrating all the time, and a camping-place should be selected with a view of being out of the way of any of the large rocks that are liable to tumble at any time. Seldom a night passed that we did not hear one that had lost its balance, go tearing and crashing down to the next bench. Once we left our tent, not exactly panic-stricken, but at least in fair haste, when one came quite near us. On McLean's Peak the rock is of a dark brown color, is of igneous origin, and broken into immense boulders, that are now so much displaced as to leave room for conjecture as to whether the long, deep grooves that apparently extended, at one time, for hundreds of feet, are due to glacial action or not. They have been so long exposed to the weather that small striae would have had time to wear out entirely. The Whitney glacier has its origin about one thousand feet below and northwest from these furrows. Many of the stones have very beautiful lichens on them, but on the Shasta Peak there are none. One day I found some snow-birds and sparrows dead in the snow; they had probably been caught on the mountain in a cold fog, and perished before they could get away. I saw chipmunks one thousand feet above the timber line, and once I saw a hawk on the top of McLean's Peak; but it only remained a few seconds and then flew away. There were a few of the ordinary blueflies that crawled about sluggishly inside the tent during the warmer hours of the day, but they were quite torpid by 3 o'clock. The delicate little spiders that I have seen floating about with their webs on other high mountains, as though carried there by the wind, were not seen here.

Most Californians are aware that from the latter part of July until the first rains -- which generally fall in October --the atmosphere is filled with smoke, which is often so dense that one can see only a mile or two in any direction. This season had just begun when I climbed Shasta, and although on many days it prevented my seeing the surrounding country, it enabled me to see that it seldom reached higher than twelve thousand feet. Looking to the westward, the line of smoke was always as well defined as a sea horizon. It seemed always to terminate on the side next me in an immense wall, and on some occasions I saw great cumulus clouds that appeared to be floating in the smoke, just as immense icebergs would float in the ocean. I was very much disappointed in the view from Mount Shasta, on the 1 or 2 clear days that I had. Many thousands of square miles of beautiful country were spread out before me, but I was so high above that which was near, and so far from the rest, that the whole landscape was flattened. I have seen many mountains not half so high where the landscape was much more interesting.

At the top of Shasta Peak there is an old register that has been left there for visitors to record their exploits in. Once it was a well bound volume, but now it has no back and has lost many of its leaves. Visitors who ascend early in the season find the book wet and frozen. In opening it it is mutilated, and of course leaf after leaf is lost. I give a few of the entries, from which can be inferred what the others are like, and how the persons felt who wrote them:

"1874, July 3--Dimmis of Philadelphia--one-half way up and gave out."


"1875, July 26 -- Left Sisson's July 25, 1875, at 10:30 A.M. and arrived at camp at 4 P.M. Left camp July 26 at 3:30 A.M and arrived at the summit at 8 A.M. Time, four and one-half hours. If any man weighing two hundred pounds ever beats this time, and will call on the undersigned at Sacramento, he can receive ample satisfaction."


"1877, June 25 -- Left Sisson's June 25 in company with sixteen ladies and gentlemen who came as far as the camp. N. Kelsey and I stayed all night at camp, and started for the summit at 4:45 A.M. Kelsey made about half the distance, and then weakened and returned to camp. I arrived at the summit in company with R.D. Hubbard, guide, at 11:30 A.M. View on the west side fair, but totally obscured on the east side by clouds. If any one catches me up here again I hope they will pitch me over into the McCloud River."

H.J. TODD, Oakland, Cal.

"1878, July 19 -- I hope all fools will reach this place in due time."

J.E. PUTNAM, Yreka.

"1878, August 15 -- Charles Lowley, of the Phoenix Mine, Napa County, California, and Myron Gesford, of Napa City, ascended this mountain, to-day, for the first and last time, so help us 'Bob.' We were our own guides,"

"1878, September 14 --Aaron Bill, Shasta; James W. Shankin, Oakland, California--Alpha and Omega--hereby promise not to come again."


These are fair samples of the inscriptions in the register.

For several days after I was ready for work the smoke was so dense below me that I could not see 20 miles in any direction. I spent the time making such preparations as would insure success when it cleared, and in making occasional excursions about the summit. In all of these I was alone, and did not dare to explore the beautiful ice-caverns and crevasses that I peeped into. Many of them were hundreds of feet deep and very beautiful, but not tempting enough to allure me into them unless I had a rope and strong hands at the other end of it to haul me out again. I think it safe to say that the nights are never warm on Mount Shasta. During the time I was there the thermometer was at 100o and a little over, in the shade, at Sisson's during the day. The highest that I had it on those days, with the thermometer in the sun and out of the wind, was 67o. By 4 o'clock in the afternoon ice would form in the sun, and generally by sundown the thermometer was at 25o. The coldest that I had it was 18o. When the wind blew hardest it was warmest, probably because the warm air from the valleys was blown up the sides of the mountain. It was the most comfortable when there was no wind and the thermometer stood lowest. The cirrus clouds that occasionally passed overhead seemed to be as high above me as they usually do at the level of the sea. When a fog settled on the mountain the thermometer generally went down to 32o or lower. The fog seemed to have congealed, and to be microscopic crystals that formed a delicate coating for everything they touched. If the wind blew, these particles began forming long frost crystals that stuck out straight to the windward on everything exposed.

One lives fast at a great elevation. I weighed 200 pounds when I went up, and lost 15 pounds in the 9 days that I remained. My pulse in repose ranged from 100 to 105 per minute, and very little exertion would send it up to 120. My head was clear, and I had no difficulty in breathing. My appetite was fair; but, as my food was all cold, except coffee and a little toasted cheese, I soon tired of it, and craved hot bread and soup. I remained on the summit 9 days and nights consecutively. Richard Hubbard, a faithful guide and true man, remained 4 days, was 1 day down (I was compelled to send him on business), and returned and stayed 4 days. He worked continuously while on the mountain, and stood it splendidly. His pulse was lower than mine, and his appetite first-rate. As an assistant on such an expedition I do not know of his equal.

Thomas Sullivan, a fine-looking specimen of physical development, spent the first night, and was so sick that he could remain no longer. His extremities were cold, his pulse feeble, eyes blood-shot, and lips, nose, and ears purple. Mr. Thomas D. Carneal, of Oakland, came and remained with me 2 nights and a day. He was restless the first night, and suffered from cold hands and feet; he rallied next day and expressed a desire to remain longer, but yielded his place to Doctor McLean, of Oakland. Doctor McLean suffered some with cold, and was a little affected in the head. He remained 2 nights and a day, and was glad to leave. Randolph Random, a laborer, came up in the afternoon, and we broke camp next morning. He was sick and restless, just as Sullivan had been, and was unable to do much the next morning, although he made a manly effort.

Mr. A. F. Rodgers, Assistant, United States Coast Survey, speaking of his sojourn here, says:

"1875, Tuesday, October 5--By sunset the temperature had fallen to 25o, and it became necessary to go to bed to keep warm. I may here mention a singular circumstance connected with our sojourn on the summit - every one suffered with an intense headache, and no one could sleep; nor was any special inconvenience experienced from the want of it. Mr. Eimbeck, Assistant, United States Coast Survey, who happened to visit the mountain while I was there, was constantly affected with nausea, which he called sea sickness, and ascribed to the fumes of the Hot Springs. One of the men, who temporarily essayed the duties of cooking in these springs, was affected with symptoms of fainting; and every one without exception suffered great inconvenience, no doubt from the rarefied air of the summit. Whether this effect was increased by any influence of the vapors is, I think doubtful; personally I was not conscious of any effect, even when standing among them, although I suffered while on the summit, as every one did, from an unceasing and intolerable headache."

Friday, August 1, proved to be the day I had been waiting for. The wind had hauled to the northward during the night, and the smoke had vanished as if by magic. At sunrise, I turned my telescope in the direction of Mount Lola, and there was the heliotrope, 169 miles off, shining like a star of the first magnitude. I gave a few flashes from my own, and they were at once answered by flashes from Lola. Then turning my telescope in the direction of Mount Helena, there, too, was a heliotrope, shining as prettily as the one at Lola. My joy was very great; for the successful accomplishment of my mission was now assured. As soon as I had taken a few measures, I called Doctor McLean and Hubbard to let them see the heliotrope at Mount Helena, 192 miles off, and the longest line ever observed over in the world. In the afternoon the smoke had arisen, and Helena was shut out; but on the following morning I got it again, and my mission on Mount Shasta was finished. The French have been trying for some years to measure, trigonometrically, some lines from Spain across the Mediterranean to Algiers; they have only recently succeeded, and it has been a source of great satisfaction to French geodesists. Their longest line is 169 miles. The line from Mount Shasta to Mount Helena is 192 miles long, or 23 miles longer than their longest. And the glory is ours; for America, and not Europe, can boast of the largest trigonometrical figures that have ever been measured on the globe.

On Sunday morning, August 3d, the north wind had died out, and the smoke had again enveloped everything. I saw that nothing else would be seen for many days, and at once set about packing up. By 9 o'clock everything was packed. We made a light sled, adapted for use both on the snow-fields and the rocky, mountain slopes, and with it made two trips to the edge of the great snow-field, carrying about 330 pounds at a time. By noon we had the last of our outfit at the brink of the snow precipice, where we did them all up in packages which were securely lashed, and as nearly round as we could make them. The snow-field stretched out before us, beautifully white and even. At the top there was, first, a precipitous descent of about 300 feet; then away it stretched for about 2 miles, in which distance it had a descent of about 3,000 feet. The plan was to let the packages loose, to go as they would, and while Hubbard rolled the first one to the brink and let it go, I stood on a projecting point and watched it. The snow lying at the top like the crest of an immense wave, each package had a perpendicular distance of about 300 feet to fall after leaving the brink before it touched anything. Its velocity was very great by the time it reached this point, and as soon as it hit the snow, away it bounded. Sometimes a slight inequality would incline one to the right or left and so they went until, rounding an intervening hill, they were lost to sight. As soon as the last package had gone out of sight, we strapped the instruments on our backs and began the descent. We had about 40 pounds each, and had to pack it about a mile along the ridge before we came to a place where the snow was not too steep to slide on. When we found such a place, each put a gunny-sack on the snow and sat down on it. The alpenstock was next placed under one arm, so as to project to the rear and form a brake. Then a slight motion with the feet, and we were off like a shot. I have had many pleasant rides, but for rapidity and ease of motion this beat them all. I had perfect control of myself by means of my alpenstock. Every foot of descent was bringing me into a denser atmosphere, and the effect of the whole was that of a very delightful stimulant.

This delightful ride terminated just where the packages stopped rolling. Looking back, I could follow with my eyes the tract I had made in the snow, and away up toward the place where I had started I saw my gunny sack. In the keen enjoyment of my ride I had not missed it, but a preliminary examination satisfied me that I had lost not only the gunny sack, but the seat of my trousers, and I congratulated myself in having escaped so easily. The packages had all stopped near each other, and we soon hauled them to a place from which we could pack them on horses. It was 4 o'clock when this was finished, and leaving Hubbard to spend the night with some hunters that we found on the mountain, I completed my day's work and the expedition to Shasta by walking to Sisson's, a distance of about 12 miles, and arrived there before dark, successful in my undertaking, pleased with my trip, and glad that it was over.

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