Jeff Smith 6 p.m., Oct. 8
Mule Hill: Field Notes
The Mule Hill Historic Trail begins near a golf driving range. With an imaginative twist, the sounds of cracking and clunking woods and irons could be rifle fire 167 years ago, as General Stephen Watts Kearny's wounded and emaciated troops captured a mound-like hill overlooking the San Dieguito River.
Even without the imagined connection, the contrast is eerie. As you move south down the trail, the sounds of 21st century target practice recede. As the trail hooks left, you drift back in time.
After the Battle of San Pasqual, about eight miles to the east, General Andres Pico and about 70 Californios besieged Kearny's troops for four days on this hill. Pico arranged three rows of sentries just beyond rifle range.
Kearny's men hid behind the boulders and piled up rocks in the spaces in between. The severely wounded lay on ambulances. The rest carried on all night vigils, watching the shadows and far away campfires for signs of an attack.
If help hadn't arrived, on December 11, 1846, Mule Hill might have become California's Alamo.
Today grasses grow around granite boulders. In 1846, writes John W. Davis, "it was nothing more than a barren rock, no grass, not even as much as a shrub, and worse than all, not a drop of water to be had."
Soldiers dug holes at the foot of the hill - where you stand on the trail - to catch rainwater for the 31 wounded. Because they couldn't feed or water them, Kearny had to let the horses and mules go. They kept the most emaciated mules, Davis writes, "to subsist on."
For four days, having no flour, cattle, chickens, beans, or corn, the soldiers ate stringy mule flesh and drank muddy brown water. One soldier said the mules were "fat in bone, low in flesh."
Pico didn't have to charge. Before the battle he sent a division of Californios, led by Captain Leonardo Cota, to cut off a possible retreat of U.S. forces. Pico expected Cota to return soon.
They said at night during the siege, sounds carried forever through the 28 degree Fahrenheit air. If you put the freeway at your back and crop out the houses in the area, the ever-present breeze white noises into a strange silence. You can almost hear shouts of "Viva California!" from Pico's men, and possibly the cries of the wounded, half-starved U.S. soldiers cursing the enemy and their own sorry fate.
Your eyes also make an adjustment. From Interstate 15, Mule Hill looks dinky - just an undeveloped lump with some rocks on it on the north side of Lake Hodges. As you approach on foot, it grows larger than expected, with a commanding view of the green, river valley below. Kearny's men were lucky to reach such high ground.
As with any historical site, at Mule Hill you find yourself standing on famous footsteps. Kit Carson was here (which is why the nearby park and amphitheater are named after him), and Kearny, and Antoine "Alex" Godey (every bit the intrepid Mountain Man as Carson but without his PR), and young Edward Beale, one of the most interesting of the group.
And Andres Pico. One report puts him in hand-to-hand combat during the battle at San Pasqual. In the middle of the siege, he rode up to Mule Hill for a white-flag truce. A perfect gentleman, he exchanged prisoners and even delivered a package - of tea and sugar - to his arch enemy Captain Andrew Gillespie.
And in 1847, after fighting the three major battles of the "Flores Revolution," Pico said "together with my compatriots we made the last efforts, notwithstanding the extreme lack of powder, arms, men, and all kinds of supplies."
After time spent studying the Mule Hill and its history, the walk back - to golf balls, streams of cars, a thousand houses on the hills, and stick-out signs and billboards everywhere, feels like snapping out of a trance.
To the trailhead: I-15 to Via Rancho Parkway east. First light: Sunset Drive. Park and go. Also: the San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park and museum: east of San Diego Wild Animal Park, at San Pasqual Valley Road.
Some references: Arthur Woodward, Lances at San Pasqual (San Francisco, 1948). ed. Ross Calvin, Lieutenant Emory Reports (Albuquerque, 1951). Sally Cavell Johns, "Viva Los Californios," Journal of San Diego History (Fall, 1973, vol. 19, no. 4). Konrad F. Schrier, Jr., "A Study of the Location of Mull Hill," Journal of San Diego History (Spring, 1975, vol. 21, no. 2). Richard Griswold del Castillo, "The U.S.-Mexican War in San Diego, 1846-1847), Journal of San Diego History (Winter, 2003, vol. 49, no. 1).
More like this:
- On the trail of San Diego history: Mule Hill — May 16, 2013
- Unforgettable: The American Invasion — July 30, 2008
- Coast to Crest trail leaps closer to reality — Nov. 7, 2002
- Walk around San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park — Aug. 23, 2001
- The Bloody Battle of San Pasqual — March 7, 1985