California - The Mojave
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
At the outset, it is essential to the enjoyment of a desert outing that you have some definite purpose in view, other than mere pastime. You cannot repair there successully as you do to the beach, for a stroll along the sands and then to your hotel for a bath and a good dinner. You may go to trace the still visible shore-lines of that prehistoric sea of the Salton Sink and to indulge your fancy in a walk upon that beach which is now but the ghost of a beach; or to collect baskets from some remnants of an Indian tribe ; to study the plant life of the desert, or its mineralogy, or its animals; to paint or to sketch; or you may go just for the sake of a trip to the Pickaninny Buttes and back, with Mojave Jim for guide—but unless you know what you are on the desert for, you are going to be badly fretted inside of twenty-four hours.
Of our own visits to the Mojave Desert, taken for the primary purposes of studying the flowers and painting them, two may be taken as typical of the sort that is entirely practicable for the average traveler to undertake and enjoy. Both visits were made during the season of the spring blossoming which in that region extends, roughly speaking, from mid-April to the latter part of May. Our first sojourn was for four days, spent at Victorville, a mining-supply village on the Santa Fe Railroad. Here we found a plain and fairly comfortable hotel patronized by prospectors, miners and railroad men, and were able to engage a horse and light wagon which enabled us to take daily excursions out upon the illimitable waste that lay all about us. Such a trip as this is comparatively easy and requires little preparation; but it should ne in mind when packing for it, that the desert sun will even in a few days destroy any fineness of wearing appal-fie–therefore take your plainest clothes; and that the desert air will impart an appetite, which if you are none too strong can be but poorly satisfied with rough fare therefore take in your trunk a few of the good things of civilization.
On this experimental trip we learned some simple fundamental facts about the desert. Its most beautiful hours are from dawn until ten in the morning, and from four or five in the afternoon until night-fall. During these periods at the season of the year when we were there, the atmosphere was more of heaven than of earth. The glowing sky, radiant with sunrise and sunset glories ; the unspeakable opalescent tints on distant mountains ; the brilliant flowers blooming upon the sands at one's feet, a sense of largeness and indifference to petty things —these are gifts of the desert's mornings and evenings never to be forgotten. Then, to crown all, there is the night—serene, starlit, full of peace, its solemn stillness broken only by the lament of some owl far or near, or the cry of coyotes hunting. And over and beyond these recitable matters there is an un-utterable something that tugs at the heart of the true desert lover, and makes him long evermore for its silent places. For it is not merely what the outward eye takes in that urges us on to visit certain regions it is the residence there of intangible influences that feed our spirits with manna from the secret storehouses of the universe, making us for the time partakers of an unseen feast of life with the Master Himself. During these night watches on the desert, the veil between this world and the spiritual seems thinner than' elsewhere, and one in some measure comprehends why prophets of all time have found inspiration and strength in desert regions. Here in these waterless wastes, the wine of a spiritual kingdom is poured abundantly and the awakened soul hears the summons to a new life.
The desert day, however, is apt to be another matter. About ten in the morning we are speaking of the spring days down comes the heat, and often by noon the wind has begun to blow—a persistent, intrusive, irritating wind. From then on until the sun is well down the western sky, one appreciates as never before the comfort of the shadow of a great rock in a weary land; and after preparing dinner in its shade one is content to remain quietly there reading, or watching the play of light and shadow on the far-off mountain ranges, or enjoying a nap, until the elemental fierceness of the midday melts into the evening coolness.
It is a rare experience, that first picnic in the shady crevices of the Mojave rocks. Dobbin has had his keg of water, which was brought along in the spring wagon, and he is Munching his truss of alfalfa, making an occasional side nip at a sprig of desert green; in the old mine-shaft that yawns below us, some birds with open bills and drooping wings pant and rest, refugees from the noontide heat too dejected to bicker, before us stretches, mile upon mile, a shimmering expanse of brown and gray earth, dotted with glistening upheavals of igneous rock and clumps of dull-green shrubs, with here and there a tree yucca thrusting up its bristling, shaggy arms. Far to the westward the desert plain rises to meet the great mountains stooping down- majestic peaks of eight, nine and ten thousand feet, clothed in mysteries of pink and amethyst and purple, and crowned with dreamy fields of snow that seem in those pure heights against the pale noon sky, as parts of a spiritual landscape, the rest of which lies beyond mortal ken. Off to the north a slender green strip marks the sinuous course of the Mojave River, that strange stream which has its source in the pure springs and snow crevasses of the San Bernardino summits, but is without a mouth, its waters being swallowed up in the in-satiable sands not far from Victor. The mythical region of the mystic's dream
"Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
has a real existence here. Then when the sun has gone to his setting, there is the drive home in the quiet afterglow, with the palpitating light of the first star burning in the twilight sky, and all the earth baptized for a brief space into a heavenly peace, before the night shall shut in.
In these desert outings-even the little trips of a day which we took around Victorville—there lies one special danger. This is not rattlesnakes, of which we caught sight of one, now and then, as much frightened at sight of us as we of it; nor "'bad men," of whom we saw none; but it is the ease with which one may lose one's way even within a short distance of human habitations. There is a "Deadman's Point" almost anywhere on the desert, and lost men have died of thirst within calling distance of Victor. We have more than once stepped aside to explore some spot a few rods from the trail, and spent a good part of the morning searching for the road again. The inequalities of the ground are continually hiding what lies even a little way be-hind, and bringing into view fresh glimpses ahead so like every other part of the desert that the sense of relation becomes confused, and one is lost before he knows it. Even well-marked trails are not to be counted upon, for the sand storms that may come up any time, may obliterate them in half an hour. The only safety is to fix thoroughly in your mind the points of the compass, and carefully to note large, well-defined landmarks as you travel—such as a mass of rocks identifiable by some peculiarity of formation, some solitary butte, a jutting promontory or a particular snow-capped peak; and never in any case venture many miles from your base on an unknown way without an experienced guide.
Familiarized somewhat with desert conditions by this brief Victorville excursion, we decided another year to go to the Mojave for a longer sojourn, camping remote from the haunts of men and there-fore undertaking to carry with us from home everything needed to sustain life for a period of three weeks, except water.
We are not of the iron-framed class of campers, and the Mojave is no respecter of persons, but pitiless alike to weak and strong. So here was a problem. There is upon this desert a small town called Hesperia, on the Santa Fe Railway. Years ago it had been "boomed," and the boom having burst in due course of time, the place now abides amid the pieces, weed-grown and silent. Eight miles from this incipient Tadmor, we learned of a spot beside the beautiful Mojave River, where we might pitch our tent undisturbed, and look across the desert sands to the grandeur of snow-capped mountains. There we would make our camp.
So when the winter rains were over, we got together our tent and blankets, packed a couple of boxes of provisions, put the cat out to board, and one April morning set forth. Noon found us landed with our boxes around us at the nearest station to our camp-site. The place had been selected through the advice of a friend who knew the region, for in venturing into the wilderness it is essential that you should be assured in advance of a good situation, either through personal investigation or the advice of one who knows the spot.
We had engaged beforehand the services of a man to transport us from the station, where he met us with a Studebaker wagon and a stout team of horses. Of course it would have been more like a book if his outfit had been a string of burros, but we set down the fact as it happened. He proved to be a fatherly old soul from Pike County, Missouri, for which his unweaned heart was pining; and as he drove, he began to gossip of brother Pete who would be seventy-six come next Fourth, and son Abner who was farming the place now, and Aunt 'Mandy, bless you what a woman she was to spin home-spun!—she's dead now, these twenty year; until he became quite unconscious that just now we were all traveling a troublous road in California:. The wagon-blessed be its honest maker—banged and bounded airily over rocks and clumps of sage-brush, now two wheels in the air while the other two were down to the hub in a wash-out; now dropping us bodily into a cross-gulch with a stunning thump that made our anatomies cry out and brought loose bits of baggage flying about our ears. Finally we crossed a stony arroyo at a hand gallop, and after tugging up a ridge of sand beyond, our wheels buried in it halfway to the hub and raising a suffocating dust, we came out into the open desert dotted with sage-brush and tree yuccas. Our Jehu pointed with his whip to a thin line of green trees a mile away.
"That's the Moharvy River, he remarked, 'and when the boys was fencin' in the range last year they camped down there under them sycamores. It's shady there, and water's handy. I reckon you'll like it."
We reckoned so, too; for the leisurely old trees and the strip of green vegetation by the still waters of the shallow, broad flowing river, made an oasis spot that for "homeyness" and comfort exceeded our most sanguine hopes.
There our driver dumped us out, piled our boxes and blankets in a heap beside us, remarked that he reckoned he would turn up again that day three weeks and tote us back, if we did not get tired be-fore, and if we did maybe we could let him know by Jim Johnson who looked after the cattle on that range, and so long, good luck to us.
It was four o'clock in the afternoon, and camp was to be made, goods unpacked and supper cooked before nightfall; but we devoted a few preliminary moments to looking over the place we had come so far to see.
First in point of practical utility, there was the river of pure mountain water within a stone's throw, with driftwood for our fire scattered along the shore. A short distance behind us, the ground rose abruptly in the form of a tableland promising protection from the worst of the winds which our Missouri friend had told us came "a bilin' now and agin" out of Horsethief Cañon and Rattlesnake Draw. Back of this mesa rose the snow-capped range of the San Bernardino, while in front of us, under a cloudless sky, the desert lay, silent, nays terious, vast—the afternoon heat hovering low upon, it in quivering waves, through which far across sagey plains we saw as in a dream a distant range of amethystine granite hills. Somewhere doves were cooing, a flock of restless sparrows twittered in the wild plum bushes by the river, and a valley quail whistled from the tip of a cactus near by. A breath of cool wind out of the mountains cane mingled with the drowsy hum of buccaneering bees ravaging a clump of flowers.
The night closed in still and brilliantly starlit, and we decided that it would be flying in the face of Providence to sleep in a tent when we might lie under the stars. All the preceding winter we had slept outdoor under the gentle skies of Santa Catalina Island; and, following our practice there, we now laid our blankets lightly upon the cots in that quiet twilight hour, and tucked them in, as one would prepare a bed at home.
Memory will never fail us regarding that first night in the desert. By nine o'clock Horsethief Cañon and. Rattlesnake Draw had wind of us, and bore down upon us with a shrewd blast right off the ice. It was as eager and as nipping an air as ever blew on the ramparts at Elsinore, and it traveled fast. Our clothing took on the similitude of thin expanses of ice. The blankets which we thought heavy when we packed them at eighty in the shade in Pasadena, flapped in the gale like gossamer. An old down-quilt laid across the foot of our cots, arose and skimmed away to a clump of sage-brush out on the illimitable sands. The tent strained furiously at its pegs and threatened to fol-low the quilt at any moment. A pack of coyotes set up a shivering chorus in the distance. Even the motherly old sycamore above our heads lost the protecting air which we had felt in it earlier in the day, and creaked and groaned ominously in the blast, brandishing its great branches threateningly over us. Fortunately neither of us was nervous or easily alarmed, and though very sleepy and very cold, the abiding sense of humor which had borne us through other emergencies, remained with us still. Holding down the covers with both hands, we patiently awaited the morning, which, when it came, with one of those magical changes inseparable from desert life, aroused us from a belated snatch of sleep with a windless radiance of sunshine, and a musical chorus from the boughs above. All the birds in the desert seemed assembled there to give us a welcome. We arose and, greeting our little brothers of the air, set our house in order.
Warned by the first night's experience, we sewed the blankets up into sleeping bags and reinforced the two heavy Navajo rugs, on which we lay, with layers of newspapers. By moving the cots at night so that the foot of each was within the tent-door and the head out, we secured the coveted freshness of night air for our lungs without risking having our covering blown off. Then the wind, after the perverse fashion of inanimate things, finding itself foiled, never afterwards blew upon us so fiercely.
Life in the desert is an adaptation to conditions. To take up arms against the obstacles is less wise than to submit to the inevitable. The old-time poet who wrote, "To bear is to conquer our fate," had the making of a good desert dweller. If the cook-stove will not burn because of the wind, the wise man digs a hole in the ground, and sets his Dutch-oven going. When the thermometer runs up to a breezeless hundred in the shade, he takes a hint from the breeze and stops work, too. Our main advice, for a desert trip of this nature, provided al-ways that you are not of the tough kind that can stand anything, would be this : Be sure to take enough material for emergencies. During this stay on the Mojave, for instance, we had one furious but short-lived rain storm, some spits of hail, a little snow, one night so cold that our camp was white with frost, some days of heat so intense that the thinnest clothing at midday was necessary for comfort, and others when all these material considerations were of no importance in the absolute comfort and tranquillity of the atmosphere.
In planning for a desert camp, the question of how to get about after you are settled, is one that requires serious attention. It happened that our work was such that we could ordinarily pursue it close to camp, but when we needed to move about we found a neighboring ditch-tender's burros to be the ideal motive power. While slow, the burro is preferable to a horse in being more easily cared for, and in standing the shortcomings of desert life with patience and even with good humor. He requires a minimum of water, and lives contentedly enough on a browse of shrubs and wild flowers, though if you can include in your camp stores enough crushed bar-ley to afford the little animal a quart of it once a day, he will do better work for you. The whims of burro appetite we found rather entertaining. Paper, for instance, is quite a tidbit, be it tissue or manila; even cardboard, if it is thin, such as is used in making confectioner's ice-cream boxes, has its devotees in burrodom; while to all a bit of news-paper is choice. We made a note of what one of our desert burros had for lunch upon a picnicking occasion. He had been standing indifferently up to his knees in grass, without so much as nibbling at it, and we thought he could not be hungry, but here are the items in the order of consumption:
Tissue paper and eggshells; plain white wrapping paper; brown paper and some crusts of zwieback; bread and butter; one boiled egg in the shell, and two prune seeds wrapped in tissue paper--(he spat out one prune seed and the yolk of the egg, but later ate the shell) ; steeped tea leaves and tissue paper; a few bran crackers; a slice of cake; a bit of cheese; and two orange skins, keenly relished.
Having exhausted the scraps from our luncheon, he topped off with a demitasse of dry cottonwood leaves, picked up from the ground.
One day our neighbor, the ditch-tender, stopped at our camp to pass the time of day, and the talk fell on burros.
"Some folks say a burro never dies," he gossiped, "and to prove it they'll ask you if you ever seen a dead one. But, gosh, that ain't so. To be sure, a burro mighty seldom gets sick, but if he does git sick, you bet he kicks the bucket quick. How old will a burro git to be? Lord, I don't know. Now that black burro of mine, he was twenty years old when I got him and I've had him fifteen year. How much does add up? Thirty-five year old? Well, he's all of that, you bet, and he's as good as ever. Why, gosh a'mighty, he'll run like a deer, if he finds he's loose.'
"Yes, sirree," he continued, "there's nothin' like 'em for the desert. Some folks say they don't care much for water, but I know they like a good drink of fresh water all right, same as any animal; but if it ain't to be had, they're reasonable—they don't go to pieces for want of it like a horse does. I've known a burro to go three days without water, but I don't want no burro of mine to have to go dry longer than that. I guess that's pretty near the limit.
"Eating? Yes, you're right about that-they're purty permisc'ous eaters—purty much ev'ything from shoe-strings to sagebrush goes with them. When I clear up after a meal, the burros come in right handy; they clean up all the scraps, the potato parings, and beans that's left over and so on, and old Black Jack there thinks he's cheated bad if I don't give him the frying pan to lick clean. You got to watch how you leave things layin' loose around camp, though; I had a burro wunst eat a good straw hat for me—brand new, cost me six bits in San Ber'-doo—eat it all up so's you couldn't tell whether what was left was a necktie or a hat band, and I don't know why he left that."
From Sancho Panza's day—and doubtless from an earlier—men have fellowshiped affectionately with donkeys, and the average Californian, in common with all who know the burro intimately, has a weak spot in his heart for him. The little beast would be only a joke, if he were not so useful if he had not so often stood between the life of his master and death. His cat-like quality of clinging to the skirts of existence till the last strand parts, and the habit of bearing with superhuman patience the buffets and privations of a frontier career, more than offset the burro's exasperating pigheadedness and blundering, stupid ways, that contrast so sharply with the nervous, clean-cut, intelligent action of a good horse. Moreover, your burro train is a sort of traveling vaudeville show in the wilderness, and furnishes an element of unpremeditated humor in a weary land. When Jack and Jenny rub noses after a day's separation, or lift up. their ridiculous, labored voices in raucous salutation to each other, or raise their great ears in interested attention when something happens on ahead, or flap them out like horizontal bars in dejection when there's nothing doing, you laugh in spite of your-self and think, "What, after all, is life without a burro!"