Colorado Desert Of California
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
As different from the Mojave as one race of men from another, is the Colorado Desert of Southern California. To the lover of the artistic it appeals as far more picturesque than the more northern desert, and its floral life is very different. While the Mojave may not be visited until early May to be seen in the glory of its spring, the Colorado Desert offers its best in March, though if it is possible to remain longer, the glorious display of multitudinous cactus blooms, of the tree-dalea in its floral robe of royal purple, and the palo verde be-spangled in gold, will reward the heat-proof lingerer until April and May or even June.
The Colorado Desert being in a low sink, its air possesses at seasons a quality of enervation that is not noticeable on the Mojave's elevated plateaus, and the time when it may be visited with pleasure by the unacclimated is therefore shorter. For comfortable conditions of living and ease of access to a typical part of this region's beauties and wonders, there is no more satisfactory headquarters than Palm Springs, a small settlement at the eastern base of San Jacinto Mountain, adjacent to some warm sulphur springs frequented from time immemorial by the Indians. It is situated upon a shelving edge of the desert, which, here between the San Jacinto and the San Bernardino ranges, thrusts in a long sandy tongue to which the early Spaniards gave the name of the ConchiIla Desert—that is, the Desert of the Little Shells—because of the myriads of tiny shells that strew it in places.
Palm Springs village is reached by private conveyance from the station of the same name six miles distant on the Southern Pacific Railroad, and from November till the first of May is resorted to by sufferers from respiratory troubles, for whom sanitariums are maintained embowered in palm, fig, and orange trees. The, casual visitor may board at one of them if he will, or with one of the few resident families, or—and this is the more cheerful way—he may keep house in a rented room, tent or cottage, eking out the scanty supplies of the local store by sending to Banning, twenty-five miles away, or to Los Angeles, one hundred miles distant, for needed comforts and luxuries. He should by all means arrange to sleep in, the open his cot set directly under the stars, or at least upon an open porch. In no other way can one enjoy the transcendent freshness and sweetness of the desert air, which especially during the dewless night and early morning hours is the very breath of heaven. Stimulating as a tonic, without dampness or harshness, simply to inhale it gives a new joy to living.
The feature at Palm Springs that offers a special attraction to sojourners, is the great San Jacinto Mountain, which towers immediately back of the little settlement. Its rugged sides are cleft with many cañons extending for miles in their sinuous courses far back into the mountain's recesses, opening up new vistas of noble scenery and affording endless opportunities to the lover of mountain climbing. Here he finds the freshness of a new experience in scaling the desert's sunburnt heights. The precipitous range of barren rocks, glistening in the sun like burnished metal, and appearing like a flat wall rising sheer halfway to the zenith, seems at first glance an impossibility to climb, but to one possessed of average strength and wind, the task once entered upon resolves itself quickly into a delightful pastime.
The rocks, smooth-shining in the sunlight, are rough enough as a rule to afford a good foothold, and you step from one to another, zigzagging this way and that but always mounting higher, as though ascending a giant's staircase. Lovely blooms of the cactus look hospitably out at you from snug corners of the rocks, and golden suns of the desert encelia beckon to you to come yet higher. The seemingly flat wall that confronted you from the desert floor, now that you are scaling it, proves to be neither flat nor a wall, but a succession of reteding rock ridges, each higher than the one in front of it. As you climb and see above you the jagged crest of the ridge far up the sky, you are convinced that that is the mountain's summit, but it never is--another is just beyond. Between each ridge there are sequestered hollows—arid flats and coves and little greenish vales, waterless always save for a day or two after some winter storm, when shallow basins in the rocks hold pools of gathered rain.
Into these resting places undreamt of by the travelers on the desert that gleams far out and below, the foot of man never comes, unless it be in quest of gold or game for his gun; though in other days the Indians had trails up these steeps, as weather-worn shards of a broken pot now and then attest. The desert birds however find here somewhat to their liking and the air is musical with their twit-ter; while in the dust of the shelving pavements and sloping walls of these dry parks, many varieties of flowers blossom and smell sweet—beloperones, encelias, trixis, hosackias, eriogonums, kramerias like purple butterflies caught in thorns-here and there a blue brodiaea, and the canes of a strange, leafless milkweed rising like slender reeds six or eight feet, their creamy umbels of bloom dangling naked from the tip. If it be afternoon, white four-o'clocks are opening their snowy corollas to the cooling air. Here in the hollows of the rocks the wild bee establishes its kingdom of sweetness and light, the quail comes to feed upon the harvest of wild seeds, and bob-cats and coyotes make their silent way. From these hidden vantage grounds there are glorious outlooks upon the mysterious, fascinating desert. In the foreground are the gleaming sands, shadow-flecked and dotted with millions of bushes looking from this height like pinpoints; and farther off is another mountain barrier draped in ethereal color, extending from the snow-capped peaks of the San Bernardino Sierra at the north, south to the misty pass that leads into the Coachella Valley..
Each of the San Jacinto cañons adjacent to Palm Springs is deserving of as much time for its exploration as one can spare to it. The main ones nearest the village number six, named respectively, Chino, Tauquitz, Andréas, Murray, Palm and Cathedral. Each of these may be visited within the limits of a day, if one have no longer time to spend upon them. Palm Cañon, however, can only be glanced at in so short a time, as its mouth is seven miles distant by an arduous road, and the visitor should arrange to spend at least one night there if he desires to get any idea of what it holds. To this end, all needful, except water, must be carried, as no one lives within its confines.
The first of the cañons to engage attention, because the nearest, is usually Tauquitz. This opens out upon the desert just south of Palm Springs settlement, and pours for eight months of the year into an artificial waterway a crystal flood of delicious mountain water that supplies the needs of the white villagers and the handful of Agua Caliente Indians whose reservation is close by. A half day will suffice for a surface exploration of ;Tauquitz, though if you put a bite of lunch in your pocket and devote an entire day to the jaunt, it will well pay you.
Of all the cañons, Tauquitz is the only one comfortably accessible on foot. Leaving the waterless sands of the desert floor, and ascending the gravelly rock-strewn incline that spreads like a huge fan out of the cañon's mouth, we pass into one of Nature's cactus gardens. Here are bright purple-flowered cereuses whose clustered upright stems bristle from the crevices of rock; here are opuntias of various kinds—one gray, spineless sort covered with a mass of glorious pink blossoms lovely as roses, cheek by jowl with a burly, silvery-spined variety whose discarded joints strew the ground like chestnut burs and draw blood with their barbed spines if you touch them ever so lightly. Here, too, are the rotund cylinders, rosy-spined, of the curious bisnaga or barrel cactus—natural water casks, filled from root to flower-encircled tip with a drinkable fluid that has saved many a human life.
By and by we cross a low ridge of rock and suddenly the sound of rushing water strikes gratefully upon the ear-it is the escaping stream, whose source is ten thousand feet above in the melting snows of San Jacinto's summit. Then following the trail across a sandy wash, we scramble through a narrow gateway of fragrant wild plum bushes in bloom, where bees hum and butterflies flutter, and we are fairly within the cañon. The great barren walls of granite rock incline upward and away so that the cañon is filled with sunlight, yet cool with a gentle breeze that is drawn down and through the gorge from the snowy heights of the mountain. Hp through thickets of clambering white ellisia and blue phacelia and scarlet-flowered beloperone where humming-birds suck, the trail winds, bordered with fragrant wild mints, and skirting now and then great bowlders in whose shadow small ferns spread their lusty green fronds, and selaginellas creep, until at last we reach a lofty barrier of rocky wall set athwart the cañon. Here the mountain says to the desert, "Thus far thou comest, but no further." Through a narrow cleft at this wall's top the stream from above emerges and plunges down-ward in a ribbon-like fall. This is the head of Tauquitz Cañon, so far as the average visitor is concerned though if one have the abilities of the wild goat in climbing, it is possible to scale this wall and enter the gorge again above the fall.
The Indians of Palm Springs, though they are "civilized" now out of practically all semblance to Indians, have an hereditary dread of Tauquitz Cañon; its recesses are regarded by them as the especial haunt of an ancient god, whose name it bears, and they fear his anger, should they trespass on his preserves. When a thunder storm rumbles and flashes on the upper heights, a great wind roars down this inner cañon and belches out into the desert; and the red man who doubts that God Tauquitz is raging within must either be both deaf and blind or a fool.
It was the postmaster who first told us of Chino Cañon.
"You ought to go there, sure," he remarked, "it's the best of the bunch, I think. A little far to walk, but you can hire my buggy and the gray mare.
Stay all day, if you like, and come back in the cool of the evening. You can't lose the old horse on the road home, even if there ain't no moon-not on your life. Cost you two dollars, but you'll never regret the money."
We spent the two dollars and found the postmaster's enthusiasm well grounded.
Chino Cañon is a titanic cleft in the mountain the approach to which, a couple of miles north of Palm Springs village, is a superb upward sweep of sand, rocks and bowlders, rising gradually and majestically from the desert into the shadows of the mountain's fastnesses. The gateway to the cañon, formed by two projecting, verdureless promontories of the mountain, is two miles in width; and skirting the base of one of these a fairly good road enables the visitor to drive or ride a few miles into the cañon. Amid the chaos of scattered rocks through which the road winds, thousands of cactuses flourish, and the air is filled at times with the honeyed fragrance of a myriad diverse wild blossoms that dot the gravelly spaces among the bowlders.
As we pass within the great entrance—broad as the gates of another Inferno but flooded with the blessed sunlight—we see the precipitous sides fur-rowed with smaller side cañons, and across the west end, like a rocky screen, the sierra lifts its jagged crest, dotted with what looks, these eight or nine thousand feet below, like a stubble of scrub growth but which in fact are mighty forest trees. White lines that seam those alpine sides are gorges filled with snow which, in the deepest, will linger well into the summer. We may think Chino ends at the foot of this great barrier where the sides close in, but as we follow up the ribbon of verdure that lines the stream issuing from the cañon, we come shortly to a little green oasis cradled at the mountain's base like a sheltered Swiss vale. Here is an excellent camp-site, unique in being supplied with water cold and warm—the latter from a huge sulphur spring gushing up near a small grove of palms. Beyond this all trails end, and the cañon, turning sharply to the left, is lost to us here below in a maze of heaven-aspiring granite walls.
Into this sequestered spot, now and then, comes a man to pitch his camp and rest from the labors of the outer world. One such—a prospector—had been there just before us, when we visited the place one March day, and had left neatly tacked upon the branch of a tree a board bearing the following legend:
A considerate man was this lover of the simple life, leaving for the next comer his stock of well thumbed magazines in a box protected from the weather, and beside the fireplace of rocks a pile of kindling and dry wood in readiness for the firing. His kindly spirit quickened us to try to leave the camp in equally good condition for the next adventurer.
Murray, Andras and Cathedral Canons have each special features that make them worth a visit, if one have the time to spare to it; but let us now leave the cañons for a time, and wander out into the open desert toward the sunbaked wash of the Whitewater which lies three miles or so eastward from San Jacinto's base. In this brief distance we pass through several distinct zones of plant life. The cactuses—at least most of them—cease to be as we leave the foot of the mountain, and are replaced by a belt of creosote bushes set with much precision, like shrubs in a park. The yellow forsythias of spring gardens in the East are hardly more yellow than these bushes when in full bloom—their flowers like golden stars set in the foliage of glistening green. In the liberal interspaces among the bushes, there are gay conventions of pink wild verbena, white chaenactis red of stem, and the yellow suns of malocothrix, each with a crimson spot at its glowing center.
Passing from these, as the sands grow heavier, low desert sun-flowers and delicate ox-eyes begin to appear, and by and by, we find ourselves in the home- of the fragrant evening primroses. Here we are in the sand dunes of the mid-desert, and curiously enough something in the look and feel of things brings up thoughts of the sea. A cool fresh breeze blows from farther out and it is hard to believe that just across yonder heaving ridge of sand where the short-trunked shrubs are blown far to one side by constant winds, we shall not see the ocean surging upon the shingle. Perhaps the spirit of that ancient sea which once covered this part of the desert and left to it its legacy of little shells, still walks its old-time haunt.
How the humanity of us is perpetually seeking the companionship of the mortal! Here in this vast solitude of sand and sun and wind, where the in-tense silence, the far-off dome of the boundless sky, the long, long views that nothing intercepts until they melt into colors of another world, all speak of infinity, exhausted thought drops sooner or later to earth and finds relief in engaging itself with the tracks upon the sand which mark where finite life has passed. This is the desert's daily public print -its newspaper. Last night, we read, a coyote passed this way—it must have been last night, the tracks are so fresh. We trace them to a badger's hole which he has dug out to the size of his body in quest of the badger. We think he did not find the gray beast at home, as there is no evidence of a struggle, and our feelings are mixed—there is gladness for the badger, but what about that empty coyote-stomach which hungered to be filled, Birds by the hundred have left their tracks every where, as they fed on fallen seeds and improved their digestion with grains of sand or sheltered themselves from the noonday heat in the shade of various plants. This smooth band that wavers heavily out-ward from a clump of greasewood is where a snake has moved his sluggish length; here where the trail is broader and confused, he has coiled in rest. These delicate lines are where darting lizards have dragged their tails. Around the base of that hum-mock some dainty-footed prowler has dimpled the sand with its trotting feet, its captured prey hanging from its mouth, as we know by a lengthening mark paralleling the animal's trail. Under the shadow of this shrub, a dish-like depression marks the resting place of a jack rabbit, and here are the impressions of his flying feet when something frightened him from his retreat.