East away from the Sierras, south
from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an
uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders.
Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone
inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of
it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the land
sets the limit. Desert is the name it wears upon
the maps, but the Indian’s is the better word.
Desert is a loose term to indicate land that supports
no man; whether the land can be bitted and broken to
that purpose is not proven. Void of life it never
is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.
This is the nature of that country.
There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed
up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring
to the snow-line. Between the hills lie high level-looking
plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow valleys
drowned in a blue haze. The hill surface is streaked
with ash drift and black, unweathered lava flows.
After rains water accumulates in the hollows of small
closed valleys, and, evaporating, leaves hard dry
levels of pure desertness that get the local name
of dry lakes. Where the mountains are steep and
the rains heavy, the pool is never quite dry, but dark
and bitter, rimmed about with the efflorescence of
alkaline deposits. A thin crust of it lies along
the marsh over the vegetating area, which has neither
beauty nor freshness. In the broad wastes open
to the wind the sand drifts in hummocks about the
stubby shrubs, and between them the soil shows saline
traces. The sculpture of the hills here is more
wind than water work, though the quick storms do sometimes
scar them past many a year’s redeeming.
In all the Western desert edges there are essays in
miniature at the famed, terrible Grand Canon, to which,
if you keep on long enough in this country, you will
come at last.
Since this is a hill country one expects
to find springs, but not to depend upon them; for
when found they are often brackish and unwholesome,
or maddening, slow dribbles in a thirsty soil.
Here you find the hot sink of Death Valley, or high
rolling districts where the air has always a tang
of frost. Here are the long heavy winds and breathless
calms on the tilted mesas where dust devils dance,
whirling up into a wide, pale sky. Here you have
no rain when all the earth cries for it, or quick
downpours called cloud-bursts for violence. A
land of lost rivers, with little in it to love; yet
a land that once visited must be come back to inevitably.
If it were not so there would be little told of it.
This is the country of three seasons.
From June on to November it lies hot, still, and unbearable,
sick with violent unrelieving storms; then on until
April, chill, quiescent, drinking its scant rain and
scanter snows; from April to the hot season again,
blossoming, radiant, and seductive. These months
are only approximate; later or earlier the rain-laden
wind may drift up the water gate of the Colorado from
the Gulf, and the land sets its seasons by the rain.
The desert floras shame us with
their cheerful adaptations to the seasonal limitations.
Their whole duty is to flower and fruit, and they
do it hardly, or with tropical luxuriance, as the rain
admits. It is recorded in the report of the Death
Valley expedition that after a year of abundant rains,
on the Colorado desert was found a specimen of Amaranthus
ten feet high. A year later the same species in
the same place matured in the drought at four inches.
One hopes the land may breed like qualities in her
human offspring, not tritely to “try,”
but to do. Seldom does the desert herb attain
the full stature of the type. Extreme aridity
and extreme altitude have the same dwarfing effect,
so that we find in the high Sierras and in Death Valley
related species in miniature that reach a comely growth
in mean temperatures. Very fertile are the desert
plants in expedients to prevent evaporation, turning
their foliage edgewise toward the sun, growing silky
hairs, exuding viscid gum. The wind, which has
a long sweep, harries and helps them. It rolls
up dunes about the stocky stems, encompassing and protective,
and above the dunes, which may be, as with the mesquite,
three times as high as a man, the blossoming twigs
flourish and bear fruit.
There are many areas in the desert
where drinkable water lies within a few feet of the
surface, indicated by the mesquite and the bunch grass
(Sporobolus airoides). It is this nearness of
unimagined help that makes the tragedy of desert deaths.
It is related that the final breakdown of that hapless
party that gave Death Valley its forbidding name occurred
in a locality where shallow wells would have saved
them. But how were they to know that? Properly
equipped it is possible to go safely across that ghastly
sink, yet every year it takes its toll of death, and
yet men find there sun-dried mummies, of whom no trace
or recollection is preserved. To underestimate
one’s thirst, to pass a given landmark to the
right or left, to find a dry spring where one looked
for running water there is no help for any
of these things.
Along springs and sunken watercourses
one is surprised to find such water-loving plants
as grow widely in moist ground, but the true desert
breeds its own kind, each in its particular habitat.
The angle of the slope, the frontage of a hill, the
structure of the soil determines the plant. South-looking
hills are nearly bare, and the lower tree-line higher
here by a thousand feet. Canons running east and
west will have one wall naked and one clothed.
Around dry lakes and marshes the herbage preserves
a set and orderly arrangement. Most species have
well-defined areas of growth, the best index the voiceless
land can give the traveler of his whereabouts.
If you have any doubt about it, know
that the desert begins with the creosote. This
immortal shrub spreads down into Death Valley and up
to the lower timber-line, odorous and medicinal as
you might guess from the name, wandlike, with shining
fretted foliage. Its vivid green is grateful
to the eye in a wilderness of gray and greenish white
shrubs. In the spring it exudes a resinous gum
which the Indians of those parts know how to use with
pulverized rock for cementing arrow points to shafts.
Trust Indians not to miss any virtues of the plant
Nothing the desert produces expresses
it better than the unhappy growth of the tree yuccas.
Tormented, thin forests of it stalk drearily in the
high mesas, particularly in that triangular slip
that fans out eastward from the meeting of the Sierras
and coastwise hills where the first swings across
the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. The
yucca bristles with bayonet-pointed leaves, dull green,
growing shaggy with age, tipped with panicles of fetid,
greenish bloom. After death, which is slow, the
ghostly hollow network of its woody skeleton, with
hardly power to rot, makes the moonlight fearful.
Before the yucca has come to flower, while yet its
bloom is a creamy cone-shaped bud of the size of a
small cabbage, full of sugary sap, the Indians twist
it deftly out of its fence of daggers and roast it
for their own delectation. So it is that in those
parts where man inhabits one sees young plants of Yucca
arborensis infrequently. Other yuccas,
cacti, low herbs, a thousand sorts, one finds journeying
east from the coastwise hills. There is neither
poverty of soil nor species to account for the sparseness
of desert growth, but simply that each plant requires
more room. So much earth must be preempted to
extract so much moisture. The real struggle for
existence, the real brain of the plant, is underground;
above there is room for a rounded perfect growth.
In Death Valley, reputed the very core of desolation,
are nearly two hundred identified species.
Above the lower tree-line, which is
also the snow-line, mapped out abruptly by the sun,
one finds spreading growth of piñón, juniper,
branched nearly to the ground, lilac and sage, and
scattering white pines.
There is no special preponderance
of self-fertilized or wind-fertilized plants, but
everywhere the demand for and evidence of insect life.
Now where there are seeds and insects there will be
birds and small mammals, and where these are, will
come the slinking, sharp-toothed kind that prey on
them. Go as far as you dare in the heart of a
lonely land, you cannot go so far that life and death
are not before you. Painted lizards slip in and
out of rock crevices, and pant on the white hot sands.
Birds, hummingbirds even, nest in the cactus scrub;
woodpeckers befriend the demoniac yuccas; out
of the stark, treeless waste rings the music of the
night-singing mockingbird. If it be summer and
the sun well down, there will be a burrowing owl to
call. Strange, furry, tricksy things dart across
the open places, or sit motionless in the conning towers
of the creosote.
The poet may have “named all
the birds without a gun,” but not the fairy-footed,
ground-inhabiting, furtive, small folk of the rainless
regions. They are too many and too swift; how
many you would not believe without seeing the footprint
tracings in the sand. They are nearly all night
workers, finding the days too hot and white. In
mid-desert where there are no cattle, there are no
birds of carrion, but if you go far in that direction
the chances are that you will find yourself shadowed
by their tilted wings. Nothing so large as a
man can move unspied upon in that country, and they
know well how the land deals with strangers.
There are hints to be had here of the way in which
a land forces new habits on its dwellers. The
quick increase of suns at the end of spring sometimes
overtakes birds in their nesting and effects a reversal
of the ordinary manner of incubation. It becomes
necessary to keep eggs cool rather than warm.
One hot, stifling spring in the Little Antelope I had
occasion to pass and repass frequently the nest of
a pair of meadowlarks, located unhappily in the shelter
of a very slender weed. I never caught them sitting
except near night, but at midday they stood, or drooped
above it, half fainting with pitifully parted bills,
between their treasure and the sun. Sometimes
both of them together with wings spread and half lifted
continued a spot of shade in a temperature that constrained
me at last in a fellow feeling to spare them a bit
of canvas for permanent shelter. There was a
fence in that country shutting in a cattle range,
and along its fifteen miles of posts one could be sure
of finding a bird or two in every strip of shadow;
sometimes the sparrow and the hawk, with wings trailed
and beaks parted drooping in the white truce of noon.
If one is inclined to wonder at first
how so many dwellers came to be in the loneliest land
that ever came out of God’s hands, what they
do there and why stay, one does not wonder so much
after having lived there. None other than this
long brown land lays such a hold on the affections.
The rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous
radiance of the spring, have the lotus charm.
They trick the sense of time, so that once inhabiting
there you always mean to go away without quite realizing
that you have not done it. Men who have lived
there, miners and cattle-men, will tell you this,
not so fluently, but emphatically, cursing the land
and going back to it. For one thing there is the
divinest, cleanest air to be breathed anywhere in
God’s world. Some day the world will understand
that, and the little oases on the windy tops of hills
will harbor for healing its ailing, house-weary broods.
There is promise there of great wealth in ores and
earths, which is no wealth by reason of being so far
removed from water and workable conditions, but men
are bewitched by it and tempted to try the impossible.
You should hear Salty Williams tell
how he used to drive eighteen and twenty-mule teams
from the borax marsh to Mojave, ninety miles, with
the trail wagon full of water barrels. Hot days
the mules would go so mad for drink that the clank
of the water bucket set them into an uproar of hideous,
maimed noises, and a tangle of harness chains, while
Salty would sit on the high seat with the sun glare
heavy in his eyes, dealing out curses of pacification
in a level, uninterested voice until the clamor fell
off from sheer exhaustion. There was a line of
shallow graves’ along that road; they used to
count on dropping a man or two of every new gang of
coolies brought out in the hot season. But when
he lost his swamper, smitten without warning at the
noon halt, Salty quit his job; he said it was “too
durn hot.” The swamper he buried by the
way with stones upon him to keep the coyotes from
digging him up, and seven years later I read the penciled
lines on the pine headboard, still bright and unweathered.
But before that, driving up on the
Mojave stage, I met Salty again crossing Indian Wells,
his face from the high seat, tanned and ruddy as a
harvest moon, looming through the golden dust above
his eighteen mules. The land had called him.
The palpable sense of mystery in the
desert air breeds fables, chiefly of lost treasure.
Somewhere within its stark borders, if one believes
report, is a hill strewn with nuggets; one seamed with
virgin silver; an old clayey water-bed where Indians
scooped up earth to make cooking pots and shaped them
reeking with grains of pure gold. Old miners drifting
about the desert edges, weathered into the semblance
of the tawny hills, will tell you tales like these
convincingly. After a little sojourn in that
land you will believe them on their own account.
It is a question whether it is not better to be bitten
by the little horned snake of the desert that goes
sidewise and strikes without coiling, than by the
tradition of a lost mine.
And yet and yet is
it not perhaps to satisfy expectation that one falls
into the tragic key in writing of desertness?
The more you wish of it the more you get, and in the
mean time lose much of pleasantness. In that
country which begins at the foot of the east slope
of the Sierras and spreads out by less and less lofty
hill ranges toward the Great Basin, it is possible
to live with great zest, to have red blood and delicate
joys, to pass and repass about one’s daily performance
an area that would make an Atlantic seaboard State,
and that with no peril, and, according to our way
of thought, no particular difficulty. At any rate,
it was not people who went into the desert merely to
write it up who invented the fabled Hassaympa, of
whose waters, if any drink, they can no more see fact
as naked fact, but all radiant with the color of romance.
I, who must have drunk of it in my
twice seven years’ wanderings, am assured that
it is worth while.
For all the toll the desert takes
of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep
sleep, and the communion of the stars. It comes
upon one with new force in the pauses of the night
that the Chaldeans were a desert-bred people.
It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the stars
move in the wide clear heavens to risings and settings
unobscured. They look large and near and palpitant;
as if they moved on some stately service not needful
to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the
sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account.
Of no account you who lie out there watching, nor
the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from
you and howls and howls.