The mesa trail begins in the campoodie
at the corner of Naboth’s field, though one
may drop into it from the wood road toward the canon,
or from any of the cattle paths that go up along the
streamside; a clean, pale, smooth-trodden way between
spiny shrubs, comfortably wide for a horse or an Indian.
It begins, I say, at the campoodie, and goes on toward
the twilight hills and the borders of Shoshone Land.
It strikes diagonally across the foot of the hill-slope
from the field until it reaches the larkspur level,
and holds south along the front of Oppapago, having
the high ranges to the right and the foothills and
the great Bitter Lake below it on the left. The
mesa holds very level here, cut across at intervals
by the deep washes of dwindling streams, and its treeless
spaces uncramp the soul.
Mesa trails were meant to be traveled
on horseback, at the jigging coyote trot that only
western-bred horses learn successfully. A foot-pace
carries one too slowly past the units in a decorative
scheme that is on a scale with the country round for
bigness. It takes days’ journeys to give
a note of variety to the country of the social shrubs.
These chiefly clothe the benches and eastern foot-slopes
of the Sierras, great spreads of artemisia,
coleogyne, and spinosa, suffering no other
woody stemmed thing in their purlieus; this by election
apparently, with no elbowing; and the several shrubs
have each their clientele of flowering herbs.
It would be worth knowing how much the devastating
sheep have had to do with driving the tender plants
to the shelter of the prickle-bushes. It might
have begun earlier, in the time Seyavi of the campoodie
tells of, when antelope ran on the mesa like sheep
for numbers, but scarcely any foot-high herb rears
itself except from the midst of some stout twigged
shrub; larkspur in the coleogyne, and for every
spinosa the purpling coils of phacelia. In
the shrub shelter, in the season, flock the little
stemless things whose blossom time is as short as
a marriage song. The larkspurs make the best
showing, being tall and sweet, swaying a little above
the shrubbery, scattering pollen dust which Navajo
brides gather to fill their marriage baskets.
This were an easier task than to find two of them of
a shade. Larkspurs in the botany are blue, but
if you were to slip rein to the stub of some black
sage and set about proving it you would be still at
it by the hour when the white gilias set their pale
disks to the westering sun. This is the gilia
the children call “evening snow,” and
it is no use trying to improve on children’s
names for wild flowers.
From the height of a horse you look
down to clean spaces in a shifty yellow soil, bare
to the eye as a newly sanded floor. Then as soon
as ever the hill shadows begin to swell out from the
sidelong ranges, come little flakes of whiteness fluttering
at the edge of the sand. By dusk there are tiny
drifts in the lee of every strong shrub, rosy-tipped
corollas as riotous in the sliding mesa wind as if
they were real flakes shaken out of a cloud, not sprung
from the ground on wiry three-inch stems. They
keep awake all night, and all the air is heavy and
musky sweet because of them.
Farther south on the trail there will
be poppies meeting ankle deep, and singly, peacock-painted
bubbles of calochortus blown out at the tops of tall
stems. But before the season is in tune for the
gayer blossoms the best display of color is in the
lupin wash. There is always a lupin wash somewhere
on a mesa trail, a broad, shallow, cobble-paved
sink of vanished waters, where the hummocks of Lupinus
ornatus run a delicate gamut from silvery green
of spring to silvery white of winter foliage.
They look in fullest leaf, except for color, most like
the huddled huts of the campoodie, and the largest
of them might be a man’s length in diameter.
In their season, which is after the gilias are at their
best, and before the larkspurs are ripe for pollen
gathering, every terminal whorl of the lupin sends
up its blossom stalk, not holding any constant blue,
but paling and purpling to guide the friendly bee to
virginal honey sips, or away from the perfected and
depleted flower. The length of the blossom stalk
conforms to the rounded contour of the plant, and
of these there will be a million moving indescribably
in the airy current that flows down the swale of the
There is always a little wind on the
mesa, a sliding current of cooler air going down the
face of the mountain of its own momentum, but not to
disturb the silence of great space. Passing the
wide mouths of canons, one gets the effect of whatever
is doing in them, openly or behind a screen of cloud, thunder
of falls, wind in the pine leaves, or rush and roar
of rain. The rumor of tumult grows and dies in
passing, as from open doors gaping on a village street,
but does not impinge on the effect of solitariness.
In quiet weather mesa days have no parallel for stillness,
but the night silence breaks into certain mellow or
poignant notes. Late afternoons the burrowing
owls may be seen blinking at the doors of their hummocks
with perhaps four or five elfish nestlings arow, and
by twilight begin a soft whoo-oo-ing, rounder,
sweeter, more incessant in mating time. It is
not possible to disassociate the call of the burrowing
owl from the late slant light of the mesa. If
the fine vibrations which are the golden-violet glow
of spring twilights were to tremble into sound, it
would be just that mellow double note breaking along
the blossom-tops. While the glow holds one sees
the thistle-down flights and pouncings after prey,
and on into the dark hears their soft pus-ssh!
clearing out of the trail ahead. Maybe the pin-point
shriek of field mouse or kangaroo rat that pricks
the wakeful pauses of the night is extorted by these
mellow-voiced plunderers, though it is just as like
to be the work of the red fox on his twenty-mile constitutional.
Both the red fox and the coyote are
free of the night hours, and both killers for the
pure love of slaughter. The fox is no great talker,
but the coyote goes garrulously through the dark in
twenty keys at once, gossip, warning, and abuse.
They are light treaders, the split-feet, so that the
solitary camper sees their eyes about him in the dark
sometimes, and hears the soft intake of breath when
no leaf has stirred and no twig snapped underfoot.
The coyote is your real lord of the mesa, and so he
makes sure you are armed with no long black instrument
to spit your teeth into his vitals at a thousand yards,
is both bold and curious. Not so bold, however,
as the badger and not so much of a curmudgeon.
This short-legged meat-eater loves half lights and
lowering days, has no friends, no enemies, and disowns
his offspring. Very likely if he knew how hawk
and crow dog him for dinners, he would resent it.
But the badger is not very well contrived for looking
up or far to either side. Dull afternoons he
may be met nosing a trail hot-foot to the home of
ground rat or squirrel, and is with difficulty persuaded
to give the right of way. The badger is a pot-hunter
and no sportsman. Once at the hill, he dives
for the central chamber, his sharp-clawed, splayey
feet splashing up the sand like a bather in the surf.
He is a swift trailer, but not so swift or secretive
but some small sailing hawk or lazy crow, perhaps
one or two of each, has spied upon him and come drifting
down the wind to the killing.
No burrower is so unwise as not to
have several exits from his dwelling under protecting
shrubs. When the badger goes down, as many of
the furry people as are not caught napping come up
by the back doors, and the hawks make short work of
them. I suspect that the crows get nothing but
the gratification of curiosity and the pickings of
some secret store of seeds unearthed by the badger.
Once the excavation begins they walk about expectantly,
but the little gray hawks beat slow circles about the
doors of exit, and are wiser in their generation, though
they do not look it.
There are always solitary hawks sailing
above the mesa, and where some blue tower of silence
lifts out of the neighboring range, an eagle hanging
dizzily, and always buzzards high up in the thin, translucent
air making a merry-go-round. Between the coyote
and the birds of carrion the mesa is kept clear of
The wind, too, is a besom over the
treeless spaces, whisking new sand over the litter
of the scant-leaved shrubs, and the little doorways
of the burrowers are as trim as city fronts.
It takes man to leave unsightly scars on the face
of the earth. Here on the mesa the abandoned
campoodies of the Paiutes are spots of desolation long
after the wattles of the huts have warped in the brush
heaps. The campoodies are near the watercourses,
but never in the swale of the stream. The Paiute
seeks rising ground, depending on air and sun for
purification of his dwelling, and when it becomes
wholly untenable, moves.
A campoodie at noontime, when there
is no smoke rising and no stir of life, resembles
nothing so much as a collection of prodigious wasps’
nests. The huts are squat and brown and chimneyless,
facing east, and the inhabitants have the faculty
of quail for making themselves scarce in the underbrush
at the approach of strangers. But they are really
not often at home during midday, only the blind and
incompetent left to keep the camp. These are
working hours, and all across the mesa one sees the
women whisking seeds of chia into their spoon-shaped
baskets, these emptied again into the huge conical
carriers, supported on the shoulders by a leather
band about the forehead.
Mornings and late afternoons one meets
the men singly and afoot on unguessable errands, or
riding shaggy, browbeaten ponies, with game slung
across the saddle-bows. This might be deer or
even antelope, rabbits, or, very far south towards
Shoshone Land, lizards.
There are myriads of lizards on the
mesa, little gray darts, or larger salmon-sided ones
that may be found swallowing their skins in the safety
of a prickle-bush in early spring. Now and then
a palm’s breadth of the trail gathers itself
together and scurries off with a little rustle under
the brush, to resolve itself into sand again.
This is pure witchcraft. If you succeed in catching
it in transit, it loses its power and becomes a flat,
horned, toad-like creature, horrid looking and harmless,
of the color of the soil; and the curio dealer will
give you two bits for it, to stuff.
Men have their season on the mesa
as much as plants and four-footed things, and one
is not like to meet them out of their time. For
example, at the time of rodeos, which is perhaps
April, one meets free riding vaqueros who need no
trails and can find cattle where to the layman no
cattle exist. As early as February bands of sheep
work up from the south to the high Sierra pastures.
It appears that shepherds have not changed more than
sheep in the process of time. The shy hairy men
who herd the tractile flocks might be, except for
some added clothing, the very brethren of David.
Of necessity they are hardy, simple livers, superstitious,
fearful, given to seeing visions, and almost without
speech. It needs the bustle of shearings and copious
libations of sour, weak wine to restore the human
faculty. Petite Pete, who works a circuit up
from the Ceriso to Red Butte and around by way of Salt
Flats, passes year by year on the mesa trail, his
thick hairy chest thrown open to all weathers, twirling
his long staff, and dealing brotherly with his dogs,
who are possibly as intelligent, certainly handsomer.
A flock’s journey is seven miles,
ten if pasture fails, in a windless blur of dust,
feeding as it goes, and resting at noons. Such
hours Pete weaves a little screen of twigs between
his head and the sun the rest of him is
as impervious as one of his own sheep and
sleeps while his dogs have the flocks upon their consciences.
At night, wherever he may be, there Pete camps, and
fortunate the trail-weary traveler who falls in with
him. When the fire kindles and savory meat seethes
in the pot, when there is a drowsy blether from the
flock, and far down the mesa the twilight twinkle
of shepherd fires, when there is a hint of blossom
underfoot and a heavenly whiteness on the hills, one
harks back without effort to Judaea and the Nativity.
But one feels by day anything but good will to note
the shorn shrubs and cropped blossom-tops. So
many seasons’ effort, so many suns and rains
to make a pound of wool! And then there is the
loss of ground-inhabiting birds that must fail from
the mesa when few herbs ripen seed.
Out West, the west of the mesas
and the unpatented hills, there is more sky than any
place in the world. It does not sit flatly on
the rim of earth, but begins somewhere out in the
space in which the earth is poised, hollows more,
and is full of clean winey winds. There are some
odors, too, that get into the blood. There is
the spring smell of sage that is the warning that
sap is beginning to work in a soil that looks to have
none of the juices of life in it; it is the sort of
smell that sets one thinking what a long furrow the
plough would turn up here, the sort of smell that
is the beginning of new leafage, is best at the plant’s
best, and leaves a pungent trail where wild cattle
crop. There is the smell of sage at sundown,
burning sage from campoodies and sheep camps, that
travels on the thin blue wraiths of smoke; the kind
of smell that gets into the hair and garments, is
not much liked except upon long acquaintance, and
every Paiute and shepherd smells of it indubitably.
There is the palpable smell of the bitter dust that
comes up from the alkali flats at the end of the dry
seasons, and the smell of rain from the wide-mouthed
And last the smell of the salt grass
country, which is the beginning of other things that
are the end of the mesa trail.