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Mojave Desert History: Pioneer of the Mojave
Old Skeletons & New Trails


Despite the description by Fremont of a well-beaten road, it was still possible to lose one's way through the desert, as happened to Orville Pratt on his trip to California from Utah in 1848. Pratt recorded the incident in a diary which was the first day-to-day account of travels on the Spanish Trail. He and his party, already spent from days of grueling travel across the desert, had just left Bitter Springs when they became lost:

Wednesday Oct 18th 1848 Left camp this morning the sun about an hour high under the impression that the next water was only 15 m. off. Soon after leaving camp we found ourselves off the trail and lost! The sun soon became severely hot, the sand deep, and from the weak condition of the animals they soon began to fail.

No water or grass in prospect -- the men suffering from thirst -- mules giving out by the way, & our provisions short -- all united to give me one of the severest trials of my life. We kept on until about 2 oclock in the morning, & between that and daylight the men all got into camp. Could find no water. Daylight came & the men were sent in all directions but no water still! Travelled full 50 m. this day & camped in a dry arroyo.

The party had reached the Mojave River, but as it so often happens, the river was dry. A later diarist wrote, "This stream...sinks and rises, resembling the 'little joker' in the hand of the thimblerigger, 'now you see it and now you don't.' Our guide informs us when he last passed here the stream was entirely lost, sometimes for a distance of 8 or 10 miles."

This is where desert way stations, with their supplies of water and provisions, would prove so useful in later years. On Thursday, October 19, 1848, exhausted and miserable, Pratt and his companions finally located water:

In camp which we made last night about 2 oclock. No water during the early part of the day, but finally found some. And greater joy I never felt at any time in my existence. And although without much of anything to eat the men seemed to forget all their troubles!

Never until now have I really known what suffering is. My feet are blistered from walking full 30 miles yesterday over the burning sand & flint rocks. Boots are all worn out -- Coat and pants [tattered] from riding 2 m. through the muskeet -- shirt filthy with five weeks constant wear in the dirt -- & to complete the compliment of misery (as if a burning sun & hard riding by day, laying upon the ground between horse blankets at night, to say nothing of the food, not sufficient) in addition to all else, my body is literally alive with vermin!

Many desert travelers felt the same conflicting emotions expressed by Pratt: great joy in finding water at the Mojave River and knowing they were going to survive, tempered by their miserable condition after the terrible journey across the desert.

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