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The White Heart of Mojave
An Adventure with the Outdoors of the Desert
Edna Brush Perkins
Snowstorm and SandstormBREAKFAST was late next morning like Sunday breakfasts in houses. Charlotte asked if it was Sunday. No one knew what day it was in the far-off world, but we proclaimed it Sunday at Wild Rose. It was a true Sunday, a day of rest after hard exertion, a still day washed clean by the mighty sun. Immense and still. The great bowl curved tranquilly to the tranquil hills, the cedars and pinons along its edge glistened like little bright fingers pointing at the sky.
During the middle of the day the sun was hot, in the morning and the evening the big fire blazed. Camp-in-the-Cedars was lovely enough to stay in forever, but shortly after noon the Worrier announced that he must find the charcoalkilns, he could not "be beat" by them. The little trees were so beguiling, the tranquil brightness of the mesa so inviting, that we followed him, buoyed up by the cold, clear air. We wandered along the base of Baldy to where a small, purple mountain jutted into the great basin. Around that we went, leisurely picking our way over the rough ground until at the extreme northern end of the bowl we found an attenuated wraith of a road leading up into a heavily wooded canyon. A road must once have been the way to somewhere, and we followed it, climbing steeply for nearly a mile. It brought us to a small, level spot where, made of rocks like the mountains and indistinguishable until we were right on them, stood seven immense charcoal-kilns like a row of giant beehives. They were so big that we could walk upright through their doorways, that looked like arched openings in their sides. Old Tom Adams had said that they were used in the seventies to make fuel of the cedars and pinons, to be hauled thirty miles to the smelter at a lead mine. They had been deserted so long that the camp rubbish had disappeared from around them and they merged into their background, become again a part of Nature herself.
What strenuous endeavor they denoted I Everywhere men have left their footprints on the Mojave, sojourners always, never inhabitants. The seven kilns were the most impressive testimony of brief possession that we saw, more impressive even than the twenty-eightmile- long trench that brought the water to Skidoo. We had seen it from there crossing high ridges; in the great bowl of Wild Rose it was clearly marked, going from side to side and vanishing up the first ridge which we had climbed to Baldy. The cost and labor of making it must have been immense. Mojave was already breaking down the edges preparing to brush it away, but it will be a long time before she can obliterate those kilns. They will still be eloquent in that remote fastness long after Keane Wonder and Ryolite are gone.
Behind the kilns a dim path climbed the mountain- side to a little, secret spring, an oval rock basin not more than five feet long and so deftly hidden that we wondered what prospector first had the joy of finding it. From the elevation of the spring we could look along the length of Wild Rose Canyon, where the sagebrush smoothed to a blue and green and purple sea, and through its narrow opening to the white serenity of Mount Whitney. Thus framed the white peak seemed to float in the blue sky. Very swiftly Mojave brushes men off, but always with a fine gesture. From the midst of her most obliterating desolations she never fails to point at some far-off shining.
Too late we learned that the little spring at the head of the canyon would have been the place for our camp. Not only would we have had the delight of its cold, pure water, but the ascent of Mount Baldy looked shorter and easier from there. Perhaps we each cherished the hope of moving up next day and trying once more to scale the glittering ice-wall with the help of our wood-chopper's ax and the rope from the wagon; but we never discussed the idea for that night the dreaded storm crept over the mountains. It came stealthily on padded feet, putting out the stars. At dawn big wet snowflakes gently sifting through the still air awoke us.
During the day the storm increased. The wind arose and blew in gusts seemingly from every direction. Fortunately the trees afforded plenty of big wood, so we were able to keep a roaring fire, though the heavily-falling, wet snow sometimes threatened to put it out. It snowed so fast that we were shut in by white walls not more than twenty feet away. We pitched our tent with the opening toward the fire and tried to get some shelter in it while the Worrier hunted the horses. The tent was the only serious mistake in the outfit. It was a light, waterproof silk tent with a pole up the middle. We had expected to use it as a shelter from the wind and had tried once before at Emigrant Springs. On that occasion its light-weight material had flapped and rattled in the blast until we were glad to creep outside and sleep under the edge of a rock. Before morning it blew down. The only practical tent for the desert is a very low one, like a pup-tent, made of heavy canvas, with extra long pegs that must be driven deep and buried in the sand. During the eternity of snowstorm in which Charlotte and I waited for Molly and Bill, we alternated between holding up the pole in the gusts of wind and rushing out between them to drive in the pegs with the ax. This, and the necessity of constantly building up the fire, kept us wet and cold all day, for the snow was not the dry, whirling snow of really cold climates, but was as wet as a heavy rain. It clung so we could not shake it off and melted on our clothes. The Worrier did not retrieve Molly and Bill until four o'clock. It was late to move, but the storm showed no sign of abatement and we remembered with growing affection the shack at the entrance to the canyon. Hastily packing in the white downpour that hissed through the air, we left Camp-in-the-Cedars.
As soon as we had descended a little way into the basin the snow ceased, but a white cloud continued to hang over the place where our charming camp had been. During the remainder of the day and throughout the night heavy clouds veiled all the mountains, occasionally dropping flurries of snow around us. An icy wind rushed down the canyon. When we reached the shack it seemed palatial. We cleared out the rubbish by throwing it down the hill in front of the door, the approved way of cleaning up on the desert. When there are too many cans you throw them behind the bushes, and we had learned to do it with great vigor and accuracy of aim. Much to the Worrier's amusement we scrubbed the table and tried to wipe off the cracked, rusty stove set up on three empty gasoline tins. That stove was a marvel in the art of consuming much fuel without emitting any heat. We took turns huddling close to it. The walls sheltered us from the wind, but as far as the stove was concerned we might almost as well have been outdoors.
After supper we had to reckon with the dungeon that was the bedroom. The Worrier recommended it highly, but we viewed it with a certain awful apprehension. We had a devil's choice between that and the frigid outdoors that kept beating on the shack with gusts of wind. We made the mistake of choosing the dungeon. When the candle was blown out fear crouched in the blackness. All the tales we had ever read of prisoners in damp cellars assailed us—horrors, tortures, black holes. The terrors of these manmade fears in this shut-in, man-made place were far worse than the wild outdoors. Presently little scratchings and gnawings apprised us that we were not alone. Unbearable then was the walled darkness. We gathered up the bed and went outside, stepping carefully over the Worrier who, forever faithful, was sleeping across the door.
The clean outdoors! Let it snow, let it hail, let the water run down the mountain and seep through the bed, let the wind tear at the ponchos! It was nothing compared to being shut up in a dark place. About midnight we were suddenly struck awake by a terrific din. After the first tense moment we recognized it as coyotes howling in the canyon. That was nothing either compared to vague little scratchings and gnawings in an eight-by-ten shack.
Next day the storm continued, with clear intervals during which we rushed out to spread our clothes and blankets in the sun that thirstily drank up the snow at the bases of the mountains. "Scotty" beguiled the hours and the weird tales of Lord Dunsany, read aloud beside the cracked stove, never had a more appropriate setting. All around the mountains were white except where some insistently black rock heaved out. Clouds hurried across the sky like Indians galloping on the war-path, the wind screaming around the rocks was their war-whoop. In the moments of peace between their raids huge giants of cloud shook their fists at us over the walls. The silence of Mojave was torn to tatters. Yet, somehow, we still felt it. Just as the wild tales we read intimated a stillness behind, so the tumult was a ripple on indomitable peace. You have seen a little whirlwind plow a furrow through the water of some glassy lake, making quite a bit of a tumult, but leaving undisturbed the tranquility of the surface beyond its narrow path. Though between the walls of the canyon where we camped we could not see the still surfaces, we sensed them. The storm was an incident. Mojave took it and made a strong song.
Wild Rose Canyon was the furthest point of our journey; from the old shack the going home began. The sun rose brilliantly on the following morning and deceived us into starting back to Emigrant Springs. As soon as we had left the narrow canyon and could once more see the expanse of the sky, we knew that the storm was by no means over. We even debated returning to our palace, cracked stove, black hole, and all; but when you have broken camp, found the horses, packed up, and started, a two-hour-long process, you will risk almost anything rather than turn back. There were compensations, too, even for the wind which shortly came to life again and thrust its knife to our hearts. The sky was a magnificent spectacle. It was not gray, nor overcast, nor brooding, but full of torn-up, piled-up, tumultuous clouds, a fitting canopy for the country beneath it. The top of Emigrant Pass is a big mesa surrounded by all kinds of mountains from the broken, battered buttresses and steep snowpeaks of the Panamints to smooth, bare, rounded hills folded over each other and dimpled like upholstered sofas. In bursts of sunshine the shadows of the clouds raced over them all, snatching at each other and getting mixed up in the canyons. Sometimes a cloud spilled out its contents and for a while obliterated one of them. Toward noon the clouds made a concerted attack on the sun, calling up new cohorts until at last they succeeded in covering him entirely and keeping him covered. Then a great change fell upon Mojave. She became forlorn, her bright colors faded into gray. The brush shivered in the wind and made a cold, crackling sound. A few immense Joshua palms scattered over the mesa waved their grotesque arms like monsters in pain. The wind whistled through their stiff, spiky leaves. They were in bloom with a heavy mass of waxy white flowers on the end of each branch. The sun had polished the flowers, tipping every branch with a silver ball; now they stuck up into the lead-colored sky, dull, leadcolored things.
All the familiar places that had been drenched with sunshine, brilliant with color, almost as magical sometimes as the burning sands themselves, now appeared in this sad, gray mood. After leaving the top of the pass we crossed a large, high plateau known as the Harrisburg Flat. On the way over to Wild Rose it had been still and hot, the openings between the mountains had hinted at the illusions of Death Valley behind them; now a cloud full of wind and snow rolled up out of the narrow opening of Emigrant Canyon. Storms were all around us, but until that moment we had hoped that we might escape. There was no escape. The Harrisburg Flat became a white, whirling fury. The wind that smote us was like a solid, moving wall. The cloud was not made of snow, but of ice, a fine hail that cut our faces. It was so dense that we could not sec ten feet in front of the wagon. We had some difficulty in making Molly and Bill face it, but it was necessary to go on. All day the icy wind had been pressing upon us, now it was so cold that we felt we could not withstand it long. Fortunately the sheltering walls of the canyon were not far, but the half hour during which we struggled toward them seemed an eternity. The Worrier shouted at the laboring horses and for the first time when he knew that we could hear him, he cursed.
By the time we reached the canyon the hail had stopped but the terrible wind continued. It seemed as though it would rip the bushes out of the ground. In place of the ice, fine particles of sand assailed us—had the wash not been thoroughly wet we would have had more of it. It must have rained violently in the canyon, or else in the dusk we missed the particular route among the rocks by which we had come up, for the way was so washed out that the Worrier could hardly pilot the load.
Every bit of energy we had was centered on reaching the ruined shack at Emigrant Springs. When we were able to say anything at all we speculated about how dirty it might be and whether or not there was a stove in it. The dirt was a certainty, but nobody could remember about the stove, as we had avoided the shack when we were there before. After a freezing eternity we came around the last bend of the canyon. Home was in sight, and our hope perished for smoke was coming out of the chimney! Not only was there a stove, but there was a man snugly camping beside it, an unknown man, a usurper, a robber! We were full of angry, helpless indignation.
"If it's Tom Adams," the Worrier snapped, "we'll throw him out."
But it was not Tom Adams. It was another old-timer, an old man, who wandered ceaselessly to and fro over the desert. He was a gentle soul, but we were in no mood to appreciate that then. Of course he offered to move out of the shack when he saw "ladies" coming on such a bitter night, and equally of course we could not allow it. If Charlotte and I chose to invade the wilderness we must take the chances of the wilderness as other people did. Our pride was involved, but we had to refuse very summarily, even rudely, before the old man would accept our objection. Then he retired into the shack with hurt dignity, while we pulled down some more of the corral fence to make a blazing fire. We solaced ourselves with the belief that the outdoors was better than the shack anyway, as it had been better than the black hole. In the course of time we were warm again and managed to keep warm through the night.
In the morning the innocent usurper sent us, via the Worrier, a pan of hot biscuits, a most welcome and delicious gift. Charlotte and I called on him later to thank him and make amends if we could. He entertained us for two hours with the story of his travels, but he would not accept our invitation to dinner, saying that he wasn't used to "dining with ladies." We sincerely hope it was not a sarcasm. The question which the possession of the shack raised is rather a difficult one. Was our pride worth more than the true chivalry of a kindly soul? To us it was, to him it was not.
The wind continued to blow with violence for several days, though we had no more rain nor snow. It is easy to see how the desert has been torn to its rough harshness. That steady-blowing wind alone could wear the mountains to their jagged outlines, crumbling the softer rock down to fill the valleys. It picks up the sand and uses it to grind the mountains smooth. It piles it against the cliffs to make new foothills and hollows it out to make new canyons. It drives the rain against the mountains to rush down, rolling rocks along the gorges and digging the deep trenches across the mesas. Where no network of roots holds a surface soil wind and rain work rapidly. On the homeward journey from Wild Rose we understood the cut-up mesas and the gouged-out canyons better.
Down in the Mesquite Valley, where we took the sandy road along the edge of the marsh instead of the rocky one by which we had come because Bill had lost a shoe, we saw what the wind can do with sand. In the afternoon we reached the foot of the mesa that leads from Emigrant Canyon to the bottom of the valley and were at the beginning of "Old Johnnie's" sand-dunes. It had been a sparkling day with a clear sky, but the wind was still blowing. The Mesquite Valley was as hot as we remembered it, but, after the ice-cloud on the Harrisburg Flat only two days before, it seemed a delicious hotness. With the assurance of seasoned travelers able to make a dry camp anywhere, Charlotte and I insisted on stopping there for the night. Molly and Bill would take four hours to make the nine miles of deep sand to Salt Creek, and we always hated to make camp in the dark. The Worrier wanted to go on. He said he had a hunch that we ought to, but he allowed himself to be persuaded. We should have heeded that hunch of an old-timer.
Hardly had we unpacked the wagon and made a fireplace before we noticed that the wind was increasing. Little whirligigs of sand began to run across the valley. Soon they were charging at us down the mesa. First they came singly, then merged into a cloud of sand that rattled against the pots and the wagon. Luckily for us the wind was blowing from the mountains over the mesa where there was comparatively little sand to pick up, for had it been coming across the dunes we would have been buried alive. Of course it was impossible to cook; in a very few minutes it was impossible to do anything but crouch in the lea of the sand-heap around the roots of the biggest mesquite. The Worrier seemed to shrink up and draw in his head like a turtle. He shouted something at us, of which we could only hear the word "hunch." The air was full of a rushing, hissing sound.
Charlotte and I covered ourselves with the ponchos, drawing them over our heads when the sand came hurtling through the top of the Mesquite. Molly and Bill huddled close together about fifty feet away with their backs to the blast, and much of the time the sand was so dense that we could not see them. The Worrier also was lost in the yellow cloud. The sand was very fine and, in spite of the ponchos, sifted into our hair and ears and clothes. It gritted in our teeth so we felt as though we were eating it. We could see it piling up around the next mesquite, and could imagine it whirling through the valley over the tops of "Old Johnnie's" dunes.
Often the wind goes down at sunset, but that day the sun sank invisibly and the fury increased. We felt a queer excitement not unmixed with fear. Thus, only a hundred times worse, must the sand blow over the vast Sahara Desert while the Arabs cover their heads, calling on Allah. When the solid ground itself arises there is no help but Allah.
After sunset the Worrier emerged again from the flying yellow mass. His shirt was blown tight to him and the loose sleeves whipped in the wind. He leaned against it bending forward. He shouted that we might possibly get some shelter by continuing along the road toward Salt Creek, where it winds further around the side of Sheep Mountain. He advised us to move, because if the storm continued he could not keep Molly and Bill.
"Tie them up!" we yelled.
"Can't. Go crazy." Then, as we did not move, his voice rose peremptorily:
"Come on! If it gets worse we can't go."
We had disregarded his first hunch; now, if he had another, far be it from us to raise difficulties, though we could hardly see how it was possible to travel even then. Charlotte and I staggered up from the mesquite and all three of us packed as speedily as we could. It was a disorderly packing, as we could scarcely stand before the wind, and were almost blinded by the sand. Molly and Bill were wild with excitement. I remember vividly bracing myself against the wall of wind, holding on to Molly, who objected to backing around to the wagonpole, unable to open my eyes and hardly able to breathe.
We all piled into the wagon. The excited horses were willing to travel with their backs to the wind. There was a track to follow, but its edges were already rounding full of sand. If the storm should continue long enough it would be smoothed out.
The Worrier's hope was justified, for at the end of three or four miles the wind seemed much less furious. We were among the dunes and found a fairly quiet little gully full of deep sand as fine and soft as the sand on a beach. Something in the set of the wind through the mountains left this oasis of peace. We were even able to cook the long-delayed dinner. We did it by moonlight, slowly and carefully handling things and keeping them covered as much as possible, like having a picnic on a windy seashore.
The Worrier suggested that we climb to the top of the dune which partially sheltered us, if we wanted to see what a sandstorm looked like. We did so. From that vantage point of comparative calm we saw the whole Mesquite Valley filled with a dense yellow cloud that completely shut out the surrounding mountains, rising higher than they, swirling at the top like smoke ascending into the dark night sky.
In the morning we climbed the dune again and looked across over the others. The blowing sand was less dense and we could see them all. "Old Johnnie" had been right, they were a hundred feet high. Their shapes were very beautiful, with knife-edge tops ridged in pure, clean lines from which fringes of fine sand blew up like the wind-tossed manes of white horses. The masses and outlines of the dunes suggested Egyptian architecture; the pyramids and the crouching sphinx were there. Sand dunes must have been familiar to the Egyptians dwelling beside the Sahara. What is the huge sphinx, brooding and massive, gazing with strong eyes across the emptiness, but an interpretation of the desert carved in stone?
We reached Salt Creek early and spent the rest of the day there. The wind continued to blow, the sand still swirled off the dunes, and the yellow dust-cloud still obscured the mountains; but we were in the shelter of Tucki and the ground was so stony that we were not much troubled by the migrating sand. Once more Charlotte and I climbed the ridge from which we had watched the Worrier's remarkable hunting. The whole big basin of Death Valley between its high walls of rock was blurred with dust, clouds of sand with wind-frayed edges rose into the sky, not a gleam of radiance showed through. The green and white snake of Salt Creek coiled sullenly among the sulphur-colored hills. Only the blue eye was bright, poisonous, unwinking. The fair water that was too polluted for human drinking seemed to mock us. We waited for the enchanter to come at sunset, but as the day merged into evening the scene became inexpressibly dreadful.
Suddenly Charlotte arose from the rock on which we were sitting.
"Let us go," she whispered, and without further comment we hurried back to camp and made the Worrier collect enough wood from the swamp for a truly cheerful fire.
The following day we traveled once more up the long, northern mesa of Death Valley, but by a different route from that by which we had descended. This way was shorter, avoiding the long pull across the valley, though it was rockier, steeper, and cut by more islands of hills to cross or go around than the other. In many places the road vanished utterly, and only a "desertrat" could have piloted a wagon safely to its destination over that maze of ridges and gullies.
The day was fine. At last the wind had died down and the dust-clouds were slowly subsiding. Both Death Valley and the Mesquite Valley were veiled in heavy haze, but the brightness of their changing color now shimmered through. All day the white blaze of the sun was around us and the silence, after a week of tumultuous wind, was a mighty dreaming. It was the living silence which we had first known on the night when we wandered away from Silver Lake, the silence in which the earth moves. The mountains dwelt in it majestically. Mojave was again making her fine gesture, unconscious of the discomforts and terrors of small living things. Her pointing at the far-off shining is always a conquest of grimness, as though sorrow were a stepping-stone to beauty.
By the out-jutting cliff of Daylight Pass, from which we had first beheld Death Valley, we made a long stop. Familiarity had only enhanced its splendor. With different eyes we saw the shining floor, the sad Funeral Mountains, the calm, white curves of the high Panamints. What had been a picture was now a living experience. The rose and silver shifting over the white valley-floor had new meaning. We knew that floor, we knew the feel of it, and its ever-changing beauty was a miracle. We were justified in the pilgrimage, for only by going thus to the White Heart, making stones and brush and jagged rocks our companions, depending on the springs to keep us alive and the roots of the greasewood to warm us, could we have known what a miracle it was. The words "terror" and "beauty" which we had spoken during the first look down into the valley and had thought that we understood, had real content now. We knew that they belonged together and that one covered the other and changed its meaning.
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