California – In Palm Canon

One afternoon of early March, Dutch Jake, the prospector, blew into Palm Springs from the Little Morongos. He undid the packs of his three burros, turned the animals loose in somebody’s abandoned field back of the school-house, and set up his cone-shaped miner’s tent among the mesquits near the post-office. Then he borrowed a Dutch-oven from a man who was camping near the same center of life and news, and prepared to enjoy the sweets of civilization for a season. He was a stout, little figure of a man, and his English was a cross between that of Weber and Fields and Hans Breitmann.

“I haf located some purty goot prospects in dem Leetle Moronkos,” he remarked comfortably, as he crossed his short legs and loaded his pipe, “unt I might haf vent oop to Los Angeles unt sold out at a purty fair figger; ofer I always make von damn fool of myself in dot town unt lose money; sa I t’ought I’d yust come here unt gif de burros a chance to browse a bit, unt soak myself in dem In jun Springs yonder for my rheumatism. It only costs two bits efery time you go in, unt you can shtay as long as you please, unt, mein Gott, I can afford dot.”

So it happened when we decided to visit Palm Cañon and camp there for a day or two, we were referred to Dutch Jake as the man likeliest to transport our outfit.

“Pollum Cañon, eh? Yes, I haf been oop Pollum Cañon already a goat many years ago. It vasn’t no goot den unt it ain’t no goot now-dot is for mineral, unt de vater gets bad in summer time, ven de snow has all run off de mountain ; ofer now you can drink it veil enough. You vants to make some pictures, eh? Veil, some peoples does dot. All right, I take you. It’ll be fifty cents a day apiece for de burros, unt my time is wort’ somet’ing to tend camp for you, ain’t it? We make it two dollars unt a. halluf a day for de whole outfit; I pack your stuff on Jinny and Chappo, unt de lady can ride old Jack. Me unt you vill valk, mister. Vot you t’ink?”

The price did not seem out of the way for what we were to get, so the bargain was closed; and by seven the next morning the kyacks of the two pack donkeys were filled with three days’ provisions; the blankets and Sylvia’s little mattress were roped securely on top; the shovel, the axe, the rifle and the eiinteen were hung ready to the hand if needed; and we were off.

“I feel as though the bottom of thirty centuries had dropped out and we were back in the time of the patriarchs,” laughed Sylvia when, perched upon old Jack, she saw the desert open before her; I, staff in hand, trudging along in the sand at her side as she rode.

What a morning it was ! The dewless coolness of the spring night was still in the air and the sun felt good upon our backs ; birds were singing in the boughs of the mesquits upon which the first tender green leaves of the year were just appearing; the subtle fragrance of the pink abronias which covered the ground in places with sheets of vivid color, filled our nostrils with delight. Sylvia and I sang together the duets of our teens, and Chappo in whom eight years of desert life had not quenched the frolicsomeness of youth, cantered playfully down every declivity of the trail and kicked up his infantile heels at the bottom. Even Jake, stumping along in the rear of the cavalcade, smoked the pipe of contentment, and found nothing to grumble about.

Except for those occasional ebullitions of friskiness on Chappo’s part, the donkeys were deliberate travelers, and Jake being rheumatic and sixty was not the man to hurry them; so the sun was well up the sky when we finally left the open desert behind us and passed into a sandy gulf that swept in between gradually narrowing walls of burnished granitic rock toward Palm Cañon’s mouth. The trail steepened, the sands grew heavier and heavier to the foot, and the intense midday heat, unrelieved by any breeze, not only blazed down with torrid fierceness upon our heads but was reflected upward from the scorching sand into our blistering faces. The burros drooped their patient heads; even Chappo forgot that he was young, and devoted himself strictly to the business of “getting there.” Jake, perspiring at every pore, mopped his red face with his redder bandanna and swore softly.

“Gott in Himmel, dis’ is disagree’ble,” he observed.

Then we climbed a final ridge of rock and sand, and descending a broad sunny way, all glorious with purple lupines and crimson monkey-flowers, with golden eriophyllums, white desert daisies and mottled mohaveas, we came to the mouth of the cañon of the palms, where a cool breeze fresh from the snowy summit of the great mountain came out to greet us, and the sound of water flowing amid reeds fell like music on our ears. In another moment, the dripping canteen was passing from lip to lip, and the burros, lined up at the edge of the stream, had plunged three white noses deep in the flood.

It is an impressive sight that confronts us, when, our thirst relieved, we begin to look about us—a sight more suggestive of the Orient than of the United States. Palms, palms, everywhere, varying in size from the seedling growths of a single leaf or two clutched like fans in the fist of earth, to stately veterans of centuries, whose slender, tapering trunks rise straight as arrows into the air to a height of ninety or a hundred feet, each summit crowned with a great tuft of green fan-shaped leaves rippling and glistening in the sunshine which habitually pervades this open cañon. The older trees are bare of trunk to within a few feet of the verdant crown, where a fringe of dead foliage hanging head downward forms a picturesque brown thatch beneath the green. The young palms are thus thatched to the ground, looking as though clad in brown petticoats. Here, as beneath a mother’s protecting skirt, the small animal life of the cañon ” shnakes unt varmints,” in Jake’s classification—is prone to hide itself.

For a distance of nearly two miles these tropic groves fill the bed of the gorge, which is so tortuous, however, that to get an idea of them in any-thing like their entirety, one needs to clamber up the cañon’s bare side—no very difficult matter. There from some vantage point, one may look down and watch the winding procession of the palms as they crowd out from the mountain’s inner solitudes and follow the course of the hurrying torrent till trees and water alike are swallowed up by the all-consuming desert. Few other trees besides these grow in the alkaline soil of the stream’s marge, and none at all on the barren, rocky sides of the cañon which rise steeply towards the pines and snowfields of the mountain’s summit, ten thousand feet above.

With the scorching memory of the desert still fresh within us, we find it a heavenly place in the cool shadow of the palms and beside these crystal waters, which drop now in musical cascades and now are gathered in still pools reflecting their sedgy fringes ; now flow in open sunlight, and again are lost in quivering beds of cat-tails and rushes and thickets of groundsel. Wild flowers of brilliant hue brighten the tiny, sandy beaches that form here and there in the shelter of the great rocks—flowers of compelling charm, yet in this out-of-the-way part of the world so unknown to men that most of them are nameless save in the harsh lexicon of science. A faint fragrance like tuberose fills the air—the per-fume from millions of tiny blossoms of a leafless mistletoe that makes witches’ brooms in the mesquite. In such an environment we made our camp.

Botanists have given to the palm which is so characteristic a feature of this cañon, the name of Washingtonia, in honor of our country’s first President, and it has been extensively introduced as an ornamental tree throughout Southern California where it is a familiar object along public highways and in private grounds. To the Indians, in the old days, it served a number of purposes; the leafstalks furnished material for bows, the leaves themselves made a staple thatch for wickiups, and were utilized to some extent also in basket weaving; but the great service of the palm to the redmen was as a yielder of food. The fruit is a small berry-like body consisting of an exceedingly thin layer of sweetish pulp enveloping a stone that is almost the whole thing. It is borne in slender clusters depending from long, pendulous stalks thrust out from amid the leaves, reminding one of gigantic bunches of chicken grapes

A forest ranger, who dropped into our camp one evening, a graduate of some Eastern university and exceedingly pleased to have someone to talk to, had a good deal to say about the palm and the Indian.

“You see,” he remarked, sipping with extreme relish a cup of tea which Sylvia had brewed for him, adding, to his astonishment, a slice of lemon, “be-fore the Government got to cooping them up in reservations and making up their resultant deficiency of food with charity rations of bad flour and what-not, the Indians on the root-hog-or-die principle, had developed the food value of the desert flora to a wonderful degree. The Coahuilla Indians, for instance, who occupied this part of the desert, discovered a way to get nutrition out of these palm berries which a white man wouldn’t think fit for his pigs. As I understand it, each family owned a certain bunch of trees, and every year when the fruit was ripe, the whole lot of them from the grand-father to the latest papoose would go on a picnic to the cañon and camp under their trees just as the Pintes do in the central Sierra Nevada when pine-nuts are ripe. Then with long poles made by splicing shorter ones together, they battered down the hanging clusters by the bushel, and gathered them into baskets. Some of the fruit was consumed fresh on the spot, but there is not much to eat outside the stone, and most of the harvest was carried home, dried in the sun, and then pounded in a stone mortar until the kernels of the pits were ground to meal.

“Now there was a queer thing about this Indian business,” he continued, lighting his pipe, while Jake threw some fresh wood on the fire, and we all watched the cheerful glow rise and fall against the blackness of the night. “You may have noticed that every big palm you have seen in the cañon has the trunk more or less blackened and charred, indicating that at some period in its life, it has been on fire. That was Indian work. For some reason or other, the Coahuillas had a fashion of periodically firing the trees, which could be easily accomplished by putting a spark to the hanging dead leaves, and that is why the older trees are all bare of trunk, while the young ones are thatched with the dead leaves as Nature intends them to be. Now the question is what were those trees fired for? Some say, it was simply with a view of increasing the fruitftlness of the trees, just as my old grandfather down in Maine used regularly to burn over his blueberry patch to improve the crop. Maybe it was. There’s nobody to tell us now.”

The ranger paused while he puffed hard at his pipe which had almost gone out.

“There are some old Indians in the reservation at Palm Springs,” remarked one of us; “why doesn’t somebody ask them?”

“Maybe somebody has, and maybe they told him what I’ve just told you. But after a man has knocked about the Southwest for a few years, he finds that an Indian doesn’t tell every Tom, Di k and Harry of a white man all he knows. This s particularly the case with anything touching his religious views and rites, and fire is very closely associated with these, in the life of the desert Indian. Now there is another explanation of these burnt trunks, which connects them with a religious rite, and which, foolish as it may seem, is to my mi d entirely in keeping with the Indian’s attitude toward the world of spirit. When a man dies, the Indian thinks his spirit has a long journey to take in order to reach his final home—his happy hunting-grounds. This, in a desert Indian’s view, is naturally a hard journey, sandy, sunny and hot, in the progress of which the soul will cry out mightily for shade. So, on the occasion of a man’s death, what more natural than to set fire to one of his trees in order that its spirit, thus released, may accompany the spirit of the man and refresh him with its cooling shade as the burning sands are crossed? I have always been friendly, myself, to this explanation of the burnt trees; for Indians, when it comes to the question of spirits, go the whole figure, and believe that even the inanimate objects of Nature have personal souls within them.”

“And why shouldn’t they be as near right as we?” said Sylvia sympathetically.

A strange, tremulous sigh shivered down the cañon, and the wind which had suddenly risen, swept in a gust like an impalpable football kicked by some invisible jinnee of the mountain, past our camp. It stirred the fire into a momentary fever of brightness, and rolling on down the gorge, died away in the distance.

Instinctively I put out my hand toward the gun. The fire flame, unduly stimulated, sank down and’ out ; and again that tremulous sigh was uttered from the upper darkness.

“Doesn’t that convert you to the Coahuilla religion?” asked the ranger, rising to go—had the light been better we could have seen a twinkle in his eye. “It is the voice of Tauquitz, demon of the night wind, demanding a victim. Now you know why no Indian can be persuaded to be out on San Jacinto after dark.”

“Dot’s all imaxination, remarked Dutch Jake, shaking out his blankets, and hanging his hat on a bush—he was ready for bed—”don’t you peoples know an owl ven you hears him?”