California – The Deserts

WHILE your average Californian is talkative to the verge of garrulity about most things in his State, there are two features of it which he does not voluntarily bring up. One is fleas, the other is deserts. Of the fleas there is no authoritative count; of the deserts there are two principal. The one best known is the Mojave, which occupies much of the southeastern part of the State, and lies at an elevation of about 3,500 feet above sea-level. To the south of this again, that is in the extreme southeastern corner of California, is another whose borders reach to the lower waters of the Colorado River, and is, therefore, known as the Colorado Desert—a most confusing name, as people hearing of it for the first time naturally think of it as situated in the State of Colorado. There are numerous local names for small sections of this region, such as the Yuma, the Coachella and the Coachilla Deserts, the Salton Sink, and so on. Part of this great waste is the bed of an ancient sea, and some of it lies below the level of the ocean.

It is from a strip of the Colorado Desert that the productive Imperial Valley has been reclaimed.

These desert-stretches of California covering an area about equal to the State of Pennsylvania, far from being the monotonous, gray level of sand which the word desert conveys to the popular mind, are diversified with mountain ranges, clustered and solitary buttes, gravelly valleys and plains dotted with clumps of shrubbery, as well as heaving hum-mocks of pure sand—all sun-scorched and moisture-less, but clothed in a wonderful charm of color and permeated with a life-giving quality of air.

Appreciation of the desert’s charm is inborn, if it exists at all. To one who is alive to its beauty, who feels the’ fascination of its solemn silences and its luring distances, no hardship is too great to de-ter him from visiting it no beating of wind or scorching of sun experienced there too severe to prevent his return to it. We once met at a little desert post-office an old prospector who had “packed” his burros up and down the barren rocks of the desert ranges for thirty years and who now held an open letter in his hand. His brother, a well-to-do bachelor in New York, had just died, and a firm of lawyers there had written the prospector to come East, as his presence was needed to settle the estate to which he was sole heir.

“Gosh!” he said disgustedly, “I reckon I’ll have to go, but you bet your life I’ll be back p. d. q. New York ! Say, I was there once, and if it come to choosin’ between livin’ in that place with a million to spend, and prospectin’ the desert with old Jack and Jinny on a grubstake, me for the desert!”

There is a host, however, to whom the desert does not appeal, who scout the idea of visiting so dull and comfortless a spot, and what is more disturbing, who will absolutely doubt the honesty or the sanity of the desert enthusiast.

“You want to stay in the desert?” such a one says to you. “What under heaven for? Why, man alive, it’s a hundred and twenty in the shade, and no shade ! I could hardly stand it crossing on the railroad, though I read and slept and played cards the whole time. That anybody should take his wife, and go by choice and live in that red-hot, God-forsaken waste for even a day, shows a screw loose here,” and he complacently taps his own hard head.

It is useless to argue with those who feel thus, and the best advice to any who are otherwise than positively drawn to this magic region, is by all means to stay away. To one, however, who from the car windows or through books has felt the drawing cords of its grave beauty and its mystery, these pages are designed to offer some practical help.