Part 7 out of 7
Copple and I started down over and around the crags, going carefully
until we reached the open slope under the rim-rock. It seemed this
morning that I was fresh, eager, agile like a goat on my feet. In my
consciousness of this I boasted to Copple that I would dislodge fewer
stones and so make less noise than he. The canyon sloped at an angle of
about forty-five degrees, and we slid, stepped, jumped and ran down
without starting an avalanche.
When we descended to the first bare cape of projecting rock the hour was
the earliest in which I had been down under the rim. All the canyon and
the great green gulf below were unusually fresh and beautiful. I heard
the lonely call of strange birds and the low murmur of running water. An
eagle soared in the sunlight. High above us to the east rose the
magnificent slope of Dude Canyon. I gazed up to the black and green and
silver ascent, up to the gold-tipped craggy crest where R.C. had his
stand. I knew he could see me, but I could not see him. Afterward he
told me that my red cap shone clearly out of green and gray, so he had
no difficulty in keeping track of my whereabouts. The thickets of aspens
and oaks seemed now to stand on end. How dark in the shade and steely
and cold they looked! That giant ridge still obstructed the sun, and
all on this side of it, under its frowning crest and slope was dark and
fresh and cool in shadow. The ravines were choked black with spruce
trees. Here along this gray shady slant of wall, in niches and cracks,
and under ledges, and on benches, were the beds of the bears. Even as I
gazed momentarily I expected to see a bear. It looked two hundred yards
across the canyon from where we stood, but Copple declared it was a
thousand. On our other side capes and benches and groves were bright in
sunshine, clear across the rough breaks to the west wall of Dude Canyon.
I saw a flock of wild pigeons below. Way out and beyond rolled the floor
of the basin, green and vast, like a ridged sea of pines, to the bold
black Mazatzals so hauntingly beckoning from the distance. Copple spoke
now and then, but I wanted to be silent. How wild and wonderful this
place in the early morning!
But I had not long to meditate and revel in beauty and wildness. Far
down across the mouth of the canyon, at the extreme southern end of that
vast oak thicket, the hounds gave tongue. Old Dan first! In the still
cool air how his great wolf-bay rang out the wildness of the time and
place! Already Edd and Pyle had rounded the end of the east ridge and
were coming up along the slope of Dude Canyon.
"Hounds workin' round," declared Copple. "Now I'll tell you what. Last
night a bear was feedin' along that end of the thicket. The hounds are
millin' round tryin' to straighten out his trail.... It's a dead cinch
they'll jump a bear an' we'll see him."
"Look everywhere!" I cautioned Copple, and my eyes roved and strained
over all that vast slope. Suddenly I espied the flash of something
black, far down the thicket, and tried to show it to my comrade.
"Let's go around an' down to that lower point of rock. It's a better
stand than this. Closer to the thicket an' commands those.... By Golly,
I see what you see! That's a bear, slippin' down. Stay with me now!"
Staying with Copple was a matter of utter disregard of clothes, limbs,
life. He plunged off that bare ledge, slid flat on his back, and wormed
feet first under manzanita, and gaining open slope got up to run and
jump into another thicket. By staying with him I saw that I would have a
way opened through the brush, and something to fall upon if I fell. He
rimmed the edge of a deep gorge that made me dizzy. He leaped cracks. He
let himself down over a ledge by holding to bushes. He found steps to
descend little bluffs, and he flew across the open slides of weathered
rock. I was afraid this short cut to the lower projecting cape of rock
would end suddenly on some impassable break or cliff, but though the
travel grew rough we still kept on. I wore only boots, trousers, and
shirt, and cap, with cartridge belt strapped tight around me. It was a
wonder I was not stripped. Some of my rags went to decorate the wake we
left down that succession of ledges. But we made it, with me at least,
bruised and ragged, dusty and choked, and absolutely breathless. My body
burned as with fire. Hot sweat ran in streams down my chest. At last we
reached the bare flat projecting cape of rock, and indeed it afforded an
exceedingly favorable outlook. I had to sink down on the rock; I could
not talk until I got my breath; but I used my eyes to every advantage.
Neither Copple nor I could locate the black moving object we had seen
from above. We were much closer to the hounds, though they still were
baying a tangled cross trail. Fortunate it was for me that I was given
these few moments to rest from my tremendous exertions.
My eyes searched the leaf-covered slope so brown and sear, and the
shaggy thickets, and tried to pierce the black tangle of spruce
patches. All at once, magically it seemed, my gaze held to a dark
shadow, a bit of dense shade, under a large spruce tree. Something
moved. Then a big bear rose right out of his bed of leaves, majestically
as if disturbed, and turned his head back toward the direction of the
baying hounds. Next he walked out. He stopped. I was quivering with
eagerness to tell Copple, but I waited. Then the bear walked behind a
tree and peeped out, only his head showing. After a moment again he
"Ben, aren't you ever going to see him?" I cried at last.
"What?" ejaculated Copple, in surprise.
"Bear!" and I pointed. "This side of dead spruce."
"No!... Reckon you see a stump.... By Golly! I see him. He's a dandy.
Reddish color.... Doc, he's one of them mean old cinnamons."
"Watch! What will he do?--Ben, he hears the hounds."
How singularly thrilling to see him, how slowly he walked, how devoid of
fear, how stately!
"Sure he hears them. See him look back. The son-of-a-gun! I'll bet he's
given us the bear-laugh more than once."
"Ben, how far away is he?" I asked.
"Oh, that's eight hundred yards," declared Copple. "A long shot. Let's
wait. He may work down closer. But most likely he'll run up-hill."
"If he climbs he'll go right to R.C.'s stand," I said, gazing upward.
"Sure will. There's no other saddle."
Then I decided that I would not shoot at him unless he started down. My
excitement was difficult to control. I found it impossible to attend to
my sensations, to think about what I was feeling. But the moment was
full of suspense. The bear went into a small clump of spruces and
stayed there a little while. Tantalizing moments! The hounds were hot
upon his trail, still working to and fro in the oak thicket. I judged
scarcely a mile separated them from the bear. Again he disappeared
behind a little bush. Remembering that five pairs of sharp eyes could
see me from the points above I stood up and waved my red cap. I waved it
wildly as a man waves a red flag in moments of danger. Afterward R.C.
said he saw me plainly and understood my action. Again the bear had
showed, this time on an open slide, where he had halted. He was looking
across the canyon while I waved my cap.
"Ben, could he see us so far?" I asked.
"By Golly, I'll bet he does see us. You get to smokin' him up. An' if
you hit him don't be nervous if he starts for us. Cinnamons are bad
customers. Lay out five extra shells an' make up your mind to kill him."
I dropped upon one knee. The bear started down, coming towards us over
an open slide. "Aim a little coarse an' follow him," said Copple. I did
so, and tightening all my muscles into a ball, holding my breath, I
fired. The bear gave a savage kick backwards. He jerked back to bite at
his haunch. A growl, low, angry, vicious followed the echoes of my
rifle. Then it seemed he pointed his head toward us and began to run
down the slope, looking our way all the time.
"By Golly!" yelled Copple. "You stung him one an' he's comin'!... Now
you've got to shoot some. He can roll down-hill an' run up-hill like a
jack rabbit. Take your time--wait for open shots--an' make sure!"
Copple's advice brought home to me what could happen even with the
advantage on my side. Also it brought the cold tight prickle to my skin,
the shudder that was not a thrill, the pressure of blood running too
swiftly, I did not feel myself shake, but the rifle was unsteady. I
rested an elbow on my knee, yet still I had difficulty in keeping the
sight on him. I could get it on him, but could not keep it there. Again
he came out into the open, at the head of a yellow slide, that reached
to a thicket below. I must not hurry, yet I had to hurry. After all he
had not so far to come and most of the distance was under cover. Through
my mind flashed Haught's story of a cinnamon that kept coming with ten
bullets in him.
"Doc, he's paddin' along!" warned Copple. "Smoke some of them shells!"
Straining every nerve I aimed as before, only a little in advance, held
tight and pulled at the same instant. The bear doubled up in a ball and
began to roll down the slide. He scattered the leaves. Then into the
thicket he crashed, knocking the oaks, and cracking the brush.
"Some shot!" yelled Copple. "He's your bear!"
But my bear continued to crash through the brush. I shot again and yet
again, missing both times. Apparently he was coming, faster now--and
then he showed dark almost at the foot of our slope. Trees were thick
there. I could not see there, and I could not look for bear and reload
at the same moment. My fingers were not very nimble.
"Don't shoot," shouted Copple. "He's your bear. I never make any
mistakes when I see game hit."
"But I see him coming!"
"Where?... By Golly! that's another bear. He's black. Yours is red....
Look sharp. Next time he shows smoke him!"
I saw a flash of black across an open space--I heard a scattering of
gravel. But I had no chance to shoot. Then both of us heard a bear
running in thick leaves.
"He's gone down the canyon," said Copple. "Now look for your bear."
"Listen Ben. The hounds are coming fast. There's Rock.--There's Sue."
"I see them. Old Dan--what do you think of that old dog?... There!--your
red bear's still comin' ... He's bad hurt."
Though Copple tried hard to show me where, and I strained my eyes, I
could not see the bear. I could not locate the threshing of brush. I
knew it seemed close enough for me to be glad I was not down in that
thicket. How the hounds made the welkin ring! Rock was in the lead. Sue
was next. And Old Dan must have found the speed of his best days.
Strange he did not bay all down that slope! When Rock and Sue headed the
bear then I saw him. He sat up on his haunches ready to fight, but they
did not attack him. Instead they began to yelp wildly. I dared not shoot
again for fear of hitting one of them. Old Dan just beat the rest of the
pack to the bear. Up pealed a yelping chorus. I had never heard Old Dan
bay a bear at close range. With deep, hoarse, quick, wild roars he
dominated that medley. A box canyon took up the bays, cracking them back
in echo from wall to wall.
From the saddle of the great ridge above pealed down R.C.'s: "Waahoo!"
I saw him silhouetted dark against the sky line. He waved and I
answered. Then he disappeared.
Nielsen bellowed from the craggy cape above and behind us. From down the
canyon Edd sent up his piercing: "Ki Yi!" Then Takahashi appeared
opposite to us, like a goat on a promontory. How his: "Banzai!" rang
above the baying of the hounds!
"We'd better hurry down an' across," said Copple. "Reckon the hounds
will jump that bear or some one else will get there first. We got to
As before we fell into a manzanita thicket and had to crawl. Then we
came out upon the rim of a box canyon where the echoes made such a din.
It was too steep to descend. We had to head it, and Copple took chances.
Loose boulders tripped me and stout bushes saved me. We knocked streams
of rock and gravel down into this gorge, sending up a roar as of falling
water. But we got around. A steep slope lay below, all pine needles and
leaves. From this point I saw Edd on the opposite slope.
"I stopped one bear," I yelled. "Hurry. Look out for the dogs!"
Then, imitating Copple, I sat down and slid as on a toboggan for some
thirty thrilling yards. Some of my anatomy and more of my rags I left
behind me. But it was too exciting then to think of hurts. I managed to
protect at least my rifle. Copple was charging into the thicket below. I
followed him into the dark gorge, where huge boulders lay, and a swift
brook ran, and leaves two feet deep carpeted the shady canyon bed. It
was gloomy down into the lower part. I saw where bear had turned over
the leaves making a dark track.
"The hounds have quit," called Copple suddenly. "I told you he was your
We yelled. Somebody above us answered. Then we climbed up the opposite
slope, through a dense thicket, crossing a fresh bear track, a running
track, and soon came into an open rocky slide where my bear lay
surrounded by the hounds, with Old Dan on guard. The bear was red in
color, with silky fur, a long keen head, and fine limbs, and of goodly
"Cinnamon," declared Copple, and turning him over he pointed to a white
spot on his breast. "Fine bear. About four hundred pounds. Maybe not so
heavy. But he'll take some packin' up to the rim!"
Then I became aware of the other men. Takahashi had arrived on the
scene first, finding the bear dead. Edd came next, and after him Pyle.
I sat down for a much needed rest. Copple interested himself in
examining the bear, finding that my first shot had hit him in the flank,
and my second had gone through the middle of his body. Next Copple
amused himself by taking pictures of bear and hounds. Old Dan came to me
and lay beside me, and looked as if to say: "Well, we got him!"
Yells from both sides of the canyon were answered by Edd. R.C. was
rolling the rocks on his side at a great rate. But Nielsen on the other
side beat him to us. The Norwegian crashed the brush, sent the
avalanches roaring, and eventually reached us, all dirty, ragged,
bloody, with fire in his eye. He had come all the way from the rim in
short order. What a performance that must have been! He said he thought
he might be needed. R.C. guided by Edd's yells, came cracking the brush
down to us. Pale he was and wet with sweat, and there were black brush
marks across his face. His eyes were keen and sharp. He had started down
for the same reason as Nielsen's. But he had to descend a slope so steep
that he had to hold on to keep from sliding down. And he had jumped a
big bear out of a bed of leaves. The bed was still warm. R.C. said he
had smelled bear, and that his toboggan slide down that slope, with
bears all around for all he knew, had started the cold sweat on him.
Presently George Haught joined us, having come down the bed of the
"We knew you'd got a bear," said George. "Father heard the first two
bullets hit meat. An' I heard him rollin' down the slope."
"Well!" exclaimed R.C. "That's what made those first two shots sound so
strange to me. Different from the last two. Sounded like soft dead pats!
And it was lead hitting flesh. I heard it half a mile away!"
This matter of the sound of bullets hitting flesh and being heard at a
great distance seemed to me the most remarkable feature of our hunt.
Later I asked Haught. He said he heard my first two bullets strike and
believed from the peculiar sound that I had my bear. And his stand was
fully a mile away. But the morning was unusually still and sound carried
The men hung my bear from the forks of a maple. Then they decided to
give us time to climb up to our stands before putting the hounds on the
other fresh trail.
Nielsen, R.C., and I started to climb back up to the points. Only plenty
of time made it possible to scale those rugged bluffs. Nielsen distanced
us, and eventually we became separated. The sun grew warm. The bees
hummed. After a while we heard the baying of the hounds. They were
working westward under the bases of the bluffs. We rimmed the heads of
several gorges, climbed and crossed the west ridge of Dude Canyon, and
lost the hounds somewhere as we traveled.
R.C. did not seem to mind this misfortune any more than I. We were
content. Resting a while we chose the most accessible ridge and started
the long climb to the rim. Westward under us opened a great noble canyon
full of forests, thicketed slopes, cliffs and caves and crags. Next time
we rested we again heard the hounds, far away at first, but gradually
drawing closer. In half an hour they appeared right under us again.
Their baying, however, grew desultory, and lacked the stirring note.
Finally we heard Edd calling and whistling to them. After that for a
while all was still. Then pealed up the clear tuneful melody of Edd's
horn, calling off the chase for that day and season.
"All over," said R.C. "Are you glad?"
"For Old Dan's sake and Tom's and the bears--yes," I replied.
"Me, too! But I'd never get enough of this country."
We proceeded on our ascent over and up the broken masses of rock,
climbing slowly and easily, making frequent and long rests. We liked to
linger in the sun on the warm piny mossy benches. Every shady cedar or
juniper wooed us to tarry a moment. Old bear tracks and fresh deer
tracks held the same interest, though our hunt was over. Above us the
gray broken mass of rim towered and loomed, more formidable as we neared
it. Sometimes we talked a little, but mostly we were silent.
[Illustration: MEAT IN CAMP]
[Illustration: (2) MEAT IN CAMP]
Like an Indian, at every pause, I gazed out into the void. How sweeping
and grand the long sloping lines of ridges from the rim down! Away in
the east ragged spurs of peaks showed hazily, like uncertain mountains
on the desert. South ranged the upheaved and wild Mazatzals. Everywhere
beneath me, for leagues and leagues extended the timbered hills of
green, the gray outcroppings of rocks, the red bluffs, the golden
patches of grassy valleys, lost in the canyons. All these swept away in
a vast billowy ocean of wilderness to become dim in the purple of
distance. And the sun was setting in a blaze of gold. From the rim I
took a last lingering look and did not marvel that I loved this
wonderland of Arizona.
[Illustration: BURROS PACKED FOR THE TRAIL]
[Illustration: THE DEADLY CHOLLA, MOST POISONOUS AND PAIN INFLICTING OF
Of the five hundred and fifty-seven thousand square miles of desert-land
in the southwest Death Valley is the lowest below sea level, the most
arid and desolate. It derives its felicitous name from the earliest days
of the gold strike in California, when a caravan of Mormons, numbering
about seventy, struck out from Salt Lake, to cross the Mojave Desert and
make a short cut to the gold fields. All but two of these prospectors
perished in the deep, iron-walled, ghastly sink-holes, which from that
time became known as Death Valley.
The survivors of this fatal expedition brought news to the world that
the sombre valley of death was a treasure mine of minerals; and since
then hundreds of prospectors and wanderers have lost their lives there.
To seek gold and to live in the lonely waste places of the earth have
been and ever will be driving passions of men.
My companion on this trip was a Norwegian named Nielsen. On most of my
trips to lonely and wild places I have been fortunate as to comrades or
guides. The circumstances of my meeting Nielsen were so singular that I
think they will serve as an interesting introduction. Some years ago I
received a letter, brief, clear and well-written, in which the writer
stated that he had been a wanderer over the world, a sailor before the
mast, and was now a prospector for gold. He had taken four trips alone
down into the desert of Sonora, and in many other places of the
southwest, and knew the prospecting game. Somewhere he had run across my
story Desert Gold in which I told about a lost gold mine. And the
point of his letter was that if I could give him some idea as to where
the lost gold mine was located he would go find it and give me half. His
name was Sievert Nielsen. I wrote him that to my regret the lost gold
mine existed only in my imagination, but if he would come to Avalon to
see me perhaps we might both profit by such a meeting. To my surprise he
came. He was a man of about thirty-five, of magnificent physique,
weighing about one hundred and ninety, and he was so enormously broad
across the shoulders that he did not look his five feet ten. He had a
wonderful head, huge, round, solid, like a cannon-ball. And his bronzed
face, his regular features, square firm jaw, and clear gray eyes,
fearless and direct, were singularly attractive to me. Well educated,
with a strange calm poise, and a cool courtesy, not common in Americans,
he evidently was a man of good family, by his own choice a rolling stone
Nielsen accompanied me on two trips into the wilderness of Arizona, on
one of which he saved my life, and on the other he rescued all our party
from a most uncomfortable and possibly hazardous situation--but these
are tales I may tell elsewhere. In January 1919 Nielsen and I traveled
around the desert of southern California from Palm Springs to Picacho,
and in March we went to Death Valley.
Nowadays a little railroad, the Tonapah and Tidewater Railroad, runs
northward from the Santa Fe over the barren Mojave, and it passes within
fifty miles of Death Valley.
It was sunset when we arrived at Death Valley Junction--a weird, strange
sunset in drooping curtains of transparent cloud, lighting up dark
mountain ranges, some peaks of which were clear-cut and black against
the sky, and others veiled in trailing storms, and still others white
with snow. That night in the dingy little store I heard prospectors talk
about float, which meant gold on the surface, and about high grade
ores, zinc, copper, silver, lead, manganese, and about how borax was
mined thirty years ago, and hauled out of Death Valley by teams of
twenty mules. Next morning, while Nielsen packed the outfit, I visited
the borax mill. It was the property of an English firm, and the work of
hauling, grinding, roasting borax ore went on day and night. Inside it
was as dusty and full of a powdery atmosphere as an old-fashioned flour
mill. The ore was hauled by train from some twenty miles over toward the
valley, and was dumped from a high trestle into shutes that fed the
grinders. For an hour I watched this constant stream of borax as it slid
down into the hungry crushers, and I listened to the chalk-faced
operator who yelled in my ear. Once he picked a piece of gypsum out of
the borax. He said the mill was getting out twenty-five hundred sacks a
day. The most significant thing he said was that men did not last long
at such labor, and in the mines six months appeared to be the limit of
human endurance. How soon I had enough of that choking air in the room
where the borax was ground! And the place where the borax was roasted in
huge round revolving furnaces--I found that intolerable. When I got out
into the cool clean desert air I felt an immeasurable relief. And that
relief made me thoughtful of the lives of men who labored, who were
chained by necessity, by duty or habit, or by love, to the hard tasks of
the world. It did not seem fair. These laborers of the borax mines and
mills, like the stokers of ships, and coal-diggers, and blast-furnace
hands--like thousands and millions of men, killed themselves outright or
impaired their strength, and when they were gone or rendered useless
others were found to take their places. Whenever I come in contact with
some phase of this problem of life I take the meaning or the lesson of
it to myself. And as the years go by my respect and reverence and
wonder increase for these men of elemental lives, these horny-handed
toilers with physical things, these uncomplaining users of brawn and
bone, these giants who breast the elements, who till the earth and
handle iron, who fight the natural forces with their bodies.
That day about noon I looked back down the long gravel and greasewood
slope which we had ascended and I saw the borax-mill now only a smoky
blot on the desert floor. When we reached the pass between the Black
Mountains and the Funeral Mountains we left the road, and were soon lost
to the works of man. How strange a gladness, a relief! Something dropped
away from me. I felt the same subtle change in Nielsen. For one thing he
stopped talking, except an occasional word to the mules.
The blunt end of the Funeral Range was as remarkable as its name. It
sheered up very high, a saw-toothed range with colored strata tilted at
an angle of forty-five degrees. Zigzag veins of black and red and
yellow, rather dull, ran through the great drab-gray mass. This end of
the range, an iron mountain, frowned down upon us with hard and
formidable aspect. The peak was draped in streaky veils of rain from
low-dropping clouds that appeared to have lodged there. All below lay
clear and cold in the sunlight.
[Illustration: THE COLORED CALICO MOUNTAINS]
[Illustration: DOWN THE LONG WINDING WASH TO DEATH VALLEY]
Our direction lay to the westward, and at that altitude, about three
thousand feet, how pleasant to face the sun! For the wind was cold. The
narrow shallow wash leading down from the pass deepened, widened, almost
imperceptibly at first, and then gradually until its proportions were
striking. It was a gully where the gravel washed down during rains, and
where a scant vegetation, greasewood, and few low cacti and scrubby sage
struggled for existence. Not a bird or lizard or living creature in
sight! The trail was getting lonely. From time to time I looked back,
because as we could not see far ahead all the superb scene spread and
towered behind us. By and bye our wash grew to be a wide canyon, winding
away from under the massive, impondering wall of the Funeral Range. The
high side of this magnificent and impressive line of mountains faced
west--a succession of unscalable slopes of bare ragged rock, jagged and
jutted, dark drab, rusty iron, with gray and oblique strata running
through them far as eye could see. Clouds soared around the peaks.
Shadows sailed along the slopes.
[Illustration: DESOLATION AND DECAY. LOOKING DOWN OVER THE DENUDED
RIDGES TO THE STARK VALLEY OF DEATH]
Walking in loose gravel was as hard as trudging along in sand. After
about fifteen miles I began to have leaden feet. I did not mind hard
work, but I wanted to avoid over-exertion. When I am extremely wearied
my feelings are liable to be colored somewhat by depression or
melancholy. Then it always bothered me to get tired while Nielsen kept
on with his wonderful stride.
"Say, Nielsen, do you take me for a Yaqui?" I complained. "Slow up a
Then he obliged me, and to cheer me up he told me about a little
tramping experience he had in Baja California. Somewhere on the east
slope of the Sierra Madre his burros strayed or were killed by
mountain-lions, and he found it imperative to strike at once for the
nearest ranch below the border, a distance of one hundred and fifty
miles. He could carry only so much of his outfit, and as some of it was
valuable to him he discarded all his food except a few biscuits, and a
canteen of water. Resting only a few hours, without sleep at all, he
walked the hundred and fifty miles in three days and nights. I believed
that Nielsen, by telling me such incidents of his own wild experience,
inspired me to more endurance than I knew I possessed.
As we traveled on down the canyon its dimensions continued to grow. It
finally turned to the left, and opened out wide into a valley running
west. A low range of hills faced us, rising in a long sweeping slant of
earth, like the incline of a glacier, to rounded spurs. Half way up this
slope, where the brown earth lightened there showed an outcropping of
clay-amber and cream and cinnamon and green, all exquisitely vivid and
clear. This bright spot appeared to be isolated. Far above it rose other
clay slopes of variegated hues, red and russet and mauve and gray, and
colors indescribably merged, all running in veins through this range of
hills. We faced the west again, and descending this valley were soon
greeted by a region of clay hills, bare, cone-shaped, fantastic in
shade, slope, and ridge, with a high sharp peak dominating all. The
colors were mauve, taupe, pearl-gray, all stained by a descending band
of crimson, as if a higher slope had been stabbed to let its life blood
flow down. The softness, the richness and beauty of this texture of
earth amazed and delighted my eyes.
Quite unprepared, at time approaching sunset, we reached and rounded a
sharp curve, to see down and far away, and to be held mute in our
tracks. Between a white-mantled mountain range on the left and the
dark-striped lofty range on the right I could see far down into a gulf,
a hazy void, a vast stark valley that seemed streaked and ridged and
canyoned, an abyss into which veils of rain were dropping and over which
broken clouds hung, pierced by red and gold rays.
Death Valley! Far down and far away still, yet confounding at first
sight! I gazed spellbound. It oppressed my heart. Nielsen stood like a
statue, silent, absorbed for a moment, then he strode on. I followed,
and every second saw more and different aspects, that could not,
however, change the first stunning impression. Immense, unreal, weird! I
went on down the widening canyon, looking into that changing void. How
full of color! It smoked. The traceries of streams or shining white
washes brightened the floor of the long dark pit. Patches and plains of
white, borax flats or alkali, showed up like snow. A red haze, sinister
and sombre, hung over the eastern ramparts of this valley, and over the
western drooped gray veils of rain, like thinnest lacy clouds, through
which gleams of the sun shone.
Nielsen plodded on, mindful of our mules. But I lingered, and at last
checked my reluctant steps at an open high point with commanding and
magnificent view. As I did not attempt the impossible--to write down
thoughts and sensations--afterward I could remember only a few. How
desolate and grand! The far-away, lonely and terrible places of the
earth were the most beautiful and elevating. Life's little day seemed so
easy to understand, so pitiful. As the sun began to set and the
storm-clouds moved across it this wondrous scene darkened, changed every
moment, brightened, grew full of luminous red light and then streaked by
golden gleams. The tips of the Panamint Mountains came out silver above
the purple clouds. At sunset the moment was glorious--dark, forbidding,
dim, weird, dismal, yet still tinged with gold. Not like any other
scene! Dante's Inferno! Valley of Shadows! Canyon of Purple Veils!
When the sun had set and all that upheaved and furrowed world of rock
had received a mantle of gray, and a slumberous sulphurous ruddy haze
slowly darkened to purple and black, then I realized more fully that I
was looking down into Death Valley.
Twilight was stealing down when I caught up with Nielsen. He had
selected for our camp a protected nook near where the canyon floor bore
some patches of sage, the stalks and roots of which would serve for
firewood. We unpacked, fed the mules some grain, pitched our little
tent and made our bed all in short order. But it was dark long before
we had supper. During the meal we talked a little, but afterward, when
the chores were done, and the mules had become quiet, and the strange
thick silence had settled down upon us, we did not talk at all.
The night was black, with sky mostly obscured by clouds. A pale haze
marked the west where the after glow had faded; in the south one radiant
star crowned a mountain peak. I strolled away in the darkness and sat
down upon a stone. How intense the silence! Dead, vast, sepulchre-like,
dreaming, waiting, a silence of ages, burdened with the history of the
past, awful! I strained my ears for sound of insect or rustle of sage or
drop of weathered rock. The soft cool desert wind was soundless. This
silence had something terrifying in it, making me a man alone on the
earth. The great spaces, the wild places as they had been millions of
years before! I seemed to divine how through them man might develop from
savage to a god, and how alas! he might go back again.
When I returned to camp Nielsen had gone to bed and the fire had burned
low. I threw on some branches of sage. The fire blazed up. But it seemed
different from other camp-fires. No cheer, no glow, no sparkle! Perhaps
it was owing to scant and poor wood. Still I thought it was owing as
much to the place. The sadness, the loneliness, the desolateness of this
place weighed upon the camp-fire the same as it did upon my heart.
We got up at five-thirty. At dawn the sky was a cold leaden gray, with a
dull gold and rose in the east. A hard wind, eager and nipping, blew up
the canyon. At six o'clock the sky brightened somewhat and the day did
not promise so threatening.
An hour later we broke camp. Traveling in the early morning was
pleasant and we made good time down the winding canyon, arriving at
Furnace Creek about noon, where we halted to rest. This stream of warm
water flowed down from a gully that headed up in the Funeral Mountains.
It had a disagreeable taste, somewhat acrid and soapy. A green thicket
of brush was indeed welcome to the eye. It consisted of a rank coarse
kind of grass, and arrowweed, mesquite, and tamarack. The last named
bore a pink fuzzy blossom, not unlike pussy-willow, which was quite
fragrant. Here the deadness of the region seemed further enlivened by
several small birds, speckled and gray, two ravens, and a hawk. They all
appeared to be hunting food. On a ridge above Furnace Creek we came upon
a spring of poison water. It was clear, sparkling, with a greenish cast,
and it deposited a white crust on the margins. Nielsen, kicking around
in the sand, unearthed a skull, bleached and yellow, yet evidently not
so very old. Some thirsty wanderer had taken his last drink at that
deceiving spring. The gruesome and the beautiful, the tragic and the
sublime, go hand in hand down the naked shingle of this desolate desert.
While tramping around in the neighborhood of Furnace Creek I happened
upon an old almost obliterated trail. It led toward the ridges of clay,
and when I had climbed it a little ways I began to get an impression
that the slopes on the other side must run down into a basin or canyon.
So I climbed to the top.
The magnificent scenes of desert and mountain, like the splendid things
of life, must be climbed for. In this instance I was suddenly and
stunningly confronted by a yellow gulf of cone-shaped and fan-shaped
ridges, all bare crinkly clay, of gold, of amber, of pink, of bronze, of
cream, all tapering down to round-knobbed lower ridges, bleak and
barren, yet wonderfully beautiful in their stark purity of denudation;
until at last far down between two widely separated hills shone, dim and
blue and ghastly, with shining white streaks like silver streams--the
Valley of Death. Then beyond it climbed the league-long red slope,
merging into the iron-buttressed base of the Panamint Range, and here
line on line, and bulge on bulge rose the bold benches, and on up the
unscalable outcroppings of rock, like colossal ribs of the earth, on and
up the steep slopes to where their density of blue black color began to
thin out with streaks of white, and thence upward to the last noble
height, where the cold pure snow gleamed against the sky.
I descended into this yellow maze, this world of gullies and ridges
where I found it difficult to keep from getting lost. I did lose my
bearings, but as my boots made deep imprints in the soft clay I knew it
would be easy to back-track my trail. After a while this labyrinthine
series of channels and dunes opened into a wide space enclosed on three
sides by denuded slopes, mostly yellow. These slopes were smooth,
graceful, symmetrical, with tiny tracery of erosion, and each appeared
to retain its own color, yellow or cinnamon or mauve. But they were
always dominated by a higher one of a different color. And this mystic
region sloped and slanted to a great amphitheater that was walled on the
opposite side by a mountain of bare earth, of every hue, and of a
thousand ribbed and scalloped surfaces. At its base the golds and
russets and yellows were strongest, but ascending its slopes were
changing colors--a dark beautiful mouse color on one side and a strange
pearly cream on the other. Between these great corners of the curve
climbed ridges of gray and heliotrope and amber, to meet wonderful veins
of green--green as the sea in sunlight--and tracery of white--and on the
bold face of this amphitheater, high up, stood out a zigzag belt of dull
red, the stain of which had run down to tinge the other hues. Above all
this wondrous coloration upheaved the bare breast of the mountain,
growing darker with earthy browns, up to the gray old rock ramparts.
This place affected me so strangely, so irresistibly that I remained
there a long time. Something terrible had happened there to men. I felt
that. Something tragic was going on right then--the wearing down, the
devastation of the old earth. How plainly that could be seen!
Geologically it was more remarkable to me than the Grand Canyon. But it
was the appalling meaning, the absolutely indescribable beauty that
overcame me. I thought of those who had been inspiration to me in my
work, and I suffered a pang that they could not be there to see and feel
On my way out of this amphitheater a hard wind swooped down over the
slopes, tearing up the colored dust in sheets and clouds. It seemed to
me each gully had its mystic pall of color. I lost no time climbing out.
What a hot choking ordeal! But I never would have missed it even had I
known I would get lost. Looking down again the scene was vastly changed.
A smoky weird murky hell with the dull sun gleaming magenta-hued through
the shifting pall of dust!
In the afternoon we proceeded leisurely, through an atmosphere growing
warmer and denser, down to the valley, reaching it at dusk. We followed
the course of Furnace Creek and made camp under some cottonwood trees,
on the west slope of the valley.
The wind blew a warm gale all night. I lay awake a while and slept with
very little covering. Toward dawn the gale died away. I was up at
five-thirty. The morning broke fine, clear, balmy. A flare of pale
gleaming light over the Funeral Range heralded the sunrise. The tips of
the higher snow-capped Panamints were rose colored, and below them the
slopes were red. The bulk of the range showed dark. All these features
gradually brightened until the sun came up. How blazing and intense! The
wind began to blow again. Under the cottonwoods with their rustling
leaves, and green so soothing to the eye, it was very pleasant.
Beyond our camp stood green and pink thickets of tamarack, and some dark
velvety green alfalfa fields, made possible by the spreading of Furnace
Creek over the valley slope. A man lived there, and raised this alfalfa
for the mules of the borax miners. He lived there alone and his was
indeed a lonely, wonderful, and terrible life. At this season a few
Shoshone Indians were camped near, helping him in his labors. This lone
rancher's name was Denton, and he turned out to be a brother of a
Denton, hunter and guide, whom I had met in Lower California.
[Illustration: DESERT GRAVES]
[Illustration: THE GHASTLY SWEEP OF DEATH VALLEY]
Like all desert men, used to silence, Denton talked with difficulty, but
the content of his speech made up for its brevity. He told us about the
wanderers and prospectors he had rescued from death by starvation and
thirst; he told us about the terrific noonday heat of summer; and about
the incredible and horrible midnight furnace gales that swept down the
valley. With the mercury at one hundred and twenty-five degrees at
midnight, below the level of the sea, when these furnace blasts bore
down upon him, it was just all he could do to live. No man could spend
many summers there. As for white women--Death Valley was fatal to them.
The Indians spent the summers up on the mountains. Denton said heat
affected men differently. Those who were meat eaters or alcohol
drinkers, could not survive. Perfect heart and lungs were necessary to
stand the heat and density of atmosphere below sea level. He told of a
man who had visited his cabin, and had left early in the day,
vigorous and strong. A few hours later he was found near the oasis
unable to walk, crawling on his hands and knees, dragging a full canteen
of water. He never knew what ailed him. It might have been heat, for the
thermometer registered one hundred and thirty-five, and it might have
been poison gas. Another man, young, of heavy and powerful build, lost
seventy pounds weight in less than two days, and was nearly dead when
found. The heat of Death Valley quickly dried up blood, tissue, bone.
Denton told of a prospector who started out at dawn strong and rational,
to return at sunset so crazy that he had to be tied to keep him out of
the water. To have drunk his fill then would have killed him! He had to
be fed water by spoonful. Another wanderer came staggering into the
oasis, blind, with horrible face, and black swollen tongue protruding.
He could not make a sound. He also had to be roped, as if he were a mad
[Illustration: IN THE CENTER OF THE SALT-INCRUSTED FLOOR OF DEATH
VALLEY, THREE HUNDRED FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL]
I met only one prospector during my stay in Death Valley. He camped with
us. A rather undersized man he was, yet muscular, with brown wrinkled
face and narrow dim eyes. He seemed to be smiling to himself most of the
time. He liked to talk to his burros. He was exceedingly interesting.
Once he nearly died of thirst, having gone from noon one day till next
morning without water. He said he fell down often during this ordeal,
but did not lose his senses. Finally the burros saved his life. This old
fellow had been across Death Valley every month in the year. July was
the worst. In that month crossing should not be attempted during the
middle of the day.
I made the acquaintance of the Shoshone Indians, or rather through
Nielsen I met them. Nielsen had a kindly, friendly way with Indians.
There were half a dozen families, living in squalid tents. The braves
worked in the fields for Denton and the squaws kept to the shade with
their numerous children. They appeared to be poor. Certainly they were a
ragged unpicturesque group. Nielsen and I visited them, taking an
armload of canned fruit, and boxes of sweet crackers, which they
received with evident joy. Through this overture I got a peep into one
of the tents. The simplicity and frugality of the desert Piute or Navajo
were here wanting. These children of the open wore white men's apparel
and ate white men's food; and they even had a cook stove and a sewing
machine in their tent. With all that they were trying to live like
Indians. For me the spectacle was melancholy. Another manifestation
added to my long list of degeneration of the Indians by the whites! The
tent was a buzzing beehive of flies. I never before saw so many. In a
corner I saw a naked Indian baby asleep on a goat skin, all his brown
warm-tinted skin spotted black with flies.
Later in the day one of the Indian men called upon us at our camp. I was
surprised to hear him use good English. He said he had been educated in
a government school in California. From him I learned considerable about
Death Valley. As he was about to depart, on the way to his labor in the
fields, he put his hand in his ragged pocket and drew forth an old
beaded hat band, and with calm dignity, worthy of any gift, he made me a
present of it. Then he went on his way. The incident touched me. I had
been kind. The Indian was not to be outdone. How that reminded me of the
many instances of pride in Indians! Who yet has ever told the story of
the Indian--the truth, the spirit, the soul of his tragedy?
Nielsen and I climbed high up the west slope to the top of a gravel
ridge swept clean and packed hard by the winds. Here I sat down while my
companion tramped curiously around. At my feet I found a tiny flower, so
tiny as to almost defy detection. The color resembled sage-gray and it
had the fragrance of sage. Hard to find and wonderful to see--was its
tiny blossom! The small leaves were perfectly formed, very soft, veined
and scalloped, with a fine fuzz and a glistening sparkle. That desert
flower of a day, in its isolation and fragility, yet its unquenchable
spirit to live, was as great to me as the tremendous reddening bulk of
the Funeral Mountains looming so sinisterly over me.
Then I saw some large bats with white heads flitting around in zigzag
flights--assuredly new and strange creatures to me.
I had come up there to this high ridge to take advantage of the bleak
lonely spot commanding a view of valley and mountains. Before I could
compose myself to watch the valley I made the discovery that near me
were six low gravelly mounds. Graves! One had two stones at head and
foot. Another had no mark at all. The one nearest me had for the head a
flat piece of board, with lettering so effaced by weather that I could
not decipher the inscription. The bones of a horse lay littered about
between the graves. What a lonely place for graves! Death Valley seemed
to be one vast sepulchre. What had been the lives and deaths of these
people buried here? Lonely, melancholy, nameless graves upon the windy
By this time the long shadows had begun to fall. Sunset over Death
Valley! A golden flare burned over the Panamints--long tapering notched
mountains with all their rugged conformation showing. Above floated gold
and gray and silver-edged clouds--below shone a whorl of dusky, ruddy
bronze haze, gradually thickening. Dim veils of heat still rose from the
pale desert valley. As I watched all before me seemed to change and be
shrouded in purple. How bold and desolate a scene! What vast scale and
tremendous dimension! The clouds paled, turned rosy for a moment with
the afterglow, then deepened into purple gloom. A sombre smoky sunset,
as if this Death Valley was the gateway of hell, and its sinister shades
were upflung from fire.
The desert day was done and now the desert twilight descended. Twilight
of hazy purple fell over the valley of shadows. The black bold lines of
mountains ran across the sky and down into the valley and up on the
other side. A buzzard sailed low in the foreground--fitting emblem of
life in all that wilderness of suggested death. This fleeting hour was
tranquil and sad. What little had it to do with the destiny of man!
Death Valley was only a ragged rent of the old earth, from which men in
their folly and passion, had sought to dig forth golden treasure. The
air held a solemn stillness. Peace! How it rested my troubled soul! I
felt that I was myself here, far different from my habitual self. Why
had I longed to see Death Valley? What did I want of the desert that was
naked, red, sinister, sombre, forbidding, ghastly, stark, dim and dark
and dismal, the abode of silence and loneliness, the proof of death,
decay, devastation and destruction, the majestic sublimity of
desolation? The answer was that I sought the awful, the appalling and
terrible because they harked me back to a primitive day where my blood
and bones were bequeathed their heritage of the elements. That was the
secret of the eternal fascination the desert exerted upon all men. It
carried them back. It inhibited thought. It brought up the age-old
sensations, so that I could feel, though I did not know it then, once
again the all-satisfying state of the savage in nature.
When I returned to camp night had fallen. The evening star stood high in
the pale sky, all alone and difficult to see, yet the more beautiful for
that. The night appeared to be warmer or perhaps it was because no wind
blew. Nielsen got supper, and ate most of it, for I was not hungry. As I
sat by the camp-fire a flock of little bats, the smallest I had ever
seen, darted from the wood-pile nearby and flew right in my face. They
had no fear of man or fire. Their wings made a soft swishing sound.
Later I heard the trill of frogs, which was the last sound I might have
expected to hear in Death Valley. A sweet high-pitched melodious trill
it reminded me of the music made by frogs in the Tamaulipas Jungle of
Mexico. Every time I awakened that night, and it was often, I heard this
trill. Once, too, sometime late, my listening ear caught faint mournful
notes of a killdeer. How strange, and still sweeter than the trill! What
a touch to the infinite silence and loneliness! A killdeer--bird of the
swamps and marshes--what could he be doing in arid and barren Death
Valley? Nature is mysterious and inscrutable.
Next morning the marvel of nature was exemplified even more strikingly.
Out on the hard gravel-strewn slope I found some more tiny flowers of a
day. One was a white daisy, very frail and delicate on long thin stem
with scarcely any leaves. Another was a yellow flower, with four petals,
a pale miniature California poppy. Still another was a purple-red
flower, almost as large as a buttercup, with dark green leaves. Last and
tiniest of all were infinitely fragile pink and white blossoms, on very
flat plants, smiling wanly up from the desolate earth.
Nielsen and I made known to Denton our purpose to walk across the
valley. He advised against it. Not that the heat was intense at this
season, he explained, but there were other dangers, particularly the
brittle salty crust of the sink-hole. Nevertheless we were not deterred
from our purpose.
So with plenty of water in canteens and a few biscuits in our pockets
we set out. I saw the heat veils rising from the valley floor, at that
point one hundred and seventy-eight feet below sea level. The heat
lifted in veils, like thin smoke. Denton had told us that in summer the
heat came in currents, in waves. It blasted leaves, burned trees to
death as well as men. Prospectors watched for the leaden haze that
thickened over the mountains, knowing then no man could dare the
terrible sun. That day would be a hazed and glaring hell, leaden,
copper, with sun blazing a sky of molten iron.
A long sandy slope of mesquite extended down to the bare crinkly floor
of the valley, and here the descent to a lower level was scarcely
perceptible. The walking was bad. Little mounds in the salty crust made
it hard to place a foot on the level. This crust appeared fairly strong.
But when it rang hollow under our boots, then I stepped very cautiously.
The color was a dirty gray and yellow. Far ahead I could see a dazzling
white plain that looked like frost or a frozen river. The atmosphere was
deceptive, making this plain seem far away and then close at hand.
The excessively difficult walking and the thickness of the air tired me,
so I plumped myself down to rest, and used my note-book as a means to
conceal from the tireless Nielsen that I was fatigued. Always I found
this a very efficient excuse, and for that matter it was profitable for
me. I have forgotten more than I have ever written.
Rather overpowering, indeed, was it to sit on the floor of Death Valley,
miles from the slopes that appeared so far away. It was flat, salty,
alkali or borax ground, crusted and cracked. The glare hurt my eyes. I
felt moist, hot, oppressed, in spite of a rather stiff wind. A dry odor
pervaded the air, slightly like salty dust. Thin dust devils whirled on
the bare flats. A valley-wide mirage shone clear as a mirror along the
desert floor to the west, strange, deceiving, a thing both unreal and
beautiful. The Panamints towered a wrinkled red grisly mass, broken by
rough canyons, with long declines of talus like brown glaciers. Seamed
and scarred! Indestructible by past ages, yet surely wearing to ruin!
From this point I could not see the snow on the peaks. The whole
mountain range seemed an immense red barrier of beetling rock. The
Funeral Range was farther away and therefore more impressive. Its effect
was stupendous. Leagues of brown chocolate slopes, scarred by slashes of
yellow and cream, and shadowed black by sailing clouds, led up to the
magnificently peaked and jutted summits.
Splendid as this was and reluctant as I felt to leave I soon joined
Nielsen, and we proceeded onward. At last we reached the white winding
plain, that had resembled a frozen river, and which from afar had looked
so ghastly and stark. We found it to be a perfectly smooth stratum of
salt glistening as if powdered. It was not solid, not stable. At
pressure of a boot it shook like jelly. Under the white crust lay a
yellow substance that was wet. Here appeared an obstacle we had not
calculated upon. Nielsen ventured out on it and his feet sank in several
inches. I did not like the wave of the crust. It resembled thin ice
under a weight. Presently I ventured to take a few steps, and did not
sink in so deeply or make such depression in the crust as Nielsen. We
returned to the solid edge and deliberated. Nielsen said that by
stepping quickly we could cross without any great risk, though it
appeared reasonable that by standing still a person would sink into the
"Well, Nielsen, you go ahead," I said, with an attempt at lightness.
"You weigh one hundred and ninety. If you go through I'll turn back!"
Nielsen started with a laugh. The man courted peril. The bright face of
danger must have been beautiful and alluring to him. I started after
him--caught up with him--and stayed beside him. I could not have walked
behind him over that strip of treacherous sink-hole. If I could have
done so the whole adventure would have been meaningless to me.
Nevertheless I was frightened. I felt the prickle of my skin, the
stiffening of my hair, as well as the cold tingling thrills along my
This place was the lowest point of the valley, in that particular
location, and must have been upwards of two hundred feet below sea
level. The lowest spot, called the Sink Hole, lay some miles distant,
and was the terminus of this river of salty white.
We crossed it in safety. On the other side extended a long flat of
upheaved crusts of salt and mud, full of holes and pitfalls, an
exceedingly toilsome and painful place to travel, and for all we could
tell, dangerous too. I had all I could do to watch my feet and find
surfaces to hold my steps. Eventually we crossed this broken field,
reaching the edge of the gravel slope, where we were very glad indeed to
Denton had informed us that the distance was seven miles across the
valley at the mouth of Furnace Creek. I had thought it seemed much less
than that. But after I had toiled across it I was convinced that it was
much more. It had taken us hours. How the time had sped! For this reason
we did not tarry long on that side.
Facing the sun we found the return trip more formidable. Hot indeed it
was--hot enough for me to imagine how terrible Death Valley would be in
July or August. On all sides the mountains stood up dim and obscure and
distant in haze. The heat veils lifted in ripples, and any object not
near at hand seemed illusive. Nielsen set a pace for me on this return
trip. I was quicker and surer of foot than he, but he had more
endurance. I lost strength while he kept his unimpaired. So often he had
to wait for me. Once when I broke through the crust he happened to be
close at hand and quickly hauled me out. I got one foot wet with some
acid fluid. We peered down into the murky hole. Nielsen quoted a
prospector's saying: "Forty feet from hell!" That broken sharp crust of
salt afforded the meanest traveling I had ever experienced. Slopes of
weathered rock that slip and slide are bad; cacti, and especially choya
cacti, are worse: the jagged and corrugated surfaces of lava are still
more hazardous and painful. But this cracked floor of Death Valley, with
its salt crusts standing on end, like pickets of a fence, beat any place
for hard going that either Nielsen or I ever had encountered. I ruined
my boots, skinned my shins, cut my hands. How those salt cuts stung! We
crossed the upheaved plain, then the strip of white, and reached the
crinkly floor of yellow salt. The last hour taxed my endurance almost to
the limit. When we reached the edge of the sand and the beginning of the
slope I was hotter and thirstier than I had ever been in my life. It
pleased me to see Nielsen wringing wet and panting. He drank a quart of
water apparently in one gulp. And it was significant that I took the
longest and deepest drink of water that I had ever had.
We reached camp at the end of this still hot summer day. Never had a
camp seemed so welcome! What a wonderful thing it was to earn and
appreciate and realize rest! The cottonwood leaves were rustling; bees
were humming in the tamarack blossoms. I lay in the shade, resting my
burning feet and achiag bones, and I watched Nielsen as he whistled
over the camp chores. Then I heard the sweet song of a meadow lark, and
after that the melodious deep note of a swamp blackbird. These birds
evidently were traveling north and had tarried at the oasis.
Lying there I realized that I had come to love the silence, the
loneliness, the serenity, even the tragedy of this valley of shadows.
Death Valley was one place that could never be popular with men. It had
been set apart for the hardy diggers for earthen treasure, and for the
wanderers of the wastelands--men who go forth to seek and to find and to
face their souls. Perhaps most of them found death. But there was a
death in life. Desert travelers learned the secret that men lived too
much in the world--that in silence and loneliness and desolation there
was something infinite, something hidden from the crowd.