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Produced by Judith Boss


by Mary Austin


"The Comfortress of Unsuccess"


The Land of Little Rain
Water Trails of the Ceriso
The Scavengers
The Pocket Hunter
Shoshone Land
Jimville - A Bret Harte Town
My Neighbor's Field
The Mesa Trail
The Basket Maker
The Streets of the Mountains
Water Borders
Other Water Borders
Nurslings of the Sky
The Little Town of the Grape Vines


I confess to a great liking for the Indian fashion of name-giving: every
man known by that phrase which best expresses him to whoso names him.
Thus he may be Mighty-Hunter, or Man-Afraid-of-a-Bear, according as he
is called by friend or enemy, and Scar-Face to those who knew him by
the eye's grasp only. No other fashion, I think, sets so well with the
various natures that inhabit in us, and if you agree with me you will
understand why so few names are written here as they appear in the
geography. For if I love a lake known by the name of the man who
discovered it, which endears itself by reason of the close-locked pines
it nourishes about its borders, you may look in my account to find it so
described. But if the Indians have been there before me, you shall have
their name, which is always beautifully fit and does not originate in
the poor human desire for perpetuity.

Nevertheless there are certain peaks, canons, and clear meadow spaces
which are above all compassing of words, and have a certain fame as of
the nobly great to whom we give no familiar names. Guided by these you
may reach my country and find or not find, according as it lieth in you,
much that is set down here. And more. The earth is no wanton to give up
all her best to every comer, but keeps a sweet, separate intimacy
for each. But if you do not find it all as I write, think me not less
dependable nor yourself less clever. There is a sort of pretense allowed
in matters of the heart, as one should say by way of illustration,
"I know a man who..." and so give up his dearest experience without
betrayal. And I am in no mind to direct you to delectable places toward
which you will hold yourself less tenderly than I. So by this fashion
of naming I keep faith with the land and annex to my own estate a very
great territory to which none has a surer title.

The country where you may have sight and touch of that which is written
lies between the high Sierras south from Yosemite - east and south over
a very great assemblage of broken ranges beyond Death Valley, and on
illimitably into the Mojave Desert. You may come into the borders of
it from the south by a stage journey that has the effect of involving
a great lapse of time, or from the north by rail, dropping out of the
overland route at Reno. The best of all ways is over the Sierra passes
by pack and trail, seeing and believing. But the real heart and core of
the country are not to be come at in a month's vacation. One must summer
and winter with the land and wait its occasions. Pine woods that take
two and three seasons to the ripening of cones, roots that lie by in
the sand seven years awaiting a growing rain, firs that grow fifty years
before flowering, - these do not scrape acquaintance. But if ever you
come beyond the borders as far as the town that lies in a hill dimple at
the foot of Kearsarge, never leave it until you have knocked at the
door of the brown house under the willow-tree at the end of the village
street, and there you shall have such news of the land, of its trails
and what is astir in them, as one lover of it can give to another.


East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and
south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders.

Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into
the heart of it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the land sets the
limit. Desert is the name it wears upon the maps, but the Indian's is
the better word. Desert is a loose term to indicate land that supports
no man; whether the land can be bitted and broken to that purpose is not
proven. Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the

This is the nature of that country. There are hills, rounded, blunt,
burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring
to the snowline. Between the hills lie high level-looking plains full
of intolerable sun glare, or narrow valleys drowned in a blue haze.
The hill surface is streaked with ash drift and black, unweathered lava
flows. After rains water accumulates in the hollows of small closed
valleys, and, evaporating, leaves hard dry levels of pure desertness
that get the local name of dry lakes. Where the mountains are steep
and the rains heavy, the pool is never quite dry, but dark and bitter,
rimmed about with the efflorescence of alkaline deposits. A thin crust
of it lies along the marsh over the vegetating area, which has neither
beauty nor freshness. In the broad wastes open to the wind the sand
drifts in hummocks about the stubby shrubs, and between them the soil
shows saline traces. The sculpture of the hills here is more wind than
water work, though the quick storms do sometimes scar them past many a
year's redeeming. In all the Western desert edges there are essays in
miniature at the famed, terrible Grand Canon, to which, if you keep on
long enough in this country, you will come at last.

Since this is a hill country one expects to find springs, but not
to depend upon them; for when found they are often brackish and
unwholesome, or maddening, slow dribbles in a thirsty soil. Here you
find the hot sink of Death Valley, or high rolling districts where
the air has always a tang of frost. Here are the long heavy winds and
breathless calms on the tilted mesas where dust devils dance, whirling
up into a wide, pale sky. Here you have no rain when all the earth cries
for it, or quick downpours called cloud-bursts for violence. A land of
lost rivers, with little in it to love; yet a land that once visited
must be come back to inevitably. If it were not so there would be little
told of it.

This is the country of three seasons. From June on to November it lies
hot, still, and unbearable, sick with violent unrelieving storms; then
on until April, chill, quiescent, drinking its scant rain and scanter
snows; from April to the hot season again, blossoming, radiant, and
seductive. These months are only approximate; later or earlier the
rain-laden wind may drift up the water gate of the Colorado from the
Gulf, and the land sets its seasons by the rain.

The desert floras shame us with their cheerful adaptations to the
seasonal limitations. Their whole duty is to flower and fruit, and they
do it hardly, or with tropical luxuriance, as the rain admits. It is
recorded in the report of the Death Valley expedition that after a
year of abundant rains, on the Colorado desert was found a specimen
of Amaranthus ten feet high. A year later the same species in the same
place matured in the drought at four inches. One hopes the land may
breed like qualities in her human offspring, not tritely to "try," but
to do. Seldom does the desert herb attain the full stature of the type.
Extreme aridity and extreme altitude have the same dwarfing effect, so
that we find in the high Sierras and in Death Valley related species in
miniature that reach a comely growth in mean temperatures. Very fertile
are the desert plants in expedients to prevent evaporation, turning
their foliage edge-wise toward the sun, growing silky hairs, exuding
viscid gum. The wind, which has a long sweep, harries and helps them. It
rolls up dunes about the stocky stems, encompassing and protective, and
above the dunes, which may be, as with the mesquite, three times as high
as a man, the blossoming twigs flourish and bear fruit.

There are many areas in the desert where drinkable water lies within a
few feet of the surface, indicated by the mesquite and the bunch grass
(Sporobolus airoides). It is this nearness of unimagined help that makes
the tragedy of desert deaths. It is related that the final breakdown of
that hapless party that gave Death Valley its forbidding name occurred
in a locality where shallow wells would have saved them. But how were
they to know that? Properly equipped it is possible to go safely across
that ghastly sink, yet every year it takes its toll of death, and yet
men find there sun-dried mummies, of whom no trace or recollection is
preserved. To underestimate one's thirst, to pass a given landmark to
the right or left, to find a dry spring where one looked for running
water - there is no help for any of these things.

Along springs and sunken watercourses one is surprised to find such
water-loving plants as grow widely in moist ground, but the true desert
breeds its own kind, each in its particular habitat. The angle of the
slope, the frontage of a hill, the structure of the soil determines
the plant. South-looking hills are nearly bare, and the lower tree-line
higher here by a thousand feet. Canons running east and west will have
one wall naked and one clothed. Around dry lakes and marshes the herbage
preserves a set and orderly arrangement. Most species have well-defined
areas of growth, the best index the voiceless land can give the traveler
of his whereabouts.

If you have any doubt about it, know that the desert begins with the
creosote. This immortal shrub spreads down into Death Valley and up to
the lower timberline, odorous and medicinal as you might guess from
the name, wandlike, with shining fretted foliage. Its vivid green is
grateful to the eye in a wilderness of gray and greenish white shrubs.
In the spring it exudes a resinous gum which the Indians of those parts
know how to use with pulverized rock for cementing arrow points to
shafts. Trust Indians not to miss any virtues of the plant world!

Nothing the desert produces expresses it better than the unhappy growth
of the tree yuccas. Tormented, thin forests of it stalk drearily in the
high mesas, particularly in that triangular slip that fans out eastward
from the meeting of the Sierras and coastwise hills where the first
swings across the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. The yucca
bristles with bayonet-pointed leaves, dull green, growing shaggy with
age, tipped with panicles of fetid, greenish bloom. After death, which
is slow, the ghostly hollow network of its woody skeleton, with hardly
power to rot, makes the moonlight fearful. Before the yucca has come to
flower, while yet its bloom is a creamy cone-shaped bud of the size of
a small cabbage, full of sugary sap, the Indians twist it deftly out of
its fence of daggers and roast it for their own delectation.

So it is that in those parts where man inhabits one sees young plants
of Yucca arborensis infrequently. Other yuccas, cacti, low herbs, a
thousand sorts, one finds journeying east from the coastwise hills.
There is neither poverty of soil nor species to account for the
sparseness of desert growth, but simply that each plant requires more
room. So much earth must be preempted to extract so much moisture.
The real struggle for existence, the real brain of the plant, is
underground; above there is room for a rounded perfect growth. In Death
Valley, reputed the very core of desolation, are nearly two hundred
identified species.

Above the lower tree-line, which is also the snowline, mapped out
abruptly by the sun, one finds spreading growth of pinon, juniper,
branched nearly to the ground, lilac and sage, and scattering white

There is no special preponderance of self-fertilized or wind-fertilized
plants, but everywhere the demand for and evidence of insect life. Now
where there are seeds and insects there will be birds and small mammals
and where these are, will come the slinking, sharp-toothed kind that
prey on them. Go as far as you dare in the heart of a lonely land, you
cannot go so far that life and death are not before you. Painted lizards
slip in and out of rock crevices, and pant on the white hot sands.
Birds, hummingbirds even, nest in the cactus scrub; woodpeckers befriend
the demoniac yuccas; out of the stark, treeless waste rings the music
of the night-singing mockingbird. If it be summer and the sun well down,
there will be a burrowing owl to call. Strange, furry, tricksy things
dart across the open places, or sit motionless in the conning towers of
the creosote. The poet may have "named all the birds without a gun,"
but not the fairy-footed, ground-inhabiting, furtive, small folk of the
rainless regions. They are too many and too swift; how many you would
not believe without seeing the footprint tracings in the sand. They
are nearly all night workers, finding the days too hot and white. In
mid-desert where there are no cattle, there are no birds of carrion,
but if you go far in that direction the chances are that you will find
yourself shadowed by their tilted wings. Nothing so large as a man can
move unspied upon in that country, and they know well how the land deals
with strangers. There are hints to be had here of the way in which a
land forces new habits on its dwellers. The quick increase of suns at
the end of spring sometimes overtakes birds in their nesting and effects
a reversal of the ordinary manner of incubation. It becomes necessary to
keep eggs cool rather than warm. One hot, stifling spring in the Little
Antelope I had occasion to pass and repass frequently the nest of a pair
of meadowlarks, located unhappily in the shelter of a very slender
weed. I never caught them sitting except near night, but at mid-day they
stood, or drooped above it, half fainting with pitifully parted bills,
between their treasure and the sun. Sometimes both of them together with
wings spread and half lifted continued a spot of shade in a temperature
that constrained me at last in a fellow feeling to spare them a bit of
canvas for permanent shelter. There was a fence in that country shutting
in a cattle range, and along its fifteen miles of posts one could be
sure of finding a bird or two in every strip of shadow; sometimes the
sparrow and the hawk, with wings trailed and beaks parted, drooping in
the white truce of noon.

If one is inclined to wonder at first how so many dwellers came to be in
the loneliest land that ever came out of God's hands, what they do there
and why stay, one does not wonder so much after having lived there. None
other than this long brown land lays such a hold on the affections. The
rainbow hills, the tender bluish mists, the luminous radiance of the
spring, have the lotus charm. They trick the sense of time, so that once
inhabiting there you always mean to go away without quite realizing that
you have not done it. Men who have lived there, miners and cattlemen,
will tell you this, not so fluently, but emphatically, cursing the land
and going back to it. For one thing there is the divinest, cleanest
air to be breathed anywhere in God's world. Some day the world will
understand that, and the little oases on the windy tops of hills will
harbor for healing its ailing, house-weary broods. There is promise
there of great wealth in ores and earths, which is no wealth by reason
of being so far removed from water and workable conditions, but men are
bewitched by it and tempted to try the impossible.

You should hear Salty Williams tell how he used to drive eighteen and
twenty-mule teams from the borax marsh to Mojave, ninety miles, with the
trail wagon full of water barrels. Hot days the mules would go so mad
for drink that the clank of the water bucket set them into an uproar
of hideous, maimed noises, and a tangle of harness chains, while Salty
would sit on the high seat with the sun glare heavy in his eyes, dealing
out curses of pacification in a level, uninterested voice until the
clamor fell off from sheer exhaustion. There was a line of shallow
graves along that road; they used to count on dropping a man or two of
every new gang of coolies brought out in the hot season. But when he
lost his swamper, smitten without warning at the noon halt, Salty quit
his job; he said it was "too durn hot." The swamper he buried by the way
with stones upon him to keep the coyotes from digging him up, and seven
years later I read the penciled lines on the pine head-board, still
bright and unweathered.

But before that, driving up on the Mojave stage, I met Salty again
crossing Indian Wells, his face from the high seat, tanned and ruddy
as a harvest moon, looming through the golden dust above his eighteen
mules. The land had called him.

The palpable sense of mystery in the desert air breeds fables, chiefly
of lost treasure. Somewhere within its stark borders, if one believes
report, is a hill strewn with nuggets; one seamed with virgin silver; an
old clayey water-bed where Indians scooped up earth to make cooking pots
and shaped them reeking with grains of pure gold. Old miners drifting
about the desert edges, weathered into the semblance of the tawny hills,
will tell you tales like these convincingly. After a little sojourn in
that land you will believe them on their own account. It is a question
whether it is not better to be bitten by the little horned snake of
the desert that goes sidewise and strikes without coiling, than by the
tradition of a lost mine.

And yet - and yet - is it not perhaps to satisfy expectation that one
falls into the tragic key in writing of desertness? The more you wish of
it the more you get, and in the mean time lose much of pleasantness. In
that country which begins at the foot of the east slope of the Sierras
and spreads out by less and less lofty hill ranges toward the Great
Basin, it is possible to live with great zest, to have red blood and
delicate joys, to pass and repass about one's daily performance an area
that would make an Atlantic seaboard State, and that with no peril, and,
according to our way of thought, no particular difficulty. At any rate,
it was not people who went into the desert merely to write it up who
invented the fabled Hassaympa, of whose waters, if any drink, they
can no more see fact as naked fact, but all radiant with the color
of romance. I, who must have drunk of it in my twice seven years'
wanderings, am assured that it is worth while.

For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep
breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars. It comes upon one
with new force in the pauses of the night that the Chaldeans were a
desert-bred people. It is hard to escape the sense of mastery as the
stars move in the wide clear heavens to risings and settings unobscured.
They look large and near and palpitant; as if they moved on some stately
service not needful to declare. Wheeling to their stations in the sky,
they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie
out there watching, nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub
from you and howls and howls.


By the end of the dry season the water trails of the Ceriso are worn to
a white ribbon in the leaning grass, spread out faint and fanwise toward
the homes of gopher and ground rat and squirrel. But however faint to
man-sight, they are sufficiently plain to the furred and feathered folk
who travel them. Getting down to the eye level of rat and squirrel kind,
one perceives what might easily be wide and winding roads to us if they
occurred in thick plantations of trees three times the height of a man.
It needs but a slender thread of barrenness to make a mouse trail in the
forest of the sod. To the little people the water trails are as country
roads, with scents as signboards.

It seems that man-height is the least fortunate of all heights from
which to study trails. It is better to go up the front of some tall
hill, say the spur of Black Mountain, looking back and down across the
hollow of the Ceriso. Strange how long the soil keeps the impression of
any continuous treading, even after grass has overgrown it. Twenty years
since, a brief heyday of mining at Black Mountain made a stage road
across the Ceriso, yet the parallel lines that are the wheel traces show
from the height dark and well defined. Afoot in the Ceriso one looks in
vain for any sign of it. So all the paths that wild creatures use going
down to the Lone Tree Spring are mapped out whitely from this level,
which is also the level of the hawks.

There is little water in the Ceriso at the best of times, and that
little brackish and smelling vilely, but by a lone juniper where the
rim of the Ceriso breaks away to the lower country, there is a perpetual
rill of fresh sweet drink in the midst of lush grass and watercress. In
the dry season there is no water else for a man's long journey of a
day. East to the foot of Black Mountain, and north and south without
counting, are the burrows of small rodents, rat and squirrel kind. Under
the sage are the shallow forms of the jackrabbits, and in the dry
banks of washes, and among the strewn fragments of black rock, lairs of
bobcat, fox, and coyote.

The coyote is your true water-witch, one who snuffs and paws, snuffs and
paws again at the smallest spot of moisture-scented earth until he has
freed the blind water from the soil. Many water-holes are no more than
this detected by the lean hobo of the hills in localities where not even
an Indian would look for it.

It is the opinion of many wise and busy people that the hill-folk pass
the ten-month interval between the end and renewal of winter rains, with
no drink; but your true idler, with days and nights to spend beside the
water trails, will not subscribe to it. The trails begin, as I said,
very far back in the Ceriso, faintly, and converge in one span broad,
white, hard-trodden way in the gully of the spring. And why trails if
there are no travelers in that direction?

I have yet to find the land not scarred by the thin, far roadways of
rabbits and what not of furry folks that run in them. Venture to look
for some seldom-touched water-hole, and so long as the trails run with
your general direction make sure you are right, but if they begin to
cross yours at never so slight an angle, to converge toward a point left
or right of your objective, no matter what the maps say, or your memory,
trust them; they know.

It is very still in the Ceriso by day, so that were it not for the
evidence of those white beaten ways, it might be the desert it looks.
The sun is hot in the dry season, and the days are filled with the
glare of it. Now and again some unseen coyote signals his pack in a
long-drawn, dolorous whine that comes from no determinate point, but
nothing stirs much before mid-afternoon. It is a sign when there begin
to be hawks skimming above the sage that the little people are going
about their business.

We have fallen on a very careless usage, speaking of wild creatures as
if they were bound by some such limitation as hampers clockwork. When we
say of one and another, they are night prowlers, it is perhaps true only
as the things they feed upon are more easily come by in the dark, and
they know well how to adjust themselves to conditions wherein food is
more plentiful by day. And their accustomed performance is very much
a matter of keen eye, keener scent, quick ear, and a better memory of
sights and sounds than man dares boast. Watch a coyote come out of his
lair and cast about in his mind where he will go for his daily killing.
You cannot very well tell what decides him, but very easily that he has
decided. He trots or breaks into short gallops, with very perceptible
pauses to look up and about at landmarks, alters his tack a little,
looking forward and back to steer his proper course.

I am persuaded that the coyotes in my valley, which is narrow and beset
with steep, sharp hills, in long passages steer by the pinnacles of
the sky-line, going with head cocked to one side to keep to the left or
right of such and such a promontory.

I have trailed a coyote often, going across country, perhaps to where
some slant-winged scavenger hanging in the air signaled prospect of
a dinner, and found his track such as a man, a very intelligent man
accustomed to a hill country, and a little cautious, would make to the
same point. Here a detour to avoid a stretch of too little cover, there
a pause on the rim of a gully to pick the better way, - and it is usually
the best way, - and making his point with the greatest economy of effort.

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Online LibraryMary Hunter AustinThe Land of Little Rain → online text (page 1 of 8)