John Charles Van Dyke.

The desert; further studies in natural appearances online

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gestion gives one pause. How many thousands
of years ago was that impression stamped upon
the stone ? By what strange chance has it
survived destruction ? And while it remains
quite perfect to-day the vagrant hoof-mark of
a desert deer what has become of the once
carefully guarded footprints of the Sargons,
the Pharaohs and the Caesars ? With what
contempt Nature sometimes plans the survival
of the least fit, and breaks the conqueror on his
shield !

Further up the mountain the deer-trail theory
is abandoned at least so far as recent times are
concerned. The stones are worn too smooth,
the larger ones have been pushed aside by
something more intelligent than a mule-deer's
hoof ; and in one place the trail seems to have
been built up on the descending side. There is


The stone



the trail



not the slightest evidence, either by rub upon
the rocks, or overturned stones, or scrape in
the gravel, that any living thing has passed np
this pathway for many years ; and yet the trail
is a distinct line of lighter colored stone stretch-
ing ahead of me. It is a path worn in the
rocks, and there is no grass or vine or weed to
obliterate it. It leads on and up to the saddle
of the mountain. There is a crevasse or chasm
breaking through this saddle which might have
been bridged at one time with mesquite trunks,
but is now to be leaped if one would reach the
summit. It is narrow only in one place and
this is just where the trail happens to run.
Across it, on the upper side, there is a horse-
shoe shaped enclosure of stone. It is only
a few feet in diameter, and the upper layers of
stone have fallen ; but the little wall still stands
as high as one's waist. Could this have been
a sentinel box used to guard the passage of the
trail at this place ?

Higher and still higher until at last the
mountain broadens into a flat top. I am so
eager to gain the height and am expecting so
much that at first I overlook what is before me.
Gradually I make out a long parapet of loose
stone on the trail side of the mountain which



joins on to steep cliffs on the other sides. A
conclusion is instantly jumped at, for the im-
agination will not make haste slowly under such
circumstances. These are the ruins of a once
fortified camp.

I wander about the flat top of the mountain
and slowly there grows into recognizable form a
great rectangle enclosed by large stones placed
about two feet apart. There is no doubt about
the square and in one corner of it there seems
an elevated mound covered with high-piled
stones that would indicate a place for burials.
But not a trace of pottery or arrow-heads ; and
about the stones only faint signs of fire which
might have come from volcanic action as readily
as from domestic hearths. Upon the side of
one of the large rocks are some characters in
red ochre ; and on the ground near a pot-hole
in the rock, something that the imagination
might torture into a rude pestle for grinding

The traces of human activity are slight. Nat-
ure has been wearing them away and reclaim-
ing her own on the mountain top. Grease
wood is growing where once a floor was beaten
hard as iron by human feet ; out of the burial
mound rises a giant sahuaro whose branching

The fortified






arms give the look of the cross ; and beside
the sahuaro rests a tall yucca with four feet of
clustering bellflowers swinging from its top.

And who were they who built these stone walls,
these primitive entrenchments ? When and
where did they come from and what brought
them here ? The hands that executed this
rough work were certainly untrained. Indians ?
Very likely. Perhaps some small band that had
taken up a natural defence in the mountains
because too feeble in numbers to fight in the
open. Here from this lookout they could watch
the country for a hundred miles around. Here
the scouts could see far away the thin string of
foemen winding snake-like over the ridges of
the desert, could see them grow in size and
count their numbers, could look down upon
them at the foot of the mountain and yell back
defiance to the challenge coming up the steep
sides. Brave indeed the invaders that would
pluck the eagles from that eerie nest ! Climb-
ing a hill against a shower of arrows, spears,
and bowlders is to fight at a terrible disad-

Starve them out ? Yes ; but the ones at the
bottom would starve as quickly as those at the
top. Cut off their water supply ? Yes ; but



where did either besieged or besieger get water?
If there was ever a spring in the mountain it
long ago dried up, for there is no trace of it to-
day. Possibly the mountain-dwellers knew of
some arroyo where by digging in the sand they
could get water. And possibly they carried
it in ollas up the stone trail to their mountain
home where they stored it in the rocks against
the wrath of a siege to come. No doubt they
took thought for trouble, and being native to
the desert they could stand privation better
than their enemies.

How long ago did that aboriginal band come
trailing over these trackless deserts to find and
make a home in a barren mountain standing
in a bed of sand ? Who can tell ? A geologist
might make the remains of their fort an il-
lustration of the Stone Age and talk of un-
known centuries ; an iconoclast might claim
that it was merely a Mexican corral built to
hide stolen horses ; but a plain person of the
southwest would say that it was an old Indian
camp. The builders of the fortification and the
rectangle worked with stone because there was
no other material. The man of the Stone Age
exists to-day contemporary with civilized man.
Possibly he always did. And it may be that

Water and
food sup-

The abo-




The open

of beauty.

some day Science will conclude that historic
periods do not invariably happen, that there is
not always a sequential evolution, and that the
white race does not necessarily require a flat-
headed mass of stupidity for an ancestor.

But what brought them to seek a dwelling
place in the desert ? Were they driven out from
the more fertile tracts ? Perhaps. Did they
find this a country where game was plentiful
and the conditions of life comparatively easy ?
It is possible. Or was it that they loved the
open country, the hot sun, the treeless wastes,
the great stretches of mesa, plain and valley ?
Ah ; that is more than likely. Mankind has
always loved the open plains. He is like an
antelope and wishes to see about him in all di-
rections. Perhaps, too, he was born with a pre-
dilection for " the view," but that is no easy
matter to prove. It is sometimes assumed that
humanity had naturally a sense and a feeling
for the beautiful because the primitives deco-
rated pottery and carved war-clubs and totem-
posts. Again perhaps ; but from war-clubs and
totem-posts to sunsets and mountain shadows
the love of the beautiful in nature is a very
long hark. The peons and Indians in Sonora
cannot see the pinks and purples in the moun-



tain shadows at sunset. They are astonished at
your question for they see nothing but moun-
tains. And you may vainly exhaust ingenuity
trying to make a Pagago see the silvery sheen
of the mesquite when the low sun is streaming
across its tops. He sees only mesquite the
same dull mesquite through which he has
chased rabbits from infancy.

No ; it is not likely that the tribe ever chose
this abiding place for its scenery. A sensitive
feeling for sound, or form, or color, an impres-
sionable nervous organization, do not belong to
the man with the hoe, much less to the man
with the bow. It is to be feared that they are
indicative of some physical degeneration, some
decline in bone and muscle, some abnormal
development of the emotional nature. They
travel side by side with high civilization and
are the premonitory symptoms of racial decay.
But are we correct in assuming that because
the red man does not see a colored shadow
therefore he is blind to every charm and sub-
limity of nature ?

These mountain-dwellers, always looking out
from their height, must have seen and re-
marked the large features of the desert the
great masses of form, the broad blocks of color.

Sense of





The desert

down to the

They knew the long undulations of the valley-
plain were covered with sharp, broken rock, but
from this height surely they must have noticed
how soft as velvet they looked, how smoothly
they rolled from one into another, how perfect-
ly they curved, how symmetrically they waved.
And the long lines of the divides, lessening to
the west their ridges of grease wood showing
a peculiar green like the crests of sea-waves
in storm did they not see them ? Did they
not look down on the low neighboring hills and
know that they were pink, terra-cotta, orange-
colored all the strange hues that may be com-
pounded of clay and mineral with here and
there a crowning mass of white quartz or a far-
extending outcrop of shale stained blue and
green with copper ? Doubtless, a wealth of
color and atmospheric effect was wasted upon
the aboriginal retina ; but did it not take note
of the deep orange sunsets, the golden fringed
heaps of cumulus, and the tongues of fire that
curled from every little cirrus cloud that lin-
gered in the western sky ?

And how often fchey must have looked out
and down to the great basin of the desert where
cloud and sky, mountain and mesa, seemed to
dissolve into a pink mist ! It was not an un-



known land to them and yet it had its terrors.
Tradition told that the Evil Spirit dwelt there,
and it was his hot breath that came np every
morning on the wind, scorching and burning
the brown faces of the mountain-dwellers !
Fire ! he dwelt in fire. Whence came all the
fierce glow of sunset down over that desert if it
was not the reflection from his dwelling place ?
The very mountain peaks flared red at times,
and in the old days there were rivers of fire.
The petrified waves and eddies of those rivers
were still visible in the lava streams. Were
there not also great flames beneath the sands
that threw up hot water and boiled great vol-
canoes of mud ? And along the base of many
a cliff were there not jets of steam and smoke
blown out from the heart of the mountains ?

It was a land of fire. Kfo food, no grass, no
water. There were places in the canyons where
occasionally a little stream was found forcing
itself up through the rock; but frequently it
was salt or, worse yet, poisoned with copper or
arsenic. How often the tribe had lost from its
numbers slain by the heat and drought in
that waste ! More than once the bodies had
been found by crossing bands and always the
same tale was told. The victims were half

The land of

and heat.




Sand and


buried in sand, not decayed, but withered like
the grass on the lomas.

Mystery a mystery as luminous and yet as
impenetrable as its own mirage seemed always
hanging over that low-lying waste. It was a
vast pit dug under the mountain bases. The
mountains themselves were bare crags of fire in
the sunlight, and the sands of the pit grew
only cactus and grease wood. There were tracts
where nothing at all grew miles upon miles of
absolute waste with the pony's feet breaking
through an alkaline crust. And again, there
were dry lakes covered with silt ; and vast beds
of sand and gypsum, white as snow and fine as
dust. The pony's feet plunged in and came
out leaving no trail. The surface smoothed over
as though it were water. Fifty miles away one
could see the desert sand-whirls moving slowly
over the beds in tall columns two thousand
feet high and shining like shafts of marble in
the sunlight. How majestically they moved,
their feet upon earth, their heads towering
into the sky !

And then the desert winds that raised at
times such furious clouds of sand ! All the
air shone like gold dust and the sun turned
red as blood. Ah ! what a stifling sulphureous



air ! Even on the mountain tops that heavy
air could be felt, and down in the desert itself
the driving particles of sand cut the face and
hands like blizzard-snow. The ponies could
not be made to face it. They turned their
backs to the wind and hung their heads be-
tween their fore feet. And how that wind
roared and whistled through the thin grease
wood ! The scrubby growths leaned and bent
in the blast, the sand piled high on the trunks ;
and nothing but the enormous tap-roots kept
them from being wrenched from the earth.

And danger always followed the high winds.
They blew the sands in clouds that drifted full
and destroyed the trails. In a single night
they would cover up a water hole, and in a few
days fill in an arroyo where water could be got
by digging. The sands drove like breakers on
a beach, washing and wearing everything up
to the bases of the mountains. And the fine
sand reached still higher. It whirled up the
canyons and across the saddles, it eddied around
the enormous taluses, it even flung itself upon
the face walls of the mountain and left the
smoothing marks of its fingers upon the sharp
pinnacles of the peak.

Jt was in winter when the winds were fiercest,


Drift of



Winter cold.

Snow on

Sea and

With them at times came a sharp cold, the
more biting for the thin dry air of the desert.
All the warmth seemed blown out of the basin
with a breath, and its place filled by a storm-
wind from the north that sent the condor
wheeling down the blast and made the coyote
shiver on the hill. How was it possible that
such a furnace could grow so cold ! And once
or more each winter, when the sky darkened
with clouds, there was a fall of snow that for
an hour or so whitened the desert mountains
and then passed away. At those times the
springs were frozen, the high sierras were
snow-bound, and down in the desert it seemed
as though a great frost-sheet had been let down
from above. The brown skins for all their
deer-hide clothing were red with cold, and the
breath blown from the pony's nostrils was
white as smoke.

A waste of intense heat and cold, of drouth
and cloud-bursts, of winds and lightning, of
storm and death, what could make any race of
hunters or band of red men care for it ? What
was the attraction, wherein the fascination ?
How often have we wondered why the sailor
loves the sea, why the Bedouin loves the sand !
What is there but a strip of sky and another



strip of sand or water ? But there is a sim-
plicity about large masses simplicity in
breadth, space and distance that is inviting
and ennobling. And there is something very
restful about the horizontal line. Things that
lie flat are at peace and the mind grows peace-
ful with them. Furthermore, the waste places
of the earth, the barren deserts, the tracts for-
saken of men and given over to loneliness, have
a peculiar attraction of their own. The weird
solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation,
are the very things with which every desert
wanderer eventually falls in love. You think
that very strange perhaps ? Well, the beauty
of the ugly was sometime a paradox, but to-day
people admit its truth ; and the grandeur of
the desolate is just as paradoxical, yet the
desert gives it proof.

But the sun-tanned people who lived on this
mountain top never gave thought to masses,
or horizontal lines, or paradoxes. They lived
here, it may be from necessity at first, and then
stayed on because they loved the open wind-
blown country, the shining orange-hued sands,
the sweeping mesas, the great swing of the
horizontal circle, the flat desolation, the un-
broken solitude. Nor ever, knew why they

Grim des-

Love for
the desert.



The descent.

The Padres.

loved it. They were content and that was

What finally became of them ? Who knows ?
One by one they passed away, or perhaps were
all slaughtered in a night by the fierce band
newly come to numbers called the Apaches.
This stone wall stands as their monument, but
it tells no date or tale of death. As I descend
the trail of stone the fancy keeps harping on
the countless times the bare feet must have
rubbed those blocks of syenite and porphyry
to wear them so smooth. Have there been no
others to clamber up these stairs of stone ?
What of the Padres were they not here ?
As I ride off across the plain to the east the
thought is of the heroism, the self-abnega-
tion, the undying faith of those followers of
Loyola and Xavier who came into this waste so
many years ago. How idle seem all the specious
tales of Jesuitism and priestcraft. The Padres
were men of soul, unshrinking faith, and a per-
severance almost unparalleled in the annals of
history. The accomplishments of Columbus,
of Cortez, of Coronado were great ; but what
of those who first ventured out upon these sands
and erected missions almost in the heart of the
desert, who single-handed coped with dangers



from man and nature, and who lived and died
without the slightest hope of reward here on
earth ? Has not the sign of the cross cast more
men in heroic mould than ever the glitter of
the crown or the flash of the sword ?

And thinking such thoughts I turn to take a
final view of the mountain ; and there on the
fortified top something rears itself against the
sky like the cross-hilt of a sword. It is the
giant sahuaro with its rising arms, and beside
it the cream- white bloom of the yucca shining
in the sunlight seems like a lamp illuminating
it. The good Padres have gone and their mis-
sion churches are crumbling back to the earth
from which they were made ; but the light of
the cross still shines along the borders of this
desert land. The flame, that through them the
Spirit kindled, still burns ; and in every Indian
village, in every Mexican adobe, you will see on
the wall the wooden or grass-woven cross. On
the high hills and at the cross-roads it stands,
roughly hewn from mesquite and planted in a
cone of stones. It is now always weather-stained
and sun-cracked, but still the sign before which
the peon and the Indian bow the head and whis-
per words of prayer. The dwellers beside the
desert have cherished what the inhabitants of

Light of
the cross.




the fertile plains have thrown away. They and
their forefathers have never known civilization,
and never suffered from the blight of doubt.
Of a simple nature, they have lived in a simple
way, close to their mother earth, beside the
desert they loved, and (let us believe it !) nearer
to the God they worshipped.



THE first going -down into the desert is
always something of a surprise. The fancy
has pictured one thing ; the reality shows quite
another thing. Where and how did we gain
the idea that the desert was merely a sea of
sand ? Did it come from that geography of our
youth with the illustration of the sand-storm,
the flying camel, and the over-excited Bedouin ?
Or have we been reading strange tales told by
travellers of perfervid imagination the Marco
Polos of to-day ? There is, to be sure, some
modicum of truth even in the statement that
misleads. There are " seas " or lakes or ponds
of sand on every desert ; but they are not so
vast, not so oceanic, that you ever lose sight of
the land.

What land ? Why, the mountains. The
desert is traversed by many mountain ranges,
( some of them long, some short, some low, and
some rising upward ten thousand feet. They

Sea of sand.

ranges on
the desert.


Plains, val-
leys, and

Efect of

are always circling you with a ragged horizon,
dark-hued, bare-faced, barren just as truly
desert as the sands which were washed down
from them. Between the ranges there are
wide-expanding plains or valleys. The most
arid portions of the desert lie in the basins of
these great valleys flat spaces that were once
the beds of lakes, but are now dried out and
left perhaps with an alkaline deposit that pre-
vents vegetation. Through these valleys run
arroyos or dry stream- beds shallow channels
where gravel and rocks are rolled during cloud-
bursts and where sands drift with every wind.
At times the valleys are more diversified, that is,
broken by benches of land called mesas, dotted
with small groups of hills called lomas, crossed
by long stratified faces of rock called escarp-

With these large features of landscape com-
mon to all countries, how does the desert differ
from any other land ? Only in the matter of
water the lack of it. If Southern France
should receive no more than two inches of rain
a year for twenty years it would, at the end of
that time, look very like the Sahara, and the
flashing Ehone would resemble the sluggish
yellow Nile. If the Adirondack region in New


York were comparatively rainless for the same
length of time we should have something like
the Mojave Desert, with the Hudson changed
into the red Colorado. The conformations of
the lands are not widely different, but their
surface appearances are as unlike as it is pos-
sible to imagine.

For the whole face of a land is changed by
the rains. With them come meadow-grasses
and flowers, hillside vines and bushes, fields of
yellow grain, orchards of pink-white blossoms.
Along the mountain sides they grow the forests
of blue-green pine, on the peaks they put white
caps of snow; and in the valleys they gather
their waste waters into shining rivers and flash-
ing lakes- This is the very sheen and sparkle
the witchery of landscape which lend allure-
ment to such countries as New England, France,
or Austria, and make them livable and lovable

But the desert has none of these charms.
Nor is it a livable place. There is not a thing
about it that is " pretty," and not a spot upon
it that is "picturesque" in any Berkshire- Val-
ley sense. The shadows of foliage, the drift of
clouds, the fall of rain upon leaves, the sound
of running waters all the gentler qualities of

The effect of

of the desert.



A gaunt

of life.

nature that minor poets love to juggle with
are missing on the desert. It is stern, harsh,
and at first repellent. But what tongue shall
tell the majesty of it, the eternal strength of it,
the poetry of its wide-spread chaos, the sub-
limity of its lonely desolation ! And who shall
paint the splendor of its light ; and from the
rising up of the sun to the going down of the
moon over the iron mountains, the glory of its
wondrous coloring ! It is a gaunt land of
splintered peaks, torn valleys, and hot skies.
And at every step there is the suggestion of the
fierce, the defiant, the defensive. Everything
within its borders seems fighting to maintain
itself against destroying forces. There is a war
of elements and a struggle for existence going
on here that for ferocity is unparalleled else-
where in nature.

The feeling of fierceness grows upon you as
you come to know the desert better. The sun-
shafts are falling in a burning shower upon
rock and dune, the winds blowing with the
breath of far-off fires are withering the bushes
and the grasses, the sands drifting higher and
higher are burying the trees and reaching up as
though they would overwhelm the mountains,
the cloud-bursts are rushing down the moun-



tain's side and through the torn arroyos as
though they would wash the earth into the sea.
The life, too, on the desert is peculiarly savage.
It is a show of teeth in bush and beast and
reptile. At every turn one feels the presence of
the barb and thorn, the jaw and paw, the beak
and talon, the sting and the poison thereof.
Even the harmless Gil a monster flattens his
body on a rock and hisses a "Don't step on
me/' There is no living in concord or brother-
hood here. Everything is at war with its
neighbor, and the conflict is unceasing.

Yet this conflict is not so obvious on the face

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Online LibraryJohn Charles Van DykeThe desert; further studies in natural appearances → online text (page 2 of 13)