Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/January 1882/The Colorado Desert



THERE is an old adage which says that Arizona was the last spot on earth to be created; that Yuma is the outpost of the nether regions, and the hottest place in the world. Every one knows the old story of the two soldiers who, while stationed at Fort Yuma, died, and, going straight to Hades, returned in a short time for their blankets! Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that parts of Southern California and Arizona are among the hottest regions of the world. Neither the Desert of Gobi in Asia nor the Great Sahara in Africa can be worse, in this respect, than their small relative, the Colorado Desert, in California. A protracted journey of some four weeks over this desert gave me an excellent chance to see it and its worst aspect, and I purpose trying to give others an account of its most interesting features.

The desert occupies almost the whole of the large county of San Diego. It is some one hundred and fifty miles long and fifty miles wide, and the Southern Pacific Railroad runs through the center of it. About sixty miles from Los Angeles, the railroad encounters a very heavy grade, one hundred to one hundred and ten feet to the mile, and it continues for twenty-two miles. At the summit, known as San Gorgonio Pass, begins the descent into the desert, and every mile brings you to a more desolate country. At Whitewater Station, twenty miles from the summit, the desert commences in earnest. First a few flowers enliven the scene. Large Œnotheras, three or four inches in diameter, grow on small stalks five or six inches high. Large plants of Abronia maritima, with clusters of brilliant purple flowers, spread over the ground. A little Gilia (G. Lemmoni), with white corolla and yellow center, adds its beauty to the scene; and the only shrub, Larrea Mexicana, or creosote-plant, with yellow flowers and sticky leaves and branches, reminds you of the forests you have left behind.

During the seven miles to the next station, known as Seven Palms, the vegetation gradually thins out. As we progress beyond, the flowers disappear, and cacti predominate, and farther on these are replaced by the stunted grease-wood. Finally, even this vanishes, and when Dos Palmas is reached we have come to a country where there is absolutely nothing in the shape of vegetation. Every one knows how a well-kept field looks when it has been plowed, and harrowed, and cultivated until not a stick, nor a stone, nor a weed shows itself aboveground. Well, in order to form a picture of this part of the Colorado Desert, imagine a field such as this extending for miles and miles, level as a floor, with no signs of life visible, and no indication of man's presence save the railroad-track and the telegraph-poles. Imagine the ground covered with an incrustation of alkali, which, when stepped on, breaks, and lets one sink ankle-deep into soil as soft and fine as powder. Picture to yourself a gale of wind blowing over the waste, the air filled with fine particles of sand, the sun obscured, and no objects visible one hundred feet away, and you will have formed a faint idea of the worst aspect of the desert.

But it is hard to imagine anything so fearful as the reality, and unless one can see the ground, and feel the sand, and experience a heat of 120° in the sun, one can have only a poor conception of the desert. Every one knows the efficacy of the sand-blast. In no place in the world can its effects be better seen than on this desert. The telegraph-poles are polished on one side as smooth as glass. The white paint on the sign-posts is worn off as clean as if scraped and rubbed with sand-paper. Many of the ties, and the timbers of small bridges and culverts along the railroad, look as if some industrious Dutch housewife had washed and scrubbed them with soap-and-water, until they resemble in their whiteness the boards of her own kitchen floor. Glass bottles, left for a short time on the ground, lose their original appearance, and are ground inside and out. All this is the effect of the blowing sand.

Here, at the station of Dos Palmas, we are some two hundred and seventy-five feet below the level of the sea. The heat in summer is simply fearful, and this, added to the sand-storms, makes it anything but a desirable place of residence. Men can only be induced to work on the railroad by offering them increased wages. All the section-houses along the road (and for nearly two hundred miles there are no other habitations) are built in a peculiar manner. None are more than one story high. Each has a large porch at one side and a double roof. The lower one constitutes the ordinary roof, but the upper one is raised up about two feet, and the eaves project some four feet beyond the walls. This arrangement, leaving an open space between the two roofs, admits the circulation of air, and keeps the interior of the house cooler than it would otherwise be. Such precautions will be thought to be by no means extraordinary, when it is known that 95° to 100° is the ordinary temperature in a shady spot, and 115° or 120° is by no means uncommon.

Rain never falls on this desert in the natural manner. Cloudbursts and water-spouts, accompanied by fearful thunder and lightning, are of frequent occurrence. The ground between Frink's Spring and Flowing-Well Stations, a distance of seventeen miles, is cut and gullied in a most remarkable manner. In this distance there are no less than seventy-five bridges and culverts on the railroad-track. The gullies vary from five to twenty-five feet in depth and about the same in width. The banks are so steep and precipitous that, in walking along, one does not see the cañcon until it yawns at one's feet. These gullies are all caused by the rush of water from cloud-bursts and water-spouts.

Some six miles from Frink's Spring Station is a section-house known as Volcano. Close to it, and a few yards from the track, is a mud-spring, and from this the house takes its name. The spring is situated in a depression about twenty-five feet deep, and the same in diameter. In the bottom is a small lake, or mass of liquid mud. This rises in great bubbles as large as a hat, breaking and sputtering like boiling lard. All over the surface of the water are little bubbles, caused by carbonic-acid gas. Both mud and water have a strong smell of sulphuretted hydrogen, and the spring is evidently the result of volcanic force, which has, at some former period, been very active.

At Flowing-Well Station there was, when the railroad was first put through, a well bored to get water to supply the locomotives. The surface-water, all through the desert, is so alkaline that it is impossible to use it. It is, therefore, necessary for the railroad to haul water on every train for about a hundred miles. Trains going both ways take one or more tank-cars, for the supply of section-hands and engines. In the well referred to, water was finally reached, and in such quantities that the flow could not be stopped. It ran for three days, flooding the whole country for miles around, and then stopped, and has not run since. The water of this well had the same sulphur taste and smell as that now found at Volcano.

Just beyond Flowing-Well Station, the road runs along a chain of most desolate sand-hills. These continue for twenty miles. During severe winds, which are of frequent occurrence, the sand drifts over the track very rapidly, and in a few hours covers it to the depth of a foot or more. It has been found necessary to have a relay of men constantly on the ground, and every day they are engaged in clearing the track. The engineers are warned of their approach to these bad places by large posts, with the word "sand" painted on them, and must then take extra care.

There are many things to indicate that at one period the lowest portion of the desert was covered with water, forming an extensive lake. In places the character of the soil is such that there can be no doubt that it was deposited in still water. It is as soft and fine as powdered chalk, and not a stone can be found for long distances. We pass in one place, quite suddenly, from a gravelly, stony soil to one which is neither. It seems to mark the shore or boundary of the lake, and here the ground is covered with shells of various species. Anodonta Californiensis, Amnicola longinquas, Tryonea protea, and Physa humerosa, are very common, and all of them are living in Western waters at the present day. Then, again, we come to piles of stones, all water-worn, and showing the former presence of water where now there is not a drop.

Where has the water gone to? There can be no doubt that volcanic action has had much to do with its disappearance. Black, lava like stones are found in huge streams, as they might be called, extending for miles. Pumice-stone is found in large quantities in many places, and great blocks of lava are said to lie at the foot of the mountains bordering the desert, some twenty-five miles away. The presence of the volcanic spring, already referred to, is corroborative evidence of volcanic action. There is still a large body of salt-water lying at a considerable depth under the surface. At Mammoth-Tank Station the railroad company has been engaged for some time past in boring a well. They had reached a depth of thirteen hundred and fifty feet at the time I passed, and had then found nothing but saltwater.

It is curious that the various stations on the road have been called after things nowhere to be seen in their immediate neighborhood. Seven Palms takes its name from a group of trees fifteen miles away toward the mountains. Flowing Well is very dry. Mesquite has not a bush of any consequence anywhere near, though they are common enough near Indio. Frink's Spring has no water within six miles; and at Cactus, strange to say, there is hardly a plant in sight.

The animal life in the desert is meager in the extreme, and in many places there is none at all. Along one stretch of twenty miles, where there are no trees of any size, the woodpeckers and little wrens have made their nests in holes dug in the telegraph-poles. It is strange that the habits of these birds have not been modified to suit the surroundings, but they have probably come into the country since the poles were erected. Snakes are in places comparatively common, but still, one might travel for two or three days and not see any. Rattlesnakes live under the stones, and resemble the ground so closely that they are hard to distinguish. Lizards delight in the hot, sandy wastes, and at all times are darting hither and thither with the rapidity of light. In places are regular beaten tracks made by them along one side of the rails. Horned toads, really lizards (Phrynosoma cornutum), are common, and so near the color of the sand that it is almost impossible to recognize them except when running, and utterly impossible to catch them. Three or four kinds of beetles are common in places. Cryptoglossa verrucosa, Cysteodema armata, and Endrotes ventricostis, are the most common. The first has such hard elytra that they can almost be stepped on without fear of crushing them. They generally take refuge from the sun on the shady side of the rails, and the tracks left by them are plainly visible. Great numbers are found dead on the sand, and it would seem that the heat of the sun and of the sand combined was too much for them. The much dreaded scorpion and the centiped are also found, but are not common.

The vegetation of the desert is, of course, of a peculiar character. For about twenty miles near Indio, the mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) is very common. It forms a tree twenty or thirty feet high, with a very rough bark, scraggy branches, and sharp thorns. The leaves are like those of the acacia, and the flowers yellow, in long racemes. The pods succeeding the flowers are long and crooked, and are used by the Indians for food. The branches are often burdened by huge masses of mistletoe, sometimes as large as a barrel, and serve as nesting-places for birds. The mesquite-wood is excellent for fires, and the Indians cut and stack it along the road to sell to the company for fuel.

Cacti are common over a large part of the desert, and the brilliant crimson and yellow flowers serve to enliven the otherwise desolate wastes. Larrea Mexicana, the creosote-plant, is also common. It is so called on account of its peculiar odor. The leaves are small and sticky, the flowers yellow, and the seeds are covered with a whitish fuzz. Nothing will eat it, it is unfit for burning, and it is hard to tell what place it fills in the economy of nature. The Parkinsonia Torreyana is another peculiar desert-plant. The Spaniards call it "palo verde," on account of the pale-green color of the branches. The blossoms are of a bright yellow, hang in long clusters all over the tree, and are visited by great numbers of wild-bees for the honey they contain. When in blossom there are no leaves on the trees, these coming out afterward, small, awl-shaped bodies, almost invisible to the eye. It would seem that the branches serve the purpose of leaves, and probably contain the stomata, in the same way as do the trunks and branches of the cacti. The Fouqueria spitiosa, the "ochotilla" of the Mexicans, is one of the most remarkable of all the desert-plants. The stem or trunk is very short, and branches into a number of long, lithe, whip-like shoots, covered with curved spines an inch or so long. The flowers are bright red, forming clusters at the ends of the shoots, and are succeeded by oblong capsules filled with minute seeds.

When the borders of the desert are reached, and we catch the first glimpse of the Colorado River near Yuma, the eye rests with delight upon the broad, rolling stream, and the banks lined with mesquite trees. No one can fully appreciate the beauty of forest vegetation unless he has spent some time on a desert waste, where even water to drink is scarce, and where vegetation of any consequence is unknown. The mesquite-trees along the Colorado are quite large, and the Yuma Indians find a considerable store of food in the beans.

It is surprising to a stranger to see these Indians walking round in the sun without any bead-covering except their hair, and nothing whatever on their feet, with the sand hot enough to scorch the skin of any one unaccustomed to it. They are not bothered with clothes, the braves at all events, for their dress is often solely a breech-clout about the waist, or occasionally a thin under-shirt in addition. Some have finely-formed figures, straight as an arrow, and, with their bronzed skin, look almost like statues when they pose. They are a worthless set, however, and live upon what they steal or find on the trees or take from the river. The squaws do the household work and carry wood and water, while their lazy lords spend the time roaming about or sleeping in their tents.

The Colorado River at Yuma is a good-sized stream. The water is very muddy, and, even when settled, has a milky tinge. It is, nevertheless, very good to drink, being, in fact, the best in the country. The stream is navigable for small steamers for about three hundred and seventy-five miles above Yuma, but in low water the boats often run aground on the sand-bars, and have to be stilted over them with timbers. An old navigator said that sometimes it was necessary to turn the bow down-stream, start the engine backward, and use the paddle to dig a way over the shallow places!

Yuma itself is situated in a hollow, surrounded on three sides by sand-hills. No breeze can cool the air, and the sun, beating down with almost tropical fervor, often causes the thermometer to register 120° in the shade. Even at night it is hot, for the earth radiates the heat received during the day, and the inhabitants find it almost unbearable. Many sleep on the house-tops, and many more on the sidewalks in front of the houses, making their morning toilets in the open air. The houses are built of adobe or mud-bricks, with heavy walls and flat roofs, all of them but one story high. Taking everything into consideration, Yuma is not a place to have a summer residence in, however pleasant it may seem to one after a four weeks' journey over the Colorado Desert.