11. MESAS AND FOOT-HILLS


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CHAPTER XI

MESAS AND FOOT-HILLS


 Flat steps of the desert.  

[page 194] THE word mesa (table), by local usage in Mexico and in the western United States, is applied to any flat tract of ground that lies above an arroyo or valley, as well as to the flat top of a mountain. In a broad, if somewhat strained use of the word, it also means the great table-lands and elevated plains lying between a river-valley and the mountain confines on either side of it. The mesas are the steps or benches that lead upward from the river to the mountain, though the resemblance to benches is not always apparent because of the cuttings and washings of intermittent streams, and the breakings and crossings of mountain-spurs.

As you rise up from the Colorado Desert, crossing the river to the east, you meet with a great plain or so-called mesa that extends far

 Across Southern Arizona.  

across Southern Arizona and Sonora almost up to the Continental Divide. It is broken by [page 195] short ranges of barren mountains, that have the general trend of the main Sierra Madre, and it looks so much like the country to the west of the river that it is usually recognized as a part of the desert, or at the least "desert country."

It is, however, somewhat different from the Bottom of the Bowl or even the valleys of the Mojave. The elevation, for one thing, gives it

 Rising up from the desert.  

another character. The rise from bench to bench is very gradual, and to the ordinary observer hardly perceptible; but nevertheless when the foot-hills of the Santa Rita Mountains are reached, the altitude is four thousand feet or more. There is a difference in light, sky, color, air; even some change in the surface of the earth. The fine sands of the lower desert and the sea-bed silts are missing; the mesas lie close up to the mountains and receive the first coarse wash from the sides; the barrancas on the mountain - sides are choked with great masses of fallen rock, with bowlders of granite, with blocks of blackened lava. The arroyos that carry the wash from the mountains—mere

 The great mesas.  

ditches and trenches cut through the mesas—are filled with rounded stones, coarse sands, glittering scales of mica, bits of quartz, breaks [page 196] of agate and carnelian. The mesas themselves are made up of sand and gravel, sometimes long shelvings of horizontal rocks, sometimes patches of terra-cotta, rifts of copper shale, or beds of parti-colored clay.

There is more rain in this upland country and consequently more vegetation than down below. Grease-wood grows everywhere and is the principal green thing in sight. So predominant

 "Grease-wood" plains.  

is it that the term "grease-wood plains" is not inappropriate to the whole region. Groves of sahuaro stand in the valleys and reach up and over the mountain-tops, chollas and nopals are on the flats; the mesquite grows in miniature forests. But besides these there are bushes and trees not seen in the basin. Palo fierro, palo blanco, cottonwood live along the dry river-beds, white and black sage on the mesas, white and black oaks in the foot-hills. Then, too, there are patches of pale yellow sun-dried grass covering many acres, great beds of evening primrose, and fields

 Upland vegetation.  

covered in season with countless wild flowers. It is quite another country when you come to examine it piece by piece.

As you rise higher and higher to the Continental Divide the whole face of the mesa undergoes [page 197] a further change. It slips imperceptibly

 Grass plains.  

into a grass plain, stretching flat as far as the eye can see, covered with whitened grass, and marked by clumps of yuccas slowly growing into yucca palms. No rocks, trees, cacti, or grease-wood; no primrose, wild gourd, or verbena. Nothing but yucca palms, bleached grass, blue sky, and lilac mountains. It is still in kind a desert country, and it is still called a mesa or table-land; but its character is changed into something like the great flat lands of Nebraska or the broken platean country of Montana.


 Spring and summer on the plains.  

In the spring, when the snows have melted and the rains have fallen, these plains turn green with young grass and are spattered with great patches of wild flowers; but the drouth and heat of early summer soon fade the grasses to a bright yellow, and in the fall the yellow bleaches to a dead white. There is little wild life left upon these plains. The bush-birds need more cover than is to be found here, while the ground-birds need more open roadway. In the spring, when the prairie pools are filled with water, there are geese and cranes in abundance; but they soon pass on north. These great grass tracts were once the home of countless

 Home of the antelope.  

[page 198] bands of antelope, for it is just such an open country as the antelope loves; but they have passed on, too. In their place roam herds of cattle, and the gray wolf, the coyote, and the buzzard follow the herds.

The grease-wood and the grass plains of Arizona and New Mexico are typical of all the flat countries lying up from the deserts; and yet there are many tracts of small acreage in this same region that show distinctly different features. Sometimes there are small beds of flat

 Beds of soda and gypsum.  

alkali dust, sometimes beds of soda and gypsum, sometimes beds of salt. Then occasionally there is a broad plain sown broadcast far and wide with blocks of lava—the remnants of a great lava-stream sent forth many centuries ago; and again flat reaches strewn thick with blocks of porphyry that have been washed down from the mountains no one knows just when or how.

 Riding into the unexpected.  

You are always riding into the unexpected in these barren countries, stumbling upon strange phenomena, seeing strange sights.

And yet as you ascend from the valley of the Colorado moving to the northeast, the lands and the sights become even stranger. For now you are rising to the Great Plateau and the Grand Canyon country—the region of the butte,

 The Grand Canyon country.  

[page 199] the vast escarpment, the dome, the cliff, the gorge. It is a more mountainous land than that lying to the south, and it is deeper cut with river-beds and canyons. Yet still you have no trouble in finding even here the flat spaces peculiar to all the desert-bordering territory. There are grease-wood plains as at the south and great bare benches that seem endless in their sweep. There are, too, spaces covered with lava-blocks and beds of soda and salt. More rain falls here than at the south or west; and in certain sections the grass grows rank, the yuccas become trees, and higher up toward Ash

 Hills covered with juniper.  

Fork the hills are covered with a growth of juniper. Flowers and shrubs are more abundant, birds and animals come and go across your pathway, and there are green valleys with water running upon the surface of the ground. And yet not twenty miles from the green valley you may enter upon the most barren plain

 The Painted Desert.  

imaginable—a place like the Painted Desert, perhaps, where in spots not a living thing of any kind is seen, where there is nothing but dry rock in the mountains and dry dust in the valley. These areas of utter desolation are of frequent enough occurrence in all the regions lying immediately to the north and the east of the Mojave to remind [page 200] you that you are still in a desert land, and that the bench and the arid plain are really a part of the great waste itself.


 Riding on the mesas.  

Nature never designed more fascinating country to ride over than these plains and mesas lying up and back from the desert basin. You may be alone without necessarily being lonesome. And everyone rides here with the feeling that he is the first one that ever broke into this unknown land, that he is the original discoverer; and that this new world belongs to him by right of original exploration and conquest. Life becomes simplified from necessity.

 The reversion to savagery.  

It begins all over again, starting at the primitive stage. There is a reversion to the savage. Civilization, the race, history, philosophy, art—how very far away and how very useless, even contemptible, they seem. What have they to do with the air and the sunlight and the vastness of the plateau! Nature and her gift of buoyant life are overpowering. The joy of mere animal existence, the feeling that it is good to be alive and face to face with Nature's self, drives everything else into the background.


 The thin air again.  

And what air one breathes on these plains—what wonderful air! It is exhilarating to the whole body; it brightens the senses and sweetens [page 201] the mind and quiets the nerves. And how clear it is! Leagues away needle and spine and mountain-ridge still come out clear cut against the sky. Is it the air alone that makes possible such far-away visions, or has the light somewhat to do with it? What penetrating, all-pervading, wide-spread light! How silently it falls and how like a great mirror the plain reflects it back to heaven!


 The light and its deceptions.  

Light and air—what means wherewith to conjure up illusions and deceive the senses! We think we see far away a range of low hills, but, as we ride on, buttes and lomas seem to detach and come toward us. There is no range ahead of us; there are only scattered groups of hills many miles apart. Far away to the left on a little rise of ground is a wild horse watching us, his head high in air, his nostrils sniffing for our scent upon the breeze. How colossal he seems! Doubtless he is the last of some upland band, the leader of the troop who through great size and strength was best fitted to survive. But no; he is only a common little Indian

 Distorted proportions.  

pony distorted to huge proportions by the heated atmosphere. We are riding into the sunset, Ahead of us every notch in the hills, every little valley has a shaft of golden light streaming [page 202] through it. But turn in your saddle and look to the east, and the hills we have left behind us are surrounded by veilings of lilac. Again the omnipresent desert air! We see the

 Changed colors.  

western hills as through an amber glass, but looking to the east the glass is changed to pale amethyst.

How delicately beautiful are the hills that seem to gather in little groups along the waste! They are not sharp-edged in their ridges like the higher mountains. Wind, rain, and sand have done their work upon them until there is hardly a rough feature left to them. All their lines are smooth and flow from one into another; and all the parti-colors of their rocks and soils

 The little hills.  

are blended into one tone by the light and the air. With surfaces that catch and reflect light, and little depressions that hold shadows, how very picturesque they are! Indeed as you watch them breaking the horizon-line you are surprised to see how easily they compose into pictures. If you tried to put them upon canvas

 Painting the desert.  

your surprise would probably be greater to find how very little you could make of them. The desert is not more paintable than the Alps. Both are too big.

These hills—they are usually called lomas—that [page 203] one meets with in the plateau region are not of the same make-up as the clay buttes of Wyoming or the gravel hills of New England.

 Worn-down mountains.  

They have a core of rock within them and are nothing less than washed-down foot-hills. You will often see a chain of them receding from the range toward the plain, and growing smaller as they recede, until the last one is a mound only a few feet in height. They are flattening down to the level of the plain—sinking into the sandy sea.

Usually the lomas are seen against a background of dark mountains of which they are or have been at one time a constituent part.

 The mountain-wash and its effect.  

For the lomas are the outliers from the foot-hills as the foot-hills from the mountains proper. They are the most worn because they are the lowest down in the valley—in fact the bottom steps which receive not only their own wash but that of all the other steps besides. The mountains pour their waters and loose stones upon the foot-hills, the foot-hills cast them off upon the lomas, and the lomas in turn thrust them upon the plains. But the casting off effort becomes weaker at each step as the sides of the hill become less of a declivity. When the little hill is reached the sand-wash settles about the [page 204] base, and in time the whole mass rises on its

 Flattening down to the plain.  

sides and sinks somewhat in the centre, until a mere rise of ground is all that remains. So perish the hills that we are accustomed to speak of as "everlasting." It is merely another illustration of Nature's method in the universe. She is as careless of the individual hill or mountain as of the individual man, animal, or flower. All are beaten into dust. But the species is more enduring, better preserved. Year by year Nature is tearing down, washing down, pulling to pieces range after range; but year by year

 Mountain-making.  

she is also heaving up stupendous mountains like the Alps, and crackling with a mighty squeeze the earth's crust into the ridges of the Rockies and the Andes.


 The foot-hills.  

The foot-hills are just what their name indicates—the hills that lie at the foot of the mountains. They are not usually detached from the main range like so many of the lomas, but are a part of it; and while not exactly the buttresses of the mountains, yet they remind one of those architectural supports of cathedral walls. The foot-hills themselves are perhaps as firmly supported as the mountains for very often they stretch down from the mountains in a long ridge like a spine, and from the spine are [page 205] thrown out supporting ribs that trail away into

 Forms of the foothills.  

the valleys. In a granite country these foot-hills are usually very smooth, and are made up largely, as regards their surfaces, of the grit and grind of the rocks. The rocks themselves are usually wind-worn, rounded by rain and sand, and sometimes fantastic in shape. Often the soft granite wears through in seams and leaves lozenge-like blocks linked together like beads upon a string; often the whole rock-crown of the hill is honey-combed by the wind until it looks as soft as a sponge. The foot-hills of porphyry are more jagged and rough in every way. The stone is much harder and while it splits like granite and falls along the mountainside in a talus it does not readily disintegrate. The last bit of it remains a hard kernel, and the porphyry foot-hill is usually a keen-edged mountain in miniature.


 Mountain-plants.  

The hills have a desert vegetation of greasewood, cactus, and sage, with occasional trees like the palo verde and the lluvia d'oro; but their general appearance is not very different from the mesas. Where the altitude is high—say five thousand feet and over—there may be a more radical change in vegetation; for now the oak begins to appear, and if it is open country [page 206] the grasses and flowers show everywhere. Sometimes the foot-hills are covered with a dense chaparral made up of many low trees and bushes; but this growth is more peculiar to the Californian hills west of the Coast Range than to Arizona. Many of the ranges in the

 Bare mountains.  

Canyon country are almost as bare of vegetation as an ancient lake-bed. And sometimes altitude seems to have little to do with the kinds of growths. Cacti and the salt-bush flourish at six thousand feet as readily as down in the Salton Basin three hundred feet below sea-level. The most dangerous and difficult thing to set up about anything in this desert world is the general law or common rule. The exception—the thing that is perhaps uncommon—comes up at every turn to your undoing.

Even the mountains of Arizona that have an elevation of from five to eight thousand feet are often quite bare of timber. The sahuaro, the nopal, the palo verde may grow to their very peaks and still make only a scanty covering.

 The southern exposures.  

Seen from a distance the southern exposure of the mountain looks perfectly bare; but if you travel around it to the north side where the sunlight does not fall except for a [page 207] few hours of the day, you will find a growth of bushes, small trees, vines, and grasses that, taken together, form something of a thicket—that is for a desert. And here, too, on the northern

 Gray lichens.  

exposure you will find the abrupt walls of the peak stained with great fields of orange and gray lichens that lend a color quality to the whole top.

But through the bushes and grasses and lichens the wine-red of the porphyry comes cropping out to tell you that the mountain is a mass of rock, that it holds little or no soil on its sides, that it has not a suspicion of water; and that whatever grows upon it, does so, not by favor of circumstance, but through sheer

 Still in the desert region.  

desert stubbornness. The vegetation is a thin disguise that is penetrated in a few moments. The arid character of the mountain says plainly enough that we are not yet out of the region of sands and burning winds and fiery sun-shafts. The whole of the Arizona country as far east as the Continental Divide, in spite of its occasional green valleys and few high mountain-ranges with timbered tops, is a slope leading up and out from the desert by gradual if broken steps which we have called mesas or benches. It is a bare, dry land. It name would imply

 Arida zona.  

[page 208] that the early Spaniards had found it that and called it arida zona for cause.1

Yet at times it is a land of heavy cloud-bursts and wash-outs. In the summer months it frequently rains on the mesas in torrents. The bare surface of the country drains this water almost

 Cloud-bursts on the mesas.  

like the roof of a house because there are no grasses or bushes of consequence to check the water and allow it to soak into the ground. The descent from the Divide to the Colorado River is quite steep. The flood of waters rushes down the steps of the mesas and over the bare ground with terrific force. It quickly cuts channels in the low places down which are hurled sand, gravel, and bowlders. The cutting

 The wash of rains.  

of the channel during the heavy rains is something extraordinary, partly because the stream has great volume and fall, and partly because the channel-bed is usually of soft rock and easily cut. In a few dozen years the arroyo of a mesa that carries off the water from the mountain-range has cut a river-bed many feet deep; in a [page 209] few hundred years the valley-bed changes into

 Gorge cutting.  

a gorge with five hundred feet of sheer rock-wall; in a few thousand years perhaps the restless wearing water of the great river has sunk its bed five thousand feet below the surface and made the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.

The Canyon country is well named, for it has plenty of wash-outs and gorges. Almost anywhere among the mountain-ranges you can find them—not Grand Canyons, to be sure, but ones of size sufficient to be impressive without being

 In the canyons.  

stupendous. Walls of upright rock several hundred feet in height have enough bulk and body about them to impress anyone. The mass is really overpowering. It is but the crust of the earth exposed to view; but the gorge at Niagara and the looming shaft of the Matterhorn are not more. The imagination strains at such magnitude. And all the accessories of the gorge and canyon have a might to them that

 Upright walls of rock.  

adds to the general effect. The sheer precipices, the leaning towers, the pinnacles and shafts, the recesses and caves, the huge basins rounded out of rock by the waterfalls are all touched by the majesty of the sublime.


 Color in canyon shadows.  

And what could be more beautiful than the deep shadow of the canyon! You may have [page 210] had doubts about those colored shadows which painters of the plein-air school talked so much about a few years ago. You may have thought that it was all talk and no reality; but now that you are in the canyon, and in a shadow, look about you and see if there is not plenty of color there, too. The walls are dyed with it, the stones are stained with it—all sorts of colors from strata of rock, from clays and slates, from minerals, from lichens, from mosses. The stones under your feet have not turned black or brown because out of the sunlight. If you were on the upper rim of the canyon looking down, the whole body of air in shadow would look blue. And that strange light coming from above! You may have had doubts, too, about

 The blue sky seen from the canyon depths.  

the intense luminosity of the blue sky; but look up at it along the walls of rock to where it spreads in a thin strip above the jaws of the canyon. Did you ever see such light coming out of the blue before! See how it flashes from the long line of tumbling water that pitches over the rocks! White as an avalanche, the water slips through the air down to its basin of stone; and white, again, as the snow are the foam and froth of the pool.

Stones and water in a gorge, wastes of rock [page 211] thrust upward into mountains, long vistas of plain and mesa glaring in the sunlight—what things are these for a human being to fall in love with? Doctor Johnson, who occasionally went into the country to see his friends, but never to see the country, who thought a man demented who enjoyed living out of town; and who cared for a tree only as firewood or lumber, what would he have had to say about the

 Desert landscape.  

desert and its confines? In his classic time, and in all the long time before him, the earth and the beauty thereof remained comparatively unnoticed and unknown. Scott, Byron, Hugo,—not one of the old romanticists ever knew

 The former knowledge of Nature.  

Nature except as in some strained way symbolic of human happiness or misery. Even when the naturalists of the last half of the nineteenth century took up the study they were impressed at first only with the large and more apparent beauties of the world—the Alps, the Niagaras, the Grand Canyons, the panoramic views from mountain-tops. They never would have tolerated the desert for a moment.

But the Nature-lover of the present, who has taken so kindly to the minor beauties of the world, has perhaps a little wider horizon than his predecessors. Not that his positive knowledge [page 212] is so much greater, but rather where he lacks in knowledge he declines to condemn.

 The Nature-lover of the present.  

He knows now that Nature did not give all her energy to the large things and all her weakness to the small things; he knows now that she works by law and labors alike for all; he knows now that back of everything is a purpose, and if he can discover the purpose he cannot choose but admire the product.

That is something of an advance no doubt—a grasp at human limitations at least—but there is no reason to think that it will lead to any lofty heights. Nature never intended that we

 Human limitations.  

should fully understand. That we have stumbled upon some knowledge of her laws was more accident than design. We have by some strange chance groped our way to the Gate of the Garden, and there we stand, staring through the closed bars, with the wonder of little children. Alas! we shall always grope! And shall we ever cease to wonder?


Notes

1. The late Dr. Elliot Coues and others reject the obvious arida zona of the Spanish in favor of some strained etymologies from the Indian dialects, about which no two of them agree. Why should the name not have come from the Spanish, and why should it not mean just simply arid zone or belt?

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