Up: Contents Previous: 11. MESAS AND FOOT-HILLS




[page 213] THE character of the land lying along the western boundaries of the deserts is very different from that of the Arizona canyon country. Moving toward the Pacific you meet with no mesas of consequence, nor do you traverse many plateaus or foot-hills. The sands extend up to

 The western mountains.  

the bases of the Coast Range and then stop short. The mountains rise abruptly from the desert like a barrier or wall. Sometimes they lift vertically for several thousand feet, but more often they present only a steep rough grade. There are cracks in the wall called

 Saddles and passes.  

passes, through which railways lead on to the Pacific; and there are high divides and saddles—dips in the top of the wall—through which in the old days the Indians trailed from desert to sea, and which are to-day known only to the inquisitive few.

From the saddles—and better still from the topmost peaks—there are wonderful sights to [page 214] be seen. You will never know the vast reach of the deserts until you see them from a point of rock ten thousand feet in air. Then you are standing on the Rim of the Bowl and can see the yellow ocean of sand within and the blue ocean of water without. The ascent to that high point is, however, not easy, especially if

 The view from the mountain-top.  

undertaken from the desert side. But nothing could be more interesting in quick change and new surprise than the rise from the hot waste at the bottom to the cold white-capped peaks of the top. It is not often that you find mountains with their feet thrust into tropic sands and their heads thrust into clouds of snow.

Before you start to climb, before you reach the foot of the mountains, you are struck by the number of dry washes leading down from the sides and gradually losing themselves in the sands. As the eyes trace these arroyos up the mountain-side they are seen to turn into green

 Looking up toward the peak.  

streaks and finally, near the peak, into white streaks. You know what that means and yet can hardly believe that those white lines are snow-banks packed many feet deep in the canyons; that from them run streams which lower down become green lines because of the grasses, bushes, and trees growing on their [page 215] banks; and that finally the streams, after plunging through canyons, fall into the arroyos

 Lost streams.  

and are drunk up by the desert sands before they have left the mountain-bases. It seems incredible that a stream should be born; run its course through valley, gorge, and canyon; and then disappear forever in the sands, all within a few miles. Yet not one but many of these mountain-streams have that brief history.

 Avalanches and bowlder-beds.  

And at one time they must have been larger, or there were slips of glaciers or avalanches on the mountains; for the arroyos are piled with great blocks of granite and there are rows of bowlders on either side which might have been rolled there by floods or pushed there by an ice-sheet. As you draw nearer, the bowlders crop out in large fields and beds. They surround the rock bases like a deposit rather than a talus, and over them one must pass on his way up the mountain-side.

 The ascent by the arroyo.  

If you ascend by the bed of the arroyo it is not long before you begin to note the presence of underground water. It is apparent in the green of the vegetation. The grasses are seen growing first in bunches and then in sods, little blue flowers are blooming beside the grasses; alders, willows, and young sycamores [page 216] are growing along the banks, and live-oaks are in the stream-bed among the bowlders. As you move up and into the mountain the bed becomes more of a rocky floor, the earth-deposits grow thinner, and presently little water-pockets begin to show themselves. At first you see them in pot-holes and worn basins in the rock,

 Growth of the stream.  

then water begins to show in small pools under cut banks, and then perhaps there is a little glassy slip of light over a flat rock in a narrow section of the bed. Gradually the slip grows in length and joins the pools, until at last you see the stream come to life, as it were, out of the ground.

 Rising banks.  

The banks begin to rise. As you advance they lift higher and higher, they grow into abrupt walls of rock; the strata of granite crop out in ragged ledges. The trees and grasses disappear, and in their place come cold pale flowers growing out of beds of moss, or clinging in rock-niches where all around the gray and orange lichens are weaving tapestries upon the walls. The bed of the stream seems to have sunken down, but in reality it is rising by steps


and falls ever increasing in size. The stream itself has grown much larger, swifter, more noisy. You move slowly up and around the [page 217] falls, each one harder to surmount than the last, until finally you are in the canyon.

The walls are high, the air is damp, the light is dim. The glare and heat of the desert have vanished and in their place is the shadow of the

 In the gorge.  

cave. You toil on far up the chasm, creeping along ledges and rising by niches, until a great pool, a basin hewn from the rock, is before you; and the hewer is seen waving and flashing in the air a hundred feet as it falls into the pool. Around you and ahead of you is a sheer pitch of rock curved like a horseshoe. It is insurmountable; there is no thoroughfare. You will not gain the peak by way of the canyon. The water-ousel on the basin edge—sole tenant of the gorge—seems to laugh at your ignorance of that fact. Let us turn back and try the ridges.

 The ascent by the ridges.  

Up the faces of the spurs and thus by the backbones and saddles to the summit is not easy travelling. At first desert vegetation surrounds you, for the cacti and all their companions creep up the mountain-side as far as possible. The desert does not give up its dominion easily. Bowlders are everywhere, vines and grasses are growing under their shade; and, as you advance, the bushes arise and gradually [page 218] thicken into brush, and the brush runs into a

 The chaparral.  

chaparral. The manzanita, the lavender and white lilac, the buckthorn, the laurel, the sumac, all throw out stiff dry arms that tear at your clothing. The mountain-covering that from below looked an ankle-deep of grasses and weeds—a velvety carpet only—turns out to be a dense tangle of brush a dozen feet high. It is not an attractive place because the only successful method of locomotion through it is on the hands and knees. That method of moving is peculiar to the bear, and so for that matter is the chaparral through which you are tearing your way. It is one of the hiding-places of the

 Home of the grizzly.  

grizzly. And there are plenty of grizzlies still left in the Sierra Madre. To avoid the chaparral (and also the bear) you would better keep on the sunny side of the spurs where the ground is more open.

 Ridge trails and taluses.  

You are at the top of one of the outlying spurs at last and you find there a dim trail made by deer and wolves leading along the ridge, across the saddle, and up to the next spur. As you follow this you presently emerge from the brush and come face to face with a declivity, covered by broken blocks of stone that seem to have been slipping down the mountain-side for centuries. [page 219] It is an old talus of one of the spurs. You wind about it diagonally until different ground is reached, and then you are once more upon a ridge—higher by a spur than before.

 Among the live-oaks.  

Again the scene changes. An open parklike country appears covered with tall grass, the sunlight flickers on the shiny leaves of liveoaks, and dotted here and there are tall yuccas in bloom—the last of the desert growths to vanish from the scene. Flowers strange to the desert are growing in the grass—clumps of yellow violets, little fields of pink alfileria, purple lilies, purple nightshades, red paint-brushes,

 Birds and deer.  

and flaming fire-rods. And there are birds in the trees that know the desert only as they fly—blue birds with red breasts as in New England, blue-jays with their chatter as in Minnesota, blue-backed woodpeckers with their tapping on dead limbs as in Pennsylvania. And here was once the stamping-ground of the mule-deer. Here in the old days under the shade of the live-oak he would drowse away the heat of the day and at night perhaps step down to the desert. He was safe then in the open country, but to-day he knows danger and skulks in the depths of the chaparral, from which a hound can scarcely drive him.

[page 220] Onward and upward through the oaks until you are on the top of another ridge. Did you think it was the top because it hid the peak? Ah no; the granite crags are still far above

 Yawning canyons.  

you. And there, yawning at your very feet, is another canyon whose existence you never suspected. How steep and broad and ragged the walls look to you! And down in the bottom of the canyon—almost a mile down it seems—are huge masses of rock, fallen towers and ledges, great frost-heaved strata lying piled in confusion among trees and vines and heavy

 The canyon stream.  

brush. Here and there down the canyon's length appear disconnected flashes of silvery light showing where a stream is dashing its way under rocks and through tangled brush down to the sandy sea. And far above you to the right where the canyon heads is a streak of dirty-looking snow. There is nothing for it but to get around the head of the canyon above the snow-streak, for crossing the canyon itself is unprofitable, not to say impossible.


How odd it seems after the sands to see the snow. The long wedge lying in the barranca under the shadowed lee of an enormous spur is not very inviting looking. It has melted down and accumulated dust and dirt until it looks almost [page 221] like a bed of clay. But the little stream running away from its lowest part is pure; and it dashes through the canyon, tumbles into little pools, and slips over shelving precipices like a thing of life. Could the canyon have been cut out of the solid rock by that little stream? Who

 The wear of water.  

knows! Besides, the stream is not always so small. The descent is steep, and bowlders carried down by great floods cut faster than water.

It is dangerous travelling—this crossing of snow-banks in June. You never know how soft they may be nor how deep they may drop you. Better head the snow-bank no matter how much hard brush and harder stones there may

 The pines.  

be to fight against. The pines are above you and they are beginning to appear near you. Beside you is a solitary shaft of dead timber, its branches wrenched from it long ago and its trunk left standing against the winds. And on the ground about you there are fallen trunks, crumbled almost to dust, and near them young pines springing up to take the place of the fallen. Manzanita and buckthorn and lilac are here, too; but the chaparral is not so dense as lower down. You pass through it easily and press on upward, still upward, in the cool mountain-air, until you are above the barranca of snow and under

 Barrancas and escarpments.  

[page 222] the lee of a vast escarpment. The wall is perpendicular and you have to circle it looking for an exit higher up. For half an hour you move across a talus of granite blocks, and then through a break in the wall you clamber up to the top of the escarpment. You are on a high spur which leads up a pine-clad slope. You are coming nearer your quest.

The pines!—at last the pines! How gigantic they seem, those trees standing so calm and majestic in their mantles of dark green—how gigantic to eyes grown used to the little palo verde or the scrubby grease-wood! All classes

 Under the pines.  

of pines are here—sugar pines, bull pines, white pines, yellow pines—not in dense numbers standing close together as in the woods of Oregon, but scattered here and there with open aisles through which the sunshine falls in broad

 Bushes, ferns, and mosses.  

bars. Many small bushes—berry bushes most of them—are under the pines; and with them are grasses growing in tufts, flowers growing in beds, and bear-clover growing in fields. Aimless and apparently endless little streams wander everywhere, and ferns and mosses go with them. Bowlder streams they are, for the rounded bowlder is still in evidence—in the stream, on the bank, and under the roots of the pine.


[page 223] The beautiful mountain-quail loves to scramble over these stones, especially when they are in the water; and the mountain-quail is here. This is his abiding-place, and you are sure to see him, for he has a curiosity akin to that of the antelope and must get on a bowlder or a log to look at you. And this is the home of hundreds of woodpeckers that seem to spend their entire lives in pounding holes in the pine-trees and then pounding acorns into the holes. It is a very thrifty practice and provides against winter consumption, only the squirrels consume the greater part of the acorns if the blue-jays do not get ahead of them. For here lives the ordinary blue-jay and also his mountain cousin, the crested jay, with a coat so blue that it might

 Indigo jays.  

better be called indigo. A beautiful bird, but with a jangling note that rasps the air with discord. His chief occupation seems to be climbing pine-trees as by the rungs of a ladder.


There are sweeter notes from the warblers, the nuthatches, and the chickadees. But no desert-bird comes up so high; and as for the common lawn and field birds like the robin and the thrush, they do not fancy the pines.

Upward, still upward, under the spreading arms of the pines! How silent the forest save [page 224] for the soughing of the wind through the pine needles and the jangle of the jays! And how

 The mountain-air.  

thin and clear the mountain-air! How white the sunlight falling upon the moss-covered rocks! It must be that we have risen out of the dust-laden atmosphere of the desert. And out of its heat too. The air feels as though blown to us from snow-banks, and indeed, they are in the gullies lying on either side of us. For now we are coming close to the peak. The bushes have been dwindling away for some time past, and the pines have been growing thinner in body,

 The dwarf pine.  

fewer in number, smaller in size. A dwarf pine begins to show itself—a scraggly tempest-fighting tree, designed by Nature to grow among the bowlders of the higher peaks and to be the first to stop the slides of snow. The hardy grasses fight beside it, and with them is the little snow-bird, fighting for life too.

Upward, still upward, until great spaces begin to show through the trees and the ground flattens and becomes a floor of rock. In the

 The summit.  

barrancas on the north side the snow still lies in banks, but on the south side, where the sun falls all day, the ground is bare. You are now above the timber line. Nothing shows but wrecked and shattered strata of rock with patches of [page 225] stunted grass. The top is only barren stone. The uppermost peak, which you have perhaps seen from the desert a hundred miles away looking like a sharp spine of granite shot up in the air, turns out to be something more of a dome than a spine—a rounded knob of gray granite which you have no difficulty in ascending.

 The look upward at the sky.  

At last you are on the peak and your first impulse is to look down. But no. Look up! You have read and heard many times of the "deep blue sky." It is a stock phrase in narrative and romance; but I venture to doubt if you have ever seen one. It is seen only from high points—from just such a place as you are now standing upon. Therefore look up first of all and see a blue sky that is turning into violet. Were you ten thousand feet higher in the air you would see it darkened to a purple-violet with the stars even at midday shining through it. How beautiful it is in color and how wonderful

 The dark-blue dome.  

it is in its vast reach! The dome instead of contracting as you rise into it, seems to expand. There are no limits to its uttermost edge, no horizon lines to say where it begins. It is not now a cup or cover for the world, but something that reaches to infinity—something in which the world floats.

 White light.  

[page 226] And do you notice that the sun is no longer yellow but white, and that the light that comes from it is cold with just the faintest shade of violet about it? The air, too, is changed. Look at the far-away ridges and peaks, some of them snow-capped, but the majority of them bare; and see the air how blue and purple it looks along the tops and about the slopes. Peak upon peak and chain upon chain disappear to the north and south in a mysterious veil of gray, blue, and purple. Green pine-clad spurs of the peaks, green slopes of the peaks themselves, keep fading away in blue - green mazes and hazes. Look down into the canyons, into the shadowed depths where the air lies packed in a

 Distant views.  

mass, and the top of the mass seems to reflect purple again. This is a very different air from the glowing mockery that dances in the basin of Death Valley. It is mountain-air and yet has something of the sea in it. Even at this height you can feel the sea-breezes moving along

 The Pacific.  

the western slopes. For the ocean is near at hand—not a hundred miles away as the crow flies. From the mountain-top it looks like a flat blue band appended to the lower edge of the sky, and it counts in the landscape only as a strip of color or light.

 Southern California.  

[page 227] Between the ocean and the mountain you are standing upon lies the habitable portion of Southern California, spread out like a relief map with its broken ranges, its chaparral-covered foot-hills, and its wide valleys. How fair it looks lying under the westering sun with the shadows drawing in the canyons, and the valleys glowing with the yellow light from fields of ripened barley! And what a contrast to the yellow of the grain are the dark green orchards of oranges and lemons scattered at regular intervals like the squares of a checker-board! And what pretty spots of light and color on the map are the orchards of prunes, apricots, peaches, pears, the patches of velvety alfalfa, the groves of eucalyptus and Monterey cypress, the long waving green lines of cottonwoods and willows that show where run the mountain-streams to the sea!

 The garden in the desert.  

Yet large as they are, these are only spots. The cultivated portion of the land is but a flower-garden beside the unbroken foot-hills and the untenanted valleys. As you look down upon them the terra-cotta of the granite shows through the chaparral of the hills; and the sands of the valleys have the glitter of the desert. You know intuitively that all this [page 228] country was planned by Nature to be desert. Down to the water-edge of the Pacific she once carried the light, air, and life of the Mojave and the Colorado.

 Reclaiming the valleys.  

But man has in measure changed the desert conditions by storing the waste waters of the mountains and reclaiming the valleys by irrigation. His success has been phenomenal. Out of the wilderness there have sprung farms, houses, towns, cities with their wealth and luxury. But the cultivated conditions are maintained only at the price of eternal vigilance. Nature is compelled to reap where she has not sown; and at times she seems almost human in the way she rebels and recurs to former conditions. Two, three; yes, at times, four years in succession she gives little rain. A great drouth follows. Then the desert breaks in upon the valley ranches, upon the fields of barley, the orchards of prunes and peaches and apricots. Then abandoned farms are quite as plentiful as in New England; and once abandoned, but a few years elapse before the desert has them for its own. Nature is always driven with difficulty. Out on the Mojave she fights

 Fighting fertility.  

barrenness at every turn; here in Southern California she fights fertility. She is determined [page 229] to maintain just so much of desert with just so much of its hardy, stubborn life. When she is pleased to enhance it or abate it she will do so; but in her own good time and way.

 The desert from the mountain-top.  

Come to the eastern side of the peak and look out once more upon the desert while yet there is time. The afternoon sun is driving its rays through the passes like the sharp-cut shafts of search-lights, and the shadows of the mountains are lengthening in distorted silhouette upon the sands below. Yet still the San Bernardino Range, leading off southeast to the Colorado River, is glittering with sunlight at every peak. You are above it and can see over

 The great extent of the desert.  

its crests in any direction. The vast sweep of the Mojave lies to the north; the Colorado with its old sea-bed lies to the south. Far away to the east you can see the faint forms of the Arizona mountains melting and mingling with the sky; and in between lie the long pink rifts of the desert valleys and the lilac tracery of the desert ranges.

 The fateful wilderness.  

What a wilderness of fateful buffetings! All the elemental forces seem to have turned against it at different times. It has been swept by seas, shattered by earthquakes and volcanoes, beaten by winds and sands, and scorched [page 230] by suns. Yet in spite of all it has endured. It remains a factor in Nature's plan. It maintains its types and out of its desolation it brings forth increase that the species may not perish from the face of the earth.

And yet in the fulness of time Nature designs that this waste and all of earth with it shall perish. Individual, type, and species, all

 All shall perish.  

shall pass away; and the globe itself become as desert sand blown hither and yon through space. She cares nothing for the individual man or bird or beast; can it be thought that she cares any more for the individual world? She continues the earth-life by the death of the old and the birth of the new; can it be thought that she deals differently with the planetary and stellar life of the universe? Whence come the new worlds and their satellites unless from the dust of dead worlds compounded with the energy of nebulæ? Our outlook is limited indeed, but have we not proof in our own moon

 The death of worlds.  

that worlds do die? Is it possible that its bleached body will never be disintegrated, will never dissolve and be resolved again into some new life? And how came it to die? What was the element that failed—fire, water, or atmosphere? Perhaps it was water. Perhaps it [page 231] died through thousands of years with the slow evaporation of moisture and the slow growth of the—desert.

 The desert the beginning of the end?  

Is then this great expanse of sand and rock the beginning of the end? Is that the way our globe shall perish? Who can say? Nature plans the life, she plans the death; it must be that she plans aright. For death may be the culmination of all character; and life but the process of its development. If so, then not in vain these wastes of sand. The harsh destiny, the life-long struggle which they have imposed upon all the plants and birds and animals have been but as the stepping-stones of character. It is true that Nature taxed her invention to the utmost that each might not wage unequal strife. She gave cunning, artifice, persistence, strength; she wished that each should endure and fulfil to its appointed time. But it is not the armor

 Development through adversity.  

that develops the wearer thereof. It is the struggle itself—the hard friction of the fight. Not in the spots of earth where plenty breeds indolence do we meet with the perfected type. It is in the land of adversity, and out of much pain and travail that finally emerges the highest manifestation.

Not in vain these wastes of sand. And this [page 232] time not because they develop character in desert life, but simply because they are beautiful in themselves and good to look upon whether

 Sublimity of the waste.  

they be life or death. In sublimity—the superlative degree of beauty—what land can equal the desert with its wide plains, its grim mountains, and its expanding canopy of sky! You shall never see elsewhere as here the dome, the pinnacle, the minaret fretted with golden fire at sunrise and sunset; you shall never see alsewhere as here the sunset valleys swimming in a pink and lilac haze, the great mesas and plateaus fading into blue distance, the gorges and canyons banked full of purple shadow. Never again shall you see such light and air and color; never such opaline mirage, such rosy dawn, such fiery twilight. And wherever you go, by land or by sea, you shall not forget that which you

 Desolation and silence.  

saw not but rather felt—the desolation and the silence of the desert.

Look out from the mountain's edge once more. A dusk is gathering on the desert's face, and over the eastern horizon the purple shadow of the world is reaching up to the sky. The light is fading out. Plain and mesa are blurring into unknown distances, and mountain-ranges are looming dimly into unknown heights. Warm [page 233] drifts of lilac-blue are drawn like mists across the valleys; the yellow sands have shifted into a pallid gray. The glory of the wilderness has gone down with the sun. Mystery—that haunting sense of the unknown—is all that remains.

 Good-night to the desert.  

It is time that we should say good-night—perhaps a long good-night—to the desert.

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