2. THE MAKE OF THE DESERT


Up: Contents Previous: 1. THE APPROACH Next: 3. THE BOTTOM OF THE BOWL

CHAPTER II

THE MAKE OF THE DESERT


   

[page 23]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

 Sea of sand.  

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.


 Mountain ranges on the desert.  

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 [page 24] 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

 Plains, valleys, and mesas.  

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 prevents 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 escarpments.

With these large features of landscape common to all countries, how does the desert differ from any other land? Only in the matter of

 Effect of drought.  

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 Rhone would resemble the sluggish yellow Nile. If the Adirondack region in New [page 25] 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 possible to imagine.


 The Effect of rains.  

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 flashing lakes. This is the very sheen and sparkle—the witchery—of landscape which lend allurement to such countries as New England, France, or Austria, and make them livable and lovable lands.


 Harshness of the desert.  

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-Valley 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 [page 26] 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

 A gaunt land.  

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 elsewhere in nature.


 Conditions of life.  

The feeling of fierceness grows upon you as you come to know the desert better. The sunshafts 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 mountain's [page 27] side and through the torn arroyos as though they would wash the earth into the sea.

 The incessant struggle.  

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 Gila monster flattens his body on a rock and hisses a "Don't step on me." There is no living in concord or brotherhood here. Everything is at war with its neighbor, and the conflict is unceasing.


 Elemental warfare.  

Yet this conflict is not so obvious on the face of things. You hear no clash or crash or snarl. The desert is overwhelmingly silent. There is not a sound to be heard; and not a thing moves save the wind and the sands. But you look up at the worn peaks and the jagged barrancas, you look down at the wash-outs and piled bowlders, you look about at the wind-tossed, half-starved bushes; and, for all the silence, you know that there is a struggle for life, a war for place, going on day by day.


 Desert vegetation.  

How is it possible under such conditions for much vegetation to flourish? The grasses are scanty, the grease-wood and cactus grow in patches, the mesquite crops out only along the [page 28] dry river-beds. All told there is hardly enough covering to hide the anatomy of the earth. And the winds are always blowing it aside. You have noticed how bare and bony the hills of New England are in winter when the trees

 Protruding edges.  

are leafless and the grasses are dead? You have seen the rocks loom up harsh and sharp, the ledges assume angles, and the backbone and ribs of the open field crop out of the soil? The desert is not unlike that all the year round. To be sure there are snow-like driftings of sand that muffle certain edges. Valleys, hills, and even mountains are turned into rounded lines by it at times. But the drift rolled high in one place was cut out from some other place; and always there are vertebrœ showing—elbows and shoulders protruding through the yellow byssus of sand.


 Shifting sands.  

The shifting sands! Slowly they move, wave upon wave, drift upon drift; but by day and by night they gather, gather, gather. They overwhelm, they bury, they destroy, and then a spirit of restlessness seizes them and they move off elsewhere, swirl upon swirl, line upon line, in serpentine windings that enfold some new growth or fill in some new valley in the waste. So it happens that the surface of the [page 29] desert is far from being a permanent affair. There is hardly enough vegetation to hold the sands in place. With little or no restraint upon them they are transported hither and yon at the mercy of the winds.


 Desert winds.  

Yet the desert winds hardly blow where they list. They follow certain channels or "draws" through the mountain ranges; and the reason for their doing so is plain enough. During the day the intense heat of the desert, meeting with only a thin dry air above it, rises rapidly skyward leaving a vast vacuum below that must be filled with a colder air from without. This colder air on the southern portion of the Colorado Desert comes in from the Gulf region. One can feel it in the passes of the mountains about Baboquivari, rushing up toward the heated portions of Arizona around Tucson. And the hotter the day the stronger the inward rush of the wind. Some days it will blow at the rate of fifty miles an hour until sunset,

 Radiation of heat.  

and then with a cessation of radiation the wind stops and the night is still.

On the western portions of the Colorado the wind comes from the Pacific across Southern California. The hot air from the desert goes up and out over the Coast Range, reaching seaward. [page 30] How far out it goes is unknown, but when it has cooled off it descends and flows back toward the land as the daily sea-breeze. It re-enters the desert through such loop holes

 Prevailing winds.  

in the Coast Range as the San Gorgonio Pass—the old Puerta de San Carlos—above Indio. The rush of it through that pass is quite violent at times. For wind is very much like water and seeks the least obstructed way. Its goal is usually the hottest and the lowest place on the desert—such a place, for example, as Salton, though I am not prepared to point out the exact spot on the desert that the winds choose as a target. On the Mojave Desert at the north their action is similar, though there they draw down from the Mount Whitney region as well as from the Pacific.

In open places these desert winds are sometimes terrific in force though usually they are moderate and blow with steadiness from certain directions. As you feel them softly blowing

 Wear of the winds.  

against your cheek it is hard to imagine that they have any sharp edge to them. Yet about you on every side is abundant evidence of their works. The sculptor's sand-blast works swifter but not surer. Granite and porphyry cannot withstand them, and in time they even cut [page 31] through the glassy surface of lava. Their wear is not here nor there, but all over, everywhere. The edge of the wind is always against the stone. Continually there is the slow erosion of canyon, crag, and peak; forever there is a gnawing at the bases and along the face-walls of the great sierras. Grain by grain, the vast foundations, the beetling escarpments, the high domes in air

 Erosion of mountains.  

are crumbled away and drifted into the valleys. Nature heaved up these mountains at one time to fulfil a purpose: she is now taking them down to fulfil another purpose. If she has not water to work with here as elsewhere she is not baffled of her purpose. Wind and sand answer quite as well.

But the cutting of the wind is not always even or uniform, owing to the inequalities in the fibre of rock; and often odd effects are produced by the softer pieces of rock wearing away first and leaving the harder section exposed to view. Frequently these remainders take on fantastic shapes and are likened to things human, such as faces, heads, and hands. In the

 Rock-cutting.  

San Gorgonio Pass the rock-cuttings are in parallel lines, and occasionally a row of garnets in the rock will make the jewel-pointed fingers of a hand protruding from the parent [page 32] body. 1 Again shafts of hard granite may make tall spires and turrets upon a mountain peak, a

 Fantastic forms.  

vein of quartz may bulge out in a white or yellow or rose-colored band; and a ridge of black lava, reaching down the side of a foot-hill, may creep and heave like the backbone of an enormous dragon.

Perhaps the greatest erosion is in the passes through which the winds rush into the desert. Here they not only eat into the ledges and cut

 Wash-outs.  

away the rock faces, but they make great washouts in the desert itself. These trenches look in every respect as though caused by water. In fact the effects of wind and water are often so inextricably mixed that not even an expert geologist would be able to say where the one leaves off and the other begins. The shallow caves of the mountains—too high up for any wave action from sea or lake, and too deep to be reached by rains—have all the rounded appearance of water-worn receptacles. One can almost see

 Sand-lines in caves.  

the water-lines upon the walls. But the sand-heaped floor suggests that the agent of erosion was the wind.

Yes; there is some water on the deserts, some [page 33] rainfall each year. Even Sahara gets its occasional showers, and the Colorado and the Mojave

 Cloud-bursts.  

show many traces of the cloud-burst. The dark thunder-clouds that occasionally gather over the desert seem at times to reserve all their stores of rain for one place. The fall is usually short-lived but violent; and its greatest force is always on the mountains. There is no sod, no moss, to check or retard the flood; and the result is a great rush of water to the low places.

 Canyon streams.  

In the canyons the swollen streams roll down bowlders that weigh tons, and in the ravines many a huge barranca is formed in a single hour by these rushing waters. On the lomas and sloping valleys they are not less destructive, running in swift streams down the hollows, and whirling stones, sand, and torn bushes into the old river-beds.

In a very short time there is a great torrent pouring down the valley—a torrent composed of water, sand, and gravel in about equal parts. It is a yellow, thick stream that has nothing but

 Desert floods.  

disaster for the man or beast that seeks to swim it. Many a life has been lost there. The great onset of the water destroys anything like buoyancy, and the tendency is to drag down and roll the swimmer like a bowlder. Even the [page 34] enormous strength of the grizzly bear has been known to fail him in these desert rivers. They boil and seethe as though they were hot; and they rush on against banks, ripping out the

 Power of water.  

long roots of mesquite, and swirling away tons of undermined gravel as though it were only so much snow. At last after miles of this mill-racing the force begins to diminish, the screams reach the flat lake-beds and spread into broad, thin sheets; and soon they have totally vanished, leaving scarcely a rack behind.

The desert rainfall comes quickly and goes quickly. The sands drink it up, and it sinks to the rock strata, where, following the ledges, it is finally shelved into some gravel-bed. There, perhaps a hundred feet under the sand, it slowly

 Water-pockets.  

oozes away to the river or the Gulf. There is none of it remains upon the surface except perhaps a pool caught in a clay basin, or a catch of water in a rocky bowl of some canyon. Occasionally one meets with a little stream where a fissure in the rock and a pressure from below forces up some of the water; but these

 No running streams.  

springs are of very rare occurrence. And they always seem a little strange. A brook that ran on the top of the ground would be an anomaly here; and after one lives many months on the [page 35] desert and returns to a well-watered country, the last thing he becomes accustomed to is the sight of running water.

In every desert there are isolated places where water stands in pools, fed by underground springs, where mesquite and palms grow, and where there is a show of coarse grass over some acres. These are the so-called

 Oases in the waste.  

oases in the waste that travellers have pictured as Gardens of Paradise, and poets have used for centuries as illustrations of happiness surrounded by despair. To tell the truth they are wretched little mud-holes; and yet because of their few trees and their pockets of yellow brackish water they have an appearance of unreality. They are strange because bright-green foliage and moisture of any kind seem out of place on the desert.

Yet surely there was plenty of water here at one time. Everywhere you meet with the dry lake-bed—its flat surface devoid of life and often glimmering white with salt. These beds are no doubt of recent origin geologically, and

 Catch-basins.  

were never more than the catch-basins of surface water; but long before ever they were brought forth the whole area of the desert was under the sea. To-day one may find on [page 36] the high table-lands sea-shells in abundance. The petrified clams are precisely like the live clams that one picks up on the western coast of Mexico. The corals, barnacles, dried sponge forms, and cellular rocks do not differ from those in the Gulf of California. The change

 Old sea-beds.  

from sea to shore, and from shore to table-land and mountain, no doubt took place very slowly. Just how many centuries ago who shall say? Geologists may guess and laymen may doubt, but the Keeper of the Seals says nothing.

Nor is it known just when the porphyry mountains were roasted to a dark wine-red, and the foot-hills burnt to a terra-cotta orange. Fire has been at work here as well as wind

 Volcanic action.  

and water. The whole country has a burnt and scorched look proceeding from something more fiery than sunlight. Volcanoes have left their traces everywhere. You can still see the streams of lava that have chilled as they ran. The blackened cones with their craters exist; and about them, for many miles, there are

 Lava streams.  

great lakes and streams of reddish-black lava, frozen in swirls and pools, cracked like glass, broken into blocks like a ruined pavement. Wherever you go on the desert you meet with [page 37] chips and breaks of lava, showing that at one time there must have been quantities of it belched out of the volcanoes.

There were convulsions in those days when the sea washed close to the bases of the mountains. Through the crevasses and fissures in the rocks the water crept into the fires of the earth, and explosions—volcanic eruptions—were the result. Wandering over these stony tracks you

 Geological ages.  

might fancy that all strata and all geological ages were blown into discord by those explosions. For here are many kinds of splintered and twisted rocks—rocks aqueous and igneous, gritstones, conglomerates, shales, slates, syenite, basalt. And everywhere the white coatings of carbonate of lime that look as though they were run hot from a puddling

 Kinds of rock.  

furnace; and the dust of sulphur, copper, and iron blown upon granite as though oxidized by fire.


 Glaciers.  

The evidence for glaciers is not so convincing. There is no apparent sign of an ice age. Occasionally one sees scratches upon mountain walls that are suspicious, or heaps of sand and gravel that look as though pushed into the small valleys by some huge force. And again there are places on the Mojave where windrows [page 38] of heavy bowlders are piled on either side of mountain water-courses, looking as though ice may have caused their peculiar placing. But

 Land slips.  

there is no certainty about any of these. Land slips may have made the windrows as easily as ice slips; and water can heap mounds of sand and gravel as readily as glaciers. One cannot trace the geological ages with such facility. Things sometimes "just happen," in spite of scientific theories.


 Movement of stones.  

Besides, the movement of the stones into the valleys is going on continuously, irrespective of glaciers. They are first broken from the peaks by erosion, and then they fall into what is called a talus—a great slope of stone blocks beginning half way down the mountain and often reaching to the base or foot. Many of them, of course, are rolled over steep declivities into the canyons and thence carried down by flood waters; but the talus is the more uniform method for bowlders reaching the plain.


 The talus.  

In the first stage of the talus the blocks are ragged-edged and as large as a barrel. Nothing whatever grows upon the slope. It is as bare as the side of a volcanic crater. And just as difficult to walk over. The talus is added to at the top by the falling rock of the face-wall, and it [page 39] is losing at the bottom by the under blocks grinding away to stone and gravel. The flattening out at the bottom, the breaking up of the blocks, and the push-out of the mountain foot upon the plain is the second stage of the talus. In almost all the large valleys of the desert the depressed talus extends, sometimes miles in length, out from the foot of the mountain

 Stages of the talus.  

range. When it finally slips down into the valley and becomes a flat floor it has entered upon its third and last stage. It is then the ordinary valley-bed covered with its cactus and cut by its arroyos. Yet this valley-floor instead of being just one thing is really many things—or rather made up of many different materials and showing many different surfaces.


 Desert-floors.  

You may spend days and weeks studying the make-up of these desert-floors. Beyond Yuma on the Colorado there are thousands of acres of mosaic pavement, made from tiny blocks of jasper, carnelian, agate—a pavement of pebbles so hard that a horse's hoof will make no impression upon it—wind-swept, clean, compact as though pressed down by a roller. One can imagine it made by the winds that have cut and drifted away the light sands and allowed the pebbles to settle close together until they [page 40] have become wedged in a solid surface. For no known reason other portions of the desert are

 Sandstone blocks.  

covered with blocks of red-incrusted sandstone—the incrustation being only above the sandline. In the lake-beds there is usually a surface of fine silt. It is not a hard surface though it often has a crust upon it that a wild cat can walk upon, but a horse or a man would pound through as easily as through crusted snow.

 Salt-beds.  

The salt-beds are of sporadic appearance and hardly count as normal features of the desert. They are often quite beautiful in appearance. The one on the Colorado near Salton is hard as ice, white, and after sunset it often turns blue, yellow, or crimson, dependent upon the sky overhead which it reflects. Borax and gypsum-beds are even scarcer than the salt-beds. They are also white and often very brilliant reflectors

 Sand-beds.  

of the sky. The sand-beds are, of course, more frequently met with than any others; and yet your horse does not go knee-deep in sand for any great distance. It is too light, and is drifted too easily by the winds. Bowlders, gravel, and general mountain wash is the most common flooring of all.

The mountains whence all the wash comes, are mere ranges of rock. In the canyons, where [page 41] there is perhaps some underground water, there are occasionally found trees and large bushes, and the very high sierras have forests of pine belted about their tops; but usually the desert ranges are barren. They never bore fruit. The washings from them are grit and fry of rock but no vegetable mould. The black dirt that lies a foot or more in depth upon the surface of the eastern prairies, showing the many years accumulations of decayed grasses and weeds, is not known anywhere on the desert. The slight

 Mountain vegetation.  

vegetation that grows never has a chance to turn into mould. And besides, nothing ever rots or decays in these sands. Iron will not rust, nor tin tarnish, nor flesh mortify. The grass and the shrub wither and are finally cut into pieces by flying sands. Sometimes you may see small

 Withered grasses.  

particles of grass or twigs heaped about an ant-hill, or find them a part of a bird's nest in a cholla; but usually they turn to dry dust and blow with the wind—at the wind's will.

The desert mountains gathered in clusters along the waste, how old and wrinkled, how set and determined they look! Somehow they remind you of a clenched hand with the knuckles turned skyward. They have strength and bulk, the suggestion of quiescent force.

 Barren rock.  

Barrem rock and nothing more; but what could better epitomize power! The heave of the enormous ridge, the loom of the domed top, the bulk and body of the whole are colossal. Rising as they do from flat sands they give the impression of things deep-based—veritable islands of porphyry bent upward from a yellow

 Mountain colors.  

[page 42] sea. They are so weather-stained, so worn, that they are not bright in coloring. Usually they assume a dull garnet-red, or the red of peroxide of iron; but occasionally at sunset they warm in color and look fire-red through the pink haze.


 Saw-toothed ridges.  

The more abrupt ranges that appear younger because of their saw-toothed ridges and broken peaks, are often much finer in coloring. They have needles that are lifted skyward like Moslem minarets or cathedral spires; and at evening, if there is a yellow light, they shine like brazen spear-points set against the sky. It is astonishing that dull rock can disclose such marvellous coloring. The coloring is not local in the rock, nor yet again entirely reflected. Desert atmosphere, with which we shall have to reckon hereafter, has much to do with it.

And whether at sunset, at sunrise, or at midnight, how like watch-towers these mountains [page 43] stand above the waste! One can almost fancy that behind each dome and rampart there are

 Seen from the peaks.  

cloud-like Genii—spirits of the desert—keeping guard over this kingdom of the sun. And what a far-reaching kingdom they watch! Plain upon plain leads up and out to the horizon—far as the eye can see—in undulations of gray and gold; ridge upon ridge melts into the blue of the distant sky in lines of lilac and purple; fold upon fold over the mesas the hot air drops its veilings of opal and topaz. Yes; it is the

 Sun-fire kingdom.  

kingdom of sun-fire. For every color in the scale is attuned to the key of flame, every airwave comes with the breath of flame, every sunbeam falls as a shaft of flame. There is no questioning who is sovereign in these dominions.


Notes

1. Professor Blake of the University of Arizona has called my attention to this.

Up: Contents Previous: 1. THE APPROACH Next: 3. THE BOTTOM OF THE BOWL




© Arizona Board of Regents