S3:E7 – Backtracks, Chapter 7: The Burning Sands

Edna and Charlotte struggle across the blazing floor of Death Valley and in the process, Edna learns the true appeal of the desert.

This episode was recorded and produced by Lisa McNamara. Supplemental text is by Lisa McNamara and original text is by Edna Brush Perkins. Music by Nesrality and Lesfm, and sound effect by SSPsurvival, all from Pixabay.


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This is Backtracks, a special series brought to you by Road Tripping in America. I’m Lisa.

This is chapter seven of The White Heart of Mojave by Edna Brush Perkins, or EBP. If you haven’t listened to the earlier chapters yet – check back where you found this chapter and start there!

In chapters five and six, Edna and Charlotte finally saw the place they’d been seeking for so long, Death Valley itself. They spent a few days acclimating to the heat and blinding light, pre-modern sunglasses, at Keane Wonder Mine, then undertook a sandy, hot, shiny, and borax mine-filled journey to the Furnace Creek Ranch. There, they succumbed to a sort of beautiful, dehydrated monotony of days and nights in the desert.


Chapter 7 – The Burning Sands

Every day that we stayed in Death Valley seemed more awful than the last. From ten o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon we existed in a blind torpor. Eyes and brain and pumping heart could not bear it. At noon we always planned to leave immediately, we panted to escape; then the enchantment would begin and we would forget all the plans. Soon, however, it became evident that we must get up into the coolness of the mountains on one side or the other of the burning basin, for there was no such thing as becoming acclimated. In the stupor in which we lived the plans we made were extremely incoherent. We only knew that the mantle of snow on the peaks of the Panamints, so serene above the quivering heat of the valley, was the most desirable thing on earth. To reach it with the wagon we had to circle the northern end of the morass, cross the low ridge into the Mesquite Valley and go up the great mesa leading to Emigrant Pass behind the mountains. There we would bury ourselves in the cold, wet snow, and rub it on our faces and fling it about, strong again and able to laugh at midday. The Worrier pooh-poohed this plan when it finally emerged, for snow has no allurement for a “desert rat.” He suggested that we go on up the canyon in which we were camped and thus quickly escape (LM: back to the Tonopah and Tidewater railroad), but we refused to consider that. We had come for the purpose of knowing the feel of the valley and we must travel over the burning sands.

The Worrier was amenable; he always was, but he liked to be persuaded. We went back to Furnace Creek Ranch from the camp in the canyon and stocked ourselves with hay and drinking-water, as we would find no more good water until we reached Emigrant Springs some fifty miles away. The journey over that difficult country would take the better part of four days. Two of the camps would be by so-called “bad water,” which, however, animals can drink—the first at Cow Creek not far from the ranch, and the second at Salt Creek in the southern end of Mesquite Valley. The third would be a “dry camp,” somewhere on the big mesa we had seen from the Keane Wonder Mine.

Leaving the ranch rather late on the same day we passed the old borax-works again, wound round the white and sulphur-colored hill through the spongy, borax-encrusted ground and along the edge of the sandy mesa where it begins to rise from the level bottom of the valley. Cow Creek is a little green spot at the base of the Funeral Mountains about two miles from the road (LM: this is where the park administration village is now). Though it is near the ranch we stopped there in order to break the long pull from Furnace Creek to Salt Creek. In Death Valley every blazing mile is to be reckoned with and it is worth while to shorten a day’s journey from twenty miles to sixteen. No track led to Cow Creek from the road, and the mesa, which looked quite level, turned out to be as steep as usual. It was broken by little washes and thinly covered with brush. Bumping over it under the hot sun we felt again as though we were in the midst of an interminable monotony. The mountain seemed unattainable. Charlotte and I, suffering from the usual lassitude and complete lack of ambition, wanted to stop and camp on the sand beside a large mesquite, the only thing anywhere that cast a big enough shadow to sit down in, and we had a sharp argument with the Worrier.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “It don’t matter so much to-day, the water ain’t far, but to-morrow you got to go on and you better do it now. When we start you’ve got to get there, or we don’t start.”

That was unanswerable and we dragged ourselves on until we reached a large rock near the spring with a square of blue darkness beside it. He was satisfied with our endeavor and let us make camp there while he took the horses to the spring. Cow Creek is chiefly memorable for another argument, a long, warm debate as to whether or not Molly and Bill could haul the outfit up the four-thousand-foot rise to Emigrant Springs. Charlotte maintained that they could not. She based her argument entirely on the appearance of Molly and Bill and she had a good one; but I, inspired by the band of snow on the tops of the Panamints and the mountain-climber’s zeal, met it with spirit. I said that Molly and Bill could do it because they were “desert-proof Indian horses.” The Worrier lay at full length on the sand, apparently lost to the world. I demanded what he thought about it. He replied sleepily that you “never can tell ’til you try.” All the time we were in the valley we argued, and it is to the credit of all three of us that the arguments never degenerated into quarrels. Our nerves were very near the surface. Everything was difficult to do, packing and unpacking, cooking, shaking the sand out of the blankets, hitching-up, getting anywhere, gathering brush for our poor little fires. We all did the minimum of work, and the desert demands very little of the camper-out, but under the weight that seemed to be always pressing down on us that little was hard even for the Worrier.

Next morning we arose with the dawn and hastened to get underway during the cool hours. The road lay over miles and miles of sand, dotted in some places with sad-looking brush and streaked sometimes with the white borax deposit. As always, the morning was radiant. The valley was beautiful, wrapped in its lonely silence, and for the first few hours Charlotte and I forgot our discomforts in the circle of high mountains, blue and red in the sunshine, and the clean sweep of the sand; but by noon we could not see anything and had to ride ignominiously in the wagon with our eyes on the very tiny oblong shadow that traveled beside it. Charlotte had dark glasses, but she seemed to suffer as much as I, who lived again through the nightmare of my childhood’s dream. A hot haze lay over all the distances, though the air was clear, and the nearby little stones and bushes blazed. The wagon crawled on, the sand falling in bright showers from the slowly turning wheels, until Molly and Bill stopped. We shook the reins with what energy we had left, and the Worrier came up and shouted and threw stones, but they only looked around at us pathetically.

“We might as well eat lunch here and let ’em rest,” he said.

There was no shade except the bit beside the wagon. We sat in that and leaned against the wheels. They would not move for Molly and Bill hung down their heads and the sweat streamed off them. The sand glittered with little particles of mica, which added to the glaring brightness. Toward the south the illusion of water appeared once more, not blue but a glassy gray with several strange-looking shrubs reflected in it upside down. There was nothing between us and the ranch to look so large, unless it were magnified like the stunted little bushes in the mirage at Silver Lake. The Worrier decided that these appearances could only be the palm trees, though they did not look in the least like palm trees nor could we see a sign of the green patch of the ranch. It is curious that we never saw Furnace Creek Ranch from any of the places where we had views of the valley, either before we had been there or afterwards, or while we were approaching or leaving it. It sprang from the earth by magic for our bewilderment and vanished the instant we went away.

That lunch-place was in the middle of Death Valley at the northern edge of the morass. Ever since coming down from the Keane Wonder Mine we had been below sea-level. Tradition has it that the lowest part of the valley is south of the Ranch, near the old Eagle Borax Works, but the bench-marks of the government’s survey indicate that the part opposite the white and sulphur-colored hill by the borax-works which we had passed is the lowest. Two iron posts driven into the ground along the road had read respectively 253 and 257 feet below sea-level. The lowest point, 280 feet, was in the morass at our end of the valley not very far away. (LM: we now know that Badwater Basin, south of Furnace Creek Ranch, is the true lowest point in the valley (and in North America) at -282 feet below sea level). Whether being below sea-level has an effect or not we all suffered that day. The Worrier guessed the temperature at about 105 degrees, but said that it felt like 120 degrees at Silver Lake. (LM: remember, it’s only early March). The sun seemed to stand still in a hard sky. The heat rose solidly from the endless white sand, the vast glistening swamp and the metallic-looking mountains. We were in the midst of an immense movelessness, in a silence never to be broken.

After an hour’s halt we started on again, Charlotte and I in the wagon, though we could hardly bear to be dragged through the heavy sand by that unhappy horse and mule. Even in the wagon our heads swam, the ground would not stay still under us, the sun seemed to drink every bit of moisture from our bodies so we burned in the heat instead of perspiring. The skin of our faces and hands felt dried up and as though it might chip off. We were blind and parched with thirst. The water in the canteens was hot and did not help us much. Molly and Bill kept trying to stop, and little stones the Worrier threw as he walked behind whizzed past our heads and thudded on their tired flanks. We had to fight the hope that they would stop for good and let us creep under the wagon and shut our eyes; but we never suggested doing it. “When you start you got to get there.”

The Worrier himself suggested stopping two hours after lunch in the shade of a little grove of mesquites, though they were not much good as shade-trees. They were about ten feet high, each one with a little hummock of sand blown around its roots, and branches armed with long sharp thorns spreading close to the sand. We could not get under them, but for some reason they were more comforting than sitting beside the wagon.

“We’ll stay until the sun gets above Tucki Mountain,” he said. “We’re getting along fine, if Molly and Bill don’t lay down.”

“Suppose they should lie down?”

“You’d stay by the wagon and I’d go back for help.” He spoke cheerfully as though the idea of walking back over the burning sands was perfectly commonplace.

“I suppose you could walk out of the valley from anywhere?”

“Sure. Got to. I walked thirty miles once without no water. Blazing hot as this and not a bush big enough to get more than my head under. I laid down by a greasewood most all day. But I made it.”

Walking through the valley at that season was nothing to an old-timer. They often cross it in June, July and August. Death is lurking behind the bushes then, waiting for them. Along the way from Furnace Creek we had passed two of the sun-bleached boards set upright in the sand which mark graves on the desert.

As the day cooled we wandered a little way from the road among the mesquite and suddenly came upon another one. Near it lay the skeletons of two burros tied to a bush and a little further off a coffee pot beside the stones that had been a fireplace. Someone had written with a pencil on the board: “John Lemoign, Died Aug. 1919.”

The Worrier had known John Lemoign. He described him as a regular old-timer who owned a mine somewhere in Tucki Mountain. Our friend seemed sorry, but his final comment was:

“He ought to have known better. But they never learn. They always think they will make it this time.”

(LM: supposedly, Lemoigne was traveling from his mine to or from Furnace Creek Ranch for medical attention, and either died of the heat or a heart attack. He died quickly enough that he wasn’t able to untie his burros, so they too were doomed.)

Everywhere that attitude toward accidents on the desert was typical. “Old Johnnie” told his most gruesome tales as though the victims were to blame. The valley was an enemy to be out-generaled; if you were a fool, of course she would get you. It was a pity when she did, inevitable and not very important. They were not callous, for they included themselves in the “inevitable and not very important.” When we had first talked to them they seemed to us singularly care-free and their faith in their own sagacity and prowess pathetically blind, but we found that we shared somewhat in their attitude as we crossed the burning sands. We felt able to take care of ourselves—could there be a more pathetic and blind faith?—and if by some remote mischance we should not be able, it would be only another painful but trifling accident. The sun-bleached boards made us sorry, but they did not seem especially tragic.

The point of view is born of the desert herself. When you are there, face to face with the earth and the stars and time day after day, you cannot help feeling that your rôle, however gallant and precious, is a very small one. This conviction, instead of driving you to despair as it usually does when you have it inside the walls of houses, releases you very unexpectedly from all manner of anxieties. You are frightfully glad to have a rôle at all in so vast and splendid a drama and want to defend it as well as you can, but you do not trouble much over the outcome because the desert mixes up your ideas about what you call living and dying. You see the dreadful, dead country living in beauty, and feel that the silence pressing around it is alive. The Worrier said one night:

“My, ain’t it awful! Them stars and everything. Makes you feel kind of small.”

“Do you like to look at them?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Why do you?”

“I dunno.”

(page turn)

That’s the end of chapter seven. If you’re ready for chapter eight, check back where you found this one or visit roadtrippinginamerica.com. Thanks for listening!