Edna and Charlotte find glorious water, an abandoned gold mining town, lost burros, and a route up Telescope Peak.
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.
This is Backtracks, a special series brought to you by Road Tripping in America. I’m Lisa.
This is chapter nine of The White Heart of Mojave by Edna Brush Perkins. If you haven’t listened to the earlier chapters yet – check back where you found this chapter and start there!
In chapters seven and eight, Edna, Charlotte, the sheriff, and their rented horse, mule, and cart made their painful, plodding, dehydrated way from Furnace Creek Ranch to a dry camp near modern day Stovepipe Wells, despising the desert during the day and falling in love with it again each night as they slowly crawled towards the beckoning snow in the Panamint Range above Emigrant Pass.
When we left them, they had just found another grave marker in the desert as they were becoming more and more obsessed with water.
Chapter 9 – The Mountain Spring
The next day’s climb was easier, for by the time the sun had asserted its full vigor we were at an altitude where the air was cool, tinglingly crisp, and so clear that it seemed not to exist at all. The earth sparkled with laughter and shouted her joy in the glory of light.
For several hours the red promontory continued to recede, then suddenly we were rounding it, and soon afterwards entered a gorge whose sides steadily became higher and higher. The bottom of the gorge was a wide, sandy wash much cut up by rains, full of boulders and grown over with brush. The vegetation became ever greener and more luxuriant. The wash looked like a wind-tossed green river between crumbly, precipitous mountains of many colors. Some were a dull red, some sage-green, some buff, some dark yellow, while an occasional purple crag gave the canyon a savage appearance. These mountains had the velvet texture which we had seen at Saratoga Springs, especially the sage-green ones. The colors were not an atmospheric illusion for the mountains were actually made of different colored rock. We investigated them with great interest. Though the velvet-textured hills had often been all around us, they were always too far away or the sun was too fiercely hot for us to get near enough to touch them. Now we walked along the edge of the wash picking up the colored rocks while the Worrier led Molly and Bill up the middle. It was so steep that he often had to rest them.
About three o’clock we came unexpectedly upon a little spring. It was in a green cleft between a red and a yellow hill where the water trickled over the rock into a charming basin. Eagerly we dipped in our cups. It was true! Here at last was a real mountain spring, very cold, tasteless, a miraculous gift from Heaven. We drank and drank. The Worrier unhitched Molly and Bill and they broke away from him to rush at the water. They did not stop drinking until the last drop was gone.
This bit of Paradise was a complete surprise. The map did not show the little spring, nor did the Worrier know of its existence. It was so tiny that doubtless it is often dry. Emigrant Springs itself, with a much more plentiful flow of water, was about a mile further on. There the canyon narrowed with steep, high sides broken into some beautifully shaped summits. The spring is only a few miles from a big abandoned mining camp called Skidoo and used to be an important one for desert travelers. Someone once built a shack, and nearby was a cave with a fireplace inside, also a corral, part of whose fence had since been used for firewood. Like all desert watering places the surroundings were littered with tin cans, old shoes and rusty iron. We know now what becomes of all the old shoes in the world; they are spirited away to the desert. An ancient government pamphlet that we had found blowing about in one of the shacks at Keane Wonder and carefully preserved describes very scientifically how to locate water, then throws science to the winds and says that the tin can is the best of all methods. When you find a pile of tin cans stop and search. It is surprising how quickly you cease to see the litter, provided it is sufficiently ancient not to be actively dirty. The desert has no foreground; you soon stop looking much for things near at hand and get the horizon-gazing habit. If a flower or a shining stone is at your feet you see it joyfully, but if it is a tin can it does not exist. There are too many far-off, enchanting things to look at. You are never unaware of the sky, nor the beautiful curves of the mountains; no forests nor roofs conceal them from you, and your eyes pass untroubled over small uglinesses. (LM: it’s amazing how long this rusty junk persists. It’s still piled around, not much degraded after another hundred years. Some tin can piles are so large they can be seen on satellite maps. Begging the question – where’s the line between artifact and trash?)
We made our camp in the shelter of an immense rock that stood alone in the middle of the wash, and settled down for a long resting space. The desert was exhibiting her variety in monotony. Between the burning sands and this mountain coolness what a difference, and yet what an essential sameness! Here is the same glittering sand, the same colorful rocks, the same plants, the same bare, crumbling hills. The sun blazes with the same brightness, turning every projecting edge of rock and little leaf into a spot of light. The all-enveloping silence is the same. The distances shine with the same illusion.
All around Emigrant Springs are mountains from five to seven thousand feet high. One day was devoted to a stiff climb up to the abandoned mines at Skidoo, at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. A trail started up from Emigrant Springs, but it looked very steep, so we went a longer way around intending to come down it. Part of the route lay over high ridges from which we saw the splendid mass of the snowy Panamints, now close at hand. We passed little patches of snow in the shadows of the rocks. The sky was a deep blue all day and the air cold with the mountain sting in it.
The town of Skidoo lay in a high valley shut off from a view by the surrounding hills. They were barren and made of crumbly yellow rock. The long narrow basin itself was covered with sagebrush like a blue carpet. The town had consisted of one wide street along which several buildings were still standing. An incredible number of stoves, broken chairs and cooking utensils were strewn about. The most imposing building had been the saloon, behind which a neatly piled wall of bottles, five feet high and several feet wide, testified to past good cheer. The Worrier said that four thousand people once had lived here. They had brought water twenty-eight miles in a pipe-line from a spring near Telescope Peak. During the war the pipe was taken out and sold to the government, but we could see the trench plainly, perfectly straight, leading off toward Mt. Baldy (LM: Rogers Peak) across high ridges. With the taking out of the water Skidoo died.
(LM: the buildings in Skidoo townsite are all gone now, but the small junk piles remain, not obvious until you look closely, then overwhelming. The mine openings and mill are all still accessible with a high clearance vehicle on a dry day. Operations shut down in 1917 when the water pipeline was removed, just a few years before Edna and Charlotte visited. The mill had been dependent on water power to process gold ore. Without the pipeline, the townspeople had no easy way to gather water for personal use either. It had cost $250k to build the pipeline in 1907 dollars, but by the middle of WWI, the government was so desperate for metal for the war effort that the pipeline was sold for a fraction of what it had cost to build. Though the official records now say a peak of 700 people lived there, it was one of the richest gold mines in Death Valley, producing $1.5 million worth of gold in those days’ values.)
The place was littered with paper-covered books and old magazines. In one house we found a pile of copies of a work entitled “Mysterious Scotty, or the Monte Cristo of Death Valley.” Needless to say we stole one, which became a treasure to be brought out in idle hours by the camp-fire. “Scotty” was a boon to the Worrier who did not hold much with the sort of literature that we carried around. Early in the expedition he had glanced over our library and preferred meditation. We had a few slim volumes of verse, “Leaves of Grass,” (LM: by Walt Whitman) some wild tales of Lord Dunsany’s and a learned treatise on how to paint. This last helped us to keep up the fiction of artistic greatness.
(LM: Mysterious Scott is a mining country travel narrative and mine review by Orin S. Merrill, published in 1906. It’s fascinating, just a bit less poetic than where Edna’s sensibilities lie. Here’s a passage from the first chapter:
“Did you ever travel through a country so unattractive that for want of something to divert your attention, or for amusement, you would for miles and miles count the number of telegraph poles between each mile-post, or take out your watch and “keep cases” on the number of miles you were traveling in so many minutes and together with the aid of your time-table you would figure out how long, at your present rate of speed, it would take you to get to your destination? If so, if you have done these things, then maybe the reader of this book can appreciate how devoid of interest to the ordinary traveler the north-east part of Nevada presents itself.” You can see why Edna would not agree with these sentiments!
From Skidoo we traversed the top of a long ridge from the precipitous end of which we had a superb view over Death Valley. We owed this to “Old Johnnie” who had told us to go there, for among the tumbled peaks of the Panamint Range around Skidoo you could wander a long time without getting a commanding view of the valley. The point from which we saw it that day was opposite Furnace Creek Ranch, but even with the glass we could not distinguish the green patch of the ranch, nor could we see the Eagle Borax Works lower down. The bottom looked like a white plain with brown streaks around and across it. Death Valley is always different. That afternoon there was no play of color, no magical mirage. From there, looking straight down seven thousand feet, it was ghastly, utterly unlike anything on the earth as most of us know her. It was like the valleys on the dead, bright moon when you look at them through a powerful telescope.
We stayed too long watching the shadow of the Panamints, as sharp and stark as a shadow on the moon, encroach on the white floor. Twilight had begun by the time we reached Skidoo again to hunt the trail down to Emigrant Springs. We tramped around the rough hills searching for it until darkness made it impossible to distinguish it even if we had found it. There below lay our camp. Could we have gone down a ridge or a canyon to it we would have defied the trail, but it was necessary to go crosswise over several of the ridges that buttress the mountain, and up and down their steep dividing canyons. Even the Worrier hesitated to attempt this in the dark. Getting lost is one of the easiest things you can do in desert mountains for they are very broken, flung down seemingly without plan, cut by deep, often precipitous gorges. The same old, tattered pamphlet that gives advice about tin cans also advises about getting lost. It says that persons not blessed with a good sense of locality had better find some other place than the desert for the “exercise of their talents.” Standing on top of a mountain you think you know very well where to go, but when you get into those clefts among those hills that look all alike you find you do not know. Any moment you may meet a barrier to be climbed over with great labor or gone around at the risk of getting involved in little canyons leading off in the wrong direction.
There was nothing to do but skirt around the mountain and try to get back onto the path by which we had come. During the quest we had our reward and were glad. Just as night was closing in a shadow rose like a curtain beyond the mountain-tops that shut Death Valley from us. It was a blue shadow and a rose-colored shadow. It was both those colors and yet they were not merged to a purple. It seemed to rise straight up, a live thing, as though the spirit of the valley were greeting the stars. The beautiful apparition remained less than a minute; always after that we looked toward deep valleys at evening hoping to see it again, but we never saw it, though night made wonderful shadows and blue pools of darkness in them. Death Valley is a thing apart. It is a white terror whose soul is a miracle of rose and blue.
About an hour later we came upon the cabin of “Old Tom Adams,” another old-timer guarding his own mine and Skidoo. He came out and made a great fuss about finding “ladies.” He had heard of us before. (LM: I’m not sure if she meant that he had heard of the two of them specifically or “ladies” in general!) He offered to make coffee, but a deep craving for more substantial food forbade any delay. He talked incessantly and would hardly let us go; no doubt we were the most exciting event for a long time. He described a way to get down the mountain by following the tracks of his burros. He swore we could not miss it, you just “fell down” right into Emigrant Springs. He went a little way with us to be sure we started down the right ridge; after that we “fell down” in about two hours and a half. It was the worst, the rockiest, the steepest series of hills and gullies we ever encountered. Presently the deceitful moon turned the bushes into white ghosts and fooled us about the angle of ledges. From time to time we saw burro tracks in the sand, but we suspect that a herd of wild burros pastures around there. The Worrier’s opinion of “the old fool” was unmentionable, nor did it soothe him to suggest that the old man had tried to do his best.
Next day Old Tom appeared at Emigrant Springs wanting to know if we had seen a white burro and a black burro. We had that very morning.
“They’re mine,” he said, “but I can’t keep ’em home.”
Hunting burros seemed to be his life work. Two weeks later we heard of him twenty miles away still hunting his burros. The Worrier opined that he had no burros, but our guide was prejudiced.
We learned to appreciate what it meant to hunt burros, for though our burros were horses, the Worrier spent most of the days in camp looking for them. It was amazing how far they could travel with hobbles on. They were clever at hiding, too, but we were assured that they were dull compared to burros. Everybody on the desert seems to have burros somewhere that he expects to use some day. They are all delightfully casual about them:
“Did you happen to see a bunch of burros in the gulch youse come through?”
“No. Have you lost yours?”
“Yes. Gone about a week. I thought maybe they was over there.”
The hope seems to be that they will come back for water. Generally they do, but sometimes they go to some other water hole and leave you to guess which one. At Silver Lake the brigand (LM: aka bandit) called French Pete had come from thirty miles off looking for his burros.
“You ought to put a bell on them,” our hostess had told him.
“I did, but it’s no use. You can’t find ’em, anyway. They’re too smart.”
“Do they hide?”
“Hide! The one with the bell gets behind a rock and holds his neck perfectly still while the others bring him food!”
(LM: burros are now a scourge in Death Valley, thanks to the “delightful casualness” of these early miners. According to the NPS, populations of the descendants of these wandering burros grow by about 20% per year. The burro herds are culled when populations grow too large – though they aren’t often shot, they’re usually gathered up and relocated to wild burro sanctuaries. The burros are not native and compete with native species for limited resources. Each burro eats an average of 6,000 pounds of forage per year. They trample springs and keep other animals like desert bighorns from using them and basically eat everything in sight in and around the springs. And poop everywhere.
Another day at Emigrant Springs was spent in climbing Pinto Peak, 7,450 feet high. We chose it because it was the highest point anywhere around, and we hoped for a good look at Mt. Baldy (LM: Rogers Peak) and Telescope Peak in order to lay out a route by which to climb them. Pinto Peak is on the west side of Emigrant Pass, overlooking the Panamint Valley and all the region to the foot of Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada. The peak is not visible from the spring and we had to guess at a possible way up. We began by ascending a steep ridge leading in the right direction, over and among several little summits. The ridge brought us to a large, high plateau set round with little peaks and cut at the sides by deep canyons. The top of the ridge and the plateau were dotted over with cedar trees, for on the desert, where everything is different, you do not climb above the timber, you climb up to it. Between six and seven thousand feet the trees begin, and sometimes in sheltered corners become twenty or thirty feet high. They are not large nor numerous on Pinto, but there are enough of them to give the ridge a speckled appearance from below. The plateau sloped gradually up toward the west and we selected the furthest little rounded rise as probably Pinto Peak. For two miles we walked toward it over comparatively level ground. From that side Pinto is not especially interesting as a mountain, being only a higher point in a big table-land, but its western side is a precipice falling two thousand feet into a terribly rocky and desolate canyon. Not until we reached the extreme edge of the plateau did the view open. It appeared suddenly, black mass after black mass of harsh mountains leading over to Mt. Whitney, serene and white on the wall of the Sierras. The Sierra Nevada are the barriers of the desert. Beyond that glistening wall lie the lovely and fertile valleys of California. Over there at that season the fruit trees were beginning to bloom, on this side was only bareness, black rocks, and deep pits of sand.
Mt. Whitney is toward the southern end of the high peaks of the Sierras. That day they bit into the sky like jagged white teeth. Southward the range is lower, rising again in Southern California to the peaks of San Bernadino and San Jacinto. We could vaguely see San Bernadino Mountain, mistily white, mixed up with the clouds. Below us lay the Panamint Valley under the western wall of the steep Panamints which separate it from Death Valley. This basin is neither so low nor so large as the famous one east of it, but is of the same character. At its edge, pressed against the mountain, we could make out with the glass the once prosperous mining town of Ballarat, the Ballarat that we had so gayly started to drive to from Johannesburg. With the Worrier’s help we traced the route we would have come over. He pointed out the red mountain on which the three mining towns (LM: of Atolia, Randsburg, and Joburg) are perched, then came a line of low hills, then an immense dry lake where the Trona Borax Works are located, then a range of ugly-looking black mountains, then a long mesa which he said is almost as rough and difficult as the one we had recently come over, then the Panamint Valley, shimmering hot, glistening white, first cousin to Death Valley itself. It would have been a magnificent drive, but suppose we had undertaken it in the sublime innocence that was ours at the time! We had never crossed a dry lake, never wrestled with a mesa, never in our wildest imaginings pictured such a place as the Panamint Valley,—and at the end we would have found the town (LM: of Ballarat) deserted!
“You wouldn’t have made it,” the Worrier teased us, “you would have turned back before you got to Trona.”
“We would not!” But in our hearts we knew how we would have been weak from pure fear of the ugly-looking black mountains. The terrifying approach to Silver Lake was nothing compared to them, nor would we have had a friendly little Ford chugging along ahead.
As we had hoped, the top of Pinto commands a fine view of Telescope Peak and Mt. Baldy joined by the beautiful, long ridge which reposes so splendidly above Death Valley. From this side they looked higher and snowier. We studied them carefully with the glass. The great mass of snow was discouraging, but it seemed to be blown off the sharp ridges which showed black. We planned to move the outfit as far as possible up Wild Rose Canyon which branches off from Emigrant Canyon about twenty miles above Emigrant Springs and leads up to the far, high peaks. From there we thought we could climb the rounded summit of Mt. Baldy (LM: Rogers Peak) and walk along the splendid curve to the slender pyramid of Telescope. No lover of mountains could look at those pure, smooth lines as long as we had looked at them and from as many aspects without being filled with the desire to set his feet upon them.
It is not the height of a mountain nor its difficulty which makes it desirable, but something in the mountain’s own self. The Panamints are neither very high nor very difficult, but they are dramatic and alone. Besides the contrast of their snow with the burning sands beneath, we wanted the feel of a truly lonely mountain top. The Panamints are truly lonely. They are not objects of solicitude to any mountain club; no tourist keen for adventure, nor boy scout outfit, nor earnest-eyed mountaineer who carves the record of his conquests on his pipe-bowl or his walking-stick, have left their names up there. No trail leads up the Panamints, nor are their summits splashed over with paint like the stately, desecrated summit of Mt. Whitney. We would not be forced to know in letters a foot high that on August 27th, John Doe made the ascent. We do not hate John Doe, but we prefer to meet him under roofs. If he loved the mountain, rather than so disfigure it, he would throw ink at his most cherished possession; and only lovers of mountains have the right to invade their loneliness. The Panamints, with their feet in the burning heat of Death Valley and their heads in the snow, almost unknown to any save a few prospectors (LM: and natives), guarded on all sides by the solitudes of the desert, seemed utterly desirable to us.
We sat on a rock studying the map, which was no help at all, and eating the big, sweet, California prunes of which we always carried pockets-full as aids to wayfaring. The Worrier acquiesced in our mountaineering project, though without enthusiasm. He bade us not forget that it would be cold up there. The sight of the snow had already set him shivering. We twitted him with being a “desert rat.”
“You may have got along better than we did in Death Valley,” we said to him, “but it’s our turn now; that’s fair.”
The Worrier scorned prunes and always looked on with dour superiority during our consumption of them. Soon he left us and went to hunt the “lost mine.” There are many legends of lost mines in the desert-mountains and we paid no especial attention to this one, being weary enough to sit still, munching prunes, and looking out over the fearful, majestic landscape. In an hour he came back with a handful of rocks. He laid them solemnly before us. They were pieces of gold ore which he had found in a hole a little way below the summit.
“The lost mine,” he said.
“You had better come back and work it,” we laughed.
“I’ll have them assayed.” His manner was serious.
“Why, you don’t think——”
“I don’t know. But anyways, we’ll call it the Prune Stone Mine.”
As a matter of fact he did have them assayed and did go back with his partner; but the Prune Stone Mine, like so many mines in the Death Valley Country, failed to fulfill its first promise.
During the week that we camped at Emigrant Springs we saw no wild life except a few little brown birds that made a happy twittering in the mornings. Sometimes in the blue night we heard the distant howling of coyotes, and once an owl mocked us with a cry that sounded ridiculously like “Hoo, Hoo, Skidoo!” He was a native, no doubt, and old in wisdom. In the rambles among the mountains we found our first wild flowers. They were small except one striking crimson-velvet one with a ragged blossom like garden balsam. It grew in clumps about six inches high and made vivid spots of color against the rocks. Later, as the spring advanced, we found a great variety of flowers, but never this one except at high altitudes. Seeing it was always a joyful heart-beat. The graceful greasewood was in bloom, covered with small yellow flowers that looked like little butterflies perched on the slender branches. The nights were still very cold, often freezing the water in the pail, but the days were pleasantly warm. The sun shone with such dazzling brightness that during the middle of the day the shady sides of rocks were the best resting places. A fresh, steady wind blew nearly always up or down the canyon, sometimes piling great white masses of clouds in the sky, always scouring the world incredibly clean. Each night was a blue wonder. The mountains were delicate, luminous shapes in front of a sky infinitely far away. The big stars hung low and burned with a steady, silver shine.
Every day we climbed one or another of the ridges and smaller mountains close to the spring. It was good to lie on their summits in the sun. From any one of them we could look down the canyon and see the whole length of the Mesquite Valley, always the same, yet, like Death Valley, always different. You can look day after day at the deep, hot basins of the desert without ever knowing them. Quickly enough you can see the obvious features of the Mesquite Valley—the continuation of the Panamints on the west, the wine-red Grapevine Mountains on the east, the low blue hills in the north, the level bottom of the valley streaked with white alkali where Salt Creek crosses it and “Old Johnnie’s” big sand-dunes are glistening little ant hills—but you must stay all the hours of a long day to find out what she really is, and then you will not know.
(LM: I skipped reading the poem below. I just don’t really like it. Sorry, Edna.)
“Behold me! You think that I am an arid valley with a white alkali streak down the middle of my level-seeming floor. You think that I am surrounded by red mountains, or perhaps you think they are blue, or purple—well, not exactly—more rose.
“Come down to me! I am very deep between the mountains. I am very white. But if you do not like me so I can be a wide, level plain covered with velvet for you to lie on.
“Come down to me! Rest beside this lake. See how it shines, how blue it is! I am all in white like a young girl with a turquoise breastpin. You don’t believe that? I am a Witch, I can be anything. My wardrobe is full of bright dresses. I will put them on for you one by one.
“See, I know more colors of blue than you ever dreamed of. When you tire of blue I change to ripe plums. Now I throw gray gauze over my purple. I look like a nun, but am not. Here is my yellow gown. You do not like it? See, I have all degrees of red, fire red and crimson and pink, the color of bride roses. Here is my finest. It is made of every color, but the tone of it is the gray breast of a dove. You did not know that the breast of a dove could be made of all colors, but now I show you.
“Do you not love me? You remember too well that I am hot as a bake-oven. You think that if any one were fool enough to come down to me I would steal behind and grip him by the throat.
“What of it? Why do you question me so much? You see how old I am, how many storms have left their scars on me, and you think I am wise. But I am only fair. Is it not enough to be old and yet fair?
“Beauty is sitting on my topmost peak making the enchantments that confirm your dreams. She experiments with many materials; she makes new combinations forever.
“Behold all the desolate places how they are hers—the lonely hills, the lonely plains, the lonely green sea, the lonely sands—she clothes us in gorgeous raiment, she makes us content with death. Where she is your heart can pasture even to the emptiness between the stars.”
A lifetime is not long enough to listen to the songs of the desolate places. A whole sunny, timeless day is too short to hear the Mesquite Valley. The days and nights of the desert merge into each other. They are like perfectly matched pearls being strung on an endless string. You delight to run your fingers over their smooth surfaces and detect no difference.
“Do we move to-morrow?” Thus the Worrier.
“We have been here a week.”
That is not possible! How could a week slide into past things so soon?
That’s the end of chapter nine. If you’re ready for chapter ten, check back where you found this one or visit roadtrippinginamerica.com. Thanks for listening!