CHAPTER 21

Desert Survival

Another great episode of our trip was about to begin. We were leaving beautiful California, heading east, toward strange lands and dry deserts. We slept the night near San Bernardino, gateway to our first such desert, the Mojave.
A pitted asphalt strip, just wide enough for a single car, was our pathway across the Mojave. An old prospector was the first man to pick us up. He had just come from the mountains in Mexico and showed us specimens of precious stones. We showed him a piece of silver, high-graded from the Hercules, and after scratching it with his knife he pronounced it good metal. He dropped us on the level plains out of Victorville, and here the real desert roads began.
We had expected to walk most of this section but were having wonderful luck. Ride followed ride and Barstow was soon behind us. Another prospector carried us for miles. He invited us to travel with him back among the mystic cinder cones to prospect for gold and silver but two weeks were more than we could afford to spend. He left us at dark, twenty-six miles from the next water supply.
Spreading our blankets in the sagebrush, sleep failed to come and we were soon on the road again, even in the dark. A light showed miles away behind us. Although people here were cautious about picking up strangers, especially at night, luck was at hand. A car stopped and an hour-and-a-half later had bumped its way over a dismal road into Ludlow.
Our first day on the desert was far different than expected. Although it had been hot we had not suffered with our coats on all day. The desert nights were supposed to be freezing, yet we were completely comfortable under starry skies and slept warmer than at any time since arriving in Burke six months before. As to travel, this 135 miles had taken just one day instead of the expected four.
"Wake up, Win. It's seven o'clock."
"Oh golly. We've missed any cars leaving Ludlow. "
On the desert, where the towns are far apart, it is essential that the hiker be on the road early to catch the cars just departing. If the first bunch heads out it may be hours before others come along. Such was our luck this morning but we made up for it by soaking in all the desert scenery for miles around. The vast open stretches had a gripping fascination that commanded either respect and love or loathing and hatred. Already we were beginning to love them.
For hours and hours we walked then, as the heat grew intense, took turns napping in a patch of roadside shade. The one who had to stay awake and watch for cars either wrote letters or practiced public speaking exercises on some poor cactus. As long as there was food in our packs and water in our pail nothing ever bothered us much. Just before dark a car came along which carried us into the small town of Amboy. The people were crowded but offered to take us to Needles the next morning and we gladly accepted. Thirty miles of travel, quite a bit of it walking, had been our accomplishment for the day.
The greasewood (creosote) surrounding Amboy was the ideal place to make camp and cook, and we did not have to go far to reach it. One could stand in the center of town and throw a stone to the virgin desert. To prove that statement, Win actually tried it. Amboy had to haul its water supply thirty-eight miles.
As the sun poured its first morning rays over the landscape we started our little fire and cooked the morning meal. Rice was our mainstay on the desert. It was cheap and easy to pack, healthful, and strengthening. The Japanese licked the czar's armies while living on a rice diet, so it was good enough for us. Only fifteen minutes over a greasewood fire was required to cook it tender enough to be digestible, and our stomachs had acquired a cast-iron lining.
The people with whom we rode to Needles were on their way home to South Dakota, and so heavily loaded with baggage we felt ashamed to impose on them. Win offered to stand on the running board and he clung there the entire eighty-one miles across a bad desert country.
Needles, situated on the west bank of the Colorado River, was California's eastern outpost. Its importance could not be judged by the fact that it had only 4,000 inhabitants. A town of that size in the East was seldom even known throughout its own state, but a desert town of 4,000 was a metropolis, influencing the country for miles in all directions. We turned down the river towards Topock, Arizona, where the wagon road crossed the muddy Colorado.
An aging truck with two men in the front bumped over the bridge which spanned not only the river but the state line. Win and I each gave the driver a smile and a cheery wave.
"Not much room," he called out, "but maybe you can pile in the back."
Dreams such as this could not happen more than once or twice in a hiker's lifetime. The back of the truck was filled two feet deep with California oranges.
"Help yourself to a couple," the man suggested. "There's some sandwiches in the sack too. My partner and I can't eat any more. "
What a welcome to Arizona, our 17th state! No one kept count of how many oranges Win and I peeled and ate. Had our host meant a couple of oranges, or a couple of dozen? To repay the fellows for their generosity we helped them sell oranges in Oatman, a typical Arizona gold mining town wedged in a canyon. The setting brought back memories of Burke.
Loading up with food and water Win and I started up a mountainside looking for a camping place and shelter from the wind. A niche in the rocks seemed inviting, where the incline was gentle enough to stick all night. After clearing away the cactus for six or seven feet we placed rocks to brace our feet, and rolled in. Sleep came easily despite the fact that Win made funny noises when he rolled out onto a young cactus. No amount of work would have removed the lava rock from beneath us, and our hips were sore and lacerated next morning. All of which made us resolve to sleep in the valleys in the future.
Our trail next day led through a curious country of tumbled, misshapen mountains. Camel's humps and saddlebacks seemed to predominate but every known mountain shape was thrown in. The peaks finally petered out on the flats near Kingman. This place could almost be termed a city. Like Oatman, its interests were mostly in mining. Prices were extremely high.
All afternoon we fought our way against a severe wind over alternating mountain and desert country. I took a nap for a couple of hours while Win guarded the back road. There was little excitement or life along the hot trail, nor was there much travel. Once we saw a Gila monster, and there were plenty of lizards darting about. Late in the afternoon we stumbled on a freshly killed coyote which some rancher had probably shot.
The high wind never abated, and at night, after traveling sixty-seven miles—a lot of it hot, windy walking—we were really exhausted. The country was cut by sharp ragged hills and numerous ravines, and dotted by dwarf junipers and pinyons. Leaving the trail we followed a sandy arroyo and found a little spring which bubbled up, ran a few feet, then disappeared again into the sands. On one side of the arroyo the bank was high and steep. On the other side we climbed out to a small clearing surrounded by bushes, with a couple of pinyons growing near the bank. Under these two trees our little fire was soon started as the moon began to cast its ghostly shadows on our camp.
It might be well to mention that the current newspapers were filled with lurid accounts of Utah Indians who had left their reservation and were on the warpath. We were camped just half a mile from the boundary of the immense Havasupai Indian reservation. Furthermore, we were worn out and nervous. Win graphically described the evening's events in his diary.
"As I nursed our little fire, Francis crept down to the spring to get some water. Suddenly I heard the faint hoot of an owl. It came again. It was our signal for danger. We have a complete code of signals using various combinations of owl hoots. I had received the danger signal from Francis so answered with a single `ooh.' As Francis slid into camp he asked why I had signaled danger to him. In astonishment I was about to ask why he had signaled danger to me, when all of a sudden owls began to hoot in all directions. A hoot from the hillside was answered by a hoot from the bushes, to be immediately followed by a hoot from the upper end of the arroyo. We covered our fire. A twig cracked in the brush, another cracked in the arroyo below our pinyons, and as I jumped to my feet someone ran through the bushes. I cried, 'Hello, partner, what's up?' The footsteps stumbled, then ceased altogether, but there was no reply. I crept back to where Francis was crouching under the pinyons, to hold a conference.
"With no means of protection other than our fists we figured we could use them as well by firelight as by moonlight, so uncovered our fire and began to cook again. The fire made it impossible to see more than a rod away, but believe me, our eyes were open. For several minutes the only sound that broke the stillness of the night was the bubbling of our rice. Then we heard someone carefully picking his way along the arroyo bed. I jumped from the circle of the fire so I could see the moonlit bed of the arroyo. Again I yelled, 'Hello. ' There was silence. I gave a shriek. Then came a fearful crash which raised Francis six inches from the ground. When he crawled over and picked me up I was laughing so I could hardly stand.
"The moment I had hollered hello, my eyes had accustomed themselves to the half light so I could see the object in the gulch. My shriek had done the work. The poor thirsty heifer was nearly scared to death as she crashed down the arroyo to safety from the awful two-legged humans whom she couldn't understand. The owl hoots continued at intervals during the night; they were probably real owls, not Indians. Next morning our scalps were still firmly attached in their accustomed places. "
When we finally rolled out of our blankets next day we had a good laugh at ourselves for the way we had acted the night before. Cars were scarce. We did manage to get a truck ride into Peach Springs but, for some outlandish reason, failed to stock up on food and water before leaving. With our minds filled with thoughts of the Grand Canyon, which was quite close now, we plugged on across the lonely land.