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Spring in Death Valley

ISSUE:  Summer 1941

On the fourth of November, 1849, a long train of more than a hundred covered wagons, with several hundred other cattle in addition to the draught animals, started south from Salt Lake, bound for California, It was too late in the season to go west, down the Humboldt and over the Donner Pass, though that was the direct route to the gold strikes; and the gold seekers were too impatient to wait for spring. No wheeled vehicle, to be sure, had ever gone to southern Utah and thence over the old Spanish Trail to Los Angeles, but a Mormon guide was found who felt sure the trip was possible, and the procession started. The company was composed largely of young men, but there were a number of women and children, A hundred wagons strung in single file, with the herds of cattle plodding on behind, would have made a brave show back in Missouri. But on the vast, bare Utah plain, beneath the mighty wall of the Wasatch Mountains, they were a crawling flick of dust.

Near the present town of Cedar City in southern Utah someone gave the Argonauts what he pretended was the map of a “cut off” they could take directly west to Owens Lake and thence over the High Sierra, coming down into California several hundred miles nearer the gold fields. Their Mormon guide was highly skeptical, but a considerable number of the party, impatience conquering prudence, ignored his advice, cut away from the main caravan, and started due west. Among them was a party of young men called the Jay Hawkers, and at least three families with young children, They were, of course, plunging into one of the most arid regions and most difficult terrains in the United States, and had they ever reached Owens Lake, they would have been confronted by the 14,500 foot wall of Mount Whitney, with no pass in either direction for a hundred miles.

Two weeks of struggle through the bare Nevada mountains brought them within sight of a snow summit to the west, which they supposed was a peak of the High Sierra. After great privation and hardship they crossed the Amar-gosa Desert and found a pass through the Funeral Mountains. The Jay Hawkers were the first party through. They emerged on the day before Christmas not on the shores of Owens Lake, but into a vast sink, its floor gleaming white with salt, its western wall composed of the snow mountain which had been their beacon. With the oxen almost starved, there was no way to haul their wagons over. At a point halfway between the two hotels which now make this arid sink a winter resort, the Jay Hawkers burned their wagons.

On Christmas Day other parties struggled in, including those with women and children. The oxen were only skin and bones. The men and women were tortured with thirst and despair. They had no idea where they were, nor how they were ever going to escape from this parched sink in the earth’s crust. How they did escape, on foot—some by climbing over the main wall of the Panamint Range—and how most of them ultimately crossed the Mojave Desert and came down in late March like specters of hunger to the Spanish ranches of San Fernando is one of the great sagas of our Western migration. It was one of the party that climbed directly over the Panamints who took a final backward look into the sink hole where their abandoned wagons lay, and the bodies of some of their comrades, and cried out, “Goodbye, Death Valley!”

The name stuck, and for long it was deserved. Even today, when the whole region is under the National Park Service and boasts two hotels, a motor camp, oiled highways, and well marked springs, about which the Forty-niners knew nothing, the Valley is practically uninhabitable in summer, when the thermometer has sometimes reached 135 ° in the shade, and to stray from the patrolled roads may be fatal. As you come into it from the east, preferably by Daylight Pass (because that brings you out at a higher elevation), you feel as though you had suddenly waked in a world dreamed by Dante. The Valley is about 130 miles long, and from six to sixteen miles wide. At its narrowest it is also at its deepest—280 feet below sea level. There on one side the Black Mountains shoot up in a sheer precipice six thousand feet high, and opposite them is the main wall of the Pana-mints capped by the eleven thousand foot Telescope Peak. In the center of the Valley is a yellow sand dune several miles in extent. There is no vegetation on the Valley floor visible from this height. In the extraordinarily dry air you can see from one end of the sink to the other: the salt beds shimmering like lakes, the naked mountains with their great fans of debris poured out of the jagged erosion canyons, exquisite with a hundred colors and cruel in their crystal-clear rigidity. And over it all, in winter and spring, broods the gleaming snow cap on the Panamints,

It was in Death Valley that Frank Norris’s McTeague came to his end, but literary references were far from my thoughts as I snapped off the engine and climbed a pyramid of chocolate-brown stone for a still better view. My thoughts went back to that Christmas Day in 1849 when perhaps a hundred people, hoping against hope to see Owens Lake and green grass, saw the glitter of salt, the drifts of sand, the hopeless barriers of naked rock. I moved on till car and highway were out of sight. In the dry air the immensity of the place cannot be grasped at first. That something clearly seen is twenty miles away you cannot believe. But the sense of it steals over you. If you are alone, something not unlike terror grabs you suddenly, and you wonder what would happen if you had to go on foot the rest of the journey. Then its beauty drives that thought away. And then you look down at your immediate surroundings.

I had been semi-conscious of vegetation as I climbed the chocolate-brown rocks. Indeed, it was really what I had come to Death Valley to find. But it had to await the first view of the landscape. The time was late March. There had been an unusual rainfall in January and February—over four inches. (The total annual precipitation in the Valley is normally less than two inches.) It had even rained a few days before we arrived, and was to rain again before we left. The results were already at my feet, here at the Valley gate.

Perched on a rock ledge, almost without visible soil, was an Indian head cactus, and, growing tight against it, a pale purple aster in full bloom, perhaps eighteen inches tall, the flowers large and solitary, (It is listed as Xylorrhiza torti-folia, for the information of the botanically inclined, and is said to be common in the Grand Canyon,) Working around the rocks I speedily came upon a little pocket shaded by an overhang, and blooming therein was a delightful plant eight inches tall, with bright red stems, bronze-green leaves, and rose-colored flowers an inch or more across, each petal blotched at the inner base with orange-vermilion. This was easily recognized as the spotted mallow.

Scattered through the rocks at this point were numerous little gold and purple phacelias (Phacelia Fremontii), rising a few inches from a cluster of short, dull leaves. They are one of the many varieties of phacelias, common almost everywhere when the desert blooms. And at the base of the cone, close to the road, where it had miraculously escaped the human vandals who seek it, was a fine bush of desert holly. This shrub, perhaps three feet high, turns silvery as the season wanes; it has pale red berries, and used to be pulled up wholesale by the same people, no doubt, who today display Christmas greens dipped in aluminum paint. The Park Department is trying to conserve and re-propagate it, but it will probably never be as numerous as it was. In common with all desert shrubs and larger plants, it grows in solitary specimens, for a single shrub requires all the moisture a considerable area can supply, and its roots extend long distances. The result is, of course, that when it is not wind-torn the bush achieves an almost perfect rotundity of compact foliage.

We went no farther afield at the moment, for the sun was already nearing the rim of the Panamints, Our motor slid down the detritus fan toward the yellow sand dunes. At the bottom we passed a bit of bog where real water gleamed. It was this water the Jay Hawkers tasted that Christmas Eve, and spat out when they found it brine, and near here that they burned their wagons. The car crested a slight ridge, and from a stretch of baked gravel, strewn with stones, rose four ravens, like crows from a newly planted corn field. They flew toward a mountain which looked near, but long before they reached it they dwindled to black specks and the air swallowed them. The creosote bushes were casting strong shadows, and their bright yellow blossoms gleamed in the low sun. In a few moments we were passing the dunes, where the blown sand is heaved into pyramids and razor-edged billows fifty feet high, and now at sunset was patterned with its own shadows, all its ripples accentuated. The car climbed westward to sea level and the one-story hotel built like a California ranch house around an open patio. We could see the road going on to the summit of the pass, five thousand feet above. No modern car would slacken speed to climb it. But when the Jay Hawkers faced that slope, roadless and piled with rocks, their oxen starved—they burned their wagons.

We went into the hotel, to a room with a bath— the water pumped from wells and quite unfit to drink, to be sure—and drank water brought by truck from a spring in the mountains.

Thereafter we spent many happy days both on the floor of the Valley, in the wild, steep canyons which break down into it from the mountains, or on the mountains themselves, with no thought in mind to tabulate what we found, but only to rejoice at the desert in bloom, and to savor the great loneliness which engulfs you as soon as you depart from the main highway. At night we would return to the hotel to find a new batch of tourists arriving, the batch who arrived the evening before having “seen” Death Valley and gone on.

It was in Titus Canyon, penetrated by the most hair-raising of winding roads built to reach a mine long since abandoned, that we saw the golden Prince’s Plume, so called by Helen Hunt Jackson in a sentimental mood. Stanleys pinnatifida bears its numerous yellow flowers on long wands three or four feet tall, a bit like plumes; but the flowers have long, curling petals, they straggle on the stem, and threadlike filaments jut out in all directions like antennae. Actually they resemble nothing so much as bright yellow spiders clinging to a stalk. This odd plant was growing quite alone at the foot of a sheer precipice. Close by, under the opposite precipice, was a spring of clear, good water, nourishing a bed of monkey flowers before its run-off sank in the sand. That day we were also to see the Death Valley or Funeral sage in the perfection of its bloom, it too choosing to show itself at the foot of a naked precipice. Its stems were pale and the delicate purple-blue flowers were borne at the same time with white seed cases like tiny powder puffs. It is not so lovely, perhaps, as the thistle sage which we were to find elsewhere, but it chooses its setting with more care. The thistle sage is a truly superb flower, quite independent of its setting. An annual, it sends up woolly stalks a foot or two from clusters of prickly, thistle-like leaves, and on top of each stalk is a ball of cotton. Out of this cotton ball peek the lilac-pink buds, as some botanist has said in a weak moment, “like babies from a blanket.” The buds open to cluster over the cotton ball like hovering butterflies. The flowers somewhat resemble those of our Eastern purple fringed orchis, with the added charm of a purple pistil and bright orange anthers. As one cotton ball thus adorns itself, the stem goes up through the center and forms another, and another. It is indeed difficult not to become sentimental over Salvia car-duacea, whether you find it lone and lovely at the foot of a Death Valley precipice or almost in clumps near the canyons leading down to the Los Angeles plain.

As we came out of the dark cleft of Titus Canyon, where the debris fan starts to spread to the Valley floor below, two sting bushes, twenty-five feet apart, confronted us. They were absolutely covered with bloom. We counted two hundred blossoms on the larger, and then gave up. There was literally nothing growing around them; only baked sand and rocks. The flowers, a pale, washed-out yellow, were somewhat like those of the handsomer thistle poppy. However, it was not for their beauty that we gazed long at these plants, nor certainly from any temptation to pick. It was for their extraordinary fecundity in this most arid of spots. I should like to have dug along the ground to discover how far their roots extended in the search for moisture, but feared to injure the plants. The roots of mesquite bushes (or trees as they are rated in the Valley) have been found, it is said, to extend over a hundred feet just under the surface. Probably in other cases they go far underground.

Late that day it rained. The clouds came in from the Gulf of California and settled low over the mountains. There were at first tiny dust explosions as the heavy drops hit the sand, and then the steady patter of rain on the roof as we went to sleep.

A day or two later we went to the northern end of the Valley, where there is an extinct crater for full measure of upheaval. It is a hole eight hundred feet deep, entirely rimmed with cinders, A more barren and desolate spot could not be devised by a German bomber. Close by is a naked eight thousand foot mountain. Southward stretches the whole expanse of the Valley, shimmering with heat. Under your feet the barren cinders crunch and must get as hot in summer as though they had been fresh erupted. But it had rained! There amid the cinders were thousands of tiny blue blossoms not larger than an old fashioned three-cent piece, with bright yellow anthers and borne on stems sometimes less than two inches tall. The dull foliage was sparse and on this dark ground hard to see at all in places. The entire energy of each little plant was concentrated on producing a perfect blossom or two. This was their only chance for several years, perhaps. In another week or two the seeds would set. Then the terrific heat of summer would come, and no vestige of the plants would be visible. The seeds would lie beneath the hot cinders and wait patiently a year, two years, maybe three years, till once again the moisture came. We felt we had been happily present at a miracle.

I have this little floral Cinderella listed, with a question mark, as a blue desert gilia. The question mark indicates that its closest affinity we could find in the “Manual of Western Wild Flowers” which we carried was the blue desert gilia, but this flower is not listed as growing in California. I have been in many of our National Parks and have always had the utmost difficulty in finding anybody to identify the flora with authority. No doubt most visitors ask for nothing more than motor roads and a camping site, but there are a few, surely, who look for something more, and simple but accurate and complete check lists of the park flora would not only add to their pleasure but also, perhaps, make new converts to conservation.

For the remainder of that week we rejoiced in the small things we found upon the desert floor, the little gilias and phacelias and Tiny Tims (a microscopic sunflower-like blossom, on a three-inch stem rising from a clump of prickly leaves), the desert sunflowers a foot tall, numerous enough to make a haze of gold over the bare earth, the pink trailing sand verbenas, and the small desert cousin of the famed California poppy. In one spot where we had gone to see the ghost of an old mining camp, a car had backed off the road when the ground was soft, and left two ruts. Here, apparently, some water had settled, for the tracks were filled with the little orange and gold poppies. Between them was a plant appropriately called turtle back, for its tight mat of gray foliage was indeed rounded like a turtle’s shell, a foot in length perhaps, and spotted with small yellow flowers.

As the sun grew hotter and the desire for water became more insistent, we climbed one day (in the car, I hasten to add) to the top of the pass over the Panamints, and turned south over an upland plateau till a road led up—and up is the correct word—to eight thousand feet, It is here that the park superintendent and the C.C.C. boys who have built the roads in the Valley come to sleep in the summer. Snow blocked us before we could reach the top of the road, and the air was chill and thin. We could look westward, over the arid sink of Panamint Valley and the Slate Range, to the great white wall of the High Sierra, and all around us, suddenly, were trees—piflon pines, then junipers, and higher up, limber pines could be seen. The larger trees hereabouts had been cut down a generation ago to make charcoal for the smelters at the mining camp pleasantly called Skidoo. The camp is only a memory now, but the charcoal “hives” remain —and the stumps. It was refreshing for a time to wander under junipers, however stunted, to tread on. needles and moist earth, to throw snowballs, and to look down and down into a parched desert. But after all, we had seen better evergreens than these on every Eastern mountain; our quest was below. The car, which by now had learned to foot it like a mule, crawled downward in low gear, and we entered the defile of Wild Rose Canyon, leading to the sink of Panamint Valley on the west side of the range, almost as hot and quite as arid as Death Valley itself. We were searching for the Enceliopsis argophylla, var. grandiflora, of which we had heard extravagant praises sung. Nowhere else could it be found, we were told, save in Wild Rose Canyon, and only in one spot there, and only on one side of the road. It might be in bloom, and it might not. Possibly it had been picked to extinction by tourists and by those seeking to propagate it elsewhere.

We were already acquainted with the other encelia of the Death Valley region, commonly called brittle bush, for we had seen it making a magnificent rock garden on a brown cliff at the head of Panamint Valley, dozens of the plants perched on the ledges holding up their bright yellow daisylike flowers and visible more than a mile away. But even the botanists, the scientific fellows who devise the awful Latin appellations for the specimens they collect and on which no two of them apparently agree, had expressed admiration for the large encelia, the Panamint daisy, on purely aesthetic grounds. It must, we thought, be worth a trip to see.

Wild Rose Canyon, despite its pleasant name, is a gloomy place. Steep walls of red and a peculiarly mournful greenish snuff color hem it in. Up on one bank are perched two or three abandoned miners’ cabins, ghosts of the days when jackass prospectors, driven on by the same lure that tugged the Forty-niners, roamed these hills and with pick and wheelbarrow made their tiny tunnels into the rock. The upper entrance to the canyon is a narrow cleft shutting out the sun. The lower end opens on the parched floor of Panamint Valley. Then my wife screamed; then the brakes screamed. We were out of the car and scrambling up the rocks. There it was—the Panamint daisy—or, rather, there they were! Not many, to be sure, as we reckon daisies in a New England field, but enough to prove that the stand is not extinct. I may add that there were just as many when we left.

How shall one describe a flower to another who has not seen it, or the setting where alone in all the world it grows? Out of a cluster or rosette of large, silvery, strong-stemmed leaves close to the ground, rise one or more tall, silvery stalks for at least two feet, each bearing at its top a huge, shining yellow daisy six inches or more across. The petals are narrow and numerous, the calyx is composed of five rows of frills, making a large button of deeper gold in the center of the blossom. Some of the plants were perched on ledges, some grew at the base of boulders, some in gravel runs. They climbed up the steep slope for a considerable distance, scattered over a few acres. Below that point in the canyon, or above, there were none, and none in what appeared to be similar rock and gravel across the narrow road. We supported the largest blossom against my palm to photograph it, and the petals stretched from the tip of the middle finger to the base of my hand, a distance of seven-and-one-quarter inches. The sun was striking in on this gloomy gorge, and in its rays the daisy petals danced and glinted. One thought irresistibly of Emerson’s “rose of beauty on the brow of chaos.” And almost as irresistibly one thought what a sensation this flower would make if it could be propagated and put on the market. And finally, one was glad that it has resisted all efforts to grow it elsewhere and can be seen only in its wild, desolate, natural setting, and only in return for a long journey across deserts and mountains. By what subtle chemistry of the soil it is supported here and not elsewhere, nobody knows, and I, for one, hope that they never discover.

It was the third day of April, at nine-thirty in the morning, when we departed from Death Valley. The thermometer under its latticed canopy read 104 °, but the heat wasn’t oppressive unless you moved rapidly. The car lifted us over the pass again with ridiculous speed and ease, so that had we never climbed on foot off the roads in this desert we could never have guessed either its immensity or its difficulties. We were headed southwest, more or less on the path the Forty-niners took when they escaped, across the Mojave and down through the Sierra Madre to Los Angeles. Once out in the wider spaces of the Mojave, the eye could sweep great distances, and everywhere, at the end, rose blue mountains capped with snow. The summit of Old Baldy far to the south was like a white cloud on the horizon, and even at the speed with which we traveled got no nearer for a long time. There was no water visible, no tree, no grass. Yet over this endless stretch the starved Forty-niners tramped, day after day, their last oxen dying so emaciated there was no food on their carcasses. Nor did they see what we saw.’ Perhaps it had been a dry winter. Perhaps the season was too early. But for us the whole desert had burst into bloom, and for fifty, yes, a hundred miles, till some wall of mountains stopped it, was a field of the cloth of gold.

This is not hyperbole. When the dry and naked desert blooms, it does so with a wholesale abandon, and there is no alien vegetation to obscure the flowers, not even the vegetation of the plants themselves. The plant leaves are low and small, often a mere rosette flat on the ground, the stems are short, often but two or three inches high, and the flowers are borne on top with faces lifted up to the sun. Growing thickly together, they form an even mat spreading over great areas, with gold the predominant color. There are, however, you discover on closer observation, many more varieties than the Baeria, or “gold fields,” which individually resemble tiny sunflowers. Among the most charming to us on this trip was a little gilia, white above, purple on the under side, A sheet of these flowers would spread like a thin snowdrift over the sand, twinkling in the bright sun and gentle breeze. Then the breeze would quicken in a gust, and for a second a blush of pink would pass over the field as the petals were upturned.

In Red Rock Pass where the Forty-niners found a spring that saved their lives, we too found a spring, and liked to fancy it was the same one; but I fear it was a relic of the recent rains. At any rate, it was on a sandy level, two or three hundred feet out from a vermilion precipice fluted like a gigantic organ. The run-off dampened the sand for twenty feet or more, and therein were blooming in solid masses two varieties of monkey flowers not over six inches high, little yellow ones with bright, delicate flowers spotted here and there with crimson, and the desert monkey flower (mimulus Fremontii) with flowers an inch across, magenta-colored with yellow throats. These latter flowers also bloomed here and there out over the seemingly dry sand, flushing the hollows with pink, Nearby, too, clustered under and around some sage brush, as if they needed both the shade and the humus cast down by the shrubs, were colonies of pink and white owl’s clover, with numerous other tiny but perfect blossoms, white and gold and blue. They crept out from the protection of the sage, like chicks from a hen’s wing, holding their anthers up to the sun which beat down upon the sand around them and molded deeper with purple shadows the great organ pipes of the fluted precipice.

Southward from Red Rock the field of the cloth of gold stretched to the town of Mojave, an incredible collection of filling stations, eating joints, freight yards, and smelters. Soon thereafter the coastal range began to come perceptibly nearer, Joshua trees appeared in their contorted dances, and suddenly to the west a bright tinge of orange colored a hillside. The desert was ending. We turned off the main highway towards a particularly vivid patch of orange, to find it a forty-acre field covered as thick as grass with California poppies. There were ranches and orchards in this valley, and wherever a plough had run a gutter beside the dirt road, a stream of poppies flowed therein, incredibly lush and, after the shy, delicate flowers of the desert, quite too showy for our pleasure.

“We are getting near Los Angeles,” said my wife. “Even the flowers know it.”

But as we sought the least-traveled canyon down to San Fernando, we passed an old horse browsing behind a fence, knee deep in lilac color, and we paused to see what made it, Plant after plant of thistle sage, two feet tali, the butterfly blossoms hovering on their cotton puffs 1 The old nag browsing in beauty; and behind us, far away across the desert, the naked mountains whence we had come; before us, the first pitch downward of the canyon, and trees and a brawling stream. So the desert ended with delicacy, after all, and we carried the memory with us down to that land of the sky-blue sports jacket and “Mission” bungalows and fantastic make-believe.


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