At four P.M. we had doubled our distance and were ninety or a hundred miles from Salt Lake.
And now we entered upon one of that species of deserts whose concentrated hideousness shames the diffused and diluted horrors of Sahara—an “alkali” desert. For sixty- eight miles there was but one break in it. I do not remember that this was really a break; indeed it seems to me that it was nothing but a watering depot in the midst of the stretch of sixty-eight miles. If my memory serves me, there was no well or spring at this place, but the water was hauled there by mule and ox teams from the further side of the desert. There was a stage station there. It was forty-five miles from the beginning of the desert, and twenty-three from the end of it."
We plowed and dragged and groped along, the whole live-long night, and at the end of this uncomfortable twelve hours we finished the forty-five- mile part of the desert and got to the stage station where the imported water was. The sun was just rising. It was easy enough to cross a desert in the night while we were asleep; and it was pleasant to reflect, in the morning, that we in actual person had encountered an absolute desert and could always speak knowingly of deserts in presence of the ignorant thenceforward. And it was pleasant also to reflect that this was not an obscure, back country desert, but a very celebrated one, the metropolis itself, as you may say. All this was very well and very comfortable and satisfactory—but now we were to cross a desert in daylight. This was fine—novel—romantic—dramatically adventurous—this, indeed, was worth living for, worth traveling for! We would write home all about it.
This enthusiasm, this stern thirst for adventure, wilted under the sultry August sun and did not last above one hour. One poor little hour—and then we were ashamed that we had “gushed” so. The poetry was all in the anticipation—there is none in the reality. Imagine a vast, waveless ocean stricken dead and turned to ashes; imagine this solemn waste tufted with ash-dusted sage-bushes; imagine the lifeless silence and solitude that belong to such a place; imagine a coach, creeping like a bug through the midst of this shoreless level, and sending up tumbled volumes of dust as if it were a bug that went by steam; imagine this aching monotony of toiling and plowing kept up hour after hour, and the shore still as far away as ever, apparently; imagine team, driver, coach and passengers so deeply coated with ashes that they are all one colorless color; imagine ash-drifts roosting above moustaches and eyebrows like snow accumulations on boughs and bushes. This is the reality of it.
The sun beats down with dead, blistering, relentless malignity; the perspiration is welling from every pore in man and beast, but scarcely a sign of it finds its way to the surface—it is absorbed before it gets there; there is not the faintest breath of air stirring; there is not a merciful shred of cloud in all the brilliant firmament; there is not a living creature visible in any direction whither one searches the blank level that stretches its monotonous miles on every hand; there is not a sound—not a sigh—not a whisper—not a buzz, or a whir of wings, or distant pipe of bird—not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless people that dead air. And so the occasional sneezing of the resting mules, and the champing of the bits, grate harshly on the grim stillness, not dissipating the spell but accenting it and making one feel more lonesome and forsaken than before."
The mules, under violent swearing, coaxing and whip-cracking, would make at stated intervals a “spurt,” and drag the coach a hundred or may be two hundred yards, stirring up a billowy cloud of dust that rolled back, enveloping the vehicle to the wheel-tops or higher, and making it seem afloat in a fog. Then a rest followed, with the usual sneezing and bit- champing. Then another “spurt” of a hundred yards and another rest at the end of it. All day long we kept this up, without water for the mules and without ever changing the team. At least we kept it up ten hours, which, I take it, is a day, and a pretty honest one, in an alkali desert. It was from four in the morning till two in the afternoon. And it was so hot! and so close! and our water canteens went dry in the middle of the day and we got so thirsty! It was so stupid and tiresome and dull! and the tedious hours did lag and drag and limp along with such a cruel deliberation! It was so trying to give one’s watch a good long undisturbed spell and then take it out and find that it had been fooling away the time and not trying to get ahead any! The alkali dust cut through our lips, it persecuted our eyes, it ate through the delicate membranes and made our noses bleed and kept them bleeding—and truly and seriously the romance all faded far away and disappeared, and left the desert trip nothing but a harsh reality—a thirsty, sweltering, longing, hateful reality!
Two miles and a quarter an hour for ten hours—that was what we accomplished. It was hard to bring the comprehension away down to such a snail-pace as that, when we had been used to making eight and ten miles an hour. When we reached the station on the farther verge of the desert, we were glad, for the first time, that the dictionary was along, because we never could have found language to tell how glad we were, in any sort of dictionary but an unabridged one with pictures in it. But there could not have been found in a whole library of dictionaries language sufficient to tell how tired those mules were after their twenty-three mile pull. To try to give the reader an idea of how thirsty they were, would be to “gild refined gold or paint the lily.”
Somehow, now that it is there, the quotation does not seem to fit—but no matter, let it stay, anyhow. I think it is a graceful and attractive thing, and therefore have tried time and time again to work it in where it would fit, but could not succeed. These efforts have kept my mind distracted and ill at ease, and made my narrative seem broken and disjointed, in places. Under these circumstances it seems to me best to leave it in, as above, since this will afford at least a temporary respite from the wear and tear of trying to “lead up” to this really apt and beautiful quotation.
To Fish Springs. 29th September.
At Lost Springs the party was mustered. The following was found to be the material. The Ras Kafilah was one Kennedy, an Irishman, whose brogue, doubly Dublin, sounded startlingly in the Great American Desert. On a late trip he had been victimized by Indians. The savages had driven off two of his horses into a kanyon within sight of the Deep-Creek Station. In the hurry of pursuit he spurred up the ravine, followed by a friend, when, sighting jerked meat, his own property, upon the trees, he gave the word sauve qui peut. As they whirled their horses the Yutas rushed down the hill to intercept them at the mouth of the gorge, calling them in a loud voice dogs and squaws, and firing sundry shots, which killed Kennedy's horse and pierced his right arm. Most men, though they jest at scars before feeling a wound, are temporarily cowed by an infliction of the kind, and of that order was the good Kennedy.
The next was an excellent traveler, by name Howard. On the road between Great Salt Lake City and Camp Floyd I saw two men, who addressed me as Mr. Kennedy the boss, and, finding out their mistake, followed us to the place of rendezvous. The party, with one eye gray and the other black, mounted upon a miserable pony, was an American. After a spell at the gold diggings of California he had revisited the States, and he now wished to return to his adopted country without loss of time. He was a hardy, fine-tempered fellow, exceedingly skilled in driving stock. His companion was a Frenchman and ex-Zouave, who, for reasons best known to himself, declared that he came from Cuba, and that he had forgotten every word of Spanish. Like foreigners among Anglo-Scandinavians generally, the poor devil fared badly. He could not hold his own. With the most labor, he had the worst of every thing. He felt himself mal placé, and before the end of the journey he slunk away.
At Losť Springs we were joined by two Mormon fugitives, "pilgrims of love," who had, it was said, secretly left the city at night, fearing the consequences of having “loved not wisely, but too well.” The first of the Lotharios was a Mr.R- an English farrier-blacksmith, mounted upon an excellent horse and leading another. He soon took offense at our slow rate of progress, and, afflicted by the thought that the avenger was behind him, left us at Deep Creek, and "made tracks” to Carson City in ten days, with two horses and a total traveling kit of two blankets. We traced him to California by the trail of falsehoods which he left on the road. His comrade, Mr. A- , a New Englander, was also an apostate Mormon, a youth of good family and liberal education, who, after ruining himself by city sites and copper mines on Lake Superior, had permanently compromised himself with society by becoming a Saint. Also a Lothario, he had made his escape, and he proved himself a good and useful member of society. I could not but admire the acuteness of both these youths, who, flying from justice, had placed themselves under the protection of a judge. They reminded me of a debtor friend who found himself secure from the bailiff only within the walls of Spike Island or Belvidere Place, Southwark.
Another notable of the party was an apostate Jew and soi disant apostate Mormon who answered to the name of Rose. He had served as missionary in the Sandwich Islands, and he spoke Kanaka like English. His features were those which Mr. Thackeray loves to delineate; his accents those which Robson delights to imitate. He denied his connection with the Hebrews. He proved it by eating more, by driving a better bargain, by doing less work than any of the party. It was truly refreshing to meet this son of old Houndsditch in the land of the Saints, under the shadow of New Zion, and the only drawback to our enjoyment was the general suspicion that the honorable name of apostate covered the less respectable calling of spy. He contrasted strongly with Jim Gilston of Illinois, a lath-like specimen of humanity, some six feet four in length-a perfect specimen of the Indianized white, long hair, sun-tanned, and hatchet-faced; running like an ostrich, yelping like a savage, and ready to take scalp at the first provocation. He could not refrain, as the end of the journey drew nigh, from deserting without paying his passage. Mr. Colville, a most determined Yankee, far advanced in years, was equally remarkable. He had $90 in his pocket. He shivered for want of a blanket, and he lived on hard bread, bacon, and tea, of which no man was ever seen to partake. Such were the seven “free men,” the independent traders of the company. There were also six"broths of boys," who paid small sums up to $40 for the benefit of our escort, and who were expected to drive and to do general work. Traveling soon makes friends. No illusions of amicitia, however, could blind my eyes to the danger of entering an Indian country with such an escort. Untried men for the most part, they would have discharged their weapons in the air and fled at the whoop of an Indian, all of them, including Jake the Shoshonee, who had been permitted to accompany us as guide, and excepting our stanch ones, Howard, “Billy' the colt, and “Brandy” the dog.
The station was thrown somewhat into confusion by the presence of a petticoat, an article which in these regions never fails to attract presents of revolvers and sides of bacon. "Gentle Annie,” attended by three followers, was passing in an ambulance from California to Denver City, where her “friend” was. To most of my companions' inquiries about old acquaintances in California, she replied, in Western phrase, that the individual subject of their solicitude had “got to git up and git," which means that he had found change of air and scene advisable. Most of her sentences ended with a "you bet,' even under circumstances where such operation would have been quite uncalled for. So it is related that when Dr. P--, of Camp Floyd, was attending Mrs. A.B.C. at a most critical time, he asked her tenderly, “Do you suffer much, Mrs. C. ?” to which the new matron replied, “You bet!"
We set out about noon, on a day hot as midsummer by contrast with the preceding nights, for a long spell of nearly fifty miles. Shortly after leaving the station the road forks. The left-hand path leads to a grassy spring in a dwarf kanyon near the southern or upper part of a river bottom, where emigrants are fond of camping. The hills scattered around the basin were of a dark metallic stone, sunburnt to chocolate. The strata were highly tilted up and the water-lines distinctly drawn. After eight miles we descended into the yellow silty bed of a bald and barren fiumara, which was not less than a mile broad. The good judge sighed when he contrasted it with Monongahela, the "river of the falling banks.” It flows northward, and sinks near the western edge of the lake. At times it runs three feet of water. The hills around are white-capped throughout the winter, but snow seldom lies more than a week in the bottoms.
After twenty miles over the barren plain we reached, about sunset, the station at the foot of the Dugway. It was a mere “dug-out”-a hole four feet deep, roofed over with split cedar trunks, and provided with a rude adobe chimney. The tenants were two rough young fellows-station-master and express rider — with their friend, an English bull-dog. One of them had amused himself by decorating the sides of the habitation with niches and Egyptian heads. Rude art seems instinctively to take that form which it wears on the banks of Nilus, and should some Professor Rafinesque discover these traces of the aborigines after a sepulture of a century, they will furnish materials for a rich chapter on anti-Columbian immigration. Water is brought to the station in casks. The youths believe that some seven miles north of the “Dugway” there is a spring, which the Indians, after the fashion of that folk, sensibly conceal from the whites. Three wells have been sunk near the station. Two soon led to rock; the third has descended 120 feet, but is still bone dry. It passes first through a layer of surface silt, then through three or four feet of loose, friable, fossilless, chalky lime, which, when slaked, softened, and, mixed with sand, is used as mortar. The lowest strata are of quartz gravel, forming in the deeper parts a hard conglomerate. The workmen complained greatly of the increasing heat as they descend. Gold now becomes uppermost in man's mind. The youths, seeing me handle the rubbish, at once asked me if I was prospecting for gold.
After roughly supping we set out, with a fine round moon high in the skies, to ascend the “Dugway Pass” by a rough dusty road winding round the shoulder of a hill, through which a fiumara has burst its way. Like other Utah mountains, the highest third rises suddenly from a comparatively gradual incline, a sore formation for cattle, requiring draught to be at least doubled. Arriving on the summit, we sat down, while our mules returned to help the baggage-wagons, and amused ourselves with the strange aspect of the scene. To the north, or before us, and far below, lay a long broad stretch, white as snow — the Saleratus Desert, west of the Great Salt Lake. It wore a grisly aspect in the silvery light of the moon. Behind us was the brown plain, sparsely dotted with shadows, and dewless in the evening as in the morning. As the party ascended the summit with much noisy shouting, they formed a picturesque group-the well-bred horses wandering to graze, the white-tilted wagons with their panting mules, and the men in felt capotes and huge leather leggins. In honor of our good star which had preserved every hoof from accident, we “liquored up on that summit, and then began the descent.
Having reached the plain, the road ran for eight miles over a broken surface, with severe pitch-holes and wagon-tracks which have lasted many a month; it then forked. The left, which is about six miles the longer of the two, must be taken after rains, and leads to the Devil's Hole, a curious formation in a bench under “High Mountain," about ninety miles from Camp Floyd, and south, with a little westing, of the Great Salt Lake. The Hole is described as shaped like the frustrum of an inverted cone, forty feet in diameter above, twelve to fifteen below. As regards the depth, four lariats of forty feet each, and a line at the end, did not, it is said, reach the bottom. Captain Simpson describes the water as brackish. The drivers declare it to be half salt. The Devil's Hole is popularly supposed to be an air-vent or shaft communicating with the waters of the Great Salt Lake in their subterraneous journey to the sea (Pacific Ocean). An object cast into it, they say, is sucked down and disappears; hence, if true, probably the theory.
We chose the shorter cut, and, after eight miles, rounded Mountain Point, the end of a dark brown butte falling into the plain. Opposite us and under the western hills, which were distant about two miles, lay the station, but we were compelled to double, for twelve miles, the intervening slough, which no horse can cross without being mired. The road hugged the foot of the hills at the edge of the saleratus basin, which looked like a furrowed field in which snow still lingers. In places, warts of earth tufted with greasewood emerged from hard, flaky, curling silt-cakes; in others, the salt frosted out of the damp black earth like the miniature sugar-plums upon chocolate bonbons. We then fell into a saline resembling freshly-fallen snow. The whiteness changes to a slaty blue, like a frozen pond when the water still underlies it; and, to make the delusion perfect, the black rutted path looked as if lately cut out after a snow-storm. Weird forms appeared in the moonlight. A line of sand-heaps became a row of railroad cars; a raised bench was mistaken for a paling; and the bushes were any thing between a cow and an Indian. This part of the road must be terrible in winter; even in the fine season men are often compelled to unpack half a dozen times.
After ascending some sand-hills we halted for the party to form up in case of accident, and Mr. Kennedy proceeded to inspect while we prepared for the worst part of the stage—the sloughs. These are three in number, one of twenty and the two others of 100 yards in length. The tule, the bayonet-grass, and the tall rushes enable animals to pass safely over the deep slushy mud, but when the vegetation is well trodden down, horses are in danger of being permanently mired. The principal inconvenience to man is the infectious odor of the foul swamps. Our cattle were mad with thirst; however, they crossed the three sloughs successfully, although some had nearly made Dixie's Land in the second.
Beyond the sloughs we ascended a bench, and traveled on an improved road. We passed sundry circular ponds garnished with rush; the water is sulphury, and, according to the season, is warm, hot, or cold. Some of these debord, and send forth what the Somal would call Biya Gora, "night-flowing streams." About 3 A.M., cramped with cold, we sighted the station, and gave the usual “ Yep! Yep!" A roaring fire soon revived us; the strong ate supper and the weak went to bed, thus ending a somewhat fatiguing day.