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Death Valley
by [?]

Of the five hundred and fifty-seven thousand square miles of desert-land in the southwest Death Valley is the lowest below sea level, the most arid and desolate. It derives its felicitous name from the earliest days of the gold strike in California, when a caravan of Mormons, numbering about seventy, struck out from Salt Lake, to cross the Mojave Desert and make a short cut to the gold fields. All but two of these prospectors perished in the deep, iron-walled, ghastly sink-holes, which from that time became known as Death Valley.

The survivors of this fatal expedition brought news to the world that the sombre valley of death was a treasure mine of minerals; and since then hundreds of prospectors and wanderers have lost their lives there. To seek gold and to live in the lonely waste places of the earth have been and ever will be driving passions of men.

My companion on this trip was a Norwegian named Nielsen. On most of my trips to lonely and wild places I have been fortunate as to comrades or guides. The circumstances of my meeting Nielsen were so singular that I think they will serve as an interesting introduction. Some years ago I received a letter, brief, clear and well-written, in which the writer stated that he had been a wanderer over the world, a sailor before the mast, and was now a prospector for gold. He had taken four trips alone down into the desert of Sonora, and in many other places of the southwest, and knew the prospecting game. Somewhere he had run across my story

Desert Gold

in which I told about a lost gold mine. And the point of his letter was that if I could give him some idea as to where the lost gold mine was located he would go find it and give me half. His name was Sievert Nielsen. I wrote him that to my regret the lost gold mine existed only in my imagination, but if he would come to Avalon to see me perhaps we might both profit by such a meeting. To my surprise he came. He was a man of about thirty-five, of magnificent physique, weighing about one hundred and ninety, and he was so enormously broad across the shoulders that he did not look his five feet ten. He had a wonderful head, huge, round, solid, like a cannon-ball. And his bronzed face, his regular features, square firm jaw, and clear gray eyes, fearless and direct, were singularly attractive to me. Well educated, with a strange calm poise, and a cool courtesy, not common in Americans, he evidently was a man of good family, by his own choice a rolling stone and adventurer.

Nielsen accompanied me on two trips into the wilderness of Arizona, on one of which he saved my life, and on the other he rescued all our party from a most uncomfortable and possibly hazardous situation–but these are tales I may tell elsewhere. In January 1919 Nielsen and I traveled around the desert of southern California from Palm Springs to Picacho, and in March we went to Death Valley.

Nowadays a little railroad, the Tonapah and Tidewater Railroad, runs northward from the Santa Fe over the barren Mojave, and it passes within fifty miles of Death Valley.

It was sunset when we arrived at Death Valley Junction–a weird, strange sunset in drooping curtains of transparent cloud, lighting up dark mountain ranges, some peaks of which were clear-cut and black against the sky, and others veiled in trailing storms, and still others white with snow. That night in the dingy little store I heard prospectors talk about float, which meant gold on the surface, and about high grade ores, zinc, copper, silver, lead, manganese, and about how borax was mined thirty years ago, and hauled out of Death Valley by teams of twenty mules. Next morning, while Nielsen packed the outfit, I visited the borax mill. It was the property of an English firm, and the work of hauling, grinding, roasting borax ore went on day and night. Inside it was as dusty and full of a powdery atmosphere as an old-fashioned flour mill. The ore was hauled by train from some twenty miles over toward the valley, and was dumped from a high trestle into shutes that fed the grinders. For an hour I watched this constant stream of borax as it slid down into the hungry crushers, and I listened to the chalk-faced operator who yelled in my ear. Once he picked a piece of gypsum out of the borax. He said the mill was getting out twenty-five hundred sacks a day. The most significant thing he said was that men did not last long at such labor, and in the mines six months appeared to be the limit of human endurance. How soon I had enough of that choking air in the room where the borax was ground! And the place where the borax was roasted in huge round revolving furnaces–I found that intolerable. When I got out into the cool clean desert air I felt an immeasurable relief. And that relief made me thoughtful of the lives of men who labored, who were chained by necessity, by duty or habit, or by love, to the hard tasks of the world. It did not seem fair. These laborers of the borax mines and mills, like the stokers of ships, and coal-diggers, and blast-furnace hands–like thousands and millions of men, killed themselves outright or impaired their strength, and when they were gone or rendered useless others were found to take their places. Whenever I come in contact with some phase of this problem of life I take the meaning or the lesson of it to myself. And as the years go by my respect and reverence and wonder increase for these men of elemental lives, these horny-handed toilers with physical things, these uncomplaining users of brawn and bone, these giants who breast the elements, who till the earth and handle iron, who fight the natural forces with their bodies.