CHAPTER XXIV. ON THE CREST OF A FLOOD
A westward-bound train was bearing me across the Mojave Desert one day in May. In a few swiftly passing hours we had made a six-thousand foot descent from the plateau with its fir and aspen-covered mountain, its cedar and pinon-clothed foot-hills, and its extensive forests of yellow pine. Crimson and yellow-flowered cactus, sage and chaparral, succeeded the pines. The cool mountains had given way to burned-out, umber-coloured hills, rock-ribbed arroyos, and seemingly endless desert; and the sun was growing hotter every minute.
If the heat continued to increase, I doubted if I would care to take a half-planned Colorado River trip down to the Gulf. Visions of the California beaches, of fishing at Catalina and of horseback rides over the Sierra's trails, nearly unsettled my determination to stop at Needles, on the California side of the river. This was my vacation! Why undergo all the discomfort of a voyage on a desert stream, when the pleasures and comforts of the Pacific beckoned? One thing was sure, if I was not successful in securing a boat at Needles, the very next train would find me on board, bound for the Western Slope. By mid-afternoon the chaparral had disappeared and only the cactus remained - the ocotilla, covered with a million flowers, wave upon wave of crimson flame, against the yellow earth. Violet-veiled mountains appeared in the west, marking the southern trend of the Colorado. The air was suffocating. The train-created wind was like a blast from a furnace; yet with the electric fans whirring, with blinds drawn and windows closed to keep the withering air out, it seemed a little less uncomfortable in the car, in spite of the unvitalized air, than under the scorching sun.
We were beside the Colorado at last. I had a good view of the stream below, as we crossed the bridge - the Colorado in flood, muddy, turbulent, sweeping onward like an affrighted thing, - repulsive, yet with a fascination for me, born of an intimate acquaintance with the dangers of this stream. The river had called again! The heat was forgotten, the visions of the coast faded, for me the train could not reach Needles, ten miles up the river, quickly enough.
With my brother, I had followed this stream down to Needles, through a thousand miles of canyon. I had seen how it carved its way through the mountains, carrying them on, in solution, toward the ocean. At last I would see what became of all these misplaced mountains. I would see the tidal bore as it swept in from the Gulf. I had heard there were wild hogs which burrowed through the cane-brake. It may be that I would learn of a vessel at some port down on the Mexican coast, which I might reach and which would take me around the Lower California Peninsula. I felt sure there was such a port. No doubt I could have found books to tell me exactly what I would see, but too much information would spoil all the romance of such an adventure. It was all very alluring. With the spring flood on, the river could not help but be interesting and exciting, a pretty good imitation of the rapids, perhaps. If I could only secure a boat!
Half an hour later I was meeting old acquaintances about the hotel, connected with the station. The genial hotel manager, with the Irish name, was smilingly explaining to some newcomers that this was not hot; that "a dry heat at 110 degrees was not nearly as bad as 85 degrees back in Chicago," "and as for heat," he continued, "why down in Yuma" - then he caught sight of me, with a grin on my face, and perhaps he remembered that I had heard him say the same thing two years before, when it was even hotter; and he came over with out-stretched hand, - calling me uncomplimentary names, under his breath, for spoiling the effect of his explanation; all which was belied by his welcome. It takes an Irishman to run a big hotel in the middle of the desert.
A few inquiries brought out the information that I was not likely to get a boat. The stores did not keep them. I should have given my order two weeks before to an Indian who built boats to order at $2.00 a foot. This was a new one on me. Suppose a fellow wanted - well say, about $15.00 worth. It would look something like a tub, wouldn't it? Perhaps it was to be the coast, for me, after all.
The Colorado River in flood is a terrible stream. Unlike the Eastern rivers, there are no populous cities - with apologies to Needles and Yuma - along its shores, to be inundated with the floods. Unlike the rivers of the South, few great agricultural districts spread across its bottoms. Along the upper seven hundred miles there are not a half-dozen ranches with twenty-five acres under cultivation. But if destructive power and untamed energy are terrible, the Colorado River, in flood, is a terrible stream.
After changing into some comfortable clothes I sauntered past the railway machine shops down to the river, and up to where a fight was being waged to save the upper part of the town from being torn away by the flood. For a month past, car after car of rock had been dumped along the river bank, only to disappear in the quicksands; and as yet no bottom had been reached. Up to this point the fight was about equal. The flood would not reach its crest until two or three weeks later.
Beyond a fisherman or two there were few men by the river. The workmen had finished their day's labour. A ferryman said that I might talk an Indian into selling his boat, but it was doubtful. My next job was to find such an Indian.