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October 18, 1861: Corral Hollow

October 18, 2011

Camp 61

buckwheat

Eriogonum roseum; by randomtruth, on Flickr

Every night now is windy, the days warm (about 80°—84° F.), hazy, or dusty—I cannot say smoky—but the air is thicker than in our thickest Indian summer. It interferes with the work of our topographer very seriously.

We will leave tomorrow. I sent Averill on today for barometrical observations to connect with this camp. I have been hard at work every day, and provisions getting lower. Peter shot some quail and rabbits, and we have had two or three “potpies” that vanished before our attacks like dew on a summer’s morning. But small game is scarce (except tarantulas) and this morning we bought half a deer of a hunter.

This hunter, by the way, is an old companion of “Grizzly” Adams. His cabin is near our camp. We are camping by Adams’ spring, the ruins of his cabin are within a hundred yards of me. This man came here and lived with Adams before he left, and has hunted ever since, but he complains that civilization has interfered seriously with his sport. “We had good times before the settlers came,” he says, and he bears terrible scars, the trophies of contact with grizzlies. He told me this morning that he had killed seven or eight hundred deer here since he came, but they are getting scarce now. He was so badly used by a bear last spring that he has hunted none all summer and is just beginning again now. His venison was very acceptable, for our “table” has not exhibited a great variety of late—tea without sugar or milk, bread, pork, and beans. We have tea for only two days more, and water too bad to drink alone.

For the last few days we have been hard at work here, exploring the hills, and will be off in the morning. I shall be glad when we can get stores again, hear the news, and get a drink of good water. I assure you the last is no little item. But such things are incidental to our work and are most cheerfully borne.

Much of the region around here is practically a desert, not called so, but really so. The bed of this stream tells of a large stream at times, but often years pass without any water flowing down it to the plain, much less to the river beyond.

san joaquin snakeweed

Gutierrezia californica; by randomtruth, on Flickr

The region is thrown up into hills from one thousand to three thousand feet high. These on the north are all rounded and furrowed with canyons, but almost destitute of springs, and at the present time are dry beyond anything you can picture to your mind. Sometimes the soil is cracked, in other places dry sand, and in others a dry clay-loam, as dry as ashes, into which the mules sink to the fetlock at every step. There is scanty herbage here and there, but large patches are as bare as a dried summer fallow. I have been on hills today where there were such soils, with here and there scattered bushes—artemisia, sage, etc.—living, yet the leaves so dry that they crumble with the slightest touch. They are reduced to dust in the hand in an instant if you rub them, yet they are alive, and with the first rain these same leaves will show that they are alive. They are not shed every year, only dry up. I picked some low green herbs—small, to be sure, but perfectly green—in one place, on a soil as dry as if it had been dried in an oven, a soil that had been exposed to this scorching sun for many months without either rain or dew. There is no dew here now, the nights are as dry as your dry days, and things will dry as fast.

tarantula hawk

Tarantula Hawk; by randomtruth, on Flickr

I wished to preserve some tarantulas—I will send you one when I can—so a day or so ago I caught a couple. This incited the boys—yesterday they caught some and made them fight. I tried it this evening. One of the boys went out and caught four near camp, huge fellows, and placed two near each other and irritated them. Soon they closed in—such a biting—they clasp each other firmly, then bite until one or the other dies. You can see the poison exude from their jaws. Pleasant fellows to find in one’s boot or coat sleeve! They live in holes in the ground, and, on the whole, are not dangerous.

There is a large blue wasp with orange wings, a wasp two or three times as large as the largest hornet of the East, that is the natural enemy of the tarantula. I have never seen a field battle, but we caught one yesterday and made him fight a tarantula in a box. In this instance the tarantula was victorious. In the field the wasp is—he lies down on his back, and as the tarantula pounces on him, he stings him and suddenly glides out, and soon kills his bigger foe.

The wind is roaring down the canyon, a stiff breeze, and not comfortable for sleeping.

Specimens collected: Eriogonum wrightii var. trachygonum; Eriogonum roseum; Gutierrezia californica; Malvella leprosa; Eriogonum angulosum; Chamaesyce ocellata.

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