May 9, 1863: Antelope Valley
[Today] we bade adieu to Don Chico and followed down the edge of the mountains until near Lake Elizabeth, then struck across the desert north.
Now, I wish I could describe this desert so that you might really appreciate what it is—a great plain, rising gradually to the mountains on each side, sandy, but with clay enough in the sand to keep most of it firm, and covered with a scanty and scattered shrubby vegetation. It does not look so naked as much of the San Joaquin and Tulare plains that are not desert. The shrubs are of cragged growth, and belong to species which can stand the severest drought, for in some years there is scarcely any rain at all during the rainy season—a year may elapse and not an inch of rain fall.The most noticeable shrub of the region is a species of yucca (yucca gloriosa)1; the Mexicans call it “palm,” the Americans call it “cactus.” It is neither. It comes up, a single stalk, four to six inches in diameter, bristling with stiff leaves of the size and shape of a sharp bayonet. These die below as the plant increases in height, only a tuft remaining at the end. Sometimes it thus stands a single column fifteen to twenty feet high, with a tuft of leaves on the end. More often, however, it branches, and one sometimes sees a tree with numerous such branches, each with its tuft of leaves at the end, the trunk bare and without bark, apparently as dead as a fence rail. The plant is truly magnificent when in flower, spikes of flowers terminating the branches, with an immense number of blossoms, each nearly as large as a lily. Another species of yucca2, much smaller, grows on the drier mountains and is now in flower. It has a tuft of bayonet-like leaves at the bottom, which live and grow many years, like the century plant. At last, a flower stalk eight or ten feet high springs up from the center in an incredibly short time—this bears a pyramid of several hundred delicate greenish-white flowers, each of the size and somewhat the shape of a tulip. Of far less interest on this desert is the creosote bush, every part of which stinks, making the whole air offensive. Sage bushes (artemisia) make up most of the vegetation, however. This plain stretches off to the east, and many volcanic knobs rise from it, each perfectly bare of vegetation. At the base of one of these, fifteen miles from any other water, there is a nice spring of pure water. We found no feed, however, so pushed on. It became dark and we entered the mountains at Frémont’s Pass, east of the Tejon Pass. The wind came down fearfully through a gap. At a late hour we struck water and a little grass at Oak Creek, and there we camped and spent a most cheerless night. The wind was cold and it howled, and our poor animals fared nearly as badly as we, for there was scarcely any feed.
1Joshua Tree, Yucca brevifolia
2Chaparral Yucca, Yucca whipplei