May 16, 1863: Indian Wells
[Today] we came on to the Indian Wells, through the pass, twenty-eight miles. The valley narrows above Roberts’, but the slope is gradual, although we rise so high. It grows more and more barren, the granite mountains grow less and less timber as we work east. The summit is reached, 5,302 feet above the sea, where a strong breeze draws through, and, although so high, the air is as dry as in a severe drought at home—no wonder that a desert stretches so far on the east. This desert basin is very high, from three thousand to four thousand feet. As we look out on the plain, mountains rise from it in every direction, but they are but detached chains—one can travel all the way to the Colorado River on the plain, which is everywhere a terrible desert. One of the mountain chains, fifty miles distant, is the Slate Range, now creating much excitement because of silver mines discovered there.
This desert is but a continuation of the one described in my last letter. It has less yucca, but like that, is covered with scattered bushes, such as can stand a dryness you cannot appreciate East. Doctor Horn, of Camp Independence, in Owens Valley, a perfectly reliable man, was stationed in that valley last August. He has kept a rain gauge, and from that time to this, the rainy season, there has fallen in the aggregate less than a quarter of an inch of rain! None can fall now until next winter, and possibly not then, and yet these shrubs can live in such a climate, if they get a good wetting every two or three years. A view, comprising a field as large, or nearly as large, as the state of Connecticut, has not a single tree in sight. Such are the Californian deserts.
We descended gradually and curved around the hills for about fourteen miles from the summit to the Indian Wells, where we stopped. A more god-forsaken, cheerless place I have seldom seen—a spring of water—nothing else. Here was a cabin, where we got our suppers. There was not a particle of feed. A little grass (bunch grass) that can grow in a dry climate, occurs four miles distant—it is cut with a sickle, tied up in little bundles, and sold at ten cents per pound—and cracked corn at fifteen cents per pound. This we got for our horses. You can well imagine that the inhabitants of such a place are not the most refined, but they hold a claim four miles distant—“ranch,” they call it—where there is water and some feed, and keep horses that get used up on the desert.
On arriving at this miserable hole the first greeting was inquiries about Indians. Two men had reported seeing a band in the pass where we had come through. Several horses and mules had been discovered shot near there that day, and one man was missing. We had seen no Indians, although we had been well on the lookout.