Mojave Desert - True Facts, Legends, & Lies

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The Tropico Gold Mine

Los Angeles, California, where the streets were paved with Gold!

In 1896, Ezra Hamilton owned a brick factory in Los Angeles. He made brick pavers for the streets of the growing city. He began to notice flecks of gold in the clay and thought it worth checking out. He traveled to where the material was dug out of the ground and panned in the washes until he found some gold float. He followed the gold dust trail up into a canyon and discovered a rich vein of gold. He called the claim, Tropico. Through the years since the Tropico gold mine has been the richest producing gold mine in the western Mojave Desert.

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The History of the Tropico Gold Mine


My Little Friends

Yeah, I know ...

I haven’t paid too much attention to my little scurrying friends in the last couple years. But lately I found that if I move slow, and talk low, I can sit down right beside them and have a nice little one-sided chat.

This first one is a common side-blotched lizard I became acquainted with during a hike to Keane Springs in Death Valley.

Just behind the right front leg is the identifying side-blotch. It looks sort of like a halfmoon, or boat shape just inside the shadow. I was sitting about 3 feet from him/her. I told the tiny creature (about 6 inches long) that I wasn’t interested in eating right then and thank you for the photo op.

This is another common side-blotched lizard I found roaming around while I was hiking at Amboy Crater in the eastern Mojave.

This creature apparently had been attacked, maybe a year or so ago. Most lizards have regenerating, breakaway tails. This comes in handy when a predator grabs it by the tail. The lizard releases the end portion and runs off. The predator gets a little lizard snack instead of a full meal. The tail eventually grows back as can be seen by the difference in texture on this itty-bitty beast. Almost seems like a win-win for both predator and prey. Again the identifying side-blotch can be seen on the body just behind the front leg. The lizard was about 8 inches long. Notice the difference between the design on the back of this lizard and the one from Death Valley above. I told this animal that their home was in a beautiful place and thanked them for letting me enjoy it with them. I was kneeling about 3 feet away.

This last lizard is a Mojave fringe-toed lizard I sat next to in a remote sand dune field in the east Mojave.

This lizard was about 9-10 inches long. I sat about 2 feet from it while talking about how it was the longest, fattest, juciest, looking lizard of its kind I ever seen. Notice the fringed, or extra long toes on the feet. These act sort of as snowshoes keeping the tiny little feet from sinking in the sand. Other features include reversed nostrils and interlocking eyelids. Both of these help the reptile when under the sand, which they often are to regulate their sensitive body temperature.

I’ve never ate a lizard, but someday I might.

More about desert lizards

Death in Death Valley

Originally reported in an August, 1911 issue of the Inyo County Independent, by Phillip I. Earl

Death Valley is perhaps the West’s most aptly named geographical feature and over the years it has taken the lives of countless thousands of travelers, prospectors, treasure hunters and others who have ventured into its tortured, arid wilderness.

The circumstances of these deaths are roughly similar: horses died, they ran out of water, got lost, became delirious with the heat etc., but at least one of the valley’s victims left behind a more accurate account of his last days on earth.

Al William’s body was found on the morning of August 3, 1911 in Sharpe’s Camp a sometime spring a few miles southeast of Darwin, California. A Nevada inspector who had traversed Death Valley many times in the heat, Williams apparently lost his horse and then lost himself on this trip. He had set out from Coso Springs on May 18 and nothing more was heard of him until his body was found, though his freinds had searched for him earlier in the summer. Sick and unable to leave his camp, Williams apparently waited day by day for someone to come and rescue him. As he waited, he recorded his condition and thoughts in the following dairy which was found on his body:

Lost Gold!

Red Rock, Garlock & Lost Gold

Red Rock Canyon is the result of the grinding together of two geomorphic regions, the Mojave Desert and Great Basin. This uplifting takes place along the Garlock fault, which is what is known as a left lateral strike-slip fault. This means that the far side of the shot is moving to the left, and the part I’m standing on is moving to the right (slowly ). I believe the actual faultline is running somewhat through the middle of the shot.

The Garlock fault is the geologic dividing line between the Great Basin Desert, which extends from here north and east encompassing Nevada and western Utah. The Mojave Desert geo-range extends from here south and east to the Baja of California and east to the Colorado River. Botanically, I’m in the Mojave though, and the vegetation series extends north about 150 miles. However, immediately to the west is the Sierra Nevada range (southern).

The haze in the Cantil Valley beyond is the evaporate lifting from Koehn dry lake as it rained rain two days before. Somewhere in the area of the shot there are two caches of 1800s lost silver and gold. The silver was washed from a stagecoach that got caught in one of the canyons during a flash flood and was never found. Charlie Koehn’s lost stash of gold nuggets and jewelry is presumed to be buried in the valley, or foothills. He went to prison for trying to bomb a judge that had ruled against him in a lawsuit. He died in jail, but not until after he had tried to tell his best friend where his gold was. His buddy never found it.

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Lone Pine Canyon

About This Canyon

Lone Pine Canyon is a young, or new, canyon formed by the San Andreas fault which separates the Southern California and Mojave Desert regions. The fault runs pretty much down the center of the long canyon, follows the edge of the foothills across the ridge in the distance and passes to the left of San Jacinto Mountain furthest away in the shot. At the base of San Jacinto Mountain lies Palm Springs.

Visibility in this photo is about 60 miles. The high mountain to the left is the 10,000 ft. ridge and Mount San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino National Forest. San Gorgonio sits on the North American continental plate while San Jacinto sits upon the Pacific plate. San Jacinto will someday, millions of years from now, move west along the transverse range and sit to the right of where I’m now standing- The Lone Pine Canyon saddle.

A Moment of Silence

The Hottest Day
by Walter Feller

It was the morning of the hottest day
the warm, thick air began to weigh
heavy on God's creatures one and all
and hugging the slight shadows however small
they found a hole to scurry in
before the hottest day would begin

The Blackhawk Slide

Geo-Excitement & Thrills

The well defined bench beyond the pistachio farm midshot was once a towering mountain sitting on top of the mine in the distance and Blackhawk Mountain to its right. One day 17,000-20,000 years ago, for cause not known to us now, the mountain collapsed, crumbled into dust and slid down the slope. Spreading two miles wide and five miles long the totality of the event lasted 80 seconds. A popular theory indicates that the crumbled material rode on a cushion of air compressed under the slide, gliding across the desert before coming to a stop.


I Might be a Poet & Didn't Noet

Camping by a Desert Spring
by Walter Feller

I like this spring,
the one right here
I'd like to spend
the night right near
There is no water
not even a tree
But this old bed spring
is fine by me


Shoshone Bob

The screwbean mesquite -- properly prepared, these things will kill you

Shoshone Bob was a Shoshone Indian who lived out near Beatty east of Death Valley. He fermented a concoction of mesquite beans, bottled up a few jars and passed them around. The wild-eyed drunk that the aged soup produced was nothing compared to the delirium and illness it also caused. Yet, in times of prohibition any recipe that would give you a buzz and didn't kill you had a marketable potential. Bob's white friend Bill, had a buddy that was a State chemist. Bill mailed a sample to his pal and waited for an analysis. He was very careful not to include information that would tip off his friend's supervisor as to the nature of the elixir.

Weeks had passed, then months. Bill forgot about the analysis and got on about other things. Finally, one day there was a letter from the State. Bill opened it and read;


Your horse died of diabetes.

As retold from Harry Oliver's Desert Rat Scrapbook

More about the mesquite


The Hermit & the Mountain

Tom Vincent was a hermit that lived on the side of Mt Baden-Powell for over 50 years. In those years he discovered a mine and sold it off and lived on the little he made from the sale over the years as well as hunting bighorn sheep, deer and an occasional bear. He was a recluse and unfriendly and would often take pot shots at folks he didn't know to keep them away from his mountain. His only friend was the postmistress down in the valley on the other side of the mountain. Some said they were lovers and some said they didn't care if they were or not. But old Tom got sick one day and she packed him down the mountain and into the humanity that was somewhere in the Los Angeles of the early 1900s.

While he lay near death he asked if he could be buried in the Veterans cemetery. The officials checked and said they couldn't find his name on the roles. He said he had served in the Union Army during the Civil War and they should check under the name of Charles Vincent Dougherty. They did and they found his name. Of course they asked why he didn't give them that name in the first place?

Mojave Green

Mojave Rattlesnake

Before I get into this, “Mojave Green”, is a slang name for the Mojave Rattlesnake. I didn’t know that until a couple years after I moved to the desert. Sometimes though, the facts are just plain boring and a bit of B.S. can brighten things up and even change our lives.

One of the reasons I moved up here was that back in the olden days, one of my friend's Mother lived in a cabin out on a mesa nearby. Pretty nice place she had built out in back of a smaller cabin that her father-in-law had homesteaded way, way back. Anyhow, in the evening we’d sit in the little cabin, get insanely wasted and then go drive drunk and shoot inanimate stuff. In the morning, we’d drag our dehydrated, hungover, pitiful selves up to the main cabin for breakfast and listen to my friend’s Mom tell us stories about the desert-

One of the many stories she told us was about how the Mojave Green came to be. ...


They are big and they look mean, but the chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater), are harmless herbivores feeding on desert flowers, fruits and leaves. Young chuckwallas are known to try a grasshopper or two, but usually stick entirely to plants by the time they are a year old. Chuckwallas get all their water from the plants they eat and never drink, even when water is readily available. Instead of urination to void their body of salts, these wastes pass through and build in their nostrils as crust which breaks up and falls out when the reptile exhales. They are adept at living in rocky areas under 4,000 feet elevation. As well as dodging into cracks of the rocks in which they live when threatened, they inflate themselves with air making it nearly impossible to remove them by brute strength.

More about the Chuckwalla


The Highwayman

Robber's Roost

The banditos would hide their horses in the clefts in the formation, climb to the top, and keep a lookout- They could see for 20 miles in each direction. The stage would approach, and they would move dustlessly into a deep and shadowy arroyo, then lie in wait.

Vasquez, the ‘Gentleman’, would politely rob them all. But one man refused to give up his watch, a gift from his since departed wife. Vasquez left him with his watch, a gold piece, and his condolence. Once a rich man carried only $200 for him to steal. Vasquez sternly warned him to bring him more next time or he would be a dead rich man.

Tiburcio Vasquez, the last ‘Californio’, was eventually hanged for a murder he did not commit. He died a young man, but the legend of the Robber’s Roost remains.

More about Tiburcio Vasquez

The Coso Petroglyphs

I finally made it to Little Petroglyph Canyon! Such a beautiful place. It’s easy to see why it would have been sacred to the early people.

There are thousands of carvings throughout the canyon. No one knows what they mean or why they are there. This is what I like about them. The Koso (Timbisha Shoshoni) say they were made by their ancestors. That’s good for me.

The estimated age range is so broad. Some maybe as recent as 200 years ago. Some possibly as old as 8,000 years. Some are very old and covered by other weathered drawings. Some are covered by lichen, a plant-animal that lives hundreds of years. Grinding stones (metates) are above the canyons. Possibly where rice grass was ground to powder for flour. Seeing these makes it easier to visualize people in and above the canyon.

I’ve visited maybe 3 dozen or so other petroglyph and pictograph sites in the desert and mountains. This is the largest and most pristine of them all. The site is on a military base, and scheduling the tour, going through the security, search, and the long drive as well as spending a couple nights away was so very worth it.

The guide was very knowlegable. Not just about the site, but the prehistoric people, how they may have lived, what they may have ate, and the modern history of the area from then until now. Not one of my countless questions were left unanswered.

I was saving this site for last. I realize now that’s just silly. There will be more sites I’ll see and maybe I’ll go back to this one. I don’t know why. Maybe it is just because nobody knows …

More about Coso Rock Art

The Coso Rock Art District, a National Historic Landmark deep in the U.S. Navy's testing station at China Lake, contains one of America's most ...

More about Rock Art

More about Desert Native Americans

Chemehuevi Creation Myth

Mt. Charleston, Nevada

... When Coyote lifted the lid of the basket to see inside, all of the people jumped out and ran in the four directions. At the bottom of the basket there were people that were smashed and broken. Coyote quickly put the lid back on the basket. Brother Wolf was smarter than Coyote, so Coyote took the broken people to him on the top of the mountain where Wolf lived.

Wolf healed the people and taught them how to live well in such a desolate land. When they became stronger and smarter than all of those that had ran away, Wolf returned the basket to brother Coyote with the instructions to let them live in the desert where the basket was opened. That was to be their land, the land that no one else wanted.
More about the Chemehuevi Indians



Kelso Dunes

The sand in this photo is made up of granuals of rose quartz. The source of this quartz is nowhere to be found in the Mojave. Some scientists hypothisize that since this source is not to be found, and there is no increase in other minerals gathering in the area, that these dunes are no longer being replenished. Over time and as the wind blows they will ultimately disappear and no longer exist.

These are also known as 'booming' dunes. Each step someone takes can produce a booming sound (sort of like the wierd noise snow can make). A look at a granual through a microscope show each grain being nearly perfectly spherical. I think of the sand and dunes as being a huge pile of rose-colored marbles. This probably accounts for the coloring in the photo.

In these dunes lives the Mojave fringe-toed lizard. You don't see these too much. They have long toes which act pretty much as snowshoes in the soft sand. They hide under the sand to regulate their body temperature. They are only seen during certain times/temperatures of the day (probably when they need warmth or food). They have a very narrow sustainable liveable temperature range. They get too cold, they die. They get too hot, they die.

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The Mojave fringe-toed lizard
Sand dunes
Kelso dunes
Desert dunes habitat


Of The Serrano

Back in the beginning of time the Lord was living here with all the people. He was the one who asked the people whether they would turn into deer. He wanted to transform them. And they obeyed Him and were transformed. And so they were transformed. That's what He (their Lord) said. And so the deer would sing. And then the people would dance the deer dance. They would sing the deer songs. It (the song) tells about what they did, about how they were transformed. Some of them cried. Some of those animals were already transforming themselves. That is how He (the Lord) wanted it. And so they were transformed. They believed, that's why. And so they were all transformed. And so they sing to those deer who had transformed themselves. Their bodies were already completely transformed. But they still felt at home here. They were still behaving like human beings. But they had already been transformed into deer. And so they cried. They wanted to live in their homes, like human beings. There was one who kept circling about. He was looking inside, inside the (ceremonial) house. It says, that's what the song says, that he (the deer) is peaking inside and circling about. He kept peaking inside. He was looking inside the house. Some of those who had already been transformed were already wandering about outside. They had to go off somewhere else. And they climbed up into the hills. Those animals who had been transformed were destined to live in the hills forever. But they still did not know how to walk on their (newly transformed) feet. They already had hooves and were slipping along. They were not used to their (new) hooves yet. They already had hooves. That's what they did

From - Serrano Indian Myth

More about the Serrano Indians
More Indian Myths (Western Shoshoni)


Metate Stone

For hundreds if not thousands of years, the Yharetum, the People of the Pines, would sort their way through the thick hardwood forest of the mountain highlands to gather acorns and pine nuts. While the men would hunt deer, the woman would take their bounty and pound it into meal within the deep holes embedded in the boulders. The People are gone now, and the metate these women used sit lonely in the forest, serving only water provided by the snow melt and early spring rains to small birds looking for a sip in the cover of the now overgrown brush.

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"When from the lips of Truth one mighty breath
Shall, like a whirlwind, scatter in its breeze
The whole dark pile of human miseries,
Then shall the reign of mind commence on earth
And, starting forth as from a second birth,
Man, in the sunrise of the world's new spring,
Shall walk transparent like some holy thing."

from ~ Lallah Rookh - by Thomas Moore


The Dry Lands

Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the land sets the limit. Desert is the name it wears upon the maps, but the Indian's is the better word. Desert is a loose term to indicate land that supports no man; whether the land can be bitted and broken to that purpose is not proven. Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil.

from - Country of Lost Borders
Land of Little Rain - Mary Austin


Massacres at the Amargosa Mine

As the first group of Mormon pioneers made their way across the Mojave in 1849, two of them looking for a water source for their livestock explored a canyon and found streaks of gold in the rock. They moved on to Southern California, purchased supplies and equipment, and immediately returned to develop the prospect.

In 1852 the house was first built to provide a permanent shelter and protection for the operation. The ruins of the 3-room house on the hill aren't much to look at, but the building more than served its purpose over the 100 years it was in use.

In late October of 1864 three miners named Cook, Plate and Gordon were working the mine and living in the house. A band of Paiute attacked the camp and killed Cook then burned the mill in the canyon below. Plate and Gordon survived the attack and high-tailed it off into the desert. Without water their deaths would be slow and painful. About 20 miles away the two men decided to avoid the agony and killed themselves.

December of 1864 another company took over the claims. It wasn't long until there was another Indian raid in which the mine was attacked. There was the advantage that the Indians had been spotted camped out at a nearby spring, so one of the miners made his way to Marl Springs 45 miles away to ask the military for help. The seven miners remaining had not realized the escape was successfully made and help was on its way. The next morning before dawn they attempted to make a run for it and all were killed.