Smell of the Desert By George Wharton James

Credit for Colorado Desert Image

Smell of the Desert By George Wharton James

Rain on the desert is always a surprise. Strangers gaze in wonder at the simple event and ask in amazement, "Rain? Why, I thought it never rained on the desert." The desert dweller, who during a hot and rainless spring, summer, and fall almost forgets how it looks and feels to have the beneficent showers fall upon him and the dry and thirsty country around, and who feels thirsty at every pore, never gets over his surprise and delight when the first rains of winter come. But to see and feel it rain in the middle of a hot summer, who can describe that? Yet it sometimes occurs. To see the thirsty ground, the shrubs and trees drink it in, and to feel the delicious moisture penetrating every pore of the skin and soothing every nerve and muscle and gently stealing even into the brain and easing up the dry, taut feeling there, while at the same time it fills the veins and makes the blood flow more fluidly,— that is surprise and delight that few have ever realized.

Rain generally falls from December to February, but there are showers sometimes in the heart of the summer.

And in this connection one cannot ignore the surprise he feels at the power of the Indians to foretell these unusual showers, or the abundance or scarcity of the regular rains. This past summer one of the Palm Springs Indians definitely assured us, "Heap plenty rain this winter. We catch 'em lots." And so it proved, for the winter of 1905-06 has seen a large rainfall.

It will be a surprise to many to learn that in variation of altitude the Colorado Desert is the most remarkable place now known on earth. The San Jacinto Mountain is its northwestern outpost with an elevation of 10,805 feet. The Salton Basin is 253 feet below sea-level. In a direct line the distance between the two is approximately twenty-five to thirty-five miles, so that in that short distance the desert gives us a variation of altitude of over eleven thousand feet.

But if one should object and say the mountain summit should not be regarded as belonging to the desert, we will take the town of Banning as the highest point or outpost of the actual desert. Its elevation is 2,317 feet, which, added to the Salton Sink depression, gives a variation of 2,570 feet in a distance of less than one hundred miles.

There is a peculiar charm and surprise about the odors of the desert that needs comment. Each odor is vivid and distinct, and can readily be distinguished from its fellow. It is as if the pure atmosphere compelled a segregation of odors rather than a commingling of them. I remember one night walking along in the warm air of the virgin desert with the vivid odor of the creosote bush filling the nostrils. Suddenly we entered a stratum of cooler air. The creosote disappeared and that of growing alfalfa took its place. Fifty yards farther on there came the smell of burning wood — indicative of man's dwelling — then the odor of willows. It was not the variety that surprised but the clear vividness of each odor as set off from all others that arrested the attention.

And one may be on the desert a whole year and never have his senses assailed with the vile odors that are the peculiar property of cities. Decaying garbage, the musty smell of shut-in rooms, the awful air of closed-up churches, the polluted, "gassy," earth smells when the streets are dug into for repairs to gas-mains, etc., the thousand and one smells and stinks and abominations to the olfactory senses of civilization are never present on the desert. I am willing to endure the primitive conditions in order to be free from these apparently necessary adjuncts of our civilized life, for in the one are health and life and in the other are disease and death.

There is another phase, too, of the odors of the desert that must not be overlooked. Whatever the doctors or scientists say of them, there can be no question but that the odors distilled by the sun from the numberless sages and other desert plants have a distinctly soothing and healing influence upon all people suffering from pulmonary or bronchial difficulties. To be slowly suffocating through the cruel action of dread disease and then to come here and find relief, find the lungs beginning to expand again, the closed passages opening, the blood beginning to circulate again, this is to experience a delightful surprise. And it is one that never fails if the sufferer comes early enough and is willing to place himself wisely under these beneficent desert influences.