Vanished Arizona

Author: Martha Summerhayes

Chapter VII the Mojave Desert

Thou white and dried-up sea! so old! So strewn with wealth, so sown with gold! Yes, thou art old and hoary white With time and ruin of all things, And on thy lonesome borders Night Sits brooding o’er with drooping wings. —JOAQUIN MILLER.

The country had grown steadily more unfriendly ever since leaving Fort Yuma, and the surroundings of Camp Mojave were dreary enough.

But we took time to sort out our belongings, and the officers arranged for transportation across the Territory. Some had bought, in San Francisco, comfortable travelling-carriages for their families. They were old campaigners; they knew a thing or two about Arizona; we lieutenants did not know, we had never heard much about this part of our country. But a comfortable large carriage, known as a Dougherty wagon, or, in common army parlance, an ambulance, was secured for me to travel in. This vehicle had a large body, with two seats facing each other, and a seat outside for the driver. The inside of the wagon could be closed if desired by canvas sides and back which rolled up and down, and by a curtain which dropped behind the driver’s seat. So I was enabled to have some degree of privacy, if I wished.

We repacked our mess-chest, and bought from the Commissary at Mojave the provisions necessary for the long journey to Fort Whipple, which was the destination of one of the companies and the headquarters officers.

On the morning of September 10th everything in the post was astir with preparations for the first march. It was now thirty-five days since we left San Francisco, but the change from boat to land travelling offered an agreeable diversion after the monotony of the river. I watched with interest the loading of the great prairie-schooners, into which went the soldiers’ boxes and the camp equipage. Outside was lashed a good deal of the lighter stuff; I noticed a barrel of china, which looked much like our own, lashed directly over one wheel. Then there were the massive blue army wagons, which were also heavily loaded; the laundresses with their children and belongings were placed in these.

At last the command moved out. It was to me a novel sight. The wagons and schooners were each drawn by teams of six heavy mules, while a team of six lighter mules was put to each ambulance and carriage. These were quite different from the draught animals I had always seen in the Eastern States; these Government mules being sleek, well-fed and trained to trot as fast as the average carriage-horse. The harnesses were quite smart, being trimmed off with white ivory rings. Each mule was "Lize" or "Fanny" or "Kate", and the soldiers who handled the lines were accustomed to the work; for work, and arduous work, it proved to be, as we advanced into the then unknown Territory of Arizona.

The main body of the troops marched in advance; then came the ambulances and carriages, followed by the baggage-wagons and a small rear-guard. When the troops were halted once an hour for rest, the officers, who marched with the soldiers, would come to the ambulances and chat awhile, until the bugle call for "Assembly" sounded, when they would join their commands again, the men would fall in, the call "Forward" was sounded, and the small-sized army train moved on.

The first day’s march was over a dreary country; a hot wind blew, and everything was filled with dust. I had long ago discarded my hat, as an unnecessary and troublesome article; consequently my head wa snow a mass of fine white dust, which stuck fast, of course. I was covered from head to foot with it, and it would not shake off, so, although our steamboat troubles were over, our land troubles had begun.

We reached, after a few hours’ travel, the desolate place where we were to camp.

In the mean time, it had been arranged for Major Worth, who had no family, to share our mess, and we had secured the services of a soldier belonging to his company whose ability as a camp cook was known to both officers.

I cannot say that life in the army, as far as I had gone, presented any very great attractions. This, our first camp, was on the river, a little above Hardyville. Good water was there, and that was all; I had not yet learned to appreciate that. There was not a tree nor a shrub to give shade. The only thing I could see, except sky and sand, was a ruined adobe enclosure ,with no roof. I sat in the ambulance until our tent was pitched, and then Jack came to me, followed by a six-foot soldier, and said: "Mattie, this is Bowen, our striker; now I want you to tell him what he shall cook for our supper; and—don’t you think it would be nice if you could show him how to make some of those good New England doughnuts? I think Major Worth might like them; and after all the awful stuff we have had, you know," et caetera, et caetera. I met the situation, after an inward struggle, and said, weakly, "Where are the eggs?" "Oh," said he, "you don’t need eggs; you’re on the frontier now; you must learn to do without eggs."

Everything in me rebelled, but still I yielded. You see I had been married only six months; the women at home, and in Germany also, had always shown great deference to their husbands’ wishes. But at that moment I almost wished Major Worth and Jack and Bowen and the mess-chest at the bottom of the Rio Colorado. However, I nerved myself for the effort, and when Bowen had his camp-fire made, he came and called me.

At the best, I never had much confidence in my ability as a cook, but as a camp cook! Ah, me! Everything seemed to swim before my eyes, and I fancied that the other women were looking at me from their tents. Bowen was very civil, turned back the cover of the mess-chest and propped it up. That was the table. Then he brought me a tin basin, and some flour, some condensed milk, some sugar, and a rolling-pin, and then he hung a camp-kettle with lard in it over the fire. I stirred up a mixture in the basin, but the humiliation of failure was spared me, for just then, without warning, came one of those terrific sandstorms which prevail on the deserts of Arizona, blowing us all before it in its fury, and filling everything with sand.

We all scurried to the tents; some of them had blown down. There was not much shelter, but the storm was soon over, and we stood collecting our scattered senses. I saw Mrs. Wilkins at the door of her tent. She beckoned to me; I went over there, and she said: "Now, my dear, I am going to give you some advice. You must not take it unkindly. I am an old army woman and I have made many campaigns with the Colonel; you have but just joined the army. You must never try to do any cooking at the camp-fire. The soldiers are there for that work, and they know lots more about it than any of us do."

"But, Jack," I began—

"Never mind Jack," said she; "he does not know as much as I do about it; and when you reach your post," she added, "you can show him what you can do in that line."

Bowen cleared away the sandy remains of the doubtful dough, and prepared for us a very fair supper. Soldiers’ bacon, and coffee, and biscuits baked in a Dutch oven.

While waiting for the sun to set, we took a short stroll over to the adobe ruins. Inside the enclosure lay an enormous rattlesnake, coiled. It was the first one I had ever seen except in a cage, and I was fascinated by the horror of the round, grayish-looking heap, so near the color of the sand on which it lay. Some soldiers came and killed it. But I noticed that Bowen took extra pains that night, to spread buffalo robes under our mattresses, and to place around them a hair lariat. "Snakes won’t cross over that," he said, with a grin.

Bowen was a character. Originally from some farm in Vermont, he had served some years with the Eighth Infantry, and for a long time in the same company under Major Worth, and had cooked for the bachelors’ mess. He was very tall, and had a good-natured face, but he did not have much opinion of what is known as etiquette, either military or civil; he seemed to consider himself a sort of protector to the officers of Company K, and now, as well, to the woman who had joined the company. He took us all under his wing, as it were, and although he had to be sharply reprimanded sometimes, in a kind of language which he seemed to expect, he was allowed more latitude than most soldiers.

This was my first night under canvas in the army. I did not like those desert places, and they grew to have a horror for me.

At four o’clock in the morning the cook’s call sounded, the mules were fed, and the crunching and the braying were something to awaken the heaviest sleepers. Bowen called us. I was much upset by the dreadful dust, which was thick upon everything I touched. We had to hasten our toilet, as they were striking tents and breaking camp early, in order to reach before noon the next place where there was water. Sitting on camp-stools, around the mess-tables, in the open, before the break of day, we swallowed some black coffee and ate some rather thick slices of bacon and dry bread. The Wilkins’ tent was near ours, and I said to them, rather peevishly: "Isn’t this dust something awful?"

Miss Wilkins looked up with her sweet smile and gentle manner and replied: "Why, yes, Mrs. Summerhayes, it is pretty bad, but you must not worry about such a little thing as dust."

"How can I help it?" I said; "my hair, my clothes, everything full of it, and no chance for a bath or a change: a miserable little basin of water and—"

I suppose I was running on with all my grievances, but she stopped me and said again: "Soon, now, you will not mind it at all. Ella and I are army girls, you know, and we do not mind anything. There’s no use in fretting about little things."

Miss Wilkins’ remarks made a tremendous impression upon my mind and I began to study her philosophy.

At break of day the command marched out, their rifles on their shoulders, swaying along ahead of us, in the sunlight and the heat, which continued still to be almost unendurable. The dry white dust of this desert country boiled and surged up and around us in suffocating clouds.

I had my own canteen hung up in the ambulance, but the water in it got very warm and I learned to take but a swallow at a time, as it could not be refilled until we reached the next spring—and there is always some uncertainty in Arizona as to whether the spring or basin has gone dry. So water was precious, and we could not afford to waste a drop.

At about noon we reached a forlorn mud hut, known as Packwood’s ranch. But the place had a bar, which was cheerful for some of the poor men, as the two days’ marches had been rather hard upon them, being so "soft" from the long voyage. I could never begrudge a soldier a bit of cheer after the hard marches in Arizona, through miles of dust and burning heat, their canteens long emptied and their lips parched and dry. I watched them often as they marched along with their blanket-rolls, their haversacks, and their rifles, and I used to wonder that they did not complain.

About that time the greatest luxury in the entire world seemed to me to be a glass of fresh sweet milk, and I shall always remember Mr. Packwood’s ranch, because we had milk to drink with our supper, and some delicious quail to eat.

Ranches in that part of Arizona meant only low adobe dwellings occupied by prospectors or men who kept the relays of animals for stage routes. Wretched, forbidding-looking places they were! Never a tree or a bush to give shade, never a sign of comfort or home.

Our tents were pitched near Packwood’s, out in the broiling sun. They were like ovens; there was no shade, no coolness anywhere; we would have gladly slept, after the day’s march, but instead we sat broiling in the ambulances, and waited for the long afternoon to wear away.

The next day dragged along in the same manner; the command marching bravely along through dust and heat and thirst, as Kipling’s soldier sings:

"With its best foot first And the road a-sliding past, An’ every bloomin’ campin’-ground Exactly like the last".

Beal’s Springs did not differ from the other ranch, except that possibly it was even more desolate. But a German lived there, who must have had some knowledge of cooking, for I remember that we bought a peach pie from him and ate it with a relish. I remember, too, that we gave him a good silver dollar for it.

The only other incident of that day’s march was the suicide of Major Worth’s pet dog "Pete." Having exhausted his ability to endure, this beautiful red setter fixed his eye upon a distant range of mountains, and ran without turning, or heeding any call, straight as the crow flies, towards them and death. We never saw him again; a ranchman told us he had known of several other instances where a well-bred dog had given up in this manner, and attempted to run for the hills. We had a large greyhound with us, but he did not desert.

Major Worth was much affected by the loss of his dog, and did not join us at supper that night. We kept a nice fat quail for him, however, and at about nine o’clock, when all was still and dark, Jack entered the Major’s tent and said: "Come now, Major, my wife has sent you this nice quail; don’t give up so about Pete, you know."

The Major lay upon his camp-bed, with his face turned to the wall of his tent; he gave a deep sigh, rolled himself over and said: "Well, put it on the table, and light the candle; I’ll try to eat it. Thank your wife for me."

So the Lieutenant made a light, and lo! and behold, the plate was there, but the quail was gone! In the darkness, our great kangaroo hound had stolen noiselessly upon his master’s heels, and quietly removed the bird. The two officers were dumbfounded. Major Worth said: "D—n my luck;" and turned his face again to the wall of his tent.

Now Major Worth was just the dearest and gentlest sort of a man, but he had been born and brought up in the old army, and everyone knows that times and customs were different then.

Men drank more and swore a good deal, and while I do not wish my story to seem profane, yet I would not describe army life or the officers as I knew them, if I did not allow the latter to use an occasional strong expression.

The incident, however, served to cheer up the Major, though he continued to deplore the loss of his beautiful dog.

For the next two days our route lay over the dreariest and most desolate country. It was not only dreary, it was positively hostile in its attitude towards every living thing except snakes, centipedes and spiders. They seemed to flourish in those surroundings.

Sometimes either Major Worth or Jack would come and drive along a few miles in the ambulance with me to cheer me up, and they allowed me to abuse the country to my heart’s content. It seemed to do me much good. The desert was new to me then. I had not read Pierre Loti’s wonderful book, "Le Desert," and I did not see much to admire in the desolate waste lands through which we were travelling. I did not dream of the power of the desert, nor that I should ever long to see it again. But as I write, the longing possesses me, and the pictures then indelibly printed upon my mind, long forgotten amidst the scenes and events of half a lifetime, unfold themselves like a panorama before my vision and call me to come back, to look upon them once more.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Vanished Arizona

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Vanished Arizona

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Martha Summerhayes, "Chapter VII the Mojave Desert," Vanished Arizona, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 and trans. Boswell, Robert Bruce in Vanished Arizona (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed May 30, 2023,

MLA: Summerhayes, Martha. "Chapter VII the Mojave Desert." Vanished Arizona, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, and translated by Boswell, Robert Bruce, in Vanished Arizona, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 30 May. 2023.

Harvard: Summerhayes, M, 'Chapter VII the Mojave Desert' in Vanished Arizona, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, Vanished Arizona, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 30 May 2023, from