J. Smeaton Chase

Desert Dreamers 11: The Writers

Their vivid descriptions of the desert seduced artists, developers, adventurers, and luminaries to the burgeoning expanses of Palm Springs and beyond.

Steven Biller Arts & Entertainment, History

J. Smeaton Chase

J. Smeaton Chase.

“Lying down there in the sands of the desert, alone and at night, with a saddle for your pillow, and your eyes staring upward at the stars, how incomprehensible it all seems!” John C. Van Dyke observed in The Desert, published in 1901. “The immensity and the mystery are appalling; and yet these very features attract the thought and draw the curiosity of man.”

Van Dyke was among the first of many early writers who found inspiration in the California desert. Their vivid descriptions of the land — its flora, fauna, and inhabitants — had a seductive effect, luring a never-ending stream of writers, artists, and dreamers into this extreme landscape. The trajectory of authors has only grown, with literary touchstones in every generation, from Mary Austin’s The Land of  Little Rain (1903), a meditation on place and a poetic appreciation for the preciousness of water, preservation, and Indigenous people, to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968), a cult classic about the author’s three seasons as a ranger at Arches National Monument (now Park) that ultimately reveals itself as a polemic against development and tourism.

Anthologies such as Peter Wild’s The Grumbling Gods: A Palm Springs Reader (2007) and Ruth Nolan’s No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of  California’s Deserts (2009) survey the work of more than 80 writers and poets, historic and contemporary, who share in a passion for this place. Here, we introduce and share short excerpts from five, including a publisher and a journalist who were omitted from those collections.

Armando’s Bar

John C. Van Dyke. 


john c. van dyke 

The Grandfather of Desert Writers

Art historian turned nature writer John Van Dyke’s seminal book The Desert chronicles the author’s journey through the Sonoran, Colorado, and Mojave deserts. He wrote in sensory detail about the light, color, heat, and ferocity of the desert, referring to the barren yet captivating region as “a show of teeth in bush and beast and reptile.” His approach was more aesthetic than scientific. His words teetered on proselytizing.

A world traveler, originally from New Jersey, Van Dyke was visiting his brother in Los Angeles when they both fell ill with respiratory ailments. They ventured to the desert for its healing, arid climate. 

Scholars, particularly Peter Wild, determined that Van Dyke fabricated parts of his journey through the desert; nevertheless, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and remains widely credited for tuning perceptions and asserting the value of the American deserts.

This excerpt provides one of the earliest descriptions of the California desert.

From The Desert (1901)

The first going down into the desert is always something of a surprise. The fancy has pictured one thing; the reality shows quite another thing. Where and how did we gain the idea that the desert was merely a sea of sand? Did it come from that geography of our youth with the illustration of the stand-storm, the flying camel, and the over-excited Bedouin? Or have we been reading strange tales told by travelers of perfervid imagination — the Marco Polos of today? There is, to be sure, some modicum of truth even in the statement that misleads. There are “seas” or lakes or ponds of sand on every desert; but they are not so vast, not so oceanic, that you ever lose sight of the land.

What land? Why, the mountains. The desert is traversed by many mountain ranges, some of them long, some short, some low, and some rising upward 10,000 feet. They are always circling you with a ragged horizon, dark-hued, bare-faced, barren — just as truly desert as the sands which were washed down from them. Between the ranges there are wide-expanding plains or valleys. The most arid portions of the desert lie in the basins of these great valleys — flat spaces that were once the beds of lakes but are now dried out and left perhaps with an alkaline deposit that prevents vegetation. Through these valleys run arroyos or dry streambeds — shallow channels where gravel and rocks are rolled during cloudbursts and where sands drift with every wind. At times the valleys are more diversified, that is, broken by benches of land called mesas, dotted with small groups of hills called lomas, crossed by long stratified faces of rock called escarpments. […]

The shadows of foliage, the drift of clouds, the fall of rain upon leaves, the sound of running waters — all the gentler qualities of nature that minor poets love to juggle with — are missing on the desert. It is stern, harsh, and at first repellent. But what tongue shall tell the majesty of it, the eternal strength of it, the poetry of its widespread chaos, the sublimity of its lonely desolation! And who shall paint the splendor of its light; and from the rising up of the sun to the going down of the moon over the iron mountains, the glory of its wondrous coloring! It is a gaunt land of splintered peaks, torn valleys, and hot skies. And at every step there is the suggestion of the fierce, the defiant, the defensive. Everything within its borders seems fighting to maintain itself against destroying forces. There is a war of elements and a struggle for existence going on here that for ferocity is unparalleled elsewhere in nature.

EDMUND C. JAEGER  (1887–1983)

The Zoologist

Edmund Jaeger was a young man when he came to Palm Springs in 1915 to earn his money for college. He lived in a cabin that he built himself and taught in a one-room schoolhouse (now the China King restaurant at Amado Road and North Indian Canyon Drive). Later, with a degree in zoology and a minor in botany from Occidental College in Los Angeles, Jaeger became head of the zoology department at Riverside City College, where he taught for 28 years. Notably, he proved the common poorwill, a small nocturnal bird, spent its winters in a state of hibernation and published his findings in National Geographic. 

Armando’s Bar

Edmund C. Jaeger. 

Jaeger spent almost every weekend exploring and camping on the desert around Palm Springs, deepening his knowledge of the area’s wildlife, plant life, and ancient tribal life. The author of many books about the North American deserts, Jaeger observed: “The happiest travelers, the most fortunate desert dwellers, are those who are constantly curious about their ever-changing surroundings and who are always eager to discover something more definite about the strange things they see.”

Here, he recalls encounters with playful roadrunners he liked to call George.

From The California Deserts (1933)

The great, domed saltbushes of the Salton Sink offer such ideal shelter and feeding grounds for the roadrunner that I am always sure of a sight of half a dozen or more of these amusing birds in any morning’s ramble there. One of the cleverest exhibits of roadrunner sagacity that I have seen occurred one winter some years ago. Approaching one of those dried mud puddles of the roadside so common near Mecca, I saw George, as I like to call him, turning over the big mud plates which, curled up about the edges, lay all over the surface of the old mud pool. Catching hold of them with his beak, he turned them up on end, and over, all the time on the lookout for crickets and other insects lying hidden beneath. It was evidently an old trick of his, for almost all the mud plates on that and another pool had been turned.

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In the company of two of my students I once saw, on a mid-summer morning’s jaunt, a roadrunner making great haste to get to the shelter of a creosote bush. Two somber-colored marsh hawks were after him. Contrary to what I expected, the hawks lighted on the ground and began making repeated dives into the creosote bush. The roadrunner did not long stay under cover, for he was no coward. A moment later we saw him become the aggressor in the struggle. There began a merry tussle, both hawks and roadrunner going in more or less merry-go-round fashion around the bush, the hawks rather awkwardly, the roadrunner very gracefully, and as if enjoying the contest enormously. At length one of the hawks retreated to some distance, but the other flew away and alighted another creosote bush. George immediately pursued him, for he was not through with his fun. [...] Finally outdone in the contest of wits, the last hawk disgustedly flew away. The triumphant roadrunner, with head held proudly aloft and with a clipping of its bill, ran off unconcernedly at top speed.

j. smeaton chase (1864–1923)

The Desert’s John Muir

In 1910, English-born American author and traveler J. Smeaton Chase rode on horse from the Mexico border to Oregon and wrote California Coastal Trails, published in 1913. A few years later, he published another book, California Desert Trails, about his second epic journey — two years of continuous roaming and camping on the desert, from Palm Springs to Blythe and back to the eastern Coachella Valley.

Armando’s Bar

J. Smeaton Chase.

In this excerpt, Chase begins his journey in Palm Springs, where he and his burro trek over the rocky, inhospitable terrain of Chino Canyon toward a cluster of native Washingtonia filifera fan palms, because in “the unconquered and unconquerable wastes of burning sand and mountain … the presence of palms means the presence also of that rarest, strictest necessity, water.

From California Desert Trails (1919)

It was still winter, the end of January, when I pitched my little 6-by-3-foot tent in Chino Canyon. This is a great rift opening on the northwestern arm of the desert directly under the peak of  San Jacinto Mountain. It gets its name from old Chino, a former chief of the Agua Caliente Indians, whose rancheria adjoins the little village of Palm Springs, a few miles to the south of the canyon. I had visited the spot years before and kept an affectionate memory of a warm spring that breaks out near the head of the great apron of talus that sweeps down from the neck of the canyon to the level desert. It was toilsome work navigating my burro, Mesquit, through these miles of boulders, with a rise from 500 feet to 2,000 of altitude, and there was neither mood nor leisure for scenery until we reached the little clump of palms that marked our destination. 

It was toilsome work navigating my burro through these boulders.

But when camp was pitched and serenity returned, I found a high coign among the rocks and took my satisfaction. I was at about the limit of growth of the water-loving trees that accompanied the creek as far as they dared — sycamores, alders, cottonwoods, and willows. Here they stopped short abruptly, and from here desertward only the starveling vegetation of drought held the ground. The pale shrubs seemed to have copied the look of the gray boulders as if hoping by subterfuge to escape the notice of the sun. Each bush of encelia or burroweed grew rounded and compact, and in twilight or moonlight would not be distinguished from the rocks, except where they grew among the rust-brown slabs of  the canyon walls, when one would swear he saw a flock of grazing sheep, every one distinct to the eye.

Straight in front the canyon opened in steep, smooth descent, bounded by high and barren walls, the western already dark in shadow, the other in full sun and glowing with volcanic intensity of red. At 3 miles’ distance these ran out into the level like capes extending far to sea — a sea of lifeless gray that broke southward in one huge crest of sand that was like a tidal wave stopped and held in full career. In sharp relief against the neutral hue of the sand stood the dark, gleaming fans of palms. The distance was closed by a level rampart of mountains in faint ethereal tones of rose, chrome, and amethyst. 

tacquila palm springs

In his element in nature, J. Smeaton Chase wrote two books chronicling his time living on the landalong the West Coast.


The Publisher

Randall Henderson was 18 when he left his hometown of Lenox, Iowa, for San Francisco in a cattle car on a freight train. Soon thereafter, he made his way to Los Angeles, enrolled (and became student body president) at University of Southern California, and took his first job as a land surveyor in Parker, Arizona, staking out allotments for Native Americans on the Colorado Indian Reservation.

He developed an affinity for the desert, and it was there he began his writing career, taking a job with the Parker Post. He eventually partnered with Myron Watson to publish the Blythe Herald, and after serving in World War I, he returned to the desert and purchased the Calexico Chronicle. Henderson began accompanying a young reporter, J. Wilson McKenney, on “Little Journeys on the Desert,” the name of McKenney’s weekly column. They sat around campfires and talked about creating Desert Magazine, which would change the way people thought about the region. The magazine launched in 1937 in El Centro and relocated in 1948 to Palm Desert, the city his brother, Clifford, pioneered and promoted.

Henderson’s books include On Desert Trails: Today and Yesterday (1961) and Sun, Sand, and Solitude: Vignettes from the Notebook of a Veteran Desert Reporter (1968). In this excerpt from the former, the author happens upon the Mobile Desert Laboratory not far from the magazine’s offices.

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Randall Henderson (seated) at Desert Magazine.

From On Desert Trails (1961)

One sunny morning in February 1958, I followed a sandy road that wound among the palo verde and smoke trees of a desert arroyo and came eventually to an isolated cove at the base of California’s Santa Rosa Mountains. Parked in a little clearing at the end of the road was a huge house trailer and the heavy-duty truck which evidently had towed it to this out-of-the-way place.

The detail in this scene which immediately caught my interest was a transparent plastic box about the size of a small bird cage perched on a tripod which straddled a pygmy cedar bush. Enclosed in the box I could see a small branch of the shrub. Attached to the floor of the cage were flexible plastic tubes leading to a portable table on which was mounted a panel of dials in an instrument box, something like a portable radio.

Seated at the table was a middle-aged man in sport shirt, a stopwatch in one hand and a pencil in the other, his attention focused on the dials in front of him as he jotted figures on the papers spread out before him.

This was my introduction to Dr. Fritz Went and the Mobile Desert Laboratory, then maintained by the California Institute of  Technology in Pasadena. It is a gypsy outfit that moves from place to place to gather basic scientific data, which at some future time may have an important bearing on the food supply of a world already becoming overcrowded with human beings. […] One month it may be stationed in the Joshua tree forest of the Mojave Desert, and the next six weeks on a desert mesa where the ground is honeycombed with rodent burrows. […]

The special project on which Dr. Went was engaged at the time of my first visit was the chemical process which takes place in the foliage of plants. In addition to pygmy cedar, he also had plastic boxes enclosing small branches of creosote and catsclaw. On another occasion his dials were recording the photosynthesis and transpiration of ocotillo, jojoba, and Canterbury bells. […]

The virgin desert is a great outdoor laboratory, favored by the men and women of science because here the basic ingredients of the physical world lie bare and exposed. The book of geological time lies open for all to read. Here the impact of the forces of uplift and erosion and long-range climatic change is plainly evident.

tacquila palm springs

Ed Ainsworth (left).

ED AINSWORTH  (1902–1968)

The Journalist 

Some of the richest writing on the desert focuses on the wilderness. Ed Ainsworth, a longtime editor at the Los Angeles Times who had a home in Mecca, was no exception, contributing volumes of descriptive prose to the canon. However, his most flavorful, profound, and frankly, memorable writing was about the charismatic people he met — Palm Springs’ pioneering hotelier Nellie Coffman and “cowboy mayor” Frank Bogert, amateur golfer turned developer Johnny Dawson, and Cliff and Randall Henderson, founders of the city of Palm Desert and Desert Magazine, respectively.

Ainsworth, a native of Waco, Texas, won praise at the Times for his consequential articles on smog in Los Angeles and water rights on the Santa Margarita River. His love for California and the desert could be measured in the number of words he wrote. In this excerpt, he introduces John Guthrie McCallum, a San Francisco lawyer, judge, and politician who became Palm Springs’ first non-Native settler. A father of five, McCallum brought his family to the area in search of a typhoid cure to treat his eldest child,  Johnny.

From Beckoning Desert (1962)

In this extremity, the love of the father for this son overcame political ambitions and every other consideration. John McCallum decided to give up his bright prospects in the law at San Francisco and the enticing possibilities of a beckoning political future in order to try to restore the health of his son.

Packing up his family, John McCallum took his wife and children to San Bernardino in the hope that the climate there would help Johnny’s lungs. This hope was not realized. […]

At this time John McCallum’s duties as superintendent of the Indian tribes in Southern California took him, in a wide range, from Pala up among the Cahuillas of  both the mountains and deserts to the present site of Banning. One of his best friends was Will Pablo, a noted Indian leader and interpreter. Pablo accompanied McCallum on many of  his trips and drove the surrey in which they traveled.

From Pablo, in fact, came the information which led Judge McCallum to “Agua Caliente” hot springs, as it was then known. […] No white men lived there at the time.

Yet Judge McCallum immediately felt a great love for this spot. The spell of the desert fell upon him. He decided this was the area to which he must bring his ailing son.

This was the time at which Southern California was in the grip of a great real estate boom. The year was 1884. Communities such as Riverside and Ontario had just been laid out. Promotion and visions of great fortunes were in the air.

It was obvious to Judge McCallum that the soil around Agua Caliente was good and he had learned from the Indians of the fine, year-round climate, with balmy days and nights continuing nearly all year. He conceived, at this moment, the idea of bringing in irrigation water from the Whitewater River to make extensive agriculture possible. The condition of the figs and grapes convinced him that splendid crops could be grown if  there were enough water, on an assured basis. […]

He acquired 320 acres from the Southern Pacific Railroad for $800, a tract, now incalculably valuable, in the center of Palm Springs.

Bringing his family to Agua Caliente and providing a house for them occupied Judge McCallum for a while. Then his enterprising temperament led him into large ventures. He set forth, with the aid of Indian laborers, to build a 19-mile-long stone-lined ditch across the desert from the Whitewater River to the site of Palm Springs. When the water arrived, the Judge was so enthusiastic that he induced some of his San Francisco friends to help him form the Palm Valley Land & Water Co. This was the name the Judge had given to the area, anyway. “Palm Valley” was the way he always referred to it.