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"Running Commentary"

1906: The Mighty Colorado

INTRO:  Third of a four-part series written by my grandfather, William F. Gillett (1892-1972), who was 13 years old when he set out on a 1,000 mile journey. If you missed the first two parts, you can read them on the newspaper’s website. His true-life adventure continues …

In addition to the herd of horses we were driving, we were lucky to have along for the ride one of the smartest stock dogs I’d ever seen. We called him,  “Old Dick.” To keep him from wearing out his feet on the rough and rocky roads, we taught the dog to ride a pack mule.
In those days, the stores and places you could buy food supplies were long distances apart. The first real discomfort we had on our trip was being short of grub. We had plenty of frijoles, or beans. We dubbed them “ Arizona strawberries.”
There’s nothing wrong with beans. But when you run out of salt pork to cook with, and you have no potatoes or bread to go with them, beans get monotonous as a steady diet.
We were riding about 15-30 miles a day and boy did we get hungry. On our third day out, we were already short on rations. In the afternoon, we spotted the headquarters of a large ranch, so we pitched camp early and set up quite a distance away, to keep our stock from getting mixed with the ranch’s.
While my brother Ola rode on to the ranch to see if he could purchase some supplies, I began the tedious daily job of unpacking. First, a 10 lb. lard bucket was untied and a fire was built to heat water for coffee. Arbuckles’ Coffee was the only brand we knew back then. I then hobbled the unsaddled horses and pack animals so we could catch them on foot . They wouldn’t get far with hobbles.
By the time coffee was ready, my brother came back from the ranch and he was loaded with enough fresh meat to last until it spoiled. It was amazing what they gave us – flour, potatoes, lard and salt pork.
The ranchers were almost insulted when my brother tried to pay them for all that food. In the Old West, people felt an obligation to help out total strangers if they could.
Happily, we fixed up a mulligan with onions, potatoes, meat and biscuits in the Dutch oven which was ready around 4:00 that afternoon. Man, did I eat.
I ate again about dusk and went to sleep.
And if you can  believe it, I woke up in the middle of the night and ate again.
By this time in the trip, we had about half the horses broken to ride.
There was nothing unusual in those days about a cowboy getting thrown by his horse. I wasn’t really afraid of horses, but I was unusually careful because two years previously I was thrown by a horse and trampled. The accident broke my leg in two places, and my ankle was smashed up pretty bad. You develop a healthy respect for horses after that.  
We packed grain to feed our pack mules and the horses we rode, and usually we let the horses graze early evening until late morning. Taking our time that way allowed the stock to stay in pretty fair shape.
Some weeks later, we rode over a high hill, not far from the place where Oatman, Arizona is now  – east of the Mojave Desert. At the top of that hill, we looked down at a long crooked string, flashing in the sun, and what we saw caused our hearts to race like crazy.
A long silvery ribbon – our first glimpse of the mighty Colorado River.
Soon enough, we’d learn that the river which looked so beautiful from the top of the hill would prove to be about one-third mud. But there was an even bigger problem than the mud. The river had spilled over its banks – I figured it was almost a mile wide.
Obviously, it was too much to cross. We had no choice but to wait for the waters to recede. It took over a week for the water to go down, and even then it took three attempts before we finally made it across with our horses.
One major obstacle was behind us, the Colorado River. Another one lay just ahead – the Mojave Desert and Death Valley, which have recorded some of the highest temperatures in the world.
My brother and I were under the mistaken impression that California was a land of green fields, milk and honey. Nobody told us about Death Valley. The Mojave Desert is almost as big as Scotland.
The roads weren’t traveled enough to even find them from one windstorm to another. As for drinkable water, we went for days with our tongues hanging out, bleeding and cracked, making speech almost unintelligible. There’s a reason they call it Death Valley.
And things got worse before they got better.

Bio:  Edited by R. Michael Owens. Next week: Lost in the Mojave Desert – without water.

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