“Home Schooling” — The Desert as Teacher

We’ve been giving this newsletter over to Cabot Yerxa through the journal he kept throughout his travels to and from Europe in 1925-26. This week, we get impressions of him and the desert not only through his words, but also through the eyes of a visiting writer named Belle Ewing. Below are excerpts from the aptly titled “Adventure’s Son,” published in the November-December 1947 issue of the National Automobile Club’s National Motorist magazine.
To the east, Two Bunch Palms were gray-green rosettes against the hill on top of which a white cross spread its arms. Miracle Hill it is called, named years ago by Cabot Yerxa. Two miles from Desert Hot Springs, this hill rises abruptly from the sandy floor. The cluster of buildings which comprise Cabot’s present home are around Miracle Hill from Two Bunch Palms, and there I found this adventurer, who became one with the desert — and who lives to paint its moods.
Cabot came to the Colorado Desert in 1913, where he homesteaded 160 acres of land. He is a blue-eyed, medium-sized man of 52. But there is zest in his eyes and a spring to his step that belie his years — for the desert rewards those who love her with a sort of perpetual youth; they always stay young.
The loss of a beloved member of the family and the family fortune caused Cabot to seek solace in the desert. Here he took up a homestead on the sunny slopes of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. He had hoped to raise cattle, allowing them to graze in the public domain. But Palm Springs began its early bid for fame about this time and California passed a law forbidding cattle running loose in that area. He was forced to give up the idea of becoming a cattle rancher.
“Pioneering is never easy,” Cabot said. “At that time, there were but 10 homesteaders in the whole section. We had to carry our groceries to relays. Our nearest store was at Palm Springs, 15 miles away. I would carry part of my grub slung in a sack over my shoulder for half a mile, drop it, and return for another load. This I kept up the long, weary miles through sand, greasewood, and mesquite. Water, too, had to be carried. Some of the homesteaders made Chinese yokes from which two buckets were suspended. Believe me, we saved every drop of wastewater, giving it to the desert trees we had planted around our shacks.
“At that time, each pioneer would look out every morning to see if smoke was rising from the other nine cabins. If he saw no smoke, something must be wrong. So the nearest neighbor would go over to investigate.
“With money from the sale of several of my own paintings, I bought lumber and started to build a cabin on the side of Miracle Hill. I hauled the cement and the water up the hill on my back and on my patient burro’s. But every night, I had a good night’s sleep; and every morning, the dawn rewarded me with unsurpassed beauty — beauty one can find only in the desert.
“When the cabin was built, I started digging my well at the foot of Miracle Hill. I was down only 30 feet when water came bubbling up. I leaned down to dip my hands in the cool water, but leaped back astounded: The water was hot! I didn’t know it then, but I had tapped the desert’s storehouse of medicinal waters. The water in my discovery well registered 132 degrees!”
“Desert hills always fascinate me,” I mused. “You never know what you’ll find in them — or see in them. I’ve heard so much about the Angel of San Jacinto. Can you show it to me?”
“Sure, come over here to the lookout.”
We rose from the homemade bench on which we had been sitting and stepped over pale orchid gilias and tiny white daises to a three-sided building.
Inside the lookout were benches and homemade chairs, placed so the visitor may look down across the desert to where Palm Springs sleeps in the sun. The mountains were cobalt blue, with wine in the canyons. An ash-throated flycatcher flashed through the air to a palo verde that was beginning to unfold its petals of gold.
“There,” Cabot said, pointing to a misty canyon in the rocky side of San Jacinto, “see the angel with her wings outstretched?”
I peered through the rustic frame made of logs. My imagination seldom needs stretching, so I saw the angel — or at least I thought I did.
But if the Angel of San Jacinto lies sleeping, Cabot certainly does not. He has purchased land bordering his original homestead until now he has nearly 400 acres. With his own hands and his burro for a helper, he has transformed his holdings into a home and a business. Besides his home, he has a trading post, art gallery, museum, and a snake pit.
Cabot has dug 11 wells. They range all the way from cold to 180 degrees — hot enough to boil an egg and make coffee.
“I have a well in my kitchen, “ he said, “just the right temperature for a shower or to wash dishes.” An impish grin spread over his features. “Put it down after the house was built.”
I looked incredulously at the cement floor, “Not through that?”
He nodded. “I had a friend living with me; and we got tired of carrying water, so we knocked a hole in the cement and started drilling. When we’d hit rock, we’d throw in a half a stick of dynamite and let things blow up! We dug a cellar, too, and struck subterranean heat. It keeps the house 20 degrees warmer in the winter than outdoors.”
Although the white man has brought many changes to the Valley of the Palms, the desert mountains still stand as they did when only Indians lived there. They rim the valley: snow-wreathed San Jacinto, towering San Gorgonio, blue-clad Santa Rosas, and the Little San Bernardinos.
No wonder Cabot’s favorite pastime is to paint the desert in all its moods and warm friendliness, its ageless palms and timeworn peaks, its copper-colored hills.
“The desert,” Cabot declared, “teaches people to be resourceful, to overcome difficulties. At times it is a hard taskmaster, but the ones who stick it out are repaid a hundred times over. There is camaraderie among desert folks seldom found elsewhere. We have many jolly times together.” He looked out over his land. “I love it here. I hope never to leave.”
The sun cast fingers of gold over rough cinnamon hills as I left. The Angel of San Jacinto’s rocky bosom was garbed in violet mist, and San Jacinto was turned into a pot of gold — gold that is free for the taking.
Make time each day to enjoy the beauty around you and to
experience peace of mind in recognizing that, while the circumstances
of life can be unsettling, the desert offers us a lesson in resilience.