Snippets 141 / Guest Post 12. Even today, the great American deserts can be dangerous places. In 1899 when the quote below was written they were even more dangerous with wild animals and often even wilder men to be encountered. This man’s ride with two horses from Fort Macleod in Canada to Mexico City through the American deserts still remains a world record by an Englishman. The description here is from Roger Pocock’s 1904 autobiography A Frontiersman. The photograph of him was taken on the ride and shows his two horses Chub and Burley.
Beyond the Mormon Oasis, I came to the Painted Desert, where the sands have a strange power of refracting sunlight so that the slopes glow topaz, the cliffs are ruby and hyacinth, and the air is like thin, white flame. It was natural in such a place to find a prospector who told me that the voices of the Dead were leading him in search for a cave of gold. That is the madness of the Desert, common enough, for at many a camp-fire one hears of lost mines fabulously rich, of men who went out sane to return as maniacs, of Indian secrets, of guiding charts, of bloodstained trails, of dying miners speechless, laden with gold. A big bright diamond high on the face of a precipice – I have seen it myself, and might be in an asylum but for the slabs of mica by the trail which told me the secret of that shining fraud. A prospector who found real diamonds which look like bits of gum-arabic would throw them away. So I noted, on the long trail, hills of kaolin, walls of oil-shale, bitumen, and asphalt, traces of cinnabar, opal, ruby, corundum, tin. These might be ever so valuable, but the prospector passes them by in his search for the precious metals. Lost gold mines appeal to his mind, not a romance in fireclay.
Out of the heat of the Painted Desert my trail led up a fifty-mile hill into a great forest of pine trees. There is no water. The polecats go mad, and of all the grizzly horrors in that land of death, the hydrophobia skunk is much the worst.
The skunk is a beast the size of a cat, with nice long hair of banded brown and white from nose to tail. He is a natural scent-bottle, and delights in his duty, which is to sprinkle perfume on his tail, then with a sharp jerk spray the fluid upon you…
…And when, poor things, they suffer from hydrophobia, they attack man, catch him asleep in camp, and bite his face. Then the man must go to the Pasteur Institute at Chicago, if there is time; or presently he will dread the sight of water, go mad, and be racked to death with convulsions. Many have died that death. Sleeping one night in the Coconino Forest, I was awakened by a large animal on my pillow, a skunk mad with hydrophobia trying to reach that eager nose which has so often led me into trouble. I shooed him away, and threw rocks, so that, maybe, he also was alarmed.
There are those in America who still wrongly deny that Pocock made this extraordinary ride, but his album with the photographs he took on the ride is lodged in the Bruce Peel Special Collections at the University of Albert Archive, where students can view it. The full biography of Roger Pocock, Outrider of Empire – the life and adventures of Roger Pocock by Geoffrey A. Pocock (the author of this guest post), was published by the University of Alberta Press and is available from Amazon and from good booksellers.