The desert is the haunt of mystery. Sometimes men hear whispers of its past. They go seeking beyond the shimmering mirage. Into the silence they plod. A few are lost. A few return from uncharted desolation bringing back strange tales. An Indian tribe that has never seen a white man. A mine with a door of iron. Or a lost ship half buried in the sandy bed of an old sea.
The tales of the lost ships of the Colorado Desert have gathered moss, they have been told so many times. Although logical explanation gives credence to a few tales, they've been more or less exploded. Yet the fascination persists. Here's why:
In the bottom of every old seabed throughout he world bones of adventurous men on argosies to unknown lands have been found sealed with the ooze of stratified muds; it would be strange then if this particular ancient sea bed in the Colorado Desert of California was the exception. True, it is eons since a genuine sea flooded this valley, yet men have sailed in ships longer than our knowledge of history penetrates.
So there seems nothing impossible in the stories one hears. There's the tale of a ship with hexagonal spars, its wreck found by Indians all but covered with sand far up the meanderings of a dry wash in the Chocolate Mountains. One story, published years ago in the magazine supplement of the Los Angeles Examiner, told of a Spanish galleon loaded with a king's ransom in precious stones, its wreck sighted in sand dunes northwest of Indio. One old desert vagabond who visited my oasis at Thousand Palms years back told me he had once found parts of a Chinese junk sand-and-clay buried near the oyster beds at Willis Palms.
And so the many stories are told and retold. They may all be true. For there probably were many ships. Wrecks of ships have come to light in the remotest parts of the earth.
But the story that seems most authentic is the one of the old Viking ship in the Colorado Desert. I've heard it a score of times and each time it seems more plausible. Here are the facts:
Down from the little mining town of Julian in the San Diego hinterland some years ago rode Mr. and Mrs. Louis Botts. That night they camped at Agua Caliente springs. In their first evening at the springs they had a visitor, a prospector who swapped them yarn for yarn — but all his stories centered on gold. . .
Until he drew from his wallet a few faded photographs of a "wreck of a ship of some kind" which he had found exploring for gold in the rough country down by the Mexican border.
Myrtle Botts, who is the librarian at Julian, studied the small worn prints. Then she exclaimed, "Why this is the skeleton of a very ancient ship! It's the type used in the period when Eric the Red made his voyages to America. Look, "she said, pointing to the picture of a ship half buried beside a rocky bank, "there's the high serpent bow, the curved ribs — an ancient long boat!"
But their visitor remained indifferent to the questions plied on him; his mind was intent on gold. "Can't see what's so strange about finding a boat in this desert. There used to be water here."
When Mrs. Botts asked, "Why did you take the photographs?" the prospector replied, "Seemed sorta funny finding a boat so far from water." He was a matter-of-fact fellow and had imagination only for gold. "Boats just ain't in my line," he said as he tired of the questioning and eased off toward his camp.
In the morning the prospector had drifted on; the Botts never saw him again. Upon returning to Julian, Mrs. Botts thumbed through every book on early explorations. There was little to find of Norsemen voyaging towards "lands west." Nor did yearly searches that the Botts made uncover the ancient wreck.
But Myrtle Botts is positive the old serpent-prowed ship exists. And though the dust of centuries covers the hopes of dead voyagers on adventuresome argosies to unknown lands, she is certain that one day that lost ship of a vanished sea will be found!
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