California Desert Trails is a classic of nature writing from near the turn of the last century, but has remained more of a secret than the subject matter of the book. Chase, a British social worker in Los Angeles, was also a photographer who made a trip in the summer of 1918 to document the region from Palm Springs south through the Anza-Borrego area and from there east to the Imperial Valley and finally to the Colorado River and Yuma. Chase's descriptions of his adventures and the beauty he traveled through put the book in the same genre as Muir and Mary Austin, while the accuracy of his scientific descriptions predate Edmund Jaeger's classic of the same region, "California Deserts", by almost 50 years.
The reader is carried along with Chase, and his horse "Kaweah", through the deserts of Southern California before much of what we have come to know the area by existed. Pre-automobile California was much the same as it had been for thousands of years, the home of Indians, native desert animals and plants, and very little else except for breathtaking beauty and solitude. Chase captures this land in a way that few writers before or since have been able to. All this notwithstanding, Chase has been all but forgotten in the century since he wrote California Desert Trails. This is sad considering his ability to describe what he saw: "When the red flood of sunset comes on those great plains and hill slopes, where no other object breaks the far expanse, while the ancient river moves silently on to the lonely gulf and the mysterious sea, and the traveler's steps halt under that old spell of evening, then the dark, upward-pointing finger of the saguaro gives an added solemnity to that impression of the vast, unchanging, and elemental which is the eternal note of the desert."
As a chronicle of a California that no longer exists, California Desert Trails strikes me as a fossil; an incredible, poignant preservation of something that once existed but which long ago ceased to be a part of day-to-day life: "A straight white line marked on the desert proved to be a macadamized road which had lately been laid for the benefit of automobilists. This gave notice that I was approaching the settlements of Imperial. Two or three [automobiles] passed us, for there is a fair amount of traffic between San Diego and the now-born towns of the valley." Chase and Kaweah tromp and trudge through places with names that are still in use, but which have changed so much since 1918 that I wonder if the pair would recognize many of them. Here is Palm Springs of that year: "On the morning of starting I had been up since four o'clock, and we got on the move while Palm Springs was yet rubbing its eyes. As we passed the Reservation there came the chatter of orioles breakfasting with nonchalance on old Rosa's early figs at forty cents a pound. The racket, checked while the thieves listened with bored amusement to the rattle of her warning bell, -- a kerosene can with horseshoe clapper, hung high among the branches of the patriarchal tree, and operated by Rosa's foot, so as not to interfere with the fashioning of baskets or tortillas, -- went on again the moment the tattoo was ended. Not so, I guessed, the slumbers of her neighbors."
Chase's book is highly recommendable, not only as historical reading, but also as an integral part of the body of literature which continues to build on the beauty and wonder of the deserts of the world. More importantly, even though some of the prose may seem plodding to us in the high-speed information age, the crafting of the book is superb, and this is what makes it such a wonderful experience. It took me almost a month to read the book because I hung on every word, and found myself turning back and forth comparing passages and noting phrases. My copy has at least 100 colored "post-it" tabs stuck on pages at points I particularly wanted to remember. I could just as easily have placed a tab on every page. I did not mark this paragraph, only because it is the last paragraph of Chase's travels, and thus easily remembered: "What sentiment does the desert yield by which it may be linked with human emotions? What analogy exists by which we may come into touch with it? The answer must be, There is none. At every point the desert meets us with a negative. Like the Sphinx, there is no answer to its riddle. It is in the fascination of the unknowable, in the challenge of some old unbroken secret, that the charm of the desert consists. And the charm is undying, for the secret is - Secrecy."