On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire

Welcome to my little diversion from the daily grind. Pull up a log or, just sit on yer’ fist and lean back on yer’ thumb (put a smiley face here) and let’s share a moment. I’ll throw another blog in the fire every now and then and, we’ll chew the fat about such mundane things as birds, nature, cowboys and the southwest, USA. I may even wax poetic or philosophical occasionally, but always honoring our creator. If you like something you read, please leave yer’ tracks.

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Posted by on in Birding Articles

Though uncommon and very localized here in SoCal, I have known over the years that the Yellow-breasted Chat migrates to our area in the spring. But, they are very secretive and skittish, so they are hard find and observe. Over the years, I have known their chatty vocals, so have heard them in the dense willows and thickets, even at our local Guajome Park, here in Vista, CA...

Posted by on in Southwest Stories

As they say, "gold is where you find it," but with equal pithiness a miners proverb says: "Gold is where you lost it." That generally means, the one not finding the gold was lost, not the gold. The following tale ain't no Pot 'O Gold at the end of the rainbow story, but, with my propensity for Dutch ovens you might know that this story was inevitable. If ever there was a pot of gold waiting to be found, it's gotta' be, "The Lost Dutch Oven Mine"... a Pot 'O Gold at the end of the trail...

Posted by on in Southwest Stories

Being a native of San Diego County, CA, particularly a native of the arid cow country of East County, I know the rigors of dry weather, Santa Ana winds and the erratic rainy seasons. I grew up during the early forties and fifties not far from Moreno Lake, near Campo. That is just a stone's throw from the Mexican border town of Tecate, Mexico.

It's funny how a single weather event can define your whole life, even if you did not personally experience it. Maybe one grows up only seeing evidence of the devastating aftermath. Like the floods of hurricanes or, the Great Flood of Noah's day. Those folks never forget so they never quit telling the tale of the great flood to the next generation.

Drought 10.700wSo it is that all my life I had heard of the 1916 flood that followed a severe period of drought. Nothing has changed since then, there have been other notable periods of drought and very wet winters. As I grew up, each one of those rainy seasons were measured and defined by one historical benchmark—the 1916 flood. The old timers told many tales of that memorable year of severe drought followed by catastrophic flooding in San Diego County.

Long before the so called "greenhouse effect," southern California, and the west in general, suffered extended periods of, "bone dry," global warming followed by periods of unusual cooling and "soaking wet" winters. History records that the western pioneers and cattle ranchers coped with the erratic wet/dry cycles as a way of life.

For example, the drought of 1862-65 was a major devastation to the state of California—as the 'ol timers put it, "it was so dry you'd have to prime yourself to spit." Fueled by hot Santa Ana winds, all the range and pasture grasses dried up to a crisp during that four-year drought. It was that one extended period of drought that ruined the cattle industry in southern California. After that, cattle ranching never really recovered.

When the drought eased up in November of 1864, it was followed by unusually heavy rains and flooding of biblical proportions. Rain fell for almost a month inundating rivers, valleys, farmlands and communities. Nearly 18 inches of rain fell in just over three months! Compare that with an average of 12 inches for a whole year, It washed away soil, timberlands, hillsides and grassy pastures. It is said that an estimated 200,000 head of cattle were lost in California during the torrential rains of 1864-65. However, that was back then.

During the 1940's when I was a kid, the drought that I heard so much about was the one preceding 1916 flood. That was about thirty years before my time. So, that was also back then, but it was still fresh in the minds of the old timers who lived through that memorable weather event. This fascinating weather tale also ends with a flood... but it ends with whole different twist.

Who was responsible for the great San Diego flood of 1916 anyway—Mother Nature or Charles Hatfield, "The Rainmaker?" Those who remembered that inundation had their own opinion. The question prompted a lot of discussion, even when I was a kid—it is a question that has never really been answered. Here is the historical tale of why...

During the period of 1913-15, the severe drought hit San Diego County was much the same as had happened some sixty years earlier. In 1915 San Diego County was "drier than a popcorn fart", as the saying was. Water for the city was becoming critically short.

During that time the City of San Diego was solely dependent on water pumped from wells and from runoff of winter rains collected in a few county reservoirs like Moreno Lake, Otay Lake and Old Mission Dam. Moreno Lake was a main water storage reservoir. A flume system carried water from the mountainous back country to thirsty San Diego. (During the 1940's my Dad was employed as "flume walker" on the Barrett-Dulzura flume.)

At issue was the fact that from the time Moreno reservoir was built in 1897 it had never been full. Many critics said that it was overbuilt and thus a wasted investment by the City of San Diego. Now, it was fast drying up to little more than a cattle pond. Everyone was getting extremely nervous and talked a lot about the critical water shortage but could do little about it. Then, one very dry morning in early December, a gentleman of slight build visited the City Council. He stood up and announced his profession as a "moisture accelerator." For a fee, Charles Hatfield boldly offered to fill the big Moreno Reservoir to the brim, using his method of "moisture acceleration."

Desperate, half-hopeful and skeptical, the city council listened to his pitch and examined newspaper clippings of his rainmaking triumphs from Los Angeles to Alaska and Texas, from 1904 to the present.

After a lengthy negotiation the city council voted four to one to pay Hatfield $10,000.00 if he could fill Moreno reservoir to overflowing by December 20, 1916—or they would pay him nothing at all. That's like $100,000.00 in today's money! It was agreed that he would not have to reveal his trade secrets if he was successful. After the deal was made, the city council boasted, "it's heads we win, tails he loses!" Hatfield responded by saying, "be careful what you're asking for."

So, forthwith, he took his rainmaking apparatus and his trade secrets out to the mountains of Moreno reservoir, sixty miles to the east of San Diego. He built a 40-foot tower on top of which he assembled large galvanized vats on a platform. Then in a tent below he began mixing and preparing his secret concoction of some twenty-three different chemicals for causing rain, or "moisture acceleration" as he preferred to call it. (Some say it was of hydrogen and powdered zinc.)

The locals came to see his unique operation. He told them "this was no Indian rain dance, so scat or you'll 'git no rain." And so they scatted. He mixed his chemicals and stirred his brew and the vaporous fumes went wafting into a cloudless sky. His detractors and believers alike were abuzz with wisecracks, bets, hopes, doubts and snickers.

1916flood2Night fell. Lo and behold (unbelievably) the next morning it was raining! The ranchers and cowmen were delighted as the water began to flow into the creeks and valleys and into Moreno Lake. The heavy rains came and kept coming and coming—heavier and heavier. Mission Valley, which to this day, still floods with just a couple inches of rain, began to run bank to bank as the San Diego River received all the mountain runoff. Downtown San Diego was quickly awash in slosh. Hatfield called city hall and bragged that he was only just beginning and that he was doubling his "moisture acceleration" formula. He said: "You better start building an Ark!"

In a few days an irate rancher contacted city hall and told them to "Stop the damn Rainmaker, and pay him off—it's raining like a cow on a flat rock—my ranch is floating downstream!" But Hatfield was ecstatic with his success and was not about to let up on his "moisture accelerator." He put the pedal to the metal and fumed the clouds like a madman! It is said that he worked all night and the next day without letup, and kept pumping out his witch's brew for more than a week.

No question about it, in a dramatic way the drought was suddenly over and Moreno Lake was soon full to the brim and so was Otay Lake. The Sweetwater Dam and Lower Otay Lake filled to overflowing. But the Otay Dam was old and feeble and on January 27th, it burst and dumped a forty-foot wall of water down the canyon, sweeping away cattle, horses, farms, bridges, homes and some people.

Located just north of Old Town, the bridge that crossed the normally dry San Diego River bed was wiped out and that cut San Diego off from the north for more than a week. The same happened at the San Luis Rey River crossing in Oceanside. So, the Coast Highway was washed out and impassable in numerous places. The Santa Fe and San Diego Arizona trains were marooned both north and east and all the main roads were closed. They were impassable or washed out. All telegraph cable service was cut off. South of San Diego on the Mexican border, the Tijuana River Valley was inundated and the river overflowed its banks and carved a new channel, one that is present to this day. The county saw more than 200 bridges washed out. The 1916 flood was truly of monumental proportions—a deluge like nothing ever experienced!

Where I grew up as a kid on the Dulzura summit, old timers would point out various topographical effects of the flood that changed the landscape forever. Such evidence as ancient scars of landslides where huge sections of the mountains had gotten waterlogged and slid away, leaving the mountain with a new shape or a new canyon. Piles of humungous boulders the size of houses that tumbled down the mountainsides still remain as a witness to Hatfield's 1916 flood. In the lingo of the locals, it was "a real gully-washer", "a pine-knot-floater!"

The main thing though was this: at long last big Moreno Dam, which sat nearly empty for about 20 years, was full to the brim for the first time ever. Charles Hatfield unquestionably fulfilled his end of the bargain—or was it an act of nature? Hatfield took credit for soaking the City for $10,000.00 and claimed that the downpour was the direct result of his "moisture acceleration" efforts.

A posse of ranchers madder than a wet hen, with rain in their faces and blood in their eyes, headed for his tower. But Hatfield was nowhere to be found. He had dismantled his tower and high-tailed it for San Diego to collect on his contract.

MV floodBut as soon as the rains subsided the fair-weather skeptics swamped City Hall. They rose up like the floodwaters to discredit him as a snake oil salesman! The city attorney denied his claim on the grounds that "the whole thing was an act of God!" They refused to pay the money unless Hatfield would accept liability for flood damages to the city. By using that argument, in essence the city council acknowledged his success while denying him payment. Lawsuits against the city soon totaled more than 3.5 million dollars!

Interestingly, Hatfield never claimed that he was a "rainmaker" or that he caused it to rain. Even though he took credit for filling Moreno reservoir to the brim by the date agreed, he could not enforce his poorly written contract that claimed he was only a "moisture accelerator." Hatfield had dug himself a watery mud hole. Refusing to pay for his San Diego flood of 1916, the city left him high and dry.

It is likely that he finally did get some remuneration and personal satisfaction forty years later, when he became the subject of a movie— "The Rainmaker." In the 1956 movie, The Rainmaker, Burt Lancaster played a character resembling Charles Hatfield's exploits. On the bone-dry evening of the movie premiere, Charles Hatfield showed up, conspicuously holding up an umbrella. Shortly thereafter, his secret brew for rainmaking and/or "moisture acceleration" died with him in 1958. He was 82. Yes, during my day, Charles Hatfield was a notable character.

Nugget  231 Hatfield Plaque
But, was the 1916 flood "an act of God" or Hatfield? His strange achievement prompted many country arguments and tales of the 1916 flood. Ask the country folks in eastern San Diego County around Dulzura, Campo and Moreno Lake. It's still a question open to debate. Some say, "Give the devil his due." Others say, "Let the devil take the hindmost." As for me, I grew up my whole life believing that Hatfield caused the flood of 1916—or else it would not have been called the Hatfield flood—right? Greenhouse effect or not, why should I change my opinion now? Then again, I've heard it said: "Timing has a lot to do with rain at a rain dance."

Funny how a single weather event can define a part of your life, maybe even your whole life. How about the Flood of Noah's day?

© Ed Keenan

Posted by on in Birding Articles

tb20460Whether horseback or afoot, cowboys enjoy their outdoor surroundins. I've known a few cowhands who enjoy birdin' (bird watching) as they ride their spread and work their cattle, spring and fall. I knew one that even tended some bluebird nest boxes he'd attached to bobwire fence posts, way out on the open range He told me of both Western and Mountain Bluebirds that had nested in his boxes. Since he's carryin' binoculars anyway, he may even carry a Peterson's Bird Guide in his saddlebag. But, modern cowpokes carry Sibley's Field Guide. The diversion of birdin' gives him another reason to appreciate the seasons and notice his grand surroundins'

Well, I leave the warmth of the old wood stove this late October morning. The trail to the fence line is carpeted with the faded discards of summer, like frosted flakes for breakfast. The breeze is holding her breath lightly and among the russets and rufous-reds are hints of yellow green, and my horse is feelin' her oats on the first frosty mornin'. My old stoved-up hip from earlier days aches less in the rising sun and azure sky and scattered puffs of cotton vapor. Carrying a pocket full of blessings and following my breath past rail fences, dark-eyed juncos twitter and flash their tails just ahead of me—and I covet the solitude of ridin' the fence line past these woods.

6193651123 73661b6007Before reaching the feeding grounds of corn fields and walnut groves, somewhere on the other side of the north pasture, a flock of crows stir up a riot and shout obscenities at a day-sleeper, a poor horned owl trying to settle in for a day's rest. He was snuggled up against a scaly trunk in perfect camouflage, at least so he thought, until being persecuted by those of dark temperament.
And then, there they are again—hanging upside down—a half a dozen indecisive goldfinches, now fading to winter tans. They do the dipsy-doodle in front of my horse, from clumps of fuzzy milkweed to fluffy cottontails of parched thistle. And past the nettles on the other side of the willows, song sparrows volley occasional fall notes like crystal bells, then dash in erratic flight, diving for cover in the bramble-berries near the creek.

Riding on beneath the sycamores, there is a tasting room of claret poke berries hanging heavy with purple clusters, inviting waxwings and thrushes and the occasional mockingbird. Nearby, puffed up lark sparrows with hatpin breasts, and white crowned sparrows, seek the morning sun on the tangle of a big old elderberry —a feeding magnet for mockers and phainopeplas in the spring.

Last spring I had spied out the edge of the woods and two most unusual aerial shows were in progress. One consisted of micro-filaments drifting in the morning sun. Buoyant spider webs drifting like minute cable-crossings, hemstitching sunrays to shadows with silken strands of opaque silver threads; migrating to any destination or twig... truly a unique sight. And, the woods were filled with emerging subterranean or dry-wood termites. They erupt seasonally, spring and fall, and fill the air with glittering propellers, like tiny helicopters, seeking more dead wood to ingest and recycle into methane gas. Yellow-rumped warblers had an acrobatic heyday and the air was filled with their 'cheet, cheet! They acted like kids in a candy store and I somehow sensed their joy and satisfaction!

Crossing the creek, the marsh is busy near the tulles, a conservatory for mallard voice training; they yak and laugh at soprano mockingbirds sounding like hand-carved ducks calls. Annoyed, a great blue heron rises languid and hang-glides to the silent distant shore. Soon he is pointing his proboscis in a steely stare at some unseen movement in the muddy shallows.

I quietly dismount in the shadows, but no matter how sneaky or quiet I am, those sharp-eyed painted wood ducks catch my silhouette in the brushy woods and fly up whining like 4th-of-July rockets, warning every creature of my presence. Ah... but, two northern shovelers stay and feed, allowing me to focus my binocs on their beauty; they put on a real show by spinning around each other like tops.

Well... I left the old wood stove cracklin' and it beckons my return to stir the coals and heat up another cup of coffee. Funny how October days and tawny leaves of frosted flakes, migrating warblers and heron tracks in the mud always seem new—evoking another encore. So, I'll ride this trail again and again before the muted light of winter, or my gimpy 'ol hip can't sit in the saddle no more.

© Ed Keenan

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Nothing fires the imagination of a desert enthusiast like bandits, gold and ghost towns. Here in the American southwest, the strange and colorful history associated with the Vallecito Stage Station is one of those southwest desert places that stir the imagination. Numerous murders, robberies and other wicked tales are part of the interesting history of the "little valley." Also woven into this history are some legendary ghosts stories. All these tales fire the imagination of treasure hunters and campfire storytellers alike.

Ed Keenan's new edition of "Cow chip Poetry---Lies, Lingo & Lore" is 207 pages. It contains a total of 57 original cowboy poems, an extensive lingo glossary and many cowboy illustrations.

Cowboy poetry and story tellin' date back to the earliest cowboys, the earliest of which were black. Around the campfire, after chuck, cowhands would naturally talk and brag about themselves, and entertain each other with poems and songs and tall tales known as "windies". They bragged about their exploits and work and would often reminisce about back home, or times past.

"Windies" in the form of story tellin', braggin' and tall tales developed in to an art form. (Some hifalutin' folks might question that.) Generally there was an element of humor or drama to their stories. Over time some of these stories were told by means of poetry, the more unbelievable the tale or poem, the more enjoyable. Poetic lines could make a story more interesting and often added another dimension to the humor or drama.

Posted by on in Birding Articles

Remember my August post about a "Feathered UFO?

I shared my field notes of a spectacular exotic bird, of orange color, that I have never identified. I said it still bugs the heck out of me not knowing what I saw.

I'm sure someone can ID this beauty from the description. (If so, please send me a note). Till then, or until I get the right "bird book," I've reverted back to my childhood—to my personal identification system––what we have here is a "Flame-collared-feathered UFO!"

13297  add Orange-Bishop-5569 

Orange Bishop
Click to enlarge.

Sure enough, from my field notes a reader named Spencer sent me a nice note and some photos about the bird I had seen and never identified:

Your mysteries are resolved and you got a great shot of the Nutmeg Mannikin...

From your notes, it seems what you saw is an exotic finch called an Orange Bishop. You can clearly see how appropriate that name is. Or as one might say: "it's easy to see why it is called a Bishop; it definitely looks like ecclesiastical regalia. The Pope would love it.

The very last place I'd expect to find one was at the grounds of the Huntington Beach Library but, there were several in the tulles, behind the library. The unique Nutmeg Mannikin that you saw in Vista, is also established there.


13297  add Nutmeg-Mannikin-5407

Nutmeg Mannikin
Click to enlarge.

Posted by on in Birding Articles

In many ways birding is about anticipation and surprise—the first-time experience of seeing a new species. Nothing quite explains it like the first-time experience.

So, here I was on this exciting birding escapade and saw this particular bird for the very first time. In my excitement I exclaimed: Look! A Wood Thrush! The person next to me said: So? She strung out the 'o' in 'so' with a long inflection that made it sound singsong, sliding upward at the end like a Swainson's Thrush instead of a Veery. I got her point immediately, and my spirit dove for cover with this feeling of embarrassment. She finished off her 'so-oo' by remarking, "that's a junk bird".

Posted by on in Southwest Stories

Imagine being nearly destitute and finding silver nuggets in chunk sizes, up to a weight of fifty pounds, and not be able to carry them out or cash them in! Yes, slabs and chunks of silver scattered up and down a volcanic ravine, clear up on the sides of the banks—all that wealth and you're nearly starving to death! Yes! Like a bee drownin' golden in honey! So begins this tale of "The Lost Black Rock Silver Lode".

It seems no matter how often I observe the locally common birds, as common as they are they are still just as enjoyable today as they were seventy years ago. That was before I could identify any one of them by their proper name. Yes, before the acronym UFO, we were observing many unidentified feathered objects.

Since Dad was an avid prospector, legends and lore of lost gold mines and hidden treasure abounded in our house as I grew up. Legendary tales like that of Peg-Leg Pete and his crusty gold nuggets and three desert buttes. Dad absolutely believed some of the historical tales. To him, it was just a matter of finding what was lost.

Posted by on in Southwest Stories

More than sixty five years ago when I was kid about 12 years old, I lived in the remote mountainous country of east San Diego County—a little known place called Dulzura.

During that time of growing up, an unusual find by my brother and I started us on a saga about spirits, ghosts and tales of strange humanoid type creatures; creatures like the famous "Big Foot," sometimes termed "Sasquatch".

Posted by on in Birding Articles

Bonding with nature in my own backyard? —Nah, not possible. To bond with nature, I need to get away and go where nature is, where all the wildlife roam free in the wild. I need to get away from this grimy asphalt and paved-over world, corralling me with chain-link fences! I need to get out where the creeks and rivers and canyons of green are teaming with birds and other interesting creatures.

Posted by on in Birding Articles

"...absence makes the heart grow fonder"

Growing up as a boy in the 1940's, in the remote backcountry of southern California, I always had an interest in the wild birds. But, a "bird book" as we know today, was nonexistent. By "bird book" I mean a "field guide", an identification guide to wild birds.

Until the publication of such an identification guide by Roger Tory Peterson, in the 1930's, there was no such thing as a, pocket-size, bird book— that is, a field guide for birders. Besides his crisp, colorful, drawings of each bird, Peterson used his now famous method of ID pointers to help amateurs identify wild birds in the field. His unique method became world-renowned.

Peterson's original "Field Guide to The Birds" covered only the eastern United States. It was not until the 1940's that he eventually turned his attention to the birds of the western United States—"A Field Guide to Western Birds". My interest in wild birds began during this same time, when I was about eight years old.

Posted by on in Cowboy Poetry

Probably no other tale of lost gold fires the imagination more than the famous “Lost Pegleg.” It is a tale believed by many a treasure hunter, would-be prospector and desert enthusiast. Much believable detail, and even (so-called) proof of finding his gold nuggets, has been added to the 150-year-old pile of sincere mendacities—enough to make many more believers out of honest agnostics.

My dad was a serious prospector during the 1940s and 50’s. So, growin’ up as a kid, I heard this yarn told by him and other country folks many times. No matter how many times the story of Pegleg was told, it never failed to inspire the imagination of us kids, and those who listened to it.

So it’s only natural that in my soon-to-be-released second edition of CowChip Poetry —Lies & Lingo and Lore,” I have written a narrative poem of this historical character, Pegleg Pete, a.k.a. Pegleg Smith. This is my version of the Pegleg tale, as I remember it being told. If yer’ interested, you’ll find a fascinating, in-depth history of Pegleg at: www.desertusa.com

Legend of The Lost Peg-Leg

An historical narrative

There's all sorts of wild desert tales
Surroundin' Peg-leg Pete,
How he found black gold and lost it
Blazin' a trail in desert heat.

Tagged in: Legends & Lore

Posted by on in Southwest Stories

Maybe a ghost town is literally an apparition. That is, maybe there is nothing to see. Maybe it's only in the eye of the beholder—only an imagination of its ghostly history.

Posted by on in Birding Articles

I have made short trips and long distance trips just to catch a glimpse of a bird that I had never seen. I have studied and researched the habits and whereabouts of a bird in another county, state and country. I have flown hours to a distant place, gotten up early, drove for miles, wandered in the woods, and stayed late to hear and see a single Bachman's Sparrow in east Texas. So, after all that birding and searching, how is it that I can still pursue a live bird right in my own backyard?

Posted by on in Southwest Stories

Nothing inspires the southwest imagination like ghost towns, outlaws and stage robbers.

Posted by on in Southwest Stories

A lost gold mine is actually a misnomer. Any gold strike (discovery) or diggins' that has been worked and improved upon to the point of being called a "mine" is not easily lost. It might be purposely covered over or hidden so as to make it difficult to find, but not usually lost, at least not to begin with.

You only get one shot at tom turkey—maybe two. From chicks to jakes to 
old toms, they are cagier than an early Native American; and more sly and cunning
 than a bobcat, more aware and alert than a coyote... that's how they stay alive.
 So, for a birder to see a wild turkey in the wilds, up close and personal, it
 doesn't happen without careful planning.

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