Shorty Borden

Tales of Survival in Death Valley

Death Valley is a land of extremes by any measure. Frying pan heat. Lack of water. Storms of salty dust. A foreboding environment for men. Well, most men. Every now and then someone falls in love with the desert and decides to stay. That’s what Alexander Zachariah Borden did.

Panamint Valley in Death Valley
Panamint Valley, California looking south with Telescope Peak at left
By G. Thomas - en.wikipedia, Public Domain

Alexander, or "Shorty," as he was called, came to the great valley in 1887 looking for gold. He found a few strikes scattered through surrounding mountainous terrain, although they were not much to brag about. His search, however, did give him an intimate knowledge of the area, and he gained some measure of fame by locating a water well just off the Westside Road. That site would become known on maps as "Shorty's Well," no small recognition since water can be as valuable as gold in the desert.

Shorty was known for his hospitality and friendliness. Considered the last of the old timers, he was full of stories and knowledge of the Death Valley region. Although a small man, he had a reputation as a durable walker. His peculiar shuffle of feet and the slight twisting motion in his gait belied his ability to walk dozens of miles at a stretch through the mountains and desert flats. Those invited by Shorty for a hike often regretted it.

One year Shorty teamed up with Bud Saylor, a newfound friend whom he had met in San Francisco. Bud was just back from the Yukon gold fields, out of luck and out of money. Shorty’s sales pitch about the wonders and beauties of Death Valley sounded better than the icy cold of the Klondike, so Bud agreed to a balanced prospectors’ partnership with Shorty.

After spending a little time in Death Valley, Bud acquired a vision about where he thought the mother lode of gold could be found. He came to believe that the gold fields near Anvil Spring had been localized somewhere in Butte Valley, an upland bowl rimmed by mountains south of Telescope Peak. He and Shorty laid claim to an abandoned cabin and prospected in the area for a time. Eventually, Shorty, tiring of the search, decided go off on his own and explore another area in the valley, a place he had found years before.

Five thousand feet up in the Panamints, Shorty had found the hidden valley of Hanaupah Canyon on one of his earlier prospecting circuits. It had a perennial mountain brook lined with watercress and shaded with cottonwood trees, a welcome refuge from the desert. There was grass in the side canyons for his mules. Scenery abounded and nearby Indian caves gave an interesting spice to the area. Shorty liked the canyon so much that he thought about turning it into a tourist attraction. With a little road improvement and some building development, he reasoned, the area could be a beautiful retreat. That July, while Bud searched for his mother lode, Shorty searched for his pot of gold at the end of his rainbow high above the sweltering salt flats.

But one day, high in the mountains, rain clouds gathered and produced one of those deluges that sometimes strike high desert mountains. Water poured from the skies and rushed down hard rock and barren hillsides, pausing only briefly in low spots before overflowing and speeding downward. Rainwater from fifteen or twenty miles away converged on Hanaupah Canyon, picking up speed, charging towards the valley below. In the narrow gorge, the water grew into an imposing wall, gaining strength with every turn, carrying boulders and debris – a surging and crashing wall twenty or thirty feet high, racing at highway speeds. Shorty heard it coming, a crescendo of sound. He sprinted for higher ground just as the torrent burst through his camp and wiped it off the map.

The waters quickly receded, but the flood had taken everything, including the hat off Shorty’s head, down into the valley below. Although he was a toughened desert veteran, Shorty was in trouble, and he knew it. His only recourse was to walk out of the canyon and across the desert flats to Furnace Creek. He left at dusk.

Normally the hike to Furnace Creek would have been a breeze for Shorty. But at the mouth of the canyon, the torrent had created a sea of mud and debris that was almost impassable. Shorty spent most of the night wading across the alluvial deposits, pulling himself out of thick muck like a man walking in deep hot tar. By morning he had only reached the edge of the quagmire. By midmorning the sun had blistered his hatless head. By the time he crossed the salt flat near Devil's Golf Course that afternoon, he had started seeing visions of water. He imagined a full canteen, a glass of sparkling clear cool water, and a rippling blue lake just ahead. After that, he remembered nothing.

Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley
Devil's Golf Course
By LucasĀ·G - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

At Furnace Creek, Monroe Wagnon was taking some trash out to his incinerator. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw something move. In the 130-degree heat, he thought he must be seeing things. But, no, there it was again. In the distance, interspersed with the heat waves, a small black speck was moving. It was Shorty Borden. Wagnon rescued Shorty, wrapping him in wet blankets and cooling him in a refrigerator. He soaked Shorty in a cool bath and gave him sips of water, slowly. Gradually, Shorty's withered skin regained its tone, like a piece of dried fruit soaking up water. His strength returned, his color came back, then his appetite, and finally, he felt better.

But Shorty was not one to lie around recovering. After three days, less than a week after the flood in Hanaupah Canyon, he decided he had recuperated enough. He wanted to travel up to Anvil Spring to see how Bud was coming along. Shorty filled a canteen, took some bread from the kitchen, thanked his benefactor and, on the evening of the fourth day, struck out for Bud's cabin.



But he had made a mistake. Sure, he knew the route. He knew the distance he had to walk, the country he was challenging, and – he thought – his ability to get there. But he had overestimated the resiliency of his own body. He simply hadn't recovered yet from his ordeals. The next morning, he staggered onto the flat at the Eagle Borax mill. Bennett's Well gave him water for the moment. The following evening, he started out again only to turn back to the mill. His strength was spent; hunger was sapping his remaining resources. At dusk, he tried heading out on a life and death struggle to reach his goal. As in his walk out of Hanaupah Canyon, his memory failed.

Meanwhile, back at Furnace Creek, Wagnon had been worrying about Shorty. He knew that Shorty was a grown man, an old-timer who knew the valley and his own limitations. Yet Wagnon couldn't sleep, he couldn't eat, he felt that something was not right. Finally, he decided to get in his car and drive up to Anvil Spring to see if Shorty was all right. That evening as he came out of the bottom of Warm Springs Canyon onto the valley floor, he hadn't gone far when he found Shorty among the mesquite bushes near the side of the road.

Once again Wagnon rescued Shorty, reviving him this time at Anvil Springs with Bud attending. Once again Shorty fully recovered though after three harrowing incidents – a flash flood and two misspent desert walks – within a week. He had learned his lesson. Apparently, he took it to heart. He lived for many years after that, finally dying in a rest home in San Bernardino.

by Curtis Von Fange


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