The Mojave River flows from the San Bernardino Mountains first north then east to its final destination at Soda Lake. The old trail crossed from the Cow Hole Hills on the east to Soda Spring Station on the west -- no problem when the lake is dry. That, however, was not the case in the winter of 1868.
The following tale was written by a correspondent traveling with the famous Kansas Pacific Railway survey party headed by General William J. Palmer.
“Following a trail, about 10 o’clock A.M. we reached the shores of Soda Lake; the water was not visible a short distance off, going to the uniform coloring of water and land. Soda Lake is dry the greater part of the year, and it has never been know to have as much water in it as at present.
I was riding in the advance of our party, and as the trail led onto the water I kept on supposing it was shallow to the opposite bank, about four miles distant. At any rate it seemed three times as far to ride around the lake at either end. Some person crossed there at some time before us, so on we kept. The water was shallow, but my mule labored as if he were climbing a steep hill. My eyes were fixed on the opposite shore, which seemed to recede as we moved slowly on. I looked back to see Hobart, on his once-powerful horse, plunging through mire, and behind him the others followed.
We had ridden perhaps one-third of the way across when the water came up to the saddle girths, and our animals seemed to rise and then slowly sink as they moved forward. My mules staggered like a drunken man, and once I had to yell and spur to keep him from falling. Ahead of me a bare island of land rose above the water, and I pushed on to rest the animal and waited for my friends. I succeeded in getting with difficulty on the island, and then dismounted. But I had hardly touched the ground before it felt it yielding beneath my feet, and as I looked down a cold shudder ran through me; we were in the quicksands.
I kept myself and the mule moving so to prevent our sinking, and as we walked about the deep tracks seemed to fill up and every evidence of foot prints became obliterated. I looked back, and a feeling of horror came over me as I saw my companions dismounted and evidently holding a consultation on an island three hundred yards behind me. Walking still to keep from sinking, I shouted to them to come on, though I felt inwardly that were I there I would go back. Misery loves company, and the cold perspiration dried on my forehead as I saw Hobart and Curtis, followed by the rest of the party, coming on to join me. Drenched and tottering they reached me, when we held a council of war, I was going to stay but to me the quicksands were more terrible than any horror of war…”
He goes on at length to describe the horror of slowly being sucked-down, swallowed by wet sand.
“Picture it! With all the facilities to appreciate its surroundings, in all health, sinking to the knees but too wearied with the unequal contest to extricate them, and if extricated, only to sink again, down as the sands, cold and clammy, fold around the vitals! Hours may pass and he can look up at the golden sun-light, and away at the firm hill, till the rising sand encircle his neck. … Then it rises higher, the sands fill the mouth and the wretch sinks slowly, slowly from hope and light and life, buried as he dies.”
The party decided to go back and go around the Lake, “We found it decidedly unpleasant on the retreat, and I felt inwardly religious when we struck the hard shore”. The Party ventured north along the edge of Soda Lake and … “found a river about two hundred yards wide, with a swift current flowing north out of it….” This would be the overflow into Silver Lake north of the town of Baker that occurs only in extremely wet years. The party successfully reaches “Soda Lake Station” now referred to as Zyzzx.
Did the narrator find himself in a situation beyond his experience allowing his imagination free rein? No, I don’t think so. I think he was playing to his readers back on the East Coast who relished stories about the “wild west” of this period.
Incidentally, the base material of Soda Lake is clay not sand and to my knowledge no one has yet been buried alive there.