Lost Desert Ship Still Holds Public Imagination
Lapped by Moonlight Canyon, Indian Gorge, and Hellhole Canyon is, as explorer Albert S. Evans described it, “the grim and silent ghost of a dead sea.” California’s Colorado Desert may still cling to remnants of its aquatic past life. Legend has it that the carcass of a once great ship lays beneath its golden sands. Here are the accounts of a few who have made the tale a part of their personal narratives.
One of the most discussed sightings occurred in 1933. Librarian Myrtle Botts was hiking with her husband in the Anza-Borrego desert state park near the Mexican border, where they enjoyed wildflowers, and hoped to find a new species of desert flora.
When night fell, they set up camp in the Agua Caliente settlement. Their day of relative quiet was upended, though, when a local prospector covered with all the filth of a hard day’s work stumbled into the settlement.
The couple invited the prospector to supper, and they settled around the campfire eager to replenish their bodies. The prospector regaled the couple with tales of his many adventures. He told them stories about his struggle to excavate gold from the arid land, he told them stories of a mysterious desert ship, and it was the latter that caught Botts’s attention.
The prospect of a desert ship was not new to Botts; she had in the past often dismissed it as folklore, but this time, the tale came with veritable proof—a photograph.
In the morning, Botts and her husband followed the prospector’s directions to find the Viking craft with serpentine prow, lodged into a wall of Canebrake Canyon. It nested at a height that, without proper equipment, was nearly impossible to reach. Botts, however, invigorated by this discovery, swore to return the next day with the provisions the hike required. She would not.
An earthquake registering 6.4 on the richter scale occurred in the waters off Huntington Beach, and dislodged the ship from its resting place. Botts never saw it again. Or so the story goes. Botts’s tale has never been verified, but its done much to further the legend.
In 1939, six years after Botts’s alleged sighting, Desert Magazine published the first mainstream editorial on the elusive vessel. Writer Charles C. Niehuis, though, was prompted not by Botts’s claims but by another raconteur, his friend Jim Tucker.
Niehuis recalled the events: “Charlie, I’ll tell you a good one. You won’t believe it, but it’s the truth anyway,” said Tucker.
Niehuis was apprehensive but attentive. Tucker turned to his wife, asked, “Shall I tell him about the ship, Petra?”
Petra agreed but not before adding the caveat, “but, don’t tell him where, Jim!”
According to Tucker, the ship had been seen by Petra’s previous husband Santiago, a man who was convinced his wife would deem him “crazy,” for seeing in a narrow box canyon, “a boat of ancient appearance—an open boat but big, with round metal disks on its sides.” (The round metal disks also suggest that the vessel is of Viking origin.)
For whatever reason, Santiago was pulled away by friends before getting to explore the vessel. He vowed, though, to return to the ship and retrieve for his wife those “round metal disks.” Niehuis, enamored with the story though not entirely convinced, leaned forward and asked “didn’t any of them ever go back?”
Tucker, who had been nursing a cigarette, exhaled, smiled and said quite frankly, “Petra claims they all died, of one thing or another, and none of them ever got back.”
Despite being skeptical of its validity, Niehuis knew the story of the desert ship was too interesting not to write about.
There exists, though, somewhat of a disconnect between the widely circulated anecdotes and history. There is no archeological evidence to support the notion of Viking settlement in or around California. It is more likely the ship belonged to Spanish conquistadors; however, as it is yet to leave the realm of legend, the ship’s origins are anybody’s guess.
Furthering the hunt nearly a hundred years later is John Grasson, former editor of Dezert Magazine, the now-defunct successor to Desert Magazine. Grasson was introduced to the legend ten years ago after reading Philip A. Bailey’s Golden Mirages, which articulates desert legends. He quickly became obsessed.
Grasson immediately took the book to Arizona State University library in Tempe, where he spent three days—and $500—photocopying its pages. He would spend the next seven years combing through Bailey’s research, and searching the desert for the vessel.
Grasson, though, shies away from the title of treasure hunter, preferring to call himself an “explorer of legends and lore.”
Speaking on the Death Valley Jim Radio Program, he said, “I know this is kind of weird, and a lot of people look at me like I'm nuts, but I really think this ship is there.”
Grasson has narrowed his search to an area near the town of Imperial Valley. Irrigation techniques have made possible a fruitful farming enterprise in this portion of the desert. He believes the ship is near one of these farms. As to its exact whereabouts Grasson has chosen to remain tight-lipped for fear that the area will be inundated by “a bunch of idiots wrecking private property.”
It is yet to be seen if the ship will ever be found. One thing is for sure, for some in California’s sweltering desert-lands, it has become an indelible part of their imagination, impacting them in a way that mere mirage can not.
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