Populated by kangaroo rats, coyotes, sidewinders, and chuckwalla lizards Death Valley, California was a graveyard for men who’d succumbed to lack water and died with parched tongue sticking to the roof of the mouth, dust choking the lungs, and the sun roasting their very flesh. What little water there was could be dangerous; many of the springs were tainted with alkali or borax, and would kill a man rather than save him. The locals in the scrabbling towns around the desert called those who braved the sun and sand “Desert Rats,” and the desert claimed some twenty five of them each year.
Lou Wescott Beck almost joined their number, he’d been a prospector for most of his life, searching for gold in the Big Horn country up in Wyoming, over into Montana, then down into Nevada until word reached him in the early 1900’s of a gold strike in Death Valley, California. The strike was a hoax perpetrated by colorful conman Death Valley Scotty, but Beck and his four companions didn’t know that, and traipsed far out into the desert in search of gold.
That first trip, Beck and his men weren’t aware of any of the dangers; unused to the desert, they began to run out of water. Their tongues became swollen, their lips cracked, and they became desperate, as the wandered completely lost with nary a sign post or map to guide them. Every hour or two, they came across the skull of an animal or their fellow man, who’d perished in the sands to be eaten by vultures and coyotes. It was only by pure luck, and with but a few scant hours to live, that they’d discovered a tiny spring at the base of the Panamint Mountains, and so were saved the same fate.
When Beck arrived back in civilization, he was a changed man. Perhaps he’d had an epiphany out in the desert, or made a promise to the Divine. He began to travel Death Valley, equipped with tin strips, paint and signposts. Beck wasn’t alone; his faithful golden retriever Rufus; joined him. The two began to mark out the desert, creating signposts signaling the way to good water, and affixing tin strips to piles of rock; the sun shimmering on the tin could be seen at great distances, and provided a blinking marker pointing the way to water and help. Both of them wore specially made boots; Rufus’ went up to his knees and protected his paws from thorns, snake bites, and desert rocks heated by the sun. Rufus served as a sort of desert St. Bernard, carrying water and antidotes for snake bites in modified saddlebags. Rufus had a good nose too; he’d often find travelers collapsed in the desert long before Beck had an inkling they were there. Rufus himself saved at least a dozen men.
Some folks in Pasadena heard about Beck, took up a collection, and donated a Flanders “20,” a small twenty horsepower open touring car which would let Beck move through the desert faster. He called the car “Chuckwalla” after the hearty desert lizard. The year before, Beck had discovered an automobile which had overheated; beneath it were four corpses, who’d died miserably under the car praying for help and trying to keep out of the sun. So Beck took precautions, and to keep his engine from overheating, he placed asbestos coated blankets over the engine Having prepared his tin strips and signs during the winter, Beck and Rufus set out once more, and during the next few years marked wells as having good water or bad, and erected signs directing travelers back to the roads and to safety.
“It is hard for the average man to understand the fascination the desert has for one who has once braved it and come back” said Beck. “He may hold out against its call as long as the hardships and sufferings he endured are fresh in his mind. But sooner or later he finds himself sighing for the heat, the sands, the mountains, the solitudes, and the wind…”
Beck died in July 1917, but not before the U.S. Government took over his work of marking the desert. Rufus outlived him, retiring to a dog sanitarium in Pasadena, where he was cared for by Dr. T.H. Agnew, and provided every comfort his heart could desire. When Rufus passed on at age 16, a friend delivered his eulogy:
I shall always think of him with the background of the desert, and all about him the limitless space. I shall think of the dawn with its wonderful orange and flame, and the desert blues when the morning stars are sinking, the moon has sunk out of sight, and Arcturus is blazing, and through it all I shall hear the musical baying of Rufus, as he called to the distant mountains to send forth their streams of living water, and I shall remember the intrepid dog soul that never faltered, the life saver, Rufus of the desert.