Back to Colorado, back to “The Hole”…
…And then there was the trail, two-miles nearly straight down into the canyon, through trees and thickets that only a horse could navigate. We loaded the animals and got in the saddle, and over a few days rode the dredge and compressor and the rest of the equipment down into the canyon to the Claim on the Creek. The claim itself was a 100-something foot stretch of creek, and in the middle was “The Hole.” A 15-foot waterfall entered at one end of a 60-foot granite circle with sheer walls, and the water that flowed out the other end was just an ankle-deep, shallow trickle.
There HAD to be a whole mess of gold down there at bedrock – and there probably still is. We worked it for a while but most of the work involved me moving large rocks underwater in an effort to get to bottom bedrock. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart because I was mainly stupid. It was incredibly dangerous down there, because in order to get down to the bottom layer of rock-stuff I had to wear a lead weight-belt and the sheer-walls meant there was nothing to hold onto in the Hole except the dredge-and-pump floating on two inner-tubes. As large rocks were moved aside to make a deeper hole and reach the bottom, the hole I was creating threatened to cave-in and trap me.
…And then it began to rain for a week straight. The days were dark and cold in in the mountains, but beautiful and majestic – and full of danger. We kept a camp-fire alighted under a fir-tree with branches that repelled the water. We needed the fire to stay warm after each excursion. Once in a fit of sheer exhaustion as I returned to the surface I stupidly spit-out the hookah-tube that was feeding me fresh air, and gulped-in a lung-full of freezing, brackish, creek-water – and I sank back under the water, taken down by the lead belt. With a great deal of frantic determination I coughed and thrashed and kicked and fought my way back to the surface. Releasing the weight-belt I grabbed onto the dredge’s inner-tube for floatation and nearly tipped the whole apparatus into the drink. I clung to the side of the machine gasping and listened to the steady thunka-thunka of the little motor and I realized that I had nearly drowned right there. And I still had to go down and retrieve the weight belt.
That ended the exploration of The Hole itself, and we turned our attention to the inlet and outflow portions of the creek to verify the status of the claim. Working the upper reaches above the fall we found and recovered a consistent volume of small flakes and colors, like what we had found in the Trinity Alps. Working the lower outflow section where the creek was only inches deep we found almost nothing. Stuff was going in, but was not coming out, but the means to get at it was more than our equipment could handle. We needed a Cat and a crane and a much bigger suction-device – just really big stuff that we couldn’t get down on horses. We needed to grow the operation and divert the creek.
So we dried-off and took a trip into town for a day-off and some recreation, and to figure out what to do next. We ducked out of the rain into The Bar where we began talking with the sassy, cute and buxom black-haired bartenderess, and drinking with the local Sheriff who happened to be a friend of Jim’s, on just what happened to be his (the Sheriff’s) Birthday, and we joined-in with the whole bar singing his birthday song, repeatedly as rounds were poured, “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” It was indeed his 34th-somethign Birthday and quite a memorable event.
It was also there that we found out that in the middle of the Summer, while we were quietly working away down in the canyon, that the Colorado Law on placer mining and stuff had changed, and we were not actually supposed to be there. Seriously not. In fact there were fines and levees and punishments that could be applicable. We had talked and conversed with the Forest Service rangers a couple times, one a very cute blond who we enticed with beer and whiskey… Fortunately the claim was a distant and quiet operation, remote and hard to reach too – and with a light foot-print on the land, so we just as quietly packed-up and departed. Jim for Padcuha, Kentucky to see his mom – where he dropped me off and I continued my hitchhike journey north to the wilds of mid-Ohio and a visit with friends from Overseas-School where they annual Reunion was held. And that was the last time I spent with horses.
Up against the wall, hippy!!
UPDATE: the OTHER song that was my Summer of ’77 redneck-roots theme-song, because: Colorado!
I went to work in the Summer of ’77 between semesters on a fluke job when I ran into a guy on my hitchhiking escape from Hateful Town. It was the Jimmy Carter era of gas-lines and general hopelessness, and there were no jobs (not even mowing-lawns) for an unconnected, intermediate college Serf-in-Training, even (or especially) at the Brain-Factory of Big-Universitytown. Being without wheels because no-money, I hit the road with my thumb-out to go see a palace that a few good friends (ok, ONE guy – but he was right) said was rather special.
I made my way (slowly) Northwards and circuitously via Eureka, up the coast then inland to the NorCal Trinity Alps: destination Thompson Peak. I camped rough off the side of the road one night in the middle of an Indian Reservation, after declining a ride with a very drunken but amorous local woman. At the trail-head of Hobo Gulch I met Jim, an itinerant Econ Professor from SUNY by way of a Visiting Professorship UC Santa Barbara. He was scruffy and holding the reins of a mule when he asked me if I was headed anywhere in particular and, “Did I want to try my hand at gold-mining?” For the princely 1-tenth of 1% of the found-gold, or $10-a-day.
Apparently his team of UCSB muscle-bound Aquamen had fled the quiet, tall, Mountains to return to the rambunctious Surf-Scene, when I showed up as an answer to his prayers. He had a pile of equipment and cans of food. Corned-beef hash mainly, and the mule and a donkey needed loading, so I learned to tie a “diamond hitch” or a “trucker’s hitch” to secure the load – from a time when a wagon was a “truck” and when you didn’t have a truck you tied it on an animal. Among the equipment was also some dive-stuff, and got to learn how to use scuba gear attached to a hookah-rig. I would also learn how really goddam cold snow-melt water can be despite a wet-suit, and how to glue-up patches on an aged wet-suit that needed a few more layers of neoprene.
Up there at the camp I met Old George who had traveled on the last clipper ship to go around the Cape Horn on its way to California, and who had started an Investors Advice newsletter back before Forbes Magazine. We were there to excavate by dredge-and-sluicebox a 100-foot section of “his” river as a bit of necessary improvements to his Homestead Claim, in order for the Forestry Service to recognize another 7-year lease.
I have a book on my shelf about the early Naval demolition and exploration teams that were established in WWII to reconnoiter beaches and landing spots, they were the precursors to the UDT and later SEALS and it’s called “The Water is Never Cold”. Yeh right, they didn’t swim in Alpine lakes or lay in a freezing creek with a vacuum-cleaner type contraption, sucking-up bits of sand and gravel in the elusive hunt for Gold. We had to time our exposure or risk hypothermia. I’d spend just half-an-hour in freezing water while Jim drank beer, and then get out and stand over the camp-fire shivering for an HOUR trying to warm-up again. Gold drives men to do crazy things and ignore pain and reality and endure lots of hardships – AND it makes men deal with horses and other domesticated critters. We found a lot of tiny flakes and “colors” that were captured and collected in the shag-rung at the end of the sluice-box, but the hunt for gold was not the real purpose of our work, it was to help Old George keep his claim in the mountains he loved. Anyhow, what else was I going to do that summer…?
A month later I hitched down through So-Cal and out to Colorado, and met-up with Jim again outside Silverton on Lime Creek for a “REAL” shot at gold – and had to work with horses. Horses have individual character and personalities. His expensive big black semi-thoroughbred horse had been stabled with some ne’er-do-well’s who lived in a trailer on ranch-land, and he suspected it wasn’t the same horse that he had dropped off a few months earlier. He believed that they had sold his good horse to make some ready cash, and switched it with another of *mostly* the same color. This was before chips and implants or even tattoos and not everything seemed to match. They said it had just gotten wilder over the winter – and it was – and catching it every morning to saddle it was a chore left to me. There was a white mare also, who was fat and docile and wouldn’t do a damn thing unless she felt like it, and would often stop and move off-trail and begin to eat anything in sight. The big thoroughbred was more sure-footed and often tried to brush me out of the saddle by riding under low branches, or turn quickly on the steep hillside so I would tip-out into space. I learned how to ride that summer, and so once upon a time I spent some semi-serious time as a bit of a cowboy, and I think I’ve earned these boots.