Category Archives: Legends

Antelope, Oregon: The town we like to call “Rajneesh” because we’re insane.

This past summer while in the middle of cheating death, I passed through a little dying town by the name of Antelope in the rolling mountains of Eastern Oregon.  Antelope is like any good ghost town; useless and abandoned, but with its own amazing history.

Sure, I may use the term “abandoned” kind of flippantly, but really, if you drive through there you will soon realize that the entire economy is based on Social Security and disability checks combined with stealing from the neighbors.  There is nothing left to market and most of the homes and storefronts (all the storefronts?) are empty. (I know one of the handful of residents is going to write me an angry note about this generalization… as soon as they gain access to technology).

ghost town abounds!
Pretty much what Antelope is like today.

Like many ghost towns, Antelope had a few boom cycles and a more than it’s share of busts.  It lies Southeast of US97 in North-Central Oregon on the narrow winding lanes of state highway 218 in the Southeastern corner of Wacso County.  Its two nearest neighbors are also former shells of their more glorious past. Shiniko to the North is a dead little tourist trap hoping that those who have wandered off of 97 want to marvel at their old grand hotel for a few minutes before they disengage and head back on to the road for their rafting trip in Bend; and to the East is Clarno… Clarno is pretty much just some irrigated fields and bridge over the John Day River. Whoopty doo.

Antelope’s rise began in the early 1860s as a waystation between the Columbia River and the mines along the John Day River and the boom town of Canyon City (near the city of John Day in Grant County).  John Day has been in the national news as of late since “Constitutional” Sheriff Glen Palmer unwittingly got the occupants/terrorists at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge arrested and/or killed by inviting them up to John Day to have a meeting with people friendly to their moronic agenda.  The obvious geniuses these clowns were decided to drive up the isolated 70 mile Canyon along US397 between Burns and John Day in a convoy and were eventually dry gulched by the state police.  Oops.  It turns out that just because you dress like a cowboy doesn’t mean you have ever seen a cowboy movie and the simple tactics employed by the sheriff or marshal in pretty much every film ever. I would also like to point out that while commenting on the Oregonlive website on an article outlining the impending “community meeting” between the Bundy group and the friendly public I totally called the police barricade and arrests #tootingmyownhorn (I don’t think hashtags work on poorly programmed blogs).

In 1862 the Wheeler family settled in Antelope Valley and named the town, well, “Antelope”.  A man by the name of Nathan Wallace built a store and soon there was a livery, and a blacksmith, the large Union House Hotel, and the Tammany dance hall.  Raids by natives were still prevalent at the time and the young town had no stockade the stagecoach runs between The Dalles and John Day/Canyon City were regularly attacked.  When the regular driver refused to do the run the crotchety old owner of the Silvertooth Saloon, F.W. Silvertooth, stepped up to the task (Silvertooth had previously been the stage pilot for the run from The Dalles to Antelope and eventually settled to open his saloon).  The operators were so excited that they told Silvertooth that he could “name his price.”  Silvertooth opted for packages of “Saw Log” and “Battle Axe” plug tobacco.  Whenever natives crossed the rutted road Silvertooth invited them over and gave them tobacco gifts.  The run went smoothly.

In 1871 Antelope became official by obtaining a post office and the population swelled up through the end of the century as it was a natural center to the cattlemen, sheep herders, and miners of the region.  More saloons started to appear, of which was one run by Benjamin Pratt and Ed Gleason.  Rumors began to swirl that Mr. Pratt fancied Mrs. Gleason.  Taking these rumors to heart Mr. Pratt shot his business partner in the head with a rifle while Pratt was unlocking the door to the establishment to open for the day.

The ensuing trial was a joke and akin to the violent nature of the town as the consensus was that Gleason was justified in shooting Pratt, because, you know, rumors.

Later in an interview about the crumbling town in the 1950s John Silvertooth, son of F.W., and his wife Laura were asked about the heyday of Antelope: “The population reached two thousand at one time.  There were three hotels, three stores, and a rooming house.” said Laura.

John chimed in, “Three, no four saloons… Two smithies, and a couple red-light places.  There was a madame and two girls at that one place…”

“Pearl and Flossy,” said Laura, “Flossy was the fat one.  They buried one of them in our cemetery. At first they were against it, but finally they decided to put her in a lonely corner, where she couldn’t do any harm.”

A fire started in the apartment above the bowling alley in 1898 and ravaged the town.  By the end of the night only one building was left standing and the town had to rebuild.  This version was fairly short-lived.

Antelope, OR
The abandoned school of Antelope, OR

When the Columbia River Railroad completed its line from Biggs on the river to Shaniko 70 miles South on September 9th, 1900 the fate of Antelope was sealed.  The entire purpose of this line was to bring sheep and wool from Shaniko to barges and larger railways along the Columbia.  Daily stagecoach runs from Shaniko to Antelope became the norm and the town was officially incorporated by the Oregon legislature January 29th, 1901.  There was much rejoicing, but the railroad in and out of Shaniko slowly sucked the population away.

By the 1920s and 1930s Antelope began to fade into further irrelevance as the automobile began to replace the trains and stagecoach runs.  The waystation origin of Antelope was no longer needed and the town quickly lost its luster.

Fast forward about 50 years and things started to get really, really interesting.  In 1981 an Indian mystic/guru by the name of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (born “Chandra Mohan Jain) purchased a 65,000 acre ranch about 18 miles Southeast of Antelope and turned it into his religion’s world headquarters.  This brought a boom of thousands of his followers to the area.

Rajneesh went by “Osho” which is a title given to a zen priest, or so I have read.  Osho began his career as a professor of philosophy and spent much of the 1960s on tour giving public speeches as a critic of socialism, organized religion, and Mahatma Gandhi (what kind of person criticizes Gandhi?) throughout India.  He advocated for a more open attitudes towards sexuality and was often referred to as a “sex guru” in the press.

In 1970 Osho settled in Bombay and began taking in followers as disciples he called “neo-sannyasins”.  He began to draw the attention of many Westerners as he preached his take on works of religion and philosophy (thanks a lot, Beatles) and in 1974 made the move a little ways away to Pune pronounced “poo-nah”), India where he and his followers built and ashram.

Osho went all out on this endeavor at Pune even writing original music to cater to each and every step in his cleanse and meditation process and mixed many Eastern and Western ideas in his version of the hippy-dippy “Human Potential Movement”.

The years in Pune carried with it reports that the ashram was half Fight Club and half Club Hedonism.  Participants like Richard Price (a leader in the Human Potential Movement) left one of these “Encounter groups” with a broken arm after being locked in a room with fellow participants armed with wooden weapons for eight hours.  Sounds like a blast.

By January 1979 the ashram made an announcement that their experiments with beating the ever loving shit out of each other had run its course and “fulfilled its purpose”, and that it was time to just be a sex cult (that last part is my words).  The business leaders and wealthy of India loved Osho as he made arguments for India adopting capitalism and free markets as a way to transcend the oppressive poverty experienced by so much of the populace.  Osho viewed Gandhi as a “masochist” who fetishized poverty.  I guess that is one way of looking at one of the most successful, non-violent freedom fighters in human history…

As with all religious leaders there was a hefty level of hypocrisy.  Osho preached against Gandhi and his life of poverty and sacrifice, while also charging that Gandhi got off on pain, then required that his sannyasins take unpaid jobs at the ashram and get the shit beat out of them.  In ordaining his leadership Osho decided to follow the example set by Greek/Russian/Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff and organize his management by promoting the most cruel and abrasive members to be leaders of the underclass sannyasins.  He felt that constant conflict created by authority figures would hasten the spiritual awakening of his disciples.  Just about the most stupid logic ever.

Accusations that Westerners were financing their stays at the ashram via prostitution and drug running was ruining what was a lovely sex slave cult.  About this time in the late ’70s religious leaders who opposed Osho lobbied the Indian Parliment to revoke the ashram’s tax-exempt status and Osho now owed the government $5 million.  Combining the tax burden with the constant influx of disciples flooding the tiny six acre institution, and an assassination attempt by a fundamentalist Hindu named Vilas Tupe in 1980, Osho decided that changes had to be made!

In April 1981 Osho went into a self-imposed three and a half year public silence.  Weird, but it’s his cult, he’s allowed to do what he wants.  His normal daily speeches were replaced with silently listening to readings of the spiritual works of Khalil Gibran.  It is important to note that at this time in his life Osho sacked his private secretary and brought in a woman who went by the name Ma Anand Sheela (Sheela Silverman).

Scared that he was about to be sent to prison, or worse; made to pay the Indian government taxes, May 1981 saw Osho make a big play and moved to the USA via a tourist visa that was related to medical care for a prolapsed disc (it’s hard to enjoy your sex cult if you keep throwing out your back!).  For a time he consulted with a few doctors while staying at a Rajneeshee retreat in New Jersey but never got the recommended surgery.  Because Osho never sought treatment Immigration and Naturalization Service ultimately viewed his arrival in the USA as a violation of the terms of his visa.

In the spring of 1981 Osho was 48 years old with a long white beard, he was slightly overweight, suffering from diabetes, his long dark beard turning almost white, and what you could see of his face his face, mostly the bags around his eyes, especially aged poorly.  Osho was a man who looked 20-30 years older than he actually was.  I personally think this gave him the exact look one would expect from a sage, wise guru, yet anyone we to find out how old he was might exclaim, “What?! Holy Christ! You look like shit for your age!” before realizing the words had left their lips.

Osho looks old
Seriously, you’re only 48 years old?

On June 13, 1981 Sheela’s husband, one Swami Prem Chinmaya (aka Mark Harris Silverman) plunked down $5.75 million to purchase of the Big Muddy Ranch and renamed it “Rancho Rajneesh”.  Osho moved in later that August.  The Outback hicks never saw this coming.  Soon thousands of weirdos dressed in red robes were everywhere in Antelope and the surrounding hills chanting and dancing and speaking of the wisdom of Osho.  The ranch he purchased was later incorporated as a town and renamed Rajneeshpuram and a lot of conflict was just about to begin.  Rajneeshpuram was an intentional community, a commune really.  For someone who spent much of his life denouncing socialism, he then built a socialist society–sort of.  Except for the fact that he got all the wealth… I guess that is really just a slave society when I think about it.  Ahhhh… cults!

Conflicts with the locals started right away.  Mostly this was over land use for the former ranch.  The commune would say one thing was going to happen and the do another.  At one point during a local election cycle the Rajneesh bussed thousands of homeless people into Wasco County from around the nation to affect the outcome of an election.  Their plan failed so the cult just released the homeless into the various small towns of the area leaving the relocation up to the state of Oregon.

Osho was living in a fancy trailer next to a covered pool and his only personal contact until November 1984 was with his closest advisers, namely Sheela, and his main girlfriend Ma Yoga Vivek (Christine Woolf).  One outlandish goal of Osho was to own a “Rolls Royce for every day of the year” and his one and only form of mingling with his herd of brainwashed hippies was to drive a dirt road in the commune each day waving to his ardent followers who lined up to see him as he mosied passed in a different Rolls Royce.  I don’t know about you, but if I was a hard working member of a religion and living in a tent, then everyday at noon was told to line up and wave to my leader who drove by in yet another Rolls Royce, I would probably kill the fucker.  Then again, I have a logic center so many thousands of the neo-sannyasins seemed to lack, as they were so happy to see all of their wealth and work dedicated to the once a year use of a Rolls Royce purely for the “wave to the peons” factor.  Side note: I should start a cult…  In the end Osho only obtained 93 Rolls Royces (not the desired 365… what was his plan for leap years anyway?) making him the single largest private owner of the ostentatious vehicles in the world.

Just look at this asshoe and his followers. What were they thinking?!
Just look at this asshole and his followers. What were they thinking?!

Rajneeshpuram had quickly become a full-on city with over 7,000 residents.  It had a zip code, fire department, restaurants, a mall, townhomes, etc…  This was a closed off, private community covering 100 square miles.  That is larger than the city of Seattle in area!  Trying to build a buffer, the Rajneesh also began to inhabit the local towns and Antelope in particular.  September 18th, 1984 the cult had overrun the locals and voted on a referendum 57-22 to change the name of Antelope to “Rajneesh”.  Ha, take that, simple country folk!

osho-roll-royce

One completely bonehead move by Osho was in 1981 he gave Sheela power of attorney.  She then later announced that he would only talk to her.  She was like the pope to Osho’s god.  Later Osho claimed that Sheela kept him in a state of ignorance when the proverbial shit began to hit the fan.

One aspect of the Rajneeshism was that it was an apocalyptic cult.  Osho had been consistently preaching since 1964 that the world was going to be destroyed via nuclear holocaust or “other disasters” by the 1990s.  In 1984 Sheela even announced to the world that Osho had predicted that 2/3 of humanity was to die from AIDS in the coming years.  This sense of urgency begat the creation of a “Noah’s Ark of Consciousness” (whatever that is) to save humanity.

During his years in Oregon Osho dictated three books while under the influence of nitrous oxide administered to him by his private dentist.  You know, all I can picture writing the previous sentence is the crazy dentist from Little Shop of Horrors.  I digress.  Sheela also stated that Osho loved his valium to the tune of sixty milligrams a day.

lsoh-3

By the Spring of 1984 tensions within the cult were running high and contention among the inner circle of leaders came to a head when Sheela was ordered to face an inquisition of sorts.  Osho confronted Sheela and reminded her that his house was the center of the commune and then warned those close to him that Sheela was gunning for them.  Strangely Sheela remained within the power structure of the cult; I guess this is what happens when you groom those with the worst characteristics for the positions of leadership.

On October 30th, 1984 Osho broke his seclusion and spoke publicly for the first time in more than three years.  In July 1985 Osho began his daily public discourses much the chagrin of Sheela who had grown accustomed to being the mouthpiece and central figure for the religion.  In September 1985 Sheela and her entire leadership team bailed on the operation and fled to Europe.  A few days later, on September 16th, Osho held a press conference of sorts where he detailed alleged crimes committed in accordance with Sheela’s orders.  Among these included attempted murder and the largest bio-terrorism attack in US history. Of course Osho claimed that he had no knowledge of this prior.

maxresdefault

Osho was an open book at this press conference and labeled Sheela and her minions as a “gang of fascists” and invited law enforcement to investigate.; and oh boy, did the authorities investigate.  Many of the crimes were alleged to have happened in 1984 before Osho broke his public silence.

blvce1wem8cxseu32z6z

Allegedly Sheela tried to murder Osho’s private physician and his girlfriend, and had also wiretapped and bugged most of the camp including Osho’s home and the homes and offices of people who lived outside of the Rajneeshpuram community.

After being denied building permits by the county the Rajneesh hatched a plan to take control of the Wasco County government.  This was a multi-pronged attack and begat the action of where they began to import thousands of homeless.  They called it their “Share a Home” program and attempted to register them to vote and have them vote for Rajneesh candidates.  The county clerk countered this attempt by requiring people registering to vote to prove their qualifications to do so.  I’ll be honest, I don’t know what that means, sounds kind of Jim Crow to me, but this case of disenfranchisement may have saved Wasco County for years to come.

The main plan of assault on Wasco County was much more sinister and involved attempting to incapacitate the main voting block of the county who lived in The Dalles.  Sometime between the end of August 1984 and the beginning of October 1984 operatives of the Rajneesh sprinkled salmonella culture over the salad bars of at least ten restaurants in The Dalles, the county seat of Wasco County, in hopes of affecting the outcome of the local county elections where the Rajneesh had been running their own candidates.  751 people were infected, at least 45 hospitalized, and thankfully no one died.  This was the first instance of bioterror in US history and to this date the single largest event of its kind the United States has ever experienced.

This wasn’t limited to just salad bars.  The Rajneesh fed two visiting county commissioners water tainted with salmonella hospitalizing both.  They spread salmonella on doorknobs and urinal flush handles at the courthouse.  They even had planned to poison the city’s water supply, but scratched that plan at the last minute.

The outbreak of salmonella prompted investigations and it was basically an impotent shrug of blame that placed the fault of the largest localized salmonella outbreak in US history on “poor food handling”.

February 28, 1985 Congressman James Weaver wasn’t buying the official investigation and stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and accused the Rajneesh of poisoning the people of The Dalles.  It wasn’t until Osho’s press conference seven months later did he admit members of his cult were responsible.

The group also had plans to assassinate the US attorney for Oregon.  Sometime in the winter of 1984/1985 the Oregon State Attorney General launched an investigation and executed search warrants on the Rajneesh discovering the exact strains of salmonella in a medical research facility owned by the Rajneesh.

Oregon17

The investigations later revealed that the Rajneesh had not limited their attacks to The Dalles but had also attempted to murder a county judge,  the Jefferson County district attorney, and had poisoned the food supply in locations in Salem, Portland and other Oregon cities; even the salad bar at the nursing home of the Mid-Columbia Medical Center!

During the investigations Sheela made her tapes of the bugged conversations available to the feds as part of a plea deal.  Much of this evidence was sealed and I am personally really curious to hear what was on those tapes.  One of Osho’s disciples testified in court that Sheela had played tapes where Osho had called for some of the sannyasins to be murdered to strengthen the resolve of those who were on the fence about violence for the cause.  To this day I really have no clue as to what their “cause” may have been.   They had a sex cult, why ruin a good sex cult with murder?  Anyway, this is what Ma Ava (Ava Avalos) had to say in court: “She came back to the meeting and […] began to play the tape. It was a little hard to hear what he was saying. […] And the gist of Bhagwan’s response, yes, it was going to be necessary to kill people to stay in Oregon. And that actually killing people wasn’t such a bad thing. And actually Hitler was a great man, although he could not say that publicly because nobody would understand that. Hitler had great vision.” 

Sheela then took this conversation literally and tried to murder Osho’s girlfriend and his personal physician.  After hearing the tapes a grand jury indicted Osho and several of his followers on 35 counts of violating immigration law.

Law enforcement feared that an armed standoff might be imminent when Osho and his closest advisors fled Oregon via a private Learjet and was arrested the next day, October 28th 1985, while refueling in North Carolina.  In Osho’s possession was $58,000 in cash and over a $1 million in jewelry and watches (see: “How to Launder Money“).  They were on their way to Bermuda to avoid prosecution.

The same day in West Germany Sheela and an accomplice were arrested and extradited to the USA for trial. They were convicted for attempted murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison.  They served two and half years.  They got off easy.

Osho plead in court to immigration fraud and arranging sham marriages for his followers to obtain residency in the US.  He was given a 10 year suspended sentence, fined $400,000 and deported back to India.

busted!
Osho and Sheela as seen in their mug shots.

A week after his arrest, the area was completely abandoned by the Rajneesh and a new vote was held that reinstated the name of Antelope for the town, this time by a vote of 34-0.

Osho returned to India and experienced a hero’s welcome at first and spent his first few months bad mouthing America, referring to the United States as a “monster” who needed to be “put in its place.”  Osho’s Indian stay only lasted six weeks when the non-Indians in his entourage had their visas revoked, so he moved the party to Nepal, then got booted and moved to Crete where he made it a few days before he was arrested and deported again.  Then it was onward to Geneva, Stockholm, and London, each time his entry to the nations denied.  Osho then attempted to fly to Canada but was refused the right to land and the plane was forced to turn around to land in Shannon, Ireland where they were allowed to stay for two weeks at hotel in Limerick provided Osho didn’t go out or give talks.

The good news for Osho was that he was awarded a Uruguayan identity card and given a one year temporary residency.  The party then flew to Madrid to refuel where the plane was surrounded by elite police and he was not allowed to deplane, got to spend one night in Dakar, and then made it to Montevideo, Uruguay where the group set up shop in a house and Osho began his gig of making speeches all the way until June 19th, 1986 when the government abruptly told Osho and his crew to get the fuck out of the country.

Osho had arranged a two week visa in Jamaica but when they landed the Jamaican police gave them twelve hours to leave the island.  After a refueling stop once again in Madrid, Osho returned to Bombay India.  In November 1987 he decide that the ashram in Pune was the way to go and began leading his flock once again.  His health had taken a turn for the worse and he accused the US government of poisoning him via radioactive isotopes, but most medical professionals think he probably had contracted AIDS being that he was the leader of a sex cult during the ’80s and all.

Osho gave his last public address April 1989 and began to wither from that point on.  He accused the leadership of black magic and investigations by trusted disciples turned up no leads.  Osho’s heart went puny-pop January 19th, 1990 at age 58.  He was cremated and his ashes rest in his bedroom at the ashram.  A plaque reads, “OSHO. Never Born, Never Died. Only Visited this Planet Earth between 11 Dec 1931 – 19 Jan 1990.”

During this time life in Antelope returned to normal, in that not much happened.  A plaque was mounted outside the post office commemorating the resistance to the “Rajneesh Invasion”, and the town continues to wither and die today!

OSHO is gone, let's plaque!
The plaque celebrating the end to the “invasion”.

Today the former Big Muddy Ranch/former Rajneeshpuram, is now the Washington Family Ranch owned and operated by the Young Life Ministries.  Osho’s former private airfield is now the Big Muddy Airport.  I encourage you to check out the weird videos on YouTube and read up more on where his followers went.  Strange group, the lot of them!  The cult is alive and well today and I even see friends who don’t know any better throw up an OSHO quote on their Facebook wall every now and again.

The loss sets in.

Day 4, August 27th, When I awoke in my hotel room I found messages.  Lots and lots of messages. From family, friends, insurance agents, claims adjusters, sheriff’s deputies…  It took a while to respond to them all, then again I awoke about 5am so I had hours to kill until the tow company could make its way out to the wreck.  USAA ordered me a rental car from Enterprise (they pick you up!), so after I showered again and picked more glass shards out of my back and shoulders, I dragged what meager belongings I had with me down to the hotel lobby and waited there for the rental company.  I just wanted to scream into everyone’s face who passed by, “I’m fucking alive, isn’t it incredible!?!”

I was even still shaking a bit a day later.  I don’t know if it was shock, adrenaline, or enjoyment from not being dead or grievously injured.  regardless my body had a little hum to it.  When my rental lady came I loaded my belongings into a teensy little Kia and I resigned myself to this itty bitty K-car as the ride I would have to stuff all of my broken shit into to.  When we got to the Elko airport the girl kept apologizing for how slow the computers were and how long everything was taking.  I didn’t care.  I was alive.  Take as long as you want, honey; I’m not dead.  Slow computers are at the bottom of my give a shit list.

When she gave me the keys they were to a Chevy.  “So the Kia isn’t mine?”

“Nope, I got you a Malibu.”

“Sweet, Consumer Reports gave the Malibu 99/100, and it’s big!”

We unloaded my shredded bags from the Kia and into the Malibu and I was on my way.  Man, fuck Consumer Reports.  This Malibu is the most uncomfortable ride I have ever experienced.  I swear I am more injured from the poorly designed head rest of this P.O.S. than I am from pulling 12 Gs dancing through the desert in my truck.  If the head rest is low, it sticks out and will poke you in the back of the neck.  Or, in my case, in the only part of my neck that was stiff from the accident.  If the headrest is high and you sit back it leans out so far over the back of the seat that it forces your head into your chin so all you can do is look at your lap.  There is no way for me to drive while sitting back resting my sore neck and shoulders.  The lumbar in the seat back is up around my shoulder blades so my back was arched in two directions, one over the weird lumbar position, the other forward trying to avoid the headrest.

To add to my new mid-size, pseudo luxury car misery, the bottom third of the steering wheel is solid with nowhere to grip the wheel.  How the hell is someone supposed to drive 2,200 miles and not be able to rest their arms in their lap on a long, flat stretch of desert road and still control the wheel?  A few days later when I was on the ferry boat returning home I was talking to a friend about the Malibu and they had rented one once.  He noted that the steering wheel doesn’t match up with the seat, it is off center.  Holy shit, he was totally right!  The entire steering column is 1″ to the right of the center of the driver’s seat.  Who designs this garbage?! Moreover, who at Consumer Reports tested this garbage and gave it a rating equal to the Tesla S?

It will have to do.
It will have to do.

My first stop with the rental car was Albertsons for fruit boxes and some bags with which to store all of my detritus from the wreck.  Then I called the tow company who the previous evening had informed me they would be ready to head up into the mountains to claim my beast by this morning.  It turns out that they had to turn the job down because their own truck just broken down.  It took a while and a few calls to tow yards and USAA to discover who the new tow company was, American Towing.  I called them and the woman on the line said that the truck had left a little while ago to the site.  I headed out hoping to meet up with them and find my glasses.  Honestly I can see ok, I just can’t read anything.  I can tell there is another car in front of me, or that there are trees, just don’t expect me to be aware of the road sign notifying me of the exit I need or if a woman is truly attractive at 100ft or just an old lady or a dude with long hair.

The drive up Nevada 225 was dangerous simply because the comfortable zone for my foot on the gas pedal of the Malibu was at a cruising speed of about 100MPH and I really had to focus on not driving that fast.  The car really wanted to go that fast, constantly.  I was missing my truck already.  It couldn’t even go 100MPH, it just poked along at a comfortable pace, with a comfortable seat, and a comfortable headrest…

There are a couple large gold mines up NV225, most notable is the Jerritt Canyon Mine.  It’s huge, a producer in the ten million ounce range by now.  The mine extends over five miles of the independence Range and includes perhaps as many as ten open pits as deep as a 1,000ft.  Since 1993 the mining operations have been mostly underground as miners follow the veins of gold deep into the Earth.  Jerritt’s website states that, “Gold was first discovered there in 1972,” but the BLM’s claims records for this range, and where the Jerritt pit exists today, date back to 1918 and probably even before that.  What their website should read is, “Gold was first rediscovered there in 1972.”

For miles and miles of NV225 there are crews grooming the hillsides just to the west of the road and some miles North of Elko is a large transfer station.  Brandon had told me the day before that this was an extension of a natural gas line that was coming all the way from Minnesota on its way to California.  Whoa, that’s a lot of mountain ranges to wind around and through with pipes.

After about an hour I reached the turnoff for 746 and immediately I could feel how terrible this sport sedan was on dirt.  The speed limit is 45MPH and I could go maybe 15 without spinning around.  This car blows.  I am one day removed from a gnarly roll over in a sturdy truck designed for these conditions and now I feel like this Chevy garbage can is going to finish the job.  About four miles up the road I meet the tow truck making its way out.  I waved them down and they told me to follow them to the tow yard.  I turn around and follow suit.

It felt like a funeral precession. Staring into the now one-eyed, toothless, “aw shucks” grin, of my trusty steed as she rides to her final resting place I come to the conclusion that I will never love, nor be indebted to, an inanimate object more for the rest of my life. It is because of her I have a “rest of my life.” I am locked in on the completely crushed passenger side of my stallion.  How was all the energy of my impact focused on where I wasn’t?  If I had a passenger they would be dead right now.  I feel sick.  The only people who ride shotgun in my truck are loved.  If one of my dearest friends had died while I walked away unscathed I couldn’t live with myself.  I want to puke.  Instead I cry like a baby the entire hour back to the tow yard in Elko.

20150827_161324

That truck was my way of life. It saved my stupid ass more times than anything should. Some of my happiest, and my most exciting, and my most terrifying, and my most hilarious moments were made possible by that noble beast.  I even devoted two whole pages of my photo book I passed out to VIPs at Banff to her.

“My truck has sheet metal because I do not” was my philosophy.  I feel that a truck is tool.  So long as the mechanics are in great maintenance, what do I care how it looks?  To me each scratch, every ding, and all the beautiful dents on her metal body represented a story, an adventure, and a dear memory.

The first scratches down her sides were from some over grown bushes at Gazzam lake when I drove my brother and nephews into the neglected parking lot.  My brother looked at me like a fool as the long “screeeeeeeaaaach” sound of the branches dragged down her sides.  I shrugged and kept going.

The first dent in the rear tailgate was from a tree trunk in The Cove at Topaz mountain as I tried to k-turn in a little flat spot between cliffs.  I didn’t see the little stump as I backed up.

The dozens of dents in the tailgate were from when I purchased the “Honey Badger” a little trailer made out of the bed of a 1976 Ford Currier pick up truck.  The man who sold it me for $200 attached the trailer to Dentasaurus and waved me on my way.  He attached it poorly.  A few miles later at a stop light it felt like I was being jackhammered into the intersection and I looked in my rearview mirror to see the tongue of the trailer standing high in the air.  The hitch had popped off because the dude never tightened it down on the knob.  the safety chains then did their job like giant metallic rubber bands and used up all the trailer’s momentum by repeatedly smashing the newly free hitch into the tailgate again and again.

The giant dent on the passenger side was from crossing  Cornelius Creek in northern Colorado. I had to enter the creek at an angle and the turn sharply in the stream bed and around some trees on the bank.  After some frustration of trying to thread this needle I just used the trunk to the tree to pivot the truck around it and out to the other side of the stream.

A year later Dentasaurus fell off a cliff and into a small canyon.  As the truck fell the 6+ ft into the river below I resigned myself to my death acknowledging that I was about to die upside down drowned in a mountain stream, alone, with no one knowing where I was.  instead I landed upright, the only damage was to the running boards which became dented and cracked.  I managed to drive the rest of the river down and over water falls thanks to my spectacular truck.  It had saved my life.  I owed my truck my life.

“My truck has sheet metal because I do not.”  I lived by it from the moment I bought her.  It was August 2008 and I needed a big, dependable 4×4 to haul dredging equipment deep into the mountains.  I didn’t care if it was a Chevy, a Dodge, or a Ford; old or newer.  I just wanted an extra cab, an 8ft bed, 4wd, and a diesel engine.  To begin my search I had decided to drive up to Everett in my sporty “Space SHOttle”, my sleeper white Ford Taurus with a Yamaha Formula One engine in it, and work my way down US99 and all the dozens of dealerships located between there and Seattle.

The first dealership I found had several big trucks, one was a white late ’80s 3500 GMC that caught my eye.  The salesman came out, you know the type, the kind of guy that immediately tries to make the sale via emasculating you and achieving a position of power and authority then pressuring you into a sale for something you don’t want.  He asked, “How can I help you?” I told him I was looking for a big diesel 4×4 with an 8ft bed and mentioned that this truck caught my eye.  His response was an incredulous and slightly disgusted, “Do you think you can handle that much truck?”

My response: “Hey, fuck you, buddy!”  I reached in to my pocket and pulled out thousands of dollars in cash along with my middle finger and walked back to my car.

“Hey, I didn’t mean it.  It was a joke.  I wasn’t serious!  Come back!” I got into my car and drove away.  The next dozen lots had no trucks what-so-ever.  I couldn’t find anything.  Being that it was August ’08 and the economy was on the brink of total collapse, and gas had just hit $4 a gallon for the first time ever… I guess no one was keeping large trucks in stock.  What ones I did find were such garbage that I wanted nothing to do with them. With most of the morning gone I hopped on  the Bremerton ferry and decided to head to Port Orchard and work my way back North through all the dealerships on my side of the water.  My first stop was Grey Chevrolet.  I told them my requirements and the senior sales-bro on duty passed me off to the most junior douche-nozzle of the crew who talked my ear off about what a wonderful, amazing truck he had for me as we walked for what felt like miles and miles out to the far reaches of the continent.  Finally we reach a 1988 lowered, 2wd, single cab, shortbed, Chevy CK pickup.

I inform Dingus that this truck cannot drive off road.

“No, bro.  This truck is solid.  It can go anywhere.  It’s really solid.”  He tells me as he tries to open the door, but can’t. “Trust me, take it for a spin and you’ll agree.” He still couldn’t get the door open.

“No, I’m out.”  I walk away and he shrugs at his failure to try to put me into what I don’t want and stays behind trying to figure out how to open the door.

I drive into Bremerton and exit the highway where all the mega autoplexes reside and make my first stop Parr Ford Used Cars.  The first person to greet me is John Hart and I tell him what I want.  He ruffles his brow.

“To be honest, we have been shipping everything used that doesn’t get at least 30MPG far away.  We haven’t sold a full-sized truck in over a month!”  He now wrinkles his face and rubs his chin, “But I do have a 2000 F150 extra cab 4×4 with the off road package this gentleman over here is trading in right now as we speak.  I’m sorry, but it is a gas engine and a short bed… Want to check it out anyway?”

“Sure, this is farther than I have made it with anyone else so far.”  I appreciate his blunt honesty.  We meet the man trading in his truck, he is in is early fifties and a contractor.  He proceeds to inform me how much he loves the truck, how perfect it is, how much of a baby it is, how many upgrades he has done to it.  He doesn’t want to get rid of it but his business requires an even bigger monster of a truck, an F450, to get the job done.  He gives us the key to the green F150.

Outside is the truck.  It’s shiny.  It’s green.  It has Flowmaster pipes. It has rear airbags that can be filled or deflated according to the load requirements…  I climb in, it’s comfortable and the interior is very familiar and similar to my Taurus.  We drive around the block and up a hill.  I find a big pile of dirt and John asks me, “What are you doing?”

“Seeing what kind of shape the transfer case is in…” I shift it into 4wd and climb over the pile of dirt.  She goes.

We drive back to the dealership and John asks me how I like it.  I admit I like it, but that it is not exactly what I’m looking for.  John asks how if he were to give me a screaming deal could the tuck become what I was looking for.

“What kind of deal?”

“This is where I go over to my manager and actually ask him a relevant question.  Here, sit at my desk.”  He walks off and leaves me to stare at over ten years of “salesman of the month” awards lining his cubicle.  Since 1997 John Hart has won salesman of the month every single month.  Every. Last. One.  He has each plaque lining the walls of his cubicle along with his honorable discharge from the Navy dated just a couple months before his first award. There are no other awards in any of the other cubicles.  John comes back a few minutes later, “…Because we haven’t even entered the truck into inventory, and because we are probably just going to ship it off to an auction house or second tier dealership any way, we’ll give it to you for $6,600.”

This truck’s blue book is over $12,000.  Fuck it, I see now how John has won all those awards; he’s just made a sale.  John tells me that they need to detail it and go over the mechanics before they can release it to me and to come by and pick it up tomorrow.  I give them the money and sign the papers.  On my way out I meet the truck’s former owner once more as he is standing outside admiring his new giant shiny black train engine of an F450.  “Thank you for the truck, I hate to tell you this, because it’s your baby and all, but inside a month it is going to be completely unrecognizable, dented and scratched.  She’s a beaut, but now it’s time to go to work.”

The next day I swing by to retrieve my new ride and John is apologetic. “I can’t give you the truck today, we discovered that the brakes were completely shot so we are replacing them for you.  I am so sorry, but you have to wait an extra day.  Here, for the inconvenience.” He hands me a check for $2,200.  So, now I am getting a $1,500 brake job, and a mint $12,000 F150 for $4,400… Forget salesman of the month, John Hart deserves “Salesman of the Infinity”.

I sold my fast car as the truck was too great.  I added my own upgrades: a CB radio, antenna amplifier, canopy, navigation system, power inverter, a bed shelf, a larger alternator, big tires, etc…

As I drive in my uncomfortable rental car now staring at the dead/dying husk of a former powerful beast on the back of a tow truck I thank it for all the good times.  I could have died, but I didn’t.  She has saved my life one last time. It is the only truck in Valhalla. I know it.

When we got to the tow yard near the airport the tow truck driver and his copilot unloaded Dentasaurus off the flatbed.  When they were done they walked over me and could tell I had tears welling in my eyes.  They both wanted to meet and shake hands with the “Indestructible Man”.

In 20 years on the job the driver had never towed a rollover like mine that wasn’t bathed in blood. They couldn’t figure out how it was even possible that I am not hurt.

I quickly unload everything that is recoverable from the truck. Books, maps, loose change, shoes, shovels, rock picks, gad pry bars, tri-folding futon, blankets, gold sluices, bear spray, sunscreen, hydrochloric acid, tool kit, road kit… I finally find my eyeglasses under the passenger side floor mat.  They are ok!  I stuff everything I can into the Malibu, I take note of what I am missing or is destroyed:

  1. Both Thermarest pads are not there when they were yesterday.
  2. The piece of shit gas can I had to buy because Grace still has my good one is gone.  That garbage is someone else’s problem now.
  3. My crevice sucker is obliterated.
  4. The cooler is done.
  5. I cannot find the awesome pocket knife my dearest friends Nick and Sarah gave me.
  6. I have lost a few pounds of gold concentrates in the buckets that were in the back of my truck.  Obviously dumped all over the Nevada desert.
  7. About 1,000 carats of peridot from Black Rock, WY I had in my map holder is gone.
  8. Several cool pieces of obsidian from Oregon I kept in various cup holders are out there returned to the wild…

I stuff what I can into bags and boxes and the shove these into the Malibu.  I thank the drivers for everything they have done for me and give the beautiful smashed green sheet metal a kiss and say goodbye.

That truck was my Old Yeller, and just like the end of that movie I am in tears.

The Queen is dead, long live the Queen!

IMGP0537 IMGP0516 IMGP0496 IMGP0369

Get Your Rocks Off With Houston Wade pilot television episode by Merwin Productions

Get Your Rocks Off With Houston Wade pilot television episode by Merwin Productions Get Your Rocks Off With Houston Wade pilot television episode by Merwin Productions

IMGP0398 IMGP0394 616181_4378536583297_2065561607_o IMGP0659 IMGP0655 IMGP0088 20150414_113915 IMGP0086 IMGP0150 20150601_174002 IMGP0164 IMGP0087 IMGP0096

Get Your Rocks Off With Houston Wade pilot television episode by Merwin Productions OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

IMGP0173 IMGP0303 IMGP0668 20150508_182009

 

It has sheet metal because I do not.

Day 3, August 26th, Today became a big day where a lot happened.  A lot.  Stay with me, this is a long one, but a good read.

I had bedded down for the night next to the Shoofly Oolites in southern Idaho, because, well, what an awesome name!  These chunks of rocks are the limestone remnants of a giant fresh water lake that extended across the valley of what is now pretty much the bulk of Idaho about 11-13 million years ago.  The Oolites are bits of limestone formed from tiny sealife particles which settled on the lake bottom.

Shoofly Oolites of Idaho. Fun to say.
Shoofly Oolites of Idaho. Fun to say.

The rare chemical properties of these oolites support five endemic plant species and are pretty rad to look at up close.  Not too much time available to spend staring at such blocks of rock, I have to make up for all the progress I lost by being stuck in the middle of nowhere. I am hundreds of miles behind schedule and missed out on three desired stops yesterday.  No Leslie Gulch, and no ghost towns of Silver City, and DeLorme, ID in the Owyhee Mountains.  Nuts.

I stop at a hardware store and obtain a new water jug and fill it at a Shell Station while I grab some fuel.

I then drive down the long, flat, hot Three Creek Rd south of Bruneau, ID.  This road is an eternity in a long straight line.  I pass the captain obvious sign for the Saylor Creek Bombing Range I am about to traverse. Really? Things fall from planes on a bombing range?

20150826_100135

the road is lined by two things: beautiful little sunflowers, and Stupid Little Birds (SLBs) who like to jump out in front of my truck as if I am a preditor seeking their eggs.  Their goal is to draw me after them and away from their nests.  My goal is to drive a straight line.  Our goals collide.  Often.  My estimate is that one in 25 of these SLBs finds itself under my carriage.  It wouldn’t be an adventure in the desert if my modern technology wasn’t a tool of natural selection changing the evolutionary outcomes of the previous few million years one Stupid Little Bird at a time.

20150826_100811

Air Force A-10s were making bombing runs around me during my drive.  Ironically I passed a sign that read, “Only you can prevent wild fires,” while bombers dropped 25lb incendiaries on dry grass around me…

20150826_100910

The little dots are A-10s making bombing runs. They are faster than my ability to turn my camera into a phone and snap a worthwhile photo.
The little dots are A-10s making bombing runs. They are faster than my ability to turn my camera into a phone and snap a worthwhile photo.
Crews working on the powerlines above Fast Fork of the Jarbidge River before reaching Murphy Hot Springs.
Crews working on the powerlines above Fast Fork of the Jarbidge River before reaching Murphy Hot Springs.

After maybe 60 miles of such roads I finally begin to dip into the canyon where the “resort” town of Murphy Hot Springs, ID resides.  The spring was known to local tribes prior to the white man, but the first recorded owner of the spring was Kittie Wilkins who was a well educated woman from Walla Walla, WA.  She became world famous for her horse breeding and traded her horses around the planet.  She was widely regarded as the “Horse Queen of Idaho.  Kittie made a pool for the spring to fill out of rocks so that the ranch hands and locals could rest their weary bones.  The pool became known as “Kittie’s Hot Hole”.  I shit you not.  I found out about this after I passed through town, otherwise I would have taken a dip in Kittie’s Hot Hole just to say I did.

A glimpse up river as I cross the bridge in Murphy Hot Springs
A glimpse up river as I cross the bridge in Murphy Hot Springs

Today the town is rustic resort where locals gather to vacation in the summer.  The resort was built by a gentleman named Patrick Murphy who renamed Kittie’s Hot Hole to “Murphy Hot Springs” (boring).  I got word that the Mexican food there is to die for.  Should have stopped for a dip and a lunch… next time.

Looking down on Murphy
Looking down on Murphy

Since this is a trip of adventure and challenge I decided to climb the canyon opposite Murphy and head up the mountain.  I wanted to descend into the town of Jarbidge, quite possibly the most remote settlement in the lower 48, via a road that goes down the canyon wall right into town.  It is a road that is somewhat a legend for how steep, unkempt, and stupid it is to drive.  Jarbidge self promotes as the “Off Road Capitol of America” and this wisp of dirt is its king.  I passed several trucks with ATV trailers on my way to my wisp of a road.  I also went by my second powerline crew of the day working on the walls of the canyon.  They looked at me and my truck like I was either a stud or an idiot.  I prefer to think of myself as a little of both.

The road down started steep and narrow right off the bat, but the view was spectacular.

The canyon road above Jarbidge, NV
The beginnings of something beautiful

I descended slowly and in 4-low.  The rocks started small and crumbly but the road go steep in a hurry.  The only tracks I saw were from something tracked like a bulldozer.  I couldn’t understand why a bulldozer would go down such a route and not grade it.  Weird.  The boulders started to get huge and my truck was plodding at a crawl over them.  I got to a little flat spot tucked into the canyon wall where I came face to face with a dude on a bulldozer on the opposite side of downed power lines.  Ah, there he is.

The look on his face was one of surprise. “What are you doing?” He asked.

“I’m heading down into Jarbidge”

“This road is not really that kind of road.” He incredulously put to me while pushing his orange hard hat back on his head.

“I know, that’s why I’m doing it.”

“Well, it’s going to be three hours until they pull these lines up so you are either going to have to wait or go around.”

Fuck, I am pressed for time, go around it is.  “Guess I’m going back around. Nuts.”

“I am surprised you even made it down here.  It’s not much of a road, more a bunch of rocks.  Why didn’t anyone up there tell you we had downed lines down here?”

“Beats me.  They just looked at me like I was a fool.”

“Jeeze… Good luck backing back up!”

And that is where I met my big challenge, taking a quarter mile of cliff face backwards and in four wheel drive.  There is a lot of torque in reverse, let me tell you.  I made it a couple hundred yards back up the slope, it took a while because I had to keep getting out to see what the rocks looked like behind me.  Eventually I opted to just climb the rear end of the truck up the slope so that I was probably face down close to a 100% grade (45 degrees) and pivoted the nose of my truck and proceeded to do an Austin Powers multi-point turn around pirouette on the slopes of the canyon and get my truck facing forward.  It worked.  I’d rather see my impending doom coming than fall backwards off of it.

I made it to the top and passed the line crew again.  This time they were all smiling at me.  I wanted to shout, “The road didn’t defeat me, your stupid power lines did!” 45 minutes later I was back in Murphy and back on Three Creek Rd heading along the canyon into Jarbidge.

I got stuck behind another truck hauling ATVs and it was just blowing dust everywhere.  I hate being the one behind someone on a dirt road.  I don’t need to die of consumption because I had to drive behind someone.  I decided to pull over and throw a whiz and kill a little time staring at a map of the canyon.  Once I was sure I was clear of the dust machine I continued.  The road is only 15 miles long or so, but takes a while as the fastest you will travel is maybe 20 MPH, but most of the time you’ll be doing 10-15 MPH.  It is really winding.

Today Jarbidge is a town that is waiting.  It is always waiting. Waiting for someone, anyone, to come along and provide something interesting and new to do.  Every person enthusiastically waved at me with a gleam in their eye as if it is possible I could be their savior, or at the very least, their next round of entertainment

Jarbidge is a gold mining boom town through and through.  it was the site of the last gold rush of the Old West in 1909.  Exaggerations of gold discoveries brought thousands of prospectors that Winter and most had their fill by Spring of 1910.  These genius prospectors tried driving claimstakes into drifts of snow and discovered that digging for gold is darn near impossible when you have to make it through 18ft of snow first.  When gold was actually discovered after the snow melt (duh), the town swelled again to perhaps 2000 by 1911. Teddy Roosevelt had created the Humboldt National Forrest in 1908 and a ranger station was built near where Jarbidge is today.  A year later, upon news of the gold strike, President Taft exempted the Jarbidge Canyon from the national forest so that people could own land and settle there.

Shortly after the town boomed a second time it began it’s slow decline once again.  Mechanization and consolidation of the mining operations dwindled the population to just those required to do the job for the Elkoro Mining Company by 1918 when Guggenheim purchased most of the mining interests.

The only connection Jarbidge had to the outside world prior to The Elkoro was via stagecoach to Rogerson, ID.  This meant that Jarbidge was the site of the very last stagecoach robbery ever December 5th, 1916 by one Ben Kuhl.  The coach was supposed to arrive into town with over $4,000 in pay for the miners.  When the coach didn’t arrive on time everyone logically assumed the 4ft of snow which had fallen that day had delayed the arrival.  A search party was assembled to find the rig.  A phone call up the canyon to Rose Dexter informed the men that the coach had passed her home and she waved at, but driver Fred Searcy didn’t wave back but was bundled in his coat at the front of the coach.

The search party found the coach hidden behind a tree with a frozen, dead Searcy slumped in his seat with a close range bullet hole in his head complete with powder burns and singed hairs.  Next to the coach was a mail bag, but missing was a second bag with the $4,000.  The next day the group set out to follow a set of dog prints and foot prints in the snow that lead away from the crime scene.  A stray dog began following the group started pawing the snow along tracks to reveal the missing bag, minus the $4,000.  The dog’s paws matched the paw prints in the snow the group had been tracking.  The party concluded that the dog had been at the crime scene and that it was mostly attached to Kuhl, a convicted horse thief.  Regardless of who killed Searcy, the killer’s hands had been covered in the blood of the driver and then the same blood smeared the letters and envelopes leaving bloody palm and fingerprints behind.

The subsequent trial was the first time in US history fingerprints were admissible in court and two forensic scientists from California determined that the palm prints were an exact match to Kuhl resulting in his conviction and that of two associates.  Kuhl was sentenced to death but his sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

The $4,000 was never recovered and to this day is the most substantiated buried treasure legend in the United States.

20150826_133216

I had about 1/3 of a tank of gas in Dentasaurus, so a top off was to my benefit.  The gas pump was different.  One diesel, one unleaded and no one around.  Just a sign informing me that if I can’t get my payment to work then that I need to go to the saloon next door and use their phone to call Dennis.  Of course this weird gas pump attached to a dialup modem didn’t work.  I had to call Dennis.  A woman, I presume was his wife or girlfriend answered. “He’s on his way over.”

A few minutes later an angry white haired man on a four wheeler pulled up.  “What’s the problem?”

I can’t get my payment to work.

“For Chrissakes, you have to wait until it clears!”

“I did, It just–”

“No you didn’t, Goddamnit! Give it to me.”  Dennis is like Oscar the Grouch, if Oscar the Grouch wasn’t a children’s character.  He slides my card into the gray machine and lifts his sunglasses off his face and onto the top of his head and squints at the little screen that looks sort of like a Speak&Spell.  “You just have to wait… See, there it… wait, huh? ‘Rejected by Host’?… Your card doesn’t work,” and he tosses it at me nonchalantly and starts to walk away.  It lands at my feet.

“I have cash if that will work.”

“I hate this fucking place.  I hate everything about this fucking place.  It’s not even my gas station.  I cannot wait for them to fucking sell it.”  I look at the Coldwell Banker sign with some portly woman with short hair smiling “FOR SALE” it reads.  Sure ’nuff, the place is for sale.  “Yeah, cash will work,” he sighs, and fumbles with a set of keys on the flimsy door of the dilapidated service station and walks inside a building that appears as though twenty different owners over the past century had begun a restoration project of the building before calling it quits and selling out to the next sucker.

Dennis lifts his glasses off his face again and squints at a little old school cash register like it’s the monolith at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  He fumbles with the keys and the cash drawer opens from which he withdraws a little white card and then storms passed me and my forty outstretched dollars.

He slides the little white card into the machine and does some more squinting and button pushing.  “OK, pump the fucker.”  I lift the nozzle and flip the handle up, the meter resets to zero.  I pull the trigger.  Nothing.  “I FUCKING HATE THIS PLACE!” Dennis screams.  “GOD DAMNIT, DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!”  More fumbling, more screaming at me, at the ‘confound’ machine, and at “This forsaken shit hole!”

Five minute later the pumps starts chugging.  I try to get it to stop around $37 so that I can get $3 change to give to Dennis as a tip for the show he put on.  I hand him the $40 and tell him to keep the rest.  “Fuck you.  I told you this isn’t my damned station.  I’m going to give you your fucking change and then fucking kill myself.”   Dennis must be a legend in this town.  By now a dust-covered Toyota 4-Runner has pulled up to the pump, “GOD DAMNIT!”  I hop into my rig and pull away and out of town and watch Dennis hate everything with his new audience from my side mirror.

At the end of town began the steep switchbacks that lead up the wall of the canyon and is the start of the road to Elko.  I drove by a forest ranger conducting a census along the laid lines of a transect, she would be the last person I see for the next few hours, and climbed and climbed until I could look out at the old mines high on the walls of the canyon.

Jarbidge mines
Mines high up on the slopes. New permits were issued in 2013 and these derelict old claims are going through a rejuvenation.

The road continues up until and I passed through gorgeous stands of fir trees and aspens and I found myself at the top of a high peak about 8,500ft up.  I could see al the way into Idaho and up along a gorgeous mountain valley.

20150826_135251 20150826_135256

From the summit of the pass into Jarbidge
From the summit of the pass into Jarbidge

The drive through the mountains afforded me cool observations of contact points between basalt flows and older sedimentary layers, metamorphic slates, quartz intrusions, hoodoos, and sweeping peaks.

20150826_140315

I had to drive slowly through the mountains.  The road is well groomed but the terrain is steep and gnarly.  There is no way into Jarbidge if it is raining; this path would just be a muddy death chute to the valley floor below.

I hear the sound of metal clanging behind my truck like I am dragging something.  I am.

20150826_141053

I couldn’t break it off, the last strand of metal connected to the muffler had too much integrity.  Well, add “new exhaust system” to the list for Dentasaurus Rex.   I also notice that I had obliterated my two package the day before was well… another item for the “list”.  Why doesn’t Ford attach the tow package to a cutout in the bumper so that every time I go off road it doesn’t destroy that damned dangly little fucker? As far as the pipe is concerned?  Fuck it, I’ll just drive until I stop hearing the sound.  A few miles later, that worked just fine.

About an hour down the road and on the South side of the slopes I pass a few abandoned mines and come to a ghost hotel outside the ghost town of Charlston, NV.  I don’t know the history of this place, but it must have been 1950s swanky in its heyday!

20150826_143158 20150826_143559 20150826_143351 20150826_143346

The road forks, and I head West along Elko County Road 746 (the Charleston-Mountain City Road).  It’s like any gravel road I have traveled tens of thousands of miles before.  I am traversing the southern foothills of the mountain range as it works up and down the undulations as long ridges give out at the base of the range.  For the most part the road is boring and flat with a few curves.  It has been nearly three hours since I have seen another vehicle or person.  Regardless on blind turns and hills I give up my middle of the road to the off chance someone else is coming the other way.  The last thing I need is to be surprised by a wayward hunter or family on a camping trip.

My aim is to make my way to Elko, fill up on fuel and then dirt road it South deep into Nevada to investigate a quintet of ghost towns surrounding silver mines in the White Pine Range southeast of Eureka.  I don’t make it.

I am about to round a blind, off-camber turn (a turn which slopes away to the outside making the vehicle want to pull to away from the turn, the opposite of a “banked” turn) on ECO 746.  I am doing about 45MPH, the speed limit, but slow down to about 40MPH as I approach the turn.  Rather that take the outside of the turn like I normally would on such a curve when I have a long site-line I play it safe and take the high side of this curve to the right on the offchance that the rare fellow traveler happens upon this turn as well.

The road rises a little bit right before the turn and just as I begin the curve my front tires dip into a rut or pothole and pops the front of my truck up.  When the weight of my truck resettles on the road my tires find themselves pushing into a deep pile of gravel or silt built up on the road.  My already turned wheels crank hard to the right as they sink into this plush, loose, material.  It whips the rear end of my truck around and to begins to slide through the corner. I crank hard on the wheel to steer into the turn and hopefully drift the truck around the corner fore something bad happens.  Too late.

My front tires just stop in the fluff of material and I basically pull a quadruple toe loop with a 5,000 lbs truck.  I have spent many an hour contemplating what I would do in the event of a roll over accident.  With the thousands of miles I have travel on dirt roads it is almost an inevitability.  These thought experiments are the best kind of practice I can conduct without actually flipping my truck.  As I begin to tilt over I go through the motions I have worked through my head a thousand times before.  I grip the wheel tight and push it hard away from me and into the dash.  As a result this forces my body back into my seat and I push my head back with all my might into the head rest and flex every muscle in my body.  I don’t want to go anywhere.  I have seen too many videos of rollovers where arms and torsos flop out the door window as a result of centripetal force and arms and heads are severed as the vehicle rolls over them.  The roof might crush me, but I am not going to lose an arm in the process.

Over I go.  I have what feels like a thousand thoughts in just a few seconds:

Hold with everything you got. Count the rolls. There’s one. You’re an asshole for dying on your way to see Angie.  How is she supposed to feel finding out days after you were supposed to arrive in Santa Fe that you died alone in the desert?  I guess now this is what your last sensation of being decapitation feels like.  Two.  Keep your eyes closed tight, glass is exploding everywhere.  I don’t want to get a new truck.  Keep flexing. Three.  You are at least a two hour hike to a paved road; remember to assess your supplies.  Am I dead yet?  I really wanted to see Angie, she’s the best.  I don’t want to die yet.  I want to go to Santa Fe.  I think I just rotated entirely without touching the ground.  Four...

I land upright and open my eyes.  My hands immediately move to the top of my head to seek out any splits in my scalp.  At first I am surprised that my hands are moving and that my eyes are watching my hands move.  My brain was almost certain that I would send the signals through my arms and only bloody stumps would respond.  No blood, coming from my head.  I can’t even feel that my head hit anything.  I cannot accept this, maybe the bleeding hasn’t started yet.  I run my hands over my head again and again.  Nothing, no blood.  Next I run my hands around my torso looking for any shrapnel, large bruises, broken ribs, punctures.  Again, nothing.  I look at my knees and move my feet and toes.  I stare at my fingers and wiggle all ten of them.  My neck hurts.  Oh no, I slashed my jugular, this is how it ends. I slide my palm along the left side of my neck where it hurts.  Nothing, no blood yet again. This is fucked up, how am I not injured.  I must be injured.

The stereo is still playing Sisters of Mercy “This Corrosion”, but the engine is no longer running.  I turn the ignition off.  The battery obviously works, use the CB radio and your very illegal antenna amplifier that can broadcast your signal over 100 miles.  This is what you bought it for!  I reach out and pull the microphone out of its cradle.  The power swtich is damaged but it turns on.  I turn to the emergency channel and just get a blare of static.  I look out through the bashed in windscreen see that my antenna is no longer there.  Shit.

I undue my seatbelt and open my door.  Holy shit, my door opens!  I then look at the steering wheel, no airbag has gone off.  I look to the passenger side.  It is completely flattened.  Had I a passenger they would have been popped like a melon at a Gallagher show, no airbag either.  What the fuck, no airbag?  I should have a bloody nose and black eyes by now, damnit!

I step out of the truck and triage myself one more time.  Nothing, no blood outside a few nicks from broken glass, one scratch on my right shin, and the abrasion on the left side of my neck from my seatbelt I thought was a slash to my throat.  I’m OK! Holy shit, I’m OK!

Now is not the time to celebrate, you’re still tens of miles, if not a hundred miles from Elko. Time to start assembling supplies.  I start walking around the truck, the canopy is 100ft away, all of my prospecting gear, bedding, books, clothes, food, electronics (everything!) is smeared along a debris field perhaps 150-200ft long.  All my windows are broken out. The passenger side of the truck is pushed in like a thumb through play-doh.  Holy shit my brain keeps repeating.  Pull these things off the road so someone else doesn’t hit it.  The truck is in the road and I can’t move this.  I don’t want someone else to come around this blind corner and hit this or wreck trying to avoid it.

I begin piling items either in the bed of the truck or in the upside down canopy.  I found my compass, good.  I find my brand new water jug and half the water is gone trough a tear in the plastic, argh!  There’s the piece of shit gas can, Oh look at that, the first time that hunk of garbage didn’t spill everywhere was when it was launched 50ft into the air during a heinous wreck.  Asshole.  I find one can of cola that wasn’t destroyed.  Every other liquid is obliterated.  Milk gone.  Mexican Cokes gone.  The Seattle beer I was bringing to Angie’s brother who is a beer blogger to review?  Gone too.  Cheerios are everywhere.  Sandwiches are nowhere to be found.  I can’t find my glasses and I can’t find my cellphone.  I find my computer, clothes, various shoes, sleeping bag… all go into piles.

At this moment, it is probably only five minutes since the accident, I hear a truck approaching from the West and look up to see a cloud of dust.  I walk out into the middle of the road and start waving my arms back and forth.  The Toyota Tundra slows and the driver leans out the window, “Are you alive?… are you hurt?”

“I am alive, and no, miraculously I am not hurt!”

He pulls his truck to the side of the road and gets out to inspect me and make sure I am not just in shock and have entrails dangling out from behind me or an open wound on my scalp.  “Holy shit,” he declares, “How on Earth are you alive?”

“I don’t know… Thank you for stopping.  Thank you so much for stopping.  Pretty much all my supplies are obliterated.  It was going to be a pretty shitty hike back to the highway.

We introduce ourselves to each other.  His name is Brandon.  He is my hero.  I can taste the metallic telltale of adrenaline pumping through my veins.  My hands shake.  He asks if I have a tow line so he can pull my truck off the road.  I search through the debris and find both tow cables and open the plastic packaging and hookup the front tow hooks and hand him the other end which he attaches to his trailer hitch and drags my giant booby trap off the road.

Brandon then begins helping clear all of my belongings and putting them into the bed of the truck.  “Is there anything you need right now?”

“Yes, I can’t find my cellphone or my glasses.”  The thing about looking for glasses, is that without wearing them, it is really hard to find them.  I immediately flash back to my last baseball practice at Lewis & Clark. T he coaches decided to have a scrimmage and a little fun where the only rule was you could not play a position you had played throughout the season.    Shortstops pitching, Catchers at third base, pitcher patrolling the outfield…  The winning team got to have all the meal money for our last travel game of the season; losing got jack.

The team captains chose the teams, I was picked last because it was assumed that the skinny awkward knuckleballer would be the worst athlete on the team.  I played left field and had the game of my life.  I went four for six with 6 RBIs, four runs scored, a bases loaded double, and the play of the year.  A long drive down the line and I gave chase.  The shortstop kept yelling, “You have plenty of room!  You have plenty of room!” over and over letting me know that I had a ways until I would crash into the fence so that I needn’t fear; I can get the ball.  I chased and chased and just as the ball was about to land I leapt and discovered the fence was only a foot from me.  I exploded into the fence, ball in glove.  It hurt.  I picked myself up off the ground and threw the ball into third to cheers of my teammates who never expected such athleticism from the weirdo nerd-pitcher.

The real pitcher for this game returned to the mound and got ready to throw to the next batter. “Time out!” I yelled, “I can’t find my glasses!” I dropped to all fours feeling along the grass searching for my specs.  Everysingle one of my teammates also fell to the ground, but in laughter, as I blindly searched for my eyes with the palms of my hands patting along the ground.  I hadn’t worn my contacts because I had assumed that this practice would be like every other one; I throw a bullpen, go for a jog, and then get out of the “real” ball players way.  Game of my life and I can’t see shit. I eventually discovered that I fractured two fingers on my pitching hand on that play too…

I snap back to the present and find myself doing the same thing once more, this time instead of grass, I am on my knees crawling over an endless stretch of desert patting the ground with my hands hoping to come up with my sweet Oakley Metal Plate eyeglasses.  Brandon and I search for twenty minutes or so.  Brandon finds my phone.  I give up the glasses search and decide to document the accident instead for myself, for the sheriff, for the insurance company, for this blog, and for my friends and family so that every one can know that once again I have proof that I am once again miraculously indestructible.

IMG_accident_trlhnqi 20150826_153207 20150826_153202 20150826_153138 20150826_152958 20150826_153848

Roll over accident survivor!
As you can see the passenger side is death, the driver’s side is life. My truck has saved my life one last time. I love you, Dentasaurus!

Brandon gave me and the important possessions we could find a ride into Elko.  He was the best person to come along and discover my wreck.  Calm, helpful, and kept me from descending into shock by conversing about everything under the Sun to keep my brain occupied.  He is a mine tech for Barrick Gold and was out searching for elk as he has a tag for hunting.  He was raised in Eureka and skis the local slopes in the winter by skinning up.  His grandfather worked the big Ruby mine and was murdered by men who thought he was a different man of the same name who had wronged one of them.  I love Brandon, he is wonderful.

Brandon drives me to the Sheriff’s office so I can report the accident and patiently waits for half an hour as the dispatch has to call in deputy.  The deputy is also patient with me as I am still kind of vibrating from the accident.  He asks me to email him pictures of the crash, they are already receiving calls from people who have happened upon the wreck.  Just then he gets a word that a boat is sinking on the lake and has to go.  He’ll be in touch.  I go back to Brandon’s truck and he gives me a ride to the High Desert Inn so I can check in somewhere for the night and start figuring this shit out.  He even helps me lug everything up to my room and gives me his number incase I need anything.  I thank him a thousand times.  All I want to do is shower and sleep.

I dump my belongings inside the door and call USAA to report the accident.  The claims agent is wonderful.  He asks about my health a dozen times, orders me a rental car, informs me of how awesome the coverage I have is, and starts ordering a tow truck to haul Dentasaurus Rex out of the wild.  I upload the picture of me standing in front of the wreck and let the Internet know I am alive.  I text my agent and let her know that I am alive.  I call my mother and let her know I am alive.  Before I can call my dad, he calls me.  Every friend and family member is calling, instant messaging, and texting to see if I need any help.  Everyone is so wonderful; I love my circle, everyone of them is magnificent.  I shower and sleep.  I sleep hard.

Fuck you, gas can.
Fuck you, gas can.

 

Things to remember when trying not to die alone in the desert.

(Editor’s note: Many of you know already know what happened on this year’s ghost town trip.  This article was written prior to the ‘Event’ but I did not have Internet access to update the blog before my laptop was destroyed.  My hope is to maintain the feeling and emotions of the adventure at the time this was originally written and not taint it by adding to it my thoughts after my, yet another, near-death experience)

Range land in a plateau of the Ochoco Mountains.
Range land in a plateau of the Ochoco Mountains.

Day two, August 25th, Sleeping at the trailhead for Lookout Mountain was so peaceful.  Not a single bug.  Not one!  It was so quiet, the only sound was some hooved animal snorting every so often, and an owl in the distance from time to time.  The night sky was not like anything I have ever seen (and I’m an astronomer!).  The intense fire smoke filling the entire region had turned all the stars red. ALL OF THEM. Trippy…  Well, I guess it could have been all the gasoline fumes I was huffing due to my EPA certified “no spill” gas can spilling all over the place (thanks again, Grace).  Who can tell? All I know is that I slept well and forgot most of third grade in the process.

I awoke with the Sun and consulted my maps.  I decided to traverse the Ochoco Mountains to Pauline and gas up missing out on the Mother Lode Mine atop Lookout Mountain, nuts.  Shortly along my path I encountered a little derelict gold mill and an abandoned bunk house.  I have no clue what this place was named.  Nothing in my maps tells me.  It was beautiful in the amber morning light though.

20150825_073824 20150825_074136 20150825_074253 20150825_074613

An old mill and bunkhouse
The remains of some mine in the Ochoco Mountains of Oregon, the name I have yet to discover

The drive to Pauline, OR was an example in the National Forest Services interesting choices in road construction and maintenance .  You go from dirt to paved.  Then back to dirt, then on to beautiful two lane with large shoulders… then to unmaintained gravel…  I don’t get it.  I got to Paulina about 8:30am to find one gas pump and four cute little cattle dogs climbing all over me.  I had about half a tank, but I wanted to be sure to have it topped off for the dirt drive to Burns.  I didn’t know it, but those dogs were in on the con; while I scratched and patted the flurry of fur and wagging tails, the lady pumping my gas (yes, Oregon does not trust average citizens with the responsibility of putting a nozzle into a hole and pulling a trigger) was ripping me off.  She exclaimed, “Wow, were you empty or something?”

“No, not even close.” I replied.  I then look up to see that somehow 11 gallons of gasoline has become 23 gallons.  My tank only holds 21.  What am I going to do about it?  She’s the only game in town and I pull no weight out here in the sticks.  I just bought 23 gallons of gas. at twice the market rate.  Lame.  Note to self, do not buy gas in Paulina, OR.

Back into the mountains I have a nice long drive through a boring pine forest.  I realized while turning the wheel and staring out the windscreen, that I really don’t care for pine trees.  They suck.  They are not pretty, they cover the ground in acidic needles that thwart undergrowth, and all of them looked like depressed trees just going through the motions.  They wish they had the rainfall and clout of a Pacific forest, but they don’t.  Instead every pine tree just looks like it is ready to die in a raging forest fire.  Like it WANTS to die in a raging fire.  The skeletons of charred pines look so much more at peace than the living ones.  Pine trees are like the emo kids of the tree world.  I can just imagine them chain smoking stolen cigarettes, listening the Sunny Day Real Estate on repeat, and writing poetry about how much they hate their parents.

Happy on the left, sad on the right.
Happy on the left, sad on the right.

In Burns I go to a McDonalds to steal their Wi-Fi only to discover that my laptop now wants to spend an hour “installing updates”.  cap this off, it is low on battery and the McDonalds doesn’t have outlets anywhere.  isn’t this a violation of some sort of building code? I hate everything.  Fuck it, I’ll drive.  I cross the street to the Shell station and top off the tank.  The attendants are talking about how Canyon City just to the north is no more, destroyed by fire. Shame, Canyon City and its neighbor, the famous John Day, make up a marvelous part of the old mining west.  Fire is everywhere this year.  History and the Earth are burning.

I leave Burns about noon and am off to bucket list #3, Leslie Gulch and the mysterious blue landslide I want to touch.  To get there traditionally I would have to drive around and around for hundreds of miles, or I could just off road and cut out the circuitous travel.  I leave Burns heading east towards Crane.  This stretch of Oregon is the absolute worst.  One giant, salty, flat, treeless, sun-baked, wasteland.  Everywhere along the route is half-finished ideas, and crumbling dreams.  Broken trailers here, roofless barns there…  Anyone thinking of living in this uninhabitable hell-scape needs to just fill their tank and drive until it runs out of gas.  Wherever you end up will be better than here.

At the end of the Pavement is Crane, OR.  Crane is a town, apparently, but all that seems to be there is a high school (“Home of the Mustangs!”), even the highway leading to there is sponsored by the “Crane Teachers Association”  There are no businesses, just a Post Office and a high school.  Weird.

Passed Crane the road is gravel and really nicely maintained.  Those who know me are aware that I drive like a grandma.  Dirt roads are no different (Editor’s note: yes, I am aware about how ironic the entire following piece is considering what happens the next day).  It may seem to the outside observer that I am driving like an asshole, but there is great strategy in this.  First rule of mountain or country driving: stay in the middle of the road except when going around blind turns or over hills with no visibility of oncoming traffic.  This way you are less likely to hit large animals like deer and cows as they are more likely to be on the sides of the road eating than they are just standing agape in the middle of the lane (the boys and I once drove for a hundred miles in the middle of a highway as we passed millions of deer on migration in the Oregon Outback east of La Pine for what seemed like hours in the middle of the night, surreal experience).  Rule two, if your rear wheels start to drift behind you, steer into the slide, this is to prevent a rollover (Editor’s note: yes, I am aware how fucking ironic this is, shut up).

I am driving through the “Stinkingwater Mountains”.  Like the salty flatness before them, they too are not that great.  More like long flat turds drying in the Sun.  Not even mountains really,  more hills of nothing worth noting.  Just basalt and some ash.  Boring!

Bombing the Crane-Vernator Rd, I eventually take Swamp Creek to the Crowley-Riverside Rd.  This road kind of sucks and after 20 bumpy miles I come to a locked gate.  Oof.  I consult the map and turn around and go back a ways, then head northeast on McEwen Rd, then East on the stupidly named Granite Creek Rd (there isn’t any granite within 100 miles of here, maybe more), then Shumway Cutoff Rd, to the singular Crowley Rd, to Antelope Flat Rd, to Unnamed road, to Unnamed road, to Unnamed rd, to no road at all… a horse trail really.  Everything in the bed of the truck is back to ping pong balls.

20150825_154712
This is a tame part of the road. Stupid wide angle cameraphone lense does not do it justice.

Driving such a 4×4 road requires intense concentration on what is 10 feet in front of you.  It is a good thing the surroundings were lame, otherwise I would have popped my tires and died like a raison in the hot Sun.

There is no one out here.  Every so often I find tagged cattle, but not much else.  This last dirt road I am on is requiring me to open and close barbed wire gates like crazy.  My hands are now full of splinters from these old, weathered gates.  I am chugging up this last hill, jarring large basalt rocks pop my truck back and forth and at the crest of the hill one of the most beautiful desert formations I have ever seen.  I see Red Bluff, the Owyhee River, and the crazy outcrops of the mineral-rich mountains surrounding Leslie Gulch.  I take it in.  So beautiful.  One last gate to open and then close behind me and then I descend down closure to bucket list item #3 of the trip.

Oywhee Lake.
Red Bluff, the Owyhee River, and the outcrops surrounding Leslie Gulch. I really wish my camera could capture how deep these reds are. Someday I will invest in a real camera.

Fuck me, this road is not a road.  It is a scar of dirt, large boulders, and one giant rut descending a couple thousand feet to the valley below. 4-low, 1st gear, and my white knuckles clinging to the steering wheel for life and I make my way down hoping not to die ricocheting about the cabin of my truck as it goes end over end to a place no one has tread for perhaps a decade, or more.  Once I make it 20 feet down there is no going back.  This is a one way trip, no truck is going to make it UP this thing as gravity will ensure it goes DOWN one way or another.  I am leaning out over my dashboard trying to get any look at what is about to pass under my tires.  This is fucked up.  I’m an idiot.

I don't know if you can tell from this image, but that is a 2+ft deep gouge between my tires as I descend a 25% grade down an unknown path, with unknown conditions below.
I don’t know if you can tell from this image, but that is a 2+ft deep gouge in the “road” between my tires as I descend a 25% grade down an unknown path, with unknown conditions below. Cameraphones never show how fucked up the situation really is.

An hour later I finally am out of the awful basalt layer and into the sweet softness of the ash.  The road is smooth as butter… for about a half mile.  Then it takes a turn from going straight down to a long traverse parallel to the ridge.  Who does that?  Now I have deeply carved dry wash after dry wash.  Going back up isn’t an option and driving over a 6ft deep gorge is not that much better.  This is fucked up.  I’m an idiot.

A road?
A road, or “erode”?

The third gulch in my path is deep.  Like really deep.  I put the truck in park and get out to survey the terrain.  I take pictures too, because this is what one does before doing something stupid, and plan my route.  The key to crossing a crack, crevasse, slot, or creek, is to take it at an angle.  The goal is to have at least three tires in contact with the ground at all times.  It is also much smoother.  I back the truck up so that I can approached this monster at as much of an angle as I can, shift it back into low gear and creep forward. The truck falls forward with a giant *crunch!* and I am no longer moving.  The front clip is now firmly impacted into the opposite bank and my rear passenger tire is now about 3ft off the ground.  I managed to achieve goal number one:  have three tires in contact with the Earth!  I can’t back up because the soft ash the front tires are in at the bottom of the gulch floor provides no traction, just puffs of dust, and the rear differential means that the passenger side tire in the air spins wildly while the rear tire sits locked in place.  This is fucked up. I really am an idiot.

20150825_162450
Where are you going? Fuckin’ nowhere!

20150825_162430

I am seventy miles from the nearest human, It is 3pm and approaching 100 degrees outside.  What I have going for me: gallons of water, food, extra fuel, rock tools.

I check my supplies:  Food: Soggy and warm, because I forgot to drain my cooler and get more ice. Way to go, moron.  Water: punctured while bouncing around in the back of my truck. Dipshit.  Fuel: The top popped off my leak-proof can and now there are gallons of fuel soaking most everything in my truck. Thanks, Grace.  Rock Tools: A little slimy with gasoline but ready to lever, pick, and dig.

The first thing I do is dig out the front end of the truck and give her a go.  Nope.  I them cram rocks under the front tires for traction. Nuh-uh…  I sit down, sweat already dripping from me even though I haven’t really done any work yet, and drink what little water I have left and start to engineer a plan.  I begin by rolling big boulders down the hill and into the gulch.  I make a several foot high pile of these rocks under the tire that is high in the air.  My god, it is hot outside.

Next I take one boulder and put it under the drive train of the front driver’s side.  I place my crappy little jack on top of this rock and start lifting the truck.  Unlike Lookout Mountain there are bugs here, and they love me.  The flies are buzzing and biting while I lay on my back, shirtless, under my truck spinning the jack a hundred time to watch it raise an inch.  Just like stuffing some coasters under the opposite corner of a wobbly table leg, I am now stuffing a jack under the opposite corner of my tire that is three feet in the air.  As the driver’s side front tire lifts off the ground the rear passenger side begins the settle on the pile of rocks I made.  Once I get the jack as high as it can go I stuff rocks under the now raised driver’s side front tire.  Along with these rocks I take a piece of plywood that makes up the shelf in the bed of my truck under this as well; like a ramp going up the embankment.  Once everything is in place I lower the jack and everything settles.  All four tires are now making contact and three of these tires are on rocks and not ash.

Two hours have gone by.  I am very eager to see how my engineering has fared and I climb back into the cab and turn the key, put it back in gear, this time 4-low and 2nd gear so as not to have too much torque and press the pedal down.  The engine growls and like a bolt of lightning the truck is up and on the top of the bank.  Smooth like butter.  I am no longer an idiot.  I am now a 4×4 god and genius engineer.  I dance while I throw my tools and plywood back in the truck.  I realize I forgot to document my genius with pictures.  Oops.  I don’t care that my bedding smells like a fuel dump.  I’m not going to die alone in the desert!

I drive forward 100ft and there is another gulch.  FUCK!

This time I am proactive and fill the gulch with boulders.  I drive over them, another gulch, another fill of boulders… another gulch, and so on, and so on. Finally, four hors have progressed from when I reached the bottom of the valley and began driving on the ash, I get reach the Owyhee River and to where I am going to cross, and the water level is high.  Too high.  There is no way I can get across (I knew I should have built a snorkel for my intake).  I have managed to find the only river in the West that is at a normal water level.  So much for planning.  Well, back to my maps because there is no way I am getting out the way I got in…

I find a trail that runs up the opposite side of the canyon (the East side) from where I came down, the trail sucks, but not as bad as the previous one.  Only two gulches need to be filled with boulder.  hooray.  The shadows are growing long, and now I am really driving like an asshole up a shitty road with one goal in mind: Get to cellphone coverage before my mother makes me a news story by reporting me missing in the Oregon Outback.  I promise her I will check in everyday I am doing stupid stuff alone in the toolies.  As she is fully aware that I have no sense and exhibit pretty much no fear when attempting morinic things in the name of exploration.  She witnessed my childhood.  She’s seen my medical files.

20150825_193754 20150825_191954

I finally make it to US20 by 9pm.  That is about 60 miles of terrible “roads” in two hours (with two ditch fillings).  These roads should be treated at a crawl.  Again I am the most fortunate of idiots.  Also, thank you, Les Schwab tires for not exploding on me in the dark.20150825_192023

After placing a call to mi madre, the next goal was gasoline not in Oregon, but Idaho, please. I want to pump my own gas like a dignified human being.  Now here I sit in a Denny’s to use their Wi-Fi and then after 30 minutes they kicked me off the Wi-Fi and won’t let me log back in.  My shitty fucking meal hasn’t even arrived yet.  Kiss my butt, Denny’s!

Note, things I need for the truck:

  1. a high lift Jack
  2. somewhere outside of my tuck I can store a gas can, for the love of god!
  3. portable ramps… will add to list as I go.

Smoke is all I see

(Editor’s note: Many of you know already know what happened on this year’s ghost town trip.  This article was written prior to the ‘Event’ but I did not have Internet access to update the blog before my laptop was destroyed.  My hope is to maintain the feeling and emotions of the adventure at the time this was originally written and not taint it by adding to it my thoughts after my, yet another, near-death experience)

Pack your paper, your maps, and your books when you adventure to the land of no service.
A little slice of the analog data required to mount an expedition out into the wild.

August 24th, Today I began a trip just to visit ghost towns.  I have never set out to only visit ghost towns, usually these relics are left as side trips to one of my larger prospecting outings.  I wanted to dive into the history first hand and leave the geology as the side trip this time.

I got my best start on a solo adventure in years; I left the house only an hour late!… part of this was due to the fact that I couldn’t find my main gas can anywhere.  One cannot go on an 1800 mile off road adventure where one finds one’s self up to 300 miles or more between fuel stations.  Then it occurred to me, I lent my gas can to my friend Grace so she could fuel up the little motor on her sailboat.  She never gave it back.  She’s like the female version of Dagwood Bumstead’s neighbor/best friend Herb.

After a stop at Ace for a new can, I finally got out on the road.  South through the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and then I had to snake around I-5 as one of my goals on this trip is to not set tire to Interstate the entire way down to Santa Fe.  Some wiggling through Tacoma I managed to get onto highway 7, and then I got to witness full on Spanaway right up in my face.  If you have never been to Spanaway  imagine all the abandoned towns in “The Walking Dead” just with even worse lawns, and instead of Zombies looking for brains, it’s skinny people aging too quickly looking for meth.

Dead Porcupine on the side of State Highway 7
My first Porcupine, his last human.

South of Spanaway the road turns beautiful and winding.  The draw back to all this nature is about 30 miles of the most roadkill I have ever seen.  There were hundreds of raccoons, dozens of deer, bunnies, opossums, and even my first porcupine laying by the wayside.  It was as if it had rained animal carcasses from above and snowplows had to clear the road for us drivers leaving drifts of carnage like so much snow on the side of the road. It was metal.  Every so often their would be a break in the trees and I would be afforded a majestic view of the Northwest’s most dominant land feature.

Smokey Rainier
Mount Rainier through the smoke.

I drove along the Nisqually River and along Alder Lake I was pleased to find the river valley ablaze.  How quaint.  I have a feeling that forest and wild fires are going to be a running theme on this journey.

The Nisqually River valley burns and adds to the clean air
The valley is on fire and and no one seems to care. Notice the nearly empty reservoir juxtaposed with the smoke rising behind it.

A turn onto Highway 12 towards White Pass and then a jig to the right down Forest Service Road 23 and I finally found myself in my element; on a shit road.  For the next 50 miles I got to watch all of my mining equipment, fuel, water, clothing, and bedding bounce around like ping pong balls at a Lotto drawing.  Here is an interesting fact: my brand new EPA certified “leak-proof” fuel can I was forced to buy (thanks, Grace) leaks like the mother of twelve after a sneezing fit.  Well, Erik, it is my turn to have to trippy gas fume dreams as I sleep in a cocoon soaked in cancer.

How about that year round snowpack on Mt Adams this year?
How about that year round snowpack on Mt Adams this year?

Further down NF23 on the way to the Columbia I saw an arm waving about from the side of the road.  I slowed because I thought it was someone in distress, but the fact that I was in the sun and they were in the shade of a tree played tricks on me.  It was just a couple of bearded trustifarians in about $1,000 in hiking gear looking for a ride.  I told them the truth, “Sorry, guys, I don’t have the room.” Which is totally true; I am packed to the gills and I move the Box of Knowledge for no man (except Aren), and especially not for two strangers with B.O.  Then I told them a lie, “Don’t worry though, there are two more trucks coming up right behind me!”  Then they sat back down in the shade and I floored it.  Why did I do this?  Because I’m a dick… Well, it might not be a lie ultimately.  It’s a mountain road.  There will always be two trucks behind me.  Eventually.

Crossing into the Columbia Gorge the vast scenery was so hazy as to be not even real. Almost everything looked like a distant memory bathed in blue hues and amber Sun.  One thing that cannot be missed in The Gorge is the towering cliffs of basalt.  16 million years ago Eastern Washington and Oregon sat above the what is today the Yellowstone hotspot.  Back then the hotspot only had to worry about oceanic basalts that like to get all melty and flowy and not the herky-jerky continental stuff that forces it to have apocalyptic eruptions every few million years like today.  No, back then it was downright diuretic.  Every 8,000 years or so it would lay down a free flowing layer of lava that would cover thousands of square miles, just pouring over everything like a glass of water spilled onto your kitchen floor.  The Columbia Flood Basalts cover in the neighborhood of 100,000 square miles up to 2,000 feet thick.  That is enough lava to cover the surface of our entire planet in a foot of hot lava.  Be impressed by this.

Haze dominates the view of the remnants of one of the largest flood basalts ever.
The Gorge filled with the smoke of a thousand forest fires.
Hey look! Basalt!
Hey look! Basalt!

I finally made it to Washington’s Stonehenge in Maryhill over-looking the Columbia.  It has always been on my list of things to do before I die.  Though technically checked off, my bucket list check was forever ruined by a loud obnoxious family who couldn’t read any of the markers to themselves but had to share each plaque with someone 200ft away.  I hate people.

The Maryhilll Stonhenge WWI memorial. It's quite moving so long as there aren't really annoying loud people with annoying loud children screaming at each other.
The Maryhilll Stonehenge WWI memorial. It’s quite moving so long as there aren’t really annoying loud people with annoying loud children screaming at each other.

Across the river in Oregon I refilled my tank and decided not to get a sandwich since hundreds of children from some summer camp unloaded off their buses and into my way. I concluded that it would be better to starve to death than wait in a line while these whippersnappers played tinny sounding YouTube videos to each other.

Heading South on US97 I passed by two towns that are not listed as ghost towns, but they are.  They are so dead.  Both Grass Valley and Kent, Oregon have nothing left in the tank.  Between the mechanization of farms, consolidation of family spreads by larger outfits, and the fact that no one in their right mind would want to live in such a desolate, sun-baked shit hole, ensures that both towns are crumbling shells of their former glorious selves.  The general store in Grass Valley advertised they were the last stop for groceries for the next 67 miles.  It was closed.  For good.

The first ghost town on my list was Shaniko mainly because someone renovated the grand hotel there.  The town consisted of the hotel, a guy sitting on a bench in front of what looked like a knickknack store catering to a tourist who would have to be lost to end up in there, and one gas pump on a hill.  Quaint, but not what warms my heart.  I prefer more desolate.  More broken.  In the past this was the case.  Shaniko was the name the natives gave a german immigrant with whom they trusted and did business.  They couldn’t pronounce his actual name, Herr August Scherneckau, so “Shaniko” would have to do.  The town got its start as a railroad hub for the newly minted Columbia Southern Railroad as a way for large sheep ranchers to get their wool to market.

Shaniko, OR
Shaniko’s grand hotel

At its peak, Shaniko had the Grand Hotel, a large two story firehouse and 13 brothels, or “sporting houses” as the locals referred to them, catering to the needs of the thousands of sheepherders and railroad men who would make their way into town for supplies and nookie to stave off the loneliness of the Oregon high desert.

20150824_160735

I broke off US97 at Shiniko and headed toward Antelope on a winding highway 218.  Antelope was about as lively as the three previous burgs I passed.  It did have a green ghost school though and someone actively filling their U-Haul with their worldly possessions in a real-time GTFO. Cool, not too often you get to witness the act of the actual abandonment of a ghost town.

Antelope, OR
The abandoned school of Antelope, OR

Antelope was the main stagecoach supply point between The Dalles on the Columbia River and the important gold mining town of Canyon City.  After the mines slowed, and highway were built, the need to a weigh station like Antelope ceased to be exist.  Thus another town bites the dust!  Side note: In the early to mid 1980s a religious cult established their headquarters just outside of the town replete with corruption, paranoia, and the largest biological terrorism attack in US history.  Let’s just say jailarity eventually ensued.  I want to save this story for another blog post because it’s a doozy, so please bear with me!

A few miles east of Antelope I turned onto a dirt road and worked my way into some mountains.  A note to the National Forest Service: the BLM is better at roads than you.

20150824_164321

20150824_165401

Each turn yielded more spectacular scenery.  Golden hills, steep canyons, derelict ranches… My goal for this stretch of my day’s jaunt was to make my way toward Horse Heaven, a dead mining town high in the hills.  After about an hour I found it and it was buried under tailings from, well, a mine.  It appeared as though someone open pitted most of the town and dumped the workings on the rest sometime in the last 40 years or so.  Pity, as of 1971 it still had a bunch of standing buildings.

Horse Heaven got its start when a couple of high schools kids, Ray R. Whiting Jr and Harry Hoy, were shown how to pan cinnabar out of a local stream (Cinnabar is an ore of mercury, mercury sulfide to be exact).  In the summer of 1933 the boys decided to start tunneling into rock where their cinnabar pannings vanished upstream assuming this was where it was coming from.  They managed to dig more than 60ft through solid rock into the side of the mountain using nothing but hand tools (badass for some kids) and couldn’t find anything… That is until Ray kicked a rock over that was wet on the bottom and the bright red tell of cinnabar was blazed across the stone.  They had managed to remove hundreds of tons of ore not realizing that it had to be wet to be able to see the red tones of the cinnabar!

The boys sold out to a large mining outfit for 11% of the proceeds of the mine each and instantly became rich.  Ray turned his wealth into a famous Hollywood restaurant frequented by the stars, I don’t know what became of Harry.  When Ray’s luck with money ran out he was back up at Horse Heaven in the Summer of 1971 searching for another lode of mercury near the site of the original mine.  From the looks of the remnants of the old mining town I’d say he found it.

Horse Heaven, OR
What is left of Horse Heaven, OR an old mercury mining town.

As I continued down these mountains from Horse Heaven I passed through the most glorious private ranch I may ever lay eyes on.  It was complete with signs threatening to castrate me and more if I stopped my truck.  I wanted to stop and take pictures of the amazing canyon and the painted hills, but I want my testicles more.  Sorry to fail you all.

20150824_174518

After some time my dirt road turned to pavement and a sign directing me to the Painted Hills fossil site made me take a right.  Bucket list item #2 of the day complete.  The Painted hills are remarkable erosion features consisting of millions of years of volcanic ash and fills the entire horizon with vivid colors.  Yellows bleed onto grays who then melt into deep crimsons.  These ashes house the remains of lots mammals and plants.  Don’t climb on the hills or dig for fossils though or else some bored park ranger is going to fuck you up.  He’s just waiting for you to be an asshole so he can disappear you in a little spot in the Oregon Outback somewhere he picked out just for you to become a fossil yourself.

20150824_184709

20150824_182656

20150824_182900

Layers of ash make the hills come alive
Painted Hills, OR is one of the most breathtaking geological features in the Pacific Northwest.

Driving further South my goal was now to make it to the summit of Lookout Mountain for the night.  I didn’t make it.  The old road that leads to the top is now a foot trail and I am not strong enough to hike my F150 up 2,000ft of vertical.  Thus, tonight I spend in the parking lot of the trailhead.

Day one is pretty pleasant, day two on the otherhand…

Don’t go to Pioche (you can, just don’t time travel to there, ok?)

Pioche, Nevada (pronounced Pee-O-Shee) isn’t much of a ghost town any more.  Today it now has about 1,000 residents thanks to the boom in gold and silver prices.  Forty years ago, however, it was a near empty relic.  Lying along the Western edge of the state and abutting the Northern Slopes of what was, of course, later named the Pioche Hills; an eastern spur off the southern part of the more impressive Highland Range, Pioche is easy to find.  It lies along US93 as it winds itself South towards Las Vegas 165 miles away.  These days Pioche is a more somber town than its glittering neighbor to the South.  It didn’t used to be that way.  It used to be Hell on Earth.

Pioche today.
Pioche today.

The town got its start in1863 when a bunch of Mormon farmers, lead by William Hamblin, settled the valley.  The original town site was called Panacker after what they named the valley floor; the “Panaca Flats” (Hamblin and his kin were thought to be the first white people to settle here).  Shortly after settling the area Hamblin is then credited with the discovery of lead-gold-silver ore (the Panaca lode), but this is not entirely true.  In reality Hamblin convinced some Paiute Indians friends, who had no use for such glittery things, to show him where said metallic rocks could be found.  His staked claims resulted in $40 million in ore (to put this into perspective, in modern dollars this is about $2 billion!).  Don’t we all wish we had friends who could basically hand us $2 billion in gold and silver?

Hamblin was poor and bit too incompetent to develop the mine himself, couple this with the delays caused by the Civil War and the fact that the Paiutes were no longer his friends and were sick of all the white men invading their territory, and he was essentially forced to sell the claims to a French banker from San Francisco by the name of Francois Louis Alfred Pioche in 1869; hence the town changed its name to “Pioche”.  Hamblin eventually died in awful desperation to return to his original hometown of Gunlock, Utah, this was part in thanks to the awful, violent reality that was Pioche (more on this later).

By the time Francois Pioche bought the mines Nevada had already become a state, yet law enforcement was a little lacking (and what law there originally was had been corrupted by bribes and threats), so violence ruled supreme.  Tombstone, Dodge, and Deadwood have nothing on Pioche.  By the time the town had experienced its first natural death some 75 people had died via “lead to the head” or beatings.  Violence was so ubiquitous that the mine owners and foremen imported their own muscle to protect the mines from encroachment, bandits, and poachers at the rate of 20 men a day.  These hired guns were basically assassins and their death rate was so high that they quickly filed the cemetery on Boot Hill at the top of town.  This cemetery even has a section known as “Murderers’ Row” with over 100 executed men (most of whom were executed without trial).

The story of a bartender just known as “Faddiman”, as reported by Lambert Florin, was typical of the town.  When a job for an opening in a saloon was posted in Pioche Faddiman jumped at the chance for work that didn’t involve being underground.  Friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers alike told him not to go: “You’re as good as dead if you go to Pioche.”… “No bartender ever lasted longer than a year in Pioche.”…

Feddiman told everyone to get bent, “I need a job and I don’t care where it is.  I can take care of myself.”  He made his way to the then mining camp and stayed there.  His second week on the job he cut off an intoxicated customer.

His last words: “You don’t need another drink.”

The customer promptly shot him in the face, stepped over his body and emptied the till.  He went next door to the butcher shop where the curvaceous “N-word Liza” worked, raped her, slit her throat, and stripped the till.  When he proceeded to leave he was met at Liza’s door by the Sheriff who shot him in the head.  The killer’s name was never known, but was pretty typical of how the rows of unmarked graves that line the cemetery at Boot Hill grew so long so fast.

Violence was such a way of life that in 1873 the Nevada State Mineralogist reported to the State Legislature “About one-half of the community are thieves, scoundrels and murderers […]. You can go uptown and get shot very easily if you choose […]. I will send you a paper with an account of the last fight…I was in hopes eight or ten would have been killed at least, as these fights are a pest in the community. Peaceful! Sure, if you stayed out of the way of the bullets.”

The town at its peak in the mid 1870s had 6,000-10,000 residents, 72 saloons, and 32 brothels.  it was drunk, gun-fueled mess.  The local paper wrote: “Some people do not hesitate to fire off a pistol or a gun at anytime, day or night, in this city.  Murderers who shoot a man in the back get off scot free but the unfortunate devil who steals a bottle of Whiskey or a couple of boxes of cigars has to pay for his small crime.”

One of several fires during the 1870s that burned most of the town to the ground.
One of several fires during the 1870s that burned most of the town to the ground.

September 15th, 1871 a structure containing over 300 barrels of blasting powder went *boom* during a town fire killing 13 people, injuring 47.  The fire ultimately resulted in over $500,000 in damage ($25 million in today’s dollars),  and left upwards of 3,000 people homeless.

A mini war between the Raymond & Ely and the Hermes Mining Company over control of the main lode claim in 1872 broke out resulting in dozens of murders.  William Hamblin was tapped as a key witness in the subsequent trial over the claim rights.  Just before he was set to testify one of his drinks was poisoned.  In a frightful terror upon the realization that he was going to die he rode for his family in his hometown of Gunlock, UT.  He only made it as far as Clover Valley, UT before succumbing to the poison’s inevitability.  He is buried in Barclay, UT.

The town had its own awful stupidity too.  It was made the county seat of Lincoln County and in 1871 an $88,000 courthouse was erected which far beyond the original estimated costs budgeted at $16,000.  The courthouse became known as the “Million Dollar Courthouse” due to the public being swindled by financing, refinancing, and the issuance of public bonds for the building totaling more than $1 million.  On a note of awesomeness, the building was condemned in 1933; three years before it would have finally been paid off.  It has since been restored.

This courthouse cost over $1,000,000 in 1870s money.  Let's put it this way: would you spend $50,000,000 today for said building in the middle of nowhere NV? No, you wouldn't.
This courthouse cost over $1,000,000 in 1870’s money. Let’s put it this way: would you spend $50,000,000 today for said building in the middle of nowhere NV? No, you wouldn’t.

A curious thing happened in 1876 that is unique to Pioche as far as I can tell.  For some reason women began to flood the town and men began getting married in droves.  This was due in part to the strong will of the women as much of that of the weak will and decision making abilities of the alcohol inside the men.  The bachelors were so scared of waking up married that they formed a men’s liberation movement.  I shit you not.

The July 8th, 1876 edition of the Pioche Daily Record reports:

“An association is being formed in Pioche amongst the unprotected male sex, the object being to protect themselves from the encroachment of the female sex, which of late have become so dangerous, that the poor male is getting to be the object of pity.

“Many lately have been caught up and married before they hardly knew it.  Females are arriving from all directions by stages, by private conveyances…  In consequence of this frightful state of affairs, that men are getting so timid that they hardly venture in the streets for a short walk for fear that they will be married me before they return.  This association proposes to ameliorate the condition of affairs.”

The Single Men’s Protective Association held its first meeting in a small, smoke-filled room.  The idea was to devise a plan to protect the men from the “tricks” of the women who were apparently thirsting for the hand of these miners.  The new organization elected a president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, and one Joseph R. Hoag as Sargent at Arms.  Hoag’s role was to ensure that no females enter the secret meetings.  The men agreed to $5 dues and a pledge that none of the men present would get married for the rest of 1876.  This was when the doors were broken down and the women of the town trampled Hoag in outrage.  The men scrambled falling over chairs and diving out of glass windows to escape the women.  Again, I shit you not.

The influx of women and the rash of marriages in 1876 did have an upside: the town went almost two months that summer without a murder!

By the late 1870s the gold and silver lodes began to dwindle and the town was nearly empty by 1900.  Pioche had a resurgence during WWII when the need for Zinc and Lead for the war effort took precedent.  Today the old town has many historic buildings restored and is one of the great ghost towns to visit and explore.  The next time you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, NV swing on by Pioche and relive the weirdest, most violent days of the frontier.

 

 

The Rare Gem Series: Black Opal

Imagination time! Put yourself in the stirrups of a Pony Express rider galloping across the Northern Nevada high desert. You stop at a creek in a pristine oasis known as Virgin Valley to give your horse a drink when you glance down to see an iridescent, magical, alien stone that must have come from space laying on the ground.  Curious, and somewhat confused and scared, you pick it up and feel the weight of it in your hands.  The stone is dark and smooth, and as you turn it in your hand it plays with the light.  Fires of bright colors flash and disappear.  Entire rainbows sear their spectrum into your brain.  You lose track of your objective and why you’re here.  This amazing stone has hypnotized you.  You are lost with out it.  Your past no longer exits.  You cannot envision a future without it.  It’s possession is your everything. It is your precious.

This is was how the black opal was discovered.

That’s a lie.  This is the myth created by the Nevada Tourism Board of how the black opal was discovered.  The truth is that the Pony Express followed the routes of the Oregon trail far to the North and the California Trail far to the South.  Also, the Pony Express only lasted 18 months, from April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861.  In reality it was probably some ranch hand, or ranch rider that discovered the first black opal about forty years later in 1900, and his response was probably more along the lines of, “What the fuck is that?”

"What the fuck is that?" image from goldnuggetwebs.com
“What the fuck is that?” image from goldnuggetwebs.com

Lightning Ridge, Australia has a more gruesome beginning.  The town in New South Wales near the border with Queensland got its name in the 1870s when some passersby discovered the bodies of a rancher, his dog, and some 600 sheep all of whose hearts had basically exploded from being struck by lighting.  That’s something to put on the old “move here” brochure to promote your town; except that is also probably a lie, but a badass one at least.

Halfway across the world from Virgin Valley, in 1902, Charles Waterhouse Nettleton, a struggling opal miner from White Cliffs in Eastern New South Wales, migrated North into Queensland in search of his own strike.  He struck out.  Pretty much like he had every other time he tried his hand at prospecting.  Nettleton, defeated but ever the optimist, and since he was a stoic, kept on chuggin’ along.  He decided to walk the 400 miles back to White Cliffs, and on his way back Nettleton stopped off in Lightning Ridge and camped with the Ryan family .  The family showed him some freaky black stones that flashed color.  Nettleton recognized them as opals, but like nothing he had ever seen.

With nothing else to do (or lose) Nettleton gave a shrug and dug a big hole.  He set up camp and sunk his first shaft on October 15th, 1902.  Yeah, Nettle didn’t find shit.  Again.  Not to be deterred, Nettleton moved his camp and sunk a second shaft in 1903 and struck pay dirt.  Tens of pounds of the crazy black stones ranging from a carat to a hundred carats in size came tumbling out of the walls of Nettleton’s mine.  The hill where he made his strike is known as Nettleton Hill today.  Excited from his success Nettleton made his way to Sydney (over 350 miles by foot!) to show the stones to a jewel dealer who was not as impressed with them as Nettleton was, and only offered $1 for the lot.  “Well, fuck that,” said Nettleton, and in November 1903 Nettleton walked back to White Cliffs (remember, this is another 503 miles BY FOOT) where he knew there were people who where knowledgeable and could give a good price for his opals; unlike that dickweed, suit-and-tie pissant in Sydney.  On November 11th, 1903 an opal merchant in town offered him $30 bucks for his lot. “Oh hells yeah!” said Nettleton (or whatever the backwoods, Australian-hick equivalent would be) and sold them right there.  Think about this, Nettleton was a brute; he had dug several giant mine shafts (by hand), walked over 1,800 miles, and for his two years worth pain and struggle was psyched to be given $30 for his life’s work.  Stoics, what would this world be without them?

The connection had been made.  The opal dealer started sending his partners to Lightning Ridge to purchase large quantities of the stones.  The rush was on.  Nettleton was a hero.

A beautiful full-spectrum harlequin black opal from Richard W. Wise at rwwise.com
A beautiful full-spectrum harlequin black opal from Richard W. Wise at rwwise.com

By this time Australia had already become the opal capitol of the world with strikes in White Cliffs, and the boulder opals of Queensland.  It didn’t hurt that Queen Victoria loved the stone, and soon after Nettleton’s first rich strike in Lightning Ridge opals were discovered in Andamooka, and Coober Pedy, Koroit, and Minitabie.  While these stones are beautiful, nothing except the stones from Virgin Valley, NV and Lightning Ridge were truly black bodied.

The first big mines opened in Virgin Valley in 1905.  The first big mines opened in Lightning Ridge in 1905.  The rock that forms the area around Lightning Ridge is sandstone from the early Cretaceous Period that formed a shallow sea.  Not only are there opals there but important fossils dating back some 110 million years… Then again, the opals are fossils themselves.

What’s that?

Oh yes, opals are fossils.  What happened was that there was a volcanic eruption from somewhere nearby that coated the area in silica-rich ash.  If a creature or a plant kicked the bucket while in a puddle of water and got coated with ash, the water and ash worked together to preserve the dead critter/plant.  Over millions of years (likely) the silica combined with the water to replace the cellular structure of the organism with opal.  Opal is just a combination of water and silica creatively known as “hydrated silica”.  SiO2 is quartz, SiO2nH2O is opal.  Volcanoes pump out silica during an explosive eruption, if that silica ash buries something wet there is a good chance opal may form.  The water content of the black opals from Lightning Ridge is about 5% making them not likely to craze or crack when unearthed from drying out.

In Virgin Valley it is a different story.  Around 16 million years ago there was a series of volcanic eruptions of rhyolite that lasted for darn near two million years.  These eruptions spit out all sorts of silica-rich ash and the volcanic rock formed a series of hills that encircled an ancient basin that geologists named Canyon Rhyolite.  These volcanic eruptions are no joke.  Once the mountain goes *boom* a superheated blast of air and ash can travel across the region at hundreds of miles per hour killing everything in its path.  Combine this with a few hundred feet of ash covering the Earth around the volcano, and nothing survives.  Nothing.

Canyon Rhyolite, since it was a basin, held a series of lakes and ponds where critters flourished in a rich forest dense with ginkgo, sequoia, spruce, hemlock, birch, cedar, larch and chestnut.  The region was spared from major volcanic events for about four million years when a jerk of a hotspot decided to flood almost the entire region of what is today the Northwestern United States with flood basalt.  This buried Canyon Rhyolite under a dense, solid layer of lava that solidified above it.  Over the course of the last ten million years hot springs began to bubble up through the Earth yearning to break free.  With the hot trickles of water came bits of that silica-rich ash that permeated the buried remains of the lush forests of the now vanished canyon.  What did we just learn about the combination of silica and water?  You guessed it; opals!

The hot spring squirted through the basalt and started dribbling downhill.  Today that hot spring has carved quite the path and formed what is we know today as Virgin Valley.  Along the Valley’s walls, at about the 5090ft level you will find a layer of moist gray clay.  This marks the floor of the ancient forest.  The clay layer may vary from a few inches to a few feet thick, but here is where you will find your opals.  Petrified wood, opalized tree limbs, even the teeth and skeletons of forest creatures preserved forever as majestic hunks of gemstone.  A pretty noble way to go if you ask me.

When I die, I want someone to lay my carcass down in a bog next to an erupting volcano so that maybe, someday, several million years from now I can be dug up and brutally bandsawed and then ground down and polished into ornamental pieces of jewelry for some rich housewife.  A boy can dream can’t he?

The problem faced with many of these Virgin Valley opals is their extremely high water content of 20%; much higher than that of their Australian counterparts.  This makes many opals gorgeous but notoriously unstable.  When these opals are unearthed the majority are placed into containers of water to keep them from drying out.  When an opal dries out it crazes (forms cracks), will loose it’s dark color, and quite often will explode!  Some apply sealants to the stones to retain their water content, some just roll the dice and dry them out and hope for the best, but most just keep them submerged.  While it would be awesome to have a nice large, dry Virgin Valley opal, putting a $100,000 stone in the sun in hopes of it not exploding or just fading into a $10 rock takes some serious balls.

A Virgin Valley black opal being preserved in water. nevada-outback-gems.com
A Virgin Valley black opal being preserved in water. nevada-outback-gems.com

Throughout Ethiopia new opal fields are being discovered almost every year.  These precious opals may have white or blue bodies, and some even chocolate, but the black bodied opals resembling those of Virgin Valley or Lightning Ridge haven’t materialized in the numbers hoped for, or possibly at all!  That doesn’t mean they haven’t been sold.  A process known as “smoking” is putting lower quality crystal opals into the market and trying to pass them off as the elite black opals.  Essentially, the tricksters are taking normal light bodied stones and “smoking” them until the soot permeates the interior of the stone’s matrix.  To the common eye they look amazing, but in the long run, the stones are more likely to crack, pit and fade than the real deal.  Just don’t pay a bunch of money for a black Ethiopian opal just yet.

Other black opals discoveries have reportedly been make in Indonesia (but some of those stones have been “smoked”); with two recent discoveries in central Wyoming, and along the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River in Washington State!  With the incredible ash fallout that originates from hotspot volcanoes like the Yellowstone Caldera and the Long Valley Complex in California I would surmise that there are thousands of undiscovered sites for precious and black opal from Wyoming through Colorado and Nebraska; and in California, Arizona, and Mexico.  Get hunting!

I know, you just read a ton of words and all you want to know is, “what are they worth?” Fine.  A precious black opal with small blue/green shifts in color covering about 50% of the stone will get you about $200 per carat.  The more of the stone that is iridescent, and the larger the color flashes are, and the more of a red/green shift those stones have the more money they are worth.  A stone that is 90-100% covered in red/green flashes, with a black body, can expect to sell for upwards of $5,000 to $10,000 per carat.  These are among the rarest fine quality stones in the world, so keep your eyes out for fakes!  Fakes may include treated or smoked stones; doublets and triplets (stones that have a thin veneer of actual opal glued to the outside of an otherwise boring stone); as well a created matrix opals (stones that are the shavings and cuttings of larger opals that are then glued together using resin); and synthetic stones that are made of weird space-aged polymers and shit.  Just don’t get screwed.

Some helpful guides from OpalAuctions.com:

Black Opal Grading Chart from opalauctions.com
Black Opal Grading Chart from opalauctions.com
Types of black opal from opalauctions.com
Types of black opal from opalauctions.com
opalauctions.com
opalauctions.com

The Rare Gem Series: Alexandrite

Once upon a time in Russia… Some dudes found a rock and named it after the crown prince since it was his birthday.

The end.

No wait, I mean: The Beginning.

A 1.29ct Russian Alexandrite, Tino Hammid Photography, Inc
A 1.29 carat Russian Alexandrite.

One day in the Summer of 1830 Finnish mineralogist Nils Gustaf Nordenskiöld (1792–1866) was sitting in his office at the Mining Board in Helsingfors when he received a parcel to examine.  Nils was pretty much the most renowned mineralogist of his day so shiny hunks of dirt got sent to him all the time.  No biggie.

Upon opening the contents of the parcel Nils said, “Green, transparent, shiny… Emerald” (or more accurately: “vihreä, tranparant, kiiltävä … smaragdi“), and almost didn’t conduct any further tests; but something just wasn’t sitting right with him.  He began to poke, scratch, smash, and do all the things a good mineralogist does with Earthly byproducts, and he couldn’t get over the fact that the stone was just too hard and not brittle enough to be an emerald.  Weird.

After fussing with it for a while Nils lost the sunlight so he grabbed some dinner and pondered this strange stone while he pushed peas around his plate.  Being a good scientist he abandoned his meal and returned to the lab to inspect the stone under candlelight.  “Mitä vittua?!” Nils half exclaimed/half asked.  The stone, which a few hours earlier had been deep green, was now a rich red!  The next morning the stone was no longer red and had returned to its former deep green!  “Voi Luoja!”

This was no emerald.

The package with the strange stone had come from Count Lev Aleksevich von Perovski (1792-1856) who at the time was trying to climb the social ladder as the royal mineralogist for Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.  Perovski had also identified the stone as an emerald, but the problem was that he kind of sucked at his job, so he sent a specimen to Nils to double check his “work”.

Earlier that Summer Perovski’s team had been poking around in the Izumrudnye Kopi (Emerald mines) in the Ural Mountains (you remember the Urals, that is where Demantoid Garnets were discovered as told via the previous Rare Gem Series post: http://noospheregeologic.com/blog/2012/10/11/the-rare-gem-series-demantoid-garnet/) when they discovered the stones in an alluvial deposit (think gravel river bed) along the Tokovaya River.  By 1831 Perovski had opened his new “emerald” mine and was in full whipping peasants mode to dig faster when Nils sent him a message:

“This ain’t no emerald, genius.  It’s a color-change chrysoberyl and I am calling it  ‘diaphanite‘ which is Greek for ‘something your small brain cannot comprehend’.”

I paraphrase, of course.

Perovski, ever the ladder climber, had other plans in mind.  He wanted to ingratiate himself further with the royal family, Perovski spun a tale that he had discovered it April 17, 1834, the sixteenth birthday of the crown prince and heir to the throne Alexander II, and named it “Alexandrite” in his honor.

Perovski didn’t know how to be a very good scientist, but he knew how to play the game like a champ.  His ploy was well received and he got his ass ingratiated into the royal family like no body’s business; creating the Russian Geographical Society in 1845 and being named the Minister of Internal Affairs, and later the Vice President of the Appanage Department by Tsar Nicholas I (basically, he became the dude in charge of the imperial family’s estates, investments, personal property, and income).  This fancy post also meant that Perovski was in charge of the jeweled trinkets and souvenirs the imperial lapists and jewelers created as rewards for the Tsar’s subjects.

Perovski was a greedy piece of crap.  He used his position of power to threaten, bribe and steal the best stones for the Appanage collection which often found their ways into his own personal collection.  One of Perovski’s underlings, Yakov Kokovin, the director of the Ekaterinburg lapidary, stole an amazing Ural emerald and was caught by Perovski and was braought to trail and later was “compelled” to commit suicide in the dreadful Ekaterinburg Prison.  When Perovski finally kicked the bucket in 1856, the stone, which had now become known as the “Kokovin Emerald”, was found in Perovski’s personal collection. Dick.

Alexandrite quickly became one of the most desirable gem stones in the world. Many sources I have read claim that this is because red and green were the primary colors on the Russian Imperial Flag.  Well, considering that the Imperial Flag was red white and blue, this “fact” is bullshit.  It became popular because it is a rad stone that CHANGES FREAKING COLOR!  Imagine yourself a rich asshole living in Feudal Europe:  you have a fancy house, you have some books, you have a really comfy chair, you have candelabras, you have… well, that is pretty much it.  Some other rich asshole comes along and shows you his new ring that is green during the day and red at night.  “Holy shit!” You’d yell out, “I’ve got to get me one of those, especially since the invention of television won’t happen for another 90 years!”

A beautiful example of a natural Alexandrite in matrix
A beautiful example of a natural Alexandrite in matrix, from Kevin Ward at Exceptional Minerals

By the beginning of the 20th century Russia had pretty much gobbled up all of the Alexandrites in the Urals.  There has been no significant deposits of Alexandrite discovered in Mother Russia since the 1917 revolution.  To this day the best red/green specimens are Russian stones.  They are also the most valuable.

As mentioned above, Alexandrites are a form of chrysoberyl.  While chrysoberyls contain beryllium, they are not related to beryls (emeralds, aquamarine, Bixbite, Morganite, etc…)…  Only sort of-ish, I guess.  Here’s how I would describe the stone as if I were the beaten, over-qualified interpretive guide of the hypothetical “Chrysoberyl Museum” leading a group of tourists in flip flops and aloha shirts:

Leading the tour group into the great hall of the museum: “Chrysoberyls are different from beryls mainly because of their crystal structure.  Beryls are silicates that have big molecules and chrysoberyls only have one beryllium atom so there is less crap glommed onto the beryl atom.  Chrysoberyls only form in pegmatites–“

“But so do Beryls!” Says some interrupting know it all eight year old.

“Shut up, not all of them do!” Says the pissed off tour guide, “Some beryls form in rhyolites. Ha! Now shut your yap and let me do my damned job!”

“What’s a pegmatite?” Asks some oafish dad dragging his bored children along (noses buried in their cell phones).

“Well, that’s a stupid question,” replies the guide (the know it all eight year old nods his head in agreement), “Especially considering that there isn’t a geologist alive that can accurately describe it to you without sounding like a child explaining the story line to “Syriana”.  The facts: a pegmatite is an igneous rock (meaning that it was once molten magma goo that formed far beneath the crust); it created big crystals in its matrix as it cooled; the stuff inside those crystals is similar to that of granite (you know, the kitchen counters in the homes of yuppies); and for geologists it’s like porn, you know it when you see it.  Does that help?”

“No.”

“Whatever.  Moving on.  When this magma comes oozing up deep from the mantle, it can begin to gather up a bunch of ground water as it moves higher through the Earth’s crust.  The magma is too hot to allow the now super-heated water to join into the formation of any crystals inside the magma.  By the time the magma had mostly cooled, the trapped water formed chrysoberyl in the cracks and crevices out of bits of beryllium and aluminum.  Basically, if it wasn’t for the water being present in the magma, the oxide that is chrysoberyl could not find the oxygen needed to form in the first place!  All you need to make Alexandrite from here is some chromium and your set!  Pretty bitchin’, right?  Does that help?”

“No.”

The eight year old nods because he already knew that.

*Sigh* “OK, beryls are a silicates that have the basic chemical composition of Be3Al2(SiO3)6, meaning the crystalline molecule forms an asymmetrical spur on one side of the molecule leading to a hexagonal crystal when the molecules are stacked, like parallelograms.  While chrysoberyls are tinier than beryls and only have one beryllium atom to form around, so their crystal structure is much more symmetrical and forms an orthorhombic arrangements, sort of like cubes with dips in the middle.  Does that help?”

“No.”

Eight year old roles his eyes because everyone should know that by now.

Considering that none of you have learned anything from the prolonged inside joke above, I digress…  To find Chrysoberyls one essentially needs to find pegmatites with beryllium and that also look like they had a lot of water in them when they formed.  To find Alexandrites you find those same pegmatites but also look for evidence of there being chromium too.

The great things about gemstones is that there is always a new discovery to be found somewhere.  Once the Ural source for these groovy stones played out, other deposits began to be discovered.  Also, these pegmatites don’t just form chrysoberyls, they will have also have formed fantastic crystals of quartz, garnets, tourmaline, spinel, and corundum to boot.  So, where there are chrysoberyls there are a shit load of other stuff to make some overlord really rich.

Most significant mineral discoveries come from alluvial deposits along some river or stream.  In early 20th century discoveries of Alexandrite were made in Sri Lanka and India where the stones were nothing more than weathered pebbles found in streams.  The stones are not of the most vivid color; with color changes going from brownish-orange to yellowish-brown.  Other discoveries of Alexandrites have been made in Tanzania, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Brazil with most of the today’s production coming from mines in India and Brazil.

In Brazil, Alexandrites and other forms of chrysoberyls are found in the states of Espento Santos, Bahia, and Minas Gerais.  Minas Gerais means “general mines” and was settled by prospectors looking for gold.  Later, discoveries of diamonds, rhodonite, tourmalines, garnets, and everything else one would expect made it one of the great gem centers of the world.  Miners in Minas Gerais work at the earth in the most primitive fashion imaginable.  Modern mining technology isn’t really needed in an area where one can unearth a million dollar stone while digging a latrine, or putting a fence post in the ground!  Noosphere Geologic has a near flawless 8.53 carat oval cut Brazilian Alexandrite as the flagship stone in our collection.

An 8.53ct oval cut Brazilian Alexandrite that is part of the Noosphere Geologic Collection
An 8.53ct oval cut Brazilian Alexandrite that is part of the Noosphere Geologic Collection

There have been several places in North America where one can find chrysoberyls: Pend Orielle County, Washington (also home to some GIGANTIC green beryls); the Black Hills of South Dakota; the border region of Nevada and Arizona in Northwestern Arizona; in North Central Colorado in the Front Range; and all along the Appalachian Mountains (basically the same age and type of mountains as the Urals) from North Carolina, Virginia, and all throughout New England.  The only place so far, that I know of, where Alexandrites have been found in the United States is at the La Madera Mountain mine in Rio Arriba County, in central New Mexico, which is reported to produce occasional small chrysoberyl crystals with weak color change.  I have yet to see any of these stones first hand, but I plan on getting me some!

Natural Alexandrites are among the most valuable stones in the world. True, clean red/green stones sell for more than $10,000 per carat.  When the stones have more of a brownish or orange tint to the colors they sell for about $2,000 per carat; with raspberry/blue stones (common to the Brazilian variety) selling for about$8,000-$10,000 per carat.  If the stone is Russian then expect to pay $50,000 per carat.  If the stone is Russian, with red/green color change, is over ten carats, and is inclusion-free, just put a million dollar minimum on it from the get-go.

You can find a bunch of beautiful examples of lab-created synthetic Alexandrites out there, as well as imitation stones that are usually lab-created colorchange spinel or colorchange sapphire that are made with vanadium.  Sometimes you can find “crown” or “doublet” Alexandrites that have thin, real sheets of Alexandrite glued to a different stone and sold as the real thing.  If you are going to purchase an Alexandrite, take it to someone who knows what they are doing.  Look for bubbles or curved striations inside of the stone with a microscope; this is a sign that it is lab-created and should only sell for a few dollars per carat.  Also, having a certification from a reputable gemological laboratory is a good idea (like the GIA, EGL, AGL, Swiss Lab, IGTL, etc…), this will give you confidence that what you are purchasing is the real deal.  You don’t want to drop $40,000 on that engagement ring to find out that you just bought a $5 stone that was made at a lab in an office park in Bangkok!

 

 

The Legend of Ingalls’ Gold

In 1859 Captain John Ingalls became seperated from his unit in the Washington Cascades.  Being the genius he obviously was, he decided to climb one of the 8,000ft peaks around him to “see” where he was.  Note to the reader: if you are ever lost, putting in an extra 4,000 vertical feet to get your bearings is a very stupid idea… even in the mid 19th century.  Capt. Ingalls survived the climb and saw a series of three lakes connected by a mountain stream in a hanging valley below him.

Supposedly two of the lakes were dark and circular in shape but the third, the middle lake, was crescent shaped and green in color.  Anyone who has hiked above the treeline and seen alpine lakes know that they generally are not green.  Most green water is the result of algae that is found in warmer water at lower elevations.  Ingalls found this color curious and descended into the valley/canyon for a closer look.  Upon reaching the shore of this crescent lake Ingalls lost his shit.  A giant quartz intrusion entered the lake from the mountain peak above and was loaded with flecks of gold creating an entire beach of gold and quartz rocks.  Ingalls estimated upwards of “10 tonnes” of gold just at the surface!

Returning to his unit became the least important thing in Ingalls life from this point on.  He stayed on the mountain for days and mapped and surveyed the area.  He went deep into the valley below and continued mapping his path.  Now, Ingalls, as we established earlier, was not the sharpest tool in the shed.  The map he made, the only map to his lost gold load, he burried under a boulder at the mouth of either the creek that bears his name, Ingalls Creek, or at the mouth neighboring Peshastin Creek.

Q:  Why would anyone bury an important piece of paper under a boulder that itself can easily be lost forever as one would likely have to make a second map just to find the first one, especially when that same piece of paper could just as easily fit into their pocket for the rest of their life?

A:  Because that person is an idiot.

Captain Ingalls returned to his unit dreaming of his fortune in the hills.  In the early Summer of 1861 the now retired Capt. Ingalls put together a party in his hometown of Portland, OR under the guise of heading North into Canada and the newly discovered gold fields of the Frasier River.  The men included in the group were his son Ben, and his friends John Hansel and Jack Knot.  Reports vary as to whether the men knew the real reason for the trip or not.  Many accounts have Capt. Ingalls holding his secret pretty close to his chest; some say only Hansel knew of their real agenda.

For safety’s sake Ingalls attached his merry band to a much larger group travelling along the Columbia River as a large group would less likely be attacked by the local tribes.  First they traveled East from Portland and then North from what is now the Tri-Cities (The Dry-Shitties, if you will).  Upon reaching the mouth of the Wenatchee River, the city of Wenatchee had not been settled yet, Ingalls told the rest of the prospectors that he and his gang were going to go sight-seeing for a couple of days and to not wait up.  Packing a few days of rations, picks, shovels, gold pans and other gear the men and paddled up river in canoes.  They were delayed when they reached a waterfall and had to hike over it/around it .  The brush was thick and they kept getting smacked in the face by switches thanks to the man in front (Captain Ingalls).

A particular branch got caught on the pick strapped to Ingalls’ back and as he felt the tension build on the limb he yelled, “Look out, Jack!”  Behind him, Jack Knot did not have time to react.  Himself loaded down with gear, and most likely a canoe on his head, Knot got whipped by the branch.  This was bad news for Ingalls, for Knot also carried an older muzzle loader rifle in one of his hands.  The branch hit the hammer on his rifle and a shot fired through Ingalls’ spine and a .50 caliber ball lodged into his belly.  Whoops.

The men fashioned a stretcher and carried his dying body back to the larger group of prospectors camped on the Columbia.  Ingalls lasted another two or three days; on his deathbed he began to divulge his secrets to Hansel, Knot, and his son Ben.  He told them about the landmarks to look for, the boulder under which his map was buried, the placer gold in Peshastin Creek, and the lake of gold on top of the mountain.  Ingalls’ dying wish was for his son to return to Portland and inform his mother of his father’s death.  The party did just that.  They buried his body on the East bank of the Columbia River in what is probably now East Wenatchee.

A few years later Hansel returned to the Cascades and made a homestead at the mouth of Peshastin Creek.  For the rest of his days John Hansel searched for Ingalls’ lost load and the map that lead to it.  He found bupkis.

Blewett Pass, Swauk Creek, Peshastin Creek, and Ingalls Creek have all produced a lot of gold, perhaps as much as 1 million ounces since the 1870s, but the lake of gold has never been found.  Some believe that Ingalls was full of shit, others that the great earthquake of 1872 did a lot of damage on the summits of the mountains and buried/changed the lake of gold, or (as I believe) someone found the gold load, staked a load claim and mined the piss out of the thing until it played out; they just never knew they had found the fabled lost mine.

Someday I am going to scuba dive the Enchantment Lakes with a metal detector and put an end to this speculation once and for all!  Until then, hikers, maybe you’ll be the one to find 10 tonnes of gold, good luck!

Lost mines are nothing new!
Lost mines are nothing new!

Wyoming’s a blur. South Dakota Killed Aren’s Liver.

We left the Colorado Rockies and wormed our way North and East destined for the vacation portion of our trip; into the Black Hills of South Dakota for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally!

After a shower stop and breakfast at the Western Ridge Ranch (home of the family of ladies who like to flip Aren shit because he is a “spaz”–I approve of this place, by the way), we got back onto US287 and drove North to Laramie Wyoming.  Even though breakfast had only been an our earlier we stopped in at one of the haunts from last year, the Altitude Brewery, to see if the worst server any of us have ever experienced was still working there.  If you recall (and by “recall” I mean go back to last year’s posts) we had a pleasant server by the name JT, or “Just Terrible” who was just that:  Terrible.  He meant well, he just sucked.

Instead of JT we got a lovely, competent young woman who got us everything we ordered and nothing we didn’t.  WOW!  Aren thought he saw JT walking around.  I was befuddled; Either management was incompetent or JT really worked through the bugs in his system and made himself worthwhile.  I had to know, so I asked our server, “Does a guy by the name JT still work here?”

“Yup, he’s right over there.  Do you want me to go get him?” She pointed to the gentleman Aren thought was the culprit, who was standing behind the bar yucking it up with some customers.

“Good God no.  He was our server last year, and he was the worst server any of us have ever had…”

“He’s the general manager now.”

I gave her a shocked and pitied look and just put my hand on her shoulder.  She gave all of us a knowing look of yeah, he sucks… hard.

It turns out management was incompetent.  JT, I am sure you are wonderful person, I just don’t think restaurants are your calling.

We left the Altitude Brewery and went further North on SR34 to Wheatland and Interstate 25.  All of Wyoming was in a haze.  It was hot and the air was blue with smoke from distant fires.  There were no green pastures, not like last year, and every lake and pond was dry.  Once off I-25 we went East on US18 caressing the North Platte River along the way (the only river I saw on this entire trip through the Rockies that had a normal flow of water).  US18 transitioned into US85 and there were many miles of brown, dead grass that followed.  Then Dave vanished.

“Where did Dave go?”  He had been a constant presence in my rearview mirror this entire time.

“I saw a puff of smoke.  That might have been him.” Replied Aren.

Uh oh.

I hung a u-ee, and headed back South to look for Dave.  Nothing to fear, Dave putted passed us and gave a “shocka” while two entirely different types of smoke plumed from his tail pipe.  One was white and sweet smelling, the other dark and ominous.  We did another U-turn and pulled along side Dave and asked if everything was all right.  All we got was a shrug and thumbs up.  Good enough for me.  I passed Dave but kept my speed to 55-60mph in case his Jeep felt like exploding at a higher speed.

A long line of converted 5th wheel 1-ton trucks passed opposite our gypsy caravan.  I guessed these were trucks that had just delivered a bunch of Harleys for rich people attending the Rally.  We arrived in Newcastle needing a fresh tank of gas.  I filled our tank at a business who’s only identifier was the word “GAS” in large letters atop a pole seventy feet in the air.  The four of us and Mud suddenly traveled back in time.  The gas pumps were from the sixties and my guess was that none of the pumps had actually filled an entire tank since then either.  I can’t imagine a driver patient enough to wait the four hours it would take to fill an 18 gallon tank.  There was a man with a Winnebago next to us who had been there twenty minutes and managed to only squeeze three gallons into his 100 gallon tank!  I bet that dude had a long night!

North we went, through Four Corners.  *Blink*, gone.  Then into South Dakota.  We turned off US85 onto US14A and down Spearfish Canyon.

The land that is now the Black Hills was at onetime the floor of a vast ocean.  Thousands of feet of sediment and limestone was laid down over millions of years.  A funny thing about the ocean, no one realizes this, but there is one part per billion gold resting suspended in every drop of water.  Much of this microscopic gold finds its way into the muddy depths and rests for a time on the bottom only to be covered even more gunk from above.  That is until there is an orgy of orogeny!

Millions of years ago a great ball of magma rose from the depths yearning to break free of its lithic confines and pushed this once retired seafloor upward.  In the carnage fractures appeared in the now rock-hard, former ocean bottom.  Through these cracks water, super-heated by the molten rock below to hundreds and even thousands of degrees, wiggled its way up to the surface.  Along its path the “one in a billion” gold that was once a negligible blot in the mud started melting and got fed into the highways of hot water.  Soon all these lonely particles of gold found their long lost brethren in the sources of thousands of hot springs.  As the water got closure to the surface, and further from its heat source, it began to cool.  Pressurized water that was once well above the melting points for gold, copper, silver, lead, sulfur, and quartz was now cooling to the freezing temperatures of these minerals (still in the hundreds of degrees).  Inside the fractures of the Earth from hence the hot springs flowed began a great condensation of riches.  Load gold in big quartz stringers!

A few million years of weather later: rocks break down, crumble, roll into stream beds, and worked their way downstream.  Some of the rocks that break down happen to be these frozen quartz intrusions.  Some of these quartz intrusions happen to be full of blobs of gold.  In 1874 miners in the South Black Hills found some of that gold in the rivers.  In November 1875 the real deal was found in Deadwood Gulch in the North Black Hills.  At the top of Deadwood Gulch resides the Homestake Mine; to this date, the single most lucrative gold mine in human history.  More than 50 million reported troy ounces of gold from that one claim were produced over a 125 year span (that is $80 billion in today’s dollars!).

Spearfish Canyon had its own share of prospectors.  The canyon walls show no mineralization save for the odd geode here and there, but high up the steep gulches, hidden by the black pines, white bands of quartz would shed their treasure and the nuggets and flakes of gold would roll down the creek.  About five miles from the mouth of Spearfish Creek a miner’s cabin was built in 1903.  109 years later there are six cabins, a house, and a lodge owned by my friend Jesse’s family.  Our drive down the canyon brought us to our home for the week: Rim Rock Lodge!

We all gave Jesse big hugs.  I said hello to Jesse’s sweet parents, Bruce and Cheri, and made the introductions of my ragtag crew.  A quick unpacking job in the lodge where we were staying and we piled into Jesse’s trusty white grandma car for an evening in Deadwood.

First stop:  Mustang Sally’s for burgers and “chicken balls”.  Spicy little deep fried marbles of cholesterol and chicken that we have come to love.  They drank lots of beer.  With our hunger quenched more libations were required, so on to the Saloon No. 10, the most famous site in all the Dakotas (a place that also happens to be owned by Jesse’s cousins)!  In the beginning days of the gold rush of 1876 there sat a claim along Deadwood Gulch assigned the name of Claim No. 10.  Seeing that beer, liquor, girls, and gambling was much more profitable and not as back-breaking, a saloon was built on the claim and carried the name with it.  Wild Bill Hickock was shot in the back of the head here–and still is to this day… Actually, twice a day to tell the truth.

The fever was on.  The band was playing, some foosball was had, and Jesse’s beautiful cousin Micheala brought the boys theirs rounds.  Micheala is also a local celebrity as she and her cousin Charlie are both looking good straddling motorcycles in this year’s No. 10 rally poster (they signed one for me!).  From The 10 we went to the Deadwood Tobbacco Company for the rocking blues band.  Then last called from there we returned the to The 10.  When I designatedly drove the party back home late that night the damage had been done.  Aren went to bed first.  It turns out Aren has a ten day limit on binge drinking.  His warranty ran out, and his “check liver” light came on.  Aren didn’t get out of bed until 5pm the next day and hasn’t stopping bitching since!

While Aren slept the day away Dave, Erik, Jesse, and myself went to the Spearfish Rec Center (the greatest rec center of all time) for water slides and intermittent sunshine.  Then burritos and back to the lodge where I woke Aren up and gave him a football-sized curried chicken burrito.  He whimpered, ate a few bites and returned to sleep.  This routine went like clockwork for the next few hours until at last the giant arose.  Aren said he wasn’t going to drink that night.  Aren is a liar.

More to come!