Ted, March 1987
I had mentally reviewed my series of caches, and the supplies I had stocked in each, and realized that I needed to have some ammunition for contingencies on my farther routes. Who knows but that I might have to shift hunting territory, especially after those fucking sketches the F.B.I. had come up with after that old bitch had seen me in Salt Lake. I consoled myself with laughing about their ineptness however. I mean really, that sketch looked like they still had D.W. Cooper on the brain!
After seeing the destruction on Baldy, and a particularly disagreeable encounter with that nosy wife of my neighbor (a nice guy, pretty smart, maybe too smart, but not smart enough apparently to notice the missing wiring and assorted necessities I continued to salvage from the scrap heap in his (MY) gulch (HA!), I was peeved and feeling a bit trapped. I enjoyed talking to the guy, he had some great books (now MY books), a lifestyle that I could appreciate, too.
I only wish he hadn't gotten hitched to that nosy biddy, with her goddamn dogs. Oh, don't get me going there. Of course I found various creative ways to solve THAT problem. I wonder if they ever figured out that the one pooch hadn't been mauled by a bear after all (I did study that dead sheep very closely, and copied the effects with my hunting knife to the best of my ability).
I decided to lie low for a while, and maybe explore some of the further reaches, lay in some new caches, inspect the condition of old ones, and generally have a ripping good time as a Harvard man should. Harvard, I thought again, and I could feel my scalp tighten, so I stared away into the darkest thicket I could see.
On one of my forays into town, I had accepted a ride offered by my old buddy, who, as usual, enjoyed listening to himself talk. I listened carefully, separating the wheat from the chaff, and when he mentioned an old mine that he believed had not been worked in over fifty years, I took special note. He called it the Sandrew Mine. Of course I perked up at this (though I tried not to show it), because old mines were veritable candy stores, and if you were lucky there was often salvageable wire, chemicals of every sort and description, blasting caps, crucibles, hand tools, and so many fun and wonderful things to set me daydreaming.
So I decided to take a holiday and go see this mine, which he had described and shown me on a topographic map. It was up on the divide, up from the head of an unnamed branch of Trout Creek. All I had to do was head up past Stemple Pass and head along the divide trail toward Flesher, and I would find it easily enough. The weather was not too bad, just below freezing, and it would be fun, once I got past Stemple.
I packed during the day, taking my .22 and stuffed my pack with some cans of peaches and medicine. I decided to leave that night so I could have the cover of darkness, sure, but also because it looked to be a clear night, and I did enjoy the company of the stars. So I napped during the day and woke up, according to the stars, sometime shortly before midnight.
The moon was just a few days past full, Arcturus shone in the east and Orion, Procyon and Sirius to the southwest, and the stars, the band of the Milky Way and Polaris always fixed to the north gave me confidence and cheer as I walked down the gulch to the road. Between the moon and its reflection off the snow there was plenty of light.
I listened carefully to the night noises and tried to guess what creatures had made them; I knew the sounds well, and I was accustomed to traveling at night. There were lots of deer feeding down along Poorman Creek, and they crashed noisily through the willows, as I located where I had stashed my bicycle two days ago.
I tell you, there are few things so relaxing and yet so invigorating as riding a bicycle along a lonely mountain road, the snow glowing under the moonlight, the stars bright and as sharp as broken crystal in the void above. I felt in place, like the rest of the world didn't matter, as I rode higher and higher, curving along the hard-packed road, with mysterious crashes and the snapping of wood just inside the treeline that stood starkly along the shoulders. I felt the sweat cool my brow, my thighs tense with each downswing of the pedals, my breath billowing and gray in the moonlight. I couldn't help smiling, with the peace, loneliness, and mystery wrapping me in some yet undiscovered meaning.
After I reached the crest of Stemple Pass, I left where the main road turned downward toward the old town of Marysville. I carried my bike into the timberline for a hundred yards or so and hid it in an old slash pile (such waste of perfectly fine wood) and continued hiking the logging spur up along the Divide heading northeast. Finally it petered out, and I kept along the Divide trail, which was drifted under in spots and wind-cleared in others. Of course, shadowy animal forms sometimes crossed my path, and once as I came around a bend in the trail, I was startled at the unmistakable form of a cougar slink through a gap in the trees, and he was also startled, and melted so quickly away I almost did not believe I had seen him at all.
I must have hiked a good five miles along the trail before the trees opened up, and I beheld the perfectly awful sight of the mine, with the natural granite outcrops ripped open, and mine tunnels and pits gouged at odd angles and blacker then the sky between the stars. The usual ramshackle collection of perhaps half a dozen buildings were scattered around the main mill building, with most of the roofs collapsed inwardly, and rusted hulks of old trucks, a bulldozer, and immense scatters of huge metal objects protruding from under the snow, the functions of many still unrecognizable to me. The place had an odd feeling to it, as many such abandoned places do, and I suddenly felt like continuing on my way, that this place should be left to itself, but I am a practical man, and put it out of my mind.
The slopes had only recently begun to revegetate, with spindly lodgepole pine and spruce pioneers. I realized that I was sleepy, and that poking around a mine in the dark was not the wise thing to do, so I picked one of the smallest shacks. The roof was intact, and I cut some limbs and placed them in one corner, and then arranged my blankets and pack into a nice little bed out of the wind. Comfortable, I fell asleep quickly.
I awoke in broad daylight, disoriented, as the nightmares had come again, half-remembered images of shouting and soul-piercing isolation, and of judgment. Then I realized that I heard the rattle of a diesel engine as entered the clearing around the mine, climbing from the gully below. Fuck! I was trapped and dared not move from my hiding place, but I quickly gathered my things and found a crack in the boards where I could watch whoever had come. I berated myself for not being more alert, but I stayed as still as the last jackrabbit I had killed, hoping a bullet wasn't going to find me as well. By the position of the sun I'd say it was almost ten o'clock.
The truck, a huge new white 4x4 pickup, with quad cab and dual tires and with "Chimera Gold Corp." on its side, stopped, its motor idling, and then five people got out. They stomped about in the snow and went to the front of the truck where the oldest man unrolled a set of plans. Three, including the leader, looked to be geologists, the fourth had on a Forest Service uniform, and the fifth really caught my attention, as she was a very attractive woman. She even wore makeup and had her hair done up. I very rarely saw women that looked that good. Of course, I told myself, to quiet my interest, she is probably a grade-A bitch. But it didn't matter, because another part of my mind was already beginning to construct a life together!
"So let me get this straight," she said. This mountain potentially can produce a pickup full of solid gold. The last claim is held by one stubborn old man with the title to this mine. If we can get the old man to sign over the claim, we have the technology to get that gold."
"That's the short and sweet of it," said the old man geologist. "Basically the old hardrock mining techniques don't cut it anymore, and only smalltimers do that anymore. A properly designed mine utilizing the cyanide heap leach process does it a lot more efficiently, faster, and cheaper." He chuckled. "And no hardheaded hardrock miners to deal with either. The reclamation will cost though, quite a bit. We are talking about an entire mountain after all. This will make the Mike Horse mine look like a drill pad!" The others laughed.
The woman thought for a moment, her sweet brows knitted with concern. I loved her already. I let my eyes drink her in, my heart hammering. "And what about the reclamation bond, Bill? Won't reclamation of the site cost more than what the ore will be worth? I mean we are, after all, talking about melting an entire mountain into a heap of slag, and destroying the trout stream. We're going to have every wilderness nut on our backs. We can't afford it."
Bill sighed. "Well, our profit margin will be small, but we can do it as a showcase project, try some new reclamation techniques I saw at a conference in Germany last year. But the truth is, Sheri, we may not recover our costs."
She paused and then a sly smile spread across her face (wow, what teeth!). I grinned in response from my hiding place. She said, "I think I have an idea. We will recommend a reasonable bond, one that our friend Rick here," and Sheri put her hand on the Forest Service guy's arm (I hated his guts), "can support in his report. Then we do our bit, and when we are finished, we will leave them holding the bond, write it off as a loss, and we have our gold. We will have no intention of reclamation. It's just not cost efficient. Sad though." She looked out across the valleys below. "It is pretty. But we have a job to do." I forgave her for that, the bitch.
Rick swallowed. "You know, Sheri, I really can't support that. I'm here to help in the process, but you have to reclaim. You have to intend to reclaim. You send me the paperwork and the figures, and I'll do what I can, but I need to know that you intend to reclaim."
"We'll talk later, Dave," Sheri smiled. "Now let's get back to town. I have some calls to make." They piled back into the idling truck and drove off down the ruts leading through the trees. It took a massive effort of will not to run alongside and pound on the door. I decided then and there I would be back very soon. I started singing that old Frankie Valli song to myself, "Cherie Baby." I felt better than I had in a long time.
So, back to work. I wandered around the site, looking in some of the buildings. There was a surprising amount of old stuff left. Although the buildings were ramshackle I guessed that there must have been some kind of activity there in the 1960s or 1970s, from the more recent stuff around, like some rubber gloves (still in the package!), and the beer cans I found a nice spool of wire that was salvageable, a carbide battery that looked to be in pretty good condition, and two crucibles that were only chipped.
The best stuff was in the assay office, the mill, and the powderhouse.. some fuses and blasting caps, and a crate with two unused sticks of dynamite. I inspected this last carefully to make sure the nitroglycerin had not begun to ooze and crystallize, implying dangerous instability, but they were fine. It wasn't long before I had a regular pile of stuff, and I realized that I would need to make a new cache nearby. There was some good stuff here and it would take some time to thoroughly scavenge this place for all its goodies. I would have to find some ways to delay their operations (maybe even stop them..hmm..yes) until I was finished with it. And it would be nice to hang around and see Sheri again.
With a grumble from my stomach, I realized I was hungry. I pulled my knife and a can of peaches out from my pack. I carefully cut open the can (knives are so much more versatile than can openers!) and began to savor the cold sweetness of the slices. After I was done, I stood up and stretched. I decided to go take a look at the main shaft, marked by a half collapsed headframe and the cribbed logs around it.
I walked over to the dark gaping hole that shot straight down into the earth, and stood well back from the edge, for these things could cave in at any time. I stood there, and I knew that whatever was down there would have to stay down there, as it was too dangerous to check out. I turned away, and then stopped.
It could have been dripping groundwater. Or settling timbers. But I listened again, when I noticed the regular tap-tap-tap coming from deep inside the blackness far below, like a distant hammer on rock.
My buddy in the gulch had told me a lot about the old mining days, the labor strikes, the wars between the Copper Kings, and the rape of Montana, her lands and her workers by the conglomerates back East (and the resulting continuing xenophobia of many native Montanans generations later). He had explained to me a lot about the different machines and methods, which depended on the ores and the financial backing of the operation, and the fact that some operations were nothing more than scams to bilk investors (justifiable revenge many thought). About the old time lamps, drills, the eventual death by the inhalation of rock dust over years by early miners that they called getting dusted up. And the stories those early miners brought with them, the finest of the deep miners having learned their trade in the tin mines of Cornwall, where the fearsome mysteries of the darkness were expressed and controlled through folk belief in spirits of the mines they called Tommyknockers, which could either help a mine find ore, or warn him (if the man treated the spirits well) of impending danger like bad air or cave-ins.
Of course that was all bullshit, though perhaps charming bullshit, and I am a practical man, finding reason and structure far more helpful in the life I have chosen to lead. However there it was, and it sure as shit sounded like a hammer. Well, I listened again, quiet and careful, by the edge, and as my mind reformed the stimulus to fit reality (we are talking about reality, for I can hardly subscribe to flights of fancy when the only person I can depend on to see myself through each day in the wilderness IS myself), I realized that it was nothing but the pressures of rock succumbing to the insistence of subterranean water, and the more I listened, the more I was sure of it.
Satisfied I turned away, and just as I did so, I was knocked flat on my face by the sudden rush of wind out of the shaft accompanied by a boom under my feet, as from an explosion. I had to stop myself from laughing, for this only confirmed what I had thought. My buddy had told me about the forces of the surrounding rock, settling as if a great house, shifting strata, either slowly over eons, or quickly, in an explosive and deadly event the miners personify as Mr. Air Blast. I chuckled, and berated myself for earlier succumbing to my fancies. Certainly it was a grim site, but it would hardly do to make up spooky stories to explain natural events. I would have to write about this in my notebook.
I gathered many of the things I had and decided to make a new cache in the next drainage, and hopefully to kill some game on my way. I strode down the same ruts the truck had left earlier (Sheri, I smiled) and took a deep breath of the fir-scented air. As I left the mine's clearing I felt suddenly as if there was someone standing there, by the shaft, with a strange feeling between my shoulders, and I couldn't help but turn and look, but of course there was nothing there, but the half-collapsed headframe.