Our episode has begun two miles east of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, in the foothills of the desert range. It was hotter than hades and I was mentally unprepared for the heat. I learned today that I must pace myself and that I must erect the shade tarp. Feelings of regret washed through me as a delirious sensation constricted my good spirits. 'This is not the desert of Colorado', I thought as I sat in the mottled shade of a spindly thorn bush. I slept fitfully, despite a cool breeze from somewhere.
Bill Beam of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and Mike "Grivy" Gryvnak of Parker, Arizona, introduced the Colorado boys to drywashing. The GoldKing really shook out the heavies. We worked below camp in a wash about as wide as a semi-trailer. Our efforts were concentrated along the sloping banks of an invisible water flow. We did not find much of anything, but did master the basics. Pick, shovel, shovel, pick, shovel, shovel, and repeat. At 1100 hours, I knew from yesterday's head rush that it was time to sit under my pitifully erected shade tarp. Good enough--for now.
So went the next few days. Getting after it from 0700 to 1100, grab a chaise, a gallon of ice water, and my smokes, and rest/sleep in the shade until roughly 1600. That is when the unrelenting sun would drop behind the western boundary of camp. A hill to which I referred to (aside) as The Savior.
Evenings were spent talking and joking around Leonard's culinary delights.
I was no longer counting the days at this point. I awoke this morning to a magnificently cool breeze. The breeze stayed around all day and transformed Hell's Kitchen into a heavenly playground. Leonard Leeper (of Larimer County, Colorado) and I walked down the wash about eighty yards to a spot where a rift of bedrock cut down through the riverbed. We shoveled the loose gravel from the lee side into my Keene Mini-drywasher and then broke up and VacPac-ed the bedrock.
Our methods were founded in dredging doctrine, bedrock being the goal. This was such promising ground had we been standing in Northern California. Our cleanup revealed so little gold as to brand all efforts for naught.
We enjoyed the cool morning, however, and were visited by our soon-to-be-recurring guests--the Desert Dogs. They were a couple of young Rhodesian Ridgebacks that belonged (we assumed) to the owner of a nearby gravel mine.
They roamed the desert all day, stopping in to see us and happily chasing the vehicles of anyone else who happened along (one guy all week). They brought great comic relief to the monotonous combination of dragon's-breath heat and mining routine into which we had settled.
We came to find their names to be Fred and Barney. By Arizona law, we had to offer these strangers a throatful of water, so Fred and Barney had their own bowl under my truck. So friendly and charming, gentle and affectionate. One preferred hotdogs, the other cheese. They were a welcome comfort of home.
Days 3 and 4
I was out of the tent at 0630 watching Leonard eat God-knows-what from his cook pot. Water for me. Starting out the day with a quart of ice water became my routine. The first day had become only a twisted memory and a hard lesson learned. The cool breezes had left for Colorado, leaving a wake of funneled wind gusts and radiating waves of heat off of the desert floor. The tarp was staked and re-staked as needed with scrap lumber added for support. As ugly as it was, the tarp, in my mind, saved the trip.
In the sun, a blistering 116 degrees; under the tarp, a bearable 96. Pouring ice water over my head provided welcome relief, but the wind would completely dry my hair in under three minutes--I timed it.
Another prospector happened along today. If fate is a reality, then this guy completed ours. We watched as he drove up the road past our camp. Up, up, and away from the wash that we had worked so feverishly and unsuccessfully. He parked about two hundred feet above camp on the side of a feeder wash. Leonard being much more gregarious than I with strangers, walked up the road to talk with him. Our nearly empty gold poke fueled his ascent.
After a half-hour of man talk, Leonard returned with uplifting news. This guy was finding good gold. He generously offered to us a spot above him, respecting a healthy boundary. That was just the break that we needed.
Mike joined us later that morning and we hauled everything up the slope in his pickup. This was to be the beginning of a very memorable dig.
With the GoldKing humming along and a new enthusiasm fueling our labors, we proceeded to "take down the hill." A false bedrock layer of caliche (a crust of calcium carbonate that forms on the stony soil in arid regions) proved to be the table upon which our feast was served. Every cleanup of the machine yielded coarse, chunky gold. Even the soft topsoil was laced with pieces of brassy brilliance. It seemed too good to be true, but in this little patch of BLM scrub, not two miles from town, we were the first shovelers to take heft of this material.
Every cleanup pan revealed more gold than black sand. It was a good lesson. Sometimes you need to throw out logic and knowledge and just revel in the moment. The gold should not have been there, perched on the side of a hill. In defiance of gravity, erosion, and common sense it stood fast. We broke through a weathered layer of caliche to discover beet-red pockets of crumbled bedrock intermingled with jet-black patches. These pockets gave up some nice nuggets. We were all laughing at our luck. At one point, Mike could see the nuggets and coarse gold on the screen as he brushed out the box. Somehow, the heat and discomfort had melted away.
The daily routine became heart-pounding mornings of toil, afternoons of shade, and evenings of merriment. As an added bonus, each weekday around 1800, we watched overhead as a USAF 757 refueled a cargo plane in mid-air. I learned later that these folks were INS agents on round-the-clock routine air patrol. Border hoppers beware. Those planes are equipped with infrared cameras. They see all.
Various members of Bill's and Mike's families joined our ranks on cloudless days and cool evenings. Kim Gryvnak and young Mickey Gryvnak on Mike's side, Jackie Beam and little Kelsey Beam on Bill's side. On some moonlit nights, we would head to our spot for a mostly entertaining bout of midnight drywashing. The desert really lights up under the full moon. We discovered that the red layer beneath the caliche did not produce. The red and black pockets, about the size of a softball, were the source of our hard-earned goodies.
One night, when all non-mining family members were asleep under the moon in the pickup bed, I put the F5 on a tripod and walked to the top of a knoll. Leonard, Mike, and Bill were drywashing by lantern light and I had a perfectly framed image in my mind. The desert hills bend and twist like a snake (thankfully the only snake seen) and the crew was working within its coils.
My meter read 30 seconds at f/ 2.8 off of the desert floor. The result was an interesting view.
The hottest day of the week and we were out of ice. Leonard's trusty thermometer measured eighty-nine degrees at 0630. That got me out of the tent. By 1000, ninety-five sizzling units. Leonard took a reading under the tarp at 1300--a balmy 102 in the shade. I was in survival mode, no unnecessary movement. I knew the day was a wash, so I just stayed still, drank water, and stripped down to just my shorts. One of my three gallons of life-liquid went over my head, the others down my throat.
Leonard, on the other hand, perhaps suffering from brain-fry, decided to put on his high-top, black boots and dark jeans and walk on up to the diggings. He worked the Keene 140 and VacPac for about an hour. After finding his way back to camp, I received the status report--one gold speck. His 102 degree Gatorade had apparently satisfied his thirst and his mid-day, mind-melting excursion had apparently satisfied his wish for braggin' rights. Some prefer to swim the rapids instead of walking the bridge.
Mike and Bill showed up at about 1930 with ice and good spirits. The moon had slowed its ascent, so we enjoyed an astronomical festival including satellite tracking and shooting stars. I had successfully filled the heads of my new friends with Meteorite Madness. Gold is great, but at $500.00 to $10,000.00 per ounce, a baseball-sized meteorite will paint an ear-to-ear on a nugget-free day. Find a lunar rock and forget about Passing Go, just skip to collecting your $1,000.00 per gram. Now that's a picker!
Up early with the pink of dawn. Very excited about leaving our desert camp. Our six days out here were certainly memorable. Extreme heat generously sprinkled with exciting cleanups, the rhythmic, distant humming of water-bearing Jeeps, and many laughs and smiles courtesy of our hosting Arizona desert rats, Mike and Bill.
Alas, no tears were shed as I feverishly ripped down the tent and threw it in a box, guy lines and stakes still attached. As Leonard and Bill calmly drank their morning java, amused by my pace, I grabbed and packed into the cavernous F250 anything that was not being used. I was a man with a mission. As I hopped up on the tailgate for a moment of shade, I glanced back at the barren depression left by the geodesic tent.
And what to my wandering eyes did appear,
But a tan, little scorpion, five eyes all a'fear.
I had taken his shade, his relief from the sun,
So he was moving full steam, eight legs on the run.
(Nice poem, eh?)
He was making a beeline for the cool shadow of the truck. I hurried over, doing my best 32-year-old Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn thing. Scooped aboard a rusty, trusty No. 2, he came over to meet the gang. Bill asked of me his name. The first word out of my mouth was "Pete." I have no idea why; perhaps it was the dry absurdity of naming a poisonous creature at all. It also took some of the "sting" (ahem . . .) out of this killer's fearsomeness.
Pete is a specimen of the most deadly variety, I found out later--an inch and a half of pure attitude. But what the hell, if he escapes, I can always move into a new house.
Pete is my everyday reminder of not only a week in Sand City, but that Leonard and I escaped the silent, sometimes deadly desert without a scratch. (Footnote: Pete is presently living a life of luxury. He sleeps all day and eats a cricket every night. No enemies, no worries.)
Mike showed up with his truck and, with the last of Leonard's elaborate kitchen packed away, we all proceeded to load Grivy's rig with the remaining gear borrowed from The Boys. The last ten minutes were spent gathering trash and wind-blown debris from our piece of the desert. The trash we hauled out and the bag of sludge (remnants of homebrew and hotdogs) we buried. Grivy suggested dropping a couple of quarters into the bag prior to burial. We all laughed at the thought of a snowbird with his shiny new SD2200D, anxiously digging this strong signal and subsequently rupturing a bloated gift from the netherworld. (FOR SALE: Minelab. Barely used. Coil covered with horrific Brown fungus. Cannot remove. Cannot stop shaking. Must sell to pay for psychotherapy.)
However, not even Pete and his brothers could have forced me to open that sun-ripened bag of colonic treasure, so the "gag" would have to wait until next year.
As Bill wandered off with his Goldmaster, Grivy led us out of the desert. It was a first; a Chevy out in front of a Ford. Next stop, the Parker Strip.
The Strip promised at least a couple of days of R&R. Or, more appropriately, S&W--Shade and Water. No sooner had we reached our new home at Casino Beach than Grivy provided me with my first amused grin of the day. His question: "Would we like to pitch the tent in his gravel driveway or rent a trailer?" An A/C-blasting, flush toilet-soft sofa-cold fridge-real beds-having trailer. Stifling a belly laugh, I expressed my desire for the latter. An hour or so and a hundred and fifty bucks (15 bucks per person per day) later, Leonard and I were unpacking our duffel bags with candy-store smiles. I just glared into the dark recesses of the truck bed, mocking the tent box and the cooler full of leftover weenies. Ha! I shut the tailgate defiantly and strode into the sixty-five degree, geriatric home-on-wheels.
With my brain returning to operating temperature, I made plans to visit that desert pipe dream known as a supermarket. Leonard and I stocked up like spring bears. With real food in the fridge and an icy pillow of air all around us, we could begin to relax completely.
Days 7 and 8
To sum up the next two days, our mornings and afternoons were spent lounging in the shade by the Colorado River, occasionally going in for a dip, marveling at the thunderous watercraft cutting ribbons into the river. We were accompanied by Grivy's gregarious Steady-Betty, Kim. A Southern charmer with a hearty laugh, Kim was quick with a blue joke and generous with her time and her "hard" lemonade. We spent our time laughing and chasing the shade, a wonderfully gray place once taken for granted in our forested Rocky Mountain homeland. Late afternoons were spent reading in the cool trailer, evenings spent eating out at Stokes or the Roadrunner. This felt like paradise.
Days 9 through 11
These days were more of the same, except in the late afternoons, Grivy would drop by our swinging bachelor pad to whisk us off for some prospecting. We headed into the hills just East of Highway 95. We spent one evening drywashing in a narrow canyon strewn with enormous blocks of basalt (a dark gray to black igneous rock). What a tremendous, boiling river must have existed through the eons to round off these once-jagged, volcanic remnants. Leonard pined aloud for his dredge and even one measly pool of water. We worked behind a gigantic boulder that appeared to be soldered to the bedrock by nature herself. The Keene 140 hummed along into dusk, but our cleanup was disappointing--to Grivy, that is. Leonard and I were just happy to have seen this spectacular dry riverbed and to have toiled in the glorious shade.
On another evening, we visited an abandoned mine, obvious in its surroundings but hidden from the main road. We tackled the floor of the mine with a shopvac. While Grivy vacuumed, I held the light and struggled to see through the brown veil of dust engulfing the tunnel. Grivy and I shared frustrated laughter every time the vacuum hose clogged. About every five seconds. Leonard took his usual route--straight back and as far as he could go into the heart of the mine. He brought out samples of bright blue and green-encrusted ore. Interesting. As dusk fell, we returned to Grivy's place and ran the buckets of gravel through his homemade sluice. How these desert boys dream of cool, green streams. Grivy's sluice is remarkably well designed. Let a guy loose with carpet scraps, a nail gun, and a dream . . ..
Changed into our Sunday best for a trip to the Lake Havasu Wal-Mart. Oh, the things we saw! The times we had! Seriously, we were after a black light for our planned night of scorpion hunting. I had suggested that we try to find another one, just for kicks. This obviously appealed to Grivy's "anything for a thrill" credo, and Leonard thought that it would make a good story. So, Indiana Jones, Ernest Hemingway, and the Instigator trudged off into the darkness.
Holy futility, Batman! We parked on the east side of Highway 95, just north of the Roadrunner. Grivy sparked up the generator, connected about two hundred feet of extension cord, and switched on the black light. As I stumbled through the darkness with the eerie, dim light, Grivy divvied out the cord like an ESPN lackey on the sidelines of a football game. Under logs, around debris, into the woodpile we stumbled. We hit all the hotspots. Nothing. We were outwitted by the speck-brained spiders. Coiled cords aboard, we headed over to the State Park. Nothing. Grivy suggested that we roam the neighborhoods, which was most likely an excellent idea.
However, I couldn't stomach the thought of explaining our midnight hunt to an arriving sheriff's deputy called to check out three guys with a generator, flashlights, and a couple of shovels. Especially not in a "right to carry" state. So, we resigned to relaxing riverside. Looking at the stars, wondering aloud about meteorites, and tipping back a few cold ones.
This was our last day in the company of friends. Grivy told Leonard and me that he wanted to show us a place that the Indians called Erontapu Conshaki, which means "Canyon of Gold." Actually, I made that up. Sounded good though, didn't it? In reality, we were on the trail of an abandoned mining town just across the river into California.
We crossed the Parker Dam in my truck and made our way through the arid foothills. We stopped for a while just off of the road at the head of a small, but steep canyon. We hiked up what appeared to be a jet-black waterfall (without the water). The way that the sporadic rains had carved out a serpentine path through the rock was just beautiful. How many millennia had passed since this volcanic upheaval had first been scrubbed and scratched by violent floods? Every pocket was brimming with black sand and so many crevices ran perpendicular to the water flow. Cha-ching! We were unprepared for crevicing, but a note was scribbled on to the mental message pad.
Up the road again. The pavement abruptly dissolved into a bedrock surface. As the truck twisted and turned along the narrow service road, we decided to stop at a rare widening of the trail. We wished to look out over the monotonous surroundings in hopes of spotting our elusive destination. In all we surveyed, only an abandoned school bus appeared on the horizon. To this day, I am convinced that it was the Muppet Mobile, put to rest after they took Manhattan.
Mike suggested that we press on, as is his nature. I suggested, after viewing the road ahead disappearing into oblivion, that we take advantage of our wide turnout, as is my nature. I knew that we had to be in Havasu City in a few hours to meet Bill. Leonard, of course, was neutral on the subject. Ultimately, the guy who owns the ride gets veto power. After a graceful 18-point turn, three tons and twenty-two feet of truck began the long lurch down the ridge.
Mike, however, had one more trick up his sleeve. We pulled off of the pavement into an open area that tapered to a six-foot wide crack in the bone-dry hills. Hidden from view was an honest-to-goodness babbling brook.
I thought it a cruel mirage. Mike led us upstream to an area that I could only compare to a tropical rainforest. Huge palm trees towered above us and lush patches of blue-green reed grass choked the head of the creek. The palms were growing right out of the brick-red bedrock. I kept expecting to see Mr. Roark and Tattoo magically appear. It was a real, live oasis.
Havasu awaited and we needed to press on homeward. After a short hop back to the trailer, we, accompanied by Kim, were off to see the wizard (Bill), the wonderful wizard of Barley Brothers Brewhouse. Bill is the assistant brewmaster at a place perched on the west end of the London Bridge. Everyone had a beer and yakked for a while.
Our evening plans included an excursion to the Pittsburgh mine. The area has a rich history and Bill had filled my head with tales of .50 caliber Air Force strafings, miners' dumps, and stone cairns marking forgotten belongings. As Bill, Mike, and Leonard took off on foot for places unknown, I swung the Goldbug in search of mementos of yore. The BLM bureaucrats frown on this, but picking up trash in the desert is very low on my list of sins. My take? An old tobacco tin and a .50 caliber bullet. And the world went on a spinnin'.
Later that night, Leonard and I said our goodbyes to Bill and headed south with Mike and Kim. Our trip had come to a close.
During the fifteen-hour drive home, I had time to reflect on my desert adventure. Although I had started out as merely a tag-along, I wound up with three great new friends and another chapter of memories.
Still frames filled my mind. Finding a lump of pickers in every cleanup pan. Sharing true lies and obscene noises with my buddies, and smiling all the way. My eyes laughed, in spite of myself, thinking about that first day, feeling hopeless in the heat. All the memories just fell into line after that. I had camped in the desert. In late May. Even eighteen Wisconsin summers paled by comparison.
Something Grivy had said stuck in my mind: "Not once did you get into your truck and turn on the A/C." I felt like a Boy Scout with a chest full of badges. The Inferno Badge. The Scorpion Badge. The No Showers for a Week Badge. The Desert Gold Badge. I had earned them all.