Guest post by Willis Eschenbach
I first met my friend Mel in the Army nuthouse. I wrote about him before, and the nuthouse, in a piece called “It’s Not About Me“. I hadn’t seen him for a couple months. One day he blew into Santa Cruz. He said he’d met an old man up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Mel got along with old men, especially the kind of reclusive crazy old geezers that lived somewhere far off up in the mountains. And there was a reason for that.
Washing a pan of gravel and sand to separate the gold. SOURCE
When Mel was a kid, he was a hunter. He hunted anything that moved. He hunted with guns. He hunted with traps and snares. He hunted with bow and arrow. He did it properly, with all the licenses and permits required. In the summers he would go up into the Sierra Nevada mountains for a week at a time, carrying in his food, bow hunting and travelling. I hunted with him myself many times. He had thick glasses. I wore none and was unjustifiably proud of my eyesight. We’d be out hunting, walking slowly through the countryside scouting for game. He’d drawl “You saw that rabbit in the bushes, right?” I’d allow as how I might have missed it in all the excitement. “In that second bush, over there.” He’d point at a row of bushes fifty yards (metres) away. “Second bush?” I’d question, squinting. “I don’t see it.”
“Well, you can’t see the whole rabbit. But you see the ear kind of above that first branch, and part of the body?” “Oh, yeah, I see it now”, I’d say … and by then, I did see it. Most of the time, at least. He was that kind of hunter.
A few years later, when Mel and I were living in the high mesa country in New Mexico, I made a blowgun like we made when I was a kid. They were powerful. To make the dart, take a 12″ (300mm) piece of straight coat hanger wire. Tape a paper cone around it near one end. Sharpen the other end to a point. Take a piece of three-quarter inch (19 mm) copper pipe. Trim the cone on the dart to the diameter of the pipe. Insert dart A into pipe B. Blow. If you want real power put a snorkel mouthpiece on the pipe.
Mel saw the blowgun. He said “Let me try.” He blew a couple practice shots. He went out into the surrounding chaparral bush. He came back in an hour with a dead rabbit. It was delicious. He was that kind of hunter.
He’d told me how he had gotten so good at hunting. One year in the Sierras, he had just slipped the leash. Went off the reservation entirely. He had told me the story when we were in the nuthouse, not much to do there but swap stories.
He’d said he’d been bowhunting up in the Sierras for a week. The food he’d brought in was about gone. Some arrows were lost, some splintered. He only had a half-dozen or so left. He told me he’d said to himself “Screw it. I’m not going home. I’ve got my bow. I’ve got my knife. I’ve got flint and steel. I’ve got my bedroll. What else do I need? I’m going on.” And instead of turning his face back to the valley below, he turned and headed for the mountains above. He was seventeen.
At first it wasn’t too tough, he still had modern arrows with proper fletching and metal arrowheads. Before long, though, they were gone, lost, broken. He had to make his own arrows. He knew what he was doing, though, he used what we used as kids, deer sinew. The long sinews that lie along the deer backbone can be split to about the size and nearly the strength of dental floss. The Early Asian Immigrants to the US used deer sinew to lash the feathers and the arrowhead to the arrow shaft. Making arrowheads proved way too slow for Mel, though, so he took to simply fire-hardening his arrows. They lacked killing power for large game but would kill a squirrel or a bird.
Quiver and finished and unfinished arrows belonging to Otzi the Iceman SOURCE
He said he lost weight steadily at first. After a while he was nothing but bone and muscle. After that, he said he stopped losing weight, and he also stopped thinking, and he started moving. He said he became just another carnivore in the forest. As his thinking subsided, his senses came to the fore. He said he could smell deer, and his head would snap around without volition when the odor hit his nostrils. He began to think like a deer.
His arrows were so primitive, though, that it would take him all day to kill a deer. He would shoot it and then follow it, shooting it again and again until he could finish it off with his knife. He could follow a deer using the slightest signs. A place where a hoof had scraped some pebbles, and he would note the undersides of the overturned pebbles were damp, and just how damp they were, to read the age of the track. A trail only visible from the corner of your eye, that vanishes when looked at directly, he’d follow it out of the corner of his eye for half a day. After shooting a deer he would trail it relentlessly and tirelessly, by signs, by feel, by smell, by intuition. He followed one deer for four days, sleeping around where he figured it might show up, until he finally found it again and killed it.
He got to where he simply knew where the deer were. He said he’d come over a ridge and see a valley below. He immediately knew that there were deer there, and that they were in a particular small copse of trees across the way. He came to trust his innate knowledge implicitly, stalking the trees blindly, carefully, without a sight of the imagined deer, hiding although he saw nothing to hide from, finally gaining a vantage point to find that yes, indeed, there were two deer in the copse of trees.
At some point he broke his bowstring, and had nothing to replace it. Deer sinew would do quite well, but carelessly, he hadn’t saved any long pieces, just short scraps for tying arrows. He considered going back down to the valley, back to the modern world. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it, it would be an admission of defeat.
So he turned away from the valley again, and looked back to the mountains. He went on, but without his bow he was quickly starving and losing strength. He knew had to kill a deer to string his bow.
So Mel sharpened his hunting knife on a stone. He scouted around, looking and discarding one location after another, until he found just the place he wanted—where a deer trail ran next to an area of jumbled small boulders, and where the wind was right. He hid close to the trail, at a time of day when the wind wouldn’t betray him. And he waited.
By that time he could wait without effort.
He waited, immobile, silent, deadly.
He did not think, he did not fidget, he did not worry.
He waited without motion or emotion.
The flies landed on him, and walked around. He waited.
A squirrel walked right past, and stopped and looked at him strangely, almost sure he was something to fear, but not quite able to put the whole picture together.
And when, after an eternity of waiting, a deer finally came by, he bounded out of hiding, and lunged towards the deer. Startled, it turned and ran straight away from him, into the boulders. There, its long thin legs went between the rocks, and it had to pick its way along carefully to avoid the pits and holes, and he was racing to tackle it as soon as he stood up. He ran it down and jumped on it and cut its throat, a moment’s work for a man with his skill … and his hunger. He cleaned it and skinned it and ate part of the liver raw. He made camp and cooked some meat, and dried some meat, and rested up, and made a new bowstring from the backbone sinew. He had food. He had his knife. He had his bow again. Life was good.
He stayed on and on, the weeks turning to months. In the end the snows drove him out of the high country and back to civilization. He said he had trouble talking to people for a while. Not because he hadn’t been talking for so long, his voice was still working fine. But because so much of what they talked about, or bitched about, or praised to the skies seemed so trivial to him, so meaningless. He couldn’t think up a reply to such colossal inanities, he didn’t have any opinion at all on the Monkees or the White Sox. For a while after coming down from the mountains he was a man out of time, a nomadic subsistence hunter thrown back into a world of Hula Hoops and game shows. He never entirely lost that quality, Mel was always a little bit out of sync with the modern world.
Anyhow, that’s why Mel got along with old codgers in the mountains—he was one himself. And when he came by Santa Cruz that time, he told me he’d met an old man named Andy up in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Andy was a retired welder and all-round mechanic. He’d welded up a suction dredge and a gold separating machine of his own design. Andy needed a couple of young guys to run the gold dredge. Was I interested?
Now, I had a really great gig going right then in Santa Cruz. I was making and selling leather sandals for good money, plus making a bit of extra coin playing guitar and singing in the local clubs, and in between, chatting up the college babes from UCSC … but I didn’t hesitate. I’m a man that lives a lot by “rules of thumb” to guide my actions. This situation fit two of my rules:
1. Given a choice between security and adventure, always go for the adventure, duh.
2. Given a choice between something I’ve done and something I haven’t done, always pick the unknown, duh.
So on the very next day after Mel arrived, a bright day in early summer, I jumped into Mel’s truck with my bedroll and went gold mining in the Sierra Nevada mountains, home of California’s fabled Gold Rush, and the repository of untold amounts of gold to this very day.
Gold dredging rig. Not our rig, but it looked a lot like that, with drum floats. SOURCE
Andy had no teeth, but he’d put his false choppers in when there was company. Me and Mel weren’t company. We were apprentices, learning both the welding and engineering skills and the gold mining trade. We camped out at his place, slept outdoors, ate beans. He was a great teacher, profane, could build or repair anything, funny, full of stories. For a month or so we helped him finish up the dredge. We tested the dredge pump and mounted it on a steel pontoon raft, along with his whiz-bang gold separator. It was a strange vessel and cargo, all angles and corners. He taught Mel and me to arc weld, I already knew how to run a cutting torch. We got to weld a good chunk of the easier stuff, Andy did the overhead welds and the pipes and the hard stuff. We mounted up the hookah compressor, and welded up a mount for the engine that drove it. Finally, after it was all built, we took the crazy-looking rig out to the river and tested it in various locations. Mel and I took off our apprentice welder masks, and put on our wetsuits and became underwater dredge operators. I was twenty-one. I was an idiot.
A suction dredge is like an underwater vacuum cleaner. It sucks up the water (and anything else) to the surface through a long hose. Sand, gravel, and (hopefully) gold are brought up with the water, and the gold is separated up where it comes out at the float. Most people those days used a three or four-inch dredge (75 – 100 mm) for gold mining in the river. It’s convenient, you can move it around easily, it’s small enough to get into cracks and between boulders, it’s selective. Maybe a six-inch dredge if you were really serious.
But none of that girly stuff for Andy, no way. He had built a 12″ dredge driven by a huge pump. A 12″ dredge hose is big, really big. And when the suction end is on the bottom of the river and it’s turned on, you don’t want to get too near it. It’s scary as hell. You get your hand in the wrong place, and it goes in and your forearm follows, and you are in a world of hurt … and of course we didn’t have any communications gear like people use now, just a rope to tug on with signals for what the diver or the tender wanted to communicate. By common agreement, if the guy below was jerking on the rope for all he was worth, that meant shut the suction off …
Dredging for gold, looks like a four or five inch dredge SOURCE
We used a “hookah” rig to provide us with air underwater. A hookah is an air compressor that just pushes surface air through a hose down to someone underwater. No tanks to fill, no tanks to have run out of air, a constant supply … as long as the small gasoline engine running the compressor worked. Of course in the shallow water when the engine quit, we’d just drop the hose and come up to the surface. First couple of times the air cut off it was scary, but when I saw I just had to make it to the surface not far above, just drop everything and book it for home, it was no problem if you didn’t panic and make it a problem. In shallow water you can stay under for hours. We wore wetsuits, of course, the rivers are snow-fed.
Occasionally, particularly when I was really tired at the end of working for a long stint underwater, the ludicrous nature of my undertaking would hit me. I’d look around at the view. I was standing with homemade weighted boots on the bottom of a crystal-clear river, leaning into the current. Looking in front of me, I saw the endless water coming my way, with small organic material, grass and such, floating towards me in midwater. Looking up and behind me. I could see the dredge raft above, floating on the surface. Looking around me I could see trout hanging in mid-water, wondering just what the heck I thought I was doing. Looking down, I could see what I was doing, vacuuming the river bottom like some demented housewife who had decided that not only would her river water be sparkling clean, but that all the dirty old sand and gravel messing up the place should be vacuumed up off her river bottom as well. I felt like I’d fallen into some mad wonderland of Alice’s:
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand:
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
They said, “it would be grand!”
“If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
“That they could get it clear?”
“I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.
I felt like one of the seven maids, fully engaged in the impossible task of sweeping the river bottom clear of sand, only this being modern times I was using a vacuum cleaner instead of a mop …
We hunted for gold for a bit more than a month down there in the icy river bottom. Even with a wetsuit you get chilled, but the sun warmed us quickly once we came up. Weekends we had off. I liked to go exploring the river and the streams. I’d take my wetsuit, my mask, and my snorkel. I’d get in the stream and work my way up-current. All the streams there have fish in them, mostly some flavor of the salmon family – rainbow trout, steelhead, Dolly Varden, golden trout. Working in the river I’d noticed that the trout rarely look downstream. So when I went fish-watching I’d swim up through some running section to the bottom end of a pool. I’d arrive at the pool totally unnoticed by the up-stream-facing trout, with a window onto a world of wonder.
First off, the shift and ripple of the light was entrancing. I was always taken by the interplay of the subtle pastel colors. And all the life in and around the river, fish and crayfish and birds and insects of all types, and grasses and moss, life on all sides, life everlasting. Some of those streams were so clear that the trout appeared to be floating. I’d watch them silently, sometimes for hours, as they went about their piscine business. It was a magical window into another ecosystem. I saw how the young trout acted, and how the adult trout moved as the day changed. I saw the places where the big old lunkers liked to hide out. I saw how they fed, and what they fed on.
Actually, in addition to being able to study and learn about the home lives of the salmonid tribe, some of my favorite fish, I learned something curious in those streams about my father. My Dad was always a self-identified Conservative. At the time, I was always a self-identified Liberal … hey, it was the late 1960’s, no surprise.
What I was interested in, in part, were the big old fish in the stream, the massive lunkers. As a fisherman from youth, I wanted to learn more about their lives. What I saw was that when some new kind of food came down the stream, they didn’t bestir themselves. They let the sprat try out that stuff. Some smaller trout would rush out and gulp it down. And occasionally that food might contain a silent steel hook.
But every once in a while some particular kind of good, safe food would come floating downstream, I couldn’t tell what it was from where I was, but the big old fish would suddenly and majestically flash out of hiding. But even then, it didn’t gulp down the food like the young fish did. It stopped instantly, one moment moving and the next totally motionless, just in front of the food. It smelled the food and looked at it. Then it ate it and disappeared back under the tree stump, where the endless motion of the stream had carved a shadowy undercut. Or it didn’t eat it, it wasn’t USDA Grade A fish food for some reason, and then flashed back into the dark under-root world.
That was when I first understood an aspect of my fathers conservatism. He had found something that worked. He didn’t plan on trying new things. They might contain hooks.
I remembered him quoting to me “Be not the first to try the new untried, nor yet the last to put the old aside.” I never bought into that rule of thumb myself, I’ve always been a man to color outside the lines, I though of myself as the guy inventing the new untried … but I was happy that I could have a better understanding of my father. He was a lot older than me, from a Victorian time, and I didn’t understand him much back then.
So that summer I learned a lot of things. I love learning, and that time was a festival of learning, about gold and gold mining, about the lovely Sierra Nevada mining towns that Mark Twain wrote about, about being an unpaid apprentice to a sometimes crotchety old man, about my father. I learned to be a decent welder, maybe not pretty welds but strong as hell.
I got comfortable working and hanging out for hours underwater, and I’ve been at ease and made money underwater and worked underwater many times since. I learned about trout streams and ponds and all their denizens and where they live, information I would use years later as a sport salmon fishing guide in Alaska. I found out how to swing a gold pan in that funny circular manner, almost rolling the dirt inside out over the lip, shaking any gold down and down, eventually to see if there was any precious thin line of gold color down in the corner along with the black sand.
I became accustomed to the underwater geography of rivers, how the waters move and swirl in their depths, where the sandbars build up, what the cut-bank looks like below the waterline, always valuable information when running a small boat up and down a river as I have done many times since.
I had a chance to see gold in situ underwater, a rare sight indeed, and to recognize a few of the kinds of places that gold likes to hide. I also regret to report that I learned to recognize lots and lots of kinds of places where gold apparently doesn’t like to hide.
When Mel was diving, I did the tending on top, and vice versa. As a result I learned to run and adjust and repair a hookah compressor, both the compressor itself and the small gas engine that powered it.
I learned what it was like to have my best friend’s well-being and perhaps even life depend on my attention to detail as his tender, his lifeline at the surface … and how it feels from the other side, as the diver at the bottom of the river depending entirely on Mel paying attention. It leads to a curious bond of brotherhood to trade responsibility back and forth like that, a simple honesty of thought and action.
I became practiced in how to launch a big godawful clumsy steel barge into a flowing river and get it back out of the water in one piece. I was shown how to clean out a sluice box and soon grew proficient. I learned how to wash out the “miners moss”, the carpet lining under the riffles of the sluice box that actually catches the gold. I learned how to anchor a clumsy craft in moving waters, how to move a clunky great dredge hose underwater against a strong current, and a hundred other useful things large and small. It was the world’s best school of marine and manual arts a man could ever wish for.
The deal was shares, of course, as it generally is in gold mining of that nature. Mel and I were each to get 20% of the take. At the end of the summer, about a month of which was spent actually dredging, our total was a bit over five ounces of gold. My share was a bit over an ounce. These days gold is at $1,650 per ounce, five ounces would be over eight grand. Not bad for an old man with a self-designed gold separator and two young bucks building for two months and dredging for just over a month … even if we did eat beans.
There was, of course, one tiny complication, one cloud the size of a man’s hand on the horizon.
In those days gold was still price controlled, before Nixon took the US off the gold standard. It could only be sold for its official US Government set value, which from memory was about thirty bucks an ounce at that time … so the five ounces were only worth $150 bucks or so.
But then, I’ve never been a man who was in it for the money, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t, too, since I only made thirty bucks. Me … I considered that I was getting paid for going to school, and as a result I didn’t care if the pay scale wasn’t all that attractive.
Or at least that’s what I told myself, whereas in fact of course I’d have much preferred to make my fortune dredging gold. I’d been envisioning returning rich, lighting my cigars with hundred dollar bills. I figured that really would have made the eyes of the college babes light up … ah, well, I was young and foolish, and earth-shaking wealth never was a big goal of mine, and in that regard I was quite successful—I went off to mine for gold, and by heaven, I did find gold, and I found more gold, and I kept right on finding gold until I couldn’t afford to find any more.
So, suitably chastened in the financial realm, which is a polite way of saying flat busted except for a small glass jar containing about thirty dollars worth of gold, but a satisfied man nonetheless, with a world of knowledge I didn’t have before, I arrived back in Santa Cruz.
I picked up my leather-working tools, my knives and skives and edgers, dug out my Barge sole cement from where I’d stowed it away before I went off to strike it rich, and took up earning money again making and selling nice leather sandals, and resumed singing in the clubs, and of course chatting up the babes, can’t forget that … and in addition, this time around picking up a little extra money now and again doing simple welding jobs, and repairing small engines and compressors if they weren’t too badly broken … and dreaming about maybe somehow finding some other underwater work, in that mysterious realm below the surface …
… so in Santa Cruz, life went on after the gold rush. The real gold was what I’d learned and stowed away in my experience that summer, that’s lasted and been of immense value to me throughout my lifetime.
My conclusion after my summer of hard work for little gold?
Always choose the adventure over the everyday, always go for the gold—because even if you don’t find but thirty bucks worth, and you come back flat busted to the exact same place you started, you end up so much richer than when you left … but hey, that’s just me.
… another chapter for Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …