A long time ago, in a . . . well nothing so exotic as that. But it was decades ago – when I was just starting college. My brother came by the house early one Saturday. He was driving an old Chevy Nova. “Want to go look for mines?” It was not an unusual question. The idea in his head I knew well. We would grab a couple of flashlights and head for the canyons where miners had delved for gold and silver in the deeps of time –ok, a hundred odd years back. It made me think of Brigham Young’s forthright commentsabout *not* hunting for gold in those mountains. But Gentiles at least were not bound by booming voices in old tabernacles.
I grab a light and hop into the car. The glass pack mufflers rumble as we head out east. We hit a winding canyon road, and begin to climb. I wonder about our noise in this place and think about old miners with pack mules, looking for the *right place* to dig in the deep solitude of steep canyon walls and the massive mournful sound of wind in ten thousand pines – I’ve been up here when hearing that somehow near and distant voice made me feel profoundly lonely. The echo of those experiences resonants in me. It’s not pleasant. (I’m not a camper by choice and I prefer Motel 6 to a tent and sleeping bag.) These sorts of thoughts make me somber.
Finally we see mine-spoor. Near the road, about 20 feet up a steep incline is water. It flows down the near-cliff into the drainage along the roadside. We pull over. The anticipation builds in my mind. I’ve seen this before, but never actually climbed to the source. The white stone is unstable and we scrabble up, each with a share of abrasions. I drop my light and it lands in the water below. I’m not going back to get it. Up to the source now, we see that there is indeed an entrance. It’s slopes steeply down into a kind of bowl. The bowl is full of crystal-clear water.
My brother plays his light over the ceiling. A cave-in has taken place some time in the distant past. It is clearly not recent and this makes me think we might be safe to do a little exploring. But that means wading up to the shoulders. We start down. It is ice cold, like that water bottle you put in the refrigerator last week. As the water rises above my waist, resolve fades. I know he won’t quit before I do, so I make the point that we’ll probably be suffering from hypothermia in a couple of minutes. He knows what I’m talking about from his time in the army and agrees we should get out.
Back at the car we’re both soaking wet. I look around at the sky and pine forests and wonder about the people who pioneered the region as I stand shivering in the weak fall sunlight. There was no warm shower waiting for those hardy folk at the end of a day of fun. My sober look gets his attention, but he’s having none of it. We fish a blanket out of the trunk and lay it on the front seat and drive on.
We see it. A yawning tunnel opens across the canyon stream. He pulls over and we walk across a bridge built for what, I do not know. The passage is huge, twenty feet high, at least that’s what’s in my mind now. It seems like the sunlight refuses to penetrate more than a few feet from the entrance. We flip on our lights and I notice evidence of mining car rails. After the brightness of the sun-washed forest, it seems doubly dark in there. We start in.
There are stones on the floor but they don’t seem like ceiling falls. No cave-ins like the last one-horse operation. As the entrance dwindles behind us I have an impression of heaviness. Like a weight strapped around the waist. Our footsteps echo off the walls. I think of who might have been here before us. There is no sign of previous “explorers” (my wife would say, idiots) – no beer cans or other evidence of human presence. There are other signs that this was a big operation in its day: a side cavern with a decrepit wooden ladder leading down about ten feet. I hear water rushing below. We won’t go that way. Besides, we are both feeling strangely fatigued. After another twenty yards I can’t seem to catch my breath and the light from the entrance is gone – the tunnel has gradually turned to the left. I shine my light on him and he looks worried. “I think the air is bad.” This seems odd to me. But I agree and we start back. Without anything said we break into a run, somehow sensing that otherwise we will just lie down and sleep. Forever.
Out in the sunlight we ponder what to do. The normal thinking soul would move along. Go to a library or something. We don’t. Thinking of the problem as akin to making a dive while snorkeling, we take a long series of deep breaths and run in. We get well past the spot where we experienced our problem and keep going. It strikes me though that there is a little hitch in our strategy. We will need to get back out. I yell, “let’s get out of here!” We turn and run back without taking in much of the never ending tunnel. I have to take a breath about halfway, but the air is not so bad there it seems. Outside we start to realize this was not a great idea (I chalk up this delay in right thinking to a combination of bravado and CO2 poisoning, If that’s what it is.). But we wonder where this thing goes. Who worked this place? (I learn later that hypercapnia is not a pleasant way to go. Not going to sleep. Panic, convulsions, etc. Mom, Dad don’t worry about it. There’s nothing you can really do to prevent this kind of situation.)
We find one more interesting tunnel that day, about one hundred yards from the road this time. The stone seems nearly like soft soil. Clearly there have been cave-ins here. We crawl in on our bellies. I’d never do something like this now and I can’t feature what made me do it then. It was obviously dangerous. This was a mining attempt by a single miner again, I think. There is a minor ore dump near the opening so it can’t go back far. When we get in it opens out to a vision of high ceilings with tall mounds on the floor from rock and soil falls and crumbled timbers as the tunnel closes in about 20 feet further on. We don’t stay long. It looks like some of these falls are recent.
We sit by the entrance and eat the tuna sandwiches he brought, drinking bottles of Nehi Grape Soda. I’m not sure I’ve had one since that day. The sun is now low in the sky and it is cool. I lay back in the dead grass around the entrance and wonder about the man who dug this hole. What made him think this was the place? Who was he? Mining was an onsite activity. You didn’t go home for lunch (or church), and generally you had to be watchful of others. No one wants their claim jumped. Weeks, maybe a month in camp. Hard labor every day. Energy gambled on the chance of a rich-enough vein. I think of my father’s favorite movie, “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” No wonder Brigham wanted people in their fields. For every one who found the pie in the sky, thousands found disappointment, lost time and often lost life, Gandalf-like.
The sun creeps lower while I watch the clouds moving in the sky. The wind grows chill against our still damp clothes and that strange lonely sound of the wind in many pines puts a knot in my stomach. That sound reminds me again of those times when I’ve been lost in these mountains. I sit up. My brother picks up the lunch bags and we head for the car. Brother Brigham, I see your point.