IT HAPPENS TO THE BEST OF MEN
By Don Alexander
Santa Fe, New Mexico
All rights reserved
From about as far back as I can remember I've always hankered to one-day take up gold prospecting and mining... to try to make my living from finding the yellow metal we call gold. Even though the idea of gold prospecting and mining was always on the back burner of my brain I didn't do anything about it, until almost twenty years ago. I was newly divorced, had earned a graduate degree and living in Taos, New Mexico.
One clear Saturday morning in early October while strolling around the Taos Plaza area I looked up and found I had been drawn like a magnet towards the display window of the hardware store. I was staring at a shiny new Estwing gold pan. Whether it was fate or the mystique of Taos, I had to purchase that gold pan. I still own that pan! Soon I began to notice twinges and unusual feelings come over my body. These feelings I later came to know as the symptoms of Sudden Onset Gold Fever (SOGF), for which medical science has been unable to develop a cure.
I returned to my condominium where I immediately dug out an old WWII folding GI trench shovel. Next I telephoned an old timer who'd told me he knew how to use a gold pan, having learned to pan for gold while he was stationed in Alaska. Fortunately the old timer was home sittin close to his fireplace and he agreed to teach this tenderfoot the basics of gold panning that very afternoon. Upon my arrival at his home in Penasco, New Mexico he asked me if I had gold fever. I replied, "Yep, think I've got the fever pretty good too." As we were walking out the door of the old timer's home I heard him say, "It happens to the best of men!"
He led me with pan and shovel in hand down to the nearby creek and carefully explained and demonstrated what I needed to know to pan gold. He sat patiently on a nearby log smoking his pipe watching as I made the usual mistakes of a tenderfoot. But, after a while, he reasoned I'd learned the basics and, since the late fall air was now beginning to get downright cold, it was time to return to his home for a hot cup of his wife's black coffee. After we'd sipped our coffee for a few minutes my old friend scooted his chair back and got up from the kitchen table saying he'd fix the pan so I could use it. What in the world did the old timer mean when he said he'd fix the pan? It looked good as new to me and I was certain we'd not damaged the gold pan. He put the pan on the hot wood burning stove and warmed his arthritis-swollen hands. "A new store bought steel gold pan”, he said, “needs to be blackened with heat from a fire so the miner can see the small colors and grains of gold in the pan."
After the old timer's lesson my first few efforts to pan gold from the mountain creeks and streams around Taos didn't amount to much more than tired, stiff back and sore leg muscles. I didn't think I was learning anything 'cause I didn't get any colors of gold. But those efforts did yield something of value because I was learning where not to find placer gold. Finally I did strike it rich! About noon on a cold day, beside a clear flowing creek near the Taos Ski Valley, I saw for the first time a few small colors of gold in my pan. I recovered maybe five or six very small specks of gold, but I knew I could pan gold.
I kept on thinking there had to be a better, maybe smarter, way other than panning to go about gold prospecting and mining.
While squatting beside a stream panning some bank dirt I turned this problem over in my mind without getting an answer. Later at home, soaking my stiff legs and back in a tub of hot water, I knew there was a better way. I had to get to a library and do some research on gold mining. I read what little I could find in various library books, but I needed more information. I bought some pretty fair magazines and booklets from a store in Albuquerque that sold metal detectors. Before long I had a small personal library on gold prospecting and mining: my library has continued to grow over the years to the point where I have some good technical books on gold prospecting, mining and milling.
After a while the information began to sink in. I was spending my free weekends working in areas that were known to have produced placer gold and I was panning more colors. Mostly they were just specks but I was glad to know I'd developed my panning technique and could save even those smallest of gold colors. I knew if I was saving the specks I would be able to save the nuggets when I finally got to them.
I wanted more gold! More recovered gold would be a function of processing more dirt. Soon I'd built a four by one foot by eight-inch deep wooden sluice box complete with classifier tray, removable riffles and outdoor carpet. With the sluice box and a new long handled No. 2 shovel I began processing a lot more material and recovering more gold each time I went out "mining."
Our country has grown and ya don't prospect for gold on Main Street, or even those mostly worked out areas normally considered easily accessible by family automobile. Around Taos and Northern New Mexico placer gold occurs in some pretty rough areas with "get there roads and trails" that don't accommodate the everyday family sedan. I needed a four-wheel drive vehicle. My gunsmith friend, Chuck, gave me a verbal primer on what to look for in a four-wheel drive. In late 1975, after moving to another part of the state, I was able to get a real good trade on a new Blazer. I was confident I could get in and out of those difficult places in gold country.
The neat wooden sluice box, which had served so well in the Northern New Mexico Mountains, was no longer of much use because I now lived nearer to the dry placers in the Jicarilla Mountains, located to the north and east of Carrizozo, New Mexico. I needed a dry washer and my expanding library contained complete instructions for building a gasoline-powered model. An entire weekend was required to build the new dry washer and I was chomping the bit to give it a try. If you ever want a hot, dry and dusty job try throwing dirt, into a dry washer, on a hot summer day in New Mexico!
One Saturday a stranger came up to my diggings and asked a lot of questions about the dry washer. After I got to the point where I figured this fellow was OK, I let him watch as I emptied a tray of concentrates and panned them in a small tub of water. Even though I had some nice small colors he said he knew of a piece of ground with more gold. The stranger asked if I'd sell my dry washer and in short order we'd agreed on the price. He paid cash on the spot for the machine.
The stranger's money covered a goodly portion of the price for a new Keene dry washer. I used the new dry washer for quite a while and it did a pretty good job after I learned how to properly adjust it. I even took the dry washer to Colorado and worked some dredge tailings along Clear Creek (west of Golden) and you'd have been surprised at what came out of those tailings. I more than paid for the dry washer in three and a half days.
By this time I was a weekend miner. I'd gone from pan to sluice box to dry washer. I next built a hydraulic concentrator, bought a small Briggs gas engine with water pump, suction hose and foot valve along with 150 feet of 1-1/2" flat-water hose. With the new rig I was able to work the higher benches, terraces and old creek beds that were within 150 feet of a water supply. I was getting pretty nuggets every time I went to Colorado.
I re-married and after a while my wife knew I was unhappy with my job. After a lot of soul searching we decided that for one full year I could go gold prospecting and mining on a full time basis. The wife would work to help pay the bills that we didn't want to cover with money from our savings account. The wife could earn a dollar, pay the bills and save a quarter. Wish I could learn to do that.
A reasonable amount of research led me to conclude one of the best year-round places to look for placer gold, outside of California, were the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott, Arizona. We moved to Prescott and it wasn't long before I filed some good placer claims on the upper Hassayampa River. The new claims had been hardly touched for a century and recent back-to-back hundred year rains had washed new gold down from the mountains. I bought a 2-1/2" dredge and soon began to get some good amounts of gold from the Double-D gold claims. In drier times I learned to dam up the stream to get enough water for dredging. Soon I had a 4" Keene and later both a Gold King 3" & 4" dredge.
The Hassayampa River along with the Double-D's and the Rhino-D placer claims were good to me and I mined a fair amount of gold.
Even though I'd been fortunate enough to have a supportive wife who helped me to gold prospect and mine, I decided I no longer wanted to mine gold on a full time basis. We didn't have enough money to set up a washing plant to have a real commercial operation, so I traded and sold claims I didn't want to keep (now I wish I'd kept them). I was able to get a job and later I opened a store to sell mining supplies and equipment. My store was named "The Prescott Gold Prospector" and I did pretty well with it until I sold the business to a fellow from Phoenix.
Now it's years later and the old body is not as physically able to do the things I did in the mountains in New Mexico, along the rivers in Colorado or the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott. Was it worth it? Would I do it all over again if the time and the circumstance were the same? Yes, without question, my friend, I'd do it again. Why? It isn't everyone who gets to follow the trails to the gold fields and dig for the yellow metal we call gold like I did. It was in gold country where I learned much, much more than just how to process dirt, sand and gravel to recover the gold. With God's help I experienced beautiful sunrises and sunsets so often overlooked in the city, beheld the beauty and serenity of the mountains and streams in gold country, met many good hard working miners; and, above all, I learned a lot more about myself and my Creator, who made it all possible.
You may well yearn to shed the shackles of "the workin' man's life" and go for the gold just as I did but be forewarned the times and the conditions aren't the same.
Today there are many people in this country who have been mislead, possibly even brainwashed, by erroneous certain organizations and major network TV programs contrived to convince citizens that all miners are irresponsible and mining is detrimental to our environment! The Mining industry in years past has been careless. However, knowledge and technology in the industry today are such that unnecessary degradation of the land is not required or necessary. We miners have learned to extract minerals from the Earth in ways that leave the land reclaimed. Make no mistake about it the voices of the Sierra and Wilderness Clubs are being heard by legislators in our nation's capitol. These voices are saying they want all mining stopped! These same voices have huge amounts of money to spend on their lobbying efforts and the deck is almost stacked against us miners.
What about you? Have you joined with other small miners in writing your elected lawmakers in Washington to make your views known? Have you joined your local and state small miners club and association and have they made concerted efforts to be heard by the lawmakers?
When you go out to prospect and mine have you hauled home some of the trash left by others who don't give a damn?
Do you always pick up your trash and leave your campsite as clean or cleaner than you found it? Do you obey the laws and regulations concerning your mining claim? Do you reclaim or re-fill your holes?
If you don't do these things you don't stand a snow balls chance in hell of ever being left alone in the gold country we love so dearly to prospect and mine for the yellow metal called gold.