The Sonoran Pass, just north of Yosemite, is not just the link between the western and eastern Sierra, it is the divide between a California that, while beautiful and glamorous, is also regimented, civilized and predictable. The eastern side is dramatic and austere; sometimes severe, sometimes tender, but always bubbling with the potential for adventure.
The eastern side is a siren with a wry and mischievous grin, inviting you to explore with her, but only if you’re willing to get dirty and greasy. The other side is your dolled up wife, who wants to wear her dress at dinner parties and flips you shit for taking your shoes off when you come in the house.
The pass’s geography itself is a Checkpoint Charlie, symbolically reflecting this west versus east divide. Just a handful of miles from the pass, the granite boulders shoot up through the trees, daring anything living to challenge their perches. Snow capped peaks surrounding the pass stand over the top of you, demanding not just to see your papers, but to prove you’ve left the ways of the other side behind. The East Germans who dodged machine gun fire, barbed wire and dogs were committed to their conversion. Mine was much more mild: I turned my phone to airplane mode and cranked up Van Halen.
I was more than willing to leave Western California behind me. 2014 was a dam of expectations that burst all over my hopes and dreams. It left me broke, exhausted and gripping to my last strand of faith, holding on for dear life. I’d put all my money into my business and it just wasn’t coming back. It had gotten so bad, I had to work a late, 3 am shift at a local bar cleaning up piss and puke just to buy a pair of hiking shoes for this trip. I wore the last ones down to the point where the soles fell off. I had used up the duct tape on my last houseguest, so it was time to spring for new ones. The Tuesday before we started our trip, the grizzled manager told me that they wouldn’t need me anymore. Yes, I had been shitcanned from my piss and puke disposal job.
After driving down 395 for about 20 minutes, I just turned off the cruise control and steadily increased my speed until hitting 90 miles-an-hour. The mountains above approved, but the California Highway Patrol wouldn’t. A ticket here would sap my previous month’s paycheck. I no longer cared. Death Valley was only a couple hours away and I hoped that Buford T. Justice would be busy chasing a black Trans Am, instead of my suburban blue, Subaru Outback rental.
“Why Death Valley?”
My dates eyes were kind, but her mind partially there and her heart elsewhere. A question born of small talk and mild curiosity on a first date about a month prior.
For questions like this, I always hoped I could find a response with the brevity and depth of a George Mallory, “Because it’s there.” So insightful, yet brooding. It would then dazzle my inquisitor, who would be charmed by more than just the reflection of my bald head. But the truth is, my real motivations aren’t that interesting. I just find the place pretty fucking cool.
“Because it is fucking cool.”
“Oh, Romeo. Thine reputation for pillow talk precedes you.”
On Day 1, I woke Greg up just as the full moon was setting over the Panamint Mountains and the was sun rising over the Funeral Mountains. He was more interested in Death Valley than my date. We had a ghost town and abandoned mine to find and explore. It was a safe bet that we had a much higher enthusiasm for getting there than those that worked up there a hundred years ago.
Are you interested in reading about the “exquisite cuisine” that I delightfully cooked up that morning “to the delight of our tastebuds?” Me neither. People that detail their breakfast on trips sit at Defcon Bore Level 2. I almost dozed off even trying to remember what we ate that morning. My fingers fell asleep yptaain….fasj .ljaljdsf… I mean, “typing that sentence.”
A quick vignette:
Here’s an important equation to learn: Metallica + Few Cops + 20 miles of Perfect Visibility in all directions + Perfectly Paved and Mostly Straight Roads = Driving Speeds Matching the Speed of Sound. The problem is, when you go in the opposite direction of where you need to be, you’re almost in Canada when you realize it. For as much research and detail that I put into route planning and finding our remote objectives, I was relying on my memory from 6 years earlier to navigate the roads. An old fashioned analog map told me, like an idiot, that I turned down the wrong road. But we got to listen to a couple of extra Metallica songs.
Death Valley has a colorful past of ruffians, hoopleheads and other men of questionable character. They came looking to these hills for mostly for gold, probably to trick out their Conestoga Wagons or, later, new rims on their Model A’s. There were a handful of women who ventured out of the brothels and dance halls to join them and promptly reduced their paychecks by 100%.
Prospecting in Death Valley was a mini-rush in the late 1800’s – early 1900’s. However, very few claims produced much of note. The universe can be one cruel bastard. Excuse me, I meant a fucking cruel, heartless asshole. I don’t care how shady a character you are, if you willingly bought primitive equipment to dig holes into mountains in Death Valley, I’d at least hope that you would get enough ore for a couple gold chains. You could then head back east and be a hit at the Jersey Shore. Men actually murdered each other over claims disputes.
I’m no historian, nor a geologist. I’m not even just a caveman, who’s frightened and confused by your modern ways. I’m just a guy trying to tell a mildly interesting tale, which 80% of you probably stopped reading after the first paragraph. But for the rest of you, seeing the ruins of the Big Bell Mine are worth the price of your pain reading to this point.
The site of the Big Bell Mine lies 1,600 ft below the top of the Chloride Cliffs. We got their by hiking down a trail that used to be a cable road.
During the mine’s last years, they would extract the ore and grind it up in a ball mill. Then they’d process it in a cyanide tank. Whatever they processed was put on a motor-less mack truck bed. It was hooked to a cable and then pulled up the mountain 1,600 ft above. A driver would steer the truck and her precious cargo up the cable road, which is now the hiking trail. If I had to dig holes down at the mine below, I would have prayed that the cyanide tanks came with a tap to fill my canteen with.
The trail down wasn’t made for hikers. It can be a little steep, rocky and have some awkward negotiations at times. The seasoned hiker won’t have any issues, though. But it would bum out someone who doesn’t hike much. Also, there is absolutely no cover, so be prepared for some serious sun exposure, especially on a hot day. I would advise against retreating to the abandoned mines for shade. These mines are over a hundred years old and OSHA wasn’t around to make sure everything was kosher. If you end up at the bottom of a pile of rocks, you’ll be bummed you didn’t bring a better hat, some sunscreen and enough common sense to not go inside of a 100+ year-old dormant mine.
There was something oddly comforting about this place for me. Besides the dramatic scenery, from the photos, you can see that this place wasn’t just abandoned, it was done so in haste. I imagine the last prospectors, after yet another day of pulling out nothing but dried mudstone in the furnace-like conditions, sat in a bar sharing a lukewarm beer from the pennies they scrounged up between them and just said, “Fuck this shit.” Never to return.
The remaining structures weren’t there as a memorial to greatness and success; one of hard work being rightly rewarded. Not here. These were relics memorializing failure. No violins were played for those who lost their hats in the Big Bell Mine. Few even care to know their names. As someone who’s world came to a similar conclusion 7 months earlier, I felt a connection to the ghosts here. I can only hope that some of these individuals picked themselves up, dressed their wounds and moved on to bigger and better things (like the Great Depression). If I were them, I would be happy to know that someone would respect the effort they put in here over a century later.
Then again, I would find it to be an even greater joy if they were all flipping me the bird for even thinking for one second that I could relate to what they went through.