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Spelunking the Pinto Basin Gold and Turquoise Mines of Joshua Tree National Park Near Palm Springs
I was about 12 the first time I ventured to Pinto Basin although I did not know what it was called at the time. It was the mid 1970’s and I was just a kid with my brother and sister as Mom and Dad explored the desert around Palm Springs on sunny afternoons in their Toyota Landcruiser with their friends. I know we are far from home. It feels like we have traveled beyond the moon. Earth has long ceased to be golf courses and city streets. Now it’s just sand and rocks and hills and the occasional grass.
The father and his friend, Lee, came across a group of low hills at one end of a long valley in Joshua Tree National Park. I understand very well. I also knew, looking at the mountain, that the broken roads were rougher than anything my father had attempted in a four-wheel drive. But the desire to see what lies beyond the mountain is strong. Instead of risking this car away from help we decided to walk to the crest and peer over the edge. There we saw the dirt being moved which marked the mine had been dug. So we went down the other side and found not just one mine, but three.
The first one is the deepest and most interesting. I went back a few hundred yards to the mountain from where he had carved. At one point you have to get on your hands and knees to crawl through the remaining hole from the long past cave-in. Then you have to walk across the old board that is in a bottomless hole that is about eight feet or more. There was an old rickety ladder stretching down forever. We dropped rocks down the gaping maw to try and measure the depth. We heard rocks hit the edge of the hole twice as they fell. But from below we heard nothing. The boards are old, knotted and split. The hole could have been a mile for all that scared me. But I walked across.
Further to mine I came across something so incredible that many people I say hesitate to believe. I am not a geologist. I can’t see the gold veins if there’s a neon sign – and the builders of this mine were looking for it almost a hundred years ago when they dug it, I’m sure – but the turquoise, there’s nothing wrong with it. It is a deep blue green and bright when it comes out, even in its raw form. And on the wall of the mine there was a line as wide as a man and running from the floor to the ceiling of the cave, disappearing into the roof and running under the floor.
Before leaving that day, I had entered the mine twice, claw hammer at the ready and five gallon bucket of paint. I chipped and clawed and tore it away from the mountain, catching it until my bucket was full and brought it all home. it made a neat display in the bedroom framed in the background of my Star Wars album. The rest of the turquoise I gave as a Christmas present, a rock as big as my hand and as blue-green as the Pacific in Hawaii.
Other mines are fun, although not very good. One goes straight down like a hole in the first mine. But there is no horizontal path that can be traversed. Others have old railroad tracks still lying down and rusty grain cars busted at the mouth of the cave, enter only about fifty feet and then there is another ladder down about thirty feet to what looks like a landing. Since I was the youngest child, my father chose me to go down the stairs, thinking that if he could hold me no one bigger would try. I went to the bottom but the landing was nowhere, just dead.
We drove home in the dark with a good story to remember for the rest of our lives.
Fast forward two decades more to the mid-1990s. I wanted to find it again but for the life of me I have no real sense of where it is other than on the far side of Joshua Tree National Park, and it’s a whole lotta desert to prowl through. Still, without a better plan, I got a map and divided it into sections. The first time I rode a Jeep Wrangler with only one child and my wife. Not found. The second time we rented a Jeep Cherokee, because I had another child, got out of the airport and explored another part of the desert. Still not found. But the third trip, when the big rented four-wheel drive Ford Excursion complete with in-laws and a larger family yet, we struck gold – or turquoise you can say.
When we went down the dirt road that took me far out into the desert than I could have sworn had gone before, I saw a set of dead hills in the distance with a rutted worted road climbing through one of them. My skin shivered. We parked at the bottom of the road and I grabbed a flashlight, hammer and bucket, lots of kids and families behind me. At the top of the peak, I saw the dirt that had been moved from the first mine, and at the bottom of the hill nearby was an old Toyota pick-up truck, still working, and a small cadre of people in uniform. in old clothes. Apparently other people have also discovered the mine over the years.
Still, here it is again. I went to the mine and crawled through the now even old cave-in, passing through a deep hole and a plank that was stretched over it, careful not to let my children do anything stupid near it. And when I got to the turquoise vein I was a little surprised, though not completely, because my vein had been mined. There are still bits and pieces that I remember, that I write about for the past. And I found some more blue-green pieces on the floor by kicking the dirt. But the main swath of turquoise has gone to another family, a boy, who has also been found over the years. We have found the mine and I will not lose it again, it has been attached to my heart as a great place in the middle of nowhere to go to: my own personal bit of the lost Southwestern landscape complete with tales of buried treasures, just tales.
A few years later, my friend, Chris Shurilla, came to see me. He had some rappelling gear and we headed out into the mine. We crawled through the cave-in and looked into the deep hole and the ladder stretched down forever. There was an old wooden trellis built over the hole which I had missed before, probably because I was always watching where I put my foot and how close the hole I was in previous trespasses. We tied off the beam, clamped ourselves to the line and dropped two hundred meters of rope into the hole.
Chris is not afraid. He swung out through the empty space and ZEEEE, he tore down the rope at a frantic pace. I was cautious as a bride on her wedding night, white knuckling down the ladder one rung at a time even though I was tied to death and should be safe, safe. One of the ancient steps crumbled under the weight and I swung out into the dead space. Chris laughed at me and shouted quickly up. After I coughed my heart back out of my throat I sped down my throat. When I caught Chris, he was hanging in the middle of the larger room. The narrow throat had opened into a cavity some thirty or forty feet away. The stairs still stretched through the middle of the black which passed through the old cat walking supported by two by four somehow attached to the wall of the cave seemed far away. It’s like something out of a Stephen King novel. The cat ran to the dark side of the cave at each end cut into the earth. Chris said faster than I could respond, “I’ll go check out,” unhooks the belay and trots off across the ancient planks suspended in the dark light as a cat on a windowsill.
“Chris, you idiot,” I yelled. These places are probably a hundred years old. He went back under me with no worries. “Oh they’re looking,” he said. And while I won’t swear to it, maybe it’s just the fear of kicking into overdrive, I thought I saw people bouncing on them as a way to test their mettle. If he fails, I don’t know what he will do. “At last,” he said, his thumb returning to the hole he had just probed, “only a few feet and a dead end.” He went to the other side, disappearing back into the darkness, “This side too.” He came back and went back to the line and we went down again.
We had about 75 more feet to sink before we were too close to the end of the rope for comfort. Chris still comfortably hung on the rope without hands holding the endless stairs or the edge of the rocky hole. I was clinging to the ladder still, for what it’s worth, because for all old age, it felt better than nothing. But seeing Chris hanging there and the empty blackness below him we still know we can’t go further. We put the stone on the side of the hole and put it down. Though we were 200 yards down from our original starting point, the rock made no final resting sound. We did it again with another rock. We still can’t hear it reach the bottom.
We climbed back up and found our wife and children were angry at us. We’d been down that hole for a few hours and they said they had yelled at us after the first thirty minutes. All they know is that the rope is still tight and swings occasionally.
The entire area in Pinto Basin is full of mines. if you go out there, you have a good chance of dying. I’m not saying this to be alarmist. but many: there are holes in the ground big enough to drive a car through and some people don’t have bottoms. There are caves that go to the mountain hundreds of yards, through holes and cave-ins and support decay and you are hours away from help even by car if you have a problem. And what if the car breaks down.
Don’t go out there unless you are experienced and prepared. Sometimes, I can’t believe I did this as a kid and then did it again with myself and then did it again with a rope, repelling equipment, and a fearless friend.
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