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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 the Pinto Basin although I didn’t know that was w it was called at the time. It was the mid 1970’s and I was just a kid brought along with my brother and sister while Mom and Dad explored the desert around Palm Springs on a Sunny afternoon in a Toyota Landcruiser with their friends. I knew we were a long way from home. It felt like we’d traveled out beyond the moon. The earth had quit being golf courses and city streets a long time ago. Now it was just sand and rocks and hills and the occasional scrub grass.
Dad and his friend, Lee, came across a group of low hills at one end of a long wasted valley in what’s called Joshua Tree national park. I knew that much. I also knew, looking at the hill, that the worn road was rougher than anything my Dad had attempted yet in his four-wheeler. But the urge to see what was just beyond the ridge was too great. Rather than risk the car this far away from help we decided to walk to the crest and peer over its edge. There we saw the shifted dirt which marked a mine as having been dug. So we trekked down the other side and found not just one mine, but three.
The first turned out to be the deepest and the most interesting. I went back several hundred yards into the hill from which it’d been carved. At one point you had to get on your hands and knees to crawl through the remaining hole from a long past cave-in. Then you had to walk across an old plank board lain over a bottomless hole some eight feet or more across. There was an old rickety ladder stretching down forever in it. We dropped rocks down its gaping maw to try and gauge its depth. We could hear the rocks hit the sides of the hole a couple of times as they fell. But of the bottom we heard nothing. The board was old, knotted and split. The hole could’ve been a mile for all it scared me. But I walked across.
Further into the mine I came across something so incredible many people I tell hesitate to believe. I’m no geologist. I couldn’t spot a vein of gold if it had neon sign on it – and that’s what the makers of this mine had been looking for nearly a hundred years ago when they dug it, I’m sure of it – but of turquoise, there’s no mistaking it. It’s a deep greenish blue and bright as all get out, even in its raw form. And right there in the wall of that mine was a streak of it as wide as a man and running floor to ceiling in the cave, disappearing into the roof and running beneath its floor.
Before we left that day I had gone into the mine a second time, claw hammer ready and armed with a five gallon paint bucket. I chipped and clawed and ripped that stuff away from the mountains grasp until my bucket was full and brought it all home. it made a neat display in my bedroom framed against a backdrop of my Star Wars album. The remainder of the turquoise I gave away as Christmas gifts, rocks as big as my fists and blue-green as the Pacific at Hawaii.
The other mines were fun, though not as magnificent. One went straight down like the hole in the first mine. But there was no horizontal path to traverse. The other had an old rail track still laid down and a busted rusty ore car at the mouth of the cave, went in only about fifty feet and then there was another ladder going down about thirty feet to what looked like a landing. Since I was the smallest kid, my dad elected me to climb down the ladder, figuring if it could hold me no one bigger would give it a try. I went to the bottom but the landing led to no where, it just dead ended.
We drove home that day in the dark with great stories to remember for the rest of our lives.
Fast forward twenty plus years into the mid 1990’s. I wanted to find it again but for the life of me I had no real sense of where it was other than on the far side of Joshua Tree National Park, and that was a whole lotta desert to have to prowl through. Still, with no better plan I got a map and divided it up into sections. The first time I went in my Jeep Wrangler with just one of my kids and my wife. We didn’t find it. The second time we rented a Jeep Cherokee, because I had more kids, out of the airport and searched another section of the desert. Still no finds. But the third trip, while in a big rented four-wheel drive Ford Excursion complete with in-laws and a bigger family yet, we struck gold – or turquoise you might say.
As we went down a dirt road that took me farther out into the desert than I could swear to having gone before, I saw set of hills off in the distance with a rutted worn out road climbing over one of them. My skin tingled. We parked at the bottom of the road and I grabbed flashlight, hammer and bucket, a host of kids and family behind me. At the top of the crest I saw the shifted dirt of the first mine, and low and behold at the bottom of the hill near it was a beat-up old Toyota pick-up truck, still operational, and a small cadre of men dressed in worn-out clothes. Apparently others had found the mine over the years too.
Still, this was it, again. I went into the mine and crawled through the now even older cave-in, went past the deep hole and the plank that stretched over it, careful to not let my kids do anything foolish near it. And when I got to the vein of turquoise I was somewhat surprised, though not entirely, to find that my vein had been mined out. There were still some fragments of what I remembered, which I chipped away at for old time sake. And I found a few other pieces of blue-green on the floor by kicking away the dirt. But the main swath of turquoise was gone to other families, boys, whoever who had also discovered it over the years. We had found the mine and I will never lose it again, it is embedded in my mind as a great destination in the middle nowhere to go to: my own personal bit of the lost Southwestern landscape complete with tales of buried treasure, only tales.
A few years after that, a friend of mine, Chris Shurilla, came to see me. He had some rappelling gear and we headed out to the mine. We crawled past the cave-in and looked into the deep hole and the ladder stretching down forever. There was an old wooden trellis built over the hole which heretofore I had missed, probably because I was always watching where I put my feet and how close to the hole I was on my earlier trespasses. We tied off on the beam, clamped ourselves onto the line and dropped two hundred yards of roped into the hole.
Chris had no fear. He swung out over the empty space and ZEEEE, he ripped down the rope at a frantic pace. I was cautious as a virgin bride on her wedding night, white knuckling down the ladder one rung at a time even though I was tied off and supposedly secure, safe. The one of the ancient rungs crumbled under my weight and I swung out into the dead space. Chris laughed at me and yelled to hurry up. Once I coughed my heart back out of my throat I sped up my descent. When I caught up to Chris he was hanging in mid-air of a larger chamber. The narrow throat had opened up into a cavity some thirty or forty feet across. The ladder still stretched through the middle of the blackness where it was crossed by an old cat walk supported by two by four somehow affixed to the seemingly distant cavern walls. It was like something out of a Stephen King novel. The cat walk ran into a dark side cavern on each end cut into the earth. Chris says faster than I can respond, “I’ll go check it out,” unhooks his belay and trots off across the ancient planks suspended in darkness light as a cat on a windowsill.
“Chris, you idiot,” I yell. Those boards are probably a hundred years old. He comes bouncing back beneath me with no concern. “Oh they’re fine,” he says. And while I wouldn’t swear to it, maybe it was just my fear kicking into overdrive, I thought I saw him bounce on them as a way of testing their mettle. Had they failed I don’t know what he or me, would do. “That end,” he said, jerking a thumb back towards the hole he’d just investigated, “only goes a few feet and dead ends.” The he went to the other side, disappearing in the darkness again, “This side too.” He came back and tied back onto the line and we went down some more.
We had about another 75 feet we cold drop before we got too close to the end of the rope for comfort. Chris still hung comfortably on the rope with no hands holding the endless ladder or the sides of the rocky hole. I was clinging to the ladder still, for what it was worth, cause for all its old age, it felt better than nothing. But seeing Chris hanging there and the empty blackness beneath him we still knew we could go no further. We pried a rock off the side of the hole and dropped it. Though we were 200 yards down from the original starting point, the rock made no final resting sound. We did it again with another rock. We still could not hear it hit bottom.
We climbed back up and found our wives and kids were pissed at us. We’d been down that hole several hours and they said they’d been yelling for us after the first thirty minutes. The only thing they knew was the rope was still taut and it occasionally swung.
The entire area of the pinto Basin is littered with mines. if you go out there, you have a good chance of dying. I’m not saying this to be an alarmist. but seriously: there’re holes in the ground big enough to drive a car into and some of them have no bottom. There’re caves that go into the mountains hundreds of yards, past holes and cave-ins and rotten supports and you’re hours away from help even by car if you have a problem. And what if the car breaks down.
Do not go out there unless you are experienced and prepared. At times, I can’t believe I did it as a kid and then did it again with mine and then did it again with a rope, repelling gear, and a fearless friend.
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