Town & Country

Two men. Indeed, both as different as night and day. One loved hearing the sounds of certainty in his voice. The other wove a narration that threaded plenty of the Old West into our modern Golden West.

The first figure undoubtedly would’ve proclaimed himself an urban man. Urban, not “urbane.” On the hip and now scale, he would’ve boasted not only was he ahead of the curve but blazed attitudinal trails for others to follow.

He exuded wariness. Through it perhaps he may’ve thought he projected quiet menace. Likely it was a façade, just enough of a bluff to keep men more unsure of themselves than he of himself on their heels while dealing with him.

The second man was of our time, yes. However, his profession harkened back to an American era that today should astound us. Much as we lionize and overemphasize cool, smooth, seamless technology, what he embodied updated a once most prized attribute – rugged individualism. Why, that fellow was a prospector.

Accompanying the first fellow, a woman of mild appearance and attitude. Better than tolerate him, she understood him. O lucky man!

This couple occupied some niche in their mid-20s. If remembered correctly, they should’ve been transitioning from the last light kid stuff confusions into thick adult decisions, risks, rewards, and naturally, consequences.

On this early morning, urban man was unable to be engaged in conversation. He needed to dominate the floor. A haranguer, he was too focused on picking apart and browbeating “his woman.” Without a doubt she was “his woman.” She was his until he either finished with her or grudgingly decided she possessed qualities that would further enhance him. Thus, joining in some kind of always tenuous union as his subordinate, an appendage, which bolstered him.

His woman was a Doormat, he her Muddy Boots.

Asked, difficult an admission as it might’ve been, wouldn’t she have conceded what he’d insisted? Could she have been any more docile under Muddy Boots’ bludgeoning tongue? Doormat defined “supine.”

Among us, the woman his willing captive. Converse without restraint between themselves as they did, their vocal impropriety washed across nearby listeners with indifferent disregard. Perhaps to them we’d just been classified as breathing scenery.

Solid members of an overly sharing generation, neither possessed circumspection or discretion. Either trait would’ve required maturity and discipline. Neither had yet been instilled in this couple.

They told the whole story without commercial interruptions.

From what had been gleaned, they’d joined fellow southern Californians in Las Vegas for a frantic weekend of merrymaking which graduated into evaluations. The second hadn’t been intended. But that’s where they detoured.

Young, ambitious professional Angelenos all, and each man a version of Muddy Boots, verbally jockeyed to establish which of them had achieved the most, whose prospects were brightest and most promising in this the earliest phases of their careers. One mustn’t imagine how heady currents infusing the cabanas, inside restaurants, or seated in bottle service venues further fueled urges to one-up all others.

It’s so easy to be impressed at that age. Impressive, though?

Off to the side, figuratively, her sister Doormats would’ve engaged in conversation beneath the men’s aggrandizement. The topics could’ve been related. But in this group only men’s pronouncements mattered. So, what Muddy Boots exchanged between cronies was substantial, whereas women’s chatter produced the same frivolity as gassed at a hen party.

When first seen, this pair had been bantering contentiously in an airport concourse. They dragged their mess into a lounge. Nothing like several preflight cocktails to further lubricate tongues, is there? Despite what news rolled off the television into the room, ambient bar noise, and the low murmurs of other waiting passengers, Muddy Boots’ and Doormat’s voices registered above all.

She had tried mollifying him. Clearly she’d wasted her efforts. Therefore, she let him pontificate. Probably in the hope he’d flame out sooner rather than later. While sipping cocktails relaxed her, each swigged tumbler stoked him.

Apparently, their Las Vegas weekend had substantially enlightened him. Merrymaking in the Mojave had been revelatory. Doormat and their acquaintances had disclosed interpretive facets of themselves. Whether they had or hadn’t immaterial. Muddy Boots saw what he saw. Then speculated accordingly.

Muddy Boots evaluated unsparingly. Hearing the equanimity with which Doormat absorbed these, she’d obviously heard previous iterations. Outside of a demurral here and there, she let him harshly lecture.

He assessed their friends in a strange way. Muddy Boots roughly declared each of the couples who’d joined them in Las Vegas could’ve thoughtlessly swapped partners for sexual exchanges. There would’ve been nothing astounding in the outcomes.

Except he’d determined one or two of Doormat’s friends were bisexual. When she doubted him, he interrupted and rattled off “proof.” Specious reasons at best, such as one woman who wore work boots fashionable in urban men’s circles; and another on the down low gal pal twerked identical moves nearby when Doormat or a certain other woman felt urges to rhythmically exult.

Afterwards, almost as an aside, he added had it been as clear to them as it was to him all the women would’ve acquiesced and slid over to that side. At least for a while.

Before deciding whether his conjectures bold or brazen or outright untoward, Muddy Boots abruptly switched objects. So fast didn’t even hear the record skip.

All the men were similar to him. They shared the same traits. Same Compton backgrounds. Despite his energy. Muddy Boots expressed pessimism. Belief from the jump mainstream society sentenced them to lifetime frustration. But what Compton man lacked the inability to back down?

Nothing like a self-referential rhetorical question to bolster one’s already shaky esteem. If he spoiled for anything, it was to have been refuted in order rebuke the challenge against him.

Didn’t Muddy Boots’ last utterance reveal an almost manic ambition? Admirable as it could’ve been, he never mentioned any particular goal which would’ve marked “advance.” His how-to for this was absent.

For all the heat he’d expend, there’d be little resulting light.

Hearing him reminded me of a refrain out of band’s Killing Joke’s Eighties rave – “Push! Push! Struggle!” Like directionless, purposeless Muddy Boots, the song never answered “Where? To what ends?”

The “prospector” surprised me. That’s how he preferred being known. Not miner or even “rock engineer,” but prospector. One of the more delightful job titles, no? Up there with pastry chef.

Pleasantly gabby, he wasn’t an update of Gabby Hayes. Naturally he’d be talkative. He spent a lot of time in solitude or near solitude out in the Mojave.

The prospector killed a little time in Las Vegas after parking his mobile home and motorcycle in an RV storage center. No shortage of these facilities in the Big Mayberry. Rather than drive those road whales back and forth between frigid homes and warm desert, lot of snowbirds skipped the wear and tear on themselves and machines. They left their behemoths in Las Vegas then erased draining miles through cheap flights.

After several days of re-immersing himself in humanity, the prospector would fly back to his native Minnesota. There, he’d visit friends and family.

He worked several claims around Rachel, a barely there mailing address north of Las Vegas. One or two with other men also styling themselves as prospectors. The rest he clawed at by his lonesome.

If Rachel is known beyond Nevada, it’s by proximity to Area 51. Nevadans probably know the settlement better as the home of the Little A’Le’Inn, a roadside oasis that relieves the monotonous Extraterrestrial Highway. No, I’m not kidding. That’s the road’s name.

For readers familiar with black & white cowboy & western movies of the 1930s and 40s, the prospector did not fit the image expected behind his title. Gray hair? Yes. A brush cut. But clean shaven. Bespectacled, tall, lean, erect not short and bandy-legged. He also had all his teeth. Nor had the desert sun seared him deep brown.

What had lured him to this at times unforgiving profession? Where the remote transforms into the void. After all, he’d been earning beaucoup bucks as a short-order cook. Seems that after a while some of us become averse to regular money through regular hours. Honestly, this is how fascinated he’d been about geology.

One day he’d reached his limit of “Adam and Eves on a raft.” He appraised his situation. Somewhere in his 50s, he surveyed his life. The results dissatisfied him. Not so much he wanted more. Just different. He pondered his next step. That led to investigating his present rocky path.

Estimating was easy. Or maybe the move eased by his yearning for something else elsewhere.

In any case, what developed satisfied him. Besides, busting rocks better suited his meth habit than manipulating hot greasy griddles. I believe his meth reference was a joke. But this is the West. So maybe not.

Frugal as he was, grilling food piled good amounts of cash in his bank accounts. Sitting on a nice stake, he realized new dreams in Nevada. Here, mining claims are cheap. Since innumerable dreamers had sought fortunes before him, plenty of played out holes already awaited fresher sweat equity types.

He never discounted or underestimated the obvious hazards – cave ins, rattlesnakes, scorpions, roaming tweakers. As we both knew, every job has its occupational hazards. His one concern was self-inflicted.

Though he’d never suffered fear within narrow enclosures before, occasions occurred when claustrophobia washed over him inside a tunnel. Rare as these terrors were, calling upon every jot of his self-control, he never succumbed to panic. Somehow the prospector knew had he run out into the sunlight once, the next urge to “escape” would squeeze him sooner. Enough of those and his fortitude necessary to operate inside tunnels would vanish.

Buying the RV devoured a good chunk of his savings. Much of the rest got invested in rudimentary mining implements. Indeed, he grubbed in a manner a Gabby Hayes character would’ve seen as a brother. The pick and shovel kind.

Nonetheless such physically demanding/sometimes meager return on toil could earn him several hundred dollars on good days. The RV provided basic necessary creature comforts inexpensively. Budgeting as the prospector did, propelled him sooner towards acquiring more sophisticated heavy-duty equipment. Those items would then permit him to process ore faster, thereby better expending his time while fattening profits.

Yet he lamented one downside to his vocation. Too many meals eaten out of cans.

On days off, the prospector rode his motorcycle on- and offroad in Desolation Mojave. As severe and unrelenting as this desert is, each of his tours into remoteness fired inspiration. He inspected mine tailings piles previous excavations had created. This randomness also served when he peripherally spied outcroppings which could’ve been indicative of valuable minerals.

More than once such distractions almost caused him to wipe out.

Serendipitously for me during my Arizona undergraduate studies, an occasional English class got reassigned from our accustomed rooms. Instead, class met in the Mines Building. (I think this structure might’ve made a cameo in the 1956 filming of A Kiss Before Dying.)

Smothered by noble engineering and science as we were failed persuading any humanities scholars to switch majors. For curiosity sake alone, our planet’s formation ought have piqued minds. If only just to expand possible metaphors and similes. Whatever I gained from these instances was passively learned. None of it was ever called upon to improve my reporting. And I can’t recall one thing I’ve written since about minerals or strata or even plate tectonics. It remained useless trivia. Until this post.

Talking with the prospector, hazy bits of whatever acquired rock knowledge that seeped in the undergraduate’s noggin emerged raggedly from four decades ago. Although not fluent, I wasn’t inarticulate when holding up my end of the conversation.

Pyrite and galena, and to a lesser extent quartz, indicated possible strikes. While we know pyrite as “fool’s gold,” it could foretell the presence of real gold. However, the ratio of pyrite requiring unearthing then milling in order to retrieve the worthwhile bits may destroy the endurance of the most levelheaded.

Predominantly a source of lead, galena also can also yield silver. Again, though, without adequate equipment, separating then accumulating the precious metal in sufficient, i.e., profitable amounts, could seem Sisyphean.

Through diligence or determination or maybe an amalgamation of both, the prospector made it work for him in fairly short order.

And while he worked his own claims, he formed loose associations with other men also pawing at the Mojave. He’d joined three fellow prospectors in a quitclaim from so long ago its former ownership was at best nebulous. So much for meticulously kept records.

Rumor, or better because this is the West, tall tale, insists the abandoned mine produced grandly before its rich seams retreated into empty exertion. Of course, the four men agreed, if the site contained further abundance, new technology could reveal it.

Pooling their money to acquire the modern divination devices wasn’t the problem. The roadblock, and that’s meant literally, is the mining equipment the former claimholder had jammed deep into the tunnel.

Naturally the question becomes “Why?” Okay. Two answers.

First, when informing the Bureau of Land Management of his or the organization’s forfeiture, the agency ordered removal of the equipment. It just couldn’t remain at the site and oxidize.

Very well. Although all but the most ruined apparatus could at least fetch pennies or dimes on the dollar from junkyards, or if desperate enough alert scavengers to pick the area clean, whoever worked the location chose a seemingly nonsensical alternative.

On the surface an example of backwards compliance.

Blockage abetting abandonment. Who does that? Then there’s what may be behind Door No. 2.

Again, this is the West. Since this concerns land, records are religiously scrupulous. Until they aren’t. Somewhere along the chain of possession of the place in question, a link got snapped. Afterwards lost. Likely not through sloppy filing either.

The only other plausible reason why prior ownership became foggy, and wreckage blocks the tunnel is a consideration the prospector and I quickly concurred likeliest.

A body. Or bodies.

Almost wish I could be there when those boys remove the last piece of obstruction. One must wonder what will greet them. Or who.