and leaving an unholy mess behind.
The West has always meant opportunity. It fueled the fantasies and fortunes of millions, from the days when Kentucky was considered the West and the trans-mississippi wilderness had all the allure of a galactic outpost. Some saw opportunity in the grandeur of the West — an opportunity for the expansion of the American consciousness that Frederick Jackson Turner talked about. Others ignored natural beauty and spiritual growth or, more accurately, found beauty in the kingdom's ability to provide material value.
That version of the West is a larder where successive generations of the hungry and avaricious have rampaged, usually in collusion with government. And the West is still an awesome generator of product. Cash flow of both the BLM and Forest Service puts both agencies on a par with the biggest multinationals, in fact with whole nations. If they charged a competitive rate for grazing and lumber, and received royalties from mining operations, the figure would be much higher.
I wanted to understand the specifics behind this bonanza. Choosing among a multitude of money-making schemes was not easy. A uranium mine or a clear-cut slope, drilling rigs, a ski resort, or some master plan for a similar project hangs in every view of public lands, literal or figurative. The most remote, self-sufficient, innocent life can't escape the scars and enticements of development.
Gold mining is probably the most enduring symbol of opportunity in the West. Curiously, gold is also the most illusive. It riveted attention on the West in 1848 like nothing else had, not the expedition of Lewis and Clark, or the war with Mexico. The discovery of gold in California provided the factory-weary and the farm-bound the first glimpse of fast wealth. The speculative impulse so prevalent in development of the West might well have started at Sutter's Mill, on the American River. It flooded the Mormon and Gila trails, and the steamers taking prospectors south around the Horn or across the isthmus of Central America and up the coast — a hundred thousand, more or less. Newspaper editorialists inveighed against the abandonment of traditional values, and Thoreau declared the Gold Rush "the greatest disgrace on mankind."
Those who came west looking for gold weren't impressed with such moralizing. "The California they knew," wrote J. S. Holliday in The World Rushed In, "gave new meaning, even reality, to the most American of myths — the pursuit of happiness." Happiness ended up in a relatively small number of hands.
Then the rush moved to Nevada, to the Colorado Rockies, the banks of the Gila River, to southwest Canada, to Montana and Wyoming. Stories of great wealth carried weight, like that of Henry "Old Pancake" Comstock, who sold out for a mere eleven thousand dollars and didn't seem to care that his mine was worth a third of a billion. The big mining companies made most of the money, over the long haul, but it was the unlikely stories of gold that had the tightest grip on popular imagination: the sourdough miner washing several dollars' worth of gold from his beard; nuggets found lying in the dust in front of brothels.
The government owned the land by right of conquest, but miners didn't pay for what they jumped and rummaged through and left. Gold not only inspired some of the great excesses in the West, it also gave rise to laws that had the effect of depriving the rest of the citizens of the United States of payment for their treasure, and allowing miners and miners manque — of which there were and are still thousands — to live on public land so long as they kept it in a state of perpetual disruption.
An early effort to sell public mineral lands to pay off Civil War debts was subverted by a senator from Nevada named William Stewart. He had made a fortune in Virginia City gold and silver, and he later piggybacked his mining bill onto another that had passed the House, assuring that minerals found on the public domain were free. So was the use of the land. That and the subsequent Mining Law of 1872, which included hardrock mining, amounted to a radical departure from the usual disposal of the public lands, whereby some of the wealth is shared by the populace. That shameful law is still with us.
My pursuit not of gold but of gold miners took me north through the Arizona spring. I left the desert in the environs of Phoenix and crossed the marvelous high saddle of the Mazatzal Mountains, heading toward the Tonto National Forest. The conquistadors might have built their own Cibola in the Tonto Basin, or along the Mogollon Rim, a natural fortress and the bottom wrinkle in the belly of the Colorado Plateau. But first they would have had to beat off the Indians and master the techniques of hardrock mining. Placer gold, the sort that shows up in pans full of silt, was rare here. But below the rivers and streams lay deep seams of quartz and precious metals. The Coconino, Tonto, Gila, and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests all entertain latter-day prospectors after gold and silver. Part-time miners from the Rockies to the Pacific use the antiquated mining laws just to set up houses or hunting camps on government land.
In the town of Payson I found a Forest Service engineer responsible for inspecting claims on the Tonto. Gold miners were something of a problem, he said. "They take shots at one another on occasion. A few hardheads think we're violating their constitutional rights."
Few claims become patented mines. "Ninety percent of these guys think they have something, but they don't have the capability or the intent of developing it themselves. They just want to be bought out. Some sell a hole in the ground — an out-and-out scam."
All a miner has to do to stay on public land is conduct a hundred dollars' worth of "assessment" work. That usually means pushing some dirt around with a bulldozer. Twenty acres goes with a patented claim, and many such "mining" camps are sold on the open market, in direct violation of the law.
The mining operation I visited lay close to town, where FS land abutted the highway. A Lincoln Continental sat with the hood up, cables attached to the battery leading to a mobile home. At the edge of the clearing was an elaborate contraption where ore was pulverized; the tailings trailed down into a basin of caked yellow mud. Bits of machinery with no evident purpose lay in the shadow of a bulldozer of great vintage.
A piece of plywood next to the rutted entrance said "Shumway," not a mining procedure, but the name of the owner. He stood in the shade of a mesquite with another man, next to a pile of old electric motors. I heard Shumway tell his neighbor, as I approached, "If this one don't work, bring it back and take another one."
The neighbor went off with his purchase, grunting under its weight. Shumway tipped his cowboy hat low over his eyes and watched him go. "He's got a leaching mill," he said, as if we were old friends. "He's trying to get gold out of cinders. Volcanic rock. What'd you say your name was?"
Like so many users of public lands, Ray Shumway was perfectly willing to discuss his life with a stranger. He was a miner, he said, and the other man was a promoter. The mining fraternity was pretty evenly divided between the two, but interaction was constant and often critical. One man's mine could be part of another man's scheme.
Before I could digest that bit of lore, Shumway asked, "Want to see some gold?"
Out of the pocket of his jeans, which were burned full of holes, he took what looked like two golden Hershey Kisses and dropped them into my hand. They weighed about three ounces each and were worth about two thousand dollars. One had a reddish cast; the other shone with the brilliance of a new wedding band.
"People love to see gold," he said, taking his back. "You hand it to them, and they don't want to let go of it. I've seen people's hands start to shake, holding gold."
He was sixty but didn't look it, a big man with dark lashes covering blue eyes that could have come out of some cinematic version of the quest for El Dorado. He drew the toe of one boot through the dust, completing the image. He had dropped out of school when he was nine, he told me, up in Utah, and started digging uranium when he was thirteen, learning enough geology along the way to make it as a miner. "Vanadium and uranium travel together," he said, "generally in a sandstone formation."
That's where he had dug, earning enough money to buy a motorcycle and, later, several Piper 210's, in which he had buzzed his claims from Colorado to Nevada.
He showed me around. A retort oven, used to melt down concentrate from the mill, sat in the dust outside his cinderblock office. Inside, we stepped carefully among the electroplater for separating gold and silver from baser elements, containers for sulfuric acid (that explained the holes in his jeans), a machine for making distilled water, a scale in a glass case accurate to half a milligram, more cowboy boots, gruesome oil paintings of Apaches, and a girlie calendar. He did his own assaying amidst an almost incredible clutter of dust, rock, and containers of strange substances. If this is modern alchemy, I thought, no wonder gold is so expensive.
The falling of the price to about $350 an ounce had taken some of the gleam out of his operation. The mill was worth half a million dollars, he said, and that didn't include the earth movers, the dump trucks, the machinery, or the mine itself, located a few miles north on FS land. Shumway lived in the mobile home, where two cushionless aluminum chairs sat on boards in the blinding sun, with one of a succession of wives. Her name was Randy. I had seen the rustle of a curtain when I drove up, but that was all I would see.
"She's a city girl," he said. "She don't like the country, and she don't like mines. I think them holes scare her."
The mill was idle, he explained, because he needed at least thirty days' worth of ore guaranteed before he could crank up and hire a crew. So he and Randy spent a fair amount of time shopping down in Phoenix, waiting for the price of gold to go up. They ate out on Saturdays in Payson, and danced at a club with a big floor and a good Western swing band. Shumway liked dancing. He wanted to go public with his gold company and had filled out all the papers and hired a lawyer. Once it was done, he and Randy could move to Colorado.
We walked out to the mill. Here ore was pulverized in a drum and passed through a bowl with a centrifuge that separated the "heavies" — precious metals — from the "lights," the dross. The former went into a chemical froth called a float, which bonded air bubbles with bits of gold and silver and brought these heavies to the surface. The product was high-grade "con" — concentrate of sufficient density to justify feeding it into a smelter from which emerged the gold Hershey Kisses, or bars stamped .999 ad infinitum, the official designation of ultimate value.
"Gold ain't worth anything," Shumway said. ''Just what value people put on it. Gold brings out the greed."
His life seemed crowded with enemies. While he and Randy were in Phoenix, a friend stole thirty-five ounces of heavies out of the bowl and Shumway's front-end loader. The thief took his haul clear to Kansas before the police stopped him. That was inconsequential compared to Shumway's problems with other miners. Some neighbors tried to jump his claims, he said, and to shut him down. He found his bulldozer tipped over one morning, and dirt in every gas tank on the place. There had been confrontations at the mine shaft, and two lawsuits.
"That's greed," Shumway said.
He figured he had spent twenty-seven thousand dollars on this particular feud, and that didn't include equipment and attorneys. "I was new to Arizona, I wanted to get along with everybody. I told the lawyer it would be cheaper for me to run these fellas off with a gun. He said I'd better not do that, then charged me a hundred dollars for the advice."
I asked why he had given up uranium for the chancier prospect of gold.
"I came down to drill for uranium, and some boys here showed me the gold. These little mines have a fine grade, too fine for the tables" — vibrating slabs that had been used for years to separate lights and heavies. Also, he liked the climate.
That was seven years ago. He had filed a claim and a mining plan with the FS. The site containing Shumway's mill, mobile home, office, and menagerie of machinery did not belong to him, but to the federal government. He had to pay a five-dollar filing fee and put up a bond assuring that he would restore the land if he pulled out, and that was it. He paid no taxes on the thirty acres he occupied, and no royal ties on what he mined. Such were the anomalies that kept small miners afloat, and had made big ones wealthy on public resources. Once the site was patented and its commercial viability proved, then Shumway could buy the land at a nominal fee.
"The Forest Service might try to keep me from patenting," he said. "Depends on the man handling the application," another potential enemy. "The Forest thinks the land belongs to it, but it don't. It belongs to everybody."
He invited me into the trailer. The bleak exterior had not prepared me for the clean carpets, upholstered chairs, a coffee table supporting a book of Andrew Wyeth's paintings, a neat kitchenette with wine glasses lined up on the pass-through, a collection of butterflies in a glass case. Shumway was clearly a man of two parts, and he kept one of them carefully hidden in Payson.
He took off his hat and ran a hand through gray hair. "I'll probably get back into uranium, after we go public. I'll build a fence here, and hire somebody to run the place."
"What'll you do if the public offering doesn't work out?"
"A miner can always make money." He nudged a coffee table leg with a toe. "You can always dig some ore and sort the big chunks, mash it, and pan a line. You have to know what you're doing, but you can make a living."
I could hear Randy moving around at the far end of the trailer. The telephone rang. Shumway was expecting a call from his lawyer — another hundred dollars.
"Mining's fun," he was saying. "You never know what's behind the next rock outcrop. One day you're poor, and the next day you're rich. That's the thing about mining."