Malheur Wildlife Refuge has become a symbol of what's wrong with the western myth.
I drove down the highway. The mill owned by the competition made Shumway's operation look like a paragon of order and environmental concern. I stopped the van in a cloud of dust, which drifted across a few scoured federal acres and the apotheosis of Rube Goldbergism: long strings of white plastic pipe held aloft by poles and baling wire; green plastic bins that once contained apple juice and were now full of chemicals for floating the heavies; random piles of dirt and ore; patched hoses snaking from hut to hut; staved-in metal drums full of con; derelict machinery providing shade for sleeping mongrels; an old sedan without wheels or a windshield; skeletal metal frames out of the deep industrial past; flapping sheets of corrugated steel; rusted high-pressure tanks; wooden carts with wheels splayed under impossible loads of junk; sagging conveyer belts; dozens of empty Dove detergent bottles for more chemicals; and an abandoned pit full of something toxic.
The dogs began to howl. Two young men came out of a trailer to stare. One wore a Cat hat that said "Payson General Store — Gateway to the Mogollon Rim." The other wore BMW sunglasses and a Beatles' haircut. I introduced myself. They were Marshall and Michael, brothers, age twenty-eight and thirty, foremen of the mine, as well as shareholders. They told me immediately that it would make them millionaires.
"We're still putting this thing together," said Marshall. "We had to spend some time in court, and get some new investors."
I asked about their dispute with Ray Shumway.
"He tried to jump our claims. He put an armed guard on the mine. I wanted to shoot him, but you can't do that. And Ray's too old to beat on. I just get up in his face and yell at him."
We strolled about, trailed by the dogs. Marshall turned on the crusher, a demonstration; the structure shook so, I thought the coyote skulls would fall off the shelf.
"It's backbreaking work," Marshall said, "but I get off on it."
Their mine was located a few miles north, on FS land. They called it the Golden Wonder. A hundred years before, they said, the owner walked into the tunnel with his small daughter and emerged with two chunks of gold as big as his fists. With them he bought a fine cattle spread up by Twin Peaks. Indians had mined the Golden Wonder before that, according to the brothers. They had been following the same seam for seven years.
"We need five one-hundredths of an ounce to break even," Marshall said. That meant twenty tons of pulverized rubble for an ounce of gold. "We usually haul a quarter-ounce or better. We run the assays down to Phoenix. It's a real good mine. We might have ten million dollars waiting in there, we might have two hundred million."
Marshall had a little mustache and big knuckly hands. "His daddy told me he's pretty rough," Shumway had said, without rancor. Michael had been a commercial artist outside Phoenix before he responded to the call of El Dorado in this rural slum. "A lot of my friends in the valley would like to live up here," he said proudly. He and his brother watched plenty of television, he added, and shot deer and javelina anytime they felt like it.
Marshall shut off the crusher. The heat, the dogs lolling in the dust, the glare of sun off metal, and the sight of bulging plastic containers full of witch's brew did not seem worth the discovery of a one-ounce ton, or even a five-ounce ton.
"We might be willing to sell," Marshall said, "if someone offered us an outrageous price."
"What would you consider outrageous?"
"We might take four million," Michael said.
"Hell, no!" said Marshall, and his brother backed up a step. "At least ten million!"
One of the dogs chewed on a rotten two-by-four supporting a rickety sluiceway. He must have been doing hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of damage.
Michael shoved the dog aside with a boot. "We're either going to make it big," he said, "or we're not going to make it at all. This is my only chance to make a million dollars."
"You gotta be positive," said Marshall. He slipped his right hand into the remaining pocket on his Levi's and arched his back. "There's a main of minerals that runs from here to Globe. We figure we found the pot. Two hundred more feet down and we'll be picking up chunks of gold you can break apart with your fingers."
Meanwhile, they were going fishing on Roosevelt Lake. "This is our year," Michael said.
As I was leaving I asked about the dark pond. "Oh, that's just a cyanide pit."
The next morning I went back to Shumway's. The Continental was gone — he and Randy were shopping in Phoenix, according to the neighbor who had bought the used electric motor. He owned the leaching mill across the highway — big plastic tanks where acid was poured over volcanic cinders that supposedly contained precious metal. Now he was inspecting an old vibrating table once used to separate heavies, now discarded in the weeds.
I told him I wanted to write about gold mining. He stood up and looked me over speculatively. He wore sunglasses of impenetrable density and shifted a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, trying to decide if I was worth a pitch. Finally he said, "I want to show you something."
We went over to his pickup. He lifted a black rock from the bed and held it up in the sunlight. "A cinder cone. It's full of little silicate crystals. See how they shine? Lots of platinates, too. Go on, feel how heavy it is."
I hefted the rock; it was indeed heavy.
"We've found free gold in these the size of this toothpick," he said. "'Course, it's hard to assay because it's got so many chemicals in it. Right now my ore's being assayed in Frankfurt, Germany, in Zurich, Switzerland, in Tucson and Houston. The big boys are interested in my platinates." He went through a list of exotic metals, counting on his fingers. "I'll just sell them the cones, and let them extract it. Nobody's ever tried to get precious metals out of cinder cones before."
For twenty years he had worked as an equipment foreman for the global construction firm Morrison-Knudson, in Vietnam, Indonesia, Iran. He retired and was driving around Arizona with a friend, he said, when they saw a mountain of hardened lava. "I said, 'Look at that mountain. It don't look like the others.' It was shiny black. We went up and took some samples. Those old volcanoes vaporized the precious metals as the magma rose, then dissolved and trapped them in what they call gas bombs. Big boulders, like. Trapped in there was gold and silver and, of course, platinates. We own the rights to eighty-five million tons of the stuff."
He wouldn't try to develop the cinder cones himself. Too expensive. Besides, he said, one of the majors would do a better job, after they bought him out. Some large-scale gold mining had been revived in the West, and if the price rose, there would be more.
Patriotism was his primary concern, he added. "This will help revive mining. Mining's in a real mess in this country. We're getting our platinates from Russia! Pretty soon the dollar's gonna crash and America'll be scrambling for its own mineral resources. We'll be in the right spot."
He replaced the toothpick with a thin cigar. "Ray here's no poor boy," he said, looking around. "He's got a Hatfield-McCoy thing with those boys, but he knows what he's doing. This is a real nice mill. It'll get the gold and silver out of my cones, but it's not sophisticated to get the rest. I run thirty-seven tons through it, and my platinates ended up in the tailing pond."
"Why don't you try to recover them?"
"I own eighty-five million tons of the stuff. Why do I want to fool around with Ray Shumway's tailings?"
Meanwhile he was negotiating with Shumway over used electric motors and an antiquated vibrating table. He could make some money shaking con for other small miners in the area, until the majors came to their senses and bought 85 million tons of lava.
To read about locals' furious reaction to the occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge go to: