I was around 12 years old the first time I ventured to the Pinto Basin, although I did not know what it was called at the time. It was the mid-1970s and I was just a kid brought in with my brother and sister as 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 had traveled beyond the moon. The land was no longer golf courses and city streets long ago. Now it was just sand, rocks, hills, and the occasional bush.
Dad and his friend, Lee, came across a group of low hills at one end of a long barren valley in what is called Joshua Tree National Park. He knew so much. I also knew from looking up the hill that the worn road was rougher than anything my dad had tried so far on his four-wheeler. But the urge to see what lay beyond the ridge was too great. Rather than risk the car so far from help, we decided to hike up to the ridge and look over the edge. There we saw the moved earth that marked a mine as excavated. So we walked the other side and found not just one mine, but three.
The first turned out to be the most profound and interesting. I backed up several hundred meters towards the hill on which it had been carved. At one point, he had to get down on his knees to crawl through the remaining hole from a long-past landslide. Then he had to walk on an old plank board stretched over a bottomless hole about eight feet or more wide. There was an old rickety staircase that stretched forever into it. We dropped rocks down its gaping jaws to try to gauge its depth. We could hear the rocks hitting the sides of the hole a couple of times as they fell. But from the bottom we do not hear anything. The board was old, knotted, and cracked. The hole could have been a mile for all that scared me. But I crossed.
Later in the mine I came across something so incredible that many people I tell are hesitant to believe. I am not a geologist. I couldn’t see a vein of gold if it had a 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 up, I’m sure, but turquoise, there’s no question. It is a deep and brilliant greenish blue as they all come out, even in its raw form. And right there, on the wall of that mine, there was a strip as wide as a man who ran from floor to ceiling in the cave, disappearing into the ceiling and running under his floor.
Before we left that day, he had entered the mine a second time, with a claw hammer at the ready and armed with a five-gallon pail of paint. I snapped, scratched, and ripped those things out of the mountains’ grip until my bucket was full and I brought it all home. made a neat display in my room framed against a backdrop from my Star Wars album. The rest of the turquoise I gave away as a Christmas present, rocks as big as my fists and blue-green like the Pacific in Hawaii.
The other mines were fun, though not that great. One went straight down like the hole from the first mine. But there was no horizontal path to traverse. The other had an old railway track still in place and a broken rusty ore wagon at the mouth of the cave, it entered only about fifty feet and then there was another staircase that led down about ten meters to what looked like a landing. As I was the smallest child, my father chose me to go down the ladder, thinking that if I could hold myself, no one older would try. I went to the bottom, but the landing didn’t lead anywhere, it just ended in a standstill.
We drove home that day in the dark with great stories to remember for the rest of our lives.
Fast forward over twenty years to the mid-1990s. I wanted to find it again, but for the life of me I had no real idea where it was other than on the far side of Joshua Tree National Park, and that was a big desert for the one to have to prowl. Still, without a better plan, I got a map and divided it into sections. The first time I went in my Jeep Wrangler with just one of my children and my wife. We can’t find it. The second time we rented a Jeep Cherokee, because I had more children, I left the airport and looked in another section of the desert. No finds yet. But on the third trip, while we were in a big four-wheel drive Ford Excursion complete with in-laws and a larger family, we found gold, or turquoise, you might say.
As we were heading down a dirt road that took me further into the desert than I could have sworn to have gone before, I saw a set of hills in the distance with a worn and bumpy road climbing up one of them. My skin tingled. We parked at the end of the road and I grabbed a flashlight, hammer and bucket, a crowd of children and family behind me. At the top of the ridge I saw the shaken dirt of the first mine, and low and lo, at the foot of the hill, near it, was an old beat-up Toyota pickup, still running, and a small group of clothed men. with worn out clothes. Apparently others had also found the mine over the years.
Still, this was it, again. I entered the mine and crawled through the now even older cave-in, past the deep hole and the plank that spanned over it, careful not to let my kids do anything foolish around it. And when I got to the turquoise vein I was a bit surprised, though not entirely, to find that my vein had been mined. There were still some bits and pieces of what I remembered, which I cut out for the good old days. And I found some other pieces of blue-green on the ground kicking at the dirt. But the main strip of turquoise went to other families, to the boys, to whoever 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 of nowhere to go: my personal part of the lost Southwest landscape complete with stories of buried treasure, just stories.
A few years after that, a friend of mine, Chris Shurilla, came to see me. He had some rappelling gear and we headed to the mine. We crawled past the collapse and looked into the deep hole and the ladder that stretched down forever. There was an old wooden trellis built over the hole that I had so far overlooked, probably because I was always watching where I put my feet and how close to the hole I was in my previous transgressions. We tied the beam, attached ourselves to the line, and dropped two hundred yards of rope into the hole.
Chris was not afraid. He swayed over empty space and ZEEEE, pulled the rope at a frantic pace. I was wary like a virgin bride on her wedding night, white-knuckled going down the ladder one rung at a time even though she was tied up and supposedly safe, safe. One of the ancient rungs collapsed under my weight and I stepped out into dead space. Chris laughed at me and yelled at me to hurry up. Once I coughed, my heart left my throat, I accelerated my descent. When I caught up with Chris, he was hanging in midair from a larger chamber. The narrow gorge had opened into a cavity some thirty or forty feet wide. The ladder still stretched through the middle of the darkness, where it was traversed by an old walker supported by two by four somehow attached to the seemingly distant walls of the cavern. It was like something out of a Stephen King novel. The cat’s stride went into a dark side cavern at each end cut into the ground. Chris says faster than I can answer, “I’ll go check it out,” unhooks the safety and jogs across the old boards suspended in the dark light like a cat on a window sill.
“Chris, you idiot,” I yell. Those boards are probably a hundred years old. It comes bouncing under me without concern. “Oh, they’re good,” he says. And even though I wouldn’t swear, maybe it was just my fear that picked up speed, I thought I saw it bounce off of them as a way to test their mettle. If they had failed, I don’t know what he or I would do. “That ending,” he said, jerking his thumb towards the hole he had just investigated, “only goes a few feet and has a dead end.” Then he went to the other side, disappearing into the darkness again, “This side too.” He came back and tied himself to the line and we went down some more.
We had another 75 feet that fell into the cold before getting too close to the end of the rope for our comfort. Chris still dangled comfortably on the rope with no hands holding the endless ladder or the sides of the rocky hole. He was still clinging to the ladder, for what it was worth, because despite his old age, he felt better than nothing. But seeing Chris hanging there and the empty darkness below him, we still knew we couldn’t go any further. We take a stone out of the side of the hole and drop it. Although we were 200 meters from the original starting point, the rock did not make any final resting sound. We did it again with another stone. We still couldn’t hear it hit bottom.
We went back upstairs and found that our wives and children were angry with us. We had been in that hole for several hours and they said they had been yelling for us after the first thirty minutes. All they knew was that the rope was still taut and occasionally swayed.
The entire area of the Pinto Basin is full of mines. If you go out, you have a good chance of dying. I am not saying this to be alarmist. but seriously: there are holes in the ground big enough to drive a car and some of them are bottomless. There are caves that run hundreds of meters into the mountains, through holes and landslides and rotten supports, and you are hours away from getting help even by car if you have a problem. What if the car breaks down?
Don’t go out unless you are experienced and prepared. Sometimes I can’t believe I did it as a kid and then did it again with mine and then did it again with rope, repellent gear, and an intrepid friend.