“(George Lewis of Independence reports) the richest gold ledge ever found in this or any other country….Every piece of the quartz is said to show free gold.”
Inyo Independent, June 7, 1895
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”
Matthew 6:21 (King James Version}
The volcanic lava flows towards me like a slow moving luminescent crimson and yellow river, halting briefly, building up mounds of molten liquid, exploding, sending meteor-like projectiles toward me. I can sense the intense heat and the choking sulfur fumes. I stand upon a mountain of smoking volcanic debris, looking across at the volcano. My imagination rests and I return to the present moment, as I gaze across the Owens Valley toward the Inyo Mountains to the east. The volcano and the lava flow are frozen in time, a vivid visual memory of an event that took place 2,000 years ago.
I stand on a high point in the Poverty Hills, fifteen miles north of Independence, California, Mount Whitney behind me and Highway 395 far below.
All around me are the foothills created by several huge volcanoes, which have covered the desert with a vast lava flow and clusters of volcanic rock. It is this volcanic activity millennia ago that cooked precious metals like gold and silver and forced the liquid through cracks in quartz to become veins of precious treasure imbedded is these Poverty Hills and the Inyo Mountains. The history of the Owens Valley beginning in 1860 includes treasure seekers searching for gold and silver. Today as I hike the old mining trails that wind up and down these hills, I can easily identify dark lead Galena rocks, with crystals of silver ore. With a magnifying glass I can see specks of gold.
Fifteen miles north of Independence, CA, Highway 395 meets the cross road of Elna Road, leading toward the Owens River. At that intersection turn left toward the Sierra Nevada and into the Poverty Hills. High clearance SUVs do best here. At a turn in the road, on your right is a rock-walled miner’s cabin. The walls are intact, protected by a tin roof. A stove pipe projects from the back of the cabin. As you enter the cabin, you can see how the miner chiseled into the base granite rock in the mountain and created something that looks like a fireplace. But I think it could be some kind of primitive furnace to process ore samples.
Returning to the dirt road, I chose to leave my car and walk up hill. The road climbs steeply into the hills, and I Can see to my right and left evidence of “rat hole” exploration pits and further up.
Let’s practice some elementary mining archaeology together. As we walk the winding uphill trail, we will need to stop and rest occasionally, as we adjust to the 4,000 feet altitude. Where do you think they searched for gold and silver? Look for mounds of excavated dirt. The size of the mound is a clue to the depth of the search. You will find some open mine tunnels (adits). Stay out for your safety. Where do you think they would have had a tent cabin? Look for leveled space at the base of the hill and explore the debris: bottles, cans and nails. If you find a square sided nail, you will know that this site was from before 1900. Where do you think the privy/outhouse would have been? Look for excavated pits with lots of tin cans and broken bottles around the site? Bottle hunters have been digging there for intact bottles to sell on Ebay. As you explore, you will see some of the equipment used in the expensive mining enterprise: heavy cables for hoisting the ore or supporting a tramway; rails for ore cars; pipes bringing water from Birch Creek three miles to the west.
George Lewis’ discovery in 1895 of a gold vein six inches wide, worth about eighty dollars a ton, sparked a gold rush into the Poverty Hills. But the “million dollar” discovery faded away.
In 1902 Alonzo Casler of Ohio bought several mines in this part of the Poverty Hills that we are currently exploring. As this Buckeye Mine project developed, Casler invested thousands of dollars into mining. It was low grade ore and the most economical way to access the ore was using a steam shovel taking the material out as at a quarry.
As the project became more complex, a mill needed to be constructed near the site of the mines to lower the cost of processing the ore. Over $100,000 was invested in building the mill, piping water three miles over the Poverty Hills from Birch Creek to the east. The mill only operated for about year and then only intermittently through World War I.
Walk with me toward the hillside southwest of the dirt road leading into the Poverty Hill, across from the stone cabin, and we will find extensive ruins of the mill for the Buckeye/NeverRest/New Era mines.
Janice Emily Bowers writes:
“At the mill site: concrete footings for mill equipment, stone cabin with corrugated metal roof; concrete pad for small building; abundant detritus including milled lumber, metal cable, disassembled telephone poles, water heaters, vehicle gasoline tanks, metal buckets, etc. At the powerhouse site: cement walls along ditch in bottom of Birch Creek ravine:”
Fish Springs and Black Rock: Forgotten Towns of Owens Valley, Janice Emily Bowers, p. 274
These Poverty Hills and the Inyo Mountains to the east are pocked with hundreds of mines following the lust for gold and silver. But the mines never lasted. More often investors will spend more money than would ever come out of the mine. But the whispering hint or rumor of another strike would set off a frantic frenzy of searching and exploration for buried treasure.
The stories make excellent material for western movie scripts, many of which were filmed 30 miles south in the Alabama Hills, between 1925 and our present day. However, as you hike in the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, highlighted by geological wonders, the silence and solitude work on our inner selves, our souls, in a porous action, penetrating our busy mindsets about tasks and concerns from the past and future. This silence and solitude in this desert place pulls us down into a deeper space asking us: where are you searching for treasure?
We are forever restless and searching for someone or something that will bring us a sense of security, peace, serenity. But no one and nothing seems to satisfy. We are haunted by endless dissatisfaction. I can divert my disappointment by working harder, creating new projects, or taking or drinking substances to give me short term tranquility or buzz. But nothing lasts. And if you walk this vast empty land for any amount of time, the silence and solitude will work on you just as the wind and sand and water work on the boulders around you. But this penetrating process is nothing to fear. I have welcomed it, because my years of walking in these desert spaces have brought me to the Treasure, a Benevolent Presence.
Ron Rolheiser writers:
“At the center of our experience lies an incurable dis-ease, a disquiet, a restlessness, a loneliness, a longing, a yearning, a desire, an ache for something we can never quite name. For what are we longing? What would satisfy our restless energy?”
“Anne Frank, in her famous diary, asks exactly this question:
‘Today the sun is shining, the sky is a deep blue, there is a lovely breeze and I am longing – so longing – for everything. To talk, for freedom, for friends, to be alone. And I do so long … to cry! I feel as if I am going to burst, and I know it would get better with crying; but I can’t. I’m restless, I go from room to room, breathe through the crack of a closed window, feel my heart beating, as if it was saying, ‘can’t you satisfy my longing at last?’ I believe that it is spring within me; I feel that spring is awakening. I feel it in my whole body and soul. It is an effort to behave normally, I feel utterly confused. I don’t know what to read, what to write, what to do, I only know that I am longing.’”
“The Holy Longing”, Ron Rolheiser, 11-23-2008
What is the treasure that would satisfy our restless hearts?
The story is told of a man named Isaac who lived in Cracow. He was very poor, so when he dreamed three times in a row about a great treasure buried under a bridge in a distant city of Prague, he set out on a journey to find it. But when he arrived in Prague, he discovered that the place he had seen in his dream was patrolled day and night by the king’s guards. He circled the spot, watching it from a distance, until finally the guards noticed him. When the captain called to Isaac and demanded to know what he was doing there, Isaac told him about the dream.
“You mean to tell me that you believe in such dreams!” laughed the captain. “If I believed in them, I would have to go all the way to Cracow and find some man named Isaac, because I have dreamed that a great treasure lies buried beneath his bed!” Isaac thanked the captain, returned home, pushed aside his bed, and dug up the treasure that had been there all along. (A Hasidic story).
For forty years, I have made spiritual retreats to the desert spaces of the Owens Valley, Death Valley, and other spirit places in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico. I found these words from Ron Rolheiser helpful as an invitation to those who seek spiritual treasures:
“The desert does this for you. It empties you. Hence it is not a place wherein you can decide how you want to grow and change, but is a place that you undergo, expose yourself to, and have the courage to face. The idea is not so much that you do things there, but that things happen to you while there – silent, unseen, transforming things. The desert purifies you, almost against your will, through God’s efforts. In the desert, what really occurs is a cosmic confrontation between God and the devil; though this happens within and through you. Your job is only to have the courage to be there. The idea is that God does the work, providing you have the courage to show up.”
The Desert: a Place of Preparation, March 12, 2000.
Fish Springs and Black Rock: Forgotten Towns of Owens Valley, by Janice Emily Bowers (Big Pine, CA: Three Gardens Press, 2014)
The Holy Longing, Ron Rolheiser, 11-23-2008
The Desert: a Place of Preparation, Ron Rolheiser 11-23-2008
The Diary of Ann Frank, Ann Frank (Modern Library 1958)