The Ballad of "Crazy" Ben
If my use of the word crazy in the title and text of this post offends anyone, I could give a shit less. Sorry, but terms like "mentally impaired" or "psychologically challenged" just aren't in my lexicon. Besides, the subject of this post wouldn't appreciate being called anything but crazy, truth be told.
You know, gold prospecting and mining isn't just about the "how to's" and "where to look's," it's also about the experiences along the way and...most importantly...the people you meet on that long and winding road. In my post titled "Taylor Hits the Big One," I told you the tale of a young placer miner who succeeded despite the long odds stacked against him. Now I'm about to introduce you to another gold prospector and miner who was just too crazy to accept that odds even existed, let alone had any impact on his lifestyle or gold-getting abilities.
I first met "Crazy" Ben on an early 1980s dry washing expedition to that mining hell on earth known as the Colorado Desert (more specifically, the "Poholes" District in extreme Southeastern California). I suspect Ben was in his late 40s at the time, so he had about fifteen or so years on me. What caught my eye about him first and foremost was the highly unusual (let's be frank here...oddball) piece of dry washing gear he was using. The best way I could describe it would be a combination cast-iron skillet and mini-flying saucer mated to a grizzly screen that bumped, shook, and oscillated with such a non-sensical action as to defy description. I'd never seen anything like it before and it's unlikely I ever will again.
After I introduced myself to him I queried Ben about where he'd come up with this very "unique" motorized dry washer design. Beaming a big grin that displayed more than few missing teeth behind the cigarette dangling from his lower lip, Ben replied "She's all mine! Designed her, drew her up, and made her outta old scrap metal." His pride in his unique dry washer design was palpable, so far be it from me to offer any criticisms or positive suggestions. Still, I wondered how the hell he expected to trap any desert gold in that off-the-wall contraption of his.
Later that night around his campfire he broke out a bottle and proceeded to knock back sizable portions of cheap whiskey. I was still drinking back then but cold beer was my poison of choice so I declined when he offered the bottle of split skull to me. "There are two things I love in this life," he said with a wink. "Cheap whiskey and gold mining." I really couldn't argue with his logic there, except the cheap whiskey part.
After further discussion I learned that "Crazy" Ben was the moniker he'd chosen for himself and, in fact, I never learned his real name. He said that he'd done a bit of time in the U.S. Air Force and had wanted to make it a career but his penchant for strong drink put the kibosh on that. He also had an ex-wife living in Reno, or so he said. He alluded that he supported himself with some sort of disability payments and the gold he recovered. Looking over Ben's kit and his battered old pick up truck, I suspected neither source of income was allowing him to live "large." He was what I would term an itinerant or "subsistence" miner who was just this side of homeless. Rightly or wrongly, I felt sorry for him.
Grist for Grinding
Before I headed home from that outing with my few grams of gold, I went over to "Crazy" Ben and gave him what water, gasoline, and food stock I had left over. He was genuinely appreciative and asked how I had done. When I showed him my meager vial of gold he shook his head slowly from side-to-side. "Ain't much is it?" he stated in a matter-of-fact tone. Then he produced a one ounce vial that was nearly full of coarse Potholes gold. He must've seen the shock in my eyes because he quickly put that vial back in his pocket and said, "Well hell, I been out here longer than you. Simple as that."
(Cheap whiskey anyone?)
But it wasn't as simple as that. Although I was only five or six years into my gold prospecting and mining career at that point I prided myself on my knowledge and experience, my top-rate gear, and my oft-proven ability to get the gold no matter where I was. In other words, I was a smug, arrogant know-it-all who'd just been shown up by a drunken down-and-outer with a goofy grin and gear that looked like it had been designed and constructed in a loony bin. "Crazy" Ben had chastised me, had cut me down to size, albeit in the nicest way possible. The long drive home gave me plenty of grist to grind, and mull it over I did...again and again and again.
Well, the years racked up as they are wont to do and I forgot all about "Crazy" Ben and that messed-up dry washing contraption of his. I was into the mining thing heavy at this point, spending the dredging seasons up along California's North Yuba and "mining" substantial amounts of gold and silver in jewelry form along beach hotspots during the Pacific storm season (November-April). I'd been mentored (schooled up) by some old timers who'd increased my gold mining skills and knowledge exponentially and I felt fully confident in my abilities in that regard. But my mining freedom was still wrapped up in the responsibilities of my teaching job in San Diego and my marriage. You know how it goes...
Fast forward to the late 1980s. My pards and myself were working that ravine spot on the North Yuba I mentioned in "Taylor Hits the Big One," and had just come back from Nevada City with groceries and other necessities. Since it was late afternoon we decided to pull into the Ramshorn Creek Campground to make use of the outhouses there since nature was calling and it was still a long hump to our gravel bar dredge site. Ramshorn was about half empty (or half full, if you like) but one raggedy campsite caught my eye because all it contained was a shelter half strung along a line attached to a couple of tree limbs, a few soot-blackened pots and pans, and a battered sluice box that appeared slapped together by a gaggle of angry trolls.
What really caught my eye, however, was the wraith-like, bearded figure who was plopped down on the ground in front of the shelter half pulling on a bottle of cheap whiskey, "Hey! Crazy Ben!," I yelled. His head whipped around and I caught sight of that nutty grin, minus an additional tooth or two. "Howya doin' pard? Long time, no see." Ben motioned me to sit beside him and I did. This time when he offered me the bottle I took a long pull, fought back my gag reflex, and smiled. "Where's your truck Ben?" I asked. "Had to sell her to keep life and limb together. Been hitchin' rides ever since. I'm travelin' light these days." He took another pull from the bottle. "Got my desert gear stashed in a safe place too."
Ben had been sniping and hand sluicing along Ramshorn Creek and the river itself for a few weeks. He had accumulated a nice little vial of gold and some small nuggets and was planning on hitching a ride to Reno in a few days to sell his gold (I estimated a few hundred dollars worth) and then drop in on his ex. "She probably ain't going to want me around. Says I'm nothin' but a damn crazy drunk." Then looking away he took another long pull from the whiskey bottle. Before my pards and I left Ramshorn we gave "Crazy" Ben some of our canned goods and I shoved a couple of twenties his way. "Thanks pard. You take care. Maybe we'll meet up again sometime on the gold trail."
No, I never saw "Crazy" Ben again after that chance meeting at Ramshorn. He'd be pushing 80 by now but I suspect age is, for the most part, irrelevant if you have a miner's heart and soul. Yes, Ben was crazy to some degree or another and hard drinking is not the way to forget the past or solve your problems. I learned that lesson well myself some years later. But my theory is this. Anyone who loves gold mining and is willing to go to the lengths necessary to get at that yellow metal has to be a bit crazy too. Myself included.
Maybe "Crazy" Ben is still out there somewhere, methodically going after the gold with gear that most of us would consign to the junk pile. If, by some rare chance, by some weird cosmic coincidence you run into him somewhere, take the time to sit with him a while. Look at the gold he's recovered by the crudest means possible, and yes...if the spirit moves you, take a pull from that bottle of cheap whiskey.
After all, freedom comes in many forms and the truly free are those who are the least encumbered in this life.
(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2014
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