Monday, January 12, 2015

"Wild Bill," the Quintessential Mining Optimist


I've written posts before on some of the unique characters I've come across in my 35 plus years of gold prospecting and mining. "Wild Bill" was one of those people who refused to march lock step with the status quo and went about life (and mining) marching to the beat of his own drummer.

 Richer Dreams

I first met "Wild Bill" on a mining foray to a relatively unknown dry placer location in southeastern California that you won't find much about in the history books or mining literature as a whole. Even today I doubt that many "weekend" miners or gold prospecting club members are aware of this location, although those who have done their homework thoroughly probably have a drift on it. The gold placers at this site were very limited in scale and localized, aside from being very hard to work (aren't all desert or dry placers?!). I suspect these are the reasons why many of the old timers who came onto this gold ground in the early days didn't stay very long. There were always bigger and richer dreams over the next hill.

"Wild Bill" was the quintessential optimist which was quite a contrast to the brooding negativity of my younger days. But we hit it off right from the start. One reason for this was the fact that we were both the same age and we were both Vietnam combat veterans. Like me, "Will Bill" had served in the I Corps region of South Vietnam near the DMZ until his right leg was torn up and shattered by shrapnel from an incoming NVA 122mm rocket during a nighttime attack. After recuperating at the Naval Hospital in San Diego and then being discharged from the Marines, he tried junior college for a while but found it "F'ing boring as hell," as he put it. He bummed around for a while and then decided to try his hand at gold mining after reading some dream merchant's book on the subject. When I met him in the desert on the aforementioned mining sojourn, "Wild Bill" already had an eight year jump on me when it came to getting gold.

 ( Marines eating C-rats near the DMZ.)

He wasn't much of a finesse gold miner, but what "Wild Bill" lacked in the finer points he made up for in his ability to work like and mule...and then some. Even with his gimped up leg, "Wild Bill" could outwork any five small-scale miners who came down the pike, myself included. He also had an amazing knack for understanding mechanical devices and could fix just about any piece of mining machinery with the most rudimentary tools and sometimes, a tiny bit of jury rigging. In fact, on that first meeting it was "Wild Bill" who showed me how to troubleshoot and repair the old Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine that powered my "puffer" dry washer. You see, I wasn't much of a mechanical mind back then and the truth of the matter? I'm still not!

Damn Good Miner

Most of the small-scale gold prospectors and miners I've come across during my checkered mining career are good folks with generous hearts. "Wild Bill" outdid them all in that regard. If you were a "down-n-outer" or made the mistake of saying you were hungry, he would literally give you the raggedy T-shirt off his back and then buy (or cook) you a meal. I never once saw him get salty with anyone who asked him for help, mining or otherwise, even when some of those folks acted like flaming assholes or took "Wild Bill" for granted. When I'd rag him about this, "Wild Bill" would just laugh and give me a wink. "Don't mean nothin'," he'd say. It was one of our favorite sayings back in Vietnam when the shit hit the fan or something really bad happened. It was our mantra in that worst of places.

Just the same, "Wild Bill" was no one's fool. He just opted for flowing with the stream of life rather than fighting it every step of the way and getting beat up in the process. This he did with optimism and a great sense of humor. He never bitched or complained about the war (one of my favorite pastimes back then) or his injuries, or ever felt sorry for himself. He just sucked it up and motored on like a true philosopher. Because of his positive outlook and the fact he was a truly happy person, others were drawn to him like moths to a flame. To put it simply, "Wild Bill" was a gem of a human being, God bless him.


He was a pretty damn good miner as well. He had an inner radar that pretty much told him where the gold was and on those occasions when his intuition left him high and dry, he'd scratch that disheveled curly mop he called hair and then give you his interpretation of Alfred E. Neuman's grin. You know, "What, me worry?" Then he'd get right back to work, trying to psyche the gold out and then busting his hump when he did. Yes, "Wild Bill" did his best to be a miner's miner and I couldn't match him in that regard at the time. I'd like to think that's changed somewhat now.

As time went on, Bill and I would get together on prospecting and mining trips and I have to say that I learned a lot from him about desert gold. Unfortunately, at the time I didn't pick up on the other lessons he could have taught me. Lessons about letting go, taking things in stride, and not letting anger and resentments dominate your life. You see, I wasn't a very happy person in general back then. In fact, the only time I felt true happiness was when I was gold prospecting and mining (this is still true to a large extent, by the way). Now, well into my later years, I see clearly the lessons about life "Wild Bill" could have taught me. Better late than never, but I've finally learned those lessons. "Wild Bill" would be proud of me just as he was the first time I repaired my "puffer's" engine without his direct supervision.

Eventually "Wild Bill" and I parted ways when he got the harebrained notion to hike the Pacific Coast Trail from the Mexican border to Oregon. I thought he was crazy at the time because of his leg issues. Well, guess what? That maniac did exactly what he set out to do and ended up hiking the Trail all the way to southern Oregon. Who says gold miners aren't crazy? Anyway, "Wild Bill" ended up mining in Oregon for a while until he fell in love. Yep, he was finally smitten by Cupid's arrow and ended up getting married, starting his own small business (albeit non-mining), and raising a lovely family. The last time I saw him was over 20 years ago now and we've slipped out of touch. But I will tell you this...he's one of those special people that remain forever in your heart and mind.

I know I've said this before, but there's "other" gold out there to be mined. You can't heft it in your hand, drop it in your poke, or exchange it for cash. This life is all too short, so you better mine that gold and treasure it always.

Best to one and all.

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2015

Questions? E-mail me at jr872vt90@yahoo.com

1 comment:

  1. Great story Jim! I've always wanted to ride that trail horseback. If you started in Mexico February or so,by the time you got to Idaho you might get through the snow drifts and make it to Canada, The trail is 3,100 miles long according to a sign near here.
    I also know a man named Bill that fought in Nam. He got his right arm blown off at the shoulder by some sort of rocket. I used to cowboy with him moving cattle through the mountains of Idaho. That man was amazing! He could do just about anything a guy with two arms could do and usually better.......except shoot a bow and arrow! He was one Hell of a horseman, and cowboy.

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